Monday, December 31, 2012

Strolling

'A Garden Stroll' by G.G. Kilburne (1924)
The last few days have been perfect for strolling. Warm and sunny, yet with a slightly cool tinge to the soft air. Gentle, dappled light. With no place to get to - no appointment or school pick-up - I've been ambling along at a relaxed pace, barely noticing the few kilometres covered each day.

The entire suburb's contents - people, dogs, and cars - seem to have evacuated to beach and holiday houses. It's left the area with a relaxed, if a little eerie, feel to it.

The streets are quite lacking in human activity. And quiet too, without the hum of the nearby freeway and its regular tides of cars running over asphalt. Each morning I'm instead waking to the sounds of currawongs and magpies.

The eeriness of a suburban landscape without people comes, I'm sure, in part from reading post-nuclear war YA fiction during the 1980s.

As a result, I've been more in my daily walk than usual. Being less harried and less physically tired helps, and has allowed me to really look. To see the things that must usually be there - certainly my youngest points them out - but I don't get to really notice very well: to hear the sound of a single leaf thudding straight to the ground from an evergreen tree, as I did today. Or to watch at length the butterflies tumbling and chasing each other through the air. Or to hear the sudden chatty outbursts from hidden birds. It feels good to stroll and notice these small things.

The suburb will probably stay like this for a little while still, until the bulk of summer holiday pilgrims return and resume the routines of school and work. The normality of noise and haste will creep back in gradually. The kids will start waking when the freeway comes to life, and we'll be back scampering out of the house and cautiously navigating the morning traffic. And part of me will probably welcome the jolt of activity, energy and movement. For now, though, I'm savouring the leisurely stroll.

(Image source: Wikicommons)

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Pleasures of Travelling on Foot

If there is one phrase that I have taken away from Gillian Souter’s Slow Journeys: The pleasures of travelling on foot, it is this one: “there will come a time when neither you nor I will be able to walk as far or as fast.”

Coming as it does, at the end of a book that worked curiously on my imagination – reawakening the idea of walking without a pram – this phrase is a powerful, invigorating parting shot. 

Let me be frank: I didn’t expect to enjoy this book. Not because of its delightfully evocative title and inviting lush cover of a quiet trail between mountains - these immediately drew me in. 

No, it was because as soon as I flicked through the pages, it became clear that it was a serious ‘how to’ book for the long distance walker. As an urban, everyday walker, this is not how I see myself. As a mother of young children, it is not something I could contemplate. For now, I am firmly committed to the beaten track, rather than traipsing across the countryside.

But I was quite wrong. Slow Journeys is firmly no-nonsense and practical. Yet many of the tips in this book are equally applicable to the urban walker. I learnt, for instance, that Gor-Tex rainjackets should be laundered regularly and their waterproofing refreshed with a warm iron. Another simple idea: if you plan to combine walking and public transport, you’ll enjoy your walk more if you aren’t rushing to make the bus or train connection. Better to take the bus on the first leg of the journey instead.

Souter, a life-long walker and writer of guidebooks, is sharing her hard-won experience to save us the trouble of finding out for ourselves. She’s saving us from the pains of overstuffed backpacks and ill-fitting boots. 

As far as planning and packing for a long distance walk - at home, or across France, Greece, England or Alpine territory - I didn't for a minute doubt her advice. From crossing uneven ground, rivers and 8-lane freeways, to avoiding grizzly bears, diarrhoea and swollen "Walker’s Hands", Souter provides solid advice. (Her coining of the term ‘Walker’s Hands’ convinced me of her walking cred.)

Yet this is far more than another simple ‘how to’ guide book.  Souter is deeply concerned with questions of why we walk and its value in living a good life. This is why her introductory and closing chapters take up these questions, stepping in the footsteps of her ambling predecessors, including Wordsworth, Emerson, Rousseau, Freud, and Mark Twain. There’s Leslie Stephen (father of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell) stuck idle in the Swiss Alps waiting for the right conditions to climb. John Ruskin praising the weather. Alain de Botton on the intimacy of the shared trek.

In these chapters, and peppered throughout, the practical and philosophical meet, if only briefly. This brings greater depth to the book, allowing it to work on the reader’s imagination. She’s also happy to add her own quips when she thinks these lofty thinkers’ feet have left the ground.

Souter is a most able guide and a crisp writer. I imagine her as a kind of down-to-earth aristocrat: immensely practical, deeply rooted in the experiential, yet unafraid to think about the significance of walking to her own life and others. The combination works. Her tone is seriously considered – she admits an “Eeyore-ish approach to life”, but never dull or laboured. Humorous asides about herself and her walking companions work well throughout.

If I have criticisms, they are only minor ones. At times, Souter retreats from her characteristic directness when in the presence of the book’s thinkers. This is possibly a touch unfair, given the impressive job she has done in weaving these thinkers together. But it felt like she withdrew at precisely those points where she would have something personal, perhaps intimate, to say.

I also wanted a list of the fantastic literary readings she draws on, although Souter quite rightly wants to get us out of the library and into the world. (Such references can be traced easily in the age of the internet.)

Souter could easily have taken a zealot’s tone - the walker above the ordinary hustle and bustle of the world - but instead offers a fuller account, well-grounded in the pleasures, pains and hidden pride of those who walk seriously. “Beyond the lasting pleasures of specific memories,” she writes, “your journey will probably have shifted your attitudes and changed you fundamentally.” On this, and many other things, she’s right.

Gillian Souter's (2009), Slow Journeys: The pleasures of travelling on foot, Allen & Unwin. $27.99

(Image source: Allen & Unwin)

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Pedestrians Matter

"No Go" - A Local Road Safety Sign
I've an opinion piece Pedestrians Matter over at Victoria Walks' website.

While most of us don't think of ourselves as pedestrians - or as having needs as pedestrians - we need to adjust our self-perception. Even the most committed driver has to do part of their journey on foot. We need to think of pedestrians as mattering in the debates about road safety.

Here's a sample:

Pedestrians are hidden victims of Victoria’s road toll, making up 17 per cent of fatalities. On average, 51 die every year – almost one pedestrian death each week. And, in 2008-09, 722 walkers were wounded, 260 with ‘high risk to life’ injuries. 
Most troubling about these statistics is the number of our children and elderly. People aged 65 and over represent only 14 per cent of the Victorian population but account for nearly one in three pedestrian fatalities. Children aged 16 years and younger account for 14 per cent of pedestrian deaths.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

A Walking Life

A few days ago, my son's school friend came up with what he saw as the perfect solution. 'If you sold all your son's Lego', he suggested, 'you could buy a car, then you wouldn't have to walk.'

I can see his logic. My boy does have an impressive amount of Lego. And from where he sits, in the back seat of a car that regularly passes us by - in rain or shine - walking probably looks like a drag. And to be honest, sometimes it is. 

So why do it? How did my family end up where we are - as car-free, everyday walkers by choice?

Once upon a time, I drove, every day, for three to four hours. It was the only alternative to an irregular country bus. Then I moved to the middle suburbs, where traffic was slow, heavy, and parking had to be paid for. Trains and trams were regular and cheap, and my reliable little Datsun sat parked patiently, but was used less and less, so I sold it.

When you have kids, though, you need a car, you have to have a car, don't you? If only for that race to the maternity ward. My second car, the white-knight Volvo, served us well in that regard. After which, it pretty much went into retirement, replaced by the pram equivalent of a 4WD. 

It was around this time, in 2009 with a newborn and three-year-old, that we began to experiment with the idea of living without a car. Against a background of environmental concerns about pollution and peak oil, I wanted to see if it was possible. It was less a sudden change and more a sense of formalising what we were already doing, and seeing the benefits: of gentle exercise for me, and a gentler, more engaged, less hurried contact with the social and natural world for my two children. I've written about the rewards of this period here and here

What motivates this experiment is the basic enjoyment of walking (rather than simply a dislike of cars and car culture). Although we've experimented with driving again on and off since then, we keep coming back to walking. And each time we do, I feel the advantages. Personally, in the time for conversations with my children and husband, and publicly, in the wealth of research showing how walking is an effective balm for sedentary lifestyles. You can read more about why doing the school run on foot, for instance, is important here

This all informs why we walk. It is also part a broader experiment in how to live well. It can be inconvenient, occasionally painful, and we wear out quite a few pairs of shoes. But it is also remarkably do-able, cheap and healthy. And that's why we won't be exchanging the meandering, wandering, walking life for the fast road anytime soon.

Quite a Bit on Foot is my attempt to share the hidden riches of a walking life that are rarely encountered when you have one eye on the road and the other on the rear vision mirror.