Thinking things through in the Australian Alps

A review of Anthony Sharwood's From Snow to Ash

Hi! I’m Hannah James, journalist, writer and editor, and this is where I review nature books, and think about nature-related topics out loud. Thanks for reading!

Connecting to nature

Turns out new jobs are surprisingly tiring, so I’ve mainly been on the sofa in my spare time these past two weeks, rather than in nature. I’m now the content and features editor at Country Style magazine, which I am hugely enjoying. I was so adrift when ELLE Australia closed - it was such a great team and I was so proud of what we achieved - but now I feel I’ve found safe harbour in turbulent times. Plus I get to stare at gorgeous houses FOR MY JOB now. Can’t quite believe my luck.

What I’ve been reading

The gardener Claire Ratinon wrote an incredible newsletter on the language we use in the garden (native, invasive, etc). I wrote about this here.

And the lovely nature writer Inga Simpson gave her favourite nature reads here - some good ones to add to the list.

I’ve just finished From Snow to Ash by Anthony Sharwood, a sports journalist who, amid a career crisis, decided to walk the entire 660km Australian Alps Walking Track from Victoria’s High Country to Canberra. Any thoughts I might have entertained of doing the same were quickly quashed by Sharwood’s description of the high-level hiking skills you need to complete it.

He’s a jovial, engaging companion, writing with a light touch that displays his years in the game (not to mention his talent for crafting a terrible dad joke or seven). But alongside the jovial trail banter, Sharwood weaves in plenty of serious points: as a lifelong skier and lover of the mountains, he is profoundly concerned by the way climate change is irreparably damaging the Australian Alps (see Australian Geographic’s recent feature on the same topic here). He interviews scientists and fellow mountain-lovers to round out his account of the crisis, and it’s testament to his skills that the dramatic denouement of his hike, cut short in the first days of 2020 by the terrible bushfires of that summer, doesn’t overshadow the rest of his story. He’s even brave enough to wade into the brumby controversy (yes, they’re beautiful and symbolic, for many people, but their hard hooves totally destroy the fragile ecosystem of the Alps).

My only lengthy solo hike was the Cape to Cape Track in WA, which was only a six-dayer, but even as Sharwood recounts the hardships of trail walking, he sparked a desire in me to do it again. He also mentions something that really surprised me when I experienced it for myself about thinking while hiking. It seems obvious that, with nothing to do all day but walk and think, you’ll figure out your problems while long-distance hiking. In fact your mind, far from being free to roam, is usually consumed with worries. Have I strayed off the path onto an animal track? Am I making good enough time to get to the campsite tonight? Am I running out of water or getting a blister? There’s at once no time to puzzle through problems, and too much. (At one point he falls into conversation with a questionable stranger simply because “I need a break from the relentless internal monologue of the trail”.) And for part of the time he was just plain grumpy, which again chimes with my experience! But he does eventually have an epiphany about epiphanies that I won’t spoil by quoting (it’s good).

Thanks very much to Hachette Australia for sending me this one to read! I’m hugely grateful to book PRs for keeping me entertained and distracted with care packages of new books. It’s been a trying few months and I so appreciate their kindness.

From Snow to Ash was my 78th book for 2020. In the past two weeks I’ve also read:

  1. Matt Haig, The Midnight Library

  2. John von Sothen, Paris Match

  3. Nydia Hetherington, A Girl Made of Air

  4. Anthony Sharwood, From Snow to Ash

See you in two weeks!