A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson – review

Bryson is popular. His writing style allows for fast, readily digested prose. There appears to be no subject he is unable to broach. His narratives are simple and erudite. His messages are a mixture of learning and experience. In A Walk in the Woods (AWITW) Bryson attempts to walk the length of the Appalachian Trail (AT) in America. His attempt is unsuccessful, for Bryson is someone who writes books, and decides to go for a hike, rather than the other way around. Bryson is more comfortable at home surrounded by books. The majority of A Walk in the Woods is Bryson relaying information from other books, sharing his experiences of hotels/motels/bunkhouses off the trail, and at one point a monologue about how he’d given up walking to reconnaissance the Appalachian Trail by car. A Walk in the Woods is not a book for me, even though I found it easy to read.

For such a well known author, little is written about Bryson’s style and technique in academic journals. Actually, most journals ignore him completely. Mostly it’s glowing reviews in online newspapers. One serious article ‘Including Appalachian Stereotypes in Multicultural Education: An Analysis of Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods’ takes Bryson to task for his depiction of hicks and hillbillies.
Stefano Calzati argues in ‘Travelling and writing and the form of travel writing: Reconsidering Bill Bryson’s (supposed) postcolonial legacy’ “that travelling and writing are two “practices of knowledge” which promote per se the marking of differences. In this regard, travel writing, as the novelistic genre that derives from such practices, cannot help but reproduce the epistemological distance between the self and the world.” And this is the overwhelming feeling that I take from Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods – his account re-enforces, through his armchair approach, rather than eliminates, the distance between the self and the world.

Bryson’s phenomenology is filtered through his project, his style and his constant attempts to shock the reader to keep reading.
Bryson is more serious about writing a book than walking the Appalachian. There are three main elements that comprise AWITW. The elements do not always hang together well, but the writer is able, through his prose, to weave them together. The first element is his commission by his publisher to write a book. The second element, is the Don Quixote set up. The third aspect that pads the book out are the lectures. When Bryson gets bored with one element he falls back on the other.

The first, why would Bryson disclose to his readers that his publisher had commissioned him another book? What purpose does this give to readers? Bryson is attempting to build himself and his reputation up reminding us ‘these books don’t exist in a vacuum’. Also, Bryson, the man, is the main character in his books. He realises that the success of his career hinges on continuity across his works.

The second, the Katz/Bryson play off reminds me of Don Quixote and Sancho, except Bryson isn’t deluded beyond not knowing why he’s walking the trail. Bryson is deluded in thinking he can walk the trail in one season. After walking for a few weeks, Bryson and Katz are killing time in an outfitters which leads to him looking at an overview map of the AT. He figures out that that the trail is long, much longer than he anticipated and instead of resolving to finish the trail, as Don Quixote would, both Katz and Bryson are put off and dejected. The most interesting struggle in the book is Katz’s attempt to quit drinking, but it comes very late in the piece.
Thirdly, unlike Don Quixote, Bryson, the character, can not be too out there, otherwise he wouldn’t be able to enter into armchair lectures on the history and value of a range of subjects consisting of: how dangerous animals are, the history and design of the Appalachian Trail, how Americans use cars too often, underground fires in Centralia, murder, climate change, geology, diseases, how stupid and fat people can be, especially ones who look like they’re from the movie Deliverance, forestry, the rise and fall of townships, hikers preoccupations with gear, botany, misdirected government spending, meteorology, hypothermia, ludditeness, war, ecological destruction, and so on. After a while, the trail becomes a backdrop for these fireside lectures Bryson, one can assume, wrote before or after being on the trail. In this sense the book is about Bryson’s ability to take cues from the trail and weave them into his research. Where he gets this knowledge from we don’t know, there are no references.
There is a morality to his lectures – but his attitude is incongruous to the way he has set himself up to interact with his characters. Bryson wants to give his readers guidance on the one hand, and then ask them to suspend their disbelief in the name of humour. So, for example, when he discusses how the AT avoids towns and is cocooned in green corridors (in contrast to the apparently more advanced designs of English/European trails), Bryson concludes: “doubtless it is all to do with its historic impulse to tame and exploit the wilderness, but America’s attitude to nature is, from all sides, very strange if you ask me.” p258 This is symptomatic of the manner in which Bryson presents his lectures. His information is to serve an agenda and his research concludes at the point where the agenda has been satisfied. The agenda appears to be primarily to provoke people to keep reading. Surely he must know that not all Americans wish to tame the wilderness and that some Americans share his views.
So when we turn to the people Bryson meets on, and (more often) off, the trail we gain more of a reflection of Bryson, than of the people themselves. Again, the agenda is provocation. Here is his telephone interaction when attempting to find a taxi in Gatlinburg:

“‘How much would it be to take two of us to Ernestville?’ I enquired.
‘Dunno’ came the reply.
This threw me slightly. ‘Well how much do you think it would be?’
‘Dunno.’
‘But it’s just down the road.’
There was considerable silence and then the voice said: ‘Yup.’
‘Haven’t you ever taken anybody there before?’
’Nope.’
‘Well, it looks to me on my map like it’s about twenty miles. Would you say that’s about right?’
Another pause. ‘Might be.’
‘And how much would it be to take us twenty miles?’
‘Dunno.’
I looked at the receiver. ‘Excuse me, but I just have to say this. You are more stupid than a paramecium.’
Then I hung up.”

Bryson’s characters are there to make him look smart and to support the preconceived worldview he wishes to push. It is because of this that the subjects of his lectures do not become integrated and he doesn’t appear to recognise the ecology and interconnectedness of the world in which he inhabits. A more enlightening approach would be to manufacture or even seek out an intelligent person who may be more helpful and illuminating. He could work all of his home reading into the voice of his characters.
Because of this provocative style, Bryson leaves himself open to hypocrisy and inconsistency. At the end of the taxi driver episode (in which he and his Sancho (Katz) buddy decide on a whim to give up the idea of walking the entire trail), they find themselves back in the dearth of commercial America, amongst shopping malls and carparks, the opposite of the woodlands they had been walking through:

“But come off the trail, properly off, and drive somewhere, as we did now, and you realize how magnificently deluded you have been. Here, the mountains and woods were just backdrop – familiar, known, nearby, but no more consequential or noticed than the clouds that scudded across their ridgelines. Here the real business was up close and on top of you: gas stations, Wal-Marts, K-marts, Dunkin’ Donuts, Blockbuster videos, a ceaseless unfolding pageant of commercial hideousness.”
While it is not the role of a writer to be morally consistent, it is their role, especially in the context of non-fiction, to research thoroughly and to show their readers an interconnectedness. Instead, when recounting the phase of American history where demand for new world seeds and botanical interest was high, Bryson speaks with celebratory glee, apparently unaware of the relationship between that unregulated process and forestry the ugliness he describes above:

“The first people to venture deep into the woods from the east (the Indians [sic], of course had got there perhaps as much as 20,000 years before them) weren’t looking for prehistoric creatures or passages to the west or new lands to settle. They were looking for plants. America’s botanical possibilities excited Europeans inordinately, and there was both glory and money to be made in the woods. The eastern woods teemed with flora unknown to the old world and there was a huge eagerness, from scientists and amateur enthusiasts alike, to get a piece of it…These and hundreds more were collected in the American woods, shipped across the ocean to England and France and Russia and received with greedy keenness and trembling fingers.”

Contrast the above attitude to the one in this passage:

“In 1987, it [the Forest Service] casually announced that it would allow private timber interests to remove hundreds of acres of wood a year from the venerable and verdant Pisgah National Forest, next door to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and that 80 per cent of that would be through what it calls ‘scientific forestry’ – clear cutting – which is not only a brutal visual affront to any landscape, but brings huge, reckless washoffs that gully the soil, robbing it of nutrients and disrupting ecologies further downstream, sometimes for miles. This isn’t science. It’s rape.”

And then this one:

“And there was a more compelling reason to go. The Appalachians are the home of one of the world’s great hardwood forests– the expansive relic of the richest, most diversified
sweep of woodland ever to grace the temperate world–and that forest is in trouble. If the global temperature rises by 4°C over the next fifty years, as is evidently possible, the whole of the Appalachian wilderness below New England could become savanna. Already trees are dying in frightening numbers. The elms and chestnuts are long gone, the stately hemlocks and flowery dogwoods are going, and the red spruces, Fraser firs, mountain ashes, and sugar maples may be about to follow. Clearly, if ever there was a time to experience this singular wilderness, it was now.”

Bryson does not draw any comparisons between the seed collectors, the forestry service ‘rape’ and climate change. The author seems intent on shocking the reader into further reading without considering an overall scheme. People starting and finishing Bryson’s work appears to be a more important criteria to him than jettisoning contradictory elements in his prose. An argument could be made that being in the same book, and written by the same author would constitute the correlations being drawn, but my opinion is that the structure, the schism between the elementsof the book, prevent such a reading.
When Don Quixote lectures, (Cervantes’ Don Quixote) he is so clearly out of touch with both the other characters in Cervantes story, and to us the readers, that we all humour him. Within Don Quixote’s absurd lectures, however, are some incredible conclusions, some of which we tend to agree with. But the Don Quixote, the character of Bryson, in A Walk Walk in the Woods never strays into the absurd. Often his observations are blatant and his treatment of others’ is cruel. One has to ask that perhaps if we didn’t treat each other the way Bryson treats people in his book, whether the planet would be in the state that it is.

Of course, Bryson and his fans might rebut my above points by claiming ‘lighten up it’s just a bit of fun’, or, present the book as a gateway to more serious studies of wilderness, ecology and nature. It’s creative non-fiction after all, so don’t take the deliberate littering seriously. There are light moments and Bryson does indeed reflect on the wonderful aspects of bushwalking or hiking. These appreciative moments are added and sprinkled throughout as if to remind us that that he’s not a negative bastard. There are some arresting moments that lift the reader up from the negativity I seem to keep returning to. Here’s a moment, on day one of their hike:

“When, after ages and ages, you finally reach the tell-tale world of truly high ground, where chilled air smells of pine gap and the vegetation is gnarled and tough and wind-bent, and push through to the mountain’s open pinnacle, you are, alas, past caring. You sprawl face down on a sloping pavement of gneiss, pressed to the rock by the weight of your pack, and lie there for some minutes, reflecting in distant, out-of-body way that you have never before looked this closely at lichen, not in fact looked this closely at anything in the natural world since you were four years old and had your first magnifying glass.” p53

At the end of the book Bryson wryly states the trail did not change his life: “but I certainly gained an appreciation and respect for the woods and wilderness and the colossal scale of America” p350. Perhaps, if he did complete the trail from one end to the other, if he allowed the experience to become more than an exercise for his publishers, he might have let go of the preconceptions that inhibit transformative processes. It is somewhat troubling that a writer takes on a major project lasting a period of years to finally say to his readers, ‘don’t bother, my book is all you need’. Perhaps he is attempting to provide counterbalance to the apparently naive rights of passage accounts that pervade nature and walking writing? Overall however, Bryson’s work is an intellectual, rather than phenomenological one.

 

References:

Bryson, Bill. 1998, A Walk In the Woods, Black Swan, London, England.

Including Appalachian Stereotypes in Multicultural Education: An Analysis of Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods
Herzog, Mary Jean Ronan, Journal of Appalachian Studies, 1 April 1999, Vol.5(1), pp.123-128 [Peer Reviewed Journal]

Stefano Calzati (2015) Travelling and writing and the form of travel writing:
Reconsidering Bill Bryson’s (supposed) postcolonial legacy, Journal of Postcolonial Writing,
51:4, 422-435

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Bibbulmun Track

 

The following is an account of experiences on the Bibbulmun track.

Word doc. here Bibbulman Track

 

My father drove me to Balingup on the 21st of November 2003. I left Balingup because I was due to meet some friends in Denmark on the 17th of December. In the car the Traveling Wilburries and John Farnham were on the radio. I was somewhat nervous and excited about the trek, mainly because I was entering the unknown. I’d never been hiking before. I had no idea how my body would cope walking/hiking approximately 20kms a day over 25 days. In particular, I have a dodgy hamstring with a tendency to pop at any moment. The other thing that made me slightly nervous was that I was entering unfamiliar terrain, alone. I didn’t know what to expect. What counteracted this nervousness and excitement was the nature of the primary activity; walking. We all know what walking involves.

Standing outside of the car in Balingup wearing new boots, new clothes and a new pack, I felt like a real amateur. The pack was overloaded with food making it about 19-20kg. I had no idea how much I’d eat on a daily basis and what I could buy at Donnelly River Village three days away. Giving myself 6 hours to walk 18km was a good steady, slow pace for my first day. It was about 35 degrees. There was a massive hill about ¾ the way and constant adjustment of the pack was annoying. But it was a relief to be actually walking the track after thinking about it for a couple of years, setting a date early in the year and finally following it through.

I didn’t really have any notions about getting in touch with nature or self discovery. I convinced myself that any preconceived ideas would probably hinder the experience. Walking into Blackwood Campsite was a small relief. I knew that if I could make it past the first two days without injury, I’d be fine for the remainder. The first hurdle had been jumped. Indulging in a little nap when I arrived at the hut was a 64 year old man named Bill Husky. He’d been walking for some 18 days. He was very healthy in both mind and body. He looked about 50; a strong, handsome man. We were heading in the same direction and therefore shared huts for the next four nights where Bill was ending his trek. When he asked me what I was reading I told him it was Kierkegaard’s Concluding Unscientific Postscript and he claimed he tried not to think too deeply about things. With my metaphorical tweezers I discovered that Bill is quite a deep and critical thinker.

At Donnely river village he took to reading every single word of the newspaper. Bill has been married for 40 years. Claimed it was love at first sight at a dance in Kalgoorlie in 1964. The last hut we shared was Tom Road campsite 16 km south of Donnelly River Village. That night proved to be the most populated campsite of my walk. Joining us were three middle aged office workers walking the 963km from Kalamunda to Albany and a couple from Canada walking to Pemberton from Donnelly River. It was a beautiful place and it inspired me to write this poem:

 

Not A Single Presupposition, Except My Ignorance

“The way that can be spoken of is not the constant way.”– Lao Tzu

 

Here you are in your chimerical disposition

creeks shallow and simple to follow.

I hear you’ve bequeathed all arivistic tendencies

for omnipotent bliss and ubiquitous rest

I hear you can dance sage-like upon

snake-scale on a stream through a honky nut.

Yet attempts to broach your most genuine

masqueradefall in a heap of demented parlance.

In this languageI struggle to see your limbs.

Non omnes omnia pussumus:we cannot all do everything.

Supremely patient beside rapids

I observe the clouds in me change

easy metamorphosis, easyour only gauge of time is itself.

Out here one cannot create stress;

we find no conclusion, because there is no system.

 

 

 

By the sixth day I was in the groove of walking. I’d eaten the excess food and worked out with Bill the best way to set up my back pack. 20km a day was beginning to get a little light on as after an hours rest I was full of beans again. I considered doing double huts. Consulting the maps, if I accelerated I could make to Albany then hitchhike back to Denmark to meet my friends Jim, Fe and Emma. I decided however to monitor my body at least until I reached Pemberton 4 days later. Usually I’d wake up at about 6am. I’d tuck into a bowl of muesli while the water was boiling for a cup of black tea. Then I’d pack everything up and hit the road. Feeling fantastic meant I could stop and enjoy the scenery and wildlife at my leisure. Snacks were an apple and a health bar. Regardless of the distance between huts I’d always drink two litres of water. If I got dehydrated I’d drink extra when I reached camp. On a given day 20km takes about 4 to 5 hours depending on how fast you can be bothered going and how many hills you have to climb.

Between Donnelly River and Pemberton it rained in the afternoon for a few hours then stopped in the evening. Fortunately I never got rained on as I always made it to camp before it started. I’d have a cup of tea, some lunch, read and then fall asleep for an hour or so. The rain was great. The feeling of being all warm, dry and cuddly inside the sleeping bag made me feel like a little kid. I’d go to sleep while heavy drops thudded on the tin roof of the three sided hut. I woke surrounded by Karri’s; their proud torsos circled by a sliding puddle of drops. Leaving a brown stain dripping down their flanks. The Canadians and I sat around the fire chatting on those nights. They were lovely people; very calm. They gave me a strip of this blister protection adhesive called moleskin. I didn’t have any blisters yet, but in new boots it was highly probable.

The Canadians wimped out at Karri Valley Resort and took a taxi into Pemberton. I joined them for a few beers on the foreshore in the sun. By now my body had been flushed of toxins so after two beers I was a far bit under the weather. After saying goodbye I stumbled to the hut thrashing through the jungle. That was my first night alone. I was about a week into the walk and for the first time started to feel out of sorts. Often when I go for long walks in the city it’s in an attempt to purge troubling/lingering thoughts out of my head or resolve a long standing problem. Up until that point nature had the effect of quieting my mind and overwhelming any thwarting thoughts. That day however, I felt like I was walking in the city. Furthermore I started to miss some people:

 

 

A Chance Encounter

 

Crouching, feeling nimbler

Flicking boogies in the stream.

Gushes, liquid hitting rock

Sounds like voices;

Speech of friends I miss.

Then there they are

Standing across the water

Flicking boogies in the stream

Watching them float and swirl

My friends smileI cannot help but smile.

 

I reached Pemberton the following day around noon and booked into the backpackers for two nights. Planned a days rest before I started gunning it to Albany. I finished Kierkegaard and was lucky enough to pick up a copy of Bob Hawke’s memoirs in the backpacker’s office. The latter was too heavy to carry so I tried to read all of it on my day off. The second night I shared a room with a dude named Dennis. He’d ridden his push-bike from Sydney to Cairns and then across to Broome. The lazy bastard had taken the bus to Perth from there and was now riding from Perth to Esperance and possibly across the Nullabor to Adelaide. We shared dinner and a few laughs. He gave me a Hunter S. Thompson book. I gave him a new sponge.

The three day walk to Northcliffe was rather uneventful. Again I was in the huts alone. I ran into a stray farm dog out in the middle of the forest. It was terrified and appeared to have been lost for a number of days. I stood waiting for it as it approached me on the track. I had a large stick ready incase it was crazy and wanted to bite me. When it finally discovered I was there it ran away. Nothing I could do. I left Northcliffe on Friday morning and wasn’t to see or talk any humans until I reached Walpole the following Thursday. The next six nights were the most interesting, challenging and rewarding.

First day out of Northcliffe I double-hutted 31km to Lake Maringup. I left Northcliffe motel at approximately5:30am and reached the first hut (Gardner) at 8am. That’s about 7km an hour with a 20kg pack. I was practically running. The prospect of reaching Albany was fresh and alive in my mind. At Gardner I took my boots off to let my feet breathe. I noticed a callous-like blister on my left heel. I applied a small strip of the moleskin gear the Canadians gave me. Covering it up with sports tape I was certain it would do the trick and the callous wouldn’t spread.

While I was doing this I was attacked by a seemingly endless supply of march flies which served to hurry the operation. (Down there, those little bastards don’t land and then bite, they just fly straight into you with their little barbs out, drawing blood.) The small strip of moleskin created a small mound inside the tape. Mounds are not recommended inside boots. Over the next 16km the heel started to hurt more and more. Now, I’m a bit of a dummy when I comes to pain. I ignore pain the hope that it will disappear by its own accord. I reached Lake Maringup certain that by the next morning it would have healed. Stupidly, I didn’t take the bandage off to inspect the damage.

Lake Maringup is a fantastic place. Your can hear ocean waves roll in as you go to sleep.

First step the next day was painful. I should have stopped right there and re-bandaged to remove the moleskin mound. But I thought the pain would subsist after about 5km. It didn’t. I walked 25km that day over 8 hours of absolute agony. I thought that that was what all blisters were like. The only relief from the pain was a two minute adrenaline rush after nearly stepping on a fully grown tiger snake. I had and would have many, many interludes with snakes but this was the first close encounter. I was trudging along with my head down and was half way through a step when I noticed the scaly creature below me. I had to freeze my foot in mid air, jump over it and start running. When I turned around it had reared and flattened its head, before working its way gracefully into the bush. I don’t know what would have happened if bitten. In that encounter the snake and I had this to say:

Interview with a tiger snake:

 

 Good morning tiger snake, how are you?

‘Very pleashhhhed to beshhh sshere.’

What have you been doing so far today?

‘Ive mainhhhly sssssssaat in the ssssssssshunnnnnn.Ennnnnjoyed a delightful fffffrrroggg breakfast.Thisssssss affffteeerrrrnooooonnnI’m lllllookking forward to mmmuch of the ssssssssaaaammmee.’

Are frogs your favourite food?

‘oooohhhhhh yyeeeeeessssssssssssss.’

A lot of my fellow human beings are frightened of your species; do you eat humans?

‘ooohhhhhh nooooo, toooooo sssssssssaaaaallty.’

I must admit tiger snake, I’m a little scared of you myself, could you help me to overcome my fear by giving me a hug?

‘Hissssss, assssss longgg assssss noone seeeeeesssss.’

Excellent.

[Me and the tiger snake hug]

Not that tight tiger snake.

‘Sssssssssooorrryyy.’

Oh this is nice isn’t it, hugging a tiger snake feels wonderful.

‘Sssssss what If I do thisssssssssssss?’

Ouch. You bit me! What did you do that for?

‘Jusssssttt curiousssssssss, you’re not asssssss sssssssalty assssssss the otherssssssssss.’

Can you do you something? I need help here.

‘SSSSSSorrrrry, nothing can be done.’

Looks like I’m a goner. Please, if you see them, say goodbye to my family and friends. Give them a hug for me. No, wait, don’t do that.

‘I’ll do mmmmmmmmmmy bessssssst.’Hang on a second. I’m actually starting to feel better rather than worse. Now there’s a sweet taste in my mouth, like candy.

‘Ohhhhh, ssssssssss. That musssssst be from the toffeeeeeeeeeee I sssssssssstole and mmmmmmmmmmmunched while you’re on the ttttttttttttoilet.’

My you are a slippery one aren’t you?

‘Yesssssssssssssss, I guess I am. Bessssssst be offffffffff now.’

Bye tiger snake.

 

Inexperience combined with a silly stoic attitude made me believe that the worst was over and the next day would be easier. Nevertheless, the following days 19km through heath and swamp proved to be a serious obstacle. Every single step of the last 5 or so kilometres almost brought me to tears. The final kilometre took about an hour.

When I finally reached camp I peeled the tape/bandage off to reveal a throbbing water filled, purple blister the size of two 50 cent coins side by side. The mound of the moleskin caused friction on the skin above it, hence softening and pushing the exposed skin toward my ankle. Lesson: always make sure your bandages are completely flat. I knew immediately I had to take a days rest. It also became clear that Albany was out of the question. Up until this point I’d been focused on how fast I was going, how many kilometres I could do in a day etc. I almost lost sight of the fact that it wasn’t a race. It wouldn’t be entirely true to state that I was totally driven by ego. I felt that I was open to new experiences/knowledge and I didn’t always need to be control. (The serenity and enormity of nature has the power to overawe me and make me feel comfortably insignificant. Combined with the fact that nature has no opinion and harbours no judgment there’s little left for the ego.) But I hadn’t really changed since I left Perth. Where I rested for a day is a massive granite outcrop called Mt Chance. Its summit offers 360 degree views of heath land, inlets to the west and a morsel of ocean beyond the hardened dunes.

I spent 13 or 14 hours on top of that rock. I had a set of binoculars to spy on anything that moved. Black cockatoos being the most active and they’re interested in humans too. I was very much alone. I ran out of books to read. I sang every song I could remember over and over. My mind churned up lost memories. I thought about the positive aspects of my life. What I had to look forward to. I considered the mistakes I had made and how they were or could be resolved. I observed the thoughts that could not be dealt with on my own and constructed a plan of action on my return to civilization. This may seem a little obvious and possible in your house in the city, but when you’re in a foreign environment and lonely, it appears far more immediate and real.

My mind started to get tired of itself and I went a little crazy. I played a little game and distanced my mind from my thoughts a little. I had the theory that there must be some mental apparatus which enables me to view my thoughts and memories in such a way. I considered that since I had recalled and exhausted almost all of my memories that there must be some way of altering that apparatus in order to view my thoughts differently or even recall more memories. It became clear that over the years I had developed merely a few modes of habitual self-awareness. Obviously that mode had altered and changed as I grew older but I’d never really examined the examiner in this clarity before.

Furthermore, contrary to my hitherto speedy ego disposition I was literally forced to relax. A conscious effort to slow my body down was needed. In the sun I fell asleep on top of that mountain. I woke to a ladybug crawling in front of me. Perched on top of the mountain, I watched the sun move down to meet the horizon. I watched the birth of shadows out of hills, trees and shrubs. Slowly the shadows grew longer, larger and taller. I imagined them in five minutes, in ten minutes, trying to predict the shapes they would make; trying to imagine the colors they will make, what animals will be revealed. I tried to remember the shadows from five minutes ago, ten minutes ago, when I first started observing. It was as difficult to remember what had happened as to imagine what will happen. Alone, there was no trans-subjective agreement to support my observations, no language to communicate with nature in order to define a sense of place.

The following day, the 7th of December, was a 21km walk. The ground was too rugged and hot to walk bare foot. Again, every step hurt. The blister preoccupied my thoughts. I could feel it spreading as it pulsated in the boot. The track was littered with spider webs. I was in pain, but I had a new secret weapon; patience. I hobbled along at about two km an hour. I learnt to embrace the blister. I wanted more blisters. I beseeched my whole foot to be covered in blisters so I had to walk slower than an ant. I figured that at least then I’d know something about what it was like to be an ant.

Behind the next campsite (Woolbales) was another granite outcrop which provided excellent views. Barefoot I ran up there missing a tiger snake by about 20cm. I’ve never felt nimbler or freer than I did that afternoon. As planet earth revolved the cliffs moved in front of the sun and it seemed like the ocean was set on fire. Out of joy I cried for all the beautiful and warm friendships I’d shared in my time. I re-learnt how to love myself and found a new sense of happiness. Ironically it was the blister which facilitated all of this.

The next day I encroached on the ocean and smelt the salt and thought about what people had been writing in the hut registers. Someone had mentioned self-discovery. Did I find myself? Well, not really. I concluded that I am simply the amalgamation of observations, thoughts and experiences as this body, connected to this consciousness traverses the land. If I see a kangaroo I become that Kangaroo. If I sip a cup of tea I become that cup of tea. If I swat a fly I become that fly. Wherever there is an absence of trees/forest, there is the presence of flies. At times my pack was covered in them; standing room only. Every time I brushed a bush they’d go mad and buzz around for a while before settling down again. After a few hours you get really annoyed with them landing on your face. You start swearing at them. One time, I reversed into a blackboy/balga tree to try and get rid of the little bastards. After about five minutes of shooing them off of my front they all landed on the green straw-like strands of the blackboy. Looking at them they all looked like they were smiling, like it was some kind of game. Attempting to catch them off guard I ran as fast as I could until I got really puffed. They caught up.

I’d have my revenge though. Not only did the cliffs along the coast offer spectacular views they also brought a welcome and refreshing breeze. When a good gust built up, I’d whip the back of my pack with my hand sending flies everywhere. The wind would wisp them away and it was too strong for the little bastards to fly back to me. They were too small to tell if they were smiling or not. To an outside observer it would have been a pretty funny sight watching this dude on a cliff pulling a finger sign at these tiny little black dots floating in front of an immense blue background.

Walking 20kms a day meant that I was pretty tired by the time I reached camp. The voice inside of me that says that I cannot enjoy life until I’ve worked was satisfied and satiated. All that was left to do was to enjoy the rest of my days. I walked about 200km without shoes on. Only the second half of the last day did I wear boots. But I didn’t care by that stage. The waltz from Walpole to Denmark was sheer pleasure. I shared most of the walk with a lovely lady named Jean, with a totally unobtrusive disposition. She pointed out to me that kookaburra’s only ever laugh in twos. I kept pinching myself because I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to be walking the Bibbulman.

James Quinton

A quick thought on Landscapes

In John Dixon Hunts’ book Greater Perfections in the chapter ‘Word and Image in the Garden’ he discusses the role of the word and narrative and experience in landscape architecture. In context of narrative, he argues:

“[N]arratives that recount times past do so in the present, which with landscape architecture is intimately linked to the configurations of the site that functions both as setting and presumably as prompt for the narrative to be recounted. Further, the “reader” is thrust into prominence; the narrative of a place relies on the verbal skills of its visitor, who has to infer or “translate” from the given materials, which can never (qua narrative) be as complete as they would be, for instance, on the pages of a novel.”

Thus, the verbal skills of a viewer, reader or visitor in a didactic, narrative designed landscape can never as complete as the reader of a novel. This is because of the “translation” from the abstraction of the inscriptions on the materials of the site, and the site itself. Therefore, for example, a plaque by the ocean may describe the anchorage of a ship in a port two hundred years earlier. The visitor reads the plaque, looks over to the position of anchorage, and is imagines a ship there. The argument put forward by Hunt is that this scenario is not as complete a narrative on the pages of a novel. However, I think there are grounds for a contrary argument. A visitor with verbal skills may have their experienced enhanced by looking out to where the boats set anchor. A purely fictionalised novel has no landscape equivalent to compare the given materials.

Unless of course, Hunt means that a plaque can never be as long or as big as a novel. In which case he is correct. He concludes: “in short, the site qua site may play a greater or lesser role.” When, I think what he means to say is: the abstract site (narrative) within a real landscape may play a greater or lesser role.

Sites within sites, narratives within narratives; the way our minds work and our body moves through a site is immensely complex. There are an infinite amount of impressions, senses, ideas and events that coalesce to complete our understanding of a landscape or site. While historical narratives within sites seek to represent a true interpretation of a sites past, what of the fictional impressions we gain from a site? How does a shift in scale, an imagined people of the past, an animated artefact, the re evaluation of the ugly change the way we read landscapes? Can, or do we reach neutrality by championing the fake and the ugly when best practise seeks to promote the good and feel good?

Ashfield Flats

Im conducting a site analysis of the Ashfield Flats; a wetland near where I grew up. On the 19th of March I walked through the flats with a video camera. You can watch the video here:

And first poem analysis:

Site Visit Ashfield Flats

Part of the river begins here, car carcasses
Filter run-off, houses fenced off
Red tap on top of fire extinguisher.

Buffalo grass covers a culvert
Large concrete block monuments
Pine bollards and a steel gate.

‘No unauthorised vehicles passed this point’
The sign, twenty metres beyond the fence;
Galahs cackle overhead.

As if in distrust of the drain
Houses a but the 100 year flood line
Stink from the drainage block.

A two foot foam toy stealth bomber
Discarded in the buffalo – ‘the F27C
Striker Brushless’ neglected, ignored.

Broken, landlocked like concrete islands
Bark shards and a dying tomato plant
Part of the river begins here.

My body moves expectantly
Barefoot, aware of tiger snakes
A stick wrapped around my ankle.

MWB infrastructure tagged with ‘SK’
As alien as the stand of tapping bamboo
Within phone range, without credit.

Sweet mud smell, the hill you slide down
On tin, the old man keen to shoot to shoo
You away, his property as far as his scope.

To kill the grass they kill the liquid amber
Yellow bamboo pole matresses
The ‘clean fill’ sand will absorb it eventually.

Salt bush tagged pink, ready for pruning
Fifty yards from a fence, ‘our home’
Our ten metre limestone retaining wall.

More graffiti on blocks thick with melaleucas
A safe place to practise, DK in red texta
On paperbarks, more practise.

Rows are rows of planted tulips: a concerted
Effort to pretty the place up, beside long lines
Of blackberry bush, an air conditioner hums.

Water collects here; lentic. Overflowing rubbish
Bins on the driveway, a baby crying
Her life begins here, mosquito coils.

I become impatient, lustful and lacking narrative
I pause on the authorised vehicle track
Parrots squawk, a German Sheppard barks.

Then, evidence of machinery; mown lawn
Drainage swales, designed drains,
Another Main Water Board Block: Stourhead Grotto?

Dead gums, kids playing cricket
Adopting famous players names
Recreating classic moments: the pathetic fallacy?

A netball ring attached to fence
Bark crunching, parrots munching
A train a truck an aeroplane.

A fences, a concrete path
A stream sidled by casuarinas
Hesitate to use the word weed.

A small stand of xanthorrhoeas, cleared
Drain fenced off for important revegetation
Vineless archways.

Dog shit on the side of the path
A few days old
Clear blue sky overhead, hazy at the horizon.

I imagine walking straight the swamp
With a video camera, a document,
Not now – not the right time, never the right time.

Go right, I go left, through the thicket
To much of a sissy I stick to the path
The birds becoming louder.

In imagining the future I left the present
And missed the approach to the foreshore
A flat pyramid of arrow, ground cover.

Velvet pillows jammed in amongst the limestone
Banks – a fisherman’s forgotten seat
Long neck turtles, high tide tomorrow.

A kelpie freaking out over rollerblades
Fallen trees, their rotten roots
Suspended in floating mud. Not a sculpture.

Nor is this paradise, the river, in pieces
Has kept clear, held back proper light
Part of the river begins here.

The DC266 Evenrude outboard dingy
Its fishermen, shiners of the torch
Throw cigarette butts in the water: 18:35pm.

The bridge monument – maximum load limit
Three hundred kilograms
Hugs the bank like Michelangelo’s staircase

The last of the sunlight, duck tracks,
Great Egrets picking at the rushes
Mistook them for a chip wrapper.

Still as salty as the day purchased
At the supermarket:
The Great Egret Supermarket.

I jump off the bridge – heading home
Find a toy walkie talkie, possibly from the stealth bomber:
You used to be able to see the bottom, over.

‘Surprised by the amount of water in here
At this time of year, over.’ No frog noises
So silence. Still, plenty of mossies and guppies, over

‘Copy, over.’ Walk around puddles.
Now it dawns on me —the camps—
We used to see as kids, the piles of rubbish

Buckets, blankets, remnants of small fires
Were aboriginal camps, a midden under my nose.
‘Fucking Hell’ sprayed blue on a she oak, a totem.

Car wrecks half way up the drain
When the water’s high become tip islands
Rusting ruins: they dont make ‘em like they used to.

Clay sediments and oxidise metal mixing:
Follies of the future,
Slowly leaking into the creek.

You can see the wet line on the side
of the drain, the high water water mark
A white horizontal line of phosphate

Part of the river begins here, car carcasses.

Western Arthurs

Hi Everyone,

Early in 2006 I had a life changing adventure through the tassy wilderness. Here is the first part of a two part story. I didnt take a camera, so there are no pictures. But if you do a google image search for the Arthurs or any of the individual peaks names you’ll get a sense of the terrifying majesty of the place. Part two will have pictures.