19. Tim Ingold, Lines

by breavman99


After reading Sara Ahmed’s book, with its emphasis on the image or figure of the line, I decided to take on Tim Ingold’s Lines, which attempts, according to its author, “a comparative anthropology of the line” (1). For Ingold, lines are phenomena in themselves, not metaphors or theories (xv). “They are really there, in us and around us,” Ingold writes. “Indeed, there is no escaping them, for in any attempt to flee we only lay another one” (xv). Lines, for Ingold, are everywhere, and they are part of what makes us human: 

As walking, talking and gesticulating creatures, human beings generate lines wherever they go. It is not just that line-making is as ubiquitous as the use of the voice, hands and feet—respectively in speaking, gesturing and moving around—but rather that it subsumes all these aspects of everyday human activity and, in so doing, brings them together into a single field of inquiry. (1)

That field is what Ingold sets out to “delineate” (1) in this book; its aim is to “open up lines of inquiry that others might be inspired to pursue, in whatever directions their nowledge and experience might take them” (5). Among the topics this interdisciplinary study examines are the divorce between music and speech; the links between textiles and textuality; the distinction between pedigrees and family trees as vehicles for tracing lines of descent; the link between writing and drawing; and the predominance, in the modern world, of straight lines over curved ones. I skimmed those chapters, though, and focused my attention on Ingold’s third chapter, “Up, Across and Along,” which (among other things) explores the lines we make as we travel.

At the beginning of that chapter, Ingold argues that, in our contemporary world, lines are no longer continuous gestures. Rather, they have become fragmented into successions of points and dots. “This fragmentation,” he writes, “has taken place in the related fields of travel, where wayfaring is replaced by destination-oriented transport, mapping, where the drawn sketch is replaced by the route-plan, and textuality, where storytelling is replaced by the pre-composed plot” (77). The same process of fragmentation has affected our understanding of place: while there was a time when we considered places to be knots “tied from multiple and interlaced strands of movement and growth,” now we think of places as nodes “in a static network of connectors” (77). “To an ever-increasing extent,” Ingold contends,

people in modern metropolitan societies find themselves in environments built as assemblies of connected elements. Yet in practice they continue to thread their own ways through these environments, tracing paths as they go. I suggest that to understand how people do not just occupy but inhabit the environments in which they dwell, we might do better to revert from the paradigm of the assembly to that of the walk. (77)

Walking, for Ingold, is both literal and metaphorical, but more importantly, his argument is structured around a number of oppositions: walking versus assembly; wayfaring versus transport; the drawn sketch versus the route-plan; and places as knots versus places as nodes. Luckily for his readers, Ingold clearly explains the particular ways in which he is using these terms. I’m not going to review all of them here—just the ones I find to be of particular interest.

There are, Ingold suggests, “two modalities of travel”: wayfaring and transport (78). “The wayfarer is continually on the move,” he writes. “More strictly, he is this movement” (78). (Yes, the memo about gender-neutral pronouns has never reached Ingold’s desk.) As wayfarers proceeds through the forest or grassland or tundra, they need to sustain himself (or herself), “both perceptually and materially, through an active engagement with the country that opens up along his path” (78). As they travel, wayfarers need to actively monitor the trail they are following and its surroundings, looking out for useful plants or traces of animal activity (78). Wayfarers are not, in other words, merely getting from one place to another, but their travels are conduits of activity (78). Unlike wayfaring, however, transport is “destination-oriented”: 

not so much a development along a way of life as a carrying across, from location to location, of people and goods in such a way as to leave their basic natures unaffected. Even the wayfarer, of course, goes from place to place, as does the mariner from harbour to harbour. He must periodically pause to rest, and may even return repeatedly to the same abode or haven to do so. Each pause, however, is a moment of tension that—like holding one’s breath—becomes ever more intense and less sustainable the longer it lasts. Indeed the wayfarer . . . has no final destination, for wherever he is, and so long as life goes on, there is somewhere further he can go. For the transported traveller and his baggage, by contrast, every destination is a terminus, every port a point of re-entry into a world from which he has been temporarily exiled while in transit. This point marks a moment not of tension but of completion. (79-80)

The wayfarer’s movement—his orientation and pace—“is continually responsive to his perceptual monitoring of the environment that is revealed along the way,” Ingold continues. “He watches, listens and feels as he goes, his entire being alert to the countless cues that, at every moment, prompt the slightest adjustments to his bearing” (80). Transport, on the other hand, is distinguished “by the dissolution of the intimate bond that, in wayfaring, couples locomotion and perception. The transported traveller becomes a passenger, who does not himself move but is rather moved from place to place. The sights, sounds and feelings that accost him during the passage have absolutely no bearing on the motion that carries him forth” (81).

This distinction between wayfaring and transport—with wayfaring associated (primarily but not entirely) with tribal cultures, and transport associated (primarily but not entirely) with modern cultures and their modes of movement—is very interesting. It made me think of the distinction between pilgrimages that are focused on reaching a destination, by whatever means, and pilgrimages that are focused on the experience of the journey. The relation between those forms of pilgrimage to wayfaring and transport is complex, but Ingold is providing a language with which one could talk about those different forms of travel. 

Take, for example, the differences between what happens at places where wayfarers or transported passengers pause. Where the wayfarer stops to rest, the transported passenger experiences sites of activity:

But this activity, confined within a place, is all concentrated on one spot. In between sites he barely skims the surface of the world, if not skipping it entirely, leaving no trace of having passed by or even any recollection of the journey. Indeed, the tourist may be advised to expunge from memory the experience of getting there, however arduous or eventful it may have been, lest it should bias or detract him from the appreciation of what he has come to see. In effect, the practice of transport converts every trail into the equivalent of a dotted line. (81)

The distinction between the trail, as a continuous gesture, and the dotted line, as a series of interrupted moments, is central to Ingold’s argument. For me, however, the distinction he is drawing here between the wayfarer and the transported passenger describes my experience of walking to Wood Mountain last August. The three-hour drive back to the city was entirely unmemorable. The nine-day walk, on the other hand, was a powerful experience of the environment around me. And while there were places I wanted to reach—not just the village of Wood Mountain, but different towns along the way—I would argue that walk was closer to wayfaring than it was to transport. I would continue to make that argument even though, since I was walking along roads, I was arguably walking along what Ingold calls “point-to-point connectors,” the lines that link “successive destinations” and that are characteristic of transport (81-82). Those lines “differ from lines of wayfaring in precisely the same way that the connector differs from the gestural trace,” Ingold argues. “They are not trails but routes” (82). That difference is important. Wayfarers contribute to the construction and maintenance of trails: “the wayfarer, in his perambulations, lays a trail on the ground in the form of footprints, paths and tracks” (82). Routes, on the other hand, are premade by others. Routes take the form of networks, Ingold suggests, while the lines produced by wayfaring become a meshwork (a word he borrows from the French philosopher Henri Lefebvre) (82-83): “woven into their very texture, and thence into the country itself, are the lines of growth and movement of its inhabitants,” Ingold writes. “Every such line is tantamount to a way of life” (82). For Ingold, wayfaring is “the most fundamental mode by which living beings, both human and non-human, inhabit the earth” (83). Habitation does not mean taking one’s place in a world that has been prepared in advance for those who live in it (like the roads I walked along in August), but rather the inhabitant is “one who participates from within in the very process of the world’s continual coming into being and who, in laying a trail of life, contributes to its weave and texture. These lines are typically winding and irregular, yet comprehensively entangled into a close-knit tissue” (83). Such lines, he continues, “have no ultimate destination, no final point with which they are seeking to link up” (83).

The lines that are characteristic of wayfaring would include the trails that First Nations and Métis people used on the prairies—trails that have been either been destroyed or appropriated through the processes of settlement. The distinguishing feature of this part of the world, in fact, is the imposition of a grid—both a grid of roads, and a grid of land-ownership—over the land, an imposition that ignored the practices of the people who lived here before settlers began to arrive. Ingold’s description of this process is worth reading:

From time to time in the course of history, imperial powers have sought to occupy the inhabited world, throwing a network of connections across what appears, in their eyes, to be not a tissue of trails but a blank surface. These connections are lines of occupation. They facilitate the outward passage of personnel and equipment to sites of settlement and extraction, and the return of the riches therefrom. Unlike paths formed through the practices of wayfaring, such lines are surveyed and built in advance of the traffic that comes to pass up and down them. They are typically straight and regular, and intersect only at nodal points of power. Drawn cross-country, they are inclined to run roughshod over the lines of habitation that are woven into it, cutting them as, for example, a trunk road, a railway or a pipeline cuts the byways frequented by humans and animals in the vicinity through which it passes. . . . But lines of occupation do not only connect. They also divide, cutting the occupied surface into territorial blocks. These frontier lines, too, built to restrict movement rather than to facilitate it, can seriously disrupt the lives of in habitants whose trails they happen to cross. (85)

Those imposed lines are everywhere in this province, and it is in fact impossible to walk here without using them, given the difficulty of walking along rivers and creeks, the way First Nations people would have done, because of the province’s laws about trespassing and the difficulties involved in getting permission to walk on private land—and in this part of the world, almost all of the land is private.

Ingold returns to this point in his summary of the contrast he has drawn between wayfaring and transport:

the path of the wayfarer wends hither and thither, and may even pause here and there before moving on. But it has no beginning or end. While on the trail the wayfarer is always somewhere, yet every “somewhere” is on the way to somewhere else. The inhabited world is a reticulate meshwork of such trails, which is constantly being woven as life goes on along them. Transport, by contrast, is tied to specific locations. Every move serves the purpose of relocating persons and their effects, and is oriented to a specific destination. The traveller who departs from one location and arrives at another is, in between, nowhere at all. Taken together, the lines of transport form a network of point-to-point connections. In the colonial project of occupation, this network, once an undercurrent to life and constrained by its ways, becomes ascendant, spreading across the territory and overriding the tangled trails of inhabitants. (85)

I should point out that I am not arguing that walking to Wood Mountain was simply wayfaring, and that being driven back to Regina was transport. Rather, what I’m trying to say is that, if one can imagine a continuum with wayfaring on one end, and transport on the other, that walk was closer to the wayfaring side of the continuum. I would say something similar about other walks I’ve made—in Spain, or in England, or here in Saskatchewan. There is something about the pace of walking, and about the amount of time walking takes, and about the way one tends to experience one’s surroundings through one’s senses while walking, that places it on the wayfaring side of that continuum.

The distinction between wayfaring and transport is echoed in the distinction Ingold draws between sketch maps and cartographic maps. Most maps in human history, he suggests, have been drawn up in the context of storytelling, in which people describe their journeys, or those of characters of legend or myth (85-87). “Retracing their steps in narrative, storytellers may also gesture with their hands and fingers, and these gestures may in turn give rise to lines”—mostly ephemeral ones scratched into the earth or snow or drawn on a readily available surface (87). Such maps are not unlike the sketch maps one might draw to give a new friend directions to get to one’s house. “[T]he lines on the sketch map are formed through the gestural re-enactment of journeys actually made, to and from places that are already known for their histories of previous comings and goings,” Ingold writes. “The joins, splits and intersections of these lines indicate which paths to follow, and which can lead you astray, depending on where you want to go. In effect, the “walk” of the line retraces your own “walk” through the terrain” (87). Sketch maps, he continues, do not claim to represent the territory or to mark the spatial locations of the features they include. “What count are the lines, not the spaces around them,” he argues:

Just as the country through which the wayfarer passes is composed of the meshwork of paths of travel, so the sketch map consists—no more and no less—of the lines that make it up. They are drawn along, in the evolution of a gesture, rather than across the surfaces on which they are traced. (87)

The distinction between “along” and “across” is important to Ingold’s argument: the first is characteristic of both wayfaring and sketch maps, and the second is characteristic of transport and cartographic maps. 

Cartographic maps, he continues, are completely different than sketch maps. They have borders separating the space inside the map, which is part of it, from the space outside, which is not. And although there are various kinds of lines on cartographic maps, representing roads and railways and administrative boundaries, “these lines, drawn across the surface of the cartographic map, signify occupation, not habitation. They betoken as appropriation of the space surrounding the points that the lines connect or—if they are frontier lines—that they enclose” (87). This quotation clarifies another of Ingold’s distinctions: that between occupation and habitation. Occupation is characteristic of the world defined by transport and cartography. Habitation, on the other hand, belongs to wayfaring and sketch maps—and to storytelling as well. Ingold writes,

When, drawing a sketch map for a friend, I take my line for a walk, I retrace in gesture the walk that I made in the countryside and that was originally traced out as a trail along the ground. Telling the story of the journey as I draw, I weave a narrative thread that wanders from topic to topic, just as in my walk I wandered from place to place. The story recounts just one chapter in the never-ending journey that is life itself, and it is through this journey—with all its twists and turns—that we grow into a knowledge of the world about us. (90)

That is one way of coming to know the world. However, in the dominant framework of modern thought, it is supposed that knowledge is assembled by joining up, into a more complete picture, observations taken from a number of separate, fixed points, as in the construction of a cartographic map: “According to this view, knowledge is integrated not by going along but by building up, that is by fitting these site-specific fragments into structures of progressively greater inclusiveness” (91). Building up is thus related to going across, but it is a way of coming to knowledge rather than a way of representing that knowledge. 

The connection between wayfaring, habitation and story are important for Ingold, who argues “that it is fundamentally through the practices of wayfaring that beings inhabit the world” (91). “By the same token,” he continues, “the ways of knowing of inhabits go along, and not up. Or in a word, inhabitant knowledge . . . is alongly integrated” (91). As an example to illustrate this claim, Ingold suggests that place names in Indigenous cultures are integrated into the processes of journeys—which are both stories and examples of wayfaring. “Such names, however, mean nothing on their own, and rarely appear on cartographic maps,” he writes. That’s because surveying “is a mode of occupation, not habitation:

The names the surveyor seeks are indexed to locations in terms of their distinctive features, but without regard to how one arrives there. These named locations are the components that are then assembled into a larger totality. Occupant knowledge, in short, is upwardly integrated. And this finally brings us to the crux of the difference between these two knowledge systems, of habitation and occupation respectively. In the first, a way of knowing is itself a path of movement through the world . . . along a line of travel. The second, by contrast, is founded upon a categorical distinction between the mechanics of movement and the formation of knowledge, or between locomotion and cognition. Whereas the former cuts from point to point across the world, the latter builds up, from the array of points and the materials collected therefrom, into an integrated assembly. (92)

The differences between sketch and cartographic maps helps to illustrate the point Ingold is making. Drawing a line on a sketch map is like telling a story: 

the storyline goes along, as does the line on the map. The things of which the story tells . . . do not so much exist as occur; each is a moment of ongoing activity. These things, in a word, are not objects but topics. Lying at the confluence of actions and responses, every topic is identified by its relations to the things that paved the way for it, that presently concur with it and that follow it into the world. Here the meaning of the “relation” has to be understood quite literally, not as a connection between pre-located entities but as a path traced through the terrain of lived experience. Far from connecting points in a network, every relation is one line in a meshwork of interwoven trails. To tell a story, then, is to relate, in narrative, the occurrences of the past, retracing a path through the world that others, recursively picking up the threads of past lives, can follow in the process of spinning out their own. But rather as in looping or knitting, the thread being spun now and the thread picked up from the past are both of the same yarn. There is no point at which the story ends and life begins. (92-93)

When I read the word “relation” here, I thought of a Cree phrase I learned last semester, one that is central to the Cree worldview: kahkiyaw niwâhkômâkanak, “all my relations.” Isn’t that what Ingold is talking about here—the distinction between Western and Indigenous ways of seeing and experiencing the world? “[I]n storytelling as in wayfaring, it is in the movement from place to place—or from topic to topic—that knowledge is integrated,” Ingold writes (93), and that statement reminded me of Lee Maracle’s insistence that Indigenous knowledge is contained in and expressed by stories. It is a different way of looking at the world—one that has been denigrated by the twin forces of modernity and colonialism, but one that deserves more respect.

The last thing Ingold discusses in this chapter that is connected to my research interests is the difference he sees between concepts of place: between places understood as hubs, as containers for life, and places as knots, formed of the very lines along which life is lived (103). The first is characteristic of the world that has given us transport and cartography, the world that separates us from our environment in fundamental ways; the second is about connection. The know is the privileged term in that particular binary, I would argue. The lines that make up the knot “are bound together in the knot, but they are not bound by it,” Ingold writes. “To the contrary they trail beyond it, only to become caught up with other lines in other knots. Together they make up what I have called a meshwork. Every place, then, is a knot in the meshwork, and the threads form which it is traced are the lines of wayfaring” (104). That is why, Ingold continues,

I have consistently referred to wayfarers as inhabitants rather than locals and to what they know as inhabitant rather than local knowledge. For it would be quite wrong to suppose that such people are confined within a particular place, or that their experience is circumscribed by the restricted horizons of a life lived only there. It would be equally wrong, however, to suppose that the wayfarer wanders aimlessly over the surface of the earth, with no place or places of abode. The experience of habitation cannot be comprehended within the terms of the conventional opposition between the settler and the nomad, since this opposition is itself founded on the contrary principle of occupation. Settlers occupy places; nomads fail to do so. Wayfarers, however, are not failed or reluctant occupants but successful inhabitants. They may indeed be widely travelled, moving from place to place—often over considerable distances—and contributing through these movements to the ongoing formation of each of the places through which they pass. Wayfaring, in short, is neither placeless nor place-bound but place-making. (104)

The differences between the way the wayfarer travels, and the type of movement that is characteristic of destination-oriented transport, help to clarify the point Ingold is making:

For the wayfarer whose line goes out for a walk, speed is not an issue. It makes no more sense to ask about the speed of wayfaring than it does to ask about the speed of life. What matters is not how fast one moves, in terms of the ratio of distance to elapsed time, but that this movement should be in phase with, or attuned to, the movements of other phenomena of the inhabited world. The question ‘How long does it take?’ only becomes relevant when the duration of a journey is measured out towards a pre-determined destination. Once however the dynamics of movement have been reduced, as in destination-oriented transport, to the mechanics of locomotion, the speed of travel arises as a key concern. The traveller whose business of life is conducted as successive stopping-off points wants to spend his time in places, not between them. While in transit he has nothing to do. Much of the history of transport has been taken up with attempts to attenuate these liminal, in-between periods, by devising ever-faster mechanical means. . . . Thus unlike the wayfarer who moves with time, the transported traveller races against it, seeing in its passage not an organic potential for growth but the mechanical limitations of his equipment. If he had his way, every point in his entire network of connections, laid out on the plane of the present, could be accessed simultaneously. And so, driven by an unattainable ideal, our individual hurries form point to point, both trying and inevitably failing to be everywhere at once. The time it takes is a measure of his impatience. (104-05)

“Perhaps what truly distinguishes the predicament of people in modern metropolitan societies is the extent to which they are compelled to inhabit an environment that has been planned and built expressly for the purposes of occupation,” Ingold continues. “Life will not be contained, but rather threads its way through the world along the myriad lines of its relations. But if life is not enclosed within a boundary, neither can it be surrounded.” What, then, becomes of our ideas about our environment? he asks.

Literally an environment is that which surrounds. For inhabitants, however, the environment does not consist of the surroundings of a bounded place but of a zone in which their several pathways are thoroughly entangled. In this zone of entanglement—this meshwork of interwoven lines—there are no insides or outsides, only openings and ways through. An ecology of life, in short, must be one of threads and traces, not of nodes and connectors. And its subject of inquiry must consist not of the relations between organisms and their external environments but of the relations along their severally enmeshed ways of life. (106)

If our culture thought that way, would we be in the midst of the planet’s sixth great extinction? Would we have adopted technologies that are altering our climate in ways that might make our continued presence on this planet impossible? I don’t think so.

I included a couple of Ingold’s books on my reading list, and Lines makes me want to move on to them sooner rather than later. But his repeated references to his 2000 book The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill make me want to add that book to my list. I’m not sure that there’s much of a connection between Ahmed’s lines and Ingold’s, but that is something for me to think about as I continue to read. In the end, it doesn’t matter if those connections aren’t there; I see enough in Ingold’s writing to help me think more clearly about walking in this particular place.

Works Cited

Ingold, Tim. Lines. Routledge, 2016.

———. The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill. Routledge, 2000.