Backyard Adventuring with Filmmaker Beau Miles
Beau Miles is an award-winning filmmaker, adventurer and author. His films document his curious exploits: from spending the night suspended in a 100-year-old gum tree and being the first person to run the 655 kilometer Australian Alps Walking Track, to eating 191 tins of beans after being inspired by a scene in John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat.
I would happily watch Beau’s bean exposé again, along with his other films. His blending of the extraordinary and the seemingly pointless has me (and my young family) hooked. Beau takes his ideas and curiosities seriously. He follows through. The blurb on the back of his new book, The Backyard Adventurer, refers to this as ‘conscious experimentation with adventure’. He doesn’t always know where he will end up, and these ‘self-experiments’ fuel his storytelling, unravelling hidden and easily forgotten layers within our landscapes, lives and history in the process.
I chatted to Beau about his films, his new book and the importance of connecting to things ‘bigger than ourselves’.
The film Big Gums is the story of you spending the night in a big old gum tree on your property. You describe the experience as a bit like ‘cubby housing for adults’. There’s an almost childlike curiosity that underpins many of your adventures. Can you please talk a bit about your background and what led you to creating these stories?
I can’t say specifically where my willingness and want to spend the night in a tree, re-trace an old train line, or walk 90km to work came from, other than to say at some stage I decided to act on my ideas instead of shelving them. In much the same way, the spring for an idea is elusive – as in, why it sprung in the first place. Much of my stories get layered and stripped back in the aftermath of actually doing them.
While I’m thoughtful and observant in life, it is the edit suite where reflection is put to work by asking ‘What’s really going on here?!’ If I surprise myself, I surprise my audience, and that’s a must. At all times I’m critical of my own role within the soup of humanity – how do my day-to-day choices impact other lives – both human and non-human.
In the same film, you talk about where you live in Victoria, Australia, and how when you inspected your property prior to purchasing it, one of the drawcards was the size and age of the Strzelecki gums (Eucalyptus strzeleckii), that dotted the landscape. You obviously connect with these trees. What inspired you to climb them?
My two great themes are backyard adventuring and the appreciation of seeing life from new perspectives, such as that of an endangered yet everyday gumtree. Spending a night in a tree is not unique, but it’s easy not to do. I did it to find out how familiar places look different from another angle, and to see why this matters.
My blood boils when a developer is given permission to deliver death blows to old trees. Try as they might to argue that five new trees get planted for every old one, this thinking demonstrates that we don’t see the true value of these trees. Developers and town planners rarely ever witness the process, let alone do it themselves. Downing a tree that is hundreds of years old would shake their bones when the huge mass crashes to earth, and if it doesn’t, perhaps they’re less human than the rest of us.
I climbed the tree to leave such acidic thoughts on the ground, passing myself over to another living thing in order to be bumped around by the breeze.
Was there anything about this experience that surprised you?
The big surprise was that the trees became the story, not the bloke spending the night in one. I set out to exaggerate the idea of Backyard Adventuring – having an engaging, make-it-up-as-you-go, experience that is something out of the ordinary. While eating, drinking and sleeping in a gumtree is indeed a special type of experience itself, the grandness, movement, form, and overall presence of these giant specimens emerged as the general theme and driver of the story.
The movement of the tree meant it was like spending the night in a boat, constantly moving and being rocked about by giant, flexible limbs. For some reason I didn’t think the movement would feel like it did.
Can you talk a bit about what it was like to run the Australian Alps Walking track?
People have been wandering around the Alps for millennia, but this particular line has been a bush walking rite of passage since the 70’s. It was a long conversation with myself, gum leaves and clouds. I ran between 43 and 70kms a day for two weeks. I watched in awe as the world slid past – trying awfully hard not to step on snakes, which mostly turned out to be sticks.
As most of the run is between 1000-2000m in altitude, it’s very much a run with your head in the clouds. You can judge the speed of the wind by racing clouds (the clouds always win), watching them pass over land you’ve just passed, keeping an eye on the time. Sections like the Crosscut Saw, which might very well be the most beautiful place on earth, is spellbinding, concentrate-or-die running that overlooks the Terrible Hollow, deep in the Victorian Alps. Your self is dwarfed by the vastness of the view, and you can’t help but to dream up prehistoric species that you hope still live among the rocks and elbow-folds of gnarly gums.
Countless studies have found associations between frequency of greenspace use, or even just a green view and positive mental health outcomes. Can you speak to this?
I taught the research of Attention Restoration Theory (ART) for years at Monash University. It’s brilliant stuff, whereby they found out that simple and genuine connections to nature and natural scenes are as beneficial to our brain function as sleep. Put another way, watching a crackling fire or a stream, or listing to birdsong reboots our mind. Biophilia is much the same concept. Your problems seem to gain perspective, dissolve all together, or get fixed when in nature. I notice this during and after a run. Balance is restored to what can sometimes feel like an unbalanced life.
There’s clearly value in making time to connect to ‘nearby nature’, not just in designated places like national parks. When you walked to 90 km to work, setting off with no food, water or shelter you were interested in whether this stripped back adventure close to home, could give you the kind of buzz that far away, exotic, heavily planned expeditions had given you. Can you share some of the takeaways from the experience?
I think we all know that walking sets us up to think at our own pace, which is the best kind of thinking. I cannot emphasise enough how important it is to move to the beat of our own drum – which is our heart (which is the actual beat, based on some kind of ‘fit’ state, thus beats and works at a particular cadence), driven by our arms and legs that put into action the capacity of the heart (and our motivations). Walking, running, swimming, making, sitting at our own pace is harder than it sounds because we’re often not alone, nor disciplined enough to do exactly what you want. Walking to work and running my local, closed down railway line are excellent examples of doing things on my own clock entirely. Yes, certain parameters were in play, but these were also my own doing, which allowed me to see, feel, experience and pass on these things in story form with a certain degree of authenticity.
In your book you mention some of the more obvious benefits of ‘backyard adventuring’, such as the ease and reduction in your carbon footprint. The added bonus, brought out through these challenges, seems to be a deeper connection to history and the landscapes that surround you?
Following a very simple idea such as running an old train-line, forces my hand a little bit to think about things that are easy to forget. Given so much of our past is hard to see, there comes a time where you have to actively search out history. This is where I take inspiration from people who are more disciplined in their work than me, like writers who constantly take notes, or filmmakers who pain themselves over a shot. What they are doing is storyboarding what they see. Not many of us do this I fear, because the immediate washes over us so easily. History, in other words, is only there to those who care to look.
Can you please describe your garden or how you garden?
I’m the son of a landscape artist and a nurse/gardener, two people who have always considered the whole spectrum of life to be worthwhile. Their differences are great in regards to thinking about non-human life; mum despises weeds and noxious species, while dad – the true lover of all things, considers them as survivors. Their contradictory thinking makes for good parenting – both schools of thought are worthy.
I garden as if I’ve allocated more time to gardening. Every so often I go bonkers and get a lot done in short, intense bouts of time; garden bed prep, planting, mulching – then I limp through and let the best of the best survive. I’m as seasonal as the place I live in terms of my garden energy. My wife Helen is the captain of the garden now, as I concentrate on the fruit trees, firewood, paddock, and maintenance of buildings. It’s a good five-acre relationship where we’ve divided up the tasks – all in the name of diversity and health. I wish we could grow bananas so far south, by golly I wish we could. We’ve settled for nursing an avocado tree instead.