Monday, March 11, 2019

Traverse & Transcend: Notes from a Walkabout by Benjamin Kelley Gottwald

You have navigated with raging soul far from the paternal home, passing beyond the sea’s double rocks, and now you inhabit a foreign land.

 Euripides, Medea

“Hey, so we were taking earlier,” one of the ladies from Milwaukee said to me, “and we decided: this is your rite of passage.”

“You think so?” I looked up and asked, having just crammed into my backpack 35 pounds of food, water, clothes, and other miscellaneous, life-saving supplies I have been carrying with me for the past four days.

“Yeah,” she replied in a verifying tone, “this is how you become a man.”

Despite having readied myself entirelybootlaces fastidiously fastened, map carefully examined, bandana neatly folded and tied across my brow—I sat on a wooden bench in the shelter’s bunkroom for a few minutes, thinking eagerly about her words. I wondered just what the verb become really meant: what it had to do with the five days I had spent in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, the 30 miles I had walked over roaring rivers and mountain tops, the manhood two Midwestern mothers had claimed I had achieved. That conversation put the last day of my hike in a curious mood, and with 13 miles to go and three more peaks to summit, I took to the trail with the usual hiker’s mentation: simultaneously in awe of the sublime landscapes and lost in thought inside of my head. I discussed my journey’s purpose with myself. I wasn’t running errands in the woods for status, nor was I looking to wave a flag of masculinity from the barren peaks of mountains. I was looking for myself and nothing else. Having graduated high school one day prior to setting out for the hills, I did have something to prove, but this time it was an internal demonstration. In a word, I was on a walkabout.

The term comes from Australian Aborigine culture and represents the six-month journey every Aboriginal young man must take as a rite of passage into manhood. In that time, he must survive with little more than his skills alone, proving to Mother Nature herself that he can withstand the unforgiving Outback wilderness (Gibbs, par. 2). This odyssey into adulthood was best captured by British New Wave film director Nicholas Roeg in 1971, when he created a film that bears the selfsame term as its title.

When the opening shots of Walkabout—glimpses of quotidian city life in Australia—subside, a dicey and hazardous narrative unfolds. An English family drives into the scorching Outback to have a picnic. Yet behind the innocent meal lurks some malice; the father, who Roeg depicts as tragically ignoring his young son and perversely aware of his teenage daughter, suddenly draws a pistol on both of his two children. While the young ones do manage to find cover behind nearby rocks and brush, the following frame ensures us that the father had a similar fate in store for himself: it shows the car, having been ignited in flames, and the father, having shot himself in the head (Roeg).

From that point on, the two children—played by actors Jenny Agutter and Lucien Roeg—are fatherless and abandoned. They are left to their own devices under the scorching sun with little more than their school uniforms, a battery-powered radio, and the contents of a picnic basket. What follows is their dramatic and desperate attempt at surviving the inhospitable. They seem to fair well for a day or two, even managing to find a desert oasis; that is, until they wake up the next morning to find their precious water source dried up entirely. At this point in the film, the viewer can easily assume that doom has found its mark. Luckily for them, however, a young Aboriginal boy, played by indigenous Australian actor David Gulpilil, comes into frame. With his skills and knowledge of the land, the Aborigine teaches the two to drink water from the same ground they believed had dried up, and takes them under his wing as he journeys across the desert landscape (Roeg). It is clear, at this point, that the two children have a destination: the civilized world from which they came. Yet plenty of viewers ask the same question of the Aborigine. As the movie’s title suggests, he too is on a walkabout.

As I watched the Aborigine in his pointed and communal interactions with nature—his effortful and modest hunting with wooden spears, his use of animal blood as a remedy for the young boy’s sunburn, his sense of navigation that borders on second-nature—I felt the same inspiration that came to me during my own rite of passage through the woods of New England. I must concede that the Aborigine’s walkabout is of a more serious and urgent nature, and his terrain far more unforgiving than mine. Still, beyond the physical and procedural, a deeper idea lies in the subtext, further connecting him and me: both of our excursions were opportunities to traverse and transcend the realities we take for granted, to show us a side of humanity and its world that we had previously never acknowledged.

My journey into the mountains showed me more than the flipside of nature; it elucidated the flipside of humankind. The Midwesterners with whom I spoke on that Wednesday morning in June were just two of the dozens of people I met on the sides of trails, on the summits of mountains, and in the quiet of shelters. With each new person I met, with each new way of life they showed me, I was exposed to a new mode of human interaction. It was a new kind of friendship—immediately formed in that unlikely meeting place—that would reveal to me some aspect of what it means to be human so starkly, I automatically cast away the separation that civilized strangers unknowingly hide behind. The whirlwind nature of my interactions with these people made them unforgettable to me; after that night in the shelter had ended, or that water break on the cliff had grown too cold in the breeze, it was a near guarantee that I would never see them again.

Yet this iconoclastic awakening brings about so much more from the perspective of the Aborigine; his departure from his rite of passage was totally unlike my own. My jolt of enlightenment carried less of a shock than his. As their narrative progresses, the three protagonists each develop differently, and each get a jolt of their own. The Boy grows calm, and through his curiosity of the events, he attempts adaptation. The Girl, however, keeps her blinders set on her return to civilization. Still, Roeg’s depictions of her interaction with nature—her adjustment, her efforts to relax and find solace in her predicament—contrast with his depictions of the Aborigine.

As critic James Berardinelli so aptly put it, “Walkabout is about the never-ending conflict between civilization and nature, and how the two constantly work to destroy one another” (Berardinelli, par. 4). His observation shines through as the film nears its end. In directing the film, Roeg had an opportunity to reconcile the injurious relationship of civilization and nature via the interactions of the Aborigine and The Girl, but he resolves to do the opposite. The Aborigine slowly grows enamored of the teenage girl, and this attraction comes to a head when he dances for her. The raucous tone of the didgeridoo, an Australian instrument, underscores the situation: she becomes intimidated by his advances, ultimately rejecting him. And the morning after these hijinks, the two British children wake to find their native guide dead, having hung himself the night before (Roeg).

The Aborigine’s death is something to be mourned in every aspect; Roeg condemns the relationship between civilization and nature when he cast the native young man into the absurd. Overwhelmed and crestfallen by this view of the world, the Aborigine became yet another martyr. Watching that scene, I couldn’t help but realize my fortunate circumstances: my journey of self-discovery showed me a new part of myself and the world in which I live that gave me hope for the future. It showed me the exigencies of life, a world’s worth of competing forces, but revealed them to me in a luckily benevolent light.

Still, the Aborigine will not go unavenged in my mind; as he fell victim to the great conflict of society and nature, he revealed to the world, in 1971, the true situation. The civilized world is not deserving of an unmitigated conquest over nature. I learned this on my own terms too, when I saw just how capable nature is of retaliation. My walk in the woods forced me to come to terms with violent storms, unrelenting winds, and the crippling cold. It gave me the same feeling Walkabout should bestow upon any attentive viewer: a humble urge to approach nature in peace and only peace.

Works Cited

Berardinelli, James. "Review for Walkabout (1971)." IMDb., 1997. Web. 01 Mar. 2017.

Ebert, Roger. "Walkabout Movie Review & Film Summary." N.p., 13 Apr. 1997. Web. 02 Mar. 2017.

Euripides. "Medea." The Internet Classics Archive. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, n.d. Web. 03 Mar. 2017.

Gibbs, Patrick. "Walkabout, Original 1971 Review: 'beautiful'." The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 08 Nov. 2014. Web. 04 Mar. 2017.

Walkabout. Dir. Nicolas Roeg. Perf. Jenny Agutter and David Gulpilil. Twentieth Century Fox, 1971. Online.

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