If life were a walk in the park

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3.00 in the morning is the time when anxieties about matters small and great may smother us. An early morning walk through a wooded park is a time to breathe fresh air and set our discontents in a larger frame.

People walking in Carlton Gardens (Getty Images/ Robert Cianflone)

These last weeks the possible re-election of Donald Trump has been one of the dark birds that visit many of us in the night. As with other such epochal events, of course, how we might react internally to it is of vastly less weight than its effect on the world. Neither early morning wandering nor anything else we can do will change that. But it might shape our response.

Walking in the park as the early morning sun lights up tree tops, magpies and blackbirds greet the morning, grasses sway in the breeze, and flowering wattle sweetens the air, certainly does make the alarms of the night seem smaller. To be alive in such a great and beautiful world is a gift that for a space outweighs the terrors of coming days and weeks.

The burgeoning and the dying of trees, the struggle for territory fought by mynahs and other birds, and the hunting to survive by insects, birds and animals, which underlie the serene beauty of the park set our own lives and desires within a cycle of life and death that is itself a gift. If Christian faith is part of our inner world, we might pause in wonder that we personally have been invited into this beautiful and complex world. Seen from this perspective the alarms and discursions of a far-off election in the United States might seem even unimportant.

Habitual walking encourages attention to the complexity of the relationships that shape life in the park: the intersecting relationships between sunshine and rainfall, between native and introduced plants, between people and paths, between temperature and emissions, between places of active and passive recreation, and between the ecologies of moist and dry areas of the park. The park is not only a beautiful and welcoming world experienced as a gift by an outside observer, but a delicate and fragile set of relationships of which the observer is part. As a gift it invites gratitude; in its complexity and fragility it demands respect.

Awareness of ourselves as both observers and participants in the park leads naturally to broader reflection on the distinctive place of human beings in the network of relationships that compose the world. Although human beings are part of these delicate relationships, they also have a unique power to build or demolish them. Unlike plants and animals, whose relationships are largely patterned or instinctual, human beings are reflective and can choose how to relate to one another and to the world around them. Their intelligence also allows them to plan, develop resources and to act in ways that extend their power over other people and their environment. As a result the human relationships that are nurturing or destructive of the environment are not simply those between individuals but also those that constitute economic and social institutions. The health of the environment and of people in it depends on the choices that these institutions embody.

The way in which human beings individually or collectively reflect on the world and act on it will either be destructive or nurturing depending on whether their basic choice is to show respect, to cooperate for the common good, and to set competition within a wider framework of social friendship. This orientation needs to guide all economic and other choices. It is built on the recognition that all human beings are equally entitled to respect and that society flourishes only when the common good is privileged over competitive individual goods. At this point of their reflections Christians might recognise a call to help shape a world that is built on respect that recognises others and the world as a gift, and to attend in particular to people and places that are disrespected and impoverished in the search for private gain.

 

'The natural world is a gift of which we are part; it is also a trust given to us to nurture or despoil, and ourselves with it. If the world is given to us in trust, we have a responsibility to discharge that trust attentively and faithfully.'

 

The importance of human actions for the shaping of the environment and society is illustrated by the history of the park. It neither began nor continues by necessity, but owes its presence and its shape to considered decisions by those who first planned the city. They saw it as a lung through which the city could breathe.

Its survival, despite frequent and sometimes successful attempts to alienate parts of it during civic events or in times of crisis, is a tribute to the determination of citizens to protect it. Its present shape reflects detailed planning of the choice and placement of trees and grasses, of paths and copses. As with the Australian landscape more generally, what we see is not given by nature but is shaped by human activity and planning.

This vision of the park as part of a network of relationships that extend to institutions and national governments might bring us back to the importance of the United States Presidential election. The orientations evident in the behaviour and policies of the two candidates differ in the importance they give to respect and to the common good, and consequently to the shaping of society and of the environment of which we are all part. For this reason the result of the election will affect not only the United States but the world as a whole, and with it the future of the park. The small relationships between plants, soil, insects and birds that shape the park, its immediate relationships to those who delight to walk in it, who work in it and safeguard it, and its broader relationships to climate and those responsible for moderating change will all be influenced by the result of the United States election and other local events.

As the time for walking in the park is overtaken by the demands of the working day, we might be led to reflect that no human being is a passive part of the environment but changes it for better or for worse by how they act. The natural world is a gift of which we are part; it is also a trust given to us to nurture or despoil, and ourselves with it. If the world is given to us in trust, we have a responsibility to discharge that trust attentively and faithfully. The test of our faithfulness to this trust is not how we awake from the terrors of the night before the election nor how passionately we speak about the result, but how we live and act after it.

As the sun climbs over tree level in the park it picks out the new growth in eucalypts, the dark green and red of bottle brush, and the white underwings of ibises gliding to land in the fields. A gift to treasure and defend.

 

 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: People walking in Carlton Gardens (Getty Images/ Robert Cianflone)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, US, election, Donald Trump, environment, parks, walking

 

 

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Existing comments

Just reading this calm reflection about the benefits of rambling in nature is a balm for the soul. It can be easy to forget the magnitude of the natural world’s influence on us. Recently I’ve had the privilege of visiting the glorious surrounds of Adelaide and the hills nearby, a world away from the US elections.
Pam | 03 November 2020


But still so inextricably linked up with, Pam? Thanks Andy, not just for the lush writing but also for reminding us that we are neither alone nor without agency at this tense time.
Michael Leonard FURTADO | 03 November 2020


I must confess I'd be very careful about going for a walk in any inner city park in Australia at 3.00 am. Perhaps a bit later when there are more people and more security. In the Judaeo-Christian concept God gave people dominion over nature, not to destroy, but to cultivate and nurture. Christianity has no concept of an independent entity called 'Gaia' which we must all bow down and worship. When you look at land which has been lovingly and carefully cultivated for centuries, like parts of rural France, you see the result of this constant interaction between people, animals, all growing things and the land itself. French peasants do not poison their land, hence occupations like charcoal burning, which is initially destructive, take place on the periphery. Mining can destroy landscapes, which is why Tolkien got his images of Mordor from the Black Country. Cherishing and helping to restore the earth renews us. There is something spiritual about it.
Edward Fido | 03 November 2020


“….ibises gliding to land in the fields.” It’s just as well they’re not running against Trump or, shades of “Crooked Hillary”, “Crazy Nancy” and “Sleepy Joe”, he’d be calling them bin chickens and dumpster divers.
roy chen yee | 03 November 2020


Andrew, I read your reflection in the cool quiet of the early morning in my little office. Your words resonate with me. I am fortunate to live on the slopes of a small hill which forms a reserve behind my house.The wife and I regularly stroll around or over 'our hill' enjoying its peaceful scenery . I will recall your words as we walk the hill each morning.Thank you.
Gavin O'Brien | 03 November 2020


Depends what you're there for, Edward! Most of my assignations - like that of St John of the Cross - have been surreptitiously conducted at night in a Park. And Pope Francis' 'Laudato si' counters your view of human dominion over nature, favouring a much more Gaian approach than the one you tamely describe. On the other hand, the pusillanimity of your post about about the dangers of a stroll in the park in the wee hours, makes the prospect of lurking behind a bush and pouncing on a tiny handful of ES nay-sayers to facilitate their quick despatch to a Hell they constantly conjure up in these columns a most tantalising one. (Get thee behind me, Satan!)
Michael Leonard FURTADO | 04 November 2020


Dear Michael L Furtado, thanks: of course, we are inextricably linked up with the US election. As Andy points out, though, our response is key. And as you point out we are not without agency. A most liberating, and responsible, place to be.
Pam | 05 November 2020


Great image Fr Andrew of Carlton Gardens. I did my Intermediate exams in that Exhibition building in year 10 at St Johns. Carlton was and still is a beautiful part of Melbourne though I guess Edward Fido is suggesting caution given Eurydice Dixon was murdered in Melbourne's Princes Park in June 2018 going for such a walk falling prey to a lurking rapist. That aside, the US election dominates the landscape and Biden holds onto an increasing lead. Gawd, when will we be free from politics and filibustering? I always preferred the sea. To be out on a boat 50km from shore with big swells rolling in from starboard. The only encounters, the odd whale and the occasional freighter laden with containers heading south toward Sydney. At the end of the day we cant do much about the US election, tense and bitter as it draws to a climax. The beauty of nature, the scarlet dawn or the lightning strike in a storm is that, on sea or land, nature has the power to heal our troubled minds and soothe our souls. Thank you for your reflection.
Francis Armstrong | 05 November 2020


Some of Thomas Hardy's novels open with displaced people walking along a road, uncertain of tomorrow. Romantic notions of pleasant woods and parks are far from their minds, burdened as they are by awareness of their vulnerability. The context for their displacement is not unlike our own: a technological revolution that imposes a new, alien self-definition; for Hardy, a world where God, if he existed at all, was distant and indifferent to the suffering of mortals, whom the gods "kill . . . for their sport". Gaia was useless in the face of the relentless charge of unbridled capitalism; and socialism was more ineffective still. The Judeo-Christian concept of stewardship, as emphasised by a long line of modern popes - lived and applied - can help maintain the balance between human need and technological inventiveness, and respect for nature. And while contemplating God's handiwork and rejoicing gratefully in it are good for the heart and soul, we'll need to do more, as Robert Frost reminds us, than stop by woods: we have promises to keep, and miles to go . . .; or, as Andrew concludes, a trust to discharge, "attentively and faithfully."
John RD | 09 November 2020


John RD, thanks for your words about Thomas Hardy. Poetry was his first love, his novels were a way of making a living. I admire his dexterity with language and these words about him from W H Auden speak powerfully about his "hawk's vision, his way of looking at life from a very great height...To see the individual life related not only to the local social life of its time, but to the whole of human history."
Pam | 09 November 2020


Yes, Pam, Hardy was certainly one for the big themes, as Auden observes. Part of his greatness as a writer, too, I think, was how - in addressing life's larger issues like chance, choice, fate, striving, etc. - he never lost sight of the individual person, leaving us so many memorable characters - something regrettably lost in contemporary postmodern criticism in its obsession with "theory" and technique. ( I was also interested to learn recently that despite his negativity towards God he was a regular attendant at evensong in the local parish church; he regarded such traditions as integral to community life).
John RD | 10 November 2020


I hope ES readers will note, Pam, that John RD's attempt to use your and my admiration for Thomas Hardy's profound work to ridicule postmodern approaches to social criticism in literary theory is not a view that has wide support in academia or indeed anywhere else, other than perhaps in the deep recesses of John's fervent imagination: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/victorian-literature-and-culture/article/glimmerings-of-the-postmodern-in-thomas-hardys-jude-the-obscure/BAF08
Michael Leonard FURTADO | 13 November 2020


Frankly, MLF, (13/11) I care little - as I hoped should have been clear from my postings by now - about verdicts volleyed from the default position to which you increasingly repair in our exchanges: the contemporary academy's abhorrence of an Arts and Humanities tradition developed by over two millennia by the West (i.e., a self-reflexive combination of Judaism, Christianity, Ancient Greece and Rome), the appreciation - let alone promotion and professing of which - is enough to have one branded and hounded in the current 'woke' and "cancel-culture" climate of the USA, Britain and elitist niches of Australia as a "white supremacist", (Never mind the fact that this same alleged Spoiler and Oppressor of All Things Desirable and Liberal, western civilsation, is valued by representatives of most races around the globe; and that many of its detractors have, of course, made handsome pickings off the institutions of the very cultural repository they profess to despise). When as a student I asked a widely published and respected Professor of Sociology and Modern History some thirty years ago how it was that nearly all Australia's leading universities appeared to be establishing exclusively neo-Marxist Department Heads and curriculum in all but the Philosophy of Education (where, that is, it still existed) in their Departments of Education, he replied: "You've must have read Orwell's "Animal Farm": you'd know that the allegorical Boxer in it represents Stalin's "useful idiots." He was being neither unkind nor cynical. Nor was he uninformed, having been the Director of the British Communist Party's post-WW2 Bureau of Education. To this response a Dominican scholar priest acquaintance added: "The reduction of human evil to social structures and the goad of a largely faux guilt, a standard ploy of Marxism the world over directed mainly at the upwardly aspiring middle class, should be factored into any answer to your question." I hope this saves both you and me further repetitions, Michael.
John RD | 14 November 2020


MLF: Following your recommended reading, I wonder why, if Samir Elbarbary's clearly stated thesis on character-dissolving ("the differential and discontinuous structure of the self" that "characterises Jude"), binary line-blurring, the anti-ontological preoccupation with and preferencing of the "irreal", the class-rejected outsider, and other trademark preoccupations of postmodernist theorists (Foucault, Derrida, Barthes, Lyotard, Baudrillard, Iser, et al) is correct, that Hardy titles his novel "Jude the Obscure" after its main character? - Not the only one of his books and short stories, it be might noted, to be named after its central figure; and in "The Mayor of Casterbridge", we might note, too, how Hardy, quoting Novalis, asserts - for all his alertness to life's contingencies and complexities - "Character is Fate" in reference to Michael Henchard; and sub-titles his story: "The Life and Death of a Man of Character."
John RD | 14 November 2020


Having attended Melbourne University I recognised the photo in Andy's article. In the late 1960s and early 1970s it was generally quite safe for a male to walk around the area at night. I am not so sure about women as there were always odd characters around. Being safe is not necessarily pusillanimous. I found and find it hard to respond to MF's rather bilious ad hominem attack on me, so I shall treat it as I normally treat his intellectual broomstick rides and avoid the flight path. God knows what he will drop during them. I thought that sort of 'intellectual' had gone out of fashion. Sad really. Oh for a Maritain or Belloc! MF is more of the Gerard Paterson ( brother of Les) stature.
Edward Fido | 01 December 2020


Look out, Edward - mere mention of Maritain and Belloc will provoke further stereotyping of the kind to which we've become accustomed by those who champion diversity. Nevertheless, as Minerva's owl continues her flight, and some highly degreed Catholics in these threads continue their crusade to fudge real differences between the Catholic Church and other expressions of Christianity, it seems to me Belloc's insistence that the Reformation be more properly called a Revolution becomes increasingly pertinent.
John RD | 04 December 2020


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