The medicine of long-distance walking for the 21st century soul

Peaceful bay afternoon

Tracks and Trails conference October 9th, 2015, presentation by Lucy Ridsdale

 

Introduction

Ngalla katitj Nyungar moort keyen kadak nidja moordich kwobbadak Boodjar

We acknowledge Nyungar people as the traditional custodians of this beautiful country.

Ngarn djerup djerup yennow nidja Nyungar Boodjar

I am happy to walk on Nyungar country.

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Hello everyone and welcome. Thanks for being here. My name is Lucy Ridsdale and today I’m going to share some of what I have learned and been blessed to witness, by twice walking the 1000km Bibbulmun track through the Nyungar Boodjar of the south west of Western Australia.

My love of walking, and by walking I mean making long journeys on foot, started in 2001. I was living in France and heard a radio interview with a man who had just walked the Camino – which I’d not heard about – and had a strange experience of some knowing rising up inside me that I am a pilgrim. Then immediately following it: if I’m a pilgrim, I’d better walk a pilgrimage. I know. I’ll do that one in Spain.

So it was that a couple months later I found myself in St Jean Pied-de-Port with my nose pointed towards Santiago de Compostela. I had a canvas rucksack I’d bought for 10 francs at the flea market, a woollen poncho against the weather, and my work boots to walk in. My two friends and I knew absolutely nothing, about the Camino, we didn’t even have a map, all we knew, and I am not kidding, was that we had to follow the yellow arrows and if we did we would arrive in Santiago, some 800 kilometres to the west.

Perhaps you can imagine the ambiance of magic that accompanied our departure, the thrill and awe of stepping into the unknown on such a mythic journey. We walked for forty days, all the way to the Atlantic coast, to Finisterre, the ‘end of the world.’ It was the most alive, the most joyful, the most contented I had ever been in my whole life and it set a trajectory for me as a walker and as a pilgrim that has since seen me walking another two of the Camino paths in Spain, a total of about 3000 km, as well as two end-to-end journeys on the Bibbulmun Track.

I’ve also done two major pieces of research on walking, the first was my Honours thesis in sustainable development, for which I walked the Bibbulmun as a reflective, embodied practice, interested in exploring an attitudinal shift from entitlement to gratitude and the alchemy of transformation made possible by walking. The second was for my Masters in ritual chant and song at the University of Limerick. For that project I walked for 900km on the northern route of the Camino de Santiago learning and singing 900 year old Gregorian chants and other songs connected with the Camino.

My focus today, however, will be squarely on the magnificent walking trail which is the Bibbulmun Track, so very dear to my heart, and what has been my own personal experience of walking this track. I’ve called it “medicine for the 21st century soul” because we do live in incredibly intense times. We live in an era of unprecedented change, of dramatic and potentially catastrophic climate change and environmental tipping points, of violent ideological clashes, profound economic injustice and the loss of many institutional frameworks that created a kind of cultural ballast and stability in former times. And of course we each have our own stories and histories and challenges on the personal and community level. How are we to find a balance between a healthy and poised mental and spiritual life, and the demands and responsibilities of work and family and community? How are we to be truly recharged, replenished, held and grounded within a context that is larger than our small ‘s’ self? How are we to get enough distance from the everyday in order to regularly reassess our priorities and sense of direction in life, and stay in alignment with the values we hold precious?

What I hope to offer today is a 100% biased account of what I consider to be the medicine of long-distance walking for the 21st century soul. It is based in my own experience, though also grounded in a dialogue with different spiritual traditions, and education, psychology, philosophy. As Frederic Gros says: “Walking is a practical introduction to all the great ancient wisdoms.” I believe that what is held as deeply personal often resonates with that part in each of us, and I hope that some of what I say rings true in your own experience. What’s my intention here? To offer a full-blooded, passionate, unapologetically partisan account of the wonders, gifts, beauties and medicine of making a long journey on foot. The work of many, if not most of you, is deeply involved with making accessible the tracks and trails of WA, building them, maintaining them, promoting them, protecting them, advocating for them, enjoying them and bringing out people who might not otherwise have the chance to enjoy them. My particular passion is walking, though I’m sure that whether your thing is hiking or walking or mountain bike riding or bird-watching or whatever, you will recognise something of your own experience here. I hope so.

My presentation today is going to take you on a rambling tour through four of the themes that form my understanding of why long-distance walking is such a wonderful undertaking. They are: simplicity, hardship, freedom and connection. I’ll be sharing a bit about my 2010 Bibbulmun end-to-end through journal extracts and stories, and all the photos you’ll see here were taken on that journey. If ever you’re finding the words boring, just sit back and enjoy the photos because the beauty of the south-west, trumps anything that I could say today and is pure medicine in its own right.

  1. Simplicity

If there is one stand-out reality that strikes you when you decide to go for a long walk, it is that doing so will require a radical simplification from ordinary life. For those of us who live comfortably … with four walls and a roof to shelter us, with beds, flushing toilets, electricity, and hot water … walking on the Bibbulmun entails an epic downgrade from what we might consider quite normal levels of comfort and convenience. Trail walking requires you to carry everything that you need in a bag, on your back. Every item you bring with you needs to be carefully considered and a lot of things that feeeel like they’re essential to daily life simply need to be left behind.

When I did my first end-to-end I had never done more than a two-day hike in the bush, and that was during high school. Basically I knew nothing. And one thing I had no idea about was what would be an ideal pack weight and how it would be possible to achieve that. Basically I just packed everything I thought I would need, actually on the morning I was due to leave, and since I could literally carry it, I deemed it to be okay. So it was that in late October I set out from Fremantle with 19 kilos on my back. (Yes, I did walk from South Fremantle to Kalamunda and the beginning of the Track.) Now, that 19 kilos did include 2L of water and a week’s worth of food, but even so, I had a base weight of at least 12 kg. When I met an experienced light-weight hiker called Swami a few days into that walk, I was blown away. He carried, and I’m being honest, a glorified day-pack. It was tiny! He had a stove made out of an old coke can and cotton bandanas that seemed to be used in every conceivable way. And yet he didn’t seem to be missing anything. He was even carrying around half of the novel Robinson Crusoe for crying out loud. We walked together a few days and I was determined to learn everything I could from him. When, after embarrassingly overestimating my track fitness I collapsed with heat stroke, he revived me with M&Ms and Gastrolyte and then said we would swap packs until the next hut. Next minute: “Good God, woman! What are you carrying in here!?” And that was the real beginning of my education in lightening up. He went through my pack with a fine-tooth comb when we got to Dwellingup, and in a rather humiliating way, would hold up various items with a mocking look, or just immediately chuck them in the “out” pile. In the end I sent four kilograms of gear home and never missed any of it. The difference those four kilos made to my comfort, my well-being, my happiness was so enormous. Now I tell everyone to get help lightening their pack, even if it is a double exercise in humility.

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In addition to the paring down of physical necessities, going for a long walk is also a radical change to the ordinary rhythms of life, to the routines and roles and norms of life at home. Suddenly you are not defined by your job. If you’re out there solo, you’re no longer defined by your relationships and who you are for people. You’re no longer defined by your image or what you wear, what you do in your spare time, what car you drive. Instead you become … just like every other walker out there: sweaty, red-faced, dirty, crippled with hiker’s hobble every morning, having to bear the indignity of smelling bad, of looking bad and living in a state where your “dirty laundry” is exposed on a daily basis.

So what are the fruits of this “voluntary” simplification? What starts to happen on this unfolding path as you realise that you do have everything you need. That you don’t need the internet. That it is a crazy blessed relief to go to bed when the sun goes down.

  1. a) Simplicity and pleasure

My first reflection is on simplicity and pleasure.

Philosopher Frédéric Gros writing on the subject of walking and pleasure, says that “the accursed peculiarity of pleasure is that repetition reduces its intensity.” (Gros 140). Pleasure is an experience of contact with another body, a substance, an essence. And the way it works is that the more you get of it, the more you need of it, in order to feel that buzz. Don’t we know it! One of the beauties of time out bush, and walking in particular, is that by stepping out of the comforts and luxuries of every day life, we also exit the pleasure feedback loop in which more and more of a particular stimulus is required. We become recalibrated to a new baseline and our sensitivity to pleasure increases. Where is pleasure to be found on Track life? Is it a hot, sweet cup of tea? Is it taking off your boots and slipping your feet into a creek? Is it a drink of rainwater in the shade of a tree on a hot road? Is it the exquisite silence that falls over the bush as evening comes? Is it finding an unexpected square of chocolate in your trail mix? Is it the simple act of taking off your pack and sitting down? The truth is, pleasure is to be found everywhere, and when we accept a context of gentle depravation, of occasional mild to severe discomfort, sensory pleasures are raised to unexpected heights. Even the removal of discomfort can be absolutely exquisite. And I am not even talking about a hot shower in the Collie hotel or a burger with the lot at the Mumballup tavern. That is a whole other level again that I cannot even talk about here.

Here’s an extract from my journal, two and a half weeks into my walk:

It’s been raining for a day and a half, now: long, soft, soaking showers falling through the still bush. Drops of rain sound in a hundred ways: on the Perspex and corrugated iron of the roof and the metal gutters above me; on wet soil, leaf litter, puddles; on living branches, moss, leaves and logs. My ears are drinking. Outside the hut the light is cool and bright from a thick, white sky. All seems illuminated without casting a shadow. My eyes roam around the green cloak of the treetops and the vertical greys and browns of the tree trunks. A patch of copper leaves and the crimson growth of a young Eucalypt are the only colours that break this gently monotony. It’s chilly and my feet are itchy, dirty and cold in my old blue thongs, but with my belly full of tea, my fingernails dirty, and a whole afternoon of reading and writing ahead of me, I feel as rich, heavy and contented as the soaking forest floor. Receptive ground.

– Day 17: Yourdamung to Harris Dam.

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Now I’d like to talk about

  1. b) Simplicity and reconnecting with our human rhythm

Walking is the natural speed of a human being. The beautiful bipedal human body evolved to move on two legs through the landscape and in the whole long, long story of humanity, traveling by means of any other vehicle is really pretty new-fangled. So what does it mean to go for a walk, a nice long walk over many days? How does this sit with our humanness, our human speed, our being in our walking bodies?

Our bodies are made for movement of this kind and anyone who has had the opportunity to make a long journey on foot will know that the body adapts to walking every day, often surprisingly quickly. I’ve personally never been a particularly sporty person and when I began my first long walk I was pretty unfit and carrying a bit of extra weight. For someone like me, for whom the whole world of sports and competition was more traumatising than triumphant, walking became my own beautiful way into my body, my way of finding myself at home in my body in states of physical exertion and intense heart-thumping activity. I felt like walking called me back home into my body as I became stronger and more agile.

Walking is slow. Walking can be monotonous. Walking connects us to the ground beneath our feet. Walking * stretches * time. In the busy and bustling everyday world it can be so very easy to be caught in the cult of speed, to rush from one activity to the next, one necessity to the next. When we walk we are forced, comfortable or no, to conform with the natural limits of our bodies and the speed they are capable of.

“Days of slow walking are very long: they make you live longer because you have allowed every hour, every minute, every second to breathe, to deepen, instead of filling them up by straining the joints…. Slowness means cleaving perfectly to time, so closely that the seconds fall one by one. This stretching of time deepens space. It is one of the secrets of walking. Slowness leads to serenity, a steady balance in the soul and walking takes us there, quietly, gradually, through the very alteration of rest and movement, exertion and repose… When you have set off for the day, and know that it will take so many hours to reach the next stage, there’s nothing left to do but walk. Nothing else to do. Nothing to do but walk.” (Gros 145)

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  1. c) A new perspective

Another question I’d like to consider is how walking shifts our thinking. How it gradually shifts our perception. When we are faced with difficult times of life and wish to get a new perspective through a change of scene, walking is deeply supportive of that because we find ourselves in a right context. A natural rhythm. We are reminded of being at home in the world just as we are. Going on a long walk is also such a powerful way of seeing one’s life back home in a different way.

Here’s a journal excerpt from my 2010 walk which demonstrates that:

There’s something about being away that gives me a different perspective on people, in fact, I feel myself looking at my whole life – people, relationships, events, commitments, difficulties – in a more spacious way. With my relationships, it’s as if everything belonging to the mundane, all the pettiness and annoyance, has fallen away. What’s left is a sense of the wholeness of that relationship, a sweetness and quietness, an ability to see people as their whole selves rather than the sum total of ‘facets’ revealed in particular encounters I’ve had with them. I can see their burdens and joys, their sadnesses and satisfactions, and am deeply touched. Each is amazing in their own way, doing so much, carrying so much, doing the best they can. I treasure this different way of seeing.

Day 4: Helena to Beraking.

Brother David Steidl-Rast, a contemporary Benedictine monk and spiritual teacher, also offers another key as to why the change of life rhythm offered by walking is so powerful. He writes: “silence creates the atmosphere for detachment. Silence creates space around things, persons and events. Silence singles them out and allows us gratefully to consider them one by one in their uniqueness.[1]” Whether we are contemplating our role and place in life, our relationships, work life or vocation, the silence that is possible on a long walk is good medicine.

The quality of thinking that’s possible while doing a long walk is also wonderfully different from ordinary world thinking. Winkler writes that walking is an activity that “nurtures and assists fleeting perceptions and ever-recurring engagements.[2]” “The encounter of the walking body with the landscape produces a shifting mood, tenor, colour and intensity of places and situation, in which self and world overlap in a ceaseless enfolding and unfolding.[3]” There is a fascinating dynamic between this constantly shifting mood, and also the undeniable monotony of walking. On the Bibbulmun Track, there are some 500km of mixed Jarrah woodland to walk through. But as Gros is quick to point out, monotony is very different from boredom. Boredom is always seeking something to do, whereas when walking, what there is to do is very obvious. One has to keep moving. And monotony liberates thought. During the continuous, but automatic effort of the body, the mind becomes free. It is then that thoughts can arise, surface or take shape. I found the steadiness of the landscape profoundly restful and it allowed my mind to roam inwardly, vertically and horizontally. The physicality of walking occupies the body and mind just enough to form a spacious container that allows other dimensions of self – imaginative, reflective, creative dimensions – to become active. Urban environments can be intensely visually stimulating and exhausting in this respect. Br David S-R says that unless we leave the city we have no opportunity to “reap the harvest of a quiet eye.”

Unless we leave the city we have no opportunity to reap the harvest of a quiet eye.

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The second of the themes I’d like to explore today is hardship.

  1. Hardship

¿How can hardship be positive? ¿How would hardship ever be sought? Chosen? Perhaps it can’t. And yet we all intuitively know that hardship builds character, and strengthens our resolve and commitment to what matters. Hardship can recalibrate the motivations that rule our lives. Hardship is part of the alchemy of gratitude. It reminds us that we are ultimately not in control, but are rather vulnerable, constrained, tender in our flesh and our affections.

In ordinary life it is normal to avoid hardships, and possibly rightly so, yet on the Track, on a long walking journey, no matter how much you plan, no matter how many precautions you take, hardship is going to find you. Heat. Merciless heat. Cold. Cold so deep you cannot sleep even with all your clothes on in your sleeping bag. Rain. Rain that drenches you to the skin. Blisters. Blisters underneath blisters. Infected blisters. Aching legs. Aching shoulders. Aching feet. Aching hips. Aching knees. Having a slow leak in your thermarest. Being itchy ALL THE TIME. Fear. Fear of snakes. Of the sun. Of running out of water. Of ticks. Of ticks in inaccessible places. Of baddies. Of monsters. Of giant carnivorous, as yet undiscovered native animals. Of pig hunters in Collie. Of emus.

Okay, I think it’s time to confess that on my first end-to-end, (I did both of my Bibbulmun Track walks solo) I was scared nearly all the time. Basically for every step of the 1000km I was thinking that the ONE time I’m not looking where I put my feet is the one time that I might be about to step on a snake. I got heat stroke on my first day and lived in daily fear that it would happen again. It the also first time in my life I’d ever had to ration my food and I really had no idea if I was going to get stressed and eat my whole week’s worth of food in the first two days. Every single night that I was alone in a hut I battled the fears that surfaced at night. Every scary movie that I had ever seen would play itself in front of my eyes as I tried to get to sleep.

Yep. So. Hardship. Medicine of the Track.

Between my fear, my susceptibility to both heat and cold, and my at times, almost debilitating inner critic, hardship was a strong dimension of my experience of both solo walks on the Track. And while I did have my share of physical difficulties, generally, this was not so much a major impact on my journeys as I know it is for others, bringing with it its own deep challenges. The three things I’d like to talk about in relation to hardship are: endurance and the sense of “I can,” learning the difference between hardship and suffering, and the alchemy of hardship and gratitude.

  1. a) Endurance – “I can”

As I mentioned before, I began my second end-to-end at my home in South Fremantle and spent the first day and a half walking from there to Kalamunda. They were really a ‘trial by fire.’ While I did truly want to step out my front door and just keep going, the actual experience of it was painful, dispiriting and really difficult as I lugged my 19kg pack for over 35km on concrete paths before the Track even began. Walking through suburbia for a day and half was like passing through a kind of desert. And like all harsh desert grace, it didn’t fail to leave its mark in me. The hardship of that was like a burning away of my city persona. By the end of that first day I didn’t even have enough energy to care about what I looked like or what anyone thought of me. When I arrived at my friend’s house in Kenwick I was so exhausted I could barely speak. The following day I got heatstroke after missing a Waugal once I finally had reached the Northern Terminus, and walked for half an hour in the wrong direction. It was a really hard first two days.

And yet this experience and others in the same vein left me with a deep and enduring sense of “I can do it” – of resilience and resourcefulness, of my capacity to endure and to know that “this too will pass.” I know, I really know. I know in my body, my sinews, my feet, that if I keep putting one foot in front of the other that I will get there. I know that I can keep walking even when I’m uncomfortable or in pain. I know the strength of my legs, my back that can carry a load. I know I can carry on. “Fatigue purifies. Fatigue destroys pride” Gros, 113.

Something that really struck me on my second end-to-end in particular was a really palpable difference between hardship and suffering, and that is what I’d like to reflect on now.

  1. b) The difference between hardship and suffering

Something about the lack of distractions of Track life means that there’s a certain unavoidability of dealing with yourself and your own mind, and sometimes this can show up in quite stark and uncomfortable ways. For me, as a solo walker, the sense of isolation and being alone with my thoughts (talk about monkey mind!) was at times really, really hard. And yet it also deepened my understanding of how my thinking impacts, and even creates aspects of my experience. What I mean is that I found that I could actually quite easily bear the different kinds of hardships while walking: the pains of my body, the fatigue, the extreme discomforts of itching, chafing, ingrained dirt and sweat, even the fear. What took it from “uncomfortable” or “painful” in quite a pure way, to a strong experience of suffering, with that twinge of anguish, was when I added a layer of thinking to my experience: thoughts such as: “I must be doing something wrong” and “It shouldn’t be like this” and “I may not make it.” Over and above the physical dimension or the “primary” dimension of the hardship, it was this layer of thinking that really made things heavy.

This made, and has made such an enormous difference to me. The journal extract I’m about to read related to the most physically intense period of walking for me: I walked the 240km from Collie to Pemberton in six days which equated to 40km every day, and it forced me to reign in both the inner critic and the little anxious pessimist in my head. Here’s what I wrote:

The last six days taught me so much about myself, about what I’m capable of, about resilience, and about what inner resources I need in order to keep going when I am bone weary and aching all over. Walking 40km a day for six days required incredible focus – focus I didn’t know I had or could call on. It stripped down and laid bare parts of me that are usually hidden below the water level of the everyday. I found I literally could not entertain thoughts other than those that would help me to keep walking. The sheer difficulty of those long, hot days – in which I was sometimes on the road for twelve hours and more – meant that there was no room for the inner critic. The ONLY voice I could listen to and entertain was the one that said, “Oh my darling, you’re doing soooo well. I’m so proud of you. You can do it!” The intensity of it narrowed my focus to a single laser point. All that was left was putting one foot in front of the other, staying calm, staying relaxed, letting all the experience wash though me and just keeping on going. Any cast of mind that did not support me in doing that was quietly abandoned.”

– Day 33: Pemberton to Warren

  1. c) Hardship and gratitude

M final reflection for this section of my presentation is on the connection between hardship and gratitude. This was a major theme for me during the walk that gave rise to my Honours thesis. Specifically I was interested in whether walking pilgrimage might be transformative, by way of enabling a deep shift from an attitude of entitlement towards the world, to one of gratitude, as one’s fundamental orientation. Where does gratitude come from? I wondered. Is it something one brings in as an active practice? Is it what naturally arises when other frameworks of experience, such as entitlement or anxiety, are identified and dismantled?

My sense is that there is some similarity or resonance between what hardship is to gratitude as what simplicity is to pleasure, as I talked about earlier. Could it be the case that just as a radical simplification of life resensitises us to sensory pleasure and appreciation, that hardship can somehow return us to a state of being in which gratitude arises naturally?

It’s true that being tested physically and emotionally, at times overstepping your limits, and living with the daily indignities of Track life can be both humbling and humiliating. But if we look at the root of those words, we see the Latin root hum, from which we also get the words humility, humus, humanity and humour. It means ground or soil. So these experiences also represent a “return to the soil of your being” as David Whyte puts it. And without being planted in the soil of your own life, there can be no germination, no real growth, no fruits. I don’t know what all those fruits are, but I know that gratitude is one of them. Gratitude arises when you are planted in your own inner soil. While it can be a wonderful practice to call to mind things you are grateful for as an active and intentional thing, when on the Track, there is a quite simple and natural influx of happiness, of relief, of deep gratitude, that rushes in often, and quite unexpectedly, and not only in the absence of pain or discomfort. This feeling can be almost overwhelming, monumental, and utterly delicious.

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  1. Freedom

The next theme of my presentation is Freedom. I almost feel as if the further I get into my reflection on the medicine of long-distance walking, the less easy it is to put these things into words. Those of you who spend a lot of time out bush will probably understand that, because the magic and beauty of the landscape, its effects on you and the kind of learning, or understanding, or whatever it is that works its way into you, out there, sits at such a different level from what our minds are capable of understanding or putting into words.

As regards this ‘freedom’, my intuition is that it is one of the fruits of simplicity and hardship, possibly arising from their sort of cumulative or alchemical action on the soul, or if you don’t like that term, the mind, the heart, the body. Actually, they’re all indistinguishable really, aren’t they? Freedom is perhaps less possible to speak about than to speak from. Here’s an extract from my journal, written just over three weeks into my walk in Tom Road hut in the Karri forest.

Something seems different inside now. After a difficult few days it’s more spacious inside me, now, lighter. Softer somehow. Maybe it was the healing waters of Donnelly River on my feet and my aching right shin. Maybe it was having a cuddle with a young kangaroo at Donnelly River Village. So sweet! So pretty! Maybe it was some gentle thinking on the road here after a troubling start to the afternoon on an unmarked diversion next to a smouldering burn off. Maybe it’s the quiet magnificence of the Karri or the unrelenting loveliness of the birdsong: twips, chirrups, whistles, whips and chimes all around me today. Maybe it was the hot lunch at the General Store and some good writing time. I don’t know. Maybe I don’t care. Nothing’s different on the outside, but something is different inside. I’m so grateful for this change.

– Day 23: Gregory Brook to Tom Road

  1. b) Freedom as quies

The other thing I’d like to say about Freedom relates to Desert Spirituality which refers to the spiritual practice of men and women in 3rd Century Egypt before the Roman empire became Christianised. Fleeing what they perceived to be a certain corruption of Alexandria and other big cities, the Desert Fathers and Mothers, as they came to be known, were drawn to the fierce landscape of the desert and the solitude and austerity it provided. They lived alone or in small spiritual communities in the Egyptian desert and their writings, in sayings form, are recorded in the Apophthegmata Patrum.

They were challenging populist notions of self and identity, and as Jasper writes, they were seeking emotional and mental clarity and an intuitive grasp of the inner self, the naturally virtuous dimension of self that has never been separated from God. It was through an ascetic cleansing of the body and mind through radical simplicity, austerity and depravation that this inner self could be recovered, the part of self that dwells in pure innocence, communion and childlike trust. Their, at times, harsh disciplines were not practiced for their own sake but to awaken in their hearts radical kindness, hospitality and compassion.

20th century Trappist monk Thomas Merton maintained that their goal was quies – a Latin term literally meaning ‘rest,’ but referring to, in Merton’s words, the “sanity and poise of a being that no longer has to look at itself.[4]” What balm that is to the painfully narcissistic elements of our culture. In this tradition, deep change or transformation cannot be achieved through the will alone, but is always a function of grace, the inpouring of goodness that is beyond our understanding and control. In my view, undertaking a long walk, especially through nature, regardless of what you believe in a spiritual context, resonates with this tradition of the Desert Mothers and Fathers, and the inner freedom they sought.

Walking puts you in a context so very different from ordinary life and most definitely entails disciplines of simplicity and austerity, even as it also awakens great joy, companionship and simple delight. As Gros writes: “To someone who has never had the experience, a simple description of the walker’s condition quickly appears as an absurdity, an aberration, a form of voluntary servitude. Because the city-dweller tends spontaneously to interpret such activities in terms of deprivation, whereas the walker considers it a liberation to be disentangled form the web of exchanges, and be no longer reduced to a junction in the network.”

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My final theme today, and I’m going to keep it quite short, is

  1. Connection

Here’s a quote from Columbanus, an Irish monk from the 6th Century:

“Therefore let this principle abide with us, that on the road we so live as travellers, as pilgrims, as guests of the world.[5]

Traditionally, to go on pilgrimage, or to make any kind of long journey on foot, was to put oneself in the position of the hospes mundi, the guest of the world, and I believe this is still fully the case, especially so for non-Aboriginal Australians out on country, on Nyungar Boodjar here in the south-west. As any stranger in any strange country, the walker is dependent on the kindness of others and the grace of those whose home it is that they pass through. What does that look like for me as a walker? And particularly, walking here in Nyungar country? Well it is a work in progress. It is about listening. Watching. Observing. Taking my cues from those who know better than I. It is about learning about Aboriginal culture and protocols as much as I can, and about walking respectfully without removing anything from country. It is about acknowledging the spirit of the place. In places that felt powerful I would introduce myself – I would sometimes say out loud: ngarn Lucy, ngarn Wadjela yorga. Ngarn kaatitj Nyungar moort, Nyungar boordier keyen kadak nidga Boodjar – I’m Lucy, I’m a non-Nyungar woman. I acknowledge Nyungar family and elders as the custodians of this place.” … It’s the best I can do for now. It feels good and right.

I believe that the ethos of being a guest is already strongly present in the “tracks and trails” mentality, and what it looks like is the overt principles of “leave no trace” as well as the more unwritten rules that govern “camp etiquette.” This is a really beautiful form of education that happens through trail walking, education in being a good citizen as much as anything.

I can’t say that I know what connection to country is. And … sometimes I feel it. Walking is a way of weaving through place. According to Deborah Bird-Rose, country is “nourishing terrain,” not a “generalised or undifferentiated type of place… but a living entity with a consciousness and a will towards life… Country is home and peace; nourishment for mind, body and spirit; heart’s ease.[6]” David Whyte echoes these sentiments, saying that country is “a place of healing and revelation.”

I’m going to finish now with one final extract from my journal. I’d been walking for over seven weeks and was about to arrive in Albany.

Home

“Today I am high up in the dunes thick with vegetation: peppermints, parrot bush, gorse, sedges and some late-blooming wildflowers. Some of the sand is soft and the slope eroded, which makes for harder climbing, but overall it’s not too difficult. The path threads up and down the dunes in the way I’m so familiar with now; the tops are a delight – utterly windswept. I break out in fresh goosebumps as blustery wind meets my sweaty skin. The views to the east and west are stunning. Indescribable. Silencing. To the west, where I’ve come from the expanse of coast is crenelated by tiny bays and headlands next to long beaches buffeted by relentless sets of breakers. To the east are massive dark green cliffs. I love it up here. It feels like home to me.”

– Day 46: Boat Harbour to William Bay

 

Thank you.

[1] Steindl-Rast, D. 1990, p.5.

[2] Winkler, J. 2002 ‘From acoustic to horizons to tonalities,’ Space, sound and time: A choice of articles in Soundscape Studies and Aesthetics of Environment 1990-2003.

[3] Edensor, T. 2010 ‘Walking in rhythms: place, regulation, style and the flow of experience,’ Visual Studies 25:1, pp. 69 – 79.

[4] Merton, T. 1960, Wisdom of the Desert, p. 8.

[5] Columbanus, 6th century, quoted by Sheldrake, P. 2001. Spaces for the Sacred: Place, Memory and Identity. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, p.116.

[6] Bird-Rose, D. 1996, p7.

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About Lucy

I am a pilgrim, singer, artist, writer, researcher... I like trees, people, reading, swimming, flowers and the sky.
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4 Responses to The medicine of long-distance walking for the 21st century soul

  1. pilgrimpace says:

    Hi Lucy,
    thank you so much for sharing this – it really rings true with me and I want to return to your words and ponder them.
    I’m planning a long pilgrimage around Wales in September and October.
    Andy

    • Lucy says:

      Hi Andy! It’s so lovely to hear from you. I presented this at a “Trails and Outdoors” conference here in Western Australia a few months ago, and thought to post it here. Your long pilgrimage around Wales sounds glorious. I would love dearly to explore that part of the world. Did I tell you that I was doing my Masters at the University of Limerick (MA in Ritual Chant and Song)? I finished it in 2014 having written my thesis as an autoethnography of pilgrimage and song, walking the Camino del Norte / Primitivo and learning and singing songs connected to the Camino, along the way. One was from the Codex Calixtinus, O Adiutor, from the Matins service before the feast of Santiago. So glorious to sing that in the churches along the way, pilgrim singing to pilgrims a 1000 year old chant. … Anyway, wishing you a wonderful Easter season, thanks for pointing your friend John to my blog, and I will hold your pilgrimage in my prayers and heart. Ultreia!

  2. freescot says:

    Thanks, Andy for pointing me here. This excellent piece by Lucy comes as I am trying to decide whether to stop my long walks or to give it one more try. I’ll give it one more try. Failure, after all, is no disaster.

    • Lucy says:

      Hi John,
      Thanks for your comment. My heart is happy to hear that you’ve decided to head out once more on a long walk. I couldn’t agree more that “failure” (whatever that might mean, anyway) is no disaster. Do you know where you will go? With warm greetings from Fremantle, Western Australia.

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