Monday, 13 September 2010

Finding Our Way

It is an enchanted memory. After two days of walking, Chris Baxter and I reached trackless, tangled country where we would have to thread our course with pinpoint precision between a series of ambiguous landmarks.
Using the map and compass, we set our course and made our way to the first point. Then we recalibrated the compass and set off again - and again.
As the golden light of the afternoon flooded the bush around us, it seemed we floated from one point to the next, feeling the lie of the land beneath our feet as if it were part of us, carrying us. Both Chris and I felt a growing exhilaration as we picked our way through the forest, using the land itself to help us on our way, and finally reaching the exact point we had hoped to find.
I have never used a GPS, although I’d quite like to have one. They’d be particularly handy for the high rolling tops in places like South West Tasmania, where cloud cover can swirl in and leave you quickly disoriented. But I do use a map and compass; navigational aids are only common sense for serious walking. Be careful about trusting to a “sense of direction”. We do not have some homing pigeon part of our brains which tells us where we need to go. Knowing where you are is a product of careful observation as you pass through the landscape.
Careful observation when we navigate can also provide us with wonderful moments – such as the afternoon Chris and I spent - where we come to experience the bush in a special way.
Bernard O’Reilly, in Green Mountains - his classic account of his search for the Stinson wreck in the Lamington Ranges of southern Queensland in 1937 - writes of navigating through dense, untracked rainforest:
“And how do you keep a straight course?” perhaps you are asking. Well, no course in this country can be exactly straight; you tack about to find the easiest way down the cliffs and the easiest grade up the other side of the gorge, but you know by your map that the big lateral ranges are running from south to north, so if you cut them at right angles, you must be going west. Then, too, the jungle is full of other signs to tell you the points of the compass. Northern and eastern slopes are always matted with the heaviest growths of lawyer and raspberry vine, while southern slopes give way to forests of fern trees and great clusters of lilies. Also, the southern side of a tree is heavily covered with lichen and moss, while the northern side shows a smooth bole. It is a great help to have a knowledge of trees and shrubs which bloom in this area. Down in the lower jungles at the foot of the ranges, a certain species of tree will bloom six weeks earlier than the same species on the loftiest heights. At the lower levels, the tree will be going to seed, while at two thousand feet it will be blooming, at four thousand feet it will be in early bud. So with a good knowledge of plants, it is possible to estimate your altitude very accurately, and since altitudes are marked on the map this is a very important thing. The same sliding scale applies to the nesting of birds, so that all nature is willing and anxious to help, if you will only take the trouble to notice.
Australian bush is remarkably varied, but the dense forests are wild places. When the eminent wilderness photographer David Tatnall goes into forests like those of East Gippsland to create photographs, one piece of equipment he carries is a step ladder. He needs that to elevate himself above the dense understorey so that the camera can take a photograph which has some perspective. Bush like that is not a place for a Sunday stroll – to go into it requires the kind of robust commitment that helps you feel alive.
Europeans come to the forests of Australia with a legacy of myth and story which sees the forest as a dangerous place – a place of savage beasts and dangerous monsters. Hansel and Gretel encountered the cannibalistic witch when lost in the forest – having been left there to die. Red Riding Hood was rescued from the wolf by her father – a wood cutter. In the great German saga The Ring of the Niebelung, the dragon Fafner brooded in his forest lair. Forests were the haunt of outlaws like Robin Hood.
In our western psyche, the forest – the bush – is the dark side of civilization. It is a place to pass through quickly, where the forces of nature are untamed, mysterious, wild.
So why does anyone go bushwalking? After all, the bush can indeed be dangerous. People have been lost in the Australian bush, and never found. You can suffer injury there, or bad weather, or run out of water. When you spend time in it, the bush can seem friendly, hostile, or immensely indifferent.
But how lost can people find themselves in the bewildering byways of our civilization – with its corporate jungles, political swamps, and dark valleys of loneliness?
To sojourn in the bush – away from the man-made comforts of civilization – is to confront the wildness in oneself. One reason we go off into the bush – and the one which draws me back again and again - is to engage in a journey of self-discovery.
The indigenous peoples of the North West Pacific area of America lived in the vast forests that covered that region. The advice of elders to young initiates as to what to do when lost in that immense wilderness is encapsulated in a poem by David Wagoner:


Stand still. The trees ahead and the bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.

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