Reading and Walking

Walking, Reading, and Reading about Walking

Carlton Trail Walk, Day Two

This morning, Hugh handed out buttons bearing the Cree word Louise Halfe, one of the 14 people walking to Fort Carlton, suggested as the theme for our walk: asohtêwak, “together the hearts walk.” It’s a lovely statement about the possibility of deep connection that can be created when we walk together, literally or metaphorically. Cree is beautiful like that: words have stories, embedded etymological meanings, beyond the dictionary definitions. Every morning Louise says a prayer in Cree, and I love the sound of the language, so soft and rhythmic. I can pick out the occasional word, which after two years of learning the language is either not bad or terrible.

There are three kinds of roads in Saskatchewan: paved, gravel, and dirt. Dirt is the softest on a walker’s feet, and as long as it hasn’t rained recently, it’s the best walking surface. (It hasn’t rained around here for months.) For a few miles today we had the pleasure of walking on dirt roads. Someone had planted along row of potatoes along the side of one of them. I guess the Rural Municipality doesn’t mind.

Harold went to Mass in Bruno this morning. “I’ll catch up,” he said. Everyone thought he meant that he would drive. But when he left, I noticed that he was carrying his pack. Sure enough, when we were finishing lunch, we spotted a lone figure walking quickly down the road towards us. It was Harold. “I know the average person walks at three miles an hour,” he said, “so I was trying for four. I don’t think I quite made it.”

By the way, Harold is 83.

Later we thought we saw a large Gumby in the distance. It was this sculpture. A border collie came out to greet us–that rare creature, a friendly farm dog. I offered him a Milk Bone. He was reluctant to take it; maybe it was stale. To be polite, I think, he finally accepted it. But he refused to be photographed.

We passed memorials for two schools this afternoon. Rural depopulation has been happening here since the 1930s. Farms get bigger as the economy of farming changes, and when people sell up they move away. It’s a global phenomenon. We also passed a large glacial erratic–a buffalo rubbing stone. I left some tobacco with it. The roadsides were filled with wildflowers: roses, blanket flower, asters, goldenrod, sage.

Later in the afternoon, I took a turn driving one of the support vehicles for a couple of miles. Then I kept walking. My feet are blistered and sore, but I sang to myself to keep up my spirits. When I sang “The Old Gray Mare,” Madonna thought I was talking about her. “Well, if the horseshoe fits,” I answered.

Speaking of Madonna: since Matthew, who had the idea for these walks back in 2014, can’t be with us this year, she suggested her stuffed prairie dog might represent him. Here it (he?) is, tied to her walking pole. So, Matthew, you aren’t here physically, but you are here in spirit–and in effigy.

Carlton Trail Walk, Day One

The day started off cold and windy, and the people who came out to see us off at Original Humboldt (the site of a nineteenth-century telegraph station that became a small settlement) felt sorry for us. “Oh, it’s too cold to walk,” one woman said. “They’ll freeze.” I was glad I had packed a winter hat. Then the sun came out, and even though the wind stayed cool, when we stopped for lunch in the lee of some aspen trees, it was quite warm.

A group of 15 or so of us are walking from Humboldt to Fort Carlton along the path of the old Carlton Trail, which ran from Fort Garry to Fort Edmonton. Not on the actual trail: it’s been covered over by girls of barley and canola, although part of the original trail–the wagon ruts–are apparently visible at Batoche. No, we’re walking on grid roads roughly parallel to the Trail. It’s the third trail walk the Saskatchewan History and Folklore Society has sponsored. The first was a walk along the North West Mounted Police Trail, from Wood Mountain Post to Fort Walsh, in 2015; the second was the Battleford Trail Walk, from Swift Current to Fort Battleford, in 2017. Hugh Henry, an artist and historian from Swift Current, organized or, as I prefer to say, curated all three walks, along with last summer’s walk along the Frenchmen’s Trail, from Mortlach to Gravelbourg. The point of these walks, Hugh says, is to give participants a chance to connect with themselves, other walkers, and the landscape. And I would think, to connect with the multiple histories of this space.

Today we trudged along grid roads: six miles west, four miles north, past fields and sloughs churned into white caps by the wind, with a stop for lunch in the grove of aspens. That took us to the edge of the hamlet of Carmel, where our party divided into two groups: those who were willing to walk four miles more, and those who preferred to get first dibs on the camping spots in Bruno, where we’re staying tonight. I kept walking, but my feet are sore and I’m wondering if the other group made the better choice. But the roadside ditches were filled with asters and goldenrod and wild roses, and although the wind was in our faces most of the day, the sky was beautiful.

A few of us decided to help out the local economy by eating at the Bruno Hotel. (Also there’s cold beer.) The others are cooking for themselves, which might’ve been a better decision, but I don’t feel like ramen noodles. We’ll see what the chow mein here is like. (It’s excellent.)

The overnight low will be four degrees tonight. Think of us as we shiver together, wearing all the clothes we’ve brought and hoping the wind doesn’t carry our tents away.

92. Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples

 

decolonizing methodologies

Somehow I’ve gotten this far without reading Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s Decolonizing Methodologies. During my MFA work, I read Margaret Kovach’s Indigenous Methodologies: Characteristics, Conversations, and Contexts and Shawn Wilson’s Research Is Ceremony: Indigenous Research Methods, but for some reason I missed Tuhiwai Smith’s book. One of my supervisors has given me an anthology about Indigenous research methodologies co-edited by Tuhiwai Smith, and I’m just savvy enough to know that when your supervisors ask you to read something, you’d better read it. Before I tackle that rather long book, though, I thought it might be a good idea to read Tuhiwai Smith’s own work, which is considered to be a classic.

In the book’s foreward, Tuhiwai Smith notes that its focus is “the intersection of two powerful worlds, the world of indigenous peoples and the world of research,” worlds that are important to Smith, that she moves within: “I negotiate the intersection of these worlds every day. It can be a complicated, challenging and interesting space” (ix). It is book concerned “with the context in which research problems are conceptualized and designed, and with the implications of research for its participants and their communities,” as well as “the institution of research, its claims, its values and practices, and its relationships to power” (ix). Since the publication of the first edition in 1999, Decolonizing Methodologies 

has been used to stimulate far-reaching discussions within Indigenous contexts, academic institutions, non-government organizations and other community-based groups about the knowledge claims of disciplines and approaches, about the content of knowledge, about absences, silences and invisibilities of other peoples, about practices and ethics, and about the implications for communities of research. (ix-x)

When she wrote the first edition of the book, indigenous peoples “were not considered agents themselves, as capable of or interested in research, or as having expert knowledge about themselves and their conditions,” and she wanted “to disrupt relationships between researchers (mostly non-indigenous) and researched (indigenous), between a colonizing institution of knowledge and colonized peoples whose own knowledge was subjugated, between academic theories and academic values, between institutions and communities, and between and within indigenous communities themselves” (x). The notion of research as colonizing violence remains, although many indigenous communities have become more active in research, “and more indigenous researchers and institutions bridge the intersection between research and community” (xi). The first part of the book explores “the imperial legacies of Western knowledge and the ways in which those legacies continue to influence knowledge institutions to the exclusion of indigenous peoples and their aspirations,” and the second demonstrates “the possibilities of re-imagining research as an activity that indigenous researchers could pursue within disciplines and institutions, and within their own communities” (xii-xiii). It also argues that there is a connection between “the indigenous agenda of self-determination, indigenous rights and sovereignty, on the one hand, and, on the other, a complementary indigenous research agenda that was about building capacity and working towards healing, reconciliation and development” (xiii). 

Tuhiwai Smith’s introduction begins with a much-quoted statement about research (even I knew it before I opened the book): “The word itself, ‘research,’ is probably one of the dirtiest words in the indigenous world’s vocabulary” (1). That’s because of the deep connections between research, on the one hand, and colonialism and imperialism, on the other. Anthropological research seems to have been particularly offensive:

It galls us that Western researchers and intellectuals can assume to know all that it is possible to know of us, on the basis of their brief encounters with some of us. It appalls us that the West can desire, extract and claim ownership of our ways of knowing, our imagery, the things we create and produce, and then simultaneously reject the people who created and developed those ideas and seek to deny them further opportunities to be creators of their own culture and own nations. (1)

“This book identifies research as a significant site of struggle between the interests and ways of knowing of the West and the interests and ways of resisting of the Other,” namely Indigenous peoples (2). However, Tuhiwai Smith is also interested in research conducted by Indigenous peoples: “This book acknowledges the significance of indigenous perspectives on research and attempts to account for how, and why, such perspectives may have developed” (3). 

Decolonizing Methodologies is addressed “to those researchers who work with, alongside and for communities who have chosen to identify themselves as indigenous,” whether they are indigenous or not (5). Her consistent message is that “indigenous research is a humble and humbling activity” (5). “Part of the project of this book is ‘researching back,’ in the same tradition of ‘writing back’ or ‘talking back,’ that characterizes much of the post-colonial or anti-colonial literature,” Tuhiwai Smith writes (8). Some of the issues related to research in Indigenous contexts “which continue to be debated quite vigorously” include such critical questions as “Whose research is it? Who owns it? Whose interests does it serve? Who will benefit from it? Who has designed its questions and framed its scope? Who will carry it out? Who will write it up? How will its results be disseminated?” (10). “Indigenous methodologies tend to approach cultural protocols, values and behaviours as an integral part of methodology,” she continues:

They are “factors” to be built into research explicitly, to be thought about reflexively, to be declared openly as part of the research design, to be discussed as part of the final results of a study and to be disseminated back to the people in culturally appropriate ways and in language that can be understood. This does not preclude writing for academic publications but is simply part of an ethical and respectful approach. There are diverse ways of disseminating knowledge and of ensuring that research reaches the people who have helped make it. Two important ways not always addressed by scientific research are to do with “reporting back” to the people and “sharing knowledge.” Both ways assume a principle of reciprocity and feedback. (15-16)

Reporting back, she states, “is never a one-off exercise or a task that can be signed off on completion of the written report,” and sharing knowledge “is also a long-term commitment. It is much easier for researchers to hand out a report and for organizations to distribute pamphlets than to engage in continuing knowledge-sharing processes” (16). Researchers have a responsibility not just to share “surface information” but “to share the theories and analyses which inform the way knowledge and information are constructed and represented” (17). That sharing is essential: “To assume in advance that people will not be interested in, or will not understand, the deeper issues is arrogant. The challenge always is to demystify, to decolonize” (17). However, she notes that the discussion about how non-Indigenous researchers can work with Indigenous peoples “in an ongoing and mutually beneficial way” is not addressed in this book, because “the present work has grown out of a concern to develop indigenous peoples as researchers. There is so little material that addresses the issues indigenous researchers face. The book is written primarily to help ourselves” (18). Indigenous researchers are clearly Tuhiwai Smith’s audience.

The first chapter,“Imperialism, History, Writing and Theory,” begins with a well-known epigraph from the poet Audre Lorde: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” (20). “Imperialism frames the indigenous experience,” Tuhiwai Smith writes. “It is part of our story, our version of modernity. Writing about our experiences under imperialism and its more specific expression of colonialism has become a significant project of the indigenous world” (20). The purpose of this chapter “is to discuss and contextualize four concepts which are often present (though not necessarily clearly visible) in the ways in which the ideas of indigenous people are articulated: imperialism, history, writing, and theory” (20). She chose those words “because from an indigenous perspective they are problematic”:

They are words which tend to provoke a whole array of feelings, attitudes and values. They are words of emotion which draw attention to the thousands of ways in which indigenous languages, knowledges and cultures have been silenced or misrepresented, ridiculed or condemned in academic and popular discourses. They are also words which are used in particular sorts of ways or avoided altogether. In thinking about knowledge and research, however, these are important terms which underpin the practices and styles of research with indigenous peoples. (20-21)

As she suggested in the introduction, she believes that the purpose of research is decolonization: “Decolonization is a process which engages with imperialism and colonialism at multiple levels. For researchers, one of those levels is concerned with having a more critical understanding of the underlying assumptions, motivations and values which inform research practices” (21). 

There are different meanings of “imperialism”: it can suggest economic expansion, the subjugation of “‘others,’” “an idea or spirit with many forms of realization,” or “a discursive field of knowledge” (22). The first three definitions reflect a view from the European imperial centre; the last one “has been generated by writers whose understandings of imperialism and colonialism have been based either on their membership of and experience within colonized societies, or on their interest in understanding imperialism from the perspective of local contexts” (23-24). “Colonialism,” on the other hand, “became imperialism’s outpost, the fort and the port of imperial outreach” (24). “Colonialism was, in part, an image of imperialism, a particular realization of the imperial imagination”:

It was also, in part, an image of the future nation it would become. In this image lie images of the Other, start contrasts and subtle nuances, of the ways in which indigenous communities were perceived and dealt with, which make the stories of colonialism part of a grander narrative and yet part also of a very local, very specific experience. (24)

There are two major strands in the critique of the impact of imperialism and colonialism: “One draws upon a notion of authenticity, of a time before colonization in which we were intact as indigenous peoples”; the other “demands that we have an analysis of how we were colonized, of what that has meant in terms of our immediate past and what it means for our present and future” (25). “The two strands intersect but what is particularly significant in indigenous discourses is that solutions are posed from a combination of the time before, colonized time, and the time before that, pre-colonized time. Decolonization encapsulates both sets of ideas,” she continues (25).

Tuhiwai Smith clearly understands why research continues to be understood as part of the project of imperialism, despite its claims to be justified because it is for the good of humanity: 

Research within late-modern and late-colonial conditions continues relentlessly and brings with it a new wave of exploration. Researchers enter communities armed with goodwill in their front pockets and patents in their back pockets, they bring medicine into villages and extract blood for genetic analysis. No matter how appalling their behaviours, how insensitive and offensive their personal actions may be, their acts and intentions are always justified as being for the “good of mankind.” Research of this nature on indigenous peoples is still justified by the ends rather than the means, particularly if the indigenous peoples concerned can still be positioned as ignorant and undeveloped (savages). Other researchers gather traditional herbal and medicinal remedies and remove them for analysis in laboratories around the world. Still others collect the intangibles: the belief systems and ideas about healing, about the universe, about relationships and ways of organizing, and the practices and rituals which go alongside such beliefs, such as sweat lodges, massage techniques, chanting, hanging crystals and wearing certain colours. (25-26)

Because of the unethical behaviour of researchers, questions of ethics, “the ways in which indigenous communities can protect themselves and their knowledges, the understandings required not just of state legislation but of international agreements,” have become “topics now on the agenda of many indigenous meetings” (26).

Colonialism and imperialism dehumanized Indigenous peoples by considering them to be “primitive”:

One of the supposed characteristics of primitive peoples was that we could not use our minds or intellects. We could not invent things, we could not create institutions or history, we could not imagine, we could not produce anything of value, we did not know how to use land and other resources from the natural world, we did not practice the “arts” of civilization. By lacking such virtues we disqualified ourselves, not just from civilization but from humanity itself. (26)

“To consider indigenous peoples as not fully human, or not human at all, enabled distance to be maintained and justified various policies of either extermination or domestication,” Tuhiwai Smith continues (27). For that reason, “[t]he struggle to assert and claim humanity has been a consistent thread of anti-colonial discourses on colonialism and oppression” (27).

“The fact that indigenous societies had their own systems of order” was dismissed through negations: “they were not fully human, they were not civilized enough to have systems, they were not literate, their languages and modes of thought were inadequate” (29), Tuhiwai Smith writes, citing Albert Memmi (whose The Colonizer and the Colonized is on the floor beside my table, waiting to be read). Those “systems of order” were disrupted by imperialism and colonialism, which “brought complete disorder to colonized peoples, disconnecting them from their histories, their landscapes, their languages, their social interactions and their own ways of thinking, feeling and interacting with the world” (29). As a result, “fragmentation has been the consequence of imperialism” (29). “A critical aspect of the struggle for self-determination has involved questions relating to our history as indigenous peoples and a critique of how we, as the Other, have been represented or excluded from various accounts,” Tuhiwai Smith continues. “Every issue has been approached by indigenous peoples with a view to rewriting and rerighting our position in history. Indigenous peoples want to tell our own stories, write our own versions, in our own ways, for our own purposes” (29). For Indigenous peoples, correcting that record is “a very powerful need to give testimony to and restore a spirit, to bring back into existence a world fragmented and dying. The sense of history conveyed by these approaches is not the same thing as the discipline of history, and so our accounts collide, crash into each other” (29-30). “Writing, history and theory . . . are key sites in which Western research of the indigenous world have come together,” she states:

indigenous voices have been overwhelmingly silenced. The act, let alone the art and science, of theorizing our own existence and realities is not something which many indigenous people assume is possible. Frantz Fanon’s call for the indigenous intellectual and artist to create a new literature, to work in the cause of constructing a national culture after liberation, still stands as a challenge. While this has been taken up by writers of fiction, many indigenous scholars who work in the social and other sciences struggle to write, theorize and research as indigenous scholars. (30)

“The negation of indigenous views of history was a critical part of asserting colonial ideology, partly because such views were regarded as clearly ‘primitive’ and ‘incorrect’ and mostly because they challenged and resisted the mission of colonization” (31), but reclaiming history is an important part of decolonization, and linked to the reclamation of land:

Our orientation to the world was already being redefined as we were being excluded systematically from the writing of the history of our own lands. This on its own may not have worked were it not for the actual material redefinition of our world which was occurring simultaneously through such things as the renaming and “breaking in” of the land, the alienation and fragmentation of lands through legislation, and the social consequences which resulted in high sickness and mortality rates. (34-35)

“Indigenous attempts to reclaim land, language, knowledge and sovereignty have usually involved contested accounts of the past by colonizers and colonized,” in courts, official inquiries, and legislatures (35). And Indigenous versions of history are an important part of that struggle.

For Tuhiwai Smith, “History is about power”:

It is the story of the powerful and how they became powerful, and then how they use their power to keep them in positions in which they can continue to dominate others. It is because of this relationship with power that we have been excluded, marginalized and “Othered.” In this sense history is not important for indigenous peoples because a thousand accounts of the ‘truth’ will not alter the “fact” that indigenous peoples are still marginal and do not possess the power to transform history into justice. (35)

Nevertheless, revisiting history has been a significant part of decolonization, because of 

the intersection of indigenous approaches to the past, of the modernist history project itself and of the resistance strategies which have been employed. Our colonial experience traps us in the project of modernity. There can be no ‘postmodern’ for us until we have settled some business of the modern. This does not mean that we do not understand or employ multiple discourses, or act in incredibly contradictory ways, or exercise power ourselves in multiple ways. It means that there is unfinished business, that we are still being colonized (and know it), and that we are still searching for justice. (35-36)

“To hold alternative histories is to hold alternative knowledges,” she continues, and those alternative knowledges can form the basis of alternative modes of action (36). “Transforming our colonized views of our history (as written by the West), however, requires us to revisit, site by site, our history under Western eyes,” she writes: 

This in turn requires a theory or approach which helps us to engage with, understand and then act upon history. It is in this sense that the sites visited in this book begin with a critique of a Western view of history. Telling our stories from the past, reclaiming the past, giving testimony to the injustices of the past are all strategies which are commonly employed by indigenous peoples struggling for justice. (36)

Correcting the historical record is thus a form of resistance.

But Tuhiwai Smith is not only concerned with history as a form of knowledge: “every aspect of the act of producing knowledge has influenced the ways in which indigenous ways of knowing have been represented” (36). Much of  academic discourse claims that Indigenous people do not exist, or that they exist in terms which Indigenous people cannot recognize, that they are no good, and that what they think is not valid (36). Indigenous people are typically not included in the audience of texts produced in the UK, the US, or in western Europe (37). For that reason, “reading and interpretation present problems when we do not see ourselves in the text. There are problems, too, when we do see ourselves but can barely recognized ourselves through the representation” (37). Uncritical academic writing—or writing academically in uncritical ways—can reinforce colonial or imperial ideas (37). The “Empire writes back” discourse argues “that the centre can be shifted ideologically through imagination and that this shifting can recreate history” (37). The language of the colonizers can be appropriated, although Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o argues that writing in Indigenous languages (Gikuyu, in his case) is a better strategy (37-38). Indigenous people often end up writing back to the centre while writing for themselves: “The different audiences to whom we speak makes the task somewhat difficult” (38). 

In all academic disciplines, research is linked to theory; it adds to or is generated from theoretical understandings (39). “Any consideration of the ways our origins have been examined, our histories recounted, our arts analysed, our cultures dissected, measured, torn apart and distorted back to us will suggest that theories have not looked sympathetically or ethically than us,” Tuhiwai Smith argues (39). “The development of theories by indigenous scholars which attempt to explain our existence in contemporary society (as opposed to the ‘traditional’ society constructed under modernism) has only just begun” (39). Those “new ways of theorizing by indigenous scholars are grounded in a real sense of, and sensitivity towards, what it means to be an indigenous person” (39-40). Theory is important for Indigenous peoples, she argues:

At the very least it helps make sense of reality. It enables us to make assumptions and predictions about the world in which we live. It contains within it a method or methods for selecting and arranging, for prioritizing and legitimating what we see and do. Theory enables us to deal with contradictions and uncertainties. Perhaps more significantly, it gives us space to plan, to strategize, to take greater control over our resistances. The language of a theory can also be used as a way of organizing and determining action. It helps us to interpret what is being told to us, and to predict the consequences of what is being promised. Theory can also protect us because it contains within it a way of putting reality into perspective. If it is a good theory it also allows for new ideas and ways of looking at things to be incorporated constantly, without the need to search constantly for new theories. (40)

Like history and writing, theory can be rejected by Indigenous scholars, but that doesn’t make it go away or offer alternatives (40). The methodologies and methods of research, and the theories that inform them, the questions they produce and the kinds of writing they use, all need to be decolonized, which doesn’t mean completely rejecting theory, research, or Western knowledge: “Rather, it is about centring our concerns and world views and then coming to know and understand theory and research form our own perspectives and for our own purposes” (41).

For Indigenous peoples, Tuhiwai Smith contends, research is a site of struggle:

As a site of struggle research has a significance for indigenous peoples that is embedded in our history under the gaze of Western imperialism and Western science. It is framed by our attempts to escape the penetration and surveillance of that gaze whilst simultaneously reordering and reconstituting ourselves as indigenous human beings in a state of ongoing crisis. Research has not been neutral in its objectification of the Other. Objectification is a process of dehumanization. In its clear links to Western knowledge research has generated a particular relationship to indigenous peoples which continues to be problematic. At the same time, however, new pressures which have resulted from our own politics of self-determination, of wanting greater participation in, or control over, what happens to us, and from changes in the global environment, have meant that there is a much more active and knowing engagement in the activity of research by indigenous peoples. (41)

Because research is a site of struggle, it is important “to have a critical understanding of some of the tools of research—not just the obvious technical tools but the conceptual tools, the ones which make us feel uncomfortable, which we avoid, for which we have no easy response” (41).

At the beginning of her second chapter, “Research through Imperial Eyes,” Tuhiwai Smith notes that she wants to go broader than critiques of empiricism and positivism (44). Her argument is that “Western research draws from an ‘archive’ of knowledge and systems, rules and values which stretch beyond the boundaries of Western science to the system now referred to as the West” (44). She cites Stuart Hall’s suggestion that “the West is an idea or concept, a language for imagining a set of complex stories, ideas, historical events and social relationships,” which allows for the classification of societies, their condensation in a system of representation, the creation of a standard model of comparison, and the establishment of criteria for evaluating them (44-45). The rules governing such evaluation are often implicit, and power is expressed both explicitly and implicitly (45). “Scientific and academic debate in the West takes place within these rules,” she writes (45).

Indigenous resistance to those rules brings together complex sets of ideas, such as in the claim brought by Maori women to the Waitangi Tribunal in New Zealand in 1975. Those ideas included a legal framework inherited from Britain, with its rules of evidence; the privileging of written texts over oral testimony; views about science, which enable selection and arrangement of facts; values and morals, such as “notions of ‘goodwill’ and ‘truth telling’”; and ideas about subjectivity and objectivity, time and space, human nature, individual accountability and culpability, and politics (48-49). “Within each set of ideas are systems of classification and representation—epistemological, ontological, juridical, anthropological and ethical—which are coded in such was as to ‘recognize’ each other and either mesh together, or create a cultural ‘force field’ that can screen out competing and oppositional discourses,” Tuhiwai Smith writes. “Taken as a whole system, these ideas determine the wider rules of practice which ensure that Western interests remain dominant” (49). 

“Western forms of research also draw on cultural ideas about the human self and the relationship between the individual and the groups to which he or she may belong,” Tuhiwai Smith contends. “Such ideas explore both the internal workings of an individual and the relationships between what an individual is and how an individual behaves. These ideas suggest that relationships between or among groups of people are basically causal and can be observed or predicted” (49). She suggests that a shift from naturalistic explanations of these relationships to humanistic ones began with Greek philosophy: “Naturalistic explanations linked nature and life as one and humanistic explanations separate people out from the world around them, and place humanity on a higher plane (than animals and plants) because of such characteristics as language and reason” (49-50). That separation led to the development of a dualism between mind and body throughout Western philosophy (50). “When confronted by the alternative conceptions of other societies,” Tuhiwai Smith continues,

Western reality became reified as representing something “better,” reflecting “higher orders” of thinking, and being less prone to the dogma, witchcraft and immediacy of people and societies which were so “primitive.” Ideological appeals to such things as literacy, democracy and the development of complex social structures make this way of thinking appear to be a universal truth and a necessary criterion of civilized society. (50-51)

While the individual is “the basic building block of society” in the West (51), it’s not necessary as central in other cultures; in a similar way, concepts like time and space are different in the West and in Indigenous societies, a difference that can be seen in language (52).“Space is often viewed in Western thinking as being static or divorced from time,” suggesting that the world is “well-defined, fixed and without politics,” a way of thinking that “is particularly relevant in relation to colonialism,” which “involved processes of marking, defining and controlling space” (55). There were also different conceptions of time and the way time was organized, especially in the West in the nineteenth century (time organized because of capitalism and other factors), versus the way time was organized in other parts of the world (56). “Different orientations towards time and space, different positioning within time and space, and different systems of language for making space and time ‘real’ underpin notions of past and present, of place and of relationships to the land,” she contends:

Ideas about progress are grounded within ideas and orientations towards time and space. What has come to count as history in contemporary society is a contentious issue for many indigenous communities because it is not only the story of domination: it is also a story which assumes that there was a “point in time” which was “prehistoric.” The point as which society moves from prehistoric to historic is also the point at which tradition breaks with modernism. Traditional indigenous knowledge ceased, in this view, when it came into contact with “modern” societies, that is the West. (57-58)

For the colonizers, then, the act of colonization led, inexorably, to the disappearance of the colonized.

Throughout colonization, Western researchers assumed that Western ideas about the most fundamental things were the only rational ideas: “the only ideas which can make sense of the world, of reality, of social life and of human beings. It is an approach to indigenous peoples which still conveys a sense of innate superiority and an overabundance of desire to bring progress into the lives of indigenous peoples—spiritually, intellectually, socially and economically” (58). Such a way of thinking is racist, it assumes an ownership of the entire world, and it has “established systems and forms of governance which embed that attitude in institutional practices” (58). That way of thinking has underpinned Western research, and it is one of the reasons the idea of “research” has such a bad odour in Indigenous communities.

Tuhiwai Smith’s third chapter, “Colonizing Knowledges,” “argues that the form of imperialism which indigenous peoples are confronting now emerged from that period of European history known as the Enlightenment,” which “provided the spirit, the impetus, the confidence, and the political and economic structures that facilitated the search for new knowledges” (61). “The project of the Enlightenment is often referred to as ‘modernity,’” she continues, “and that project is said to have provided the stimulus for the industrial revolution, the philosophy of liberalism, the development of disciplines in the sciences and the development of public education. Imperialism underpinned and was critical to these developments” (61). In this chapter, her aim is to “show the relationship between knowledge, research and imperialism, and then discuss the ways in which it has come to structure out own ways of knowing, through the development of academic disciplines and through the education of colonial elites and indigenous or ‘native’ intellectuals” (62). 

Modernity led to colonization, according to Tuhiwai Smith: “The development of scientific thought, the exploration and ‘discovery’ by Europeans of other worlds, the expansion of trade, the establishment of colonies, and the systematic colonization of indigenous peoples in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are all facets of the modernist project” (62). But the encounter with Indigenous “Others” also fed those developments: “Discoveries about and from the ‘new’ world expanded and challenged ideas the West held about itself. The production of knowledge, new knowledge and transformed ‘old’ knowledge, ideas about the nature of knowledge and the validity of specific forms of knowledge, became as much commodities of colonial exploitation as other natural resources” (62). In this process, Indigenous peoples became objects of research, without voices or the ability to contribute to science (64). A variety of things—territories, new species of flora and fauna, mineral resources, and cultures—were collected, rearranged, represented and redistributed (64-65). The colonizers also introduced new species of plants and animals to colonies, which interfered in their ecologies and led to extinctions and to a colonization by weeds (65). “Among the other significant consequences of ecological imperialism—carried by humans, as well as by plants and animals—were the viral and bacterial diseases which devastated indigenous populations,” she notes (65). The effects of colonization and the ideology of social Darwinism led to the notion that Indigenous peoples were destined to die out (65). 

“The nexus between cultural ways of knowing, scientific discoveries, economic impulses and imperial power enabled the West to make ideological claims to having a superior civilization,” Tuhiwai Smith continues. “The ‘idea’ of the west became a reality when it was re-presented back to indigenous nations through colonialism” (67). Colonial education systems were central in “imposing this positional superiority over knowledge, language and culture” and in creating local Indigenous elites (67). Even now, “[a]ttempts to ‘indigenize’ colonial academic institutions and/or individual disciplines within them have been fraught with major struggles over what counts as knowledge, as language, as literature, as curriculum and as the role of intellectuals, and over the critical function of the concept of academic freedom” (68). “Underpinning all of what is taught at universities is the belief in the concept of science as the all-embracing method for gaining an understanding of the world,” she argues (68). “Concepts of ‘academic freedom,’ the ‘search for truth’ and ‘democracy’ underpin the notion of independence and are vigorously defended by intellectuals,” she argues. “Insularity protects a discipline from the ‘outside,’ enabling communities of scholars to distance themselves from others and, in the more extreme forms, to absolve themselves of responsibility for what occurs in other branches of their discipline, in the academy and in the world” (70-71). That absolution has included a denial of responsibility for the treatment of Indigenous children in colonial educational systems.

Tuhiwai Smith addresses questions of authenticity and essentialism in a colonial context: 

The belief in an authentic self is framed within humanism but has been politicized by the colonized world in ways which invoke simultaneous meanings; it does appeal to an idealized past when there was no colonizer, to our strengths in surviving thus far, to our language as an uninterrupted link to our histories, to the ownership of our lands, to our abilities to create and control our own life and death, to a sense of balance among ourselves and with the environment, to our authentic selves as a people. Although this may seem overly idealized, these symbolic appeals remain strategically important in political struggles. (77)

She notes that there is often a conflict between the notion of “a Western psychological self, which is a highly individualized notion,” and the “group consciousness as it is centred in many colonized societies” (77). The Western view of authenticity contends “that indigenous cultures cannot change, cannot recreate themselves and still claim to be indigenous. Nor can they be complicated, internally diverse or contradictory. Only the West has that privilege” (77). As with authenticity, “[t]he concept of essentialism is also discussed in different ways within the indigenous world”: 

claiming essential characteristics is as much strategic as anything else, because it has been about claiming human rights and indigenous rights. But the essence of a person is also discussed in relation to indigenous concepts of spirituality. In these views, the essence of a person has a genealogy which can be traced back to an earth parent. . . . A human person does not stand alone, but shares with other animate and, in the Western sense, “inanimate” beings, a relationship based on a shared “essence” of life. The significance of place, of land, of landscape, of other things in the universe, in defining the very essence of a people, makes for a very different rendering of the term essentialism as used by indigenous peoples. (77)

“The arguments of different indigenous peoples based on spiritual relationships to the universe, to the landscape and to stones, rocks, insects and other things, seen and unseen, have been difficult arguments for Western systems of knowledge to deal with or accept,” she continues:

These arguments give a partial indication of the different world views and alternative ways of coming to know, and of being, which still endure within the indigenous world. . . . The values, attitudes, concepts and language embedded in beliefs about spirituality represent, in many cases, the clearest contrast and mark of difference between indigenous peoples and the West. It is one of the few parts of ourselves which the West cannot decipher, cannot understand and cannot control . . . yet. (78)

It seems that, despite the postmodern suspicion about arguments based on authenticity or essentialism, Tuhiwai Smith sees those arguments as strategically essential in determining the differences between Indigenous cultures and those cultures that have colonized them.

Chapter 4, “Research Adventures on Indigenous Lands,” looks at informal ways that the West developed knowledge of Indigenous peoples:

travellers’ tales and other anecdotal ways of representing indigenous peoples have contributed to the general impressions and the milieu of ideas that have informed Western knowledge and Western constructions of the Other. There has been recent theorizing of the significance of travel, and of location, on shaping Western understandings of the Other and producing more critical understandings of the nature of theory. (81)

“One particular genre of travellers’ tales relates to the ‘adventures’ experienced in the new world, in Indian country, or Maoriland, or some other similarly named territory,” she writes: 

These adventures were recounted with some relish; they told stories of survival under adversity and recorded eye witness accounts of fabulous, horrible, secret, never-seen-before-by-a-European ceremonies, rituals or events. . . . The sense of adventure and spirit which is contained in histories of science and biographies of scientists are a good example of how wondrous and exciting the discoveries of ‘new scientific knowledge’ from the new world were perceived in the West. (81)

“Although always ethnocentric and patriarchal,” Tuhiwai Smith continues, “travellers’ accounts remain interesting because of the details and sometimes perceptive (and on occasions reflective) comments made by some writers of the events they were recording” (81-82). These informal systems of collecting information about Indigenous societies became formalized and institutionalized in New Zealand, becoming more authoritative in the process: “What may have begun as early fanciful, ill-informed opinions or explanations of indigenous life and customs quickly entered the language and became ways of representing and relating to indigenous peoples” (82). That organization and institutionalization shaped “the directions and priorities of research into indigenous peoples” (82).

Travellers and traders made use of their familiarity with Indigenous customs and languages and people in different ways, from becoming scholars to soldiers “intent on killing resistant indigenous populations” (82-83), or magistrates or land commissioners “who presided over the alienation of Maori land” (85). Early examples in New Zealand included the explorer Abel Tasman and the naturalist Joseph Banks (83-84). “Those observers of indigenous peoples whose interest was of a more ‘scientific’ nature could be regarded as being far more dangerous in that they had theories to prove, evidence and data to gather and specific languages by which they could classify and describe the indigenous world,” Tuhiwai Smith writes (85-86). As colonization progressed, “[a]cademic research on Maori became . . . obsessed with describing various modes of cultural decay”: it saw the historical progression as a movement from discovery and contact, to population decline, acculturation, assimilation, and then “reinvention” “as a hybrid, ethnic culture” (91). “Indigenous perspectives also show a phased progression,” she continues, one articulated as contact and invasion, genocide and destruction, resistance and survival, and finally recovery as Indigenous peoples (91). “The sense of hope and optimism is a characteristic of contemporary indigenous politics which is often criticized, by non-Indigenous scholars, because it is viewed as being overly idealistic,” Tuhiwai Smith suggests (91). Those theories of disappearance ignored the effect of colonization on those who were supposedly disappearing:

While Western theories and academics were describing, defining and explaining cultural demise, however, indigenous peoples were having their lands and resources systematically stripped by the state; were becoming ever more marginalized; and were subjected to the layers of colonialism imposed through economic and social policies. This failure of research, and of the academic community, to address the real social issues of Maori was recalled in later times when indigenous disquiet became more politicized and sophisticated. Very direct confrontations took place between Maori and some academic communities. Such confrontations have also occurred in Australia and other parts of the indigenous world, resulting in much more active resistances by communities to the presence and activities of researchers. (91)

Tuhiwai Smith argues that a direct line exists between failures of academic research in the nineteenth century and failures in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

“There is a direct relationship between the expansion of knowledge, the expansion of trade and the expansion of empire,” she continues (92). Much of that trade was conducted on unjust terms:

Many indigenous responses to Western “trading” practices have generally been framed by the Western juridical system and have had to argue claims on the basis of proven theft, or of outrageously unjust rates of exchange (one hundred blankets and fifty beads do not buy one hundred million hectares of land for the rest of eternity). The more difficult claims have attempted to establish recognition of indigenous spirituality in Western law. Even when evidence is overwhelmingly in favour of an indigenous case, there are often statutes of limitation which determine how far back in time a claim can reach, or there are international agreements between states, or some institutions just refuse in principle to consider the possibility that an indigenous group have a claim at all. The legacy, however, of the fragmentation and alienation of a cultural “estate” over hundreds of years is that the material connection between people, their place, their languages, their beliefs and their practices has been torn apart. (92)

“[A] vast industry based on the positional superiority and advantages gained under imperialism,” which Tuhiwai Smith calls “trading the Other” (93). That industry, she continues, is about ideas, language, knowledge, images, beliefs and fantasies: “Trading the Other deeply, intimately, defines Western thinking and identity. As a trade, it has no concern for the peoples who originally produced the ideas or images, or with how and why they produced those ways of knowing. It will not, indeed cannot return the raw materials from which its products have been made” (93). In contemporary formations, trading the Other is, as bell hooks writes, “Eating the Other,” a commodification of otherness which, in New Zealand, has included the commodification of “treaty rights, identity, traditional knowledge, traditional customs, traditional organizations, land titles, fauna and flora” (93).

“It might seem curious to link travellers and traders with the more serious endeavours of amateur researchers and scientists,” Tuhiwai Smith acknowledges. “From indigenous perspectives the finer distinctions between categories of colonizers were not made along the lines of science and the rest. It was more likely to be a distinction between those who were ‘friends’ and those who were not” (94). One place where different knowledges about Indigenous peoples intersect in in discussions of the problem of a particular Indigenous group. This kind of discussion is 

a recurrent theme in all imperial and colonial attempts to deal with indigenous peoples. It originates within the wider discourses of racism, sexism and other forms of positioning the Other. Its neatness and simplicity gives the term its power and durability. Framing “the . . . problem,” mapping it, describing it in all its different manifestations, trying to get rid of it, laying blame for it, talking about it, writing newspaper columns about it, drawing cartoons about it, teaching about it, researching it, over and over . . . how many occasions, polite dinner parties and academic conferences would be bereft of conversation if “the indigenous problem” had not been so problematized? (94)

At first, these “problems” were military or policing concerns about how to deal with Indigenous resistance (94). Later they focused on social policies, “notions of cultural deprivation or cultural deficit which laid the blame for indigenous poverty and marginalization even more securely on the people themselves” (95). According to Tuhiwai Smith, “many researchers, even those with the best of intentions, frame their research in ways that assume that the locus of a particular research problem lies with the indigenous individual or community rather than with other social or structural issues” (95). “For many indigenous communities research itself is taken to mean ‘problem’; the word research is believed to mean, quite literally, the continued construction of indigenous peoples as the problem,” she writes (96).

Chapter 5, “Notes from Down Under,” marks the end of the book’s first section and an introduction to its second section (98). She writes that, in the current moment,

[w]hile the West might be experiencing fragmentation, the process of fragmentation known under its older guise as colonization is well known to indigenous peoples. We can talk about the fragmentation of lands and cultures. We know what it is like to have our identities regulated by laws and our languages and customs removed from our lives. Fragmentation is not an indigenous project; it is something we are recovering from. While shifts are occurring in the ways in which we indigenous peoples put ourselves back together again, the greater project is about recentring indigenous identities on a larger scale. (100)

As times have changed, imperialism has changed as well, although 

[e]vangelicals and traders still roam the landscape, as fundamentalists and entrepreneurs. Adventurers now hunt the sources of viral diseases, prospectors mine for genetic diversity and pirates raid ecological systems for new wealth, capturing virgin plants and pillaging the odd jungle here and there. . . . The imperial armies assemble under the authority of the United Nations defending the principles of freedom, democracy and the rights of capital. (101)

“New analyses and a new language mark, and mask, the ‘something’ that is no longer called imperialism,” she contends (101). One new term, “post-colonial,” suggests that colonialism is finished business—but the colonizers have not left (101). “Decolonization, once viewed as the formal process of handing over the instruments of government, is now recognized as a long-term process involving the bureaucratic, cultural, linguistic and psychological divesting of colonial power” (101). As imperialism has changed, so too have Indigenous peoples:

they have regrouped, learned from past experiences, and mobilized strategically around new alliances. The elders, the women and various dissenting voices within indigenous communities maintain a collective memory and critical conscience of past experiences. Many indigenous communities are spaces of hope and possibilities, despite the enormous odds aligned against them. (101-02)

A new language of negotiation and reconciliation has appeared, along with terms like sovereignty and self-determination, but “[c]orporate chiefs and corporate warriors attempt to make deals with the new brokers of power and money,” leaders who, “though totally corrupted and evil, are kept in power by the very states which espouse democracy and human rights”; meanwhile, other Indigenous leaders “have become separated from their own indigenous value system and have been swept up into the games and machinations of a world they only partly understand” (102). 

There have been changes in research as well. Scientific and technological advances “place indigenous peoples and other marginalized and oppressed groups at extreme risk”—partly because the belief in technology as a solution to problems “suppresses and destroys indigenous alternatives” (102). A range of colonizing projects continues to be attempted, according to Tuhiwai Smith: having genealogy and biological identity—DNA—stolen, patented and copied (103); the “farming” of umbilical cord blood of aborted babies, a substance which is considered sacred by Maori (104); the patenting of Indigenous cultural institutions and rituals by non-Indigenous people (104); the scientific and political reconstruction of a previously extinct Indigenous group through DNA (104); the creation of new species of life that contain human DNA (105); the commodification of Indigenous spirituality for profit (105); the creation of virtual culture as authentic culture (105-06); television advertising and its effect of turning young Indigenous people into consumers (106); the development of private suburbs for the rich (106); the denial of global citizenship to Indigenous peoples (106-07); the war on terror (107); and food dependency, food impoverishment, and the monoculture of food products, and their contribution to global starvation (107). “While the language of imperialism and colonialism has changed, the sites of struggle remain,” particularly over the control of Indigenous forms of knowledge (108). “At the same time indigenous peoples offer genuine alternatives to the current dominant form of development,” she continues. “Indigenous peoples have philosophies which connect humans to the environment and to each other, and which generate principles for living a life which is sustainable, respectful and possible” (109). However, “[w]hat is more important than what alternatives indigenous peoples offer the world is what alternatives indigenous people offer each other” (109). These include the importance of sharing spiritual, creative and political resources: “To be able to share, to have something worth sharing, gives dignity to the giver. To accept a gift and to reciprocate gives dignity to the receiver. To create something new through that process of sharing is to recreate the old, to reconnect relationships and to recreate our humanness” (110).

Chapter 6, “The Indigenous Peoples’ Project: Setting a New Agenda,” begins by suggesting that “the following chapters shift the focus towards the developments that have occurred in the field of research that have been conceptualized and carried out by indigenous people working as researchers in indigenous communities” (111). “This chapter sets out the framework of the modern indigenous peoples’ project,” Tuhiwai Smith writes:

This is a project which many of its participants would argue has been defined by over 500 years of contact with the West. In this sense it might also be described as a modernist resistance struggle. For most of the past 500 years the indigenous peoples’ project has had one major priority: survival. This has entailed survival from the effects of a sustained war with the colonizers, from the devastation of diseases, from the dislocation from lands and territories, from the oppressions of living under unjust regimes; survival at a sheer basic physical level and as peoples with our own distinctive languages and cultures. (111)

Since the middle of the twentieth century, “the indigenous peoples’ project was reformulated around a much wider platform of concerns” (111). “[A] new agenda for indigenous activity has been framed that goes beyond the decolonization aspirations of a particular indigenous community towards the development of global indigenous strategic alliances” (112). For those reasons, this chapter “will discuss two aspects of the indigenous peoples’ project: the social movement of indigenous peoples which occurred from the 1960s and the development of an agenda or platform of action which has influenced indigenous research activities” (112).

Indigenous social movements involve “a revitalization and reformulation of culture and tradition; an increased participation in and articulate rejection of Western institutions; and a focus on strategic relations and alliances with non-indigenous groups” (114). These movements have “developed a shared international language or discourse which enables indigenous activists to talk to each other across their cultural differences while maintaining and taking their directions from their own communities or nations” (114). Grassroots development is the strength of the movement: “It is at the local level that indigenous cultures and the cultures of resistance have been born and nurtured over generations” (114). Different communities have had different priorities: some communities have focused on cultural revitalization, while others have tried to reorganize political relations with the state (115)—sometimes with non-Indigenous allies (115-16). “Frustrations at working within the nation state led some indigenous communities towards establishing or re-establishing, in some cases, international linkages or relations with other indigenous communities,” however (116). One of those international connections is the United Nations: the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was developed by the UN Working Group on Indigenous Peoples (119). 

In research, themes which emerged in the 1960s have developed since (120). “The research agenda is conceptualized here as constituting a programme and set of approaches that are situated within the decolonization politics of the indigenous peoples’ movement,” an agenda which is focused strategically “on the goal of self determination of indigenous peoples” (120). Indigenous research focuses on self-determination:

Self-determination in a research agenda becomes something more than a political goal. It becomes a goal of social justice which is expressed through and across a wide range of psychological, social, cultural and economic terrains. It necessarily involves the processes of transformation, of decolonization, of healing and of mobilization as peoples. The processes, approaches and methodologies—while dynamic and open to different influences and possibilities—are critical elements of a strategic research agenda. (120)

“The indigenous research agenda is broad in its scope and ambitious in its intent,” and while in some ways it is different from the research agendas of scientific organizations or national research programmes, some elements are similar to any research programme “which connects research to the ‘good’ of society” (122). The elements of the Indigenous research agenda that are different, however, are found “in key words such as healing, decolonization, spiritual, recovery,” words which are at odds with the terminology of Western science because they are politically engaged and not neutral or objective (122). In research, though, the intentions of those terms “are embedded in various social science research methodologies” which have a sense of social responsibility (122). Nevertheless, Indigenous peoples remain cynical “about the capacity, motives or methodologies of Western research to deliver any benefits to indigenous peoples whom science has long regarded, indeed has classified, as being ‘not human’” (122). That cynicism means that Indigenous communities will expect researchers to be clear and detailed about the likely benefits of their research (122).

Ethical research protocols don’t exist in all disciplines, although individual communities and nations may have ethical research guidelines (122-23). It’s important that community and Indigenous rights or perspectives be recognized and respected (123).“From indigenous perspectives ethical codes of conduct serve partly the same purpose as the protocols which govern our relationships with each other and with the environment,” Tuhiwai Smith writes. “The term ‘respect’ is consistently used by indigenous peoples to underscore the significance of our relationships and humanity. Through respect the place of everyone and everything in the universe is kept in balance and harmony. Respect is a reciprocal, shared, constantly interchanging principle which is expressed through all aspects of social conduct” (125).

In chapter 7, “Articulating an Indigenous Research Agenda,” Tuhiwai Smith explores “the development of indigenous initiatives in research and discusses some of the ways in which an indigenous research agenda is currently being articulated” (127). “There are two distinct pathways through which an indigenous research agenda is being advanced,” she writes. “The first one is through community action projects, local initiatives and national or tribal research based around claims. The second pathway is through the spaces gained within institutions by indigenous research centres and studies programmes” (128). There is a significant overlap between those two pathways, however: they “reflect two distinct developments. They intersect and inform each other at a number of different levels” (128).

The idea of community is “defined or imagined in multiple ways: as physical, political, social, psychological, historical, linguistic, economic, cultural, and spiritual spaces” (128). Colonialism’s effect on community has been fragmentation and marginalization (128). Defining community is complex; so too is defining community research (129). “What community research relies upon and validates is that the community itself makes its own definitions” (129). Some projects initiated by local people; others, supported by development agencies, “focus on developing self-help initiatives and building skilled communities” (129-30). “Social research at community level is often referred to as community action research or emancipatory research,” she notes (130).In addition, some communities of interest don’t occupy a specific geographical space (130). “In all community approaches process—that is, methodology and method—is highly important,” Tuhiwai Smith continues:

In many projects the process is far more important than the outcome. Processes are expected to be respectful, to enable people, to heal and to educate. They are expected to lead one small step further towards self-determination. Indigenous community development needs to be informed by community-based research that respects and enhances community processes. (130)

There is a divide between communities and universities; the latter, while they are committed to the creation of knowledge through research, are seen by Indigenous peoples as elitist and Western, and “many indigenous students find little space for indigenous perspectives in most academic disciplines and most research approaches” (132). “What large research institutions and research cultures offer are the programmes, resources, facilities and structures that can, if the conditions are appropriate, support and train indigenous researchers” (135).

“Most indigenous researchers who work with indigenous communities or on indigenous issues are self-taught, having received little curriculum support for areas related to indigenous concerns,” Tuhiwai Smith writes (136). “For some indigenous students one of the first issues to be confronted is their own identities as indigenous and their connected identities to other indigenous peers” (137). There are challenges working with Elders (137), and difficulties negotiating entry to a community or a home, even for Indigenous researchers (138). There is also the issue of insider versus outsider research: outsider research typically presumed to be objective and neutral (138). “Indigenous research approaches problematize the insider model in different ways,” Tuhiwai Smith writes, “because there are multiple ways of being either an insider or an outsider in indigenous contexts. The critical issue with insider research is the constant need for reflexivity” (138). Insider researchers will live with the consequences of their processes (138). Because of the complexity of their work,

insider researchers need to build particular sorts of research-based support systems and relationships with their communities. They have to be skilled at defining clear research goals and ‘lines of relating’ which are specific to the project and somewhat different from their own family networks. Insider researchers also need to define closure and have the skills to say “no” or “continue.” (138-39)

In addition, insiders can become outsiders in important ways when they conduct research (139-40). “Insider research has to be as ethical and respectful, as reflexive and critical, as outsider research. It also needs to be humble,” because the researcher is a community member “with a different set of roles and relationships, status and position” (140). 

Tuhiwai Smith notes that many communities do not have the resources for projects that require intensive input, even if there is enthusiasm and goodwill (141). She also points out that Indigenous researchers have to meet research criteria or risk their work being judged as not rigorous, not robust, not theorized; however, they also have to meet indigenous criteria that can judge research as useless, unfriendly, unjust, or not Indigenous (142). “The indigenous agenda challenges indigenous researchers to work across these boundaries,” she writes. “It is a challenge that provides a focus and direction helpful in thinking through the complexities of indigenous research. At the same time, the process is evolving as researchers working in this field dialogue and collaborate on shared concerns” (142).

Chapter 8, “Twenty-five Indigenous Projects,” begins with a statement about the imperatives for Indigenous research:

The imperatives for indigenous research which have been derived from the imperatives inside the struggles of the 1970s seem to be clear and straightforward: the survival of peoples, cultures and languages; the struggle to become self-determining, the need to take back control of our destinies. These imperatives have demanded more than rhetoric and acts of defiance. The acts of reclaiming, reformulating and reconstituting indigenous cultures and languages have required the mounting of an ambitious research programme, one that is very strategic in its purpose and activities and relentless in its pursuit of social justice. Within the programme are a number of very distinct projects. Themes such as cultural survival, self-determination, healing, restoration and social justice are engaging indigenous researchers and communities in a diverse array of projects. (143)

This chapter sets out 25 different projects being pursued by Indigenous communities that “constitute a very complex research programme” and that intersect with the Indigenous research agenda (143). Some projects are not entirely Indigenous; some have not been created by Indigenous researchers (143). Some research approaches have come out of social science methodologies; others “invite multi-disciplinary research approaches”; others have come out of Indigenous practices (143). Some involve empirical research, but not all (143). These projects, however, read more like research themes or possibilities than concrete discussions of actual projects. Surprisingly, many of these themes or possibilities sound like artistic projects rather than academic research.

The projects Tuhiwai Smith lists in this chapter include, first, claiming, which consists of research required for formal claims processes demanded by courts and governments; so the histories generated by this research are intended “to establish the legitimacy of the claims being asserted for the rest of time” (144). Claiming research is written for different audiences: the court, for example; a general non-Indigenous audience; the Indigenous people themselves (145). The history told in claiming becomes “an official account of their collective story,” but it is a history without an ending because “it assumes that once justice has been done the people will continue their journey” (145). The second project is testimony. Testimonies intersect with claiming because they are a way to present oral testimony, usually about painful events (145). The third project is storytelling. Along with oral histories and perspectives of Elders and women,  storytelling is “an integral part of all indigenous research”; stories “contribute to a collective story in which every indigenous person has a place” (145). Celebrations of survival or, in Gerald Vizenor’s term, “survivance,” are Tuhiwai Smith’s fourth form of research project. These accentuate “the degree to which indigenous peoples and communities have retained cultural and spiritual values and authenticity in resisting colonialism” (146). These celebrations are sometimes reflected in stories (146). The fifth research project is remembering: not so much remembering an idealized past, but rather remembering a painful past, “connecting bodies with place and experience, and, more importantly, people’s responses to that pain” (147). “Both healing and transformation, after what is referred to as historical trauma, become crucial strategies in any approach that asks a community to remember what they may have decided unconsciously or consciously to forget,” Tuhiwai Smith writes (147).

The sixth project is Indigenizing and Indigenist processes. There are two dimensions to this project: the first, a “centring in consciousness of the landscapes, images, languages, themes, metaphors and stories of the indigenous world, and the disconnecting of many of the cultural ties between the settler society and its metropolitan homeland,” a project with involves “non-indigenous activists and intellectuals” (147); and the second, the centring of “a politics of indigenous identity and indigenous cultural action” (147). Tuhiwai Smith’s seventh research project is intervening: “becoming involved as an interested worker for change,” both structural and cultural (148). It is essential that the community itself invites the project in and sets out its parameters, she writes (148). “Intervening is . . . directed at changing institutions that deal with indigenous peoples, and not at changing indigenous peoples to fit the structures” (148). The eighth research project is revitalizing and regenerating: specifically, revitalizing and regenerating Indigenous languages, arts, and cultural practices (148-49). Number nine is connecting: “Connectedness positions individuals in sets of relationships with other people and with the environment,” to their families, to their traditional lands “through the restoration of specific rituals and practices” (149). “Connecting is related to issues of identity and place, to spiritual relationships and community well-being,” she continues, noting that researchers need to “have a critical conscience about ensuring that their activities connect in humanizing ways with indigenous communities” (150). “Connecting is about establishing good relations,” she writes (150). The tenth research project is reading: this involves critical rereadings of Western history and the Indigenous presence in that history; a telling of origin stories of colonialism and imperialism which generates “deconstructed accounts of the West, its history through the eyes of indigenous and colonized peoples” (150). 

Tuhiwai Smith’s eleventh research project is writing and theory making. She suggests that “writing is employed in a variety of imaginative, critical, and also quite functional ways” (150-51), in the production of anthologies as well as stand-alone texts “that capture the messages, nuances and flavour of indigenous lives” (151). Writing is linked to efforts at revitalizing languages (151). Connected to writing is the twelfth research project, representing: this project is about the right of Indigenous peoples to represent themselves, both “as a political concept and as a form of voice and expression” (151), so it is both political and artistic in scope (152). “Representation of indigenous peoples by indigenous people is about countering the dominant society’s image of indigenous peoples, their lifestyles and belief systems,” she suggests (152). The thirteenth research project is gendering. “Gendering indigenous debates, whether they are related to the politics of self-determination or the politics of the family, is concerned with issues arising from the relations between indigenous men and women that have come about through colonialism,” she writes, noting that colonization had a destructive effect on Indigenous gender relations (152). The fourteenth project is envisioning: asking Indigenous people to imagine a future, set a new vision (153). “The confidence of knowing that we have survived and can only go forward provides some impetus to a process of envisioning,” Tuhiwai Smith writes. “The power of indigenous peoples to change their own lives and set new directions, despite their impoverished and oppressed conditions, speaks to the politics of survivance” (153). The fifteenth research project is reframing, which refers to “taking much greater control over the ways in which indigenous issues and social problems are discussed and handled”—not by framing them as “the ‘indigenous problem,’” but rather through the community “making decisions about its parameters, about what is in the foreground, what is in the background, and what shadings or complexities exist within the frame” (154). “Reframing occurs also within the way indigenous people write or engage with theories and accounts of what it means to be indigenous,” she continues (155).

The sixteenth research project is restoring. This means the restoration of well-being—“spiritually, emotionally, physically and materially”—through projects what are holistic and focused on healing rather than punishment (155-56). The seventeenth research project is returning: intersecting with claiming, this approach “involves the returning of lands, rivers and mountains to their indigenous owners,” and the “repatriation of artefacts, remains and other cultural materials stolen or removed and taken overseas” (156). Returning also includes repatriating people who have been forcibly adopted out of communities (157). The eighteenth project is democratizing and Indigenist governance: “Although indigenous communities claim a model of democracy in their traditional ways of decision making,” Tuhiwai Smith notes, “many contemporary indigenous organizations were formed through the direct involvement of states and governments,” creating “colonial constructions that have been taken for granted as authentic indigenous formations” (157). “Democratizing in indigenous terms is a process of extending participation outwards through reinstating indigenous principles of collectivity and public debate without necessarily recreating a parliamentary or senatorial style of government” (157). The nineteenth project is networking: stimulating “information flows,” educating people about issues, and creating “extensive international talking circles” (157), as well as “building knowledge and data bases which are based on the principles of relationships and connections (157-58). “Networking by indigenous peoples is a form of resistance,” she writes (158). “Networking is a way of making contacts between marginalized communities” (158). The twentieth research project is naming: that is, renaming geographical locations, removing their colonial names and reinstating their Indigenous names; also renaming children according to Indigenous cultural practices (158).

The twenty-first research project is protecting. This is a multifaceted project “concerned with protecting peoples, communities, languages, customs and beliefs, art and ideas, natural resources and the things indigenous peoples produce” (159). “Every indigenous community is attempting to protect several different things simultaneously,” she suggests, sometimes involves alliances with non-indigenous groups and organizations (159). The twenty-second project is creating. This project is “about transcending the basic survival mode through using a resource or capability that every indigenous community has retained throughout colonization—the ability to create and be creative” (159). “Creating is about channelling collective creativity in order to produce solutions to indigenous problems” (159-60). “Indigenous communities also have something to offer the non-indigenous world,” she argues: 

There are many programmes incorporating indigenous elements, which on that account are viewed on the international scene as “innovative” and unique. Indigenous peoples’ ideas and beliefs about the origins of the world, their explanations of the environment, often embedded in complicated metaphors and mythic tales, are now being sought as the basis for thinking more laterally in current theories about the environment, the earth and the universe. (160)

Number twenty-three is negotiating, which involves “thinking and acting strategically,” and “recognizing and working towards long-term goals” (160). “Patience and negotiation are linked to a very long view of our survival” (160). The twenty-fourth research project is discovering the beauty of Indigenous knowledge: “This project is about discovering our own indigenous knowledge and Western science and technology, and making our knowledge systems work for indigenous development” (161). “Traditionally, science has been hostile to indigenous ways of knowing,” she notes (161). Discovering the beauty of Indigenous knowledge “is as much about rediscovering indigenous knowledge and its continued relevance to the way we lead our lives. Indigenous knowledge in terms of the environment is well-recognized as traditional ecological knowledge” (161). “Indigenous knowledge extends beyond the environment, however; it has values and principles about human behaviour and ethics, about relationships, about wellness and leading a good life,” Tuhiwai Smith continues. “Knowledge has beauty and can make the world beautiful if used in a good way” (161). The last project is sharing: “sharing knowledge between indigenous peoples, around networks and across the world of indigenous peoples” (162). “Sharing is also related to the failure of education systems to educate indigenous people adequately or appropriately,” she writes. “It is a form of oral literacy, which connects with the story telling and formal occasions that feature in indigenous life” (162). Sharing is part of every community research project; it is a responsibility. “The technical term for this is the dissemination of results, usually very boring to non-researchers, very technical and very cold. For indigenous researchers, sharing is about demystifying knowledge and information and speaking in plain terms to the community” (162). This list, she points out, is not definitive or exclusive; there are many collaborations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous researchers, and books and articles have identified specific Indigenous methodologies and concepts; other projects have been standard social science projects such as critical ethnography (162-63). She also states, “[t]he naming of the projects listed in this chapter was deliberate. I hope the message it gives to communities is that they have issues that matter, and processes and methodologies that can work for them” (163).

At the beginning of Chapter 9, “Responding to the Imperatives of an Indigenous Agenda: A Case Study of Maori,” Tuhiwai Smith suggests that chapters nine and ten are “a case study of one Indigenous development, which demonstrates how many of the issues raised in the previous chapters come together” (165). Chapter 9, she continues, “tracks the transition from Maori as the researched to Maori as the researcher,” a transition that has happened since the 1970s, although “it would be wrong to claim either an overall change in attitudes by Maori to research or a steady progression of changes” (165). She begins by noting that research is typically understood as objective, value-free and scientific: in other words, our ideas about research are drawn from positivism (166). “Differences in approach to research, however, have been the subject of continuous debate, as those engaged in attempts to understand human society grapple with the problematic nature of social science inquiry” (165). Disputes over method in the social sciences are important, because method “is regarded as the way in which knowledge is acquired or discovered and as a way in which we can ‘know’ what is real” (166). She points out that academic disciplines are attached not just to ideas about knowledge but to methodologies (166); debates about methodology and method are about “the appropriateness of research design and analysis” (166). “Definitions of validity and reliability are of critical importance here as researchers attempt to construct and perfect scientific instruments for observing and explaining human behaviour and the human condition,” she writes (166). However, at another, broader level, “the debate has been concerned with the wider aims and role of research” (166). Is positivism, for example, “an appropriate paradigm for understanding human society” (166)?

In the 1960s questions were asked about the connection between power and research by Indigenous activists: “Such questions were based on a sense of outrage and injustice over the failure of education, democracy and research to deliver social change for people who were oppressed. These questions related to the relationship between knowledge and power, between research and emancipation, and between lived reality and imposed ideals about the Other” (167). Similar questions were asked by feminism, which was important in challenging “the epistemological foundations of Western philosophy, academic practice and research” (168). However, white feminism has been challenged by women who are not white: they disagreed with the assumptions that “all women shared some universal characteristics and suffered from universal oppressions which could be understood and described by a group of predominantly white, Western-trained women academics” (168). At the same time, a feminist critique of Marxist critical theory was developed, a challenge which “focused on the notion of reflexivity in research, a process of critical self-awareness, reflexivity and openness to challenge” (168). Women of colour “argued that oppression takes different forms, and that there are interlocking relationships between race, gender and class which make oppression a complex sociological and psychological condition” (169-70); Tuhiwai Smith is talking about intersectionality, although she doesn’t use that term, at least not here. 

“Research is about satisfying a need to know, and a need to extend the boundaries of existing knowledge through a process of systematic inquiry. Rationality in the Western tradition enabled knowledge to be produced and articulated in a scientific and ‘superior’ way,” she continues (172). Those forms of knowledge allowed for the dismissal of other forms of knowledge that were considered “primitive” (172). Since the 1960s, however, “[t]he reassertion of Maori aspirations and cultural practice . . . has demonstrated a will by Maori people to make explicit claims about the validity and legitimacy of Maori knowledge” (174).“When studying how to go about doing research, it is very easy to overlook the realm of common sense, the basic beliefs that not only help people identify research problems that are relevant and worthy, but also accompany them throughout the research process,” she argues (175). In a cross-cultural context, researchers need to ask themselves a series of questions: Who defined the research problem? For whom is this study worthy and relevant? Who says so? What knowledge will the community gain from this study? What knowledge will the researcher gain from this study? What are likely positive and negative outcomes from this study? How can those negative outcomes be eliminated? To whom is the researcher accountable? What processes are in place to support the research, the researched and the researcher? (175-76). Furthermore, “it is also important to question that most fundamental belief of all, that individual researchers have an inherent right to knowledge and truth. We should not assume that they have been trained well enough to pursue it rigorously, nor to recognize it when they have ‘discovered’ it” (176).

Colonization has made it difficult for Maori knowledge to be understood as legitimate, Tuhiwai Smith contends:

The colonization of Maori culture has threatened the maintenance of that knowledge and the transmission of knowledge that is “exclusively” or particularly Maori. The dominance of Western, British culture, and the history that underpins the relationship between indigenous Maori and non-indigenous Pakeha, have made it extremely difficult for Maori forms of knowledge and learning to be accepted as legitimate. By asserting the validity of Maori knowledge, Maori people have reclaimed greater control over the research that is being carried out in the Maori field. (177)

As a result, she continues,

[r]esearch projects are designed and carried out with little recognition accorded to the people who participated—“the researched.” Indigenous people and other groups in society have frequently been portrayed as the powerless victims of research, which has attributed a variety of deficits or problems to just about everything they do. Years of research have frequently failed to improve the conditions of the people who are researched. This has led many Maori people to believe that researchers are simply intent on taking or “stealing” knowledge in a non-reciprocal and often underhanded way. (178)

Since research has tended to benefit the researcher and “the knowledge base of the dominant group in society,” 

it is critical that researchers recognize the power dynamic that is embedded in the relationship with their subjects. Researchers are in receipt of privileged information. They may interpret it within an overt theoretical framework, but also in terms of a covert ideological framework. They have the power to distort, to make invisible, to overlook, to exaggerate and to draw conclusions, based not on factual data, but on assumptions, hidden value judgements, and often downright misunderstandings. They have the potential to extend knowledge or to perpetuate ignorance. (178)

Clearly research is not the value-free or objective process that it is often claimed to be; nor does it lead to the “truth.”

The Maori challenge that researchers “‘keep out’ of researching Maori people or Maori issues” has led to a variety strategies for carrying out further research. These strategies include avoidance, “whereby the researcher avoids dealing with the issues or with Maori”; “‘personal development,’ whereby the researchers prepare themselves by learning Maori language, attending hui and becoming more knowledgeable about Maori concerns”; “consultation with Maori, where efforts are made to seek support and consent”; “‘making space’ where research organizations have recognized and attempted to bring more Maori researchers and ‘voices’ into their own organization”; and partnership, “whereby the organization recognizes the need to reflect partnership at governance level and embed it in all its policies and practices” (179). These strategies have positive and negative consequences, although Tuhiwai Smith states that avoidance “may not be helpful to anyone” (179). However, “the move towards research that is more ethical, and concerned with outcomes as well as processes, has meant that those who choose to research with Maori people have more opportunities to think more carefully about what this undertaking may mean”—although it doesn’t guarantee anything (179).

Tuhiwai Smith examines Graham Smith’s four models “by which culturally appropriate research can be undertaken by non-indigenous researchers” (179). These include tiaki or the mentoring model, “in which authoritative Maori people guide and sponsor the research”; the whangai or adoption model, in which “researchesr are incorporated into the daily life of Maori people, and sustain a life-long relationship which extends far beyond the realms of research”; the “power sharing model” in which researchers seek community support in developing the research; and the “empowering outcomes model,” “which addresses the sorts of questions Maori people want to know and which has beneficial outcomes” (179-80). These models are culturally sensitive and empathetic, but they go beyond that kind of engagement “to address the issues that are going to make a difference for Maori” (180). Another model, Tuhiwai Smith suggests, is bicultural research: this “involves both indigenous and non-indigenous researchers working on a research project and shaping that project together” (180). All of those models, she notes,

assume that indigenous people are involved in the research in key and often senior roles. With very few trained indigenous researchers available, one of the roles non-indigenous researchers have needed to play is as mentors of indigenous research assistants. Increasingly, however, there have been demands by indigenous communities for research to be undertaken exclusively by indigenous researchers. It is thought that Maori people need to take greater control over the questions they want to address, and invest more energy and commitment into the education and empowering of Maori people as researchers. (180-81)

I’m not sure that people without much training will be able to conduct research effectively, although given the track record of Western researchers, especially Western anthropologists, maybe they couldn’t do much worse than those highly trained individuals.

Chapter 10, “Towards Developing Indigenous Methodologies: Kaupapa Maori Research,” begins with a question: “What happens to research when the researched become the researchers?” (185). The challenges for Maori researchers, according to Tuhiwai Smith, include retrieving space “to convince Maori people of the value of research for Maori”; convincing “the various, fragmented but powerful research communities of the need for greater Maori involvement in research;” and developing “approaches and ways of carrying out research that take into account, without being limited by, the legacies of previous research, and the parameters of both previous and current approaches” (185). “What is now referred to as Kaupapa Maori approaches to research, or simply as Kaupapa Maori research, is an attempt to retrieve that space and to achieve those general aims,” (185) she writes. Unfortunately, Tuhiwai Smith doesn’t define Kaupapa Maori. However, a quick Google search tells me that “Kaupapa” “refers to the collective vision, aspiration and purpose of Māori communities” (“Principles of Kaupapa Māori”).  “Similar approaches to engage with research on indigenous terms have been developed in other contexts,” Tuhiwai Smith continues. “Indigenist research is a term frequently used to name these approaches” (185). “This chapter begins by discussing the ways in which Kaupapa Maori research has become a way of structuring assumptions, values, concepts, orientations and priorities in research” (185).

“[N]ot all those who write about or talk about Kaupapa Maori are involved in research,” Tuhiwai Smith notes. “Kaupapa Maori has been applied across a wide range of projects and enterprises,” and “not all Maori researchers would regard either themselves, or their research, as fitting within a Kaupapa Maori framework. There are elements within the definitions of Kaupapa Maori which serve the purpose of selecting what counts and what does not count” (186). One question is whether a non-Indigenous researcher carry out Kaupapa Maori research. The answer to that question depends on who is asked. One answer is maybe, but not on their own; and if they were involved, they would have to find ways of positioning themselves as non-Indigenous (186). Another answer, more radical, is simply “no”: “Kaupapa Maori research is Maori research exclusively” (186). 

According to Kathy Irwin, Kaupapa Maori research is culturally safe, involves mentorship by Elders, is “culturally relevant and appropriate while satisfying the rigour of research,” and is undertaken by a Maori researcher, “not a researcher who happens to be Maori” (186). Russell Bishop’s model of Kaupapa Maori, however, 

is framed by the discourses related to the Treaty of Waitangi and by the development within education of Maori initiatives that are “controlled” by Maori. By framing Kaupapa Maori within the Treaty of Waitangi, Bishop leaves space for the involvement of non-indigenous researchers in support of Maori research. He argues that non-indigenous people, generally speaking, have an obligation to support Maori research (as Treaty partners). And, secondly, some non-indigenous researchers, who have a genuine desire to support the cause of Maori, ought to be included, because they can be useful allies and colleagues in research. (186)

For Bishop, control and empowerment are linked: Maori people need to be in control of investigations into Maori people’s lives (186-87). “Bishop also argues that Kaupapa Maori research is located within an alternative conception of the world from which solutions and cultural aspirations can be generated,” Tuhiwai Smith writes (187). 

“Both Irwin and Bishop argue for the importance of the concept of whanau as a supervisory and organizational structure for handling research,” she continues, noting that “whanau provides the intersection where research meets Maori, or Maori meets research, on equalizing terms” (187). The word whanau refers to extended family (171). According to Tuhiwai Smith, “under the rubric of Kaupapa Maori research different sets of ideas and issues are being claimed as important. Some of these intersect at different points with research as an activity. Some of these features are reframed as assumptions, some as practices and methods, and some are related to Maori conceptions of knowledge” (187). She notes that Graham Smith contends that Kaupapa Maori research “is related to ‘being Maori’”; it “is connected to Maori philosophy and principles”; it “takes for granted the validity and legitimacy of Maori, the importance of Maori language and culture”; and it is concerned with Maori struggle for cultural well-being (187). According to Tuhiwai Smith, this definition

locates Kaupapa Maori research within the wider project of Maori struggles for self-determination, and draws from this project a set of elements which, he argues, can be found in all the different projects associated with Kaupapa Maori. The general significance of these principles, however, is that they have evolved from within many of the well-tried practices of Maori as well as being tied to a clear and coherent rationale. (187)

Another dimension of Kaupapa Maori is connected to issues of identity: most Maori researchers would argue that being Maori is “a critical element of Kaupapa Maori research,” even an essential element, but that “being Maori does not preclude . . . being systematic, being ethical, being ‘scientific’” (188-89).

Here Tuhiwai Smith returns to the concept of whanau as a way of organizing research (189). “All Maori initiatives have attempted to organize the basic decision making and participation within and around the concept of whanau,” she suggests.It is argued that the whanau, in pre-colonial times, was the core social unit, rather than the individual. It is also argued that the whanau remains a persistent way of living and organizing the social world” (189). Whanau is part of a methodology, a way of organizing the research group and incorporating ethical procedures that report back to the community; it is also a way of distributing tasks, incorporating people with specific forms of expertise, and making Maori values central to the research project (189). Non-Indigenous people can be involved at the level of the whanau (189). “The whanau then can be a very specific modality through which research is shaped and carried out, analysed and disseminated” (189).

Whanau is one of several aspects of Maori philosophy, values and practices which are brought to the centre in Kaupapa Maori research,” Tuhiwai Smith writes (189). “Taukana Nepe argues that Kaupapa Maori is derived from very different epistemological and metaphysical foundations and it is these that give Kaupapa Maori its distinctiveness from Western societies” (189). The Maori have a different epistemological tradition which frames the way they see the world and organize themselves in it, that shapes the questions they ask and the answers they seek (190). Kaupapa Maori “is tied to the connection between language, knowledge and culture,” but it isn’t equivalent to Maori knowledge and epistemology; rather, it is “a way of abstracting that knowledge, reflecting on it, engaging with it, taking it for granted sometimes, making assumptions based upon it, and at times critically engaging in the way it has been and is being constructed” (190). It is possible within Kaupapa Maori for there to be different constructions of Maori knowledge; for instance, Maori women may question the version of Maori society provided by Maori men (190). In addition, social justice is an important question in Kaupapa Maori research (191).

Positivistic scientists tend not to be sympathetic to Kaupapa Maori (191). The two forms of research compete for resources. Positivistic research is “well established institutionally and theoretically” and is hegemonic: “As far as many people are concerned, research is positivist; it cannot be anything else” (191). In comparison, “Kaupapa Maori is a fledgling approach, occurring within the relatively smaller community of Maori researchers; this in turn exists within a minority culture that continues to be represented within antagonistic colonial discourses. It is a counter-hegemonic approach to Western forms of research and, as such, currently exists on the margins” (191). “Kaupapa Maori research is imbued with a strong anti-positivistic stance,” but Maori communities tend to include “all those researchers attempting to work with Maori and on topics of importance to Maori” (192): in health research, for instance, both kinds of research are done, and there can be connections between the results. “Kaupapa Maori research is a social project; it weaves in and out of Maori cultural beliefs and values, Western ways of knowing, Maori histories and experiences under colonialism, Western forms of education, Maori aspirations and socio-economic needs, and Western economics and global politics,” she continues. “Kaupapa Maori is concerned with sites and terrains. Each of these is a site of struggle” (193).

“Kaupapa Maori approaches to research are based on the assumption that research that involves Maori people, as individuals and communities, should set out to make a positive difference for the researched,” Tuhiwai Smith writes. “This does not need to be an immediate or direct benefit. The point is that research has to be defined and designed with some ideas about likely short-term or longer-term benefits” (193). “The research approach also has to address seriously the cultural ground rules of respect, of working with communities, of sharing processes and knowledge”:

Kaupapa Maori research also incorporates processes such as networking, community consultations and whanau research groups, which assist in bringing into focus the research problems that are significant for Maori. In practice all of these elements of the Kaupapa Maori approach are negotiated with communities or groups from ‘communities of interest.’ It means that researchers have to share their ‘control’ of research and seek to maximize the participation and the interest of Maori. In many contexts research cannot proceed without the project being discussed by a community or tribal gathering, and supported. There are some tribes whose processes are quite rigorous and well established. . . . Many communities have a strong sense of what counts as ethical research. Their definition of ethics is not limited to research related to living human subjects but includes research involving the environment, archival research and any research which examines ancestors, either as physical remains (extracting DNA), or using their photographs, diaries or archival records. (193-94)

Kaupapa Maori research is also involved in training and supporting young Maori researchers in how to work in their own communities and within their own value systems and cultural practices (194). “Kaupapa Maori as an approach has provided a space for dialogue by Maori, across disciplines, about research,” Tuhiwai Smith concludes (195).

Chapter 11, “Choosing the Margins: The Role of Research in Indigenous Struggles for Social Justice,” is about struggle, “an important tool in the overthrow of oppression and colonialism” (199). Struggle can be a blunt tool, however, and it can end up privileging patriarchy and sexism in specific groups or undermining their values (199). “As a blunt instrument struggle can also promote actions that simply reinforce hegemony and that have no chance of delivering significant social change,” Tuhiwai Smith suggests (199). While consciousness of injustice is often a precursor to engagement in struggle, Graham Smith argues that in the Maori context, participation in struggle can come before a raised consciousness of injustice:

Smith’s research has shown that people often participated in struggles more as a solidarity with friends and family, or some other pragmatic motivation, than as a personal commitment to or knowledge about historical oppression, colonialism and the survival of Maori people. Along the way many of those people became more conscious of the politics of struggle in which they were engaged. (200)

Smith’s conclusion is that strugle can be seen “as group or collective agency rather than as individual consciousness” (200). 

“Struggle is also a theoretical tool for understanding social change, for making sense of power relations and for interpreting the tension between academic views of political actions and activist views of the academy,” Tuhiwai Smith writes (200). “The Maori struggle for decolonization is multi-layered and multi-dimensional, and has occurred across multiple sites simultaneously” (200). Kaupapa Maori is important in that particular context: “theorizing this struggle from a Maori framework of Kaupapa Maori has provided important insights about how transformation works and can be made to work for indigenous communities” (200-01). Tuhiwai Smith argues that there are “five conditions or dimensions that have framed the struggle for decolonization”: “a critical consciousness, an awakening from the slumber of hegemony, and the realization that action has to occur”; “a way of reimagining the world and our position as Maori within the world, drawing upon a different epistemology and unleashing the creative spirit,” which “enables an alternative vision” and “dreams of alternative possibilities”; “the coming together of disparate ideas, the events, the historical moment,” which creates opportunities and “provides the moments when tactics can be deployed”; “movement or disturbance,” “the unstable movements that occur when the status quo is disturbed”; and finally structure, “the underlying code of imperialism, of power relations” (201). “What I am suggesting, by privileging these layers over others, is that separately, together, and in combination with other ideas, these five dimensions help map the conceptual terrain of struggle,” she contends (201).

Tuhiwai Smith cites Chandra Mohanty’s argument that oppressions are simultaneous (201). “Intersections can be conceptualized not only as intersecting lines but also as spaces that are created at the points where intersecting lines meet,” she writes, and those spaces “are sites of struggle that offer possibilities for people to resist” (202). According to Tuhiwai Smith,

it is important to claim those spaces that are still taken for granted as being possessed by the West. Such spaces are intellectual, theoretical and imaginative. One of these is a space called Kaupapa Maori. The concept has emerged from lessons learned through Te Kohanga Reo and Kura Kaupapa Maori and has been developed as a theory in action by Maori people. Graham Smith has argued for Kaupapa Maori as an intervention into theoretical spaces, particularly within the sphere of education. Kaupapa Maori research refers to Maori struggles to claim research as a space within which Maori can also operate. (202)

Given the history of research as a tool of colonialism, this might seem strange:

“Maori and other indigenous peoples, however, also have their own questions and curiosities; they have imaginations and ways of knowing that they seek to expand and apply. Searching for solutions is very much part of the struggle to survive; it is represented within our own “traditions” for example, through creations stories, values and practices. The concept of “searching” is embedded in our world views. Researching in this sense, then, is not something owned by the West, or by an institution or discipline. Research begins as a social, intellectual and imaginative activity. It has become disciplined and institutionalized with certain approaches empowered over others and accorded a legitimacy, but it begins with human curiosity and a desire to solve problems. It is at its core an activity of hope. (202-03)

Because hope is central to political struggle, “if they are to work, to be effective, political projects must also touch on, appeal to, make space for, and release forces that are creative and imaginative,” although these forces “do not necessarily lead to emancipatory outcomes” (203). Those forces are also, she continues, 

inherently uncontrollable, which is possibly why this aspect is excluded from decolonization programmes and other attempts at planned resistance. However, there is a point in the politics of decolonization where leaps of imagination are able to connect the disparate, fragmented pieces of a puzzle, ones that have different shadings, different shapes, and different images within them, and say that “these pieces belong together.” The imagination allows us to strive for goals that transcend material, empirical realities. For colonized peoples this is important because the cycle of colonialism is just that, a cycle with no end point, no emancipation. . . . To imagine a different world is to imagine us as different people in the world. To imagine is to believe in different possibilities, ones that we can create. (203-04)

In other words, “[d]ecolonization must offer a language of possibility, a way out of colonialism”: “Imagining a different world, or reimagining the world, is a way into theorizing the reasons why the world we experience is unjust, and posing alternatives to such a world from within our own world views” (204).

Here Tuhiwai Smith shifts to discuss the notion of the margin. “The metaphor of the margin has been very powerful in the social sciences and humanities for understanding social inequality, oppression, disadvantage and power,” she writes (204). Tt locates people “in spatial terms as well as in socio-economic, political and cultural terms” (204). The critical issue, she continues, is 

that meaningful, rich, diverse, interesting lives are lived in the margins; these are not empty spaces occupied by people whose lives don’t matter, or people who spend their lives on the margins trying to escape. Many groups who end up there “choose” the margins, in the sense of creating cultures and identities there: for example, the deaf community, gay and lesbian communities, minority ethnic groups, and indigenous groups. (205)

In addition, she suggests,

There are also researchers, scholars and academics who actively choose the margins, who choose to study people marginalized by society, who themselves have come from the margins or who see their intellectual purpose as being scholars who will work for, with, and alongside communities who occupy the margins of society. If one is interested in society then it is often in the margins that aspects of a society are revealed as microcosms of the larger picture or as examples of a society’s underbelly. In a research sense having a commitment to social justice, to changing the conditions and relations that exist in the margins is understood as being “socially interested” or as having a “standpoint.” (205)

Research conducted by people who come from the communities concerned may be understood as “insider” research. “Kaupapa Maori research can be understood in this way as an approach to research that takes a position—for example, that Maori language, knowledge and culture are valid and legitimate—and has a standpoint from which research is developed, conducted, analysed, interpreted and assessed,” Tuhiwai Smith argues (205).

Specific methodologies have been developed out of what has been called social justice research, critical research, or community action research, and these methodologies “facilitate the expression of marginalized voices, and that attempt to re-present the experience of marginalization in genuine and authentic ways” (205). “[I]t is crucial that researchers working in this critical research tradition pay particular attention to matters that impact on the integrity of research and the researcher, continuously develop their understandings of ethics and community sensibilities, and critically examine their research practices,” Tuhiwai Smith contends (205), noting that “the researchers who choose to research with and for marginalized communities are often in the margins themselves in their own institutions, disciplines and research communities” (206). Such research can have a negative effect on researchers’ careers, and on perceptions of their expertise and intellectual authority (206). “Researchers who work in the margins need research strategies that enable them to survive, to do good research, to be active in building community capacities, to maintain their integrity, manage community expectations of them and mediate their different relationships,” Tuhiwai Smith argues. “Kaupapa Maori research developed out of this challenge” (213). It “encourages Maori researchers to take being Maori as a given, to think critically and address structural relations of power, to build upon cultural values and systems and contribute research back to communities that are transformative” (214).

Building strong relationships with communities is important; for Maori researchers, the skills and principles that help build such relationships can be as simple as “showing one’s face” as the first step in a relationship, but building networks of people with strong links to communities, and building community capacity so people can do the research themselves, are also important (214). “Research is important because it is the process for knowledge production; it is the way we constantly expand knowledge. Research for social justice expands and improves the conditions for justice; it is an intellectual, cognitive and moral project, often fraught, never complete, but worthwhile” (214-15).

Chapter 12, “Getting the Story Right, Telling the Story Well: Indigenous Activism, Indigenous Research,” expands on the connection between activism and research. There is no easy or natural relationship between these two activities, Tuhiwai Smith suggests: “Research and activism exist as different activities, undertaken by different kinds of people employing different tools for different kinds of ends” (217). This chapter is about “why we do what we do either as researchers and/or activists” and relating that question to “the potential ways in which indigenous activists and indigenous researchers can collaborate to advance indigenous interests at local, national and international levels” (217). 

First, though, Tuhiwai Smith thinks about globalization. International meetings of Indigenous peoples and of world leaders both “represent something interesting about globalization”: one group represents the “descendants of peoples who were for the most part not expected to survive into the twenty-first century,” and the other brings together “those who presume to govern” (219)—in other words, they represent resistance to power and power itself. Neoliberalism is the ideology of globalization, and it claims that the world is a marketplace (219-20). Since the world is a marketplace, everything in neoliberalism is for sale. “From indigenous perspectives some of their unique knowledge is on the verge of extinction and ought never to be commercialized, while other aspects of the culture may in fact be commercial but there is no regime for ensuring benefits flow to the communities who created or have possessed such knowledge,” Tuhiwai Smith suggests (220). Indigenous activists against globalization “have often acted as the critic and conscience of societies, much to the displeasure of governments and powerful business voices” (220), and one of the sites of conflict has been traditional knowledge (221). “One of the most difficult academic arguments for indigenous scholars to make has been the very existence of indigenous knowledge as a unique body of world knowledge that has a contribution to make in contemporary disciplines and institutions, let alone for indigenous peoples themselves,” she suggests. “The arguments are not necessarily framed as knowledge questions, as they are more likely to be about political issues of access to institutions, equity and equality of opportunity, physical spaces, designated staff positions and course content” (223). “Indigenous academic researchers in the area of traditional knowledge have to work at a philosophical or epistemological (theory of knowledge) level to muster their arguments, as well as at very practical levels such as the provision of support for indigenous students or the design of a course,” she continues (223-24). 

Research into traditional knowledge has a surprising connection to activism, according to Tuhiwai Smith:

the very existence of a community that can study and research traditional indigenous knowledge is something that activism has actually created and must also protect—in other words, it is a measure of the success of activism, but cannot be successful unless the knowledge scholars do the work they have to do to protect, defend, expand, apply and pass knowledge on to others. (225)

She argues that “getting the story right and telling the story well are tasks that indigenous activists and researchers must both perform. . . . The nexus, or coming together, of activism and research occurs at the level of a single individual in many circumstances. An activist must get the story right as well as tell the story well, and so must a researcher” (226).

The book’s conclusion is a memoir of Tuhiwai Smith’s experiences as a researcher in the social sciences. “Since the publication of the first edition of Decolonizing Methodologies in 1999 I have had the privilege of talking about research to numerous indigenous communities and academic institutions,” she concludes (232). She learned that the university education Indigenous people experienced “was alienating and disconnected from the needs of their own communities,” and that education tended to be premised on assimilating Indigenous people (232). However, many Indigenous people did return to their communities and nations and work for them (232). “In various places around the world there are small initiatives that are providing indigenous peoples with space to create and be indigenous. Research seems such a small and technical aspect of the wider politics of indigenous peoples,” she writes, but Indigenous peoples have their own research needs and priorities: “Our questions are important. Research helps us to answer them” (232).

I can see why Decolonizing Methodologies is an important book, although I recall finding Indigenous Methodologies and Research is Ceremony more directly related to my work, and I wonder if I shouldn’t take the time to reread them as part of this project. I thought Tuhiwai Smith’s 25 research projects were fascinating, since so many of them could be considered creative or artistic projects, and discussions of research are often hard to relate to artistic research or research-as-creation. The notion of Kaupapa Maori research is particularly interesting, and I wonder if other Indigenous nations have similar ideas or forms of research. It certainly helps me to articulate my reluctance to speak at a discussion of Indigenous research in September. If one were to take Kaupapa Maori research as a model for Indigenous research, then there’s no way that a môniyaw, or pakeha, ought to be taking up space at a panel discussion on that topic. After all, as I’ve said earlier in this blog, my research is Settler research, not Indigenous research, and while there could be methodologies that are useful to that work—and that’s why rereading Kovach and Wilson might be useful—it’s important to understand what I’m doing and what I’m not doing, and to be able to explain that to others.

Work Cited

Kovach, Margaret. Indigenous Methodologies: Characteristics, Concersations, and Contexts, University of Toronto Press, 2010.

“Principles of Kaupapa Māori.” Rangahau, http://www.rangahau.co.nz/research-idea/27/, accessed 13 August 2019.

Tuhiwai Smith, Linda. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, second edition, Zed/Otago University Press, 2012.

Wilson, Shawn. Research Is Ceremony: Indigenous Research Methods, Fernwood, 2009.

A Walk Around Town

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I was particularly cranky this morning, partly because I didn’t get enough sleep, and partly because I’ve been sitting at my little table day and night since we returned from Scotland. It was time to go for a walk.

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This wasn’t going to be nonfunctional walking; I had errands to run (books to pick up at the university, things to buy at London Drugs). But one might consider it dysfunctional walking. After all, why walk four hours in the 30 degree heat when it’s so much easier to get in the car and turn on the air-conditioning? Because I’m looking ahead to the walk I’m participating in a couple of weeks from now, and I need to get used to walking in the heat.

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I should have been thinking about the article I’m trying to write, but instead I considered the elm trees that grace the older neighbourhoods in this city. In some places they create a canopy of green that shades the entire street in the summer. I’d never seen an elm tree before moving to Saskatchewan; at least I didn’t think I had. Dutch elm disease had wiped out all the elms in my home town in the 1950s, where no doubt they were just as lovely as they are here. And the destruction of Toronto’s elm trees seems to have been taken as an opportunity to widen streets in the centre of the city. A few years back, though, I was walking on Wellington St. in Ottawa, just west of Parliament Hill, and there they were: elm trees that somehow escaped the scourge. Someday I’m going to see the forest of elms near Carrot River, which is supposed to be full of grouse growing fat on elm seeds, with an understory of wild grape.

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There are elms in the park, too, but today there were few people walking or cycling on the paths under them. Maybe people think it’s too hot to be outside. I don’t know. Most of the people I did see were wearing green; the Saskatchewan Roughriders are playing in Montreal tonight, and they are showing their support by wearing the team colours. Most of the people in this city support the Riders–except the ones living in this house.

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From the university, I headed west, towards Harbour Landing in the city’s southwest corner, and the Grasslands retail development there. Grasslands is an asphalt desert, a good ten degrees hotter than the rest of the city. No one is caring for the shrubs planted around the parking lots, and they look like they are dying. I got what I needed–two HDMI cables: why do they just quit working without any warning?–and drank iced coffee in a noisy café. Then I started walking north. I was the only person walking. The lack of pedestrians explains why the city cares so little about sidewalks. Why bother, when everyone drives everywhere?

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One of the things I wanted to do on this walk was try out the waterproof camera I bought when we got back from Scotland. It’s light, small enough to fit in a shirt pocket, and makes a lot more sense to carry than the monster that swung around my neck while we walked the Whithorn Way. Besides, if a camera is going to fail in the rain, it’s not going to be much good on a long walk.

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I walked through a construction site and then up Queen St., where our allotment is, and I stopped to see how things are doing. The heliopolis and echinacea that survived the winter are quite happy. Despite my work weeding the path, the knotweed–at least I think that’s what it is–is back. I’ll have to return tomorrow to try again.

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At the little supermarket on Hill Ave., I bought an iced tea and drank it as I continued walking towards home. It was pretty good: it wasn’t too sweet, and although it could’ve been colder, it hit the spot. I crossed the footbridge over Wascana Creek and carried on until I got home.

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Tonight, we’re supposed to walk around the lake with friends. To be honest, I’ve walked enough today, but since we’ll be going to the pub afterwards, I think I can do a few more kilometres–that is, unless the thunder rumbling in the distance leads everyone to cancel. The rain could play havoc with the Regina Folk Festival and the Garth Brooks show, too. Or it could blow over. We’ll know soon enough.

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91. Naomi Klein, “Dancing the World into Being: A Conversation with Idle No More’s Leanne Simpson”

Dancing the World into Being: A Conversation with Idle No More’s Leanne Simpson by Naomi Klein — YES! Magazine

I have to write a paper on extractivism, and my research has brought me to Naomi Klein’s interview with Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, which took place around the time of the Idle No More protests focused on “Canada’s ongoing colonial policies, a transformative vision of decolonization, and the possibilities for a genuine alliance between natives and non-natives, one capable of re-imagining nationhood” (Klein). Although Idle No More “had no official leaders or spokespeople, it did life up the voices of a few artists and academics whose words and images spoke to the movement’s deep aspirations,” and one of those was writer Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, whose essay “Aambe! Maajaadaa! (What #IdleNoMore Means to Me)” “became one of the movement’s central texts” (Klein). 

Klein’s first question addressed “extractivism”: did the expansion of the tar sands and the development of new pipelines suggest that Canada was “in some kind of final colonial pillage,” or was it simply “a continuation of what Canada has always been about?” (Klein). Simpson’s response addressed Indigenous resistance to “the hyper-extraction of natural resources on Indigenous lands,” and suggested that “every single Canadian government has placed that kind of thinking at its core when it comes to Indigenous peoples”:

Indigenous peoples have lived through environmental collapse on local and regional levels since the beginning of colonialism—the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway, the extermination of the buffalo in Cree and Blackfoot territories and the extinction of salmon in Lake Ontario—these were unnecessary and devastating. . . . Our elders have been warning us about this for generations now—they saw the unsustainability of settler society immediately. (Klein)

That unsustainability, she continued, has pushed the ecology to a breaking point, and immediate action is necessary, although it’s always been necessary, because “[i]f a river is threatened, it’s the end of the world for those fish. It’s been the end of the world for somebody all along” (Klein).

The Harper government’s focus on resource extraction as its “dominant economic vision,” Klein continued, represents “a mindset”—“an approach to nature, to ideas, to people” (Klein). Simpson agreed, but took Klein’s analysis farther:

Extraction and assimilation go together. Colonialism and capitalism are based on extracting and assimilating. My land is seen as a resource. My relatives in the plant and animal worlds are seen as a resource. My culture and knowledge is a resource. My body is a resource and my children are a resource because they are the potential to grow, maintain, and uphold the extraction-assimilation system. The act of extraction removes all of the relationships that give whatever is being extracted meaning. Extracting is taking. Actually, extracting is stealing—it is taking without consent, without thought, care or even knowledge of the impacts that extraction has on the other living things in that environment. That’s always been a part of colonialism and conquest. (Klein)

Even the environmental movement has attempted to extract traditional Indigenous knowledge and assimilate it: 

It’s the idea that traditional knowledge and indigenous peoples have some sort of secret of how to live on the land in an non-exploitive way that broader society needs to appropriate. But the extractivist mindset isn’t about having a conversation and having a dialogue and bringing in indigenous knowledge on the terms of indigenous peoples. It is very much about extracting whatever ideas scientists or environmentalists thought were good and assimilating it. (Klein)

That alternative to extractivism, Simpson continued, is responsibility: “If you’re not developing relationships with the people, you’re not giving back, you’re not sticking around to see the impact of the extraction. You’re moving to somewhere else” (Klein). Responsibility is part of “deep reciprocity,” of respect and relationship: “It’s responsibility, and it’s local. If you’re forced to stay in your 50-mile radius, then you very much are going to experience the impacts of extractivist behavior” (Klein). Globalization is a kind of shield against “the negative impacts of extractivist behavior” (Klein).

Klein asked about Idle No More, both the support it received because of its “vision for the land that is not just digging holes and polluting rivers and laying pipelines,” and the effect of the attempt by some chiefs to cash in on resource development, which is “not questioning the underlying imperative of tearing up the land for wealth” (Klein). Simpson agreed: “that is exactly what our traditional leaders, elders, and many grassroots people are saying as well” (Klein). The problem, she continued, is that Indian Act chiefs and councils “are ultimately accountable to the Canadian government and not to our people. The Indian Act system is an imposed system—it is not our political system based on our values or ways of governing” (Klein). Indigenous communities “face tremendous imposed economic poverty” while billions of dollars of natural resources are extracted from their territories “without their permission and without compensation” (Klein). “That’s the reality,” Simpson told Klein. “We have not had the right to say no to development, because ultimately those communities are not seen as people, they are resources” (Klein). The problem, Simpson stated, is the federal government’s control of First Nations through the Indian Act, rather than the development of a relationship between First Nations and Canada through treaties. That control, she said, exists so that the federal government 

can continue to build the Canadian economy on the exploitation of natural resources without regard for indigenous peoples or the environment. This is deliberate. This is also where the real fight will be, because these are the most pristine indigenous homelands. There are communities standing up and saying no to the idea of tearing up the land for wealth. What I think these communities want is our solidarity and a large network of mobilized people willing to stand with them when they say no. (Klein)

Those same communities are also “continually shamed” for being poor: “Shaming the victim is part of that extractivist thinking” (Klein). “We need to understand why these communities are economically poor in the first place—and they are poor so that Canadians can enjoy the standard of living they do,” Simpson told Klein. “I say ‘economically poor’ because while these communities have less material wealth, they are rich in other ways—they have their homelands, their languages, their cultures, and relationships with each other that make their communities strong and resilient” (Klein). 

“There is a huge need to clearly articulate alternative visions of how to build healthy, sustainable, local indigenous economies that benefit indigenous communities and respect our fundamental philosophies and values,” Simpson continued. “The hyper-exploitation of natural resources is not the only approach. The first step is to stop seeing indigenous peoples and our homelands as free resources to be used at will however colonial society sees fit” (Klein). If Canada is not going to dismantle the system that forces Indigenous peoples into poverty, she told Klein, then Canadians, “who directly benefit from indigenous poverty,” don’t get to judge the decisions that Indigenous peoples make, especially where few alternatives exist. “Indigenous peoples do not have control over our homelands. We do not have the ability to say no to development on our homelands,” she stated. However, she continued, economic development through resource extraction which leads to “the destruction of our homelands does not bring about the kinds of changes and solutions our people are looking for, and putting people in the position of having to cho[o]se between feeding their kids and destroying their lands is simply wrong” (Klein). What is required, and what people within Idle No More were talking about, was “a massive transformation, a massive decolonization. A resurgence of indigenous political thought that is very, very much land-based and very, very much tied to that intimate and close relationship to the land,” which to Simpson meant “a revitalization of sustainable local indigenous economies that benefit local people” (Klein).

Klein told Simpson that she was interested in the idea that Indigenous resistance, renewal, and resurgence would help “to promote more life,” and suggested that “the idea of life-promoting systems” seemed to be “that they are the antithesis of the extractivist mindset, which is ultimately about exhausting and extinguishing life without renewing or replenishing” (Klein). Simpson responded by referring to the work of Winona LaDuke and the Anishinaabeg concept of mino bimaadiziwin, which is often translated as “the good life,” but which has a “deeper kind of cultural, conceptual meaning” that LaDuke translates as “continuous rebirth” (Klein). “So, the purpose of life then is this continuous rebirth, it’s to promote more life,” Simpson continued. “In Anishinaabeg society, our economic systems, our education systems, our systems of governance, and our political systems were designed with that basic tenet at their core” (Klein). That fundamental teaching shows people how to interact with each other and the land, and it also shows communities and nations how to interact as well. “In terms of the economy, it meant a very, very localized economy where there was a tremendous amount of accountability and reciprocity,” she stated. But it’s also about “the fertility of ideas” and “the fertility of alternatives,” the notion that people have responsibility to share their visions with the community and to make them into reality: “That’s the process of regeneration. That’s the process of bringing forth more live—getting the seed and planting and nurturing it” (Klein).

In Simpson’s own life, that principle of regeneration has been part of her relationship with her children and her family; she has worked to give them “opportunities to develop a meaningful relationship with our land, with the water, with the plants and animals,” and with Elders and others in the community “so that they’re growing up in a very, very strong community with a number of different adults that they can go to when they have problems” (Klein). There’s no concept of “sustainable development” in Anishinaabeg philosophy, she continued. An Elder, Robin Greene, had told Simpson that “the concept is backwards. You don’t develop as much as Mother Earth can handle. For us it’s the opposite. You think about how much you can give up to promote more life. Every decision that you make is based on: Do you really need to be doing that?” (Klein). Simpson noted that 200 years ago her ancestors put their energy “into meaningful and authentic relationships,” and the quality of those relationships “was the basis of their happiness,” which is the opposite of the way colonial and settler society operates. Her ancestors, she continued, weren’t consumers; they were producers. They made everything. “My ancestors tended to look very far into the future in terms of planning, look at that seven generations forward,” she said, and they tried to protect areas of land where Indigenous peoples could continue to pursue their livelihoods and political systems; their hope, she continued, was “that the settler society would sort of modify their way into something that was more parallel or more congruent to indigenous societies” (Klein).

When Simpson gives public presentations, she begins with the premise that an ecological collapse has already happened. A focus on imminent ecological collapse “is so overwhelming and traumatic to think about” that people tend to shut down. Instead, she talks about what the land where she lives used to look like. There were salmon in Lake Ontario, for example, until about 1840, when their population collapsed. The eel population crashed after the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway. Indigenous peoples, she told Klein, “have seen and lived through this environmental disaster where entire parts of their world collapsed really early on” (Klein). 

Klein noted that she has been involved in fighting against tar-sands pipelines in British Columbia because she has fallen in love with the land and doesn’t want it to be desecrated. The anti-pipeline movement in BC is led by Indigenous people, she continued, and she wondered how those struggles might have contributed to the emergence of Idle No More. Simpson pointed out that the resistance Klein was talking about was based on Indigenous law. She would prefer to live somewhere “the land is pristine,” but she chooses to live in her territory and to be a witness. “And I think that’s where, in the politics of indigenous women, and traditional indigenous politics, it is a politics based on love,” she continued: 

So when I think of the land as my mother or if I think of it as a familial relationship, I don’t hate my mother because she’s sick, or because she’s been abused. . . . If anything, you need to intensify that relationship because it’s a relationship of nurturing and caring. And so I think in my own territory I try to have that intimate relationship, that relationship of love—even though I can see the damage—to try to see that there is still beauty there. There’s still a lot of beauty in Lake Ontario. It’s one of those threatened lakes and it’s dying and no one wants to eat the fish. But there is still a lot of beauty in that lake. There is a lot of love still in that lake. And I think that Mother Earth [w]as my first mother. Mothers have a tremendous amount of resilience. They have a tremendous amount of healing power. But I think this idea that you abandon it when something has been damaged is something we can’t afford to do in Southern Ontario. (Klein)

The important thing, Simpson stated, is to find a way to connect with the land. “When the lake is too ruined to swim or eat from it, then that’s here the healing ceremonies come in, because you can still do ceremonies with it,” she said. She recalled writing a spoken-word piece about being the first salmon to return to Lake Ontario, and as part of that project, she learned the route the salmon would have taken in her own language. That performance, she continued, connected her community to the river system: “People did get more interested in the salmon. The kids did get more interested because they were part of the dance work” (Klein).

Klein raised the issue of climate change. In order to deal with this crisis, Simpson responded, “in order to make this punctuated transformation,” the middle class and the one percent will have to accept lower standards of living, and “in the absence of having a meaningful life outside of capital and outside of material wealth, that’s really scary” (Klein). The end of consumerism, Klein noted, is often understood as a loss of being, and that leads to panic. “I see the transformation as: Your life isn’t going to be worse, it’s not going to be over. Your life is going to be better,” Simpson responded. “The transition is going to be hard, but from my perspecitve, from our perspective, having a rich community life and deriving happiness out of authentic relationships with the land and people around you is wonderful” (Klein). She takes her children to a sugar bush every March to make maple syrup, and because the climate is changing, the season is shorter every year. “It’s things like the sugar bush that are the stories, the teachings, that’s really our system of governance, where children learn about that,” she told Klein. But the speed at which things are changing makes it hard for culture and oral tradition to keep up. 

The environmental movement needs to change, Simpson suggested; it needs to deal with complicated issues like racism and colonialism and inequality, despite the urgency of our situation. “Colonial thought brought us climate change,” she told Klein:

We need a new approach because the environmental movement has been fighting climate change for more than two decades and we’re not seeing the change we need. I think groups like Defenders of the Land and the Indigenous Environmental Network hold a lot of answers for the mainstream environmental movement because they are talking about large-scale transformation. If we are not, as peoples of the earth, willing to counter colonialism, we have no hope of surviving climate change. Individual choices aren’t going to get us out of this mess. We need a systemic change. (Klein)

Here Simpson defined “punctuated transformation,” a term she had used earlier. Punctuated transformation refers to a situation where there’s no time to go through all of the steps necessary to make a change, and so some need to be skipped (I think).

Klein asked how we can balance the dangers of cultural appropriation with the fact that Settler culture needs to learn lessons about reciprocity and interdependence. Simpson responded by saying that the mainstream support of Canadians for Idle No More was an example of “a shift in mindset from seeing indigenous people as a resource to extract to seeing us as intelligent, articulate, relevant, living, breathing peoples and nations. I think that requires individuals and communities to develop fair and meaningful and authentic relationships with us” (Klein). She also suggested that Settlers need “to figure out a way of living more sustainably and extracting themselves from extractivist thinking” by “taking on their own work and own responsibility to figure out how to live responsibly and be accountable to the next seven generations of people” (Klein). That’s the responsibility of mainstream Canadian society. “Our responsibility,” she continues, “is to continue to recover that knowledge, recover those practices, recover the stories and philosophies, and rebuild our nations from the inside out” (Klein).

Klein asked Simpson about the title of her book, Dancing On Our Turtle’s Back. She responded by briefly telling a story about Nanabush and the animals trapped on a log on a flooded world. The animals try diving to the bottom of the water to find earth to make a new world, and only the muskrat is successful. “Turtle volunteers to have the earth placed on her back,” Simpson said. “Nan[a]bush prays and breath[e]s life into that earth. All of the animals sing and dance on the turtle’s back in a circle, and as they do this, the turtle’s back grows. It grows and grows until it becomes the world we know” (Klein). The Elder who told Simpson that story said that 

we’re all that muskrat, and that we all have that responsibility to get off the log and dive down no matter how hard it is and search around for that dirt. And that to me was profound and transformative, because we can’t wait for somebody else to come up with the idea. The whole point, the way we’re going to make this better, is by everybody engaging in their own being, in their own gifts, and embody this movement, embody this transformation. (Klein)

That story, she continued, was transformative; it was relevant to climate change and to Indigenous resurgence. “And so when people started round dancing all over the turtle’s back in December and January, it made me insanely happy,” she said, referring to the dances that were part of Idle No More protests. “Watching the transformative nature of those acts, made me realize that it’s the embodiment, we have to embody the transformation” (Klein). She felt love when that was happening, “a grounded love” that was authentic and intimate (Klein).

What I find helpful in this interview is the suggestion that relationship and reciprocity are the antidote to extractivism. I wonder how one might construct walking art that’s based on relationship and reciprocity—both to the land and to people. That is probably the most important question I can ask myself. Part of the answer might involve walking with other people, but there must also be a way to walk alone and still enter into some kind of relationship with the land. At least, I hope there is. I’ll be in a fix if there isn’t. There also needs to be a way for Settlers to learn from Indigenous knowledge and research methods without appropriating them. That’s probably an even tougher nut to crack, but given the reading I’m going to be doing over the next few weeks, how to do that is another question I’m going to have to try to answer.

Work Cited

Klein, Naomi. “Dancing the World into Being: A Conversation with Idle No More’s Leanne Simpson,” Yes Magazine, 5 March 2013, https://www.yesmagazine.org/peace-justice/dancing-the-world-into-being-a-conversation-with-idle-no-more-leanne-simpson.

90. W.G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn

rings of saturn

Psychogeographers, Phil Smith tells us, don’t like W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn (21). Smith isn’t so keen on it himself. As he walks the route of Sebald’s pedestrian journey in Suffolk, he becomes “increasingly suspicious of Sebald’s exploration”: his assumption had been that The Rings of Saturn was supposed to be “a deep engagement” with landscape, but it isn’t, or else there is “a mismatch between Sebald’s complex intellectualism and his idea of what an embodied engagement with a landscape is. In fact, he thinks The Rings of Saturn is merely based on “cursory desk-based research” (85). Sebald, though, is neither a psychogeographer nor a mythogeographer, and rather than being a book about Sebald’s walk through Suffolk, or the landscape in which Sebald walked, or the emotional effects of that landscape on Sebald, it is a complex meditation on death and destruction. The walk, I would argue, is the occasion for that meditation, and that meditation is what’s important in the text, rather than the walk itself. I’d go so far as to say that mediation is the text.

Smith notes that Sebald is interested in catastrophe—that’s one of the key words in the book’s conclusion—but suggests that he “sees everything but the catastrophe of class” (70). Sebald, Smith contends, “is unaware of, or opposed to, the idea that there operates a system that always tends toward, and thrives upon, crisis. . . . Instead, Sebald is super-sensitised to the surprise of tragedy” (70). I’m not sure that’s entirely true, and as I write this summary I’m going to be looking for examples of Sebald’s awareness of class; I’m also not convinced that Sebald is actually interested in tragedy, unless that is a way of saying that he has a melancholic or pessimistic view of the world. Rather, I think he reads human history through the lens of the Second World War and the Holocaust, looking for similar examples of human brutality and evil and expanding those examples to an almost cosmological scope. In fact, one could argue that the actual subject of The Rings of Saturn is the Holocaust, and that it therefore prefigures Sebald’s last novel, Austerlitz.

One of the reasons I wanted to reread Sebald’s book for this project is that I’ve been casting around for models I could use to present the results of the walks I intend to take. Sebald would be one of those models, if only I could write the way he does. Over the course of his paragraphs, which go on for pages and pages, he shifts from one topic to another, from where he is walking to memories of other journeys to dreams to historical or literary figures that obsess him. It’s impossible to place The Rings of Saturn within a specific genre, either. Sometimes it’s a memoir; other times it seems to be fictional. It contains literary criticism and history and travel writing. It’s all of these things, and yet it’s none of them: it is itself, sui generis, and needs to be approached from that perspective.

The Rings of Saturn begins with two epigraphs, one from a letter written by Joseph Conrad to Marguerite Poradowska in 1890, about the time he was the captain of a river steamer in the Belgian Congo, and the other from a German encyclopedia entry on the rings of the planet Saturn. Conrad’s letter reads, in French, “Il faut surtout pardonner à ces âmes malheureuses qui ont élu de faire le pèlerinage à pied, qui côtoient le rivage et regardent sans comprehendre l’horreur de la lutte, la joie de vaincre ni le profond désespoir des vaincus” (n.p.). In English (reaching back to my fractured high-school French), that comes out as “One must pardon these unfortunate souls who have chosen to make the pilgrimage on foot, who go along the shore and regard without comprehending the horror of the struggle, the joy of subjugation and the profound despair of the defeated.” The subtitle of the first German edition of The Rings of Saturn was “Eine englische Wallfahrt,” which translates as “an English pilgrimage,” but when it was translated into English (Sebald always wrote in German, his first language) that subtitle was dropped. So the word “pèlerinage” here refers back to that (absent) subtitle, and to Sebald’s own walking journey. But I wonder if Conrad isn’t describing the genocide he witnessed in the Congo, which Sebald discusses in this text. There is something truly horrific in his words, especially in the suggestion that those who subjugate others experience joy. If I’m right, Conrad is describing human brutality and violence. Who the pilgrims are, though, I’m not entirely sure. Perhaps they were people who walked along the Congo River instead of taking a steamboat? Or is that too literal? Why use the word “pèlerinage” at all, if not to evoke an ironic disjunction against the suggestion of violence in the rest of the sentence? In Heart of Darkness, Conrad uses the word “pilgrim” to refer to European employees of the company his narrator, Marlow, is working for. Is he using the word in the same way in this letter? I’m not sure, but it seems likely. In any case, this quotation prefigures the human violence, and the recurrent references to death, that saturate The Rings of Saturn.

The description of the rings of Saturn is more straightforward and (obviously) related to the book’s title. The rings, according to the encyclopedia Sebald is quoting, “consist of ice crystals and probably meteorite particles describing circular orbits around the planet’s equator. In all likelihood these are fragments of a former moon that was too close to the planet and was destroyed by its tidal effect” (n.p.). Rather than human violence, this explanation is a description of natural violence, even cosmological violence, and we see that in Sebald’s accounts of the 1987 hurricane that destroyed forests in East Anglia, or the erosion that caused the destruction of the village of Dunwich. The catastrophes humans experience are not always of their own making, and those catastrophes affect other living beings as well. Saturn probably has mythological echoes as well; the Roman god Saturn (as Wikipedia tells me: I’m no expert on classical mythology), while associated with peace, plenty, and feasting, carried a sickle or scythe, as Death does, and was often conflated with Cronus, suggesting the passing of time (with its inevitable overtones of death). We see that association later in the text, in a passage quoted from the work of Thomas Browne, one of the writers who fascinates Sebald. He writes, “As I sat there that evening in Southwold overlooking the German Ocean, I sensed quite clearly the earth’s slow turning in the dark” (78), and this reminds him of Browne’s meditation on that phenomenon:

The huntsmen are up in America, writes Thomas Browne in The Gardens of Cyrus, and they are already past their first sleep in Persia. The shadow of night is drawn like a black veil across the earth, and since almost all creatures, from one meridian to the next, lie down after the sun has set, so, he continues, one might, in following the setting sun, see on our globe nothing but prone bodies, row upon row, as if levelled by the scythe of Saturn—an endless graveyard for a humanity struck by falling sickness. (78-79)

As an aside, it’s worth mentioning that much of The Rings of Saturn consists of long quotations from other writers, typically presented without quotation marks. More to the point, though, the conflation of passing time, death, and Saturn’s scythe suggests that the title, and the second epigraph, like the first one, refer to death and destruction. 

But I am getting ahead of myself. In this long and detailed summary—and it has to be long and detailed so that I can follow the twists and turns of the text. I wanted to walk myself through Sebald’s text in order to pick out examples of death and destruction, yes, but also to follow the drift (literally) of Sebald’s thinking. That means starting at the beginning. At the beginning of the first chapter, we learn that Sebald begins his walk in “the dogs days” of August 1992, after finishing “a long stint of work” (3), which may refer to his book The Emigrants, which was published in German that year. He goes on the walk, he writes, “in the hope of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work,” and he reports that his hope “was realized, up to a point”: “for I have seldom felt so carefree as I did then, walking for hours in the day through the thinly populated countryside, which stretches inland from the coast” (3). But looking back, Sebald (or his narrator—how close Sebald is to that narrator is an open question), writes, “I wonder now, however, whether there might be something in the old superstition that certain ailments of the spirit and of the body are particularly likely to beset us under the sign of the Dog Star,” because “in retrospect I became preoccupied not only with the paralysing horror that had come over me at various times when confronted with the traces of destruction, reaching far back into the past, that were evident even in that remote place” (3). He wonders if it was because of that horror that, “a year to the day after I began my tour, I was taken into hospital in Norwich in a state of almost total immobility” (3). It seems very likely, given the way this text is saturated with examples of death and destruction, that Sebald’s breakdown occurred as a result of that “paralysing horror.” 

It was at that point that he began writing this book, he states, at a point when he was “overwhelmed by the feeling that the Suffolk expanses I had walked the previous summer had now shrunk once and for all to a single, blind, insensate spot” (3-4). All he could see was a “colourless patch of sky framed in the window” (4). He wanted to look out of that window, and that evening he dragged himself over to it, “despite the pain,” and “[i]n the posture of a creature that has raised itself erect for the first time,” he “stood leaning against the glass” (5). His posture reminds him of Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, who “climbs the armchair and looks out of his room, no longer remembering (so Kafka’s narrative goes) the sense of liberation that gazing out of the window had formerly given him” (5). Like Gregor Samsa, Sebald’s narrator states that the “familiar city” visible through the hospital room window had become “an utterly alien place”: “it was as if I were looking down from a cliff upon a sea of stone or a field of rubble,” he writes, “from which the tenebrous masses of multistorey carparks rose up like immense boulders” (5)—a description that merges Norwich with Dunwich, the village or town destroyed by the North Sea’s erosion of the cliff on which it stood. The only human figure outside is a nurse, and an ambulance with its lights flashing is approaching the hospital’s emergency ward. There was, the narrator recalls, an “artificial silence”: “All I could hear was the wind sweeping in from the country and buffeting the window; and in between, when the sound subsided, there was the never entirely ceasing murmur in my own ears” (5).

Now, a year later, Sebald’s narrator is assembling the notes he began writing in that hospital room, and he thinks of a former colleague, Michael Parkinson, “one of the most innocent people I have ver met,” a man without self-interest and with modest needs “which some considered bordered on eccentricity” (6). The previous May, Michael “was found dead in his bed, lying on his side and already quite rigid, his face curiously mottled with red blotches” (6). That death affected another colleague, Janine Dakyns, deeply. Like Michael, Janine was an eccentric scholar whose office was so filled with papers and books on Flaubert that she had to work in an easy chair in the middle of the room. Sebald’s narrator once suggested to her that “sitting there amidst her papers she resembled the angel in Dürer’s Melancholia, steadfast among the instruments of destruction,” but Janine responded that what appeared to be chaos was actually a perfect form of order (9). Janine had referred Sebald’s narrator to Anthony Batty Shaw when, after leaving the hospital, he began his research on Thomas Browne, whose skull was supposed to be kept in the museum of the Norfolk and Norwich hospital. Shaw had written an article on Browne and knew that his skull had been reburied after its disinterment in 1840. This leads the narrator into a discussion of Browne’s life and writing. What I find fascinating here is that over the course of one paragraph, covering several pages, there is a movement from a colleague who died suddenly, to another almost entombed by her books and papers, to Browne, a medical doctor and writer in the seventeenth century who attended a public dissection of the corpse of an executed thief, Aris Kindt, that is represented by Rembrandt’s painting The Anatomy Lesson. In that painting, the deceased’s hand is the wrong way around. “It seems inconceivable that we are faced here with an unfortunate blunder,” Sebald’s narrator suggests. Rather, that “unshapely hand signifies the violence that has been done to Aris Kindt,” and it indicates that Rembrandt’s sympathies lie with the victim rather than the members of the Guild of Surgeons who surround his corpse (17). Rembrandt alone, the narrator continues, “sees that greenish annihilated body, and he alone sees the shadow in the half-open mouth and over the dead man’s eyes” (17).

The narrator then recalls Browne’s contention that a white mist rises from a body that is opened after death, a mist that, while we are alive, “clouds our brain with sleep and dreaming” (17). That suggestion reminds the narrator of his own foggy consciousness as he lies in a hospital room after surgery—not the hospital visit when he began writing this book, I think, but a different one. He only became aware of his body and his surroundings around dawn. Outside the window, he saw a vapour trail in the sky. “At the time I took that white trail for a good omen, but now, as I look back, I fear it marked the beginning of a fissure that has since riven my life,” the narrator states. He seems to be troubled by the fact that the aircraft making that trail was invisible, like the passengers inside it. This takes him back to Browne, “who saw our world as no more than a shadow image of another one far beyond” (18). And, like Sebald, Browne’s writing is complex, filled with quotations and “labyrinthine sentences that sometimes extend over one or two pages, sentences that resemble processions or a funeral cortège in their sheer ceremonial lavishness” (19). Browne saw the tiniest details of things, but he believed that “all knowledge is enveloped in darkness” (19). He was particularly interested in a figure called the quincunx, a structure he saw everywhere in the natural world, a kind of unifying principle. (Sebald, who illustrates his books with various photographs he has taken and archival material, provides an example of the quincunx.) And yet, Browne “was often distracted from his investigations into the isomorphic line of the quincunx by singular phenomena that fired his curiousity,” including “beings both real and imaginary,” ranging from chameleons and ostriches to basilisks, unicorns, and amphisbaenae (snakes with two heads). “Browne refutes the existence of the fabled creatures,” the narrator tells us, “but the astonishing monsters that we know to be properly part of the natural world leave us with a suspicion that even the most fantastical beasts might not be mere inventions” (22). That suggestion leads the narrator to Jorge Luis Borges and his 1967 book Libro de los seres imaginarios, a compendium of imaginary beings, including the shapeshifting Baldanders, which change into many things, including “a mulberry tree, and a silk carpet”—one of the references to silk that litter Sebald’s text (23). Suddenly the narrator returns to Browne, who believed that “nothing endures,” that “[o]n every new thing there lies already the shadow of annihilation” (23-24). Browne wrote a book about burial urns in which he argued that little fuel is required to cremate a human body, and he details the odd objects that have been found in such urns. “For Browne, things of this kind, unspoiled by the passage of time, are symbols of the indestructibility of the human soul assured by scripture,” which Browne “perhaps secretly doubts” (26). The chapter begins with a question about a piece of purple silk found in one of the urns Browne discusses: “what does it mean?” (26).

The second chapter begins with the start of Sebald’s walk. He takes a train from Norwich towards Lowestoft, passing “some ruined conical brick buildings, like relics of an extinct civilization,” that are all that remains of windmills that were shut down after the First World War. He gets off the train at the halt for Somerleyton Hall. The narrator reflects on the fact that everything that great house would have required would have been brought by that railway, but that “now there was nothing any more. . . . It takes just one awful second, I often think, and an entire epoch passes” (31). Now Somerleyton Hall, like other country houses, is open to visitors who pay an entrance fee. Most of them arrive by car. The few who arrive by train, and who don’t want to walk all the way around to the main gate, have to “climb the wall like some interloper and struggle through the thicket before reaching the park” (32). Sebald’s narrator immediately espies “a curious object lesson from the history of evolution, which at times repeats its earlier conceits with a certain sense of irony,” because “when I emerged from the trees I beheld a miniature train puffing through the fields with a number of people sitting on it,” and the driver was “the present Lord Somerleyton” himself (32).

Sebald’s narrator relates the history of Somerleyton, which was rebuilt after 1843 by Sir Morton Peto, an entrepreneur and speculator who made his money in construction and railways. The “comfort and extravagance” of Peto’s new country residence “would eclipse everything the nation had hitherto seen” (33). It featured “incomparable glasshouses,” lit at night by gaslight, that were considered a wonder (34). However, “Somerleyton strikes the visitor of today no longer as an oriental palace in a fairy tale,” the narrator states, referring to Coleridge’s poem about Kubla Khan (35). The glass-covered walks and palm house were destroyed in a fire in 1913. The servants are gone, and “[t]he suites of rooms now make a somewhat disused, dispirited impression” (35). As he walks through the Hall, he is “variously reminded of a pawnbroker’s or an auction hall,” although the great collection of oddities it contains eventually wins him over (36). When the Hall was first constructed, and everything “was brand new, matching in every detail, and in unremittingly good taste,” the Hall must have been “uninviting,” but “how fine a place the house seemed to me now that it was imperceptibly nearing the brink of dissolution and silent oblivion” (36). The grounds, with their mature cedars and sequoias and plane trees, are a “contrast to the waning splendour of the house” (37). Sebald gets lost in the estate’s yew maze, and later he meets the gardener, William Hazel, who tells him about the 67 airfields that were built in East Anglia after 1940. In just over three years, Hazel tells him, the American Eighth Airforce alone “used a billion gallons of fuel, dropped seven hundred and thirty-two thousand tons of bombs, and lost almost nine thousand aircraft and fifty thousand men” (38). Hazel would watch the bomber squadrons heading out every evening, and before he went to sleep he pictured the burning German cities. He shows Sebald a map of Germany and points out the cities that were destroyed. When Hazel served in the army of occupation in the 1950s, he was surprised that Germans had not written about the bombings—the subject of Sebald’s book On the Natural History of Destruction. Hazel also tells him about the crash of two American fighters on the estate in early 1945; the pilots’ remains “were buried here in the grounds” (40).

Sebald leaves Somerleyton and walks to Lowestoft, past Blundeston prison. When he arrives in the town centre, he is “disheartened” (41). He had been there before and found it pleasant, but “it seemed incomprehensible . . . that in such a relatively short period of time the place could have become so run down” (41). Unemployment is very high and “nearly every week some bankrupt or unemployed person hangs himself” (42). Sebald knew all of this before, but seeing it is another thing entirely. Smith objects to Sebald’s characterization of Lowestoft, stating that it’s not the wasteland Sebald makes it out to be (68), but of course things could have changed between Sebald’s visit in 1992 and Smith’s in (I think) 2011. According to Sebald’s narrator, though, “there is no sign of an end to the encroaching misery” (42), which might be an accurate description of a town devastated by Thatcherism and neoliberal economic policies, but might also be a misreading of the potential for resistance and resurgence there as well. I don’t know. It is hard, of course, to come to know a place intimately as a visitor, and it’s possible that Sebald’s melancholia, or the bad food he was served at the Albion Hotel, might have coloured his impressions of Lowestoft. The following morning, when he leaves the town, it has “reawoken to life” (44), although that life includes a hearse containing a corpse outside the train station. That hearse reminds Sebald of “that working lad from Tuttlingen” who had joined a funeral cortège in Amsterdam 200 years before, perhaps envying the wealth in that city’s port but conscious that the rich merchant ended up in the same “narrow grave” as everyone else (44-45). (I don’t know where that story comes from.) Sebald thinks of how Lowestoft has declined since its time as a society resort in the nineteenth century, as his late friend Frederick Farrar, who had been born in the town, once told him. That connection leads to a brief biography of Frederick, who had somehow set fire to his dressing gown one morning while walking in the garden and died of his burns. The connection between burning German cities and Frederick’s death is clear. Frederick had told Sebald that because “the common folk” were not admitted to the annual charity ball, they “rowed out to the end of the pier in a hundred or more boats and barges,” and “from their bobbing, drifting vantage points,” watched “as fashionable society swirled to the sound of the orchestra, seemingly borne aloft in a surge of light above the water, which was dark and at that time in early autumn usually swathed in mist” (47-48). Frederick told Sebald, “If I now look back at those times . . . it is as if I were seeing everything through flowing white veils” (48). He recalls his family walking down the beach and says he that once he “even dreamed of that scene,” and that his family seemed “like the court of King James II in exile on the coast of The Hague” (48). There is some attention to class here—Frederick’s family had servants, so they must have been wealthy, and by finding a way to watch the ball perhaps “the common folk” are engaged in a kind of envious resistance—but I think Sebald is more concerned with how things change through the passage of time, and with the distance between events and our memories of them.

At the beginning of the book’s third chapter, Sebald’s narrator sees “all manner of tent-like structures made of poles and cordage, sailcloth and oilskin, along the pebble beach” south of Lowestoft (51). These are shelters of fishermen. The narrator has heard that these men don’t speak to each other, and he imagines them watching the sea “quite alone and dependent on no one but himself” (52). Today no one makes a living fishing; the boats are abandoned and falling apart, partly because of pollution in the North Sea. He remembers films about herrings that were shown in school when he was young; in them, the herring was an “emblem . . . of the indestructibility of nature” (53). At one time, the herring nets “were made of coarse Persian silk and dyed black” (56) (another reference to silk). The purpose of the herring, it seems, is to be eaten: if not by humans, then by other fish. Huge quantities were caught, and as a result, 

the natural historians sought consolation in the idea that humanity was responsible for only a fraction of the endless destruction wrought in the cycle of life, and moreover in the assumption that the peculiar physiology of the fish left them free of the fear and pains that rack the bodies and souls of higher animals in their death throes. But the truth is that we do not know what the herring feels. (57)

One oddity of these fish is that when they die, they begin to glow. In the 1870s, two English scientists investigated this phenomenon hoping that it “would lead to a formula for an organic source of light that had the capacity to regenerate itself,” but they were disappointed (59).

In the early afternoon, Sebald reaches Benacre Broad, a brackish lake separated from the North Sea by “a bank of shingle” and that will, no doubt, disappear one night during a storm (59). “But that day, as I sat on the tranquil shore, it was possible to believe one was gazing into eternity,” the narrator recalls: 

The veils of mist that drifted inland that morning had cleared, the vault of the sky was empty and blue, not the slightest breeze was stirring, the trees looked painted, and not a single bird flew across the velvet-brown water. It was as if the world were under a bell jar, until great cumulus clouds brewed up out of the west casting a grey shadow upon the earth. (59)

That shadow reminds him of an article he had clipped from a newspaper several months before, on the death of Major George Wyndham Le Strange, whose manor house stood beyond the lake and who had been part of the liberation of Bergen Belsen in April 1945. A photograph of Bergen Belsen (I think) follows; the piled bodies resemble the mounds of herring in postcard of Lowestoft reproduced several pages earlier. Le Strange was a wealthy and eccentric man, who left his entire fortune to his housekeeper, whose job, in part, was to take meals with her employer in total silence. The narrator relates several odd stories he had heard about Le Strange; he tells us he doesn’t now what to make of them.

Sebald keeps walking south. At Covehithe, he sees dead trees by the sea; they had fallen from the cliffs years before, and their “barkless wood looks like the bones of some extinct species, greater even than mammoths and dinosaurs, that came to grief long since on this solitary strand” (64). A sailboat in the sea keeps him company. He reaches a large field where a hundred pigs are sleeping. He climbs the electric fence and strokes one of the animals: “When I stood up, it closed its eye once more with an expression of profound submissiveness” (66). The pigs remind him of the New Testament story of the Gadarene man whose evil spirits were cast by Jesus into a heard of swine, which then fell off a cliff and drowned in the sea. What, he wonders, was the point of that story? He watches the sand martins flying; in childhood, he would imagine that “the world was held together” by the swallows in flight (67). That memory leads to a mention of Borges’s book Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, in which a few birds save an amphitheatre. But it is the sand martins that engross Sebald’s attention, until he looks over the edge of the cliff and espies a couple apparently having sex: “Misshapen, like some great mollusc washed ashore, they lay there, to all appearances a single being, a many-limbed, two-headed monster that had drifted in from far out at sea, the last of a prodigious species, its life ebbing from it with each breath expired through its nostrils” (68). That association upsets him, and he leaves the place, heading along the beach towards Southwold in the distance. It begins to rain just before he reaches the town, and, the narrator tells us, “I turned to look back down the deserted stretch I had come by, and could no longer have said whether I had really seen the pale sea monster at the foot of the Covehithe cliffs or whether I had imagined it” (69).

That uncertainty brings him back to the Borges story he mentioned before. The narrator of the tale remembers “the observation of one of the heresiarchs of Uqbar, that the disturbing thing about mirrors, and also the act of copulation, is that they multiply the number of human beings” (70). The source of that story is supposedly an entry in the Anglo-American Cyclopedia, but it cannot be found there; it seems to exist only in one copy of the encyclopedia, owned by the narrator. Do any of the places the narrator is describing actually exist? In a note added to the text, the reader learns that one of those places, Tlön has, although fictional, completely changed the earth by becoming the only subject of learning. Everything else will disappear: “The world will be Tlön” (71). However, the narrator doesn’t care; he is going to continue to work on his translation of Thomas Browne’s Urn Burial. What is the link between Borges’s strange apocalypse and Browne’s text on funerary urns? What is Sebald doing? How is Borges’s tale connected to Sebald’s concerns? It’s very hard to say.

At the beginning of the fourth chapter, the rain has stopped and Sebald is taking a walk around Southwold. The town is deserted. He says that he would not have been surprised if he suddenly saw the Dutch fleet offshore, as they were on May 28, 1672, the date of a naval battle between the Dutch and the English that led to a tremendous loss of life, including that of the English commander, the Earl of Sandwich. That battle was the beginning of the Netherlands’ decline as an imperial power. Sebald thinks of the passing of time and the people lying asleep as if dead, “levelled by the scythe of Saturn,” and looks out to see at the clouds, which remind him of mountains (78-79). He recalls that years before, in a dream, he walked the length of a remote and unfamiliar mountain range, which, he realizes, was the Vallüla massif, which he had seen from a bus years before. “I suppose it is submerged memories that give to dreams their curious air of hyper-reality,” he suggests (79). But, he continues, “there is something else as well, something nebulous, gauze-like, through which everything one sees in a dream seems, paradoxically, much clearer” (80).

“Just as these things have always been beyond my understanding,” he continues, “so too I found it impossible to believe, as I sat on Gunhill in Southwold that evening, that just one year earlier I had been looking across to England from a beach in Holland” (80). What follows is an account of a rather miserable night spent in The Hague, where he looked at Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson in the Mauritshuis the following morning. Governor Johann Maurits, whom the museum is named after, had lived in Brazil for seven years and, Sebald’s narrator tells us, “when “the house was opened in May 1644, three hundred years before I was born, eleven Indians the Governor had brought with him from Brazil performed a dance on the cobbled square in front of the new building, conveying to the townspeople some sense of the foreign lands to which the power of the community now extended” (83). That reference to colonial history, which enabled the art collection which was the reason for Sebald’s visit, isn’t, I think, just an aside. That evening, in Amsterdam, he makes notes on his European journey, now almost over, which includes stories about his namesake, St. Sebolt, and the miracles he had performed. The following day, at Schiphol airport, the atmosphere is “so strangely muted” that it is as if the passengers “were under sedation or moving through time stretched and expanded” (89). He comes across a description in Lévis-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques of a street in São Paulo “where the colourfully painted wooden villas and residences, built at the turn of the century by the wealthy in a kind of Swiss fantasy style, were falling to pieces in gardens overgrown with eucalyptus and mango trees” (89). Perhap, he thinks, that’s why the airport “seemed to me that morning like an ante room of that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns” (89)—in other words, like death. The connection between that street and the eleven “Indians” is made, I think, through the story that those dancers, “about whom nothing else is known, have long since disappeared, as soundless as shadows” (83). These images of death and disrepair are linked by their geographical location.

On the small plane from Amsterdam to Norwich, Sebald looks out of the window at the ground below. He notices that one never sees human beings from the air, “only the things they have made and in which they are hiding” (91). “And yet,” the narrator continues,

they are present everywhere upon the face of the earth, extending their dominion by the hour, moving around the honeycombs of towering buildings and tied into networks of a complexity that goes far beyond the power of any one individual to imagine, from the thousands of hoists and winches that once worked the South African diamond mines to the floors of today’s tock and commodity exchanges, through which the global tides of information flow without cease. (91-92)

“If we view ourselves from a great height,” he continues, “it is frightening to realize how little we know about our species, our purpose and our end” (92). No wonder psychogeographers are frustrated by The Rings of Saturn; in this long reminiscence, Sebald’s walk has entirely disappeared, although I would argue that the themes of his text (death, decay, time) have been present throughout.

The evening is getting chilly, and so Sebald goes to the Sailors’ Reading Room, now primarily a maritime museum. It is his “favourite haunt” in the town, a place to read and write or just look at the sea (93). He returns the following morning to make notes on what he’d seen the preceding day. He leafs through the log of the Southwold, a patrol ship, from the autumn of 1914, and discovers a photographic history of the First World War that includes photographs of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination, which started the war. That afternoon, reading a newspaper, he runs across an article about the Croatian Ustasha, a police force that collaborated with the Nazis during the Second World War. The article describes a photograph of a group of Ustasha “sawing off the head of a Serb named Branco Jungic” (96). “This happened at Jasenovac camp on the Sava,” the narrator continues. “Seven hundred thousand men, women and children were killed there alone in ways that made even the hair of the Reich’s experts stand on end, as some of them are said to have admitted when they were amongst themselves” (96-97). The Ustasha also murdered as many as 90,000 people during a campaign against Tito’s partisans. The history of these massacres is recounted in 50,000 documents abandoned by the Germans and Croats in 1945 and stored in an archive that was the headquarters of the Heeresgruppe E intelligence division in 1942. “In this connection,” the narrator continues,

one might also add that one of the Heeresgruppe E intelligence offices at that time was a young Viennese lawyer whose chief task was to draw up memoranda relating to the necessary resettlements, described as imperative for humanitarian reasons. For this commendable paperwork he was awarded by Croatian head of state Ante Pavelić the silver medal of the crown of King Zvonomir, with oak leaves. (98-99)

The postwar career of this bureaucrat of genocide led him to becoming the Secretary General of the United Nations. Of course, Sebald is talking about Kurt Waldheim. A recording of Waldheim’s voice speaking words of greeting “for the benefit of any extra-terrestrials that may happen to share our universe” is now “approaching the outer limits of our solar system aboard the space probe Voyager II” (99). The bitter ironies of that statement need little explanation. It is as if Sebald is suggesting that the best person to represent us in space is someone who participated in a genocide, because that defines what humans are and do. 

Sebald’s fifth chapter recounts a documentary about Roger Casement he fell asleep watching in Southwold. Casement was executed by the British for treason in 1916. And that documentary leads to a discussion of Joseph Conrad’s biography, especially his experience in the Belgian Congo, because both men were linked through their writing on the Belgian Congo. Conrad, born Josef Korzeniowski to Polish parents, learned English, in part, by reading Lowestoft newspapers while sailing on a coastal steamer that travelled between Lowestoft and Newcastle. In 1890, he went to work for the Société Anonyme Belge pour le Commerce du Haut-Congo as the captain of a river steamer. The Congo was then a Belgian colony, and King Leopold received the profits of “its inexhaustible wealth” through trading companies such as the Société Anonyme Belge pour le Commerce du Haut-Congo—profits “built on a system of slave labour which was sanctioned by all the shareholders and all the Europeans contracted to work in the new colony” (118-19). An estimated 500,000 people died of overwork or disease. Conrad was appalled by what he saw and turned back. “Tout m’est antipathique ici, he wrote to Marguerite Poradowska, les hommes et les chose, mais surtout les hommes,” Sebald’s narrator tells us. “Je regrette d’être venu ici” (121). When he arrived back in Brussels, he “now saw the capital of the Kingdom of Belgium, with its ever more bombastic buildings, as a sepulchral monument erected over a hecatomb of black bodies, and all the passers-by in the streets seemed to him to bear that dark Congolese secret within them” (122). Sebald recalls his first visit to that city in 1964, and suggests that “the very definition of Belgian ugliness” is “the Lion Monument and the so-called historical memorial site of the Battle of Waterloo” (123). The panorama there suggests to Sebald “the representation of history”: it ignores the dead and wounded of that battle (125). “Whatever became of the corpses and mortal remains?” he wondered then. “Are they buried under the memorial? Are we standing on a mountain of death? Is that our ultimate vantage point? Does one really have the much-vaunted historical overview from such a position?” (125).

In 1903, Roger Casement wrote a memorandum on what was happening in the Belgian Congo for Foreign Secretary Lord Lansdowne, giving “an exact account” the deaths of hundreds and thousands of people every year in the colony (127). Casement was praised and rewarded for his work, but under pressure from King Leopold, the British government did nothing. Later, Casement was transferred to South America, where he discovered conditions that resembled those in the Congo, “with the difference that here the controlling agent was not Belgian trading associations but the Amazon Company, the head office of which was in the city of London” (128). The Foreign Office tried to deal with the matter by knighting Casement. “But Casement was not prepared to switch to the side of the powerful,” Sebald’s narrator states; “quite the contrary, he was increasingly preoccupied with the nature and origins of that power and the imperialist mentality that resulted from it” (129). He became involved in “the Irish question”—he had been born in that country—and argued for Home Rule (129). In early 1915, he travelled secretly to Berlin “to urge the government of the German Reich to supply arms to the Irish army of liberation and persuade Irish prisoners of war in Germany to form an Irish brigade” (130). Neither effort was successful, and Casement returned to Ireland, where he was arrested. Excerpts of Casement’s diary were circulated, which indicated that he was gay. “We may draw from this the conclusion that it was precisely Casement’s homosexuality that sensitized him to the continuing oppression, exploitation, enslavement and destruction, across the borders of social class and race, of those who were furthest from the centres of power” (134). He was found guilty and hanged; his remains were not recovered until 1965, when they were exhumed “from the lime pit in the courtyard of Pentonville Prison into which his both had been thrown” (134). Devoting an entire chapter to the stories of these two men demonstrates that Sebald’s primary concern in this text is not his walk; rather, it is the human history of genocide, including colonial genocide, and war. The walk is just an excuse, I think, for a meditation on what human beings are capable of doing to each other.

Sebald’s sixth chapter, like the fifth, focuses on a violent history: this time, the wars and imperial interferences in nineteenth-century China. It begins with a bridge over the River Blyth that was constructed in 1875 for a narrow-gauge railway that had originally been built for the Emperor of China. That train leads Sebald to a recounting of Chinese history: the Taiping rebellion and its bloody suppression with the assistance of British army that had occupied China in the middle of the century, which included the destruction of “the magic garden of Yuan Ming Yuan near Peking” (144) witnessed by, among others, British engineer Charles George Gordon, “who was later to die a famous death in the seize of Khartoum,” another British imperial adventure (146). China came to be ruled by the Dowager Empress Tz’u-hsi, who cared little about her subjects, as many as 20 million of whom died of starvation and exhaustion between 1876 and 1879. All the Dowager Empress seemed to care about were her silkworms (another of the many references silk in the text). The train that crossed the River Blyth had been ordered for the child Emperor Kuang-hsu, but it was never delivered. Instead, Kuang-hsu was imprisoned in one of the moated palaces in the Forbidden City, and after his death in 1908, his doctor speculated that he had been poisoned. The Dowager Empress died the following day. As she was dying, she said that “she realized that history consists of nothing but misfortune and the troubles that afflict us, so that in all our days on earth we never know one single moment that is genuinely free of fear” (153). Sebald himself could have written that statement.

From here, the text leaps back to Borges and Tlön, where the denial of time is one of the key tenets of philosophy. And that leads back to Thomas Browne, who suggested that “[t]he night of time . . . far surpasseth the day” (154). “Thoughts of this kind were in my head too as I walked along the disused railway line a little way beyond the bridge across the Blyth, and then dropped from the higher ground to the level of the marsh that extends southward from Walberswick as far as Dunwich, which now consists of a few houses only,” Sebald’s narrator states (154). Dunwich was an important port during the Middle Ages, but “[a]ll of it has gone under, quite literally, and is now below the sea, beneath alluvial sand and gravel, over an area of two or three square miles” (155). On New Year’s Eve in 1285, a storm tide devastated the lower town and the port: “There were fallen walls, debris, ruins, broken timbers, shattered ships’ hulls, and sodden masses of loam, pebbles, sand and water everywhere” (157-58). The citizens rebuilt, and in January 1328 another powerful storm destroyed the lower town. “Over the centuries that followed, catastrophic incursions of the sea into the land of this kind happened time and time again,” Sebald’s narrator tells us, and “[l]ittle by little the people of Dunwich accepted the inevitability of the process,” moving west away from the sea (158). That westward movement, he continues, is “one of the fundamental patterns of human behaviour,” particularly in North and South America: “In Brazil, to this day, whole provinces die down like fires when the land is exhausted by overcropping and new areas to the west are opened up” (158-59). That is a description of the ecological destruction and deforestation caused by colonialism in Brazil, though, rather than something inherent in humanity, I would think. In any case, today Dunwich “has dissolved into water, sand and thin air” (159). For that reason, it “became a place of pilgrimage for melancholy poets in the Victorian Age,” including Algernon Charles Swinburne, and the chapter now shifts to become a biography of Swinburne and a description of his poetry, in which “[l]ike ashes the low cliffs crumble and the banks drop down into dust” (160). When Swinburne was old, a visitor compared him to “the ashy grey silkworm” (165) because of the way he ate or because of the way he woke from his afternoon nap. 

“It had grown uncommonly sultry and dark when at midday, after resting on the beach, I climbed to Dunwich Heath, which lies forlorn above the sea,” the seventh chapter begins (169). As Sebald turns inland, so do his thoughts, and he considers the destruction of “the dense forests that extended over the entire British Isles after the last Ice Age” (169). Similar destruction is taking place now, the narrator continues, in Borneo or the Amazon. In Europe, the trees were cut down for construction and shipbuilding, and to make charcoal, which was required to make iron. “Our spread over the earth was fuelled by reducing the higher species of vegetation to charcoal, by incessantly burning whatever would burn,” the narrator continues:

From the first smouldering taper to the elegant lanterns whose light reverberated around eighteenth-century courtyards and from the mild radiance of these lanterns to the unearthly glow of the sodium lamps that line the Belgian motorways, it has been all combustion. Combustion is the hidden principle behind every artefact we create. The making of a fish-hook, manufacture of a china cup, or production of a television programme, all depend on the same process of combustion. Like our bodies and like our desires, the machines we have devised are possessed of a heart which is slowly reduced to embers. (170)

Human civilization “has been no more than a strange luminescence growing more and more intense by the hour, of which no one can say when it will begin to wane and when it will fade away” (170). The narrator discusses both deliberate fires and accidental ones—wild fires that consume forests—suggesting this passage is both a description of a fundamental truth of our civilization, a depiction of its excesses, and, perhaps, a kind of apocalyptic vision.

Sebald gets lost crossing Dunwich Heath, and geographical confusion becomes temporal: “to my astonishment, not to say horror, I found myself back again at the same tangled thicket from which I had emerged about an hour before, or, as it now seemed to me, in some distant past” (171). He begins to panic; his surroundings “became oppressive and unnerving” (172). Suddenly he finds himself under an oak tree in a country lane, not sure how he got there, and, he states, “the horizon was spinning all around as if I had jumped off a merry-go-round” (172). Months later he dreams about Dunwich Heath, a dream which combines that dreary place with “a little Chinese pavilion” like the one in the yew maze at Somerleyton, and he knew, “with absolute certainty,” that the pattern of the maze “represented a cross section of my brain” (173). Beyond the maze, night fell. “I saw that, to the south, entire headlands had broken off the coast and sunk beneath the waves,” and “a battery of searchlights” reminded him of the War (174). Below the cliff were the shattered ruins of a house, and “a solitary old man with a wild mane of hair was kneeling beside his dead daughter” (174). This dream, or nightmare, combines almost everything Sebald has written about so far in his text.

Sebald reaches the village of Middleton, where he visits the writer Michael Hamburger. Like Sebald, Hamburger was born in Germany and emigrated to England—although he came in 1933, rather than 1966. “How little there has remained in me of my native country,” Hamburger writes in his memoirs (177). During a return visit to Berlin in 1947, Hamburger “came upon a cleared site where the bricks retrieved from the ruins had been stacked in long, precise rows, ten by ten by ten, a thousand to every stacked cube, or rather nine hundred and ninety-nine, since the thousandth brick in every pile was stood upright on top, be it as a token of expiation or to facilitate the counting” (179). Not a soul is in sight, only the millions of bricks. It is a powerful image of the aftermath of the city’s destruction. 

It is late afternoon when Sebald arrives at Hamburger’s house. They have tea. Sebald reflects on the connections between his life and Hamburger’s. In a way, he imagines that they are doubles:

The fact that I first passed through British customs thirty-three years after Michael, that I am now thinking of giving up teaching as he did, that I am bent over my writing in Norfolk and he in Suffolk, that we are both distrustful of our work and both suffer from an allergy to alcohol—none of these things are particularly strange. But why it was that on my first visit to Michael’s house I instantly felt as if I lived or had once lived there, in every respect as precisely as he does, I cannot explain. (182-83)

Sebald has a “strange feeling” in the room in which Hamburger no longer works because it is too cold, 

as if it were not he who had abandoned that place of work but I, as if the spectacles cases, letters and writing materials that had evidently lain untouched for months in the soft north light had once been my spectacles cases, my letters and my writing materials. In the porch that led to the garden, I felt again as if I or someone akin to me had long gone about his business there. (183-84)

He did not pursue these thoughts, however, “perhaps because it is not possible to pursue them without losing one’s sanity” (185). However, in Hamburger’s memoirs he learns that they both met the same man, Stanley Kerry: Hamburger in the army, and Sebald when he first arrived in England in 1966. “When I now think back to Stanley Kerry,” he states, “it seems incomprehensible that the paths of Michael’s life and mine should have intersected in the person of that extraordinarily shy man and that at the time we met him, in 1944 and 1966 respectively, we were both twenty-two” (187). Sebald’s narrator tells us, 

No matter how often I tell myself that chance happenings of this kind occur far more often than we suspect, since we all move, one after the other, along the same roads mapped out for us by our origins and our hopes, my rational mind is nonetheless unable to lay the ghosts of repetition that haunt me with ever greater frequency. . . . The physical sensation closest to this feeling of repetition, which sometimes lasts for several minutes and can be quite disconcerting, is that of the peculiar numbness brought on by a heavy loss of blood, often resulting in a temporary inability to think, to speak or to move one’s limbs, as though, without being aware of it, one had suffered a stroke. Perhaps there is in this as yet unexplained phenomenon of apparent duplication some kind of anticipation of the end, a venture into the void, a sort of disengagement, which, like a gramophone repeatedly playing the same sequence of notes, has less to do with damage to the machine itself than with an irreparable defect in its programme. (187-88)

That physical feeling, though, with its accompanying immobility, reminds me of the condition which sent Sebald to hospital a year after he walked in Suffolk. He has this feeling several times while visiting Hamburger that afternoon. Later, when Hamburger’s wife, Anne, calls a taxi for Sebald, she returns and relates a dream she had woken from after her rest: in it, Sebald had ordered a taxi for her, and as it sped through the forest, she saw everything growing in that forest “with absolute clarity and in meticulous detail impossible to put into words” (189). At the chapter ends, Sebald has his own moment of clear vision, which he finds horrifying: “by the faint light that fell from the living-room window into the well I saw, with a shudder that went to the roots of my hair, a beetle rowing across the surface of the water, from one dark shore to the other” (190). All of this is very strange, and while the image of repetition is perhaps easy to interpret (the repeated disasters and violence of human history, or the repeated movements of weavers of silk), Anne’s dream and Sebald’s horror at the sight of the beetle in the well are harder to understand. Something is definitely happening here, though, and it has nothing to do with Sebald’s walk—or, at least, the walk is the occasion for it and nothing more.

At the beginning of the eighth chapter, Sebald has returned to the Crown Hotel in Southwold (no doubt the reason for the taxi; it would seem that there were no accommodations available in Middleton). He meets a Dutchman named Cornelis de Jong there, who tells him “that many important museums, such as the Mauritshuis in The Hague or the Tate Gallery in London, were originally endowed by the sugar dynasties or were in some other way connected with the sugar trade” (194). In other words, those museums cannot be unlinked from a history of slavery and colonialism. The next morning, Sebold drives down to Woodbridge with de Jong, who is interested in buying a farm in the area. The poet Edward FitzGerald grew up nearby, at Boulge Park, and as Sebald walks around that estate, he thinks about FitzGerald’s life. The estate where he was born was destroyed by a German V-bomb in 1944. In the neglected park, the oak trees are dying, and the FitzGerald family graveyard is neglected. FitzGerald’s childhood seems to have been miserable—his nanny and tutor “tended to take out on their charges their suppressed rage at the disrespect many a time shown them by their masters” (198-99)—and it was defined by fear and boredom. The year that FitzGerald’s only finished poem, a translation of the Rubaiyat of the Persian poet Omar Khayyam, was published, his best friend, William Browne, died from injuries sustained in a hunting accident. Afterwards, FitzGerald withdrew into himself. He complained that the local landowners were cutting down trees and tearing up hedgerows. He died in 1883.

Those reflections seemed to take the entire day, or they stand in for whatever Sebald did or saw during that day’s walk, because he writes, “[t]he shadows were lengthening as I walked in from Boulge Park to Woodbridge, where I put up for the night at the Bull Inn” (207). That night, he dreams of playing dominoes with FitzGerald, although the game takes place not at the FitzGerald estate, but at a country house in Ireland where he was a guest of the eccentric owners some years before. It is the only place in the area where he can stay during what seems to have been a walking holiday. The room he is given is dusty; the walls have “traces of whitewash with bluish streaks like the skin of a dying body” (210), and he is given an army cot to sleep on. “Whenever I rested on that bed over the next few days,” he recalls, “my consciousness began to dissolve at the edges, so that at times I could hardly have said how I had got there or indeed where I was. Repeatedly I felt as if I were lying in a traumatic fever in some kind of field hospital” (210). One night his hosts show home movies of the estate during better days, and then Mrs. Ashbury, the head of the family, tells Sebald stories she had heard from her husband about the Irish Civil War, in which the rebels burned estates as a way to drive out the landowners. After the Second World War, with no income and no prospect of selling the estate, the Ashburys and their house deteriorated together. This story leaves Sebald with the sense that it was “an unspoken invitation to stay there with them and share in a life that was becoming more innocent with every day that passed” (220). Years later, Sebald thinks that he sees the daughter, Catherine, in Berlin, onstage, performing in a play by Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz. “Be still, my heart,” Sebald’s narrator concludes. “The tranquil evening will draw its mantle over our ailing senses. . . .” (222). 

Walking from Woodbridge to Orford, Sebald thinks about the way that estates used to be used almost exclusively for hunting. Animals and birds were killed in such numbers that an estate’s management “was thus governed by considerations of what was necessary to maintain and increase the stocks of game” (223). Thousands of pheasants were raised in pens and then let loose later into hunting preserves. “There were times when six thousand pheasants were gunned down in a single day, not to mention the other fowl, hares and rabbits” at just one estate, Sudbourne Hall (223). In addition, the coastal towns became holiday destinations, particularly for German tourists, and hotels and spas “mushroomed from the barren land” (225). When the First World War was declared,

the German hotel employees were sent back home, there were no more summer visitors, and one morning a zeppelin like an airborne whale appeared over the coast, while across the Channel train after train with troops and equipment rolled to the front, whole tracts of land were ploughed up by mortar fire, and the death strip between the front lines was strewn with phosphorescent corpses. (226)

Like herrings, here human dead phosphoresce as well. After the war, the hunting estates declined and either were left to fall down or were sold off for other purposes, “as boys’ homes, approved schools, insane asylums, old people’s homes, or reception camps for refugees from the Third Reich” (227). One estate became the location of the research team that developed radar. “To this day,” Sebald’s narrator continues,

the area between Woodbridge and the sea remains full of military installations. Time and again, as one walks across the wide plains, one passes barracks, gateways and fenced-off areas where, behind thin plantations of Scots pines, weapons are concealed in camouflaged hangars and grass-covered bunkers, the weapons with which, if an emergency should arise, whole countries and continents can be transformed into smoking heaps of stone and ash in no time. (227-28)

It’s fitting, then, that not far from Orford, the sky darkens and a wind blows dust “across the arid land in sinister spirals” (228). He can see nothing “for what must have been an hour” (229). When the storm lifts, he tells us, “I crawled out of the hollow that had formed around me like the last survivor of a caravan that had come to grief in the desert” (229).

Orford is home to more military installations; the looming threat of conflict and death follows Sebald everywhere. There are seven martello towers on the coast between Felixstowe and Orford, defensive works built after Napoleon threatened to invade Britain. Radar was developed nearby. And there are rumours of “a horrifying incident in Shingle Street for which no government could accept public responsibility” (231): whether an accident with a biological weapon “designed to make whole regions uninhabitable,” or a malfunction with a weapon designed to make the sea boil, no one can say (231). The reason for such rumours may be that the Ministry of Defence conducted weapons research on the island of Orfordness. Those installations are now closed, and Sebald hires a local fisherman to take him across to look around. People still avoid the island, he tells Sebald, because “they couldn’t stand the god-forsaken loneliness of that outpost in the middle of nowhere” (234). On the island, Sebald’s narrator states,

The day was dull and oppressive, and there was so little breeze that not even the ears of the delicate quaking grass were nodding. It was as if I were passing through an undiscovered country, and I still remember that I felt, at the same time, both utterly liberated and deeply despondent. With each step that I took, the emptiness within and the emptiness without grew ever greater and the silence more profound. (234)

Sebald is experiencing that “god-forsaken loneliness,” it seems, which makes him think of death, that “undiscovered country.” He is “frightened almost to death” by a hare running past him: “It must have been cowering there as I approached, heart pounding as it waited, until it was almost too late to get away with its life. In that very fraction of a second when its paralysed state turned into panic and flight, its fear cut right through me” (234). There is a kind of emotional merging or transference between Sebald and the hare, which has “a curiously human expression on its face that was rigid with terror and strangely divided,” and “in its eyes, turning to look back as it fled and almost popping out of its head with fright, I see myself, become one with it” (235). It took half an hour for “the blood [to] cease its clamour in my veins,” Sebald reports (235). He stands on the bridge that leads to the former research establishment: “ahead lay nothing but destruction” (235). “From a distance, the concrete shells, shored up with stones, in which for most of my lifetime hundred of boffins had been at worked devising new weapons systems, looked (probably because of their odd conical shape) like the tumuli in which the mighty and powerful were buried in prehistoric times with all their tools and utensils, silver and gold,” he continues (235-36). Other buildings “resembled temples or pagodas” (236). “But the closer I came to these ruins,” Sebald’s narrator states,

the more any notion of a mysterious isle of the dead receded, and the more I imagined myself amidst the remains of our own civilization after its extinction in some future catastrophe. To me too, as for some latter-day stranger ignorant of the nature of our society wandering about among heaps of scrap metal and defunct machinery, the beings who had once lived and worked here were an enigma, as was the purpose of the primitive contraptions and fittings inside the bunkers, the iron rails under the ceilings, the hooks on the still partially tiled walls, the showerheads the size of plates, the ramps and the soakaways. Where and in what time I truly was that day at Orfordness I cannot say, even now as I write these words. (237)

It is as if Sebald is describing the remains of a death camp: hooks, showerheads, ramps, iron rails. Which, in a way, given the purpose of the research that was conducted there, he is. However, there is a change as he waits for the fisherman to return, as the evening sun emerges from behind the clouds and “[t]he roofs and towers of Orford showed among the tree tops, seeming to close that I could touch them. There, I thought, I was once at home. And then, through the growing dazzle of the light in my eyes, I suddenly saw, amidst the darkening colours, the sails of long-vanished windmills turning heavily in the wind” (237). He is detached from the present, adrift in memories of a time before he was born.

At the start of chapter nine, Sebald takes a bus to Yoxford, where he begins to walk northwest along an old Roman road. He walks through a deserted land for four hours, and states, “I knew then as little as I know now whether walking in this solitary way was more of a pleasure or a pain” (241). He arrives at the lane that leads to Chestnut Tree Farm, “an ancient moated house, where Thomas Abrams has been working on a model of the Temple of Jerusalem for a good twenty years” (242). He has a long conversation with Abrams, who drives him to Harleston, where he is staying at an inn called the Saracen’s Head. The next morning he walks east into an area that the locals call The Saints because each village is named after the patron saints of their churches. “My own feeling, as I walked over the featureless plain, was that I might well lose my bearings in The Saints, so often was I forced to change direction or strike out across country due to the labyrinthine system of footpaths and the many places where a right of way marked on the map had been ploughed up or was now overgrown” (249-50). He relates a story about a young French nobleman, the Vicomte de Chateaubriand, a refugee, who stayed with a local clergyman during the French Revolution. The Vicomte’s life, as related in his memoirs, “unfolded against the background of the momentous upheavals of those years: the Revolution, the Reign of Terror, his own exile, the rise and fall of Napoleon, the Restoration and the July Monarchy all were part of this interminable play performed upon the world’s stage, a play which took its toll on the privileged observer no less than on the nameless masses” (256). He recounts the Vicomte’s description of battles, and concludes, “such colourful accounts of military spectacles and large-scale operations form what might be called the highlights of history which staggers blindly from one disaster to the next” (256). 

Sebald continues walking, from Ilketshall St. Margaret to Bungay. He pauses in the churchyard at Ditchingham, “the very last stop on my walk through the county of Suffolk” (261). He decides to walk to a pub where he would be able to phone home to be picked up. He considers the park at Ditchingham, which would have been laid out about the time the Vicomte was staying in the area. Most of the trees that were planted then have since disappeared: the elms due to Dutch elm disease, which became endemic in the area in the late 1970s. The crowns of the ash trees and the oak trees are also thinning, and the beeches were suffering from drought. All the poplars had died. And the 1987 hurricane had destroyed an estimated 14 million mature hardwood trees in one night. He recalls his own experience of that storm and its aftermath: without trees in which to roost, the birds disappear, and instead of the dawn chorus and the occasional nightingale in the evenings, “there was now not a living sound” (268).

The final chapter returns to Thomas Browne and his strange book Musaeum Clausum or Bibliotheca Abscondita, an imaginary catalogue of objects and antiquities and works of art. Among the objects included are “a number of pieces delineating the worst inhumanities in tortures for the observer” (273) and a cane that was used by two Persian friars to smuggle the first eggs of the silkworm out of China and into the West. The remainder of the chapter is a history of the production of silk from ancient times. He notes that “a great number of people, at least in some places, spent their lives with their wretched bodies strapped to looms made of wooden frames and rails, hung with weights, and reminiscent of instruments of torture or cages” (282). Not surprisingly, weavers suffered from melancholy, and their eyesight suffered from looking at the complex patterns they were creating. “On the other hand,” Sebald’s narrator continues, “we should also bear in mind that many of the materials produced in the factories of Norwich in the decades before the Industrial Revolution began . . . were of a truly fabulous variety, and of an iridescent, quite indescribable beauty as if they had been produced by nature itself, like the plumage of birds” (283). One of the master dyers in Germany was Sebald’s namesake, a man named Seybolt—but that’s not the reason for his interest in silk. He watches a documentary about silk production in the Third Reich, a material that would be important “in the dawning era of aerial warfare,” since parachutes were then made of silk (293). Finally, Sebald tells us that he completed writing this book on 13 April 1995. What else happened on that day in history? Among other events, the Amritsar massacre took place in 1919; the war in Europe was drawing to an end in 1945; and it was also the exact day when his father-in-law died. “Now, as I write, and think more about our history, which is but a long account of calamities,” he states, “it occurs to me that at one time the only acceptable expression of profound grief, for ladies of the upper classes, was to wear heavy robes of black silk taffeta or black crêpe de chine” (295-96). I think that might be the reason that silk runs through this book: its importance as mourning wear. But also, Thomas Browne, the son of a silk merchant, noted that it was customary to “drape black mourning ribbons” (presumably made of silk) “over all the mirrors and all canvasses depicting landscapes or people or fruits of the field, so that the soul, as it left the body, would not be distracted on its final journey, either by a reflection of itself or by a last glimpse of the land now being lost for ever” (296). Those are the book’s last words. They are, if not hopeful, at least an expression of the earth’s beauty, which is lost to us when we die. That, I think, is as positive as Sebald gets.

So, The Rings of Saturn is about a walk, yes, but that walk is an opportunity for a meditation on death and destruction—both the result of human agency, and the result of natural forces. It’s many other things as well. If I were to read this book again (and no doubt I will), I would perhaps find other things happening in it. I might, for instance, track every single mention of silk, silkworms, or mulberry trees. I might follow up on the discussions of Borges and Sir Thomas Brown and Edward FitzGerald and Algernon Swinburne. There is so much happening in this strange text, so many layers and levels through which it can be approached. And that can only be a good thing, from my perspective.

This is also the last book on walking that I’ll be writing about, at least for a while. I need to move on to other topics, other areas of my reading list. That’s unfortunate, in a way, because I discover new books about walking almost every day. But it’s time to learn about other things.

Works Cited

Sebald, W.G. Austerlitz, translated by Anthea Bell, Vintage, 2002.

——. The Emigrants, translated by Michael Hulse, New Directions, 1997.

——. The Rings of Saturn, translated by Michael Hulse, New Directions, 1999.

Smith, Phil. On Walking . . . and Stalking Sebald: A Guide to Going Beyond Wandering Around Looking At Stuff, Triarchy, 2014.

89. Jeff Corntassel, “To Be Ungovernable”

corntassel image

(image credit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V0pDCSlFL9g)

In her discussion of the need for Settlers to focus on local struggles rather than faraway ones, Clare Land refers to Cherokee academic and activist Jeff Corntassel’s short essay, “To Be Ungovernable.” It’s getting to be time for me to move on from texts about walking to the texts on my list that address other topics, and so I thought it might be helpful to take a look at Corntassel’s essay, which is helpfully available on his web site, along with many other essays and articles. It’s a rich resource and Corntassel is generous to have made it available. “To Be Ungovernable” has the virtue of brevity, which is both good and bad: good because it gives me a taste of his thinking, and bad because that taste will likely necessitate reading more of his work. This process is never finished; one just runs out of time.

“To Be Ungovernable” begins in 1998, in Ecuador, when that country’s president, Abdalá Bucaram, was overthrown by a movement led by the Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas del Ecuador (CONAIE), which represents 80 percent of the country’s Indigenous peoples (35). The subsequent president, Jamil Mahuad, “ignored CONAIE’s demands for political reform and the return of indigenous homelands,” and within two years CONAIE had toppled his government as well (35). Afterwards, “policy experts and government officials proclaimed Ecuador to be ungovernable,” but for Corntassel, “this form of ‘ungovernability’ is what indigenous peoples should be trying to achieve. Instability and ungovernability on this level is a result of indigenous responses to the illegitimate occupation and encroachment of the state on indigenous homelands” (35). However, when CONAIE formed a political party named Pachakutik, which was allied with the Sociedad Patriótica party, it became co-opted and “governable” (35). 

That story suggests something about the incompatibilities between Settler and Indigenous cultures and values, Corntassel suggests:

Most indigenous peoples around the world have words in their languages that refer to themselves as the real, original or principal people of their homelands, such as Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawai’ian) or Onkwehonwe (Mohawk). Cherokees use the term Ani-yun-wiya, which means real or principal people. Ungovernability means embracing the principles of Ani-yun-wiya and discarding state offerings of rotten apples. (35)

Co-optation, Corntassel continues, “offers indigenous peoples the illusion of inclusion,” when what is actually needed “is a de-occupation of settler institutions and values from indigenous homelands,” a delegitimization of the settler-colonial regime that is, according to Taiaiake Alfred, “the most fundamentally radical act one can perform” (qtd. 35). “As Ani-yun-wiya, our values and responsibilities, not settler institutions, govern us,” Corntassel continues (35). Gadugi, “a built-in spirit of community comradery,” is one of those values; it means “that whatever issues/concerns arising in collective living have to be addressed in a unitary way and that no one is left alone to climb out of a life endeavour; it reflects a collective community base” (35). For Corntassel, adhering to such principles “makes indigenous peoples ungovernable in the eyes of Settlers. Ani-yun-wiya are governed by a continuous renewal of our shared responsibilities and relationships” (35).

Settler values, on the other hand, can be found in indigenous languages and “the stories indigenous peoples tell of first contact with settlers” (35). For example, “the word Canada is derived from a Mohawk term, Kanatiens,” which translates as “squatter” (35). The Tsalagi (Cherokee) word for white Settlers, “yonega,” means “foam of the water; moved by wind and without its own direction; clings to everything that’s solid” (35-36). In Cree, the word “môniyawak” literally means “worship of money,” or “sôniyaw” (36). (My Cree teachers would disagree with that suggestion, I think.) “Wasicu,” the Dakota word for settler, means “taker of fat,” and it suggests that the first Settlers the Dakota encountered came into a camp during winter and helped themselves to the fatty parts of a soup boiling on the fire (36). “Ve’ho’e,” the Cheyenne term for settlers, means “spider,” and suggests a trickster figure: 

Settlers are viewed this way because they have hair like a spider, divide that land like the web of a spider, communicate through power lines like strands of a spider, and wrap their prey to devour it, such as the indigenous peoples who were wrapped in blankets during the small pox and cholera epidemics. (36)

These words and stories, which are based on over 500 years of experience, provide Indigenous peoples with “valuable insights into a different value system”: “directionless, money-worshipping, fat-taking squatters that divide the land, devour their prey and cling to everything that’s solid. . . . Clearly these are not principles for Ani-yun-wiya to emulate or mimic” (36). Indeed, when expressed that way, they are not principles anyone would want to emulate or mimic.

“Indigenous governance is an ongoing process of honouring and renewing our individual and collective relationships and responsibilities,” Corntassel continues. “And settlers are not off the hook either—they will have to decide how they can relate to indigenous struggles. Will they make the necessary sacrifices to decolonize and make amends now?” (36). One of the problems involved in answering that question is the “debilitating ‘Free Tibet Syndrome’” which many “would-be allies suffer from,” “which causes them to cast their decolonizing gaze to faraway places while ignoring local indigenous struggles” (36). “The further away the exotic overseas ‘Other’ is from their present geographic location,” Corntassel writes, “the greater the intensity of their fundraising and self-determination proselytizing activities,” while they are not interested in “promoting freedom and justice for indigenous peoples closer to ‘home’” (36). 

Globalization, Corntassel argues, “reflects a deepening, hastening and stretching of an already-existing empire; it is merely the latest permutation of imperialism. Shape-shifting colonial powers continue to invent new methods of domination in order to erase indigenous histories and senses of place” (36). He quotes at length from a conversation between U.S. Cavalry Captain E.L. Huggins and Smohalla or Yu’yunipi’t-qana of the Wanapum Nation to show that his generation is not the first “to confront the dilemmas of participating in the political economy” (36). Smohalla told Huggins that “[n]o one has any respect” for Indigenous peoples who have adopted the ways of Settlers. Rather than work, Smohalla stated, his people “simply take the gifts that are freely offered” by the Earth, while “the white man tears up large tracts of land, runs deep ditches, cuts down forests, and changes the whole face of the earth,” activities that are, he argued, “not right. . . . But the white men are so greedy that they do not consider these things” (36). Smohalla is describing a way of thinking that has led, inexorably, to our current climate and extinction crises, which frankly terrify me.

“Fortunately,” Corntassel writes, “the spirit of Smohalla is alive in other indigenous movements today,” and a brief survey of those movements shows that they remain “ungovernable” (36-37). For instance, between 1997 and 2002, U’wa peoples in Colombia kept Occidental Petroleum from building a pipeline through their territory, a struggle that was not finished. The Forum for Cultural and Biological Diversity, an Indigenous-run group in Honduras, was hosting annual seed exchanges where Indigenous farmers could trade for non-GMO seeds. At Six Nations in 2006, clan mothers and warriors “reclaimed 40 hectares of their traditional territory” along the Grand River from a housing developer (another struggle that continues still). These examples, Corntassel writes, “illustrate indigenous alternatives to neoliberalism”: “The approximately 5,000 indigenous nations trapped in 70 settler states around the world offer us 5,000 different versions of ungovernability” (37). Indigenous peoples are patient, he continues, “and will live to see our homelands de-occupied by settler values. Until that time comes, settlers are illegally occupying indigenous homelands” (37).

“Ani-yun-yiwa are spiritual beings, as embodied by our clan systems, languages, ceremonies, sacred histories and relationships to the land,” Corntassel writes:

Our powers reside in our languages, cultures and communities—not in political/legal authority structures. An indigenous spiritual regeneration is necessary to facilitate the de-occupation of settler values from our homelands. In these times of spiritual and physical warfare, our pipe carriers and clan mothers (not band councillors or lawyers) are the true voices of our struggles. (37)

Travelling to other Indigenous and Settler communities to find allies in these struggles “can be a useful antidote to colonialism,” but state-centred forums are limited in what they can do to promote Indigenous resurgences (37). Instead, he argues that “[i]t is time to again represent ourselves in our own terms,” by making treaties between Indigenous communities that “follow the protocols of pipe ceremonies, not the paper diplomacy of settlers,” and for Indigenous peoples “to lead by example and demonstrate once again their communities’ approaches to principles of respect and diplomacy” (37). Engagement in Indigenous forums, such as the World Council of Indigenous Peoples, is another direction in which Indigenous mobilization efforts should be directed. “Ani-yun-wiya warriors must ready themselves for physical and spiritual warfare,” Corntassel continues. “Let us remember that a process of regeneration takes time” (37). In addition, “settler populations can begin by decolonizing their thinking, engaging in insurgent education, making amends to local indigenous peoples and seeking out indigenous-led alliances” (37). “As ancient nations, we have proven to be persistent and ‘ungovernable’—we are nations that predate the state and will outlast it,” Corntassel concludes (37). “Ani-yun-wiya power arises from Gadugi, and responsibilities to our territories and families. Ultimately, only indigenous laws can flourish on indigenous homelands” (37). 

Interestingly, Corntassel doesn’t suggest that Indigenous homelands need to be “de-occupied” by Settler people, only by their values (37). Adopting Indigenous values, then, would be a way for Settlers to decolonize their thinking and educate themselves as a prelude to making amends to local Indigenous peoples and seeking out Indigenous-led alliances (37). That adoption, though, would have to avoid appropriation, and I’m not sure how those two things can be kept separate. In any case, what I found useful about reading “To Be Ungovernable” was the same thing I found useful about reading Taiaiake Alfred’s Wasáse: Indigenous Pathways of Action and Freedom during my MFA work (and, of course, that’s a book I should be rereading for this project): both texts present a way of looking at the world that are radically different from the ones I’ve lived with my entire life. Reading such texts must be a valuable part of decolonizing oneself, or at least of the self-education that is part of such a decolonization.

Works Cited

Alfred, Taiaiake. Wasáse: Indigenous Pathways of Action and Freedom, University of Toronto Press, 2005.

Corntassel, Jeff. “To Be Ungovernable.” New Socialist no. 58, September-October 2006, pp. 35-37.

Land, Clare. Decolonizing Solidarity: Dilemmas and Directions for Supporters of Indigenous Struggles, Zed, 2015.

88. Garnette Cadogan, “Walking While Black”

cadogan

(image source: https://mlkscholars.mit.edu/event/garnette-cadogan-how-walking-while-black-reveals-possibilities-and-limitations/)

Michael Lapointe seems to suggest that Garnette Cadogan’s essay, “Walking While Black,” should have been included in Duncan Minshull’s anthology Beneath My Feet: Writers on Walking (one of the books Lapointe discusses in his recent review essay). “[J]ust how radical is the writer-walker resurgence that Minshull hoped for 20 years ago and has watched come to pass?” Lapointe asks. “Like protesting, walking ought to be among the most democratic of activities. Look closely at the genre, though, and you’ll find that the writer-walker has a way of claiming a surprisingly exclusive status” (Lapointe). That’s true of women who walk and write; they have to be careful about walking after dark. And it’s true of Cadogan, whose encounters with police officers and white racists make walking dangerous. Cadogan’s essay, Lapointe writes, “asks us to consider how a literary creation can germinate on a stroll when ‘the sidewalk [is] a minefield’” (qtd. in Lapointe).

Cadogan’s essay begins in childhood, when he began to love walking. His violent stepfather made it safer to be out of the house—not that the streets of Kingston, Jamaica, were safe. Indeed, they “were often terrifying—you could, for instance, get killed if a political henchman thought you came from the wrong neighborhood, or even if you wore the wrong color,” since certain colors were associated with specific political parties: “The wrong color in the wrong neighborhood could mean your last day” (Cadogan). It’s not surprising, then, that Cadogan’s friends “and the rare nocturnal passerby” called him crazy for taking “long late-night walks that traversed warring political zones” (Cadogan).

Those walks had a powerful effect on Cadogan. They changed his character: “I made friends with strangers and went from being a very shy and awkward kid to being an extroverted, awkward one” (Cadogan). He learned about navigating the streets from beggars, vendors, and poor laborers. “I imagined myself as a Jamaican Tom Sawyer,” he writes, “one moment sauntering down the streets to pick low-hanging mangoes that I could reach from the sidewalk, another moment hanging outside a street party with battling sound systems, each armed with speakers piled to create skyscrapers of heavy bass” (Cadogan). The streets weren’t frightening; they were full of adventure. Sometimes he walked with others who had missed the last bus, or he would lose himself in “Mittyesque” fantasies (Cadogan). “Walking became so regular and familiar that the way home became home,” he recalls (Cadogan). He learned the rules of the Kingston streets and mapped the city’s “complex, and often bizarre, cultural and political and social activity” (Cadogan). The nighttime streets were too dangerous for women to walk alone, he acknowledges, but Cadogan walked everywhere, through rich neighborhoods and poor ones, “cutting across Jamaica’s deep social divisions” (Cadogan).

In 1996, Cadogan moved to New Orleans to go to college. He wanted to explore that city on foot, and when university staff warned him about the city’s crime rate, he decided to ignore their concerns, because Kingston’s crime rate was much higher. “What no one had told me was that I was the one who would be considered a threat,” he writes. “I wasn’t prepared for any of this. I had come from a majority-black country in which no one was wary of me because of my skin color. Now I wasn’t sure who was afraid of me” (Cadogan). The police were a particular problem: “They regularly stopped and bullied me, asking questions that took my guilt for granted” (Cadogan). He quickly had to figure out how to survive those interactions, mentioning that he was a college student or accidentally pulling out his student ID when asked for his driver’s license. However, he continues, 

[i]n this city of exuberant streets, walking became a complex and often oppressive negotiation. . . . New Orleans suddenly felt more dangerous than Jamaica. The sidewalk was a minefield, and every hesitation and self-censored compensation reduced my dignity. Despite my best efforts, the streets never felt comfortably safe. Even a simple salutation was suspect. (Cadogan)

One night, he recalls, he waved to a passing cop: “Moments later, I was against his car in handcuffs” (Cadogan). When he asked why, he was told, “No one waves to the police” (Cadogan). His friends saw his behaviour as absurd: “‘Now why would you do a dumb thing like that?’ asked one. ‘You know better than to make nice with police’” (Cadogan).

Cadogan leaves New Orleans to visit his dying grandmother in Kingston right before Hurricane Katrina. “I hadn’t wandered those streets in eight years, since my last visit, and I returned to them now mostly at night, the time I found best for thinking, praying, crying,” he writes. “I walked to feel less alienated—from myself, struggling with the pain of seeing my grandmother terminally ill; from my home in New Orleans, underwater and seemingly abandoned; from my home country, which now, precisely because of its childhood familiarity, felt foreign to me” (Cadogan). He is surprised at how safe the streets felt: 

once again one black body among many, no longer having to anticipate the many ways my presence might instill fear and how to offer some reassuring body language. . . . I could be invisible in Jamaica in a way I can’t be invisible in the United States. Walking had returned to me a greater set of possibilities. (Cadogan).

Those possibilities are, he continues, the purpose of walking:

Following serendipity, I added new routes to the mental maps I had made from constant walking in that city from childhood to young adulthood, traced variations on the old pathways. Serendipity, a mentor once told me, is a secular way of speaking of grace; it’s unearned favor. Seen theologically, then, walking is an act of faith. Walking is, after all, interrupted falling. We see, we listen, we speak, and we trust that each step we take won’t be our last, but will lead us to a richer understanding of the self and the world. (Cadogan)

“In Jamaica, I felt once again as if the only identity that mattered was my own, not the constricted one that others had constructed for me,” he continues. “I strolled into my better self. I said, along with Kierkegaard, ‘I have walked myself into my best thoughts’” (Cadogan).

When Cadogan tried to return to New Orleans a month later, there were no flights, and his aunt encourages him to stay with her in New York instead. “This wasn’t a hard sell,” he writes:

I wanted to be in a place where I could travel by foot and, more crucially, continue to reap the solace of walking at night. And I was eager to follow in the steps of the essayists, poets, and novelists who’d wandered the great city before me—Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Alfred Kazin, Elizabeth Hardwick. I had visited the city before, but each trip had felt like a tour in a sports car. I welcomed the chance to stroll. I wanted to walk alongside Whitman’s ghost and “descend to the pavements, merge with the crowd, and gaze with them.” (Cadogan)

He explores the city, from the West Village to his home in the Bronx, to Queens and Brooklyn: “The city was my playground” (Cadogan). He walks with a woman he had started dating: “My impressions of the city took shape during my walks with her” (Cadogan). “The city was beguiling, exhilarating, vibrant,” he writes. “But it wasn’t long before reality reminded me I wasn’t invulnerable, especially when I walked alone” (Cadogan). One night in the East Village, a white man punches him because “he’d merely assumed I was a criminal because of my race” (Cadogan). In addition, the “mutual distrust” between Cadogan and the police “was impossible to ignore” (Cadogan). “I returned to the old rules I’d set for myself in New Orleans, with elaboration,” he recalls: no running, no sudden movements, no hoodies, no objects in his hand, no waiting for friends on street corners (Cadogan). “As comfort set in,” though, “inevitably I began to break some of those rules, until a night encounter sent me zealously back to them, having learned that anything less than vigilance was carelessness” (Cadogan).

While jogging up the sidewalk, late to meet friends, Cadogan is approached by a police officer with a gun in his hand. “In no time, half a dozen cops were upon me, chucking me against the car and tightly handcuffing me,” he recalls (Cadogan). They ask a barrage of questions and Cadogan can’t answer them all. He tries to focus on one officer. That doesn’t work: “the others got frustrated that I wasn’t answering them fast enough and barked at me” (Cadogan). Nothing he did made any difference. “For a black man, to assert your dignity before the police was to risk assault,” he writes: 

In fact, the dignity of black people meant less to them, which was why I always felt safer being stopped in front of white witnesses than black witnesses. The cops had less regard for the witness and entreaties of black onlookers, whereas the concern of white witnesses usually registered on them. A black witness asking a question or politely raising an objection could quickly become a fellow detainee. (Cadogan)

Eventually a police captain tells the others to let Cadogan go. “Humiliated, I tried not to make eye contact with the onlookers on the sidewalk, and I was reluctant to pass them to be on my way,” he recalls (Cadogan). The police captain offers to drop him off at a subway station. “‘It’s because you were polite that we let you go,’” he tells Cadogan. “‘If you were acting up it would have been different.’” Cadogan nods and says nothing.

“I realized that what I least liked about walking in New York City wasn’t merely having to learn new rules of navigation and socialization—every city has its own,” Cadogan states. “It was the arbitrariness of the circumstances that required them, an arbitrariness that made me feel like a child again, that infantilized me” (Cadogan). “On many walks,” he continues, “I ask white friends to accompany me, just to avoid being treated like a threat,” although in New Orleans, walking with a white woman attracts more hostility (Cadogan). “Walking while black restricts the experience of walking, renders inaccessible the classic Romantic experience of walking alone,” Cadogan continues:

It forces me to be in constant relationship with others, unable to join the New York flâneurs I had read about and hoped to join. Instead of meandering aimlessly in the footsteps of Whitman, Melville, Kazin, and Vivian Gornick, more often I felt I was tiptoeing in Baldwin’s. . . . Walking as a black man has made me feel simultaneously more removed from the city, in my awareness that I am perceived as suspect, and more closely connected to it, in the full attentiveness demanded by my vigilance. It has made me walk more purposefully in the city, becoming part of its flow, rather than observing, standing apart. (Cadogan)

But this also means that he’s not at home in the city. Nor is he at home as a pedestrian: “Walking—the simple, monotonous act of placing one foot before the other to prevent falling—turns out not to be so simple if you’re black. Walking alone has been anything but monotonous for me; monotony is a luxury” (Cadogan). 

More than anything else, Cadogan concludes, “[w]e want the freedom and pleasure of walking without fear—without others’ fear—wherever we choose” (Cadogan). He has now lived for ten years in New York, and he continues walking its streets, which “has made it closer to home to me” (Cadogan). But at the same time, it’s not home, because “the city also withholds itself from me via those very streets. I walk them, alternately invisible and too prominent. So I walk caught between memory and forgetting, between memory and forgiveness” (Cadogan).

Cadogan offers a powerful account of the possibilities and realities of walking for a black man in a racist society. There’s no question that walking is easier for some than for others. As a white, straight, cis-gendered man, I don’t face the same racism that Cadogan and many others face. That is part of my unearned privilege; I acknowledge that. What to do about it, though, is another matter. I just don’t know. I don’t feel that I can do much about the racism of other white people (I’m unlikely to witness it) nor about the racism of police officers. Emma Battell Lowman and Adam J. Barker, and Clare Land, argue that it’s important to do something about white privilege. Land, for instance, argues that one also has “to consider ways to undo it,” to try to unlearn it and to be cognizant of it (31)—although it seems to me that there is a great gulf between awareness of white privilege and undoing it. Lowman and Barker are, I think, more realistic than Land in their discussion of “Settler privilege”:

As Settler Canadians, we are part of a colonizing collective, and there is no simple place we can go, or declaration we can make, that will sever us from our unearned benefits and privileges, insulate us from our fears of change, or abstract us from destructive practices on the land. No matter how hard it may be to envision, it is possible to forge different relationships to the land that are not rooted in the displacement and genocide of Indigenous nations, nor in fooling ourselves with the comfortable oblivion of indigenization and transcendence. (109)

And yet, they argue that collective action can, somehow, make change happen (109-10). It’s not clear to me, though, what kind of collective action could make the Garnette Cadogan’s walking experiences any easier, any less fraught. Perhaps some group walk, like a “Take Back the Night” event, focused on racism? I don’t know. I am sure, though, that I’m not the one to organize such an event. At the same time, though, I don’t think that for me to stay home, to abandon walking, as a way of pretending that my privilege doesn’t exist is the answer, either. That privilege will carry on whether I’m sitting at home or trudging down a grid road or along a sidewalk. So I feel caught between shock and sorrow at Cadogan’s experience, which I know is shared by many others, and a feeling of being helpless to do anything about it.

Works Cited

Cadogan, Garnette. “Walking While Black.” Literary Hub, 8 July 2016, https://lithub.com/walking-while-black/.

Land, Clare. Decolonizing Solidarity: Dilemmas and Directions for Supporters of Indigenous Struggles, Zed, 2015.

Lapointe, Michael. “The Unbearable Smugness of Walking.” The Atlantic, August 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/08/how-walking-became-pedestrian-duncan-minshull-erling-kagge-walking/592792/.

Lowman, Emma Battell, and Adam J. Barker. Settler: Identity and Colonialism in 21st Century Canada, Fernwood, 2015.

87. Henry David Thoreau, Walking

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There are many passages from Henry David Thoreau’s lecture Walking, published after his death in 1862, that show up in any survey of writing about walking. But there is a lot more going in in Thoreau’s text than those frequently quoted statements. Rather than being focused on walking, most of the text addresses another topic entirely: wildness. For Thoreau, the two go together: walking is a vehicle for experiencing wildness, by which he means, the natural world, or life beyond human society. In fact, the lecture begins with a short paragraph in which Thoreau states, “I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil,—to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society” (35). The “extreme statement” (35) he intends to make begins with the idea that humans are natural rather than social or cultural. It doesn’t matter that such an idea is impossible; what’s important is Thoreau’s intention and, I think, the way it reflects his own love of the natural world and of solitude.

From that point Thoreau moves to one of those often-quoted passages, an attempt at an etymology of the word “sauntering.” He makes two suggestions. One is that “saunter” comes from medieval pilgrimages (pretended, according to Thoreau) to the Holy Land, from the idea that children would exclaim “There goes a Sainte-Terrer” when such people walked past. Strangely, Thoreau shifts to the present tense when he evaluates these pilgrimages: “They who never go to the Holy Land in their walks, as they pretend, are indeed mere idlers and vagabonds; but they who do go there are saunterers in the good sense, such as I mean” (35-36). I find the syntax of that sentence very strange, and I have a suspicion that Thoreau might prefer the “idlers and vagabonds” to those who would actually be walking to the Holy Land—or that he’s less interested in the notion of a religious pilgrimage than in one that leads into the woods, which is the site Thoreau really finds to be sacred. That’s the derivation he prefers, because “every walk is a sort of crusade, preached by some Peter the Hermit in us, to go forth and reconquer this Holy Land from the hands of the Infidels” (36). By “this Holy Land” Thoreau means Massachusetts, or Concord: the place he called home. And by “Infidels,” I am assuming he means those who do not or cannot appreciate the natural world of that place; that, in any case, is an opposition he develops through the lecture.

However, Thoreau also acknowledges that some people derive “saunter” from “sans terre, without land or a home, which, therefore, in the good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere” (36). This, he claims, “is the secret of successful sauntering”: “He who sits still in a house all the time may be the greatest vagrant of all; but the saunterer, in the good sense, is no more vagrant than the meandering river, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea” (36). This derivation, although Thoreau prefers the first, has the benefits of lending itself to a metaphor taken from nature, and of distinguishing those who walk, or saunter, from those who stay at home, and who, despite their stationary quality, “may be the biggest vagrant of all.”

The first derivation, though, allows Thoreau to make this apparent self-criticism, although I think it’s actually an ironic critique of his audience, and his culture:

It is true, we are but faint-hearted crusaders, even the walkers, nowadays, who undertake no persevering, never-ending enterprises. Our expeditions are but tours, and come round again at evening to the old hearth-side from which we set out. Half the walk is but retracing our steps. We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return,—prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only as relics to our desolate kingdoms. (36)

Thoreau wants to raise the stakes, as dramaturges say; he wants walkers to take risks and walks to mean something. But at the same time, the exaggeration here (“embalmed hearts”?) might suggest he’s not entirely serious. Such hyperbole continues through the first pages of the lecture, including this passage, which Deirdre Heddon and Cathy Turner describe as an example of “nineteenth-century chauvinism” (226): “If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again,—if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man, then you are ready for a walk” (36). The joke is on the reader, of course; Thoreau never married, lived alone, and had few if any domestic entanglements. He is asking his audience to do something he wouldn’t have to do and likely wouldn’t be able to imagine. As Ralph Waldo Emerson says in his biographical sketch of Thoreau, he was “the bachelor of thought and Nature” (9).

The self-conscious drama of the notion that one must treat any walk as a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, an experience likely to lead to one’s death, is (to me) sheer hyperbole, and the language in the following paragraphs supports that claim. Thoreau describes the pleasure he and his walking companion take 

in fancying ourselves knights of a new, or rather an old, order,—not Equestrians or Chevaliers, not Ritters or riders, but Walkers, a still more ancient and honorable class, I trust. The chivalric and heroic spirit which once belonged to the Rider seems now to reside in, or perchance to have subsided into, the Walker,—not the Knight, but the Walker Errant. He is a sort of fourth estate, outside of Church and State and People. (37)

Is Thoreau serious here? I don’t think so, although I could be wrong. Elsewhere in the essay he criticizes any interest in what are, for him, outmoded or inappropriate European ideas and idioms, and so his use of them here might suggest exaggeration. I keep thinking that he’s giving a lecture, that he has to engage his audience and interest them not only in what he wants to say, but in himself as a speaker. What better way to accomplish those goals than to begin by making oneself something of a figure of fun who is in on the joke?

At the same time, there is a serious side to the distinction he has been making, subtly, between those who walk and those who stay home:

We have felt that we almost alone hereabouts practised this noble art; though, to tell the truth, at least, if their own assertions are to be received, mo[s]t of my townsmen would fain walk sometimes, as I do, but they cannot. No wealth can buy the requisite leisure, freedom, and independence, which are the capital in this profession. It comes only by the grace of God. It requires a direct dispensation from Heaven to become a walker. You must be born into the family of Walkers. (37)

Again there is deliberate exaggeration here, but I think Thoreau is making a point. After all, his lack of domestic obligations; his self-imposed poverty; his friends and family, who supported his life and work (by paying his tax bills, for example); all of the factors of his life allowed him to spend hours every day going for long walks. Others, who had to work long hours as farmers or clerks, did not have that freedom.

Still, in this paragraph the butt of the Thoreau’s humour shifts from Thoreau himself to those who lack the leisure or disposition to walk:

Some of my townsmen, it is true, can remember and have described to me some walks which they took ten years ago, in which they were so blessed as to lose themselves for half an hour in the woods; but I know very well that they have confined themselves to the highway ever since, whatever pretensions they may make to belong to this select class. No doubt they were elevated for a moment as by the reminiscence of a previous state of existence, when even they were foresters and outlaws. (37)

The short period of the remembered walk (just half an hour), and the decision to “confine themselves to the highway” afterwards, and the allusion to Robin Hood, all suggest (to me) that Thoreau is having a bit of a laugh at his audience’s expense. After all, they are likely to be the kind of people who have to work and lack the leisure to wander around. They bought tickets to the lecture, after all.

Thoreau, in fact, acknowledges that he is both unusual and lucky in his need to walk and in his ability to do it:

I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least,—and it is commonly more than that,—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements. You may safely say, A penny for your thoughts, or a thousand pounds. When sometimes I am reminded that the mechanics and shopkeepers stay in their shops not only all the forenoon, but all the afternoon too, sitting with crossed legs, so many of them,—as if the legs were made to sit upon, and not to stand or walk upon,—I think that they deserve some credit for not having all committed suicide long ago. (38)

Thoreau’s freedom to walk is also a necessity, and although it has led to poverty (for him there’s no difference between a penny and a thousand pounds, because he has neither), it has also helped him to preserve his “health and spirits.” In fact, he cannot understand how others, with jobs and obligations, manage to survive. He wonders why “there is not a general explosion heard up and down the street” every afternoon between four and five o’clock, a blast that would scatter “a legion of antiquated and house-bred notions and whims to the four winds for an airing,” and thus cure the evil of being confined “to shops and offices the whole day for weeks and months, ay, and years almost together” (39). Thoreau’s wonder is not confined to men working outside of the home: “How womankind, who are confined to the house still more than men, stand it I do not know,” he writes, but he suspects “that most of them do not stand it at all” (39). He remembers walking past houses on summer afternoons, houses whose occupants appear to be sleeping (39). He seems to be suggesting that they aren’t sleeping at all; perhaps they have gone out for a walk. It’s hard to say, though, what Thoreau means here, because he ends that paragraph with a paean to the architecture that doesn’t go to sleep itself, but which stands guard over the slumberers (40). The notion seems strange. What is more likely: sleeping or walking? Shouldn’t those women be walking? If they are sleeping, what does that say about Thoreau’s views on women?

Thoreau suggests that the walking he is describing has nothing to do with “taking exercise,” but “is itself the enterprise and adventure of the day. If you would get exercise, go in search of the springs of life” (40). Moreover, when one walks, one must think—ruminate—as Wordsworth, who famously wrote while walking, did (40). Being outside so much “will no doubt produce a certain roughness of character,” he admits, but the “natural remedy” for that roughness “is to be found in the proportion which the night bears to the day, the winter to the summer, thought to experience”:

There will be so much the more air and sunshine in our thoughts. The callous palms of the laborer are conversant with finer tissues of self-respect and heroism, whose touch thrills the heart, than the languid fingers of idleness. That is mere sentimentality that lies abed by day and thinks itself white, far from the tan and callus of experience. (41)

In other words, that “certain roughness of character,” far from being a vice, is a virtue. Given the choice between that roughness and “mere sentimentality,” Thoreau will choose roughness. I wonder if the figure who lies in bed during the day is a return to the female inhabitants of those silent houses whose occupants seem to be asleep; perhaps those women are actually sleeping, rather than walking, a suggestion which would support accusations of chauvinism.

As Heddon and Turner point out, Thoreau critiques domestic walking: “When we walk, we naturally go to the fields and woods: what would become of us, if we walked only in a garden or a mall?” (41). I don’t think it’s the domestic that Thoreau is rejecting as much as it is the notion of wild nature that he is advocating (although they necessarily go together). It’s not enough to walk in the woods, either; one must want to walk there, and one must be focused on the experience rather than thinking of other things:

I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit. In my afternoon walk I would fain forget all my morning occupations and my obligations to society. But it sometimes happens that I cannot easily shake off the village. The thought of some work will run in my head, and I am not where my body is,—I am out of my senses. In my walks I would fain return to my senses. What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods? I suspect myself, and cannot help a shudder, when I find myself so implicated even in what are called good works,—for this may sometimes happen. (42)

For Thoreau, walking is an experience of attention and flow—of being, in two ways, returned to his senses: to the sensory experience of the world, and to his right mind. The reason he rejects society and its obligations, here and elsewhere in the lecture, is that he seems to require that specific kind of walking experience, and even when he is thinking about “good works,” he is not present in his surroundings.

“My vicinity affords many good walks,” Thoreau continues, “and though for so many years I have walked almost every day, and sometimes for several days together, I have not exhausted them” (42). One might expect that Thoreau is interested in walking as an experience of place, in Yi-Fu Tuan’s sense of place as a location that one knows through experience, and he does, but he’s also interested in walking as an experience of space, of novelty and freshness:

An absolutely new prospect is a great happiness, and I can still get this on any afternoon. Two or three hours’ walking will carry me to as strange a country as I expect ever to see. A single farmhouse which I had not seen before is sometimes as good as the dominions of the King of Dahomey. There is in fact a sort of harmony discoverable between the capabilities of the landscape within a circle of ten miles’ radius, or the limits of an afternoon walk, and the threescore years and ten of a human life. It will never become quite familiar to you. (42)

That experience of space, as Thoreau’s Dahomey simile suggests, is related to processes of colonialism and empire, and yet, there is also something strangely local and perhaps almost domestic in the suggestion that seeing a previously unnoticed farmhouse is “as good as” African exploration. There is a sense here that Thoreau’s neighbourhood is so rich that he will never finish discovering new things in it—although, as Emerson suggests in his biographical sketch, those new things are more likely to be plants or birds than farmhouses (22-25). 

Indeed, Thoreau suggests his movements during a walk are like those of “the fox and the mink”: he moves “first along by the river, and then the brook, and then the meadow and the wood-side,” through a territory without human inhabitants. The animal imagery in this paragraph is applied to other aspects of “civilization and the abodes of man” as a way of minimizing their impact on the land: 

The farmers and their works are scarcely more obvious than woodchucks and their burrows. Man and his affairs, church and state and school, trade and commerce, and manufactures and agriculture, even politics, the most alarming of them all,—I am pleased to see how little space they occupy in the landscape. (43)

That what must have been a densely populated part of the United States could afford so much space without signs of human activity is a wonder, and perhaps Thoreau is exaggerating his experience. 

Or perhaps Thoreau sees few signs of human activity because he avoids travelling on roads:

Some do not walk at all; others walk in the highways; a few walk across lots. Roads are made for horses and men of business. I do not travel in them much, comparatively, because I am not in a hurry to get to any tavern or grocery or livery-stable or depot to which they lead. I am a good horse to travel, but not from choice a roadster. (44)

He is clearly one of those who “walk across lots,” and of no use to the “landscape-painter” who “uses the figures of men to mark a road”; that artist would not be able to use Thoreau’s figure because he is elsewhere (44). Walking “across lots” is a way to “walk out into a Nature such as the old prophets and poets, Menu, Moses, Homer, Chaucer, walked in” (44). That territory is not America, nor was it discovered by Columbus: “There is a truer account of it in mythology than in any history of America, so called, that I have seen” (45). The only roads Thoreau likes are those that “are nearly discontinued,” and he includes a poem about one of those, “The Old Marlborough Road,” in his text. 

Thoreau notes that most of the land in his vicinity is not private property, and so “the walker enjoys comparative freedom” (47). However, he imagines a very different future:

possibly the day will come when it will be partitioned off into so-called pleasure-grounds, in which a few will take a narrow and exclusive pleasure only,—when fences shall be multiplied, and man-traps and other engines invented to confine men to the public road, and walking over the surface of God’s earth shall be construed to mean trespassing on some gentleman’s grounds. To enjoy a thing exclusively is commonly to exclude yourself from the true enjoyment of it. Let us improve our opportunities, then, before the evil days come. (47-48)

Those days, as Ken Ilgunas and Matthew Anderson have pointed out, have arrived all over North America.

At this point, Thoreau begins shifting away from thinking about walking to thinking about nature, which for him primarily exists in the west—an expression of an American frontier thesis, I think, although he also makes arguments rooted in mythology (the importance of the setting sun) to defend his preference for that direction. The west is the direction of “the wilderness,” and he suggests that when he leaves the city, he is “withdrawing into the wilderness” (50). That is the American tendency, he suggests: “I must walk toward Oregon, and not toward Europe. And that way the nation is moving, and I may say that mankind progress[es] from east to west” (50). Here he rejects history and “the old World and its institutions” (51) in preference to the west, the territory of the sun, “the Great Western Pioneer whom the nations follow” (52). Others who “felt the westward tendency” include Columbus and the “man of the Old World” who travelled from Asia into Europe, with “[e]ach of his steps . . . marked by a new civilization superior to the preceding, by a greater power of development,” until he crosses the Atlantic Ocean and resumes his westward movement (52-53). He suggests that the climate in the United States may enable “man [to] grow to greater perfection intellectually as well as physically” under its influences—that, in fact, the North American landscape will create a new kind of human:

I trust that we shall be more imaginative, that our thoughts will be clearer, fresher, and more ethereal, as our sky,—our understanding more comprehensive and broader, like our plains,—our intellect generally on a grander scale, like our thunder and lightning, our rivers and mountains and forests,—and our hearts shall even correspond in breadth and depth and grandeur to our inland seas. (55-56)

I was surprised to read such an evocation to American exceptionalism in Thoreau, given that he refused to pay taxes in part because they supported a state that allowed human slavery, but he was of his time, as we all are, and he had a lecture audience to please.

There’s another reason for this apotheosis of the west in Thoreau’s discourse: “The West of which I speak is but another name for the Wild; and what I have been preparing to say is, that in Wildness is the preservation of the World” (57). “Give me a wildness whose glance no civilization can endure,” he writes (58). He notes that according to “[t]he African hunter Cummings” the skin of the eland “emits the most delicious perfume of trees and grass,” and he would like “every man” to be “so much a part and parcel of Nature, that his very person should thus sweetly advertise our senses of his presence, and remind us of those parts of Nature which he most haunts” (58-59). That odour would be preferable to “that which commonly exhales from the merchant’s or the scholar’s garments,” which is a smell “of dusty merchant’s exchanges and libraries” (59). “Life consists with wildness,” he contends. “The most alive is the wildest. Not yet subdued to man, its presence refreshes him. . . . Hope and the future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps”—the wildest place, it seems, that Thoreau can imagine (60). “Give me the ocean, the desert or the wilderness!” he exclaims (61)—places, like the swamp, that are dreary (because they are frightening to civilized humans, or because they don’t conform to codes of visual beauty). And yet, the American economy depends on agriculture, which requires draining swamps (63-64). “The weapons with which he have gained our most important victories, which should be handed down as heirlooms from father to son, are not the sword and the lance,” he argues, “but the bushwhack, the turf-cutter, the spade, and the bog-hoe, rusted with the blood of many a meadow, and begrimed with the dust of many a hard-fought field” (64). 

“In Literature it is only the wild that attracts us,” Thoreau continues, suggesting that “it is the uncivilized free and wild thinking in ‘Hamlet’ and the “Iliad,’ in all the Scriptures and Mythologies, not learned in the schools, that delights us,” in the way that a wild duck “is more swift and beautiful than the tame” (64). He wonders where “the literature which gives expression to Nature” is (65):

He would be a poet who could impress the winds and streams into his service, to speak for him; who nailed words to their primitive senses, as farmers drive down stakes in the spring, which the frost has heaved; who derived his words as often as he used them,—transplanted them to his page with earth adhering to their roots; whose words were so true and fresh and natural that they would appear to expand like the buds at the approach of spring, though they lay half-smothered between two musty leaves in a library,—ay, to bloom and bear fruit there, after their kind, annually, for the faithful reader, in sympathy with surrounding Nature. (65-66)

Strangely, though, this evocation of “the literature which gives expression to Nature” is premised on figures of human domination of nature, particularly through agriculture. Would that literature necessarily be a hybrid between the human and the natural? In any case, it doesn’t exist: 

I do not know of any poetry to quote which adequately expresses this yearning for the Wild. Approached from this side, the best poetry is tame. I do not know where to find in any literature, ancient or modern, any account which contents me of that Nature with which even I am acquainted. (66)

The literature that comes closest seems to be Greek mythology, “the crop which the Old World bore before its soil was exhausted, before the fancy and imagination were affected with blight; and which it still bears, wherever its pristine vigor is unabated” (66).

“In short,” Thoreau continues, “all good things are wild and free”:

There is something in a strain of music, whether produced by an instrument or by the human voice,—take the sound of a bugle in a summer night, for instance,—which by its wildness, to speak without satire, reminds me of the cries emitted by wild beasts in their native forests. It is so much of their wildness as I can understand. Give me for my friends and neighbors wild men, not tame ones. The wildness of the savage is but a faint symbol of the awful ferity with which good men and lovers meet. (67-68)

The influence of Rousseau on Thoreau is obvious here. “Undoubtedly, all men are not equally fit subjects for civilization,” he writes, and just because some can be tamed, “this is no reason why the others should have their natures broken that they may be reduced to the same level” (69). Nature, he writes, is “this vast, savage, howling mother of ours,” and she possesses “such affection for her children, as the leopard; and yet we are so early weaned from her breast to society, to that culture which is exclusively an interaction of man on man” (71). It would be better, he continues, that “every man nor every part of a man” should be “cultivated, any more than I would have every acre of earth cultivated”: the greater part of the earth should remain “meadow and forest, not only serving an immediate use, but preparing a mould against a distant future, by the annual decay of the vegetation which it supports” (72). 

Thoreau then critiques the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, suggesting that a Society for the Diffusion of Useful Ignorance or “what we will call Beautiful Ignorance” would be more useful “in a higher sense,” because what is called knowledge is “often our positive ignorance, ignorance in our negative knowledge” (73). “A man’s ignorance sometimes is not only useful, but beautiful,—while his knowledge, so called, is oftentimes worse than useless, besides being ugly,” he argues. “Which is the best man to deal with,—he who knows nothing about a subject, and, what is extremely rare, knows that he knows nothing, or he who really knows something about it, but thinks that he knows all?” (74). That question suggests that Thoreau was a pioneer in the study of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

“My desire for knowledge is intermittent; but my desire to bathe my head in atmospheres unknown to my feet is perennial and constant,” Thoreau continues—a strange thing for someone interested in walking to say, it seems to me. “The highest that we can attain to is not Knowledge, but Sympathy with Intelligence,” he writes:

I do not know that this higher knowledge amounts to anything more definite than a novel and grand surprise on a sudden revelation of the insufficiency of all that we called Knowledge before,—a discovery that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in our philosophy. It is the lighting up of the mist by the sun. (74)

The insistence on “sudden revelation” and on something beyond knowledge suggests something about Thoreau’s Romantic predisposition, I think.

Thoreau suggests that “almost all men feel an attraction drawing them to society,” but “few are attracted strongly to Nature” (76). For that reason, he considers most men “lower than the animals,” because they are incapable of appreciating “the beauty of the landscape” (76). “For my part,” he continues,

I feel that with regard to Nature I live a sort of border life, on the confines of a world into which I make occasional and transional and transient forays only, and my patriotism and allegiance to the State into whose territories I seem to retreat are those of a moss-trooper. Unto a life which I call natural I would gladly follow even a will-o’-the-wisp through bogs and sloughs unimaginable, but no moon nor fire-fly has shown me the causeway to it. Nature is a personality so vast and universal that we have never seen one of her features. (76)

At this point, he suddenly returns, in the middle of the paragraph, to walking:

The walker in the familiar fields which stretch around my native town sometimes finds himself in another land than is described in their owners’ deeds, as if it were in some far-away field on the confines of the actual Concord, where her jurisdiction ceases, and the idea which the word Concord suggests ceases to be suggested. (77)

What is that other land? Where did the reality described in the property deeds he refers to go? He gives an example:

I took a walk on Spaulding’s Farm the other afternoon. I saw the setting sun lighting up the opposite side of a stately pine wood. Its golden rays straggled into the aisles of the wood as into some noble hall. I was impressed as if some ancient and altogether admirable and shining family had settled there in that part of the land called Concord, unknown to me,—to whom the sun was servant,—who had not gone into society in the village,—who had not been called on. I saw their park, their pleasure-ground, beyond through the wood, in Spaulding’s cranberry-meadow. The pines furnished them with gables as they grew. Their house was not obvious, to vision; the trees grew through it. I do not know whether I heard the sounds of a suppressed hilarity or not. They seemed to recline on the sunbeams. They have sons and daughters. They are quite well. The farmer’s cart-path, which leads directly through their hall, does not in the least put them out,—as the muddy bottom of a pool is sometimes seen through the reflected skies. They never heard of Spaulding, and do not know that he is their neighbor,—notwithstanding that I heard him whistle as he drove his team through the house. Nothing can equal the serenity of their lives. Their coat of arms is simply a lichen. I saw it painted on the pines and oaks. Their attics were in the tops of the trees. They are of no politics. There was no noise of labor. I did not perceive that they were weaving or spinning. Yet I did detect, when the wind lulled and hearing was done away, the finest imaginable sweet musical hum,—as of a distant hive in May, which perchance was the sound of their thinking. They had no idle thoughts, and no one without could see their work, for their industry was not as in knots and excrescences embayed. (78)

Why does Thoreau imagine that the forest is the home of this family? Is that family a metaphor for the ecosystem of Spaulding’s farm? Or is he recording some mystical vision experienced while walking there? I don’t know. He states that he finds it hard to remember that family: “They fade irrevocably out of my mind even now while I speak and endeavor to recall them, and recollect myself” (78). Regardless, he concludes that “[i]f it were not for such families as this, I think I should move out of Concord” (78). Perhaps that family is a way of giving shape to the thoughts he has while walking. He suggests that “few and fewer thoughts visit each growing man from year to year, for the grove in our minds is laid waste,—sold to feed unnecessary fires of ambition, or sent to mill, and there is scarcely a twig left for them to breed on” (79).

“We hug the earth,—how rarely we mount! Methinks we might elevate ourselves a little more” (79). Those words lead into a literal description of climbing a tall white pine, which leads Thoreau to “discover new mountains on the horizon” which he had never seen before (79). At the top of the tree, he saw “the fertile flower of the white pine looking heavenward,” which he picked and took to show the villagers (80). “[N]ot one had ever seen the like before,” he writes, “but they wondered as at a star dropped down” (80). The moral of this fable seems to be the importance of attending to the natural world, but even more, the importance of allowing ourselves, or our imaginations, to soar.

“Above all, we cannot afford not to live in the present,” Thoreau writes. The past is without interest. “Unless our philosophy hears the cock crow in every barn-yard within our horizon, it is belated,” he continues, suggesting again the importance of attending to what is around us. That rooster’s philosophy, Thoreau states, “comes down to a more recent time than ours,” because he rises early and is “in the foremost rank of time” (80-81). The rooster’s crow “is an expression of the health and soundness of Nature, a brag for all the world,—healthiness as of a spring burst forth, a new fountain of the Muses, to celebrate this last instant of time. Where he lives no fugitive slave laws are past. Who has not betrayed his master many times since last he heard that note?” (81). So many things are combined in this description—Peter’s betrayal of Christ, the controversy over fugitive slave laws (with which Thoreau was concerned), “a new fountain of the Muses,” and I find it hard to understand how paying attention to the present moment brings all of them together. But “[t]he merit of this bird’s strain”—and, remember, he is still talking about attending to the present—“is in its freedom from plaintiveness,” its “pure morning joy” (81). When Thoreau hears a rooster crow, he states, “I think to myself, ‘There is one of us well, at any rate,’—and with a sudden gush return to my senses” (81). 

The next paragraph provides an example of attending to the senses while walking, and that example becomes what can only be described as an epiphany:

We had a remarkable sunset one day last November. I was walking in a meadow, the source of a small brook, when the sun at last, just before setting, after a cold gray day, reached a clear stratum in the horizon, and the softest, brightest morning sunlight fell on the dry grass and on the stems of the trees in the opposite horizon, and on the leaves of the shrub-oaks on the hill-side, while our shadows stretched long over the meadow eastward, as if we were the only motes in its beams. It was such a light as we could not have imagined a moment before, and the air also was so warm and serene that nothing was wanting to make a paradise of that meadow. (81-82)

This is an experience of paradoxes: warm air on a cold day, a sunrise at sunset, a slumbering meadow (it’s November, after all, and winter is quickly approaching) becoming “a paradise.” More importantly, Thoreau continues, “[w]hen we reflected that this was not a solitary phenomenon, never to happen again, but that it would happen forever and ever on an infinite number of evenings, and cheer and reassure the latest child that walked there, it was more glorious still” (82). How can that be? How can such a singular event be infinite? It seems impossible, but Thoreau is certain that it’s the case, even though it is, for him, clearly a special and unique experience: 

We walked in so pure and bright a light, gilding the withered grass and leaves, so softly and serenely bright, I thought I had never bathed in such a golden flood, without a ripple or a murmur to it. The west side of every wood and rising ground gleamed like the boundary of Elysium, and the sun on our backs seemed like a gentle herdsman driving us home at evening. (82)

This is the approach to the Holy Land, he suggests, returning to the place where he began:

So we saunter toward the Holy Land, till one day the sun shall shine more brightly than ever he has done, shall perchance shine into our minds and and light up our whole lives with a great awakening light, as warm and serene and golden as on a bank-side in autumn. (82)

Enlightenment is possible, it seems, if we walk long enough, and far enough, and it will take the form of the “great awakening light” of the sun.

Thoreau’s optimism at the end of the lecture is something of a surprise, given the discouragement he sometimes expresses, but it’s clear that for him walking is more than a way to experience nature—it is a path towards some kind of enlightenment. I was also surprised by the lecture’s circularity, but the way it circles back to the etymologies with which it began. In a way, I think the key to Walking is Thoreau’s brief introduction, where he suggests that he’s not interested in humans as social creatures, but as “part and parcel of Nature” (35). If that’s his starting point, then it’s not surprising that our enlightenment will be natural, experienced by walking in the sunshine. And if that’s his starting point, criticizing him for (jokingly, I suspect) suggesting that walkers need to abandon their friends and families misses the point. For Thoreau, those social and familial ties are unimportant; what is important is one’s experience of nature. He might well be wrong about that—and I think he is—but that suggestion is consistent with the rest of his argument. In the end, Thoreau was what he was–a nineteenth-century Romantic–and we can only take what we can from this odd text.

Works Cited

Anderson, Matthew Robert. “Why Canadians Need the ‘Right to Roam.’” The Conversation, 29 July 2018, https://theconversation.com/why-canadians-need-the-right-to-roam-100497.

Heddon, Deirdre, and Cathy Turner. “Walking Women: Shifting the Tales and Scales of Mobility.” Contemporary Theatre Review, vol. 22, no. 2, 2012, pp. 224-36.

Ilgunas, Ken. This Land Is Our Land: How We Lost the Right to Roam and How to Get It Back, Plume, 2018.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walking, 1863, Watchmaker 2010.

Tuan, Yi-Fu. Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience, University of Minnesota Press, 1977.

86. Erling Kagge, Walking: One Step at a Time

erling kagge

Ironically, I read about Erling Kagge’s Walking: One Step at a Time during our recent walking holiday, in a review essay by Michael Lapointe that concludes with some skepticism (to say the least) about the liberating or critical possibilities of walking. Lapointe’s skepticism is well-taken, but I wanted to follow up on his sources, so I ordered a copy of Kagge’s book, which was waiting for me when we returned home.

Walking: One Step at a Time is a collection of stories about and meditations on walking. Its fragmentary structure means that every summary of the text—every attempt at identifying what’s worth thinking about in it—is going to be very different. I found a couple of key themes during my reading, which would probably be different were I to read it again. One of those themes is the idea that walking is part of being human. “Placing one foot in front of the other, investigating and overcoming are intrinsic to our nature. Journeys of discovery are not something you start doing, but something you gradually stop doing,” Kagge writes (5). He is thinking about his grandmother, who, he says started to die the day she could no longer walk, and his daughter learning to walk and thereby explore her world. Although we all have different reasons for walking, it is “one of the most important things we do,” he writes (9). The book ends on a similar note, but on a grander evolutionary scale:

Homo sapiens didn’t invent bipedalism. It was the other way around. Australopithecus, our forefathers, had already been walking for over two million years when our particular species came into being. Everything that we do today, that which separates us from other species, can be traced back to our origins of walking. 

The ability to walk, to put one foot in front of the other, invented us. (157)

Certainly there are other defining elements of being human, and the ability to walk is by no means universal, but walking upright is one of the characteristics of our species.

Another theme is Kagge’s own walking; in a way, this book is a walking autobiography. Near the beginning of the book, he writes,

I have no idea how many walks I’ve been on. 

I’ve been on short walks; I’ve been on long walks. I’ve walked from villages and to cities. I’ve walked through the day and through the night, from lovers and to friends. I have walked in deep forests and over big mountains, across snow-covered plains and through urban jungles. I have walked bored and euphoric and I have tried to walk away from problems. I have walked in pain and in happiness. But no matter where and why, I have walked and walked. I have walked to the ends of the world—literally. 

All my walks have been different, but looking back I see one common denominator: inner silence. Walking and silence belong together. Silence is as abstract as walking is concrete. (8)

Not surprisingly, Kagge’s first book was called Silence. His suggestion that walking and silence go together indicates that he is primarily interested in walking alone; if he were walking with others, those walks would be defined by conversation rather than silence, I think.

Kagge is particularly interested in what happens when he walks, in his experience of walking, particularly the tricks he finds walking playing with his experience of time:

Everything moves more slowly when I walk, the world seems softer and for a short while I am not doing household chores, having meetings or reading manuscripts. A free man possesses time. The opinions, expectations and moods of family, colleagues and friends all become unimportant for a few minutes or a few hours. Walking, I become the centre of my own life, while completely forgetting myself shortly afterwards. (15)

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that one saves time travelling only two hours from one point to another instead of spending eight hours on the same journey,” he continues. “While this holds up mathematically, my experience is the opposite: time passes more quickly when I increase the speed of travel. My speed and time accelerate in parallel. It is as if the duration of a single hour becomes less than a clock-hour. When I am in a rush, I hardly pay attention to anything at all” (15). He compares driving to a mountain with walking to a mountain: “If you were to walk along the same route, however—spending an entire day instead of a half-hour, breathing more easily, listening, feeling the ground beneath your feet, exerting yourself—the day becomes something else entirely”—that is, something other than “one big blur”:

Little by little, the mountain looms up before you and your surroundings seem to grow larger. Becoming acquainted with these surroundings takes time. It’s like building a friendship. The mountain up ahead, which slowly changes as you draw closer, feels like an intimate friend by the time you’ve arrived. Your eyes, ears, nose, shoulders, stomach and legs speak to the mountain, and the mountain replies. Time stretches out, independent of minutes and hours. 

And this is precisely the secret held by all those who go on foot: life is prolonged when you walk. Walking expands time rather than collapses it. (16-17)

I’ve had similar experiences walking toward grain elevators (which indicate a town or village where I might be able to get a cold drink), but for me, it’s often an experience of frustration rather than anticipation—perhaps because I really want to get that cold drink and find a place to sit and rest. Kagge points out that in Robert Wilson’s performance piece, Walking, he and his audience take five hours to cross a Dutch island, Terschelling, a walk that typically would only take 45 minutes, and as a result, they become more aware of their surroundings; their slow speed alters their perceptions (77). “So much in our lives is fast-paced,” Kagge writes. “Walking is a slow undertaking. It is among the most radical things you can do” (19). Perhaps it’s that kind of claim that irritates Lapointe; however, it strikes me that the deliberate slowness of walking does interrupt our culture’s belief in efficiency and time management, and that therefore it is, or can be thought of, as a radical act.

Kagge is also interested in the cognitive effects of walking—the way it helps him think, and more generally, the connection between walking and thinking. “Walking sometimes means undertaking an inner voyage of discovery,” he writes. “You are shaped by buildings, faces, signs, weather and the atmosphere. . . . Walking as a combination of movement, humility, balance, curiosity, smell, sound, light and—if you walk far enough—longing. A feeling which reaches for something, without finding it” (28). Walking is both anarchic and ordering:

Walking, I can stop whenever I feel like it. Take a look around. And then continue on. It’s a small-scale anarchy: the thoughts that stream through my mind or the anxieties that I sense in my body shift and clear up as I walk. Chaos is king when I first strike out on my walk, but as I arrive, things have become more orderly, even when I haven’t given a thought to the chaos as I’ve walked along. (29)

Moreover, because walking involves the body, it becomes an opportunity for a kind of embodied cognition: 

The feet are in dialogue with your eyes, nose, arms, torso, and with your emotions, This dialogue often takes place so fast that the mind is unable to keep up. Our feet help us to proceed with precision. They can read the terrain, and also what hits them from underneath the soles; they process each impression, in order to take one step forward or one to the side. (58)

This leads Kagge to Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s contention, from The Phenomenology of Perception: “You think with your entire self” (74-75). According to Kagge, Merleau-Ponty 

started with the assumption that the body is not merely a collection of atoms made of flesh and bone. We are able to perceive and care for our memories and reflections with our toes, feet, legs, arms, stomachs, chests and shoulders. . . . Merleau-Ponty understood something that neurologists and psychologists have since begun to study: everything around us is something with which the whole of you and I are able to have a running dialogue. . . . When we see, smell and listen, we are—in order to understand our experience—using the information that has already been stored inside our bodies. (75)

The Phenomenology of Perception is on my reading list, and Kagge’s brief discussion of that text reaffirms my need to read it.

Kagge also argues that walking helps him (and others) think. He attributes the phrase “solvitur ambulando,” “it is solved by walking,” to Diogenes, not St. Augustine (86), and provides a list of people who have used walking as an aid to thinking: Darwin, Kierkegaard, Einstein, Steve Jobs, Thoreau (86-87). “When I walk my thoughts are set free,” he writes. “My blood circulates and, if I choose a faster pace, my body takes in more oxygen. My head clears” (87). As a result, he argues that one can actually walk away from one’s problems—or, at least, that he does:

I walk away from my problems. Not all of them, but as many as possible. Don’t we all? Some of my problems fade away as I walk. They might vanish within an hour, or a few days. Perhaps they weren’t as big as I had imagined? It’s often like that. Something that I view as problematic, that stirs me up, turns out not to be so troublesome or important, after all, once I have gained some distance from it. (109)

The idea that walking helps people think is relatively common, and psychologists have experimental data that suggest the connection isn’t just anecdotal.

Walking, for Kagge, is also about discomfort—but discomfort as something to be embraced rather than avoided. He reports that, in her book RAIN: Four Walks in English Weather, Melissa Harrison tells a story about her father, who encouraged her to rise above bad weather and exhaustion: that advice wasn’t meant to be “macho,” Kagge argues, but was “lovingly bestowed” in the hope that she “would have the chance to experience as many wonderful things in the wild as they themselves had. Our need for comfort not only implies that we avoid uncomfortable experiences but it also means that we lose out on many good ones” (96-97). He reflects on his expeditions to the Poles and to Mount Everest—Kagge is (at least sometimes) an epic or heroic walker, although he would probably reject such terms; he says that he was never a great athlete but able “to complete long walking trips on skis”—therefore skiing trips?—because he prepared well and he tried (155)—and the pleasure of making do with as little as possible, which could be considered an embracing of discomfort: 

It’s possible to leave behind a whole slew of habits when you go for a long hike. There is pleasure in considering what you actually need. In having to decide between the things that you must bring along and those that you only want to bring because they might constitute a comfort. I have the impression that most people underestimate the amount of time that they would be able to make do with nothing more than a sleeping bag, an extra warm jacket, a small pan, a stove, matches and enough food. If you say it’s impossible to survive with so little, and I say that it is possible, we are both probably right. (99)

Some of his greatest pleasures have involved getting warm after being cold (99). He also likes the way that long walks change his relation to the world: “If a walk lasts for many hours or days, it takes on a different character than one that lasts for only half an hour. Your dependence on external stimuli decreases, you are torn away from the expectations of others, and your walk takes on a more internal character” (119).

In fact, he enjoys walking until he has exhausted himself: 

What I like most of all is to walk until I nearly collapse. To sense the pleasure, the exhaustion and the absurdity of walking all blending together, until I can no longer tell what is what. My head changes. I don’t care what time it is, my head is devoid of all thought, and I become a part of the grass, the stones, the moss, the flowers and the horizon. (134-36)

Breaking himself down physically is “a nice change from everyday life”: “To concentrate and to be disrupted are not opposites. Both are always present to various degrees, but if you have been broken down, you no longer have the same strength to be disrupted” (136). Exhaustion changes his perception of his surroundings: “When my strength is reduced, I no longer have the resources to think about much, and that’s when the smells, the sounds and the ground seem to draw much closer to my experience. It’s as if my senses open to their surroundings. Nature is transformed” (136). “The longer I walk,” he continues, “the less I differentiate between my body, my mind and my surroundings. The external and internal worlds overlap. I am no longer an observer looking at nature, but the entirety of my body is involved” (137). This takes him back to Merleau-Ponty, I think, and the notion that one’s entire body is engaged in the thinking that happens during a walk. For my part, I don’t like walking until I’m exhausted, but I have noticed that sometimes, when I’m getting tired–in the second half of a long hike, for instance–my mind becomes quiet and the experience of the walk changes, becoming more meditative or sensory. There is a transformation, I think, similar to the one Kagge describes here.

Is Kagge’s book useful for my project? I’m not sure. The reminder about the importance of Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology was helpful, and the fact that Kagge is proudly an epic or heroic walker, interested in what happens during walks that cover long distances and take place over long durations, might be important if I ever do write an essay entitled “In Defence of Epic Walking.” His claims about the radical nature of walking, despite Lapointe’s skepticism about them, are probably worth exploring further. So yes, I think it was worth reading, and I’m happy I ran across Lapointe’s review essay, because I might not have learned about Walking: One Step at a Time otherwise.

Work Cited

Kagge, Erling. Walking: One Step at a Time, translated by Becky L. Crook, Pantheon, 2019.

Lapointe, Michael. “The Unbearable Smugness of Walking.” The Atlantic, August 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/08/how-walking-became-pedestrian-duncan-minshull-erling-kagge-walking/592792/. Accessed 4 August 2019.