“When the great markets by the sea shut fast
All that long Sunday that goes on and on:
When even lovers find their peace at last
And Earth is but a star that once had shone.”
James Elroy Flecker – The Golden Road to Samarkand
(and some notes on solo walking )
Last week I was enjoying my lunch on Horseshoe Hill near Canberra. There were 20 of us on this club walk. Suddenly, near me, I overheard 2 supposedly educated persons discussing, in all seriousness, the preservation of wilderness. Both of them were arguing that wilderness should be used to its full by the present generation and not kept for future generations. I was stunned by such a selfish and blind view. Is it any wonder that the world is so reluctant to act to reverse climate change? Also, do these supposedly educated persons not see the integrated nature of the world’s biosphere? The survival of this world is not just about alternative fuels, but is also highly dependent on the survival of wilderness and of course on population increase. Then again, why should we use up all the world’s resources, leaving only a quarry for future generations? And what of the animals and birds? Do we hunt them to extinction because they are there for us, and to hell with the future? Such people do not care if Earth is but a star that once had shone. Unfortunately too many people are only interested in increasing their wealth. Those two persons I mentioned are members of a club which believes in opening up the wilderness to as many people as possible. One would think that members of a hiking club would be the very people who would fight for wilderness protection and preservation.
On another tack, I recently heard that one of the leaders of a bushwalking club was warning against walking solo. Perhaps that is the view that one has to take if one is a club committee member. If we all walked solo there would be no walking clubs, although that need not be the case, for clubs can provide a place where like-minded folk can get together. However, I got to thinking about his statement.
I have no objection to people walking in large groups with clubs. Walking with others can be fun and if others enjoy hiking in groups for exercise, for socialising, because they themselves do not have the skills to lead or for any other reason, that is great. They are out there, enjoying themselves in nature. I am a member of several clubs, participate in group walks led by others, and also lead walks, often off-track ones for the clubs. However, I do get a little irritated when others try to steer clubs and individuals away from solo walking. Unless one is inexperienced, I do not see a problem with it and unless one goes solo one will never come to really appreciate the wilderness, so that it seeps into one’s soul. When one is walking with a group of people, one’s interaction with the others cuts one off from the wilderness. Environmentally, too, a solo walker does far less damage than 20-30 people all tramping through the bush or down steep, loose slopes.
I suspect that a lot of opposition to solo walking comes from those who see the demise of clubs as a result (as if that isn’t happening already with the younger generation who do not want the restrictions of clubs and older members) and from those who, even if they will not admit it to themselves, are actually frightened of the wilderness and only tolerate it if out there in a group. I say this, because mainly the arguments against solo walking focus on safety.
If one looks at the number of bushwalking man hours , there are in fact very few accidents. In Canberra, over the 3 main walking clubs there are probably at least 20 people out bushwalking every weekend or in the week, excluding all those non-club members. 20 people each week over 20 years and how many thousands does that add up to in a year? Yet how many accidents have there been? 10? 15? Most of those which do occur tend to be when walking on easy ground, often on fire trails when people relax and chat as they are walking along instead of concentrating on walking. And nearly all of them happened when people were walking in groups. Solo walkers do not seem to get into trouble.
Getting back to fear of the wilderness, there is, amongst so many, a great deal of fear in even thinking about solo walking. The old rule of having a minimum of 4 on a walk is still in vogue. In the old days, two would go for help and one would remain with the wounded. However, these days things are very different, what with GPSs and PLBs. Today, if you suffer an accident you walk out if you can regardless of the pain, unless the injury is life threatening , in which case you trigger the PLB and are carried or airlifted out. Being in a party or on your own doesn’t change this. However, experience, ability, terrain, climate and other factors do come into it. For example, an injury might mean a night out as it may take you much longer to get back. Being with others does not prevent accidents, and in fact, being with others can cause accidents for one is often chatting and therefore not concentrating on the ground.
Walking solo is wonderful! One is free! One can stop when one feels like it, can change one’s route, not be constrained by the needs or expectations of the party. One absorbs so much more without others around.
Importantly, though, It is only when out in the wilderness on your own without the distraction of others, listening to the silence, hearing the breezes rustling the grasses, hearing the murmur, the tinkle and drip of water, hearing the birds, absorbing the changing lights and the sunrises and sunsets and a myriad of other delights, that one becomes part of it. Only then is one affected spiritually by the wilderness and ones soul is restored. To be alone in the wilderness is to become, once again, part of eternity, part of the eternal.
“The singing wilderness has to do with the calling of the loons, northern lights, and the great silences of a land lying north west of Lake Superior. It is concerned with the simple joys, the timelessness and perspective found in a way of life that is close to the past. I have heard the singing in many places, but I seem to hear it best in the wilderness lake country of the Quetico-Superior, where travel is still by pack and canoe over the ancient trails of the Indians and the Voyageurs” (Sigurd Olsen)
O to dream, O to wake and wander
There, and with delight to take and render,
Through the trance of silence quiet breath;
Lo! for there, among the flowers and grasses,
Only the mightier movement sounds and passes;
Only winds and rivers, life and death. (RL Stevenson)
Eagles and isles and uncompanioned peaks,
The self-reliant isolated things
Release my soul, embrangled in the stress
Of all day’s crass and cluttered business:
Release my soul in song, and give it wings;
And even when the traffic roars and rings,
With senses stunned and beaten deaf and blind,
My soul withdraws into itself, and seeks
The peaks and isles and eagles of the mind. (Wilfred Gibson)
Mine are the torrents and the timeless hills,
The rock face, the heather and the rain,
The summits where the life-wind thrums and thrills,
And, answering, the glad heart sings again:
The good grey rock that loves a grasping hand,
The stress of body and the soul’s rebirth
On the tall peak where gods and men may stand
Breathless above the kingdoms of the earth:
The drowse of summer on the sunlit crags
Lulled in the blue and shimmering air of June,
When Time, the lazy mountain- traveller, lags
To dream with us an endless afternoon:
The ice-wind stealing downwards from the crest
To hush with frost the reedy river’s flow,
When all the mountain land on winter’s breast
Sleeps, in the deathly silence of the snow.
These are my riches, these and the bright remembering
Of ridge and buttress and sky-shouldering spire;
These I shall count, when I am old, of an evening,
Sitting by the fire. (Showell Styles)
This is the rocky solitude I love;
The rock below me and the sky above;
A cool air moving; save its sigh no sound:
Glory of golden light and peace profound.
Too soon this hushed uplifted hour must end
And I to meet the world once more descend;
Yet something surely will remain my own
Of this benediction I have known. (WK Holmes)