The Scout's Tale

A poem from David Taylor

I was a boy scout. Possibly still am. Although the popularity of this as a pastime was already waning in the 90s, those of us involved were learning too much and having too much fun to really worry about the perception. It’s hard to believe now that in early adolescence we were allowed, even required, to head off into the wilderness surrounding the Southern Alps with no adult supervision. We had to plan for ourselves too. While these plans were checked by an adult, there was still a lot - the route, the food, the travel arrangements, the hiring of the mountain radio, the gear list, the weather checking, negotiating with New Zealand Rail to let us off the train in the middle of nowhere – that was organised by us. As a secondary teacher now, it’s hard to imagine many parents these days would let their 11 – 14 year old children go bush in this fashion. For various reasons, particularly health, neither of my parents went into the greater outdoors but dropping me down to the Bryndwr Scout Den one evening a week was a way to provide ample opportunities to make up for this.

As I get older I become more and more thankful for my Scouting experience. In hindsight it has given me enough confidence, resilience, perspective, resourcefulness, and ability to put up with discomfort to enable me to get on okay in the world. I wrote this poem partly to give a sense of how profound these tramping trips were for me even though at the time they were just trips away with mates. It was also a way for me to note something of the ever changing beauty of our landscape and how this beauty is balanced with brutality and threat.

After it was written I gave a copy to a cousin who was walking Te Araroa. She received it just before starting on the South Island and kept it with her. Afterwards she told me that she would read it to other trampers at night before the fading light sent them into their tents or in front of the fire in the huts. I was really taken with the idea that the poem had physically moved through the environment which had inspired it and that its sound had been heard out there at night. Hopefully in some small way it provided some of those who heard it with another way to think about their own experiences of, and relationship to, the astonishing places they were in.

The Scout’s Tale

the night gaped open
pushing us through the dawn
out to the edge of the plains

the conductor
put our packs off
the train withdrawing and we
across the flood plain
fording the river’s arms
down where it has spilt its gorge

come unwound
lost its anger

all morning
the mountains beat
back the sky
our wet feet beat
the track up the first valley
the ground giving water
at each step
birds piercing
the smell of leaf mould
a sweet and fertile decay

from the saddle we could see
the earth’s veins opened
flowing blue
winding and unwinding
trees clotted along the banks
their shadows hanging out to dry
in a line next to them
the road a loose thread back
into the void

as the wind argued
over which way to go
we strode on
over each worn away fold
of the map until
mid-afternoon a tussocky spur
opened out golden in the late sun
a bivouac dead of thirst stretched out
and we saw
mountain tops sitting
wrapped in our grandfathers’
grey army blankets
turning their backs on the day

folded into the darkening fabric
trees big and small held on
over rivers and creeks
cold waters
hurriedly writing their long stories
on the stones
exuberant but always ebbing away
and somewhere the crashing
of a young stag as ground gives
way and the birds drop
their ropes of song
letting the silence fall like dusk
where the broken body
begins to turn
to algae
to rock

when the snow line came
it was cold in the tents perched
on the range’s shoulder
and the utter blackness:
the mountain radio crackled like fire
the ruru’s call became light
the wind blew steadily into the night