Nature and grief: Rosie Batty’s experience
(This post can be read in conjunction with Chapter 5 of Connect with Nature) Most people in Australia would recognise Rosie Batty. In recent years, she has become an admired and influential public figure. She was named Australian of the Year in 2015 in recognition of her efforts to raise awareness of the extent, ubiquity and horror of domestic violence.
Less than a year earlier she had suffered the loss of her only child, Luke, at the hands of her estranged and mentally ill husband. On the morning after Luke’s murder, she somehow found the courage and strength to make an impromptu and impassioned speech (to a media pack outside her home) that captured the attention of a nation and ignited a landmark and snowballing conversation about domestic and family violence.
In the months and indeed years that followed, she was a leading voice in that socially transforming conversation, despite the unremitting and profound grief she was feeling.
Her continuing and powerful advocacy led ultimately to the Royal Commission into Family Violence. In 2019, she was made an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) in recognition of her “distinguished service to the community as a campaigner and advocate for the prevention of family violence”.
But behind her brave public persona, there was a woman in the depths of grief. She admits to wanting to die so as to escape her anguish and profound sense of loss. She was feeling pain for which there seemed no relief or end.
She is finding healing, however, not complete healing – the loss of a child creates a wound that can never fully heal. But, as reported by award winning journalist and author, Sue Smethurst, in a recent Women’s Weekly article, Rosie is now experiencing joy and contentment in between times of painful grief.
Rosie’s main source of healing is trekking – walking for long distances over extended periods in wilderness and other natural areas. Among the treks she has done are: Cradle Mountain to Lake St Claire in Tasmania, sections of the Larapinta Trail in the Northern Territory, Scotland’s West Highlands Way and Coast to Coast in the United Kingdom.
Rosie described trekking to Sue Smethurst this way: “You’re in spectacular scenery, you’ve got the camaraderie of like-minded people, and all you are doing every day is getting up, having a hearty breakfast and walking, whether it’s 10 kilometres or 20, or whatever”. As Rosie suggests, there is a grounding and relaxing rhythm to life on a trek.
Feeling challenged and fatigued are part of a trek’s rhythmic pattern. So too are the joys of rest breaks and the sense of accomplishment and satisfaction that comes when camp is reached at the end of the day with its promise of food and an evening of relaxing companionship.
As Rosie also reported “[A trek is] …challenging in a physical and mental way and it’s very meditative, it’s a safe challenge. It’s one you can do with people, but have your own space and be on your own journey too, so I think there’s lots of healing elements to it”.
I agree with Rosie. I have enjoyed many treks in Australia, New Zealand and the Himalaya of Nepal and India. My wife, daughters and other members of my family, including granddaughters, have shared several of my treks. My wife, Margaret, especially valued the simple routine and rhythm of a trekking day. It is a wonderful way of ‘getting away from it all’, of taking time out from the persistent demands, concerns and responsibilities of life in contemporary Western societies. Trekking can be thought of as a retreat on foot.
But as much as it is an escape, a trekking day is usually a journey to a whole new world, typically one of beauty, wonder and discovery. It can also be a world that challenges us physically and emotionally but often in ways that are ultimately satisfying, rewarding and strengthening.
A trekking journey can also be one of self-reflection, a journey into the highways and by-ways of our inner selves. As Rosie says, a trek provides the ‘space’ to be with oneself. The space she refers to is a psychological one. Even in the company of others, hazard-free walking in natural settings frees our minds to wander, to meander from thought to thought, topic to topic, idea to idea, memory to memory. Such mind-wandering can be very productive and beneficial, enabling us to reframe perspectives, free-up ways of thinking, foster creativity and enhance self-awareness.
Trekking helped Rosie to realise that she can still enjoy life and experience moments of wonder. It awakened in her the realization that she didn’t want to reach old age regretting not doing things. “I want to push myself out of my comfort zone and do things” was how she put it.
My first trek was in the company of my family and people we met for the first time at Kathmandu airport. It was a 14-day circuit in the Annapurna region of Nepal. At the time, trekking in Nepal was still something of a novelty and widely thought of as ‘adventurous’ (which it needn’t and shouldn’t be). All four of us certainly accepted that the trek would push us out of our comfort zones. Our two daughters, then 14 and 12 years of age, later recalled that facing and preparing for the challenges of the trek along with their parents was a very empowering experience in learning how to ‘push the envelope’ and the benefits of doing so.
The trek had a massively enriching influence of each of our lives. It spawned life-long interests, passions and ultimately close and precious relationships with many Nepalese people. For us as a family, it was an enduring bonding experience and source of precious memories.
I see in that first trek the foundations of my love of, and sense of unity with, nature, my passion for bushwalking and other nature activities, and my desire to share that love and passion with others.
That trek and the many others I have done since has brought home to me the power of nature experiences to connect us with ourselves, others and the cosmos. I call tell numerous stories of people who have returned from treks with a more valid appreciation of their capabilities, a deeper understanding of what they want from, and value in, life, and greater insight into their family, work and wider social relationships. In my book, Connect with Nature, I tell a little of the story of Irene Gleeson, which illustrates the point.
Connect with Nature also contains an account of how another grieving mother found comfort and restoration in nature – not by trekking but simply by being or ‘dwelling’ in it. Maureen Hunter lost her son in a car accident after her husband had also died accidentally. Somewhat like Rosie Batty, Maureen reached a point when she said to herself: “No, I will not become a victim of my circumstance. I will not let pain be all I know”. Maureen turned to nature simply by spending times of quietness and reflection out-of-doors. “Nature connected me to life, to life and simple pleasures again”, she recalls.