Forest clearing on the Bibb track

In July I walked the northern section of the Bibb track and was saddened to see that a large swathe of native forest had been cleared between Ball Creek Hut and Helena Hut. I wanted to wait to make this post to confirm my worst fears that the area was being cleared for pine plantation. Yesterday I walked through there once more, and yes, the Bibb track has changed character forever. The photos below show the huge mulch piles and machinery getting to work to chop up the balga, gum and casuarina that once lived there.

They left one thin tree in order to be able to nail a wagyl triangle on, as shown in the last photo.

Amongst a lot of other thoughts and emotions I find this embarrassing that walkers come from around the world to walk the track and they see the way we treat our native forests.

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What I’ve been reading

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This fortnight I have focused on two texts – Austerlitz by Sebald and On Creaturely Life by Eric Santer. A pdf of the latter is available online.

It was my first time reading Austerlitz and I had the usual experience of all Sebald texts of drifting from pure fascination to having read a few pages and not comprehending a single word of what my eyes had passed over – only to note that they were fine words and then to retrace where I had last understood what was going on and start again. I’m not sure Austerlitz will have as great an impact on me as Rings of Saturn – but only time will tell. I don’t really have any worthwhile conclusions about Austerlitz without reading it again, and I’m sure other people have already made such points and you’ve read a lot about it already.

One thing I was looking for as I read – a point made by Sebald in an interview – is that he is constantly reminding the reader that the author, and the characters – had given their preoccupations considerable thought. This is kind of reflexive, as they wouldn’t be preoccupations unless they demanded ones attention, but I suppose the interesting thing to note is the way Sebald handles this in the text – and how these become clues to the greater questions asked in the book. Here are a few examples:

“From the first I was astonished by the way Austerlitz put his ideas together as he talked, forming perfectly balanced sentences out of whatever occurred to him, so to speak, and the way in which, in his mind, the passing on of his knowledge seemed to become a gradual approach to a kind of historical metaphysic, bringing remembered events back to life.” p14

“Histories, for instance, like those of the straw mattresses which lay, shadow-like, on the stacked plank beds and which had become thinner and shorter because the chaff in them disintegrating over the years, shrunken – and now, in writing this, I do remember that such an idea occurred to me at the time – as if they were the mortal frames of those who once lay there in that darkness.” p31

“Though I really gave up my architectural studies long ago, he said, I sometimes relapse into my old habits, even if I don’t make notes and sketches any more, but simply marvel at the strange edifices we construct.” p57

“He would always emerge from his study in the evening in a state of deep despondency, only to disappear into it again next morning. But on Sunday, when he stood up in the chapel in front of his congregation and often addressed them for a full hour, he was a changed man; he spoke with a moving eloquence which I still feel I can hear, conjuring up before the eyes of his flock the Last Judgement awaiting them all, the lurid fires of purgatory, the torments of damnation and then, with the most wonderful stellar and celestial imagery, the entry of the righteous into eternal bliss.” p64

These prompts, I think, are an interesting technique in giving the story and the characters sub-text. An issue that occupies someones thoughts doesn’t just explain events of their past but reveals, in a clever way, why they are where they are and what might motivate them into the future. This also echoes one of Stanley Kubrick’s axiom: concept as subtext.

On Creaturely Life: I thought this book might be a good segue between thinking about walking tracks and nature and the notion of Natural History in Sebald’s work. Maybe I’m stupid but the book lacks a coherent overall thread. For example, in the final chapter Santer begins discussing the references to animals in Sebald’s work – but it only lasts a few pages before switching to discussing humour and then Sebald’s use of photography. Maybe I’ll have to read the book again to gain an overall perspective but at the moment I’m seeing it all piecemeal. The piecemeal take away ideas I have identified follow.

One of the things I do when I go ‘out bush’ is think about animals and what their thinking capacity is. Seeing wild animals is what makes the wilderness wilderness, I suppose. Landscapes and their vegetation are managed, and wildlife populations are managed too, but the nature of animals and how we relate to them remains separate. Santer doesn’t discuss this in relation to wild places but some of the conversation is still relevant:

“For the animal, beings are open, but not accessible; that is to say, they are open in an inaccessibility and an opacity – that is, in some way, in a non-relation. This openness without disconcealment distinguishes the animals poverty in the world from the man forming which characterises man.” p9 from Agamben.

Santer wants to use the contrast between the way animals think and the way man thinks to develop a picture of natural history and how that plays out in various literature. To be in a natural state is to be bored. This is certainly true when you’ve been sitting in a camp somewhere for more than six hours. Boredom, Santer states, is to be in a state that obstinately refuses itself. This may explain why bushwalking is simultaneously exhilarating and utterly boring. The thrill of starting a long walk is quickly tempered by the mundanity of the act.

Somewhere in the relationship between man and animal is the notion of the creaturely, the space between real and symbolic death. Natural history tries to make sense of these forces:

“Natural history is born out of the dual possibilities that life can persist beyond death of the symbolic forms that give it meaning and that symbolic forms can persist beyond the death of the form of life that gave that human vitality.”

In the context of Natural history the universe doesn’t end when you die. The modes of understanding that make us human also exist and persist outside of us and continue on in a collective sense. The idea that “life can persist beyond death of the symbolic forms” leads to a fascination with violence and war and the decay of human orders in order to give structure to the narration of natural history. All of this leads to allegory which is a signifier of temporality. In allegory, Santer argues, the observer is confronted with the facies hippocratica of history. (p18) The most extreme example as represented in the skull. A ruin, for example, is irresistible decay. Therefore, in allegory, as a expression of temporality, mans subjection to nature is most obvious.

When we look at the works of Sebald and some of the take away messages of Natural History – simply being there – the thereness – and grasping the changing face of history; the impact of the observation of death and decay, is experienced as trauma. For the characters is Sebalds work, observation is not a beholding, but recollecting traces of past lives and lost possibilities. They become a medium and photographic apparatus for communion with the dead. (p.53) Hence why we get the feeling history has a strangle-hold on these people to find out what they can.
Finally, past suffering has been absorbed into the substance of lived space, into the setting of human history. Basically, natural history is all around us, a kind of morphic resonance that lies beyond the books, but is present if you know how to read the landscape and people.

All this seems a bit dark and dreary, especially when thinking about wilderness walks and their apparent healing processes, but each track will have a story to tell, and having a sense of the natural history of a track will make the story I will try to tell more informative. Pilgrimages are predicated on the movement of people and automatically trigger within us the notion of the past and salvation. Songlines bring to us the past and carry with them the stories of the past. The Bibbulmun track, for example, has aboriginal, colonial, forestry, mining histories embedded in the landscapes that it passes through. Apparently the Wilson Inlet in Walpole is the oldest inlet in the world. The track itself has its own history and the way it developed and changes.

Bill Bryson spends a bit of time discussing the history of the Appalachian trail before the character in A Walk in the Woods sets foot on the trail. I’ll be reading that book over the next week or two to see how popular walking stories work.

 

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Australian Alps Walking Trail Part 1

J. P. Quinton – 2015

The Flight:

Terminal three Perth airport. Gate 20. Flight delayed by twenty minutes due to ‘crew issues’. Checked internet for cheaper flights in moment on tight-arsedness. Could have flown six hours later for $100 less. A woman lets her baby scream on the floor. A dude in a baseball cap squeezes a plastic water bottle while biting his nails and playing on his phone. A tattooed older dude with no bags taps his old-school boarding pass booklet. A father and son exchange funny youtube videos. The coffee shop music drones.

I’m full of dessert and my ankles are strapped. A preventative measure, the straps. Some kind of security as I become less cocky with age. Sprained my ankle a few weeks ago going too fast on the Bibbulmun track. The trial run for the AAWT. There’s still slight pain. Or I think there is. Enough to be apprehensive about walking 650km over mountains. Thought I’d better bloody take it easy for a while.

Should arrive in Tullamarine about 1am, catch the shuttle to Spencer St, or whatever bogan name they’re calling it these days. From there I’ll either walk or catch a taxi to Jim’s in Tony Abbotsford. Jim Jim Jim. Got him a copy of Ted Hughes’ ‘Birthday Letters’ for Xmas. That’ll cheer him up.

A plane lands. Our plane. ‘Crew issues’. Passengers head to their cars. Famous cricketers walk by unharrassed. Made-up stewards and stewardesses prepare our plane. A thin strip of vapour, the width of a window pane shimmers outside, blurring the Darling Scarp. I resist the urge to facebook, email, text. A baby sings her version of the ‘get on the plane song’. Small things take on significance when they don’t go right.

The plane the yellow glow grows, clusters, fractures. Linearity disturbs the black. In glass the small child rocks. A small turbulent patch. I drop my pen. The kid who’s been kicking my chair all night picks it up. All action is determined by the level of work required.

Packing:

I am packed. Small bags inside other small bags inside a liner inside a backpack. In three hours drive, a couple of sessions of the Boxing Day test, I’ll be at the start of the walk. The track is a meaningless path cut through scrub. All things considered the track takes on meaning through negation. Going without showers, without sinks, televisions, news, books, restaurants, friends. We lose and gain perspective. We lose it by setting the course. By forbidding and ruling out options, by deliberately putting blinkers on. By walking into bad weather or refusing a lift. By not stopping to converse.

An arbitrary mission. A track or trail or highway without a name, not recognisable by name or association, has no psychological connection to hang our determination on. My determination is exhausted by research and preparation. I sit still. Eager to begin. The goodbyes mostly complete. Driving out of Melbourne the old houses make way for high-rise. Cars give way to bicycles.

Day 01: Walhalla to Oshea’s Mill

Said goodbye to Jim at approximately 11am after a cooked breakfast, and a discussion about Keating and filling out the intentions form at the General Store. We had to drive back up to the campsite above Chinese Gardens to retrieve Jim’s drying tent, his 3x3x3m palace. After boyishly jamming the tent in the bag we putted to the information bay, made final preparations, a photograph, and salutations. It was good to leave Jim on a positive note as he became quite irate about Keating the night before; bellowing profanities from his palace. I was very nervous not to forget anything so I checked and rechecked my gear and turned the car upside-down.

For the first 5km or so I was worried my left ankle would start hurting so I walked slowly as if it were already sore. You could hear cars going to and from Walhalla below the track which was on an old tram line. About 100m below where the track crosses a 4WD track, three walkers were climbing the hill. They caught up to me a few km’s later where I had stopped to remove the ankle bandage that was rubbing. They seemed like a Mum and her two kids out for a day walk. They passed me and not long after I passed them. The mother asked if I were attempting the entire 400km and I said yes the entire 650km, thinking they would walk with me to chat. But they remained stationary and the mother said good luck. Views up the river to the Poverty Point bridge. A dip in the water would be nice as the sun was hot, but the river was about 30m below and inaccessible.

Noon time, cross a stream then up a blue stone hill. I join the track and scare a black cat. No amount of meows will make us friends, although we are domesticated rogues, off to find what some solitude will bring us. The sound of the cars disappears.

I wanted to stop and sit in the shade and admire the bridge but there was no where to sit and the sun was too bitey to stay in the middle. I walked on occasionally catching glimpses of the shallow rapids, tall trees and steep valley. Cicadas phase in the forest. A ball of tall tress hang like a tablecloth. Bracken and ferns, nettles, prostrate wattles fill the floor. In the clearing dead mouse guts are exposed. I’m caught. I am the border of doubt. I stop and fill my bottle up with stream water, despite the admonition to filter everything. I fix my shoe, using the gaiter as a sitting pad. I prop the heavy backpack on a leg before strapping up. When I leave I triple check to see I’ve dropped anything. A small moment has passed. A smidgen fractured half way up a gully. The stream water is tasty.

At certain angles, burnt limbs, trunks, a grey horse avalanche line cutting green. Up close mossy black bark dangles like a child’s tooth. Repeated branch patterns hard against blue space. Up steep grade single track. Heart loud. Dirt chips, wood chips, bark, blue squares high up. As if in cartoon a mid-air spider makes for the edge of the track as it sees me approach the track-wide-web. I stand and wait for it before breaking its work. Spiderwebs, evidence that no-one has walked here today.

A long climb up a spur leads to a heavily manicured roadside and then another 30 minutes walk for the first nights’ campsite. A botanist Lucy and later two Germans arrived whiling the afternoon away. I washed in the stream but got all dirty again attempting to jump to the muddy bank out of the clean water. I quickly took temporary ownership of the trusty picnic table and assumed my usual position of feet on the seat, back to the middle. Between them, ten or so metres of mown grass. A copy of ‘No Logo’ discussed. Then the rules of the game are explained; exploration, conquer, domination. The picnic rug is full. Ten minutes later the game begins and their backs begin to hurt. He blows his nose and repeats the rule. Wracks his brain for the word in English.

1/1/14: Oshea’s MIll to Talbut Hut.

Woke about 6:30am with only a small amount of dew on the sleeping bag. Slept with just the bug net hanging from the walking poles. Missed bringing in the New Year but woke throughout the night looking up at the stars. Lucy was packing her stuff up slowly. She was half packed by the time I left anticipating the longest climb of the AAWT up out of the lowlands onto the high plains. Took it very slowly and sweated a lot. Joined a gravel road after a few km’s of soft underfoot track. A machine of some description – a small bulldozer or bobcat had been through recently making progress easy. My sweat and body fat countered any recognition that the temperature dropped as I climbed. Forest, cob-web like mouldy bread bread. The parasite drapes. A black monitor scampers 4ft up a tree, watches me. Black and alive, this unframed painting. Only yellow eyes and yellow stripes, circles, the measure of self. Mountain ash, they stand tall and house lyre birds. They burn and burn and burn.

As I started to have lunch at Erica carpark however, it got cold. Eight new 4WD type vehicles lined the car park. A half dozen day walkers were reading the sign as I entered. A lady said she knew John Chapman, his wife and John Siesman, the authors of the AAWT guidebook and other bushwalking publications. I examine the book and think of heading to Mt St. Gwinear.  Step after step I let my body adapt, and climb into position. does the space move through me as I through the space? Strangers stop to chat. Bushfires and emergency beacons, helicopters in all seasons. Large pebbles cantilever, their ‘Hanging Rock’ moment, the sequence that isn’t sure how to end. A patch of gums, clustered at the base, as if hundreds of larvae thought the earth was the air and they’re vying for gaps inside the crust.

Despite the wooden sign: MT ERICA 1509M. Despite the track carved through various landscapes, despite the prams and picnic baskets, the narcissus in me says ‘you’re the first to be here’. Not ‘this is the first time you’ve been here’. To climb into this remote place, far from the maddening crowd.

Carrawongs cry from a distance. Blow flies move in. I set my tarp up amongst the gum tree wrigglers, back to the wind. Only the concrete hearth, caste from gumtrees, is contrast to the thick wall of bending trunks. I burn the first days map, smell the chemical ink. The trees grow strong enough to split the basalt. They regrow when humans move on. They are a testament to time. Horizontal light angles in beneath the canopy, their torsos sweat, knuckled and oblique, the branches twist skyward like a willy willy.

After the storm no one rebuilt the hut. After the storm the saucepans and kettles were found 100 metres away, twenty years later, after fire. After the storm the moss sucked colour from the rock, the way a mosquito sucks blood, then the draught. Lichen is shrivelled and cracked, fast air blows the flakes. Strands, like arm hairs, in the moss. Dead twigs and leaves chew at the top soil.

Didn’t make it to Mt ST. Gwinear. Was either 19km today or a flatter 21km tomorrow. Since today involved a lot of climbing I stopped at the the old Mt Talbot hut site at about 2:30pm. Quickly set the tarp up as it was quite cloudy and appeared to be about to drizzle. A few drops fell at about 5pm.

Mushroom Rocks is an interesting place to explore. According to the signs whitey’s have been visiting there and Mt Erica for over 100 years. As you climb out of Mushroom Rocks the snow gums get thicker and thicker until you’re in amongst a gnarly wall of trunk on all sides. This taking the walking easy business is good, but it does leave a lot of time for sitting around being eaten by whatever bug is flying by. Trying to read or write you get bitten and have to move around a lot. Right now I’m inside the bug net escaping about 50 mozzies. They try to eat you through your clothes through the bug net.

Sunset is a good time of night/day to be walking and in some ways perhaps better to arrive in camp at this time too. You simply set up, eat, and go to sleep. But if you set up early you’re kind of committed to stay through your own unwillingness to pack up and move again. Perhaps if I get in camp early I should wait until the latest possible time to set up. Having said all this, I’m pretty happy with the modular set up I have: tarp, groundsheet, bug net and bivy. I can set any one of those up by themselves depending on the conditions.

The concrete hearth is a fascinating relic. Re-enforced concrete with local rocks as aggregate. Looks like they used planks as form work and built it up making each set higher a little smaller for the chimney. There are cracks, moss and graffito growing all over it. Once upon a time the hut would have been a place or parties and an emergency shelter. Now all that stands is the equivalent to a cricket oval and pitch, with the stumps, but no players. Apparently the huts from here along the Baw Baw Plateau to Warburton, were constructed by the government back in the 1920’s. Our relationship and fascination to ‘the bush’ is not new, it seems.

Day Three: Talbot Hut site to Stonarchs camp

Woke before the sun rose due to a mozzie inside the net. Was already kind of awake but the bug was the catalyst for initiating the move. Was meant to be a hot day so I wanted to get going early. Lifted two sides of the tarp before sleep which changed the nature of the site. Have realised I can peg the net out so will experiment with that this evening. Haven’t seen anyone today yet. Quite a bit of scrub-bashing to Mt St. Gwinear. Was in a bit of a mood when I arrived at ‘Rock Shelter’. Took the side trip up Mt St. Gwinear which had snow markers along it. I was imagining a world of snow along the grass button plains. At Maddison plane you can see the phone tower above Baw Baw ski resort and I nearly switched the phone on but decided against it. Getting both the gear and body dialled in is the order of the day. Some nice walking but limited views.

No significant thoughts, no planet saving ideas, just walking. Bashing through waist high scrub, a myrtle grove. No aches, no pains, no cramps, one foot goes in front of the other, dodges wombat poo instinctively. A white log at the entrance of an opening means wrong way turn back. Pink petalled flowers spring up on storks, like fireworks. Two days I walk in Snowgum, dichondria underfoot. An afternoon of mountain ash, dichondria underfoot. Always the hum of march flies. Trees sing creak creak when they rub. Out here if you lose a lid, you might not carry water. Out here the tanks are full, but not for walkers. Out here vices seem more enticing. Bracken grows around the rusty surveyors trigonometry frame. Out here, relief, almost, at seeing trees cut off at their base.

Lying out in the open – got the whole bug net thing happening – at Stronarch’s camp. Have the tarp ready with stakes laid out incase of rain. Some clouds are forming over in the west. Hopefully they’ll just keep the night warm. A long day today. Probably 11hrs including 3hrs break in the middle to let the heat pass. There’s no rest with the mozzies and march flies around. The mozzies are going mental now and the march flies have only just gone to bed at 9pm AEST. No normal flies, however, which is a kind of bonus. The walking is great. Varied vegetation with heaps of shade. Drank about 800ml of water for 5km during the hottest part of the day, with gatorade powder. Had a moment where I wished I had a tent as setting the tarp up took more mental energy than I could be bothered. But after looking out across the wetland with the setting sun half illuminating the line of trees about 150 metres away, no regrets. Before I took it down again, I had the tarp tied to a tree about 4 metres away and was impressed with its versatility.