Trails as Teachers
Written by Jess Poland.
My parents met in a bushwalking club over 25 years ago. I can imagine Dad asking my Mum out into the wilderness somewhere and her thinking, "should I trust this crazy man?" Thankfully she said yes, and a few years later out popped my brother and I. We were strapped into hiking packs before we could walk and once we could, those packs were strapped onto us.
In hindsight I cannot think of a better upbringing than the one I was given - spending countless weekends exploring alpine Tasmania with my family. At age 7 Dad had me reciting times tables on the trails. Repeating over and over again the ones I could never seem to remember. I could not escape anywhere and practiced until I got them right or the walk was over. I will never forget 7 x 8 = 56, it has been burnt into my brain.
I believe anything can be learnt through patience, persistence and fresh air. Many great philosophers have perfectly encapsulated the experience of walking in the wild. One of my favourite examples is the following extract, effortlessly articulated by Frederic Gris author of The Philosophy of Walking:
“Joy is not the satisfied contemplation of an accomplished result, the emotion of victory, the satisfaction of having succeeded. It is the sign of an energy that is deftly deployed, it is a free affirmation: everything comes easy. Joy is an activity: executing with ease something difficult that has taken time to master, asserting the faculties of the mind and the body. Joys of thought when it finds and discovers, joys of the body when it achieves without effort. That is why joy, unlike pleasure, increases with repetition and is enriched. When you are walking, joy is a basso continuo. Locally, of course, you may run into effort and difficulty. You will also find immediate moments of contentment: a proud gaze backwards to contemplate the long steep plunge of the slope behind you.”
My parents laugh about it now, because when I was really young I used to complain so much about walking. I bored easily, dragging my feet along painfully flat graded tracks. Tears of frustration at the endless unchanging sealed path that I could not see the end of. The 9-year-old Jess wanted to be out climbing mountains, not conga lining fairy trails. It was not the walking I disliked. It was the desire for a change of scenery or a steep climb to navigate. Just to see how fast my heart could beat and what else the world could look like. It was on these first trails I had to learn patience and trust.
Sir David Attenborough manifests himself through my Dad whenever we walk. He gets such a kick out of being able to name mountains, plants and identify bird calls. He still uses our walks as opportunities to impart his parental wisdom/terribly hilarious anecdotes. I was unsuccessful at escaping being influenced and now subject my own friends to the torturous jokes. The kind you laugh at but then instantly want to bang your head against the nearest tree and cringe.
In my early teens, I would tag along with Dad to weekend camping trips and hikes with men and women approaching their 60’s and 70’s. I remember their curiosity as to why such a young girl would choose to spend her weekend walking with ‘a bunch of oldies’ as opposed to being out with her friends. Those ‘oldies’ were incredible storytellers. They filled the hours of trees and trails endlessly recalling their youthful shenanigans. Eyes sparkling with delight and purpose as they took turns to teach me their best life lessons. The years between us felt irrelevant as their excitement for life and childish humours met me with unconditional love.
My own childish curiosity and eagerness sponged up as much of their combined wisdom as possible. All you have to do in this life is find what makes your heart sing, be a kind person to others and to yourself. Finishing high school had somehow evaporated my memories of these wise men and women. My pool of influencers grew and I allowed myself to be whisked away down ill-fitting paths. I began to loose myself in amongst the commotion of modern life. Forgetting my roots in the forests. The need to connect with nature never left, even when my time on the trails declined during my late teens. It was always a home that welcomed my return.
When university life, friends and new relationships began, life started to stress me out of my pants. Hiking was the reset button. Regardless of the way I looked, my academic achievements or whom I was with. The trails accept everyone. Come as you are. John Muir author of ‘Our National Parks’ agrees, “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity.”
I know I would not have the same qualities I have today if it was not for my experiences on the trails. They are there for everybody. No matter your physical fitness, age, gender, or experience. They are the greatest teachers of unconditional love, patience, persistence, self-acceptance and anything else you choose to learn from them. We need to prioritise the sustainability of our trails for our children and future generations. They give selflessly to us, expecting nothing in return. They only wish to remain as undisturbed as possible and I think humanity is completely capable of fulfilling this.
Recently captured moment of Dad in one of his energetic bursts haha!