WALKING AS KNOWING : David Watson


I barely know Lesley Punton.

We’ve met only once – on my side of the earth – the day Lesley and her family dropped in for a cuppa at our home studio after she’d projected images of her resonant work up at Sydney College of the Arts, here in urban Rozelle. Later we strolled a few hundred metres together, with Angus in his pram, around restored harbourside parkland on Iron Cove – named, some say, for the iron shackles worn by convicts there in the 1790s to prevent their escape – north, some dreamt, to China!



We’ve kept in touch since, sent each other stuff – catalogues, texts, images –
emailed sporadic enthusiasms. Though often months in the making, and usually delayed by the variegated demands of life, our missives are always delivered (somewhat unnecessarily given their lengthy gestation) at the speed of light. No stamps these days, no weeks spent jostling quietly, expectantly with other packets and packages down in a creaking wooden hold.

We early adopters, we privileged navigators of the contemporary West appear strangely unphased by this new-found duality: the blending of often-unhurried analog experience with usually-instant digital gratification. Lesley and I have tapped out paragraphs on occasion (Generation Y call this ‘speaking’) about how the cadences, exertion, focus and freedoms of walking help to ‘unlock’ new experiences of place. Immersion at a meandering pace certainly does seem to help remove a little of the contemporary clamour, the ‘background noise’. Perhaps, as Rebecca Solnit has observed, the mind works best at three miles per hour; Lesley has even wondered, in an entirely ‘pre-GPS’ sense, whether cognition might be motion sensitive and site specific:
The geography of Scotland has started to make sense in new physical ways with rivers, glens, and mountain groups providing every bit as many connections as the roads that previously formed my understandings of how things linked.

Walking loved places (even unloved ones) delivers tiny epiphanies, imaginings, meditative pauses and memories, personal, occasionally sharable palimpsests of meaning and emotion. Nourished by metaphysical spaces such as these, artists can inflect and embroider, add nuance, help to transform space into place. Lesley’s favoured sites – often-remote corners of Scotland – are for her never void of calories:
The wild places I seek out … are about as full as I could hope them to be, and that includes vast expanses of moorland such as Rannoch Moor or the rock outcrops in the North West of Scotland where not much other than heather and grass can grow.

Throughout our two-year ‘conversation’ Lesley and I have spoken often about what it means to walk at a time of accelerated, largely city-based living, and of our love/hate relationship with new technologies. Interestingly, and contrary to our initial prejudices/fears, we have both come to admit that the slow progress of [our] work ‘won by walking’ has been immeasurably enriched, opened up, via access to digital research materials.

For example, instantaneous key-word searches for specific place names (across previously amorphous, inaccessible archival-image collections) had fuelled and embroidered Wild Ryde, my seven-year photo-based walking and swimming odyssey across suburban Sydney. Via home computer the immersive ‘now’ of my transit had been enlivened, entwined with the ‘then’ of history in (almost) real time: ‘fact’, fiction, dream … the personal, the anecdotal, the entirely fanciful, borne along, buoyed by until-recently unresuscitated (but far from worthless) digitally derived minutiae and detritus.

Sometimes I think about Lesley in Glasgow – all those molten earthy rock-laden kilometres away through the earth – and her latest mountain walk, or artwork. Via her website (at the rather poor industry-standard screen resolution of 72 pixels per inch) I can bring to mind but not properly appreciate the true surface and depth of her imagery, nor her oft-laborious technique which, beyond traditional landscape representation, viscerally, softly echoes her journeying. As I think about our ant-like wandering, wondering, googling and inscribing, upon separate hemispheres, poles apart, I gladly recognise though that our practices are more immediately communicable, alignable, mutually sustaining in this ‘post-digital’ age than ever before in history.

When Lesley mentions Scotland’s fiercely defended ‘right to roam’ in an email, for example (in response to my outrage re the access coal seam gas companies are being allowed beneath people’s farms up and down our east coast: unchecked legal pilfering which has lately spawned the unstoppable Lock The Gate protest alliance) I flash back immediately to indigenous notions of walking and caring for country here in the South. In seconds I’m able to recommend that Lesley read a new book, Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate on Earth – How Aborigines Made Australia, about the extensive, until now barely acknowledged good stewardship of aboriginal people via the walking and firing of ‘country’, over millennia. I can even attach a PDF review of the book with a couple of swiftly empowering keystrokes.

Alongside and despite the lure and marvellous utility of the virtual, it becomes clearer to me by the day that most human beings, whether indigenous or newly-arrived (Lesley, I know, regards herself as a ‘native’ of Scotland) still crave an immersive relationship with ‘country’ – within their most familiar, loved, often local physical environments – whether they be urban or rural, built-up or people-free.

Aboriginal people regard ‘country’ as:
a place that gives and receives life. Not just imagined or represented, it is lived and lived with. People talk about country in the same way that they would talk about a person: they speak to country, sing to country, visit country, worry about country, feel sorry for country, and long for country. People say that country knows, hears, smells, takes notice, is sorry or happy. Country is not a generalised or undifferentiated type of place, such as one might indicate with terms like ‘spending a day in the country’ or ‘going up the country’. Rather, country is a living entity with a yesterday, today and tomorrow, with a consciousness, and a will toward life. Because of this richness, country is home, and peace; nourishment for body, mind and spirit; heart’s ease.

Last year Lesley sent me some extracts from The Living Mountain, a remarkable 1940s prose meditation by the Scottish writer Nan Shepherd. Like Lesley today, Nan was a lover and climber of mountains. During her long life she covered thousands of miles exploring the Cairngorms (in north-eastern Scotland) on foot. In a 2008 review of her recently republished paen, English nature writer Robert Macfarlane observes:
The book is about the Cairngorms in the same way that Ulysses is about Dublin, or Mrs Dalloway is about London – which is to say, it is attentive to the specifics of its chosen landscape, but also passionately metaphysical.

Lesley Punton’s work is similarly extracted, abstracted. Derived directly from the places she walks and pursues connection to, it also simultaneously experiments with (in her case visual) language, which seeks to parallel the experience.

Macfarlane goes on to note that most mountain literature is written by men ‘focused on the summit’, and that in utter contrast, Nan Shepherd goes into the Cairngorms ‘merely to be with the mountain as one visits a friend, with no intention but to be with him’. ‘“And” is one her favourite words … being the conjunction which implies connection without hierarchy’, he writes. Shepherd speaks of recapturing ‘the pristine amazement not often savoured’, and of sleeping upon the summit, where ‘emptied of preoccupation, there is nothing between me and the earth and sky.’

Walking barefoot (a favourite Sydney pursuit of my own, not always achievable in Scotland) the author muses – so memorably you can feel it – that ‘a flower caught by the stalk between the toes is a small enchantment’. Concluding her ode, Shepherd writes of ‘living in one sense at a time to live all the way through’ so that ‘the body may be said to think.’ Schooled in Buddhism, Nan Shepherd’s spirit and approach to ‘country’ sound, at least to these white Australian ears, extraordinarily, refreshingly aboriginal: indigenous Australians have believed, for 60,000 years, that they are part of the land, that it owns them, not the other (Anglo) way around.

In 26 views of the starburst world, his recent re-imagining of early Sydney through the eyes and burgeoning indigenous sensitivities of William Dawes, the colony’s first astronomer, author Ross Gibson observes:
To be in country most beneficially, you have to be absorbed by it, you have to redistribute yourself in it, you have to flow with its dynamics.

Amidst that flow, those dynamics, those earthly and celestial heavens, a mere 180 degrees to the north, walks Lesley Punton, an artist in touch with mountains, whom I have come to know through walking, and email, and to respect. One day I hope to see Lesley’s work with my own eyes. And to spend a night alone upon a Scottish mountain: witness, like her, to the fleeting ‘maximum black’ of a summer solstice. My rucksack, I assure you, will be free of all technological devices.


David Watson