What's real?

It would be fair to say that when I first saw a platypus I got rather excited.  Spy satellite images would probably show me hoping from foot to foot and pointing.  It’s not that I was getting great views, far from it in fact.  It was just that I was seeing platypus.  In the wild.  In the flesh.  I’d quickly learned to drop the “duck billed” part of the name in favour of the shorter and more accurate version.  After all, there is no “eagle billed platypus” or whatever, so the duck billed bit can be shed without confusion. There’s just the platypus.

And there they were, floating like slightly plump sticks on the surface of the water.  With a humpbacked dive they would disappear, until they bobbed, flat backed, to the surface and into view again.  I don’t doubt that the return of these living corks to the surface of the water was greeted with laughter and more pointing. And a good part of that laughter, that wonderfully positive feeling, was not due to the fact that I was watching one of the most truly remarkable animals in the world, but due to the fact I had found these creatures by dint of my own research.  A mention in the paper here, a similar story on a web page, and I worked out where to go.  Now, I’m not claiming this is some sort of historic discovery, but I was looking at an animal I had always wanted to see, and I had found it under my own steam. Since that time I have had better views of this mix and match mammal, and I never tire of seeing them, but something remains special about this first sighting.  I have found them completely by accident in a high tarn at Mount Field, watched them swim in rivers from a beer garden behind a small pub and found them, distant and shy, in large lakes.  But if ever a sighting was real and all mine it was probably that first one.

The most recent time I saw a platypus, things were very different.  I had paid to go on a trip on the very same lake where I saw the first ones – Lake Elizabeth.  And as soon as money changes hands I think the nature of what you are doing, what you are expecting to happen, changes.

We met outside a country café in Forrest, a place that brewed decent coffee and its own beer – a winning combination if ever there was one.  It was not really the afternoon, but neither was it evening.  It was that time of day that can sprint past if you are enjoying yourself or linger on if you are waiting for something to happen.  Our guide, as seems typical of such people, was soft spoken and unconcerned with fashion.  I noticed he was wearing rubber boots and wondered at my own footwear.

As we dropped down a steep hill the gum trees on either side of the road began to hold hands above our heads, and the light fell rapidly.  Lemon yellow life jackets, sage advice about wearing them and a couple of short handled paddles were handed out.   Water that yesterday had rattled against our windows now flashed down the river in the valley bottom.  It was calf deep over the concrete walkway that cut the river and gave access to the other bank.  Now the rubber boots made perfect sense.  Prior warning would have made sense as well.  I waded (what a legend!).  Our guide did too, shuttling the boots from person to person.   H and P struggled with socks and damp feet, balancing on one leg, hopping to keep balance and laughing at the other’s stumbles and arm waves.  The water was crisply cold and clear, the woods smelled as only Australian woods can and parrots, high above, called. Did they speak of blossom lost and found, the passage of a hunting hawk, the silver drip of cool water under a shade dark bank? Who knows?  It was all rather Lord of the Rings – but without the foaming white horses.

It was not a long walk to the lake, but it was a good one; past a small pool turned coffee cream by its feeder streams; under tree ferns that gave up their drips to the slightest touch; down muddy slopes and up gravel crunchy steps.  Shadows darken under mossy banks, running with water, silver drop after silver drop.  The trees’ shadows bring on evening on the forest floor, while sunshine keeps the trees’ tops in the afternoon.  It’s an uncertain time.  We wonder if we will find the platypus we have come to see.

We do.

Before we arrive at the lake, we walk along a footpath that mirrors the stream’s path and flows down from the flooded valley.  And there in the river is a platypus.  It’s a perfect view.  It’s the kind of view that predictably happens when your camera is still in the car, or in this case its bag.  The back and front legs stick out from the rounded body, the bill flickers from side to side on the surface.  It’s hard not to think that the platypus is shaking water from between its bill to dry out a mouthful of food.  It dives a couple of times.  The last dive slightly precedes the arrival of my camera.  It never seems to come back to the surface.  Clearly it must have, but we don’t see it. 

And this is where the transaction of money starts to work its way into the mental conversion.  The tours web site had promised a 90% chance of seeing platypus – a delightfully high and (as far as I could tell) untestable number.  Why not 91 or 89?  Or was it meant just to mean, highly likely?  Whatever the actual probability, the sighting had been achieved and now the promised 20% refund if no platypus were sighted was off the table.

But what counts as a “sighting?” (The platypus in the river clearly does – but just go with me here).  Did everyone in our group have to see one?  Did the sighting have to be good enough so that the untrained eye could tell the difference between a claimed sighting or a floating log?  None of these issues are in play if you have just gone for a walk to a lake, and you happen to see platypus – the presence of a financial transaction seems to place some assumption of quality on the experience.  And does this assumption tend to sit between what you do see and what you hope to see, meaning the good needs to be great before it makes the grade? And if that really does happen, does it matter?  Is a half glimpse of a platypus on a tour any different to one at another time?  Is a whale from a tour any less of a thing to see than a whale from shore, unexpected and unplanned?  And why did these thoughts not come to mind when I was watching crocodiles from the safety of a tour boat in northern Australia?

Down by the pale green grey water our guide ties the canoes together to form a raft.  The perfect length of frayed blue rope falls into place around the thwarts and binds the pair of boats into a stable platform.  We push off from the shore, away from the river where we saw the platypus and out along the edge of the lake.  Tall trees sprout from the water’s surface, long dead and leafless.  Bankside tree ferns dip their fronds in the storm brought high water.  Clumps of rushes, marking shallow water, short spike up through the reflections of the trees that cloak the steep banks.  Our canoe raft moves along the sharp point of a vee, a narrow lake of uncertain depth and certain history.

If there is any wind higher up the slopes, it dies by the time it reaches the water’s surface.  The spreading circles of paddle strokes trail behind the boat, some part rimmed with bubbles: the water looks thick and glassy.  Despite the stillness the water crackles with sparkling light.  It’s not rain – I check to make sure, it’s not the reaching feet of insects nor the fizz of lake bed bubbles.  Few options remain.  The Brownian collision of the air with the water?  Interference from the passage of red blood cells through the capillaries on the surface of my retina?  Who knows?  But the water sparkles, the paddle bubbles pop and the platypus stay hidden.

Pacific black ducks run over the surface, the string of rings left by webbed feet stopping abruptly as they take to the sky.  They pull a tight turn around the tall trees and head for the other end of the lake.  For a surprisingly long time the ripples look like diving, swimming or waving platypus.  Desperate times call for desperate measures.

We are reassured that the other side of the lake is a monotreme hot spot as we drift over the mirror water.  I am feeling less than convinced.  But I am wrong.  A platypus swims slowly away from the bank and dives.  The ripples are easier to see than the animal.  When it re-emerges from the water frantic clock based directions are given in loud hushed whispers – they work just in time for me to catch sight of another set of dive bubbles.  P reminds us telling the time is not her strong suit yet; she has a point.  The quested beast pops up on the other side of the boat and I get three pictures – one of which is totally out of focus, the second of which shows a slightly blurred (but very small) platypus and the third shows a perfectly in focus set of spreading ripples.  We never see the platypus again. 

I’m not sure the kids saw this animal – they say they did, but at this age they would say that.  Give it a few years and they won’t speak at all.   We move slowly back towards the start: biscuits and warm hot chocolate help lift the spirits.  H and P have been uncharacteristically quiet.  They don’t know about money changing hands, all they know is that they did not get to paddle the canoes.  The platypus may have been incidental.

It really is dark by the time the ropes are undone and the boats flipped and pulled ashore.  Bats flit over the water, the kids can hear them, but older age and rock concerts have robbed me of that experience.  The guide takes out a pale torch and the kids move into the pool of light.  Real darkness is rare and for the kids, very unusual.  I hang back a little, knowing that in a while my eyes, which have not been dimmed in the same way as my hearing, will soon work in a way that is almost as rare as darkness. 

Given a little time, and possibly youthful practice, you can learn to (almost) see in the dark.  Starlight, moonlight and evolution combine to transform an otherwise black landscape into one carved in shades of grey.   The sky is not as dark as the land or the trees that finger towards it.  You can see which way is up, and in many places you can see the shape of the land ahead.  But woodland baffles the senses of the nightwalker. You need to move slowly.

The path itself, stripped by passing feet of plants, seems to shine a faint silver, so that it becomes of sliver of light weaving its way through the trees.  You can see edges and corners.  Your brain builds shapes.  You listen to the fall of your feet: do they crunch or squelch, do plants tickle and branches rub.  You need to move slowly.

But this walk as is easier than most.  The sides of the path are lit up with thousands of tiny lights.  Glowing specks that come out like the evening stars as your eyes adjust.  Glow worms – tiny insects trying to lure others to their death – speckle the path side.  Where it is darkest, when the shadows lie thickest, the little lights are most common.  Darkness and dampness flare with a strange chemistry that marks the way. The tangled bank takes me home.

Next morning, in bright sun but a chill wind, I cradle a coffee in my hands.  In the river, the kids paddle a boat around in ever decreasing circles.  They both offer frantic criticism of the other’s effort and technique.  Both are close to tears of laughter.  Down on the river edge mud, a Masked Lapwing, pushed to the outermost limit of its tolerance by the hilarity afloat, takes to the wing.  With a rushing flutter of wings a Sulphur Crested Cockatoo lands on the balcony fence, and studies the remains of my toast. 

Yesterday, I paid for a guide and found a platypus.  Today, I paid for my breakfast and found a cockatoo.  Why should one feel more real than the other?  Why do I feel the need to rank order the quality of the sightings?  

The cockatoo yawns.  I think it knows the value of such thoughts. I raise my camera to shoot.  The boat grinds into the mud below the café, and the cockatoo does not even look. 

I think it has seen it all before.

The Court of Kings and Crimsons

On arrival brightly coloured birds greeted us.  They flew from the pressing woodland to the gutters, to the garden table and to the fresh leaved trees that hung over the cottage door.  They perched in hopeful anticipation of food, leaning forward, looking down at us, checking us out. 

Red and green birds.  Red and blue birds.  Metallic blue-black birds.  Beautiful birds.

Against a briefly blue sky, a Blackbird sang its spring song, an invitation to some, to others a warning of possession.  Its beak flared golden as the wind sheparded grey clouds across the sky.  Once the clouds were gathered in, a storm would begin.

Inside the cottage there were clear instructions not to feed the birds.

The King Parrots stayed most of the week.  The Crimson Rosellas visited most days, but never stayed long.  The Satin Bowerbirds fled the garden within minutes and never returned.

The cottage is chilly, it smells empty and temporarily unloved. The fire is disappointingly unset.  Soon flames pass from paper to twig, from twig to stick and from stick to split log.  The firebox ticks as it expands, the room grows lighter with the warmth.  The rain begins to fall in fat heavy drops that splash against the windows like gravel.  In the clockwork firebox, the logs settle into the embers as the kids settle into the long sofas.  It keeps on raining.  Despite the lure of the feathered welcome party it remains an indoor day, a slow day, a reading day. And, if the truth were told, nobody seems to mind.

Storm rain falls all night, a soft, insistent hiss on the tin roof.   A jazz backbeat – unpredictable, but frequent – of gum nuts crack onto the roof as well, sharp and loud above the rain.  Louder noises could be twigs and sticks; the noises speak of a morning harvest of kindling for the fire. I awake to the sea-sound of wind in the branches; the pompom bunches of leaves in the gum trees thrash in the storm.  It’s still raining.  The kids are not up yet, oblivious to the noises above they are sleeping long in the warmth that has spread through the cottage.  Kookaburras hunt on the lawn outside the bedroom window – short, sharp dives from the cover of dripping branches. I hear the creaking gate call of Gang Gang Cockatoos, the distant calls of Yellow Tailed Blacks.  Currawongs call and bounce on long wings.  Directly across from the window, a painting on the wall seems to speak of the passing of a child, or maybe of childhood.  My kids arrive, warm and still sleepy. “Magic and Loss”.

Storm debris and a few gentle breaths lift a fire from the embers – for the rest of the week the fire never looks like going out.  Toast pops, the kettle clicks off.  Cups rattle from their boards.  Knives scrape with a sandpaper rustle over toast.  I love this time of day, this time of the holiday.  Once I would have rushed outside, peace (or some counterfeit of it) only being possible in motion.  Success and relaxation found in activity rather than stillness. I am still driven to do “things” – but on mornings like this, the stillness of an extra cup of tea and the sound of the rain is thing enough.

Eventually it dawns on me that it has stopped raining.  King Parrots call. They wait, ever hopeful, on the wooden table just outside the door.  It’s clear that they have not read the house rules. The trees still thrash, but the air is crystal clear, washed clean of dust.  There is a hint of eucalyptus in the air, maybe released by the banging of the leaves against each other and their supporting woodwork.  Miniature cones from an alder roll and crunch underfoot, the grass around the garden is soaking wet, each blade tipped with a silver drop.  We explore with feet that become damper with each footstep – in the long grass you may as well have walked though water.

Down below the house two rows of fruit trees – an orchard according to the “Do not feed the birds” booklet – sit in rosettes of forget-me-nots.  At ground level you could be in England.  As your view grows higher you take in the base of the tree, then the branches speckled with flowers – still England.  It’s only when the view opens to the gum trees beyond the grass that the view becomes truly Australian.  The combination of plants (and the rain!) makes me feel at home, stretched across both of the worlds that hold that name.

The row of fruit trees leads to a fenced garden; a low fence for rabbits and high one for kangaroos.  I doubt either act as a barrier to slugs and snails.  A fine stand of broad beans and banks of herbs fill the garden beds.  The wind sends showers of petals through the fence; some stick to the wires fluttering like parade flags, most fall onto the wet ground.  A different movement catches my eye as a bird zips from the beans to a plant with pale pink flowers.  Few birds that I know of are as distinctive as Eastern Spinebills – a long curved bill, a white chest flanked by curved dark lines that flow down from the head.  Within the white field of the rest of the chest a chestnut brown patch creeps up towards the neck.  The bottom of the chest and the underbelly are chestnut too.  Their eyes are bright red. Field marks abound.  But beyond the convenience of identification there is also a wonderful beauty in this bird.  It hangs in all kinds of ways and even hovers to drink the nectar of the flowers.  Its sugar charged activity drives it from flower to flower – a tongue full here, a sip there and then a longer pause for a longer drink.  It reminds me of something I have never seen – a humming bird.

Down past the garden, over a crackle snap carpet of fallen twigs and branches is a small dam.  I know it’s a dam because I’m in Australia, but it still looks like a pond to me.  A slippery wooden jetty sticks out from the back, and a small wooden boat lies upturned on the bank.  We find the oars and the kids set sail on a voyage of discovery, spinning in circles and turning round in 37-point turns.  Floating leaves are pushed under the surface with the oars, only to pop back up a few seconds later.  The path cleared by the boat closes behind it as it heads, zig-zagging, to the slightly distant end of the water.  A duck, annoyed at the disruption, takes flight.  I wonder if there are fish silver skimming between the roots of the plants.  As a kid I would have expected tench to dwell in the wood green water.  A red topped float on a June morning, a scattering of bait and (when all went well) the slow, but heavy pull of a hooked fish.  Despite my best efforts, I see no such things here.  H gets out of the boat and P takes up the oars.  She laughs as she spins.  I still think there should be tench.

We drive down a winding road, past trees that show signs of the passing storms, to Lorne, a seaside town that swells beyond its capacity in mid-summer and slims to a more comfortable level the rest of year.   Long sweeps of beach sand.  A walkable pier with a fish and chip shop that likes to think of itself as a restaurant.  Safe, predictable waves, and a scattering of silver gulls.  Even in the rain it’s a long way from the hardscrabble enjoyment offered by the beaches of the North Sea or the Bristol Channel.

Spring in Victoria brings days of winter and days of summer; you wear a hat and take a coat. You may need an ice cream, but it could be a hot chocolate.  It’s best to laugh at the weather, because in the gloom of the late afternoon storms, some people look fit to cry.  The kids run around and sometimes through puddles.  They run up the walls of a skate park – skating without wheels or a board.  They flow up and down the steep sections like yoyos. Storms chase clear blue from the sky; rain runs from the rays of the sun; rainbows arc over the pier.  The pot of gold is behind the breaking waves, clearly in sight, just out of reach.

On the beach things are secret and concealed. Blown sand slides down the wind, stinging bare ankles, blurring the edges of everything.  A football star hides behind dark glasses.  Leaves become buried where they lie. Dogs chase the ever-present and much neglected silver gulls, their splash tracks washed away by the waves.  You walk up the beach and back again and nature has removed the evidence of your passing.  Even journeys on familiar sand become new. It’s the endless possibility that keeps you walking towards ill-defined points on the horizon.  One place would be as good as any other, but I still mark a spot – draw a mental line in the sand – where I turn around and head back.   A new beach in each direction.

The movement of sand and water are key to all coastlines – erosion takes it away and deposition gives it back.  Take a little, give a little.  The solidity of land pitched against the endless energy of the sea.  Storms will capture the headlines, but every day the land is battered, broken and dissolved by the sea.  The coastline changes, but we don’t notice until it falls down.  An hour along another winding road the power of the sea to carve the land is on display.

Around Port Campbell a raft of rock towers, arches and bridges have been cut into soft rock.  Here the rate of change is almost visible to the naked eye, and from time to time things fall down.  The famous features are named from another time; London Bridge, part of which, listening to the song, has fallen down; The 12 Apostles, which number less than the nominal dozen and are as bound to the laws of the Earth as the rest of us. 

The coast is on the left, the car park to the right.  The visitor’s centre is hidden from view behind a slight rise.  If people really do need to have access to coffee and soft bread sandwiches everywhere they go this seems about as good a way to provide it as I have seen.  I don’t really know if the decision to place the amenities out of view’s way was done on aesthetic grounds or because of the realisation that having them close to the coast would erode confidence in its long-term survival.

Trucks rumble over the underpass.  Kids – not just mine – try to make their voices echo.  Welcome swallows wingtip their way past families.  Traffic flows in four directions.

Well-made paths lead to well known viewpoints; classic views, calendar views.  Couples swap cameras and take photographs of each other with the Apostles in the background, some ask other people to help.  Peace signs, cheesy grins, the ritual of travel proof for people back at home and for people only connected through the ether.  I take almost the same shots.  I start to look for other shots as well.  Small waterfalls tumble over the cliff edge, last night’s rain going back to its second home – a flow that connects the sky to the sea.

Waves pound with a ceaseless energy at the base of the Apostles, cutting them down to size a grain at a time.  There may have never been 12 of these rock pillars, their name just an invention.  But the waves that knock them down are cutting new ones elsewhere, so the number is never really fixed.  The sea, like truth, is not limited by the inventions of man, we build things up and the sea brings them down.  We build things up, mindscapes, until the truth of nature brings them down.  But just like the name of these sea stacks, some things linger on beyond the obvious truth – autumn leaves still branch fast in winter storms.  Nature and process.  Truth and lies.  The inner view and the outer scene.  The sea, the waves and the slow falling of stone bring such thoughts to mind.

As ever, the journey back seems shorter than the journey there.  The road winds in a now familiar way.  The fallen branches have been broken under passing wheels.  On the dam the floating plants are all back in place. At the door we are once more greeted by Kings, but the Crimsons are elsewhere.

On walking

It was, apparently, a Webber B fracture.  If it had not been for the fact that my ankle was hurting, I would have only been able to guess what part of my body that referred to.  In a disarming act of honesty, my GP admitted the same thing.  Dr. Google soon provided a more detailed answer.

If you looked at the X-Ray you could see a faint line, running across most of the bone, just up from the base of my left fibula.  But you had to look really, really hard.  It did not occur to me at the time to ask if this counted as a broken ankle.  Was it just a cracked bone?  And is a cracked bone a broken ankle? How much of a break does it need to be before it counts as a real break?  I remain ignorant on this issue.

I had been running back from dinner with H, racing Sal and P back to the room.  A classic “it seemed like a good idea at the time” sort of activity.  Somehow I managed to overlook the fact that it was basically dark and that the path was rough.  Somehow I managed to overlook the fact that I don’t run anywhere anymore.  But, strange as it may seem, I was enjoying it.  The competitive juices were flowing as I chased H.  There was a length in my stride that does not come with walking.  Then a lightning bolt hit my left ankle.  My foot rolled sharply inwards, my ankle bent into a shape that nature never intended and made a cracking noise I don’t ever want to hear again.  I swore. Probably twice.  I hopped on to my right foot, which sounds a lot more elegant than I imagine it looked, and felt sick.  H noticed that I was falling over and turned around just in time to see me sit, rather heavily, on a large stone.  By this time the lightning had stopped – but not the thunder.   I was surprised how little my ankle hurt when I put some weight on it.  Maybe I had imagined the cracking noise. I limped back to the room feeling very sorry for myself, and more than a little stupid. 

Rest. Ice. Compression. Elevation. 

In other words slap on some ice and lie on the bed.  The next morning the ankle was puffy and sore.  A tight bandage and painkillers helped.  Over the next 24 hours my foot and lower leg took on the colour of bruised fruit – an unattractive combination of browns, yellows and pale blues.  Every so often, a jolt would light up the joint and cause me to pause and suck in a few deep breaths.  

I was on holiday.  So what did I do?  Strap the ankle tightly, ask for the strongest painkillers the chemist had and get on with it.  Luckily I had already done the longest walk we planned for the trip – but I still managed to take my Webber B around Uluru and Kata Tjuta.  I watched where I put my feet, moved slowly and found going up hill easier than going down them. Each second step had the potential to deliver an unwelcome surprise, and it was always good to get back on the straight and level.   Back in Melbourne I was fitted with a Cam Boot – a knee length boot to stabilise my ankle - built from plastic, steel, velcro and discomfort.  It lengthened my left leg, leaving my right floating an inch or so from solid ground. I had to walk from the knee rather than the ankle.  For the first time ever walking became a chore.  Rough ground was off limits, and 15 minutes was about as far as I could go.  For the first time in about 30 years, I stopped walking for enjoyment.  It became something to endure, not enjoy. 

With my leg encased in its big black boot, I thought about the only thing I have chosen to do wherever and when ever I have been; I thought about walking. 

I thought about the steady rhythm of walking on the flat. The inertia of walking downhill.  The steady pull of going uphill, preferable to a steep descent.  The head down effort of a steep slope, where it is better to arrive than to travel. Hill top chocolate and coffee on a winter’s day.  The creak of the straps on a rucksack. The click of carried objects moving in a pocket or a bag.  I thought about the movement and the peace.  I wondered how long I would have to wear the boot.

As a kid walking was as much an economic necessity as it was anything else.  The local bus services were erratic, the family car unavailable to me and (if the truth be told), the distances to anywhere I wanted to go, short.  I walked to go fishing, I walked to buy the paper, and once I was returning to an empty house, I walked home from school.  At the time this was not unusual, although the lack of a bike was.  I did not think about why I walked, I just walked.  It was only later, much later, that I began to understand why I found such comfort in putting one foot in front of another, in walking to Norton to buy The Guardian, in retracing familiar pathways, in the evening ritual of a walk.

When you think about it, the biomechanics of walking are one of the first truly complex things we master – although “mastery” may be an inappropriate description of the first toddler’s steps which look more like barely controlled forward falling than walking.  These first steps are recorded in family history, mythologised and passed down from person to person, from generation to generation.  Being upright on two legs separates us from the other apes, even if teenagers, Friday drinkers and most politicians seem to have forgotten this. Walking – bipedalism – makes us human.  If I lost the will to walk, I think some part of me would have died.

Even on a short lunchtime walk, back from a sandwich and coffee, you can feel the simple biological pleasure of walking.  If you pay attention you can feel the alternating tension and relaxation in your legs – tight here, looser there.  You can feel the pressure drop away from one knee and build in the other.  You can feel the flex of ankles, and if you are like me, you can still feel a little stiffness in one.  You can feel your feet move within your shoes, so that all of your socks wear in the same place.  Even if the are the same colour, I can tell my socks from Sal’s by the pattern of thin spots as well as the size.  Mine wear just above the base of my heels, to the inside of each foot.  On long walks in the past I would make sure I put my socks on different feet at the start of the day, and for a few minutes at least I was sure I could tell the difference.

Although I don’t know why he did it, my father mapped all the footpaths that criss-crossed the parish in which I was born.  There is a book on the shelves in our front room that has a copy of that map in it.  I can recognise the way he used a ruler to write along, giving all the letters a regular flat bottom.  The paths defy any linear behaviour, twisting across the page, linking places together that make no sense in a modern landscape, but reflect some older purpose. That this man, who had a serious limp, and for whom walking was a challenge, should have mapped the footpaths on which I walked is only one of the many contradictions in a person who I don’t think I ever really knew.

I used to start most of my evening walks by cutting up though a path that our family, and nobody else that I knew, called The Drang. It passed old broken cottages and elder filled gardens.  The stone stile of the top was polished smooth by generations of hands and feet.  The last time I walked along it a handrail had been added along part of the walled section, as if the only people who would use a path like this today were old.  There were weeds growing through the broken pavement.  I can’t help but wonder if I will be one of the last people to know this path’s name.

Over the smooth stone stile was Wells Road; a road as busy as it got in our village.  The path ran around the edges of a garage – a petrol station – and out into the open fields that ringed our village and formed a no man’s lands between it and the next.  Muddy in the winter, dusty in in rare weeks of sunshine and often paved by diary cows, the path passed through 3 or 4 (memory fails) kissing gates for which I seldom had much use.  The grass grew rich and green, blessed by the two virtues of Somerset – abundant rain and mild temperatures.  I rarely met anybody coming in the other direction and don’t recall anybody walking past me.  I sometimes wondered if I was the only person who kept the path walked.

Just before you passed through the last of the kissing gates and into a patch of woodland there was a row of large, stately, sycamore trees.  In the evening the setting sun would throw spears of light through the flicker leaves.  In winter flocks of longtailed tits would flash from twig to twig; tiny bundles of life, cartoon birds.  Parts of the trunks had been rubbed smooth by itchy cows.  You only notice such things if you walk.  One step at a time.  Day after day.

The woodland was always damp and moss hung in limp bundles from a high wooden fence that ran along the path.  Over the fence, forever out of reach, were the grounds of a private school.  I thought this part of the path smelled of privilege, but it was just decay. The path had a purpose; linking two villages.  But I walked along it for different reasons.  I walked to get away from the claustrophobia of home, where long silences built a pressure that pushed me out of the door.  I walked to move away, rather than to arrive. 

I have no idea how old the path was; in a place as historied as England who can ever be sure?  But like all of the paths mapped out by my father’s hand they had a history that you could only find by walking.  At night they were still fox trotted and in the distant past they may have been bear footed.  Some, although not my nightly path, had sunk into the ground to become hollow ways, sunken roads.  I knew of one where you could still see the deep ruts on either side of a central hump that had been cut by cartwheels.  The last time I walked that path it was a tunnel of hazel, with catkins swinging like pale lanterns.  There were patches of soft smooth mud where mine were the only footprints.  Some were bridle paths – horses allowed.  Some followed the ghosts of railroads.  We called these Tow-Paths, but that was just our name for them and when the railways closed they were soon lost to bracken and bramble. 

Trails, paths, greenways, sunken ways, lichways for the dead, tracks for cooper, coal and wood.  Roman roads in England, English roads in Scotland; straight paths to bring people to heel. Drove roads, close cropped by sheep, along the hilltops, away from the then uncleared valleys. Walks through woodland, marked only by a slight flattening of the ground and the presence of unexpected gates. Walking to old ponds, coppice corners and woodburners’ huts. Walking to piles of deep moss stones, tumbled, rank with nettles keeping company with the fruiting ghosts of old orchards.  Even though I knew they were not, such places always felt unfound and mine alone.

Each one of these can be walked today as they were walked in the past.  By the same process. Step by step.  Stride by stride. And as fitness and desire allows, in the same time.  Walking the paths to gain the empathy of landscape, the sympathy of slope, the history of passage.  Walking the paths to take away the pressure of today and the apprehension of tomorrow. I walked through the afternoon before my mother died, unable to do anything but walk away.  I was walking by the sea when the phone rang to tell me my father would be joining her.  One along the damp April roads and paths of Somerset, the other on a beach that squeaked, almost as far south as you can be and still be on the mainland of Australia.  Walks that were a lifetime and a world apart.  I walked when I feared that madness would take me over, and the rhythm of footfall and the motion would lift the veil to let me see.

Walking connects you to a place like nothing else can. If connection to a place is a true expression of the human self – the soul if you are that way inclined – you have to wonder if soul has been misspelt.

In Australia many, but not all of the paths, are different.  Some paths are marked by song and are basically unknowable to me.  They are disconnected by time, language and assumption.  The paths around my house are straight, the corners regular; return journeys can be planned by the logic of geometry.  Most are no older than my house, sitting on its ruler drawn block, with straight-line fences and predictable edges.  But I still walk.   The heartbeat regularity of footsteps brings the same relaxation as of old.  I no longer walk back to an empty house, even when nobody is home.  In parks and coast the paths are there for a new purpose; to walk.  Not to go where things happen, but just to walk to where you can watch.  To look at the scenery, to look at the birds.  To walk to the place where you can take that photograph – the one you see in the books.  Some paths seem to walk to the X that marks the spot.  They seem to have no other purpose.  But that purpose is still good enough for a walk.

Even if the purpose and history of my paths has changed, my boots still crease in the same places, and the soles still wear in the same way.  I walk to explore, to find what you can see and see the things that are otherwise hidden.  The cam boot is underneath my desk, a reminder of what it was like to have briefly lost walking.  To remind me how important the rhythm of walking is.  To remind me to push back the chair and go for an evening walk.