Real quiet is presence — not an absence of sound but an absence of noise
Yesterday as I walked through the forest near home, I heard a plane fly over – and realised how quiet the sky has become in COVID times.
Traffic on the roads was less for a long time, too. Just lately people in the ACT have gone back to working in offices instead of at home. Within days I noticed the morning and evening traffic noise on the highway across the valley crescendo again.
Gordon Hempton aka the Sound Tracker, travelled (unfortunately not travels, at present) the world recording quiet. Quiet, the absence of noise, is disappearing from our planet.
For a while, we had quiet skies, quiet roads, quiet streets. For a while, people could hear the birds, the trees, the sound of leaves falling. For a while, everyone heard what we hikers hear when walking through forests: the absence of noise, the serenity of silence.
Regular movement improves our thinking, feeling and creative selves in myriad ways, as well as improving our health
In his new book , In Praise of Walking, Shane O’Mara explores every facet of walking, from how we evolved to walk to how our whole bodies keep us upright and moving forward through diverse environments.
He explores the anthropology of walking. We walked out of Africa and spread around the globe, leaving our primate cousins moving on all-fours up trees. Our range of movement increased over theirs when our heads and spines shifted into alignment and our big toe shifted from the side to the front.
The physical benefits of walking, especially long distances, are evident to anyone who has walked a week or more on the Camino. I lost fat and gained muscle in my six weeks on the Camino Frances – and was the fittest I’d ever been in my life.
Today another walk close to home: Kama Nature Reserve off William Hovell Drive. The trail winds down to the Molonglo River through regenerating eucalypt woodland. Around the many older trees like the one above younger trees in all stages of growth abound. Sprays of leaves have shot from the ground following the generous drought-breaking rains this year.
Cockatoos sky-larked above us. Crimson and Eastern Rosellas skimmed from tree to tree. Some smaller birds, perhaps Striated Thornbills, flitted through the shrubs. A few kangaroos pricked their ears as we tripped down to the river.
We picnicked above the river sprawled on rocks and meagre winter grasses. Downstream the river cut through some pretty impressive cliffs. Opposite cattle grazed on bare paddocks in stark contrast to the reserve we’d walked through.
While researching this walk I stumbled on Tim Savage’s blog Australian Hiker. I listen to his podcast intermittently and had followed his hike on the Bibbulum trail in 2018 with great interest. Unfortunately, he tackled this trail in summer, when it was hot and smoke from nearby bush fires choked the air. He was not very enthusiastic about Kama. We disagree with him on this trail. We enjoyed the woodland, birds and river very much on the sunny but cool day we walked through it.
As Deb and my hopes for a holiday along the Great Ocean Walk in Victoria fade as surely as our dreams of a 2020 Camino, we trial walks closer to home. This weekend we walked through Mulligans’ Flat on the northern fringe of Canberra. The reserve is a wildlife sanctuary, fenced against predators. Species not seen for decades in the area thrive in the safe zone.
Eastern Quolls released into the sanctuary in 2016 breed, safe from cats and foxes. Last week Canberra wildlife photographer David Rees videoed an Eastern Quoll in the tussocks. I harboured hopes of seeing one, too, but the quolls slept in their log lairs through the afternoon away from prying eyes.
We just missed the echidnas that had dug through the termite mounds scattered through the eucalypt stands. Towards the end, as the sun waned, kangaroos and wallabies grazed along the flats unconcerned by passing humans.
When the weather warms up we want to take an evening tour when the birds and animals are more active. Perhaps we’ll spot a quoll.
The forests and high rocky places on the Camino bring us back in touch with nature. Oaks network with each other underground and whisper to us of the imperative to listen to their wisdom: we are part of the web of life, when we break the threads of connection we will suffer, too.
Belden suggests we start listening to a tree near us. With that small connection we plug into every other piece of the natural system. When we spend time in relationship to part of nature we want to learn more about it. We find that the other-than-human world suffers, that it mirrors our sufferings and anguish.
Of course, the wild and frightening exist alongside the tame and beautiful, in both nature and the human world. The taipan and the oppressor consign their prey to distress and death. Dialoguing with nature heightens our awareness of both the Earth’s anguish and the pain of the poor and marginalised.
We are all part of the cycle of life. Belden Lane moves into elderhood learning from the journey that all lives take from birth to death, from soaring with the birds to going deep with the mountain and the cave. When he paid attention to a single tree opposite his home, he found mystery and connection in the solitary and ordinary.
Perhaps if we closed our computers and put down our smartphones and ventured out into the bush, we might finally perceive ourselves as part of the interrelated whole he speaks of. We might have some hope of saving the Earth and thus ourselves.
Will we grow back into a more creative and flexible society after the 2020 collective assaults of drought, fire, hail and disease?
I walked along Potato Point Beach on the South Coast of NSW and into the forest on the last week of my break from work. The Eurobodalla National Park comes right down to Potato Point and the beach. The summer fires didn’t reach Potato Point but closer to Bodalla they left young trees dead and the undergrowth swept clean. Older, more established eucalypts, stripped of leaves and small branches, are already sending out sprays of fresh leaves from blackened trunks.
At dawn I shared the track with some sweet little Red-Necked Wallabies and a mob of Eastern Grey kangaroos. They must see plenty of humans in the summer as they stayed grazing until I was almost among them. A host of Crimson and Eastern rosellas, honey eaters, and little birds so quick I couldn’t identify them, skipped between the trees. I was disappointed not to catch a glimpse of the emus said to wander the forest and beach in this area. Pelicans landed like seaplanes, feet first, and chesnut teal, swans and the ubiquitous seagulls, entertained me as I stared out to Tuross Heads on the other side of the river from Beachcomber Park.
I reflected on the persistence and resilience of the eucalypt through crisis. The deepest rooted and most mature of trees have sprung back after the driest years on record and the most violent of firestorms. Unlike other trees that grow upwards, eucalypts sprout twigs and leaves from their trunks, making whole new branches. I wonder whether we will follow the example of this iconic Australian species, and grow back into a more creative and flexible society after the 2020 collective assaults of drought, fire, hail and disease?
The sun smiled down on me. The path was sparsely populated as many pilgrims had taken the detour to the monastery in Samos. Porridge and honey followed by excellent coffee spurred me on. I was looking forward to the private room at Albergue Paloma y Lena that I’d booked at breakfast time. The prospect of a night of solitude further lightened my step. Many of the farms I passed had the typical Galician grain storages, horreos. They are built on mushroom-shaped pillars to deter rats and mice and made of stone or wood. The first few I noticed were square with thatched roofs, but many were long rectangles, guarded by a cross at one end. Every corner I turned revealed a new panorama. Lush fields alternated with forests. Villages nestled in the folds of valleys between rolling hills. Between gasps of wonder I strolled through tunnels of freshly budded leaves and rested on mossy logs.
Just before a little stone village I came on pilgrims photographing a gnarled and twisted chestnut tree. The accompanying sign said it was 800 years old. I tried to imagine how many people and cattle its fruit had fed, how many houses it had furnished with its branches over the centuries.
I found Albergue Paloma y Lena beside the trail, far from any village. Curled up in my own room with an ensuite bathroom, I was in heaven. After cleaning up, I lay in a hammock and read my book. Luminous green fields and mountains surrounded me. Other pilgrims trickled in, including the German family, and I whiled away the afternoon chatting in the garden. Our hosts served a communal meal in a cavernous dining room. We were all seasoned pilgrims now. Two Queensland girls and a lively Irish grandmother, Rosemary, and I speculated on the state of the novice pilgrims we would meet on the morrow out of Sarria. Rosemary feared the influx would spoil the walk and we would enjoy little solitude or silence once we passed the 100 kilometre marker. The two Queenslanders didn’t know that anyone who walks the final 100 kilometres is eligible for an official Compostela, or certificate, from the Cathedral. I’d heard that many pious Spanish people take a week from work to walk this last section of the Camino to gain the Compostela. What will be will be, we concluded. I retired early to revel in my solitude and write in my journal.
COVID-19 shattered our plans to walk a section of the Camino from Santo Domingo de la Calzada to Leon. Both of us missed this section in our Camino Frances, Deb in 2018 and I in 2016. The urge to still walk this year pushed us to look closer to home – somewhere we could drive and walk.
The Great Ocean Road trail in Victoria runs along beaches and through forests and National Parks. To test our hike-readiness we challenged ourselves with a day in the Warrumbungle Mountains, hiking to Grand High Tops.
The Warrumbungle Mountains rise abruptly from the western plains of NSW. Their soft blue humps defined the horizon to the north of our childhood home on those plains. As children and later parents we visited them to picnic and later scramble up the scrubby slopes to strange-shaped rocks, the weathered cores of ancient volcanoes.
Several decades had passed since we had last stood on the Tops and looked west to our property on the plains. The trails then had been all dirt and stepping stones. This time most of the approach was well-cleared and sturdy wooden bridges crossed the many creeks. Brick paths in areas regularly eroded, and clear sign posting eased our way until the last steep and rocky approach to the tops .
As I clambered over the last few rocks, my knees knocking and my heart racing as I tried not to look at the sheer fall below, I wondered if it was worth it. Not many must make it this far, I thought. After the comparative highway this was a goat track. I froze as the rock I had just gripped broke away and threatened to fall back on Deb.
“I’m stuck,” I said, shaking. “There’s nothing else to grab.”
“Put your right foot up on the ledge and move that way,” Deb said after a few moments.
I let my heart slow down and lifted my right foot, then my right hand and finally I was on my way again. Within minutes I was standing on Grand High Tops gasping at the vista around us. Of course it was worth it. Beautiful is too small a word for the forest-coated mountains and valleys, the narrow arch of rock called the Breadknife, and Bluff Mountain and Belougerie Spire, whose distant shapes we could name as tiny toddlers.
And we made it with energy and strength to spare. Bring on The Great Ocean Walk!
Forest bathing lets nature in through all the senses, touching tree trunks, tasting the cool air, feeling the breeze on our cheeks
My sister Deb joined me on the Camino Sanabres at Ourense. I didn’t want her to have too arduous an introduction to the Camino so ordered a taxi to take us up the steep hill out of town. The taxi laboured up the mountain and then we searched for the trail. The destination I’d given the driver was a location, not a town or even a village. We went up and down side roads looking for a place to start or the ubiquitous yellow arrows. Had we overshot it in the gloom of dawn? Just as we were about to give up I spotted a yellow arrow on the roadside. Out we tumbled. Only a few hundred metres further on the arrows took us into a beautiful oak forest. Light filtered through fresh leaves onto a path sprung with last summer’s leaves. I stood and inhaled the sweet scent of the forest. The silence of the trees wrapped around us. The anxieties of the morning evaporated in the stillness. I was reminded of the Japanese practice of forest bathing or shinrin-yoku. Forest guides take harried citizens of Tokyo out into the forest to relax and revive them. Dr Qing Li has taken the practice to the rest of the world. He recommends letting nature in through all our senses, touching tree trunks, tasting the cool air, feeling the breeze on our cheeks. Cocooned in trees we walked on to Cea, renowned in Spain for its bread. The cafe whizzed up fresh tomato with garlic and presented it on their famous loaf. Never again did we taste such delicious tostada or bathe in such a reviving forest.