Footpaths

When I was a kid it seemed that half the world map was coloured pink denoting the lands of the British empire, even though by the mid sixties most of those countries were no longer colonies of the empire. Nonetheless at school we were taught to be grateful for our glorious colonial heritage. After all we won the war. These days I can be as dismissive as the next Aussie about the supposed benefits of growing up in the postcolonial remnants of that once great British Empire. I mean, what did the British ever do for us? A truly miserable cuisine, an arrogant propensity to monolingualism, a monarchy, Seasonal Affective Disorder, the class system, and an adversarial legal system are hardly my idea of a civilised society. I wasn’t much older before I realised I’d been duped, brainwashed about the supposed preeminence of British culture. But there’s one element of the British system we didn’t inherit, and we are so much the poorer down under for having been cut out of the will. That is the rich labyrinth of public footpaths that weaves softly through the British countryside.

As far as I am aware there are few such pathways in Australia, paths that strike out into the midst of productive agricultural landscapes. Our walking tracks are confined to ‘bush’ landscapes, the bits of land left over once the squatters had fenced off everything they considered useful leaving only what was deemed unsuited to plough or hoof. However, many of these useless, steep, rocky, rugged lands appealed to aesthetic sensibilities of the period and were gathered up into national and state parks for recreational purposes. Like most whitefellas I grew up thinking of these forested leftover bits as wilderness, very lightly or untouched by human hand. That’s where we’d head off to for a spot of camping, bushwalking or communing with nature, to celebrate these tranquil, untouched beauty spots.

Only very belatedly have we come to realise that these places were not wilderness at all. The entire continent had been carefully managed by human hand for many millennia before we arrived. Since well before the last Ice Age, Aboriginal people had been shaping the land, largely through the use of fire to create an open grassy landscape dotted with occasional trees, the open parklands looking like an ‘English gentleman’s estate’ that the British encountered when they arrived. The Brits promptly took over and fenced off the land, after which they actively hunted down and killed or removed Aboriginal people from the stolen lands. And so those ancient landscape management practices ceased. In the absence of these traditional activities, where the colonial farms and pasturelands stopped, nature reclaimed the land squatters had no use for. Without the regular widespread burning, those open grassy woodlands became dense forests. So when we whitefellas thought we were having a genuine wilderness experience, getting back to nature, to the original landscape unsullied by human hand, when we headed out on those magnificent walking trails of our national parks, we were in reality traipsing through the leftover bits of managed blackfella land that we whitefellas had no economic use for.

Meanwhile, the useful bits, the working farm landscapes, have been made out of bounds. They are private property. Access is restricted by fences, signs, laws, guns, or any of the many other cultural structures that appropriate land for the sole use of one human being (or company) to the exclusion of all others. Unfettered access to the working landscape is not an entitlement for Australians. We are only able to look in from the other side of the fence, from public carriageway to private property. I know why those with ownership of private property do not want anyone and everyone traipsing over their land. That way stupidity and opportunistic theft or vandalism (just plain lack of respect) are not problems they have to deal with. There will always be a very small minority who will take advantage of the opportunity for unpleasantness that open access allows. But I sometimes wonder if our legal system overseeing land ownership and all those barbed wire fences are not in part markers of our collective attempt to hide the stolen lands from public view. Whatever the origins of our system of land management in Australia, it means that most of our working landscape is hidden from public sight.

Not so in Britain. Their network of public footpaths permeating most of the countryside is a true common wealth, a right of way accessible to all who can walk. Those paths allowing you access to the guts of the working landscape, to see how British culture melds into the land from whence it sprang, how these people shape, play with, draw sustenance from, use and abuse their sceptred isle. And how the land shapes their culture back. Those paths take the walker through the gamut of British rural life,

past fields of grain,

pastures,

small woodlands

sheep fields and stately homes,

past sagging barns,

hedgerows of blackberry and hawthorn,

medieval churches

lichen and moss encrusted drystone walls,

forests,

muddy yards infused with the rich aroma of cow and horseshit.

The more popular trails, accorded walking highway status on touring maps, offer sweeping scenic views

out across grand landscapes of broad vales, forest and farm, rich green or gold cereal crops, ploughed field, pasture and fallow, orchards and muddy work yards, charming weekenders draped in roses and shabby grey council cottages, hedged roads:

a rural patchwork laid out across hill and dale, chalk and cheese, rich expansive vistas stretching towards distant hills with romantic names. However, I found I preferred to follow the more obscure, poorly-signed, back paths,

that skirted the chalky edge of nameless fields,

running between hedgerow and ranks of green arils billowing in the wind,

up styles over ancient hedgerow’s vegetative chaos of leaf, berry, twig, wildflower and weed, all a-chatter with the exuberance of life. These secondary paths take some unexpected twists and turns. One moment you are in the midst of bountiful agricultural production, the next walking along some very proper driveway, or up the side of some muddy work yard, or down a sunken lane

decked with fern, or along a crystal forest brook

or canal bank spangled with bright yellow buttercups, through copse of oak and beech, or stepping around a herd of sheep, whose black faces following you as one while their white bodies continue in the forward direction. These back-paths appear ignorant of contour, property law or destination, as they zig-zag, bend and loop their way through countryside for mile after crooked mile going apparently from nowhere to nowhere else, while managing to surprise at every turn.

Rene Dubos, the mid-century environmentalist who coined the term ‘Think globally. Act locally’, wrote evocatively of the beauty and importance of these humanised landscapes, where humanity, working collaboratively with nature, has transformed wilderness into productive farmland woven through with threads of wild nature. While I can’t accept Dubos’ proposition that these scenes are often an aesthetic improvement on the wilderness they have replaced, I wholeheartedly agree that these landscapes have their own beauty and intrinsic worth. For me these landscapes, having stripped off the endless primeval forest canopy and often all groundcover bar a thin film of pasture, expose the lay of the land, the network of drainage lines on the ground, the true shape of hills, hollows and various landforms. I find the form the ground beneath our feet has arrived at, in response to endless eons of weathering and erosion, sensuously beautiful and fascinating. And the marks of human activity add a further layer of beauty and interest. I become utterly lost in the variety of form before my eyes.                                           

On those English pathways, with no particular place to go, a pleasant leisurely walking pace, and a willingness to detour from the path should the fancy take me, I am free to revel in patterns of dappled light on leaf, smooth grey pillars of beech and mouldering carpet of forest floor, the burst of colour thrown out by unexpected gardens and random patches of wildflowers, or the textured greys, greens and orange of lichen blotches speckled on stone wall and slate roof, pungent aroma of rank growth at the edge of forgotten ponds, the stink of cowshit and diesel as a diesel engine chugs somewhere out of sight. Mind speculates over the origin of unexplained gate, graveyard or tower that appears unexpected in the middle of nowhere.

Being in these humanised environments removes the necessity of having to carry everything on my back. I can finish the day with a hot meal and a soft bed at an inn along the way. I know there is great satisfaction in being fully self-sufficient out on the trail, but I do find hauling a 30 kg pack up hill and down dale a bit arduous. You have to give so much of your attention to just keeping on going. With a light daypack I can devote much more attention to a pleasurable deep immersion into the realm of the senses, not just sight and sound, but touch, smell, kinaesthesia also. The walk down a slight incline feels pleasantly easy on my legs. On uphill grades, the feeling of strength enough for the task in those same limbs gives its own reward. Sun on my shoulder, slight breeze at my back feels invigorating. I feel I could walk on forever.

Where do they come from these paths inscribed into the British landscape? Are they age-old ways, simple routes of convenience between here and there mapped out by the first human feet to tread a landscape vastly different from today’s? Or trade routes from olden days when walled towns grew prosperous on forgotten produce? Or maybe these paths are attuned to more subtle energies of the Earth, ley lines, mystic forces, feng sui and what not? Or perhaps they map random, happenstance choices of early walkers? Or possibly they’re animal tracks commandeered by bipeds. I know as kids the smooth, dusty cattle tracks had a definite appeal to our unshod feet. Or maybe they map past landuses, long since swept aside by history and progress. I mean they weren’t always there, these trails. There had to be a first time.

These musings call to mind Aboriginal Australian Songlines. What are they? Secret lore? The tracks of Dreamtime protagonists? Cultural wisdom inscribed into landscape? Trade and land management routes set in stone? Tracks of the First Woman? Every few years the archaeologists seem to push the Aboriginal presence in Australia even further back in time to now well past the last Ice Age. (Surely these First Australians can tell us a thing or two about surviving climate change.) But even with such antiquity, there had to be a starting point, a first time. Were they following the tracks of megafauna on their path to extinction? Or did these sacred paths emerge as much by chance? This is where the speared beast finally collapsed and we made camp. Here we found good fields of yams. Whatever the origins, these paths became woven into Aboriginal culture over tens of thousands of years to become integral to spiritual lore and identity.

I can’t say that my fascination with pathways runs anywhere near so deep, but I find the ancient rural paths hold a certain intrigue that invites exploration to extend the breadth of geographic experience. I find the sensory immersion in wandering these humanised environments wonderfully engaging wherever I go. There have been times in my life when I have had the freedom to go further on, as a child walking over the neighbouring farm, as a young man travelling the world and for a short while on the New South Wales North Coast. Over time that compulsive urge to discover what is around the next bend became habit.

Consequently, I think it is tragic that in Australia, so much of our rural landscape is well hidden from public view. Not that I think most Australians care at all. But some of us relish the opportunity to walk through agricultural and pastoral lands of our country, viewing both the lay of the land and the human works, those marks on the landscape that manifest the relationship between culture and nature. Many people prefer the grandeur of vast wild landscapes, the sense of wonder and awe they can inspire within us. Edmund Burke established his reputation as a philosopher and started a trend by outlining the aesthetics of the sublime, an emotional response of both terror and delight to vast, wild landscapes. For the next century or so the cashed up European cognoscenti spent a good deal of time and money getting sublimed all over remote parts of the globe. I am someone who derives great pleasure from engaging with the Earth through the activity of long distance walking. I find the leisurely way a landscape opens up and reveals itself at walking pace quite sensuous, the best way to fully immerse oneself in the multisensory experience of being in nature. I truly enjoy some of those wild panoramas, and have spent many a hard trekking day walking along rugged, highly scenic trails. However, spectacular views usually require considerable elevation, and I am prone to severe vertigo when taking in the view from on high. I have too often spent the most spectacular sections of trails utterly terrified, reduced to crawling on hands and trembling knees as I vent an endless stream of oaths, curses and profanities.

But fear of heights is hardly the only reason I like to amble along through more domesticated rural working landscapes. Such views are what I grew up with in the sixties when my family home looked out over a dairy farm in the Yarra valley in Melbourne. That dairy farm was not locked away behind private property signs. Being on the river before the days of high mobility, this land served as a local commons replete with sandy bathing beach for summer refreshment. At any time you might see dog bathers, walkers, picnickers, fishermen, horse riders, artists making use of this open ground. Such domestic landscapes are mother’s milk to me. Also, I love the scale. It’s so relatable. Many who love the outdoors undergo a sense of their own cosmic insignificance in those vast, expansive landscapes. This perspective of oneself can evoke intense spiritual feelings. I have certainly experienced such feelings of awe and wonder myself looking out at grand landscapes. And yet more often I have a preference for the intimacy, the sense of embodied, intense personal connection with nature that I experience in the more humanised scale of domestic rural landscapes witnessing the lay of the land, the rich expression of Earth sensuously unfolding before me.

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