A walk on the wild side

I lace up my walking boots most days and strike out on bush trails around my home. I wear long trousers to guard against snakebite, a hat against the sun. In the cooler months I wear a red jacket. It's lightweight yet warm, hooded. I know I don't slip through unseen when I wear it, that I clash with the blended palette of nature, but I bought it cheap in the sales and in the cooler months it's a necessity.

I know some people view nature as separate to them. It's something they seek to best or overcome, to stake a claim upon; something they must possess. For me, the opposite is true. When I'm bushwalking I am nature and it possesses me.

 Sally Piper at Wilsons Promontory, where her novel is loosely based. Piper did a five-day solo hike in the area as research for the book.  Photo: Supplied

Sally Piper at Wilsons Promontory, where her novel is loosely based. Piper did a five-day solo hike in the area as research for the book.

Photo: Supplied

I started bushwalking as a girl on Wilsons Promontory in Victoria. With my siblings I followed the leader along sinuous dusty tracks, over rocky headlands, through eucalyptus forests or straight up, our own trail cut through scrub. These childhood landscapes gave me a love for the natural world. They are also the places where I learned to endure and to wonder at, to keep up and to not whinge. Mostly these lessons have stuck.

It was on these walks where my lessons in survival began. But they related more to the threats of the natural world – snakes, falls, getting lost – than human threats. These lessons of survival have stayed with me, but over the years I realise others have been added.

I like to walk mostly alone and on quiet trails. I notice more for the solitude – small, unexpected things, like a perfectly formed fairy-wren nest or the startling colours of a mountain katydid. But I've noticed that people, mainly women, often question my choice to walk solo. They think me foolish for setting out alone, believing I put myself at unnecessary risk. I feel scolded by their gaze, like a child caught breaking a well-known rule or, in my case, a woman going against the collective consciousness of our gender. For women, this includes all the things we learn to do, or learn not to do, to keep ourselves safe.

But where does it come from, this narrative telling women what they should or shouldn't wear, where they should or shouldn't walk?

More often than not I suspect it is simply our habituation of thinking. Just as popular paths are formed by the habit of feet and create pedestrian scars on the landscape, so too are the minds of many women marred by the status quo – an assumption of vulnerability should they stray from the routes others determine safest for them. As Robyn Davidson says in her memoir Tracks, ''[Women] have used cowardice for so long to protect themselves that it has become habit.''

In courtrooms and in the media, assaults on women are often dissected first for the woman's culpability in her attack. She is judged for where or when that attack took place, made to feel like a trespasser in the public spaces where they occur. She is forced to wear remarks about her decision-making: What did you expect? Or her attitude: Asking for trouble. Unchallenged, this narrative doesn't shift and the onus remains on women to keep themselves safe rather than on the forces that dictate they must. Women live smaller lives as a consequence.

It is an unfortunate truth that women's sexuality is also defined geographically – by where we choose to walk. I have experienced adversity when I've walked on suburban footpaths (the adversity on bush trails is more about my perceived fear of something happening). Cars pass too close just for kicks, they yell obscenities, jeer, catcall, tell me I'm "wasting oxygen". I nearly yell obscenities back, but the mantra of cautionary don'ts silences me. And so the narrative continues.

My love for nature and bushwalking eventually made its way into a novel. The Geography of Friendship grew from this passion, and as much as this story deals with the allure of a hike, celebrating the natural beauty of the Australian bush, it also considers the threat inherent in these spaces for women. The female characters in the novel set off on a hike through a wilderness region where the perfect storm of ill intent meets vulnerability. As I wrote this novel I walked more and more on my own. It was as though I was writing towards the thing I feared most about the bush – my vulnerability coming up against the ill intent of another – and, in doing so, it allowed me to walk away from the fear that had constrained me. Through the writing of this book I sought to break the habit of my limited thinking, and eventually I achieved it.

Ralph Waldo Emerson says, "Nature's dice are always loaded", and I know too that so are humanities and that we have little or no control over the roll of either. But how much of our fear is a sheep dressed in wolf's clothing? Fears propagated by hand-me-down stories of caution that begin in our youth and that often contain a litany of don'ts. These are the garments of the wolf.

I have a recurring dream. In it women reclaim the places that their fears have forced them to abandon. I see them in parklands and car parks any time of day or night and on isolated trails. I see their free movement writ large in red jackets; a grand pedestrian utopia where public spaces are truly public and not determined by the invisible boundaries that currently define them.

To walk alone and where I choose is the only intervention I know to achieve something of this utopia, to go on noticing the unexpected and discovering the small secrets nature keeps. I want to reclaim those less travelled paths, be an up-rub to the smooth velour of the collective consciousness that says I shouldn't. The alternative is to draw fear into my life, to be possessed by it instead. And if I did that I may as well hang up my red jacket, not leave home at all, adopt the wolf's clothes instead.

- This article first appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald, 23-24 June 2018