Walking and Social Capital

In the final chapter of Disconnected, one of the things that I advocate is 'reclaiming the footpaths', as a way of building civic connectedness. Reading this passage, local resident Neville Hurst sent me a delightful account of his regular walks around Lake Ginninderra. He's given me permission to post it here.
By Neville Hurst

Walking is one of the great privileges of life – just ask anybody who has lost the ability, whether permanently or temporarily, to walk easily.  For those who have the good fortune to be able to “take a walk”, it is still freely available, not yet commodified.

Like many others, I am committed to a regular walk.  Every Saturday morning – no shirking because of the odd cyclone or heatwave – I walk around Lake Ginninderra; a comfortable canter of about 7 km.

The benefits are manifold.

The most obvious is physical.  Just to move freely after a confined week is a joy.  I can vary my speed, responding to how my body reacts, sometimes coasting and sometimes pressing harder.  I can be overcome by a feeling of atavism -–as if I were a hunter setting out for a foray.  And then reality takes over – an elderly, effete modern man pretending to physical capability that his muscles tell him he doesn’t have.

The Lake Ginninderra walk is an environmental cornucopia – through open bushland, round the natural peninsula, over the two bridges, reluctantly passing the coffee shop, past the buildings at the southern end and finishing by the parkland.  Each week is different – when it is freezing, the lake may be steaming in the sunlight, fallen trees appear from time to time, the wattle stands come suddenly into bloom, the old “Sizzlers” transmutes into a modern Thai restaurant.  Sometimes hot-air balloons sneak quietly in to land, and I can watch the people struggle out of the basket.  I have to come to terms with major changes – a large apartment complex to the south west, and a new housing development near Ginninderra Drive; but the overall integrity of the circuit is not threatened.

The interaction with people is a highlight.  Early on a Saturday morning, there is a well-defined culture of Lake “encirclers”.  We all know that we are engaged in a serious, albeit enjoyable, enterprise.  This culture has its structure – at the pinnacle are the cyclists who whizz past, sometimes ringing their bells and sometimes not, without any acknowledgment of the lesser breeds.  Then there are the runners – some very good (for example, Phil McGilvray) and others clearly struggling; they all tend to be self-absorbed.  It is the fellow-walkers that I warm to, again a variable tribe – groups of women, individuals with dogs or pushing prams, lone individuals like myself.  I make more contact with strangers in this hour than throughout the rest of the week.  There is a real art in exchanging greetings – one must look elsewhere until one gets within about three metres, and then one is entitled to make eye-contact and essay a cheerful “Good morning”; only rarely is it not returned.  When passing somebody walking in the same direction, the etiquette seems to be to keep quiet; there may be some deep-seated concern not to be seen as gloating!

I could write a monograph on the etiquette of social contact while walking.  Hardly a PhD thesis, but perhaps a tract.

And then there is the opportunity for thinking.  I can choose the themes as the mood takes me:  one day it might be theology, another football.  The regular “one-two” movement helps to put a structure on problems that might have seemed difficult up till then.

More fancifully, one can think of the circuit of the lake as an allegory for life.  The start is all  eagerness, re-learning just as a child does the skills from the week before.  Soon, one is in the thick of things, at the peak of performance and looking forward to the challenges ahead.  Then, tiredness gradually takes over, and the last kilometre or two can be a real challenge.  When the end comes, it is a relief.  Even the car ride home can fit into this allegory - the magic chariot that translates one away towards a heightened reality.

However, it is really just a walk.  But it is a marvellous privilege available to us here in Canberra, and one that everybody who can should consider engaging in .  I wish I had started thirty years ago when the Lake was opened - I guess I’ll just have to plan for the next thirty.

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