Six Weeks in Walcha

Wednesday, 21st August 2013

six weeks in wagaSpending six weeks practicing in a different environment, has given me a strong reminder of a great strength of Chinese Medicine; the notion that we are always at one with our environment. Our surroundings – the climate, the land, the air, the seasons, the other people and animals, the plants and microbes, the dust, the sunshine… – might as well be considered just a much a part of us as our own left elbow. I found that this is more obvious in the countryside, where the people are truly connected to their land.

I’ve been living at Bergen Op Zoom, a beautiful slice of farmland just outside of Walcha, a small town in NSW, roughly one hour drive from both Armidale and Tamworth. Armidale claims to be the highest altitude city in Australia, and Walcha is a ‘town built in a hole’ nearby, where the land dips down into a shallow valley, upon the New England plateau. The drive down-mountain to Port Macquarie, extremely popular with motorcyclists seeking the thrill and fresh air of a windy forest road, takes you down more than a thousand metres of altitude in a few hours, landing you at sea level nearby some of the most beautiful beaches I have ever visited. The first time I drove back up the mountain, was when I truly realized the remarkable difference in climate. And the climate is not the only thing that changes. “Mountain people are much different from coastal people,” says Hamish Brown, my Chinese Medicine friend, and Kungfu master, for whom I was stepping in for at ‘The Way of Water’ Chinese Medicine clinic, in both Walcha and Armidale. Hamish is a true mountain man. Whilst although I had a thoroughly enjoyable experience of the New England folk, and the landscape, I think I’ll always be a coastal girl. I’m a saltwater girl from way back. But there is ‘a great mob of people in Walcha’, as Phillip Brown says, and I agree, 100%.

Walcha is a cold, dry place. In six weeks there, the skies opened up only twice. Initially I found it more difficult to breathe, especially when I’d break into a jog down the red gravelly farm road. The air is colder, drier, and carries less oxygen, so I am quite sure I’ve come home with a few extra red blood cells in my system. In town, the air is smoky, from the abundance of wood-fires. My skin has become drier, my lips drier, and I’ve barely had to wash my hair. At the clinic, common presentations included asthma, eczema, menopausal hot flushes, arthritis, and aches and pains of all sorts. All of these conditions, in Chinese Medicine, can be a result of exposure to too much cold, and not enough moisture.

Since back practicing in Melbourne town, I’ve been observant to see if any patterns start to shine through more strongly, through my eyes that now envision a slightly different perspective. What are the strongest environmental forces in the Melbourne climate? The cold weather, wind, and pollens dominate through winter and spring, but the effects are not as widespread, or ingrained, across the population. This must be because we can escape it more in the city, with more time spent indoors, amongst our higher density of housing, masses of concrete, and generally highly modified landscape. The people I meet in Melbourne come from all over the globe, whereas in Walcha, most families seemed to have been there for generations. Or if they were ‘new’ to town, I’d hear things like “Nah, I’m no local yet. Only been ‘ere fifty years!”.

We are much less connected to the land in the cities, and it seems this disconnection comes with both benefits and downfalls. Whilst imbalances with our surrounding environment can be the cause of disease, a disconnection with this other part of our whole, has its own consequences. The forces of nature have powerful healing ability as well. Bob, the farmer at Bergen Op Zoom, a passionate advocator of the buteyko breathing technique, and a man who says he is so connected to the land, that he will never leave it, is truly living as one with his surroundings. During my six weeks in Walcha, I felt connected to the land in a way that I have only ever felt more strongly during a multi-day hike through the wilderness, my time spent ‘WWOOFing’, or by spending a lot of time in the ocean. Perhaps farming’s the way to go, if this connection is what you want for long-term. Bob and I killed a sheep the other day. And the next morning I ate it’s liver for breakfast.

I have brought home from this experience a pocketful of new acupuncture techniques, experience with different acupuncture needles, exposure to a broad range of diseases and conditions, and a deeper understanding of many herbal formulas. I also feel stronger, in both body and mind, after training under Hamish Brown and Matt Starr alongside a wonderful, dedicated group of Taichi and Kungfu students. The dedication and discipline I have witnessed, although not yet developed within myself, has been inspirational.

For this experience, I would like to thank Hamish, his caring family, and all of the people I have worked with in the Chinese medicine clinics. I’d also like to thank all of my fellow practitioners at Quiescence, for allowing me to disappear for a while, and for taking such good care of my patients in my absence. To Hamish, I thank you for welcoming me, and entrusting me into your home and clinic, and for all that I have learnt from you. To the patients, I have appreciated your open-mindedness, and commitment to improving your health. I also feel incredibly grateful for all the friendship and support I have received, especially from Camilla Fontanella, Bob Waugh, the Kungfu crew, Phillip and Katie, and any of my patients who have helped me out, whilst I have helped them. Exchange and sharing is always a wonderful thing. I also hope that my presence has had positive impact on the lives of those I have met.

And finally, I would like to thank the New England landscape, for welcoming me into your grasp, and becoming a part of me.

Steph x

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