Reading and Walking

Walking, Reading, and Reading about Walking

Month: July, 2019

79. Sylvia McAdam (Sayseewahum), Nationhood Interrupted: Revitalizing nêhiyaw Legal Systems

nationhood interrupted

Sylvia McAdam’s Nationhood Interrupted: Revitalizing nêhiyaw Legal Systems, both “opens up the complexities and beauty of the nêhiyaw law,” as Sa’ke’j Henderson writes in the “Forward” (8), and tells part of the story of the formation of Idle No More, of which McAdam was one of the four leaders. Initially I wasn’t going to include my reading of this book as part of this project, but after thinking about Aimée Craft’s emphasis on the importance of Anishinaabe law during the negotiations of Treaty 1, I decided that McAdam’s account of nêhiyaw (or Cree) law would be useful here. McAdam’s work also leads into the next book I want to write about, one I read while I was away and haven’t yet made proper notes on: Emma Battell Lowman’s and Adam J. Barker’s Settler: Identity and Colonialism in 21st Century Canada.

McAdam’s book begins with two warnings: one to refrain from undertaking any of the First Nations protocols and methodologies discussed in the book “without appropriate guidance from respected First Nations Elders and knowledge keepers,” and the other to pray and smudge before and while reading the book, because the knowledge McAdam shares “is of a spiritual nature” (16-17). As with Cardinal and Hildebrandt, this book reminds readers that the lines settlers draw between sacred and profane knowledge are not the same in Cree culture. In fact, I’m not entirely sure that in Cree culture such a distinction is even relevant: “We have laws as Indian people and those laws are not man-made, they were given to us by God,” McAdam states (47).

In the book’s first chapter, McAdam writes, 

The ancient echoes of nêhiyaw laws can still be heard in the languages, lands, and cultures of the Treaty 6 nêhiyawak. When the Europeans arrived in Canada, Indigenous nations lived in diverse, vibrant, and structured societies. It is likely that all the Indigenous nations had their own laws and legal systems which guided and directed the people in their daily interactions with families, communities, and other nations. Treaty 6 is created on the foundations of the nêhiyaw laws and legal systems from the understanding of the nêhiyaw people. (22-23)

Like Harold Johnson, whose work is cited in this book, McAdam sees Treaty 6 as based in Cree legal systems and understandings, rather than those of the Crown negotiators. “At the time of treaty making in Treaty 6 territory, these laws guided the process,” McAdam writes. “When treaties became binding, it became a ceremonial covenant of adoption between two families” (24). The process of negotiating the treaty was driven by Cree laws, many of which have not been recorded or understood, but which are “imperative in treaty understanding and negotiations” nonetheless (24). One sees Johnson’s influence in those words, I think, although I could be wrong about that.

But those laws go beyond that treaty. According to McAdam, everything in creation has laws: “The human laws are called nêhiyaw wiyasiwêwina. The Indigenous people are not a lawless people; the Creator’s laws are strict and inform every part of a person’s life” (23). Cree laws are clearly divinely inspired, rather than made by humans, and this is a central difference in the way settlers and nêhiyawak conceive of law. Cree laws are not written down; rather, they “are in the songs, the ceremonies, and in all the sacred sites” (23). That means the land is intertwined with the law “in a most profound manner” (23). Also interwoven with the Cree legal system is education and language and livelihood and nationhood, it seems, because McAdam discusses all of these together with the law. Again, my sense is that the divisions that settlers would make between these areas of activity do not apply in Cree, and even that the words “law” or “legal systems” may be awkward translations concepts that do not exist in English. “All the laws have a spiritual connection; each ceremony is a renewal and reaffirmation to follow them for all time,” McAdam writes. “Even when the human being corrects the laws through the remedies provided, they are reminded that the laws need to be corrected through their relationship with the Creator” (40). 

McAdam states that she will only discuss physical human laws in her book; the spiritual laws “cannot be discussed or revealed: these are the unwritten laws of the people” (39) and “must remain in the spiritual realm” (43). The first physical human laws she mentions are verbal laws, pâstâmowin and ohcinêmowin, which address the use of language against human beings and creation, respectively. Thus they govern such things as gossip, threats, and profanity (39). However, remaining silent or not taking action does not exempt one from these laws. “It’s considered a pâstâmowin to remain silent or to take no action while a harm is being done to another human being or to anything in creation,” McAdam writes (40). It seems that pâstâmowin is a subset of pâstâhowin, which means the breaking of laws against another human being (43), as is ohcinêmowin, the breaking of laws against anything that is not a human being (44). Examples of ohcinêmowin are torturing animals, polluting land, or over-harvesting resources (44). In addition, other human laws, or wiyasiwêwina, include things like murder, theft, disrespect, incest, sexual assault, or dishonouring your relatives (46-47). The seven pipe laws—health, happiness, generosity, generations, quietness, compassion, and respect (48)—seem to be the foundation of wiyasiwêwina, in that those offences are transgressions of the pipe laws.

One of the laws governing treaties is miyo-wîcêhtowin, which means “having or possessing good relations” (47). “It is this nêhiyaw law and others which are the foundation for Treaty 6,” McAdam states. “Each party applied its own laws to reach an accord” (47). Here McAdam cites John Borrows, whose work is important in this book and elsewhere. The word wâhkôtowin, or kinship, “is critical and necessary to the foundation of nationhood,” McAdam writes (59). “The emphasis on wâhkôtowin is the foundation for the farming reserves created for each family at the time of treaty making,” she continues (59). As well, there were strict wâhkôtowin laws applied to relationships within families (60-61). However, since the Cree believe they are in relationships with everything the Creator made, “[t]his adherence to wâhkôtowin is applied just as easily to the land and to creation” (61). 

According to McAdam, women—clan mothers or warrior women, known in Cree as okihcitâwiskwêwak—played a key role in making decisions in Cree law (54-55, 57-58). They also would have played a key role in the negotiation of treaties:

During and prior to treaty making, it would have been the okihcitâwiskwêwak who would have been consulted regarding the land, because authority and jurisdiction to speak about land resides with the women. The water ceremonies belong to the women. Very little is written or known about this, other than their connection is based on the understanding that the earth is female and the authority stems from this. (55)

It would seem impossible, if this is true, that the male chiefs could have surrendered land during the negotiations of treaties without consulting with the okihcitâwiskwêwak, and there is no record of such consultations or of women being present at the negotiations with the Crown.

McAdam notes that the treaty negotiations were in part about a shift from one way of living, or pimâcihowin, to another: from the buffalo to agriculture (66-67). “Throughout the Treaty texts,” she writes, “the nêyihaw and Saulteaux leadership of the day expressed their concern that the generations to come be provided for” (70). The land itself, however, was not to be sold, McAdam argues, and “First Nations treaty negotiators were not authorized to extinguish existing collective or family rights within territories established by First Nations jurisprudence” (70). She argues that according to oral history, reserves were to be surrounded by a 10-mile or 25-mile belt of land that would accommodate future generations—something the government disputes (70-71). 

From following McAdam on Facebook, I know that she’s angry about what she calls “termination tables” (74), and she explains what these are in this book. In 2014, despite the Tsilhquot’in decision, which recognized Aboriginal title, the federal government made changes to land claims policy that will, McAdam argues, “expedite the elimination of Aboriginal rights” (74). Now, “more than half of the Indian Act chiefs [are] sitting at ‘termination tables’ negotiating away Indigenous rights” (74). Women tend to be left out of the land claims negotiations, she continues, and the process relegates Indigenous nations to the status of municipalities (74-75). “That is a heavy price to pay in terms of the generations to come,” she concludes (75). The “termination tables” seem to be another way that Canada is trying to destroy its treaty relationships with First Nations.

For McAdam, all of the land in Treaty 6 

is under the jurisdiction and authority of the descendants.Compensation for lands taken up for settlement have yet to be dispersed by the Dominion of Canada or by the successor state of Canada. The belief that Indigenous peoples “ceded and surrendered” is still a disputed statement. Treaty peoples say they never ceded or surrendered their lands and resources. The treaties are unfinished business. (76)

The Crown’s claim to having “Radical or underlying title” (qtd. 74) is, she continues, based in the Doctrine of Discovery, which “no longer has legal standing in international discourse” even though Canada continues to apply it in court. That doctrine, she concludes, “was unacceptable at the time of treaty and is unacceptable now” (76).

McAdam is vehement that the treaties did not involve a surrender or cession of the land or its resources. I would agree; in my reading of Morris’s account of the negotiations, there didn’t appear to be any discussion of surrendering the land by the Crown negotiators–an argument that is supported by Sheldon Krasowski. In the Treaty 3 negotiations, there were discussions of what would happen if a mine were to be discovered in the territory covered by the treaty, and according to Morris, the Crown’s response was that other than on the reserves themselves, First Nations would receive no benefit from any mineral discoveries, unless the discovery were to be made by a First Nations person, in which case “[h]e can sell his information if he can find a purchaser” (70). That doesn’t sound to me as if the Crown understood that resources were excluded from the surrender, although it leaves open the question as to whether the First Nations negotiators agreed with the Crown’s position. In the oral history, as the Elders interviewed by the authors of Treaty Elders of Saskatchewan point out, First Nations only allowed settlers to use the land for agricultural purposes and retained the mineral rights. If that’s so, then Canada and the provinces are are in violation of the treaties.

It seems that, for McAdam, the claims made by the Crown about its possession of the land, and about the treaties, are lies, and this puts her argument alongside those of Harold Lerat and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson. McAdam cites Taiaiake Alfred’s words: “Something was stolen, lies were told, and they have never been made right. That is the crux of the problem” (182). Then she moves into her last chapter, a discussion of Idle No More, which was (and is), arguably, a response to those thefts and lies.

Nationhood Interrupted is important as a beginning discussion of Cree law, and as a reinforcement of the oral history around the negotiation of the numbered treaties in the prairies. It also reinforces my sense that the consensus about the treaties among constitutional lawyers is not widespread, and that there is a lot of understandable and justified anger among Indigenous peoples about how the treaties have been implemented and interpreted by the Crown, including the Supreme Court of Canada. As settlers and descendants of settlers in this land, we need to do a lot better job of abiding by the treaties that enable us to be here.

Work Cited

McAdam, Sylvia (Sayseewahum). Nationhood Interrupted: Revitalizing nêhiyaw Legal Systems, Purich, 2015.

78. Aimée Craft, Breathing Life Into the Stone Fort Treaty: An Anishinabe Understanding of Treaty One 

breathing life

Breathing Life Into the Stone Fort Treaty, which I read last summer along with other work on the treaties between Canada and Indigenous peoples, is an important book, and after reviewing my notes, I decided to include it as part of this project. Craft focuses on the negotiations that led to Treaty 1, but her insights likely apply to treaties negotiated in what is now Saskatchewan (particularly Treaty 4, given the presence of Anishinabe negotiators at Fort Qu’Appelle in 1874). Craft is a lawyer, and she is interested in inaakonigewin, or Anishinabe law, in the context of Treaty 1. According to Craft, two legal systems were involved in the negotiations, Anishinabe and settler law, and both are important to understanding the treaty. “Indigenous interpretations of treaties are needed,” Craft writes, “so that we can continue to breathe life into what are essentially relationship documents, while accepting that past interpretations have resulted in significant disagreement” (12). To understand the treaty requires attention to more than just the written text, she continues. “It may be that there was no meeting of the minds or common intention at the time of Treaty One, beyond the agreement to share the land in a spirit of peace and coexistence,” she writes, “and that we are now faced with elaborating an appropriate meaning of a treaty that both parties considered they had made” (12). Craft’s focus is on the Anishinabe understanding of the treaty, which was “rooted”—her word, and it’s an important word in this context—“in procedural and substantive norms derived from Anishinabe inaakonigewin” (12). To understand the treaty in that way requires attention to the oral history of the negotiations (13). What’s important, according to Craft, is that the understandings of both sides in the negotiations be taken into account. “In order to interpret and implement treaties as meaningful agreements, the different and differing understandings need to be addressed,” she writes. “Although the treaty parties may have understood that they each had differing perspectives, each was guided by its own understandings, including its own legal tradition and jurisdiction” (13).

The Supreme Court’s ruling on treaties—that the words of the written text “must not be interpreted in their strict technical sense nor subjected to rigid modern rules of construction,” but rather are to be understood “as they would have been construed by the Aboriginal signatories, and interpreted flexibly, with the use of extrinsic evidence” (qtd. in Craft 14)—suggests the importance of Craft’s approach, although she states that this approach has not led to “meaningful or complete understanding of Aboriginal-Crown treaties, nor has it achieved the court’s goal of remedying disadvantage” (14). Instead, treaty interpretation in the courts has tended to favour the Crown’s perspective, and has set tended to ignore Indigenous perspectives, and “[i]n practice, many court decisions have resulted in narrow understandings of treaties, often limiting the treaty rights in space and in time” (14). This leads to Craft’s primary research question: “How can years of uni-directional understanding based on a written text and privileging the Crown’s view, be reconsidered in order to give voice to the Anishinabe understanding of treaty?” (14-15). To answer this question, Craft triangulates between the written record of the negotiations, oral histories, and Indigenous knowledge (16). Her book discusses five distinct concepts: Anishinabe practices of treaty-making with Indigenous nations, fur traders, and the British Crown prior to Treaty 1; the particular context of the Treaty 1 negotiations; the reliance on and use of Anishinabe protocols in the negotiations, which “illustrates the use of Anishinabe procedural laws” in the negotiations “and informs the substantive expectations of the treaty,” including its sacredness; the importance of Anishinabe kinship norms; and finally, the Anishinabe understanding of their relationship to the earth, which “informed what could be negotiated in terms of sharing the land with the incoming settlers” (16). According to Craft, “[a]ll these concepts lead to the understanding that Treaty One was an agreement to share in the land, for the purposes of agriculture, in a spirit of ‘peace and good will’ with assurances of an ‘allowance they are to count upon and receive year by year from Her Majesty’s bounty and benevolence’” (16-17).

Pre-contact Anishinabe diplomatic or treaty relationships that continue today include the Council of Three Fires (24), the Dish With One Spoon agreement with the Haudenosaunee (24-25), and peace treaties with the Dakota (25). The Anishinabe also had diplomatic relationships with fur traders, and these used Indigenous protocols, especially the pipe ceremony (25-26). Craft also argues that the Guswenta or Kaswehnta, known in English as the Two-Row Wampum, and the later Covenant Chain, informed Anishinabe relationships with the Crown as well (31-32). “The non-interference and mutual assistance that are illustrated by the Covenant Chain belt and the Two Row Wampum help further illustrate the perspective that the Anishinabe brought to the treaty and the mutual reliance of the treaty parties on the Anishinabe procedural and legal principles that informed Treaty One,” she writes (34). The importance of the Two-Row Wampum to Craft’s argument is another reason to revisit John Borrows’s essay on that treaty, sooner rather than later.

The context of the Treaty 1 negotiations included the 1817 Selkirk Treaty (38), Louis Riel’s call for treaties in his list of demands during the 1869-70 Resistance (42), and political uncertainty and instability, which led settlers in Manitoba to want a treaty as well (44). The negotiations for Treaty 1 began with assurances that hunting, fishing, trapping, and other harvesting would continue as before, and that the Queen would not force the Anishinabe to adopt white ways (such as agriculture) or interfere in existing Anishinabe ways (51). “Retention of autonomy, jurisdiction, and sovereignty over their actions was essential to securing the agreement with the Anishinabe,” Craft writes (52). However, there is no record of an explanation of the concept of surrendering land (54); had that concept been explained, Craft believes, the negotiations would have collapsed (64). In addition, it is clear in the documentary record that the Crown and the Anishinabe had different ideas about what was meant by “reserve” (54-55). Nevertheless, Craft argues that the Crown knew that “the Anishinabe were not approaching land issues using an acquisition and possession model” (60). “It is my view, based on the evidence taken as a whole,” she writes, “that the Anishinabe agreed to share the land with the settlers and allow them to use the land they desired for agriculture. The Anishinabe also understood that they could continue to use their territory for their traditional activities” (60-61). Neither party would interfere with the other, but, according to Anishinabe elders, they would share the land and its resources (61). “Even if the Anishinabe had a vague understanding of British or Canadian concepts of ownership, they likely did not perceive themselves as being bound by them” (65), because Indigenous and Canadian law systems co-existed (and continue to co-exist, according to John Borrows, among others) (67).

According to Craft, the Anishinabe were governed by their own laws, which focus on kinship between various animate beings, including animals, fish, plants, rocks and spirits, and the land (70). She rightly (in my opinion) dismisses the notion of “fictive kinship.” “There is no fiction in Anishinabe kinship,” she writes (70). Every relationship—including those with non-human things—carries with it mutual responsibilities and obligations (70-71). In addition, the reliance of the negotiators on Anishinabe protocols “invoked substantive normative expectations on the part of the Anishinabe, which informed the development of the Treaty One relationship,” even though this may not have been completely understood by the government negotiators (71). Perhaps the most important protocol was the pipe ceremony, which “was used to call upon the Creator to act as a third party to the negotiations and the agreement” (81). The resulting promises the two parties made were considered sacred (at least by the Anishinabe) (81). 

Crown negotiators spoke of the Queen and the Anishinabe as being in a mother-child relationship, which (for the Anishinabe) established a kinship relationship with the Queen (86). This mother-child relationship entailed obligations of love, kindness, and caring, such as in the relationship between Mother Earth and the Anishinabe (87). According to Craft, when the treaty negotiations became a kinship ceremony, the “Anishinabe pledged to the Creator to share the land with the Queen’s other children, in accordance with principles of kinship, equality, and reciprocity” (92-93). Moreover, it was clear during the negotiations that the Anishinabe—most of the chiefs present, anyway—described their relationship to the land as being one with “a living being, a mother” (95). For this reason, Craft argues, “[t]he Anishinabe did not surrender their land in the Treaty One negotiations. It was not in their power to do so, as they did not own it. In their eyes, they were in a sacred relationship with the land, endorsed by the Creator” (99). The Crown negotiators, however “viewed the treaty as a transfer of land” (99). These mutually exclusive ideas continue to inform the differing perspectives on the treaty (103). 

There were problems with the implementation of the treaty, as there were with other numbered treaties. Outside promises were at first not included in the treaty, although they were added in 1875 (104). The Anishinabe also refused to abide by hunting and fishing regulations, which go against the treaty’s provisions (105). “The frequency and detailed nature of post-treaty complaints by the Treaty One chiefs can lead to the assumption that, in addition to the outside promises added to the treaty in 1875, there were other promises that may not have been recorded in Commissioner Simpson’s report,” Craft writes. “The negotiated agreement was likely far more nuanced than the reported terms of a treaty rooted in surrender of land in exchange for annuities and goods” (106).

For Craft, a better understanding of Treaty 1 can be achieved by considering the Anishinabe perspective on the negotiations, including substantive and procedural legal principles that helped make the treaty. There was no hybrid or “intersocietal law” at the negotiations; rather, there were two distinct systems of law in operation, and by adopting both the procedural and substantive forms of Anishinabe law during the negotiations, the Crown representatives engaged the legal framework of the Anishinabe, even if they didn’t understand that they were thereby operating according to Anishinabe law (107). For that reason, it’s not acceptable to consider the implementation and interpretation of the treaty only in terms of Canadian common law (108). She quotes elder Victor Courchene, who suggested that the treaty invited settlers “to come and eat from that plate together with the Anishinabe” (110)—to share the land and the resources together, in other words. There was no cession, release, or surrender of land, but rather “compromise and coexistence” (112)—or at least that’s the deal the Anishinabe thought they were making. Moreover, the treaty is not a finalized document. Rather, in Anishinabe inaakonigewin, relationships continue to be fostered, redefined, re-examined, renegotiated, tended, fuelled, and nurtured; a treaty frozen on paper is, for the Anishinabe, an alien concept (113). This is important, she concludes, because “[t]reaties are agreements between two parties in which neither perspective should be privileged over the other” (113), and therefore the Anishinabe perspective she describes needs to be considered foundational when the treaty is discussed.

Craft’s brief book is important, because it focuses directly on one treaty in detail, although doubtless its argument could apply to other numbered treaties as well (and if not its argument, its methodology). It’s true that she relies on conjecture throughout the book, but no doubt that’s because of the difficulty in reconstructing what the Anishinabe negotiators were thinking. That’s where oral history comes into play, although Craft seems somewhat cautious in applying it. Nevertheless, the perspective Craft outlines is important, because the standard government interpretation of the treaties as a surrender of large tracts of land in exchange for smaller ones makes no logical sense, and seems to rely on an assumption that the First Nations negotiators could not bargain on their own behalf successfully. If, on the other hand, the treaties were promises to share the land and its resources, then they begin to make sense. There is no way to understand the numbered treaties without taking the perspective of the First Nations negotiators into account, and for that reason books like Craft’s are essential.

Work Cited

Craft, Aimée. Breathing Life Into the Stone Fort Treaty: An Anishinabe Understanding of Treaty One, Purich, 2013.

77. Arthur J. Ray, Jim Miller, and Frank Tough, Bounty and Benevolence: A History of Saskatchewan Treaties 

bounty and benevolence

Bounty and Benevolence, a collaboration between three historians, was originally commissioned as a research report for Saskatchewan’s Office of the Treaty Commissioner, along with Treaty Elders of Saskatchewan: Our Dream Is That Our Peoples Will One Day Be Clearly Recognized As Nations, by Harold Cardinal and Walter Hildebrandt, an oral history of the treaties that is intended to be complementary to Bounty and Benevolence’s focus on documentary history. Bounty and Benevolence is structurally similar to and covers much of the same territory as Miller’s later Compact, Contract, Covenant, although the focus is on Saskatchewan. That means the commercial compacts with the Hudson Bay Company are discussed first, followed by the Selkirk Treaty of 1817, treaties in eastern Canada that were precedents for the numbered treaties in Saskatchewan, and earlier numbered treaties in Manitoba and northwestern Ontario. After discussing the treaties that affect this province—numbers 4, 5, 6, 8, and 10—there is a chapter on the problems of treaty implementation, followed by a conclusion. Perhaps it’s unnecessary to read both Compact, Contract, Covenant and Bounty and Benevolence because of their similarities, although the focus on one province means that the discussion in Bounty and Benevolence is somewhat more detailed. I read Bounty and Benevolence last summer, as part of a course on the treaties, but I thought it would be useful to revisit the book for this project. After reviewing my notes, I think it’s worthwhile including Bounty and Benevolence here.

The chapter on commercial relationships between First Nations and the Hudson Bay Company notes the importance of protocol and ceremony in those relationships, and the continuity between trade relationships with the HBC and the later numbered treaties: “all the major components of pre-trade gift-exchanges—the calumet rite, the presentation of outfits of clothing to Aboriginal leaders, and the distribution of food—were carried over into the treaty-making process in the late nineteenth century” (9). Ceremony and protocol were also important in the negotiation of the Selkirk Treaty, which in some ways became a bridge between earlier commercial negotiations and the later numbered treaties (31). Moreover, like the later numbered treaties, the Selkirk Treaty was marked by confusion over what the two parties actually agreed to (30).

The discussion of other treaties in eastern Canada includes the Royal Proclamation of 1763 and the Two-Row Wampum that records the negotiations concluded at the 1764 Niagara Conference. According to the authors, in the 1990s John Borrows “made a strong argument that the proclamation, when read together with the solemn agreement made shortly thereafter at Niagara, constituted a treaty between First Nations and the Crown that positively guarantees First Nations the right of self-government” (33). Borrows’s essay is important and I ought to re-read it. (Borrows is an essential writer on treaty issues and I have several of his books on my reading list.)

The more pertinent forerunners of the numbered treaties are the Robinson Treaties, which, like the later treaties, allowed First Nations economic rights on all ceded lands (outside of reserves) that were not developed by settlers. As the authors point out, “This right included the subsistence and commercial use of fish, fur, and game resources on the understanding that this justified offering the Aboriginal people much lower annuities than they had demanded in treaty negotiations” (44). The later numbered treaties made similar promises. However, it’s not clear to me whether the Crown negotiators in the 1870s understood that the agricultural use of land would make hunting and gathering difficult, if not impossible. That was the experience of First Nations in Nova Scotia (according to Daniel Paul) and in Ontario (according to Miller and Donald Smith): the impact of settlement on populations of game animals left First Nations in those territories starving early in the settlement process. It’s hard to know if the Crown negotiators were just ignorant or acting in bad faith.

Ray, Miller, and Tough make an interesting argument about the first three numbered treaties: the federal government “was soliciting information from locals and providing negotiators with ‘large powers,’” and this fact “indicates that the dominion government did not have an inviolable draft treaty.” Therefore, First Nations negotiators “had scope to influence the relationship created by treaty negotiations” (63). This situation is perhaps different from later numbered treaties, where the federal treaty commissioners had a clearer sense of the kind of agreement they wanted, and entered negotiations with drafts of treaties already prepared.

Nevertheless, the authors argue that the first three numbered treaties were forerunners for the later numbered treaties, and in this their arguments parallel Miller’s later book. Kinship metaphors, they suggest, were not just paternalistic but were symbolic language—an idea other writers will develop further (66). Specifics about reserves were not made explicit (67), and First Nations were assured that their traditional livelihood would continue after the treaty was negotiated (67). Moreover, they argue that “[t]reaty-making involved an unequal meeting of two property systems” (69). In 2000, when this book was published, this aspect of treaty-making had received little attention, they suggest, and the fact that “the terms describing ownership, land use, and occupancy are used in an imprecise way in the historical records,” as well as “conflicting scholarly theories about the nature of Aboriginal tenure systems,” has caused much confusion (69-70). Much of the research in the area since this book was published has set out to clarify these questions, and oral history has been, I would argue, invaluable in this work. Nevertheless, the documentary record does make clear “that Indian chiefs were well informed about land and resource issues, both in terms of their own needs and of the values Whites placed on them. Significantly, Indians wanted to establish treaty relations with the Crown to address their Aboriginal interest in the land” (69-70). According to the authors, the documentary record can also be used to establish, to a certain extent, the views of First Nations negotiators, at least as far as Treaties 1, 2, and 3 are concerned, using both government records and newspaper accounts (74). Moreover, “[d]ecades of fur trade bargaining gave Indians considerable experience in dealing with European commercial impulses and in seeking the satisfaction of their livelihood needs. Ultimately, Morris was forced to limit the scope of the negotiations by placing the treaties on the basis of some kind of trust: a belief in the Queen’s good intentions” (75). The way I read those sentences, it seems that in the first three numbered treaties, Crown negotiators found themselves being outmatched by their First Nations counterparts. As with other numbered treaties, there are controversies about the differences between oral and written versions of the agreements in Treaties 1, 2, and 3 (77, 81), and “the dominion government sought refuge in the written version of the treaties (81). First Nations used political pressure to get some of the so-called “outside promises” included later in the 1870s (83-84). The authors therefore acknowledge the importance of going beyond the written text of the treaties by examining the context in which they were negotiated in order to understand what the negotiators actually thought they were agreeing to (86).

Both the Crown and First Nations faced challenges when they negotiated Treaty 4. Epidemics of smallpox, buffalo scarcity, and difficult relationships between Métis and First Nations were causing political and military instability, and the federal government was informed of these problems by senior HBC officials and missionaries. For its part, Canada feared the military strength of the Cree and Saulteaux, and did not want to fight (104). Moreover, First Nations were still angry over the transfer of Rupert’s Land from the HBC to Canada without consultation. As a result, Treaty 4 negotiations happened without a pipe ceremony or other rituals (107-08). According to the authors, there is a sharp contrast between accounts of the negotiations provided by Morris and First Nations elders (111), and Morris’s language in speeches was vague compared to the precise language of the treaty document (112). These facts may lead one to assume that Morris was not being truthful in the negotiations, an argument that Michael Asch repudiates but that Sheldon Krasowski seems to support. Nevertheless, most of the terms of Treaty 4 ended up being identical to Treaty 3 (113). Reserves would be small, but hunting, trapping, and fishing rights off reserve were promised, with limitations for land taken up by settlement or other purposes (115). The relationship with the Queen promised First Nations protection and equal justice (117). The chiefs present at the negotiations asked for copies of the written treaty (118), a sign, perhaps, that they did not entirely trust the Crown to hold up its end of the bargain.

The Treaty 5 negotiations affected only three First Nations in northern Saskatchewan, and it left First Nations with reserves that were much smaller than in Treaties 3, 4, or 6. Treaty 6, however, covered a large area in Saskatchewan and Alberta. The First Nations chiefs won more emphasis on famine relief and medical assistance because their people were suffering from the continuing decline of the bison and the severe effects of the smallpox epidemic. The clauses they negotiated, according to Ray, Miller, and Tough, were compatible with the assistance First Nations had received from the Hudson Bay Company previously (130). Morris presented the treaty to First Nations as a gift from the Queen: “They would have the use of their lands ‘as before,’ but with the addition of presents, annuities, and other benefits” (130). Unlike the Treaty 4 negotiations, Treaty 6 talks began with a pipe ceremony, and it appears that the federal commissioners didn’t quite understand the significance of this (133). “Treaty 6 was the culmination of the treaty-making tradition in western Canada,” the authors state, perhaps because it is the treaty in which the most concessions were wrung from the federal negotiators (146-47). Later treaties reduced the commitments of the federal government, and as Asch notes, Morris lost his job for making concessions in the Treaty 6 negotiations.

Treaty 8, which covers part of northern Saskatchewan, was negotiated 20 years later, with a great deal of haste and carelessness. The Crown wanted to open up northern areas of the western provinces to prospectors, and that was its rationale for beginning the negotiations, which First Nations had been requesting for some time. There are no records of the discussions, just the final text. First Nations sought more explicit protection for hunting, fishing, and trapping rights, because they were aware of what was happening on the prairies south of the boreal forest (the pass system, for example). The government tried to assure the chiefs that First Nations people would not be restricted to their reserves. Treaty 8, the authors write, “allowed for the peaceful economic development of the region at a time when federal and provincial policing powers were stretched thin. . . . It is certain that the economic development of the Athabasca, Mackenzie, and Peace River districts in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries could not have been accomplished peacefully without Treaty 8” (168). However, the oral histories of Treaty 8 people make it clear that the promises of guarantees of fishing, hunting and trapping rights were not kept (169). Like Treaty 8, Treaty 10 was negotiated because of pressure of economic development, and because the creation of the province of Saskatchewan resulted in pressure to bring northern First Nations into treaty (171-72). Treaty 8 served as a model (186), and the concerns raised by First Nations echoed those raised in previous negotiations (186). Again, First Nations were looking for the same kinds of benefits they had previously received from the HBC (186).

The chapter on treaty implementation tells a familiar and terrible story. There were problems about the way the treaties were implemented almost immediately, and in 1878 the First Nations that signed Treaty 4 threatened to refuse their annuities, thereby repudiating the treaty (187-88). Complaints were made by First Nations to Lord Lorne, the Governor General, in 1881 (188). The differences between the written text and oral promises were a large part of the problem. Meanwhile, Sir John A. Macdonald and Edgar Dewdney were cutting government spending on the Indian Department while diverting its budget to residential schools (190). There was little direct resistance, however; the authors cite the Yellow Calf incident of 1884 as one of the few examples of armed resistance to the failure of the government to live up to its treaty promises (190). It is clear, they write, from the lists of grievances written by First Nations chiefs that Treaty 4 included a guarantee of government assistance sufficient to enable First Nations to maintain themselves when settlers arrived and interfered with their ability to live by traditional methods (192)—guarantees that were ignored by the government. In Treaty 6 territory, similar issues arose: the government failed to provide farm implements and cattle (196), and First Nations demanded control over their own affairs (196). After 1885, the implementation of the pass system, along with the “peasant farming” and severalty policies later in the 1880s, made the situation worse in southern Saskatchewan (200-01). “All these retrograde policy developments help to explain both the serious problems with treaty implementation that southern First Nations experienced in the 1880s and 1890s and the heightened suspicions with which northern Nations approached treaty-making in the 1890s and first decade of the twentieth century,” Ray, Miller, and Tough write (201). In Treaty 10 territory, there were conflicts over the right to fish, hunt, trap, and gather (201). Part of the problem was the 1876 Indian Act, which led to policies of political control, enforced economic transition, and cultural subjugation and assimilation that bore no resemblance to the attitudes the treaty commissioners displayed in the 1870s (202-03). According to Ray, Miller, and Tough, “This study belongs to the unfolding process of reinterpreting the genesis, contents, and impact of the treaties that is still going on” (204).

Unlike Asch, the authors don’t seem to like Morris very much, referring to the “complacent self-satisfaction” his book on the treaties reveals (204). They suggest that Harold Cardinal’s The Unjust Society (another important book, also on my reading list) played a key role in changing the attitudes of historians towards the treaties, and cite the work of Gerald Friesen, Jean Friesen, and John Tobias as central to creating a viewpoint that, by the late 1990s, “could legitimately be described as the new, more critical orthodoxy” (208). Although their book focuses on the documentary record, they write that these texts “cannot provide a complete and finished historical version of the meanings of a treaty relationship between First Nations and the Crown” (214). They argue that their study has uncovered important findings regarding the continuity of the relationship between First Nations and the HBC, and First Nations and Canada; the Crown’s consistent position during negotiations of various treaties; promises to ensure First Nations livelihood; and the problems of treaty implementation (214). “In the immediate treaty-signing era, problems arose that reflect on the different understandings of the treaties and/or the failure to implement the treaties in good faith,” they write (214). So much waffling is contained in that phrase “and/or”! I would have hoped for a much clearer conclusion regarding this crucial issue. Did the government implement the treaties in good faith? No. Did the two sides understand the treaties differently? Yes. But did the Crown negotiators act in good faith? That’s a central question that’s left open here. It might be the central question of the history of the numbered treaties.

Bounty and Benevolence is an important work, but it is now somewhat out-of-date, I think, especially given the importance of works by First Nations writers like Aimée Craft and Harold Johnson, as well as the Treaty Elders of Saskatchewan book. After all, if the documentary record is incomplete, and if oral history can fill in the gaps in that record, then it’s important to use that testimony as well. In fact, I tend to find the books that rely on oral history more useful than works like Bounty and Benevolence, although as Sheldon Krasowski’s No Surrender indicates, there are resources in documentary history that previous historians have ignored. In any case, despite its limitations, Bounty and Benevolence is a useful overview of treaties in Saskatchewan.

Work Cited

Ray, Arthur J. Jim Miller, and Frank Tough, Bounty and Benevolence: A History of Saskatchewan Treaties,McGill-Queen’s UP, 2000.

76. Linda Cracknell, Doubling Back: Ten Paths Trodden in Memory


As I’ve mentioned here before, I hadn’t heard of Linda Cracknell before reading Deirdre Heddon’s and Cathy Turner’s essay, “Walking Women: Shifting the Tales and Scales of Mobility.” The first of Cracknell’s books that arrived in my mailbox was her little book, Following Our Fathers: Two Journeys Among Mountains; the two stories (essays? what genre have I been reading?) in that book are included in Doubling Back: Ten Paths Trodden in Memory, and so I won’t be writing about them again here. After I read Following Our Fathers, I wondered if Cracknell’s work might serve as a model for what I intend to do. Now, after reading Doubling Back, I’m sure that it could. 

Phil Smith includes Cracknell, along with Simon Armitage and Robert Macfarlane, in a list of writers about walking whose work is too traditional and too interpretive; when interpretation happens in an account of a walk, he argues, “the mobility solidifies into a commodity that is reassuringly unique and recognisable” (54). I think Smith prefers writing that captures the performative nature of a walk in some way (not an easy thing to accomplish) rather than writing that is clearly literary in intention. (He also prefers walking that is relational, or influenced by relational aesthetics, and many of Cracknell’s walks, though not all, are solitary affairs.) Myself, I’d be happy to be included in any list beside Simon Armitage and Robert Macfarlane; I’m coming to realize that my ambitions are literary rather than performative. That’s not a bad thing; there are many different ways to walk, and many different ways to respond to walking. 

Cracknell’s text begins at a writers’ retreat in Switzerland, and it returns there periodically as a way of introducing the walks she is writing about. At that retreat, she walks every morning with a notebook: “There may be chatter or observations I need to note down, a new story idea, or solutions to my writing problems. It’s as if I think better on the move, think more creatively, or as Jean-Jacques Rousseau would have it, ‘my mind only works with my legs’” (12). That quote is apparently from somewhere in the Confessions, a book I should probably be reading as part of this project. Cracknell remembers that she was a walker in childhood: 

I suspect I was a strange child, internalised, tearful, quiet. But I remember that there was always a lot going on in my imagination. . . . I learnt about my need to discover, to make sense of local geography by propelling myself through it. I trod routes into familiarity, let my imagination work on the things left behind by others, and got the dirt of the place under my fingernails. I found self reliance and independence there. (14)

Walking is still part of her life: “I’ve remained both a daily walker and an ‘expedition’ walker. My life has been shaped by it to some extent. An enjoyment of walking in remote and mountainous terrain explains in part my move to Scotland in 1990 from where I started to write five years later” (15).

The walks she writes about in this collection were made over the previous eight years: “They are mostly retreadings of past trails either taken by myself or others. In the act of doubling back I discover what remains or is new and listen for memories, some of which have become buried. I also explore how the act of walking and the landscapes we move through can shape who we are and how we understand the world” (15). The notion of “retreading” is important here, and it’s the reason she uses the word “doubling” in the book’s title. All these walks are, in some way, rewalkings; she is self-consciously following in the paths of others, and that notion links the various walks she writes about. She describes those walks as 

ambles, treks and expeditions ranging across mountains, valleys and coasts in Scotland, Kenya, Spain, Cornwall, Norway and here in Switzerland. Each setting is the realisation of an obsessive curiosity and seems to have chosen me, rather as stories choose to be written. Sometimes they have similarly unforeseen resolutions. (16)

The words “ambles, treks and expeditions” cover the range of walking Cracknell writes about; her walks range from the difficult and dangerous (her climb in the Alps, which I won’t be discussing here because I’ve already written about it) to regular and routine (her walk in the Birks of Aberfeldy, which concludes the book). I like the idea of a range of walking practices; not every walk needs to be a difficult solo trek, and while some walks are better made alone, others walks require the presence of fellow-walkers.

The first two walks, she continues, are 

“saunters” because they are musing and exploratory. Neither of them are steady lines between two places, but meandering rambles with opportunities for distraction and deviation. They take me to places significant in the early lives of Thomas Hardy and Jessie Kesson, landscapes that had long legacies beyond the writers’ youthful roamings and inspired their later texts. I’m also following my younger self. I want to explore how the freedom of certain places at significant points in our lives can encourage us to become close observers of the world, or transform our imaginations, or simply, transform us. (16)

Those introductory words lead into Cracknell’s first chapter, “The Opening Door.” Back in 1976, while staying at Boscastle, in Cornwall, she hears the story of how Thomas Hardy had fallen in love with Emma Lavinia Gifford while a guest at the same guest house she’s staying at (22-23). After Emma’s death in 1912, he returned to the area on a “painful pilgrimage” and wrote poems about her (23-24). Cracknell herself returns to Boxcastle in 2008, “fearful of shattering dreams”: “I rarely like to return to places that have had a powerful hold on me—perhaps it’s a fear of deflation or that things will have changed, but mostly it’s a fear of experiencing too keenly a sense of loss for that past time” (24). She remembers meeting a young man in 1976 and feeling torn between him and her boyfriend back in suburban Surrey (28). She also recalls exploring the cliffs east and west of Boscastle: 

I walked in increasing circles and offshoots from my centre—circles which moved me towards orientation, recognition, familiarity and finally a sense of “owning” the place, or perhaps it owning me. This walking ritual, a sort of “beating of the bounds,” that I learnt here is now instinctive when I visit new places, a link perhaps to Hardy who walked his way to a native knowledge of London in the five years he lived there. (31)

Cracknell has been influenced profoundly by Hardy: his “dialogue between landscape and character, human mood and nature, had captured me as a reader by 1976, and has coloured my own fiction writing. Almost unconsciously, I conjure characters out of particular places, or observe places and landscapes through the state of mind or qualities of my characters” (32). But, more importantly, Cracknell’s return to Boscastle is an opportunity to reflect on how she has changed in the intervening 30 years: “A door opened for me when I was here first, and now I see a clear pathway between that 17 year old who was learning to draw and paint and the woman who writes in 2008. We are not so different. I’ve not outgrown the romance that helped me ‘find my feet’ and shaped my passion for paths and for walking as well as for literature” (35). 

Cracknell’s second chapter, “Dancing, Kicking Up Her Legs,” is also a return to a place that was important to one of her literary influences, the writer Jessie Kesson (whose work I don’t know). She travels to Achbuie in Scotland, where Kesson went, at the age of 19, after a year in a mental hospital: 

It was curious about this powerful influence that took me there in early spring. I wanted to share her exuberance and find the Red Rock she wrote about. And there, high on the moor to the northeast of Achbuie, seen through my wind-tugged hair—a slash of steep gully sliced inland from the Loch into a south-facing cliff. Red and crumbly, fissured in long downward strikes, a superb visual play was created by the orange-red of newly exposed rock against the petrol-glazed blue of age. (41-42)

For Kesson, “[r]ites of passage were played out here,” and she met the man who later became her husband (42). Cracknell sought out Kesson’s writing, “discovered more of the fictionalised re-workings of her own traumatic childhood years” and “began to realise that it was the intensity of the inner life of troubled children” that she was connected to (44). Cracknell makes a second visit, ten days later, and spring has progressed (46). She walks along a burn and gets lost: 

The sense of a well-loved, shared path keeps pulling me Loch-wards, until it leads to a wicket gate in an unyielding high fence. Beyond it I see the purple flash of rhododendron, hints of laid paths, ponds and house roofs. I skirt the fence to the southerly burn looking for another way, smashing through bramble and brush and over fallen logs. My legs are scratched and bloody, torn by the open edges of dead bracken stem. With soil and moss smearing my hands, I’m returning to my childhood garden, my wilderness of rust-glazed water and bracken. Hints of suburbia hang between birch branches and drone with the distant lawnmower. (49)

Getting lost—a common hazard for walkers—becomes a conduit back into Cracknell’s childhood. But I think Cracknell’s primary concern here is the influence of walking in Achbuie on Kesson: 

When she walked on this edge of land and water at the age of nineteen she was perhaps already becoming comfortable with the rebellious identity that would free her from unpromising beginnings and define her as a writer. . . . I like to think it was an extreme change of environment and the experience of spring here that propelled her into that self. (50)

“After six months,” Cracknell continues, “the sensuality and physicality of the place became overwhelming and she ran away,” although she returned for her honeymoon and chose it as the place her ashes were to be scattered (50). The chapter concludes with an assertion of similarity between Cracknell’s walking and Kesson’s: “With limbs swinging I laugh and pant, sweating up through the green song-tunnels beside the burn. Jessie’s granddaughter described how her grandmother would be remembered—‘Dancing, kicking up her legs’—and it seems an apt description also for this hillside in springtime” (51).

Next Cracknell returns to the writers’ retreat in Switzerland, where she is becoming more comfortable with her surroundings:

I don’t take the map on my morning walks any longer; I’ve learnt my one-hour radius and stay within it, walking almost as I do at home, without making decisions, just seeing what each junction decides and greeting the dog-walkers along the way. There’s still an element of exploring as I join up the paths I know, experiment with the route so I can miss out a section on a road, or cut out some up and down by going through a vineyard. I take delight in my ability to improvise. (54)

She introduces her next two walks, on paths in Spain and Kenya: 

I hoped to understand something of the places they connect and pass through, and of the people who walk or walked them. They both kick up issues of tolerance and humanity along with dust and pebbles. Walking “in someone else’s shoes” (or without shoes if they are) and on their paths connects one to their stories and rouses the imagination. An open mind accompanying a good walk might just increase our ability to empathise and cross boundaries in a complex world and make for better participants in the “human race.” (55)

The idea of walking without shoes is an important part of her walk in Kenya; she walked barefoot because her Kenyan companions did as well. 

Cracknell’s third chapter, “Stairway to Heaven?,” begins with a quotation from Hamish Fulton’s Seven Short Walks: “Walking—cuts a line through 21st century life” (61). This chapter is about a walk in the Valle de Laguart in southern Spain: “The Valle de Laguart in the mountain ranges of La Marina in southeastern Spain has been coined ‘la catedral de senderismo’—the cathedral of walking. I first came across a Mozarabic Trail here when walking about ten years ago, and was taken by its ingenuity and precipitousness” (62-63). Her plan is to walk the trails for a week, through La Marina to the Valle de Laguart, a continuous walk (63). She explains that Mozarabs were Christians who retained their faith under the Islamic government in Spain, Al-Andalus, although they weren’t allowed to ring church bells (63).The paths they made are, she says, remarkable, and she compares their construction to the making of books (which were important during the Al-Andalus period; libraries were burned after the return of Christian rule in 1492): 

The making of a book requires investment and multiple skills—writing, translation, papermaking, printing, binding. A path must be built with an understanding of both land and human bodies. It involves surveyors and stonemasons, requires strong builders and insight into the human mind. (64)

“Perhaps if we want a measure of the civility of a period or nation or community,”  she continues, “we need to look at the importance placed on both books and the ways for pedestrians” (64-65).

Much of the chapter narrates the experience of walking and camping alone: 

In the last minutes before dusk at six each evening, I would look for a camping spot on a high terrace. Overnight, my tent compressed a mattress of wild thyme into a small scented bed. The slither of plump olives down the flysheet often punctuated the hours, along with owls’ calls and, frequently, the close grunts and snuffles of wild boar. When I lay down on my first night, the tent at my feet became a screen on which played the shadow puppets of pine branches tossed by wind against the full moon. (67)

The terraced hillsides she mentions here were developed by the Romans and expanded by the Moors. They were, she writes, 

a sculptural intervention as captivating as any piece of land art. Each terrace was an echo of the one before but with a subtle adjustment for the lie of the land—a tighter arc above or a longer stretch, or a spreading to accommodate a decrease in steepness. Looking at a whole hillside covered in terraces from a high point above the Valle d’Arc, I was mesmerised by how they fitted together in great arcs and cirques, one building in a spiral to the top of a conical peak. It was like watching a complex set of eddies and whirlpools in a river. (70)

“I was awed by the land that I crossed,” she writes, by the mountains she climbed and descended every day (72). At first she travels on what I think are gravel roads:

I often followed broad unmade roads on this journey, many in good enough condition to take a car. They sweep in great arcs to find a steady rise or fall, to avoid the deep ravines, and they make their way to the ‘cracks’ in the defences of long mountain ranges. Cross-country walking in this landscape is made near impossible by cataclysmic drops and by the fierce growth of gorse, kermes oaks and other spiny plants characteristic of the garrigue and maquis amongst the boulders. (73)

Eventually, though, she began walking on Mozarabic trails rather than roads, leading to another kind of retreading or rewalking:

After the village of Castell de Castells, heading for Languart, my way began to incorporate short stretches of Mozarabic Trail. I knew them by character straight away. Narrow and stone-lined; polished with use but trustworthy. One side often hugs a terrace wall, while the other is marked by a low boundary of white boulders. They twist and zig-zag through steep ground, worming deep into the gloomiest parts of the gorges. They’re a secret shared between those who walk and the land itself. Walkers are subsumed between terraces, disappear into the inner track of ravines and fissures. The trails are wily and direct, a welcome contrast to the broad tracks, making a virtue of the smallness and dexterity of human and animal feet. Although these short lengths didn’t yet have monumental continuity, and I often found them cut across by bulldozed tracks, they always gave me a skip of delight, as if I’d made a great discovery. I found myself walking them slowly, savouring each step, admiring as I went. I added my footfall to the thorough polishing that my predecessors had given the rock. (73-74)

Those trails had survived many things over hundreds of years, including flooding from storms the previous autumn (74). They were well-designed for pedestrians carrying freight: 

I’m laden with a rucksack myself, and regretting it as I consider my first steep ascent. Voices echo up from below me. I see three figures dazzled to black by the limestone boulders in the river bed. They’re looking up towards me, admiring the shadowed route that’s just carried them down. Reassured by their success, I entrust my feet to the first steps.

Soon I find an easy rhythm. Stride for stride, the steps fit me perfectly. They never force me to drop deeper or stretch further than my body’s comfortable with. On each corner, steps fan out into a perfect dovetail, like pages hinging open from the spine of a book. They allow a significant drop with ease, one that my mother’s knees might manage. Steps built for pathways in the Scottish Highlands are sometimes too high or widely spaced to fit a natural rhythm, and I’ve noticed the scuffed paths that arc around them causing erosion that the path is precisely designed to avoid. Not these. (75)

“I relax, accept the grace of the path, thanking its considerate builders with their Arabised skills,” she writes (75-76). “I arrive at the white boulders on the riverbed and look back up at the shadowland of cliff, crag, buttress, hidden steps, almost laughing at the ingenuity. Already the path has made the landscape seem less severe, more familiar, now that I’m cleft within it” (76). 

Cracknell’s account of walking is accurate and funny. She wakes up on her last morning dehydrated and sunburned: 

I look again for the spring marked on my map that I searched for in half-light last night. I used my remaining water to cook up pasta and went to sleep dehydrated, with my face roaring from too much sun. But I fail again to find the spring. This is my last day of walking and I begin to feel the need to eat properly, to spread out a bit, perhaps even to speak to some people and get clean. My socks smell like an intensive chicken farming unit. But the trajectory towards comfort is still hanging in a balance with the desire to continue the journey. (79)

She climbs up to a castle on the top of a mountaintop and hears church bells from below along with the sound of hunters’ gunshots: “I’m cowering from the naked sun, the back of my mouth sticky and slow, and the skin of my face sultana-dry. I head down; down into the tinkling valleys with questions still ringing in my mind” (81). What those questions are isn’t clear; perhaps she is thinking about the history she has walked through and the differences between that history and the world in which she lives.

In her fourth chapter, “Baring our Soles,” Cracknell thinks about the meanings of walking barefoot. “Walking barefoot can have multiple meanings—from penance to pilgrimage to protest and empowerment to poverty and powerlessness. But it also has a sensory impact,” she writes, noting that her friend Philo Ikonya compares it to talking to the earth (87). “It was a long time since I’d walked barefoot anywhere except on a beach, but I was willing to try,” she continues.  “Philo had told me that women and girls all go barefoot on these village paths. The rainy season transforms the hard red earth into a clogging swamp and shoes are completely impractical. But for me and my friends used to wearing shoes in Nairobi’s streets, it was strange and difficult” (88). Philo’s tells Cracknell about her late brother’s perfect feet: “Philo described the shape of the heel as a zero, with an arch so high that the foot didn’t meet the ground again until the next little zero at the ball and the ‘dot, dot, dot’ of the toes. She would know his footprint anywhere, she said, printed onto the earth paths radiating from the house, layered now under the marks of more recent walkers” (89-90). My flat feet are completely different, and I would find it difficult to walk any distance barefoot, without the lift that orthotics give to my arches. But Cracknell and Philo meet a woman who regularly walks from Nairobi to the village barefoot—a distance of 30 kilometres: 

“She says she can perfectly well afford to buy shoes, but why would she not want to walk barefoot?” Philo signalled the smooth red earth, the maize and coffee plants lifting in the breeze, the absence of vehicles. 

I wondered how the woman’s walk would be interpreted in Nairobi, where, as Philo had said earlier, “the city ways are hostile to barefoot travellers.” Would people read poverty rather than pleasure in her steps?” (93)

Of course, it wasn’t that long ago that walking barefoot was common even in Scotland’s cold climate, although it’s become unusual, and Cracknell rarely thinks about her feet, especially in the winter: 

They’d been bundled up in recent weeks, even as I sat at my desk, or crammed into boots when I’d gone out, boots that seemed to make unbending planks of them, as if appending their natural functions with something more useful. I’d looked at them with distaste in the bath—the thickening yellow toenails suggesting fungal infection, the puffy arthritic joint of the left big toe. And now they’d been released to this! (95)

Cracknell and her companions wash their feet under the garden tap when they arrive at their destination: “The red soil streamed away, the water cooled hot soles, gilded our feet with sunlight. We put on our shoes again. My soles tingled, and as we started back, my gait was shifted by the elevation from the ground. A new perspective, a sense perhaps closed off, but I felt deeply refreshed” (96). 

The chapter ends with an account of Philo’s arrest in Nairobi during a peaceful protest outside Parliament. When she is released, the police kept one of her shoes (99). “‘It’s one thing to love to walk village paths barefoot,’ Philo wrote in an email afterwards, ‘another to be forced to step on cold cement. . . . Our feet celebrations turned into tears.’ She compared it to the humiliation of being stripped,” Cracknell relates (100). After her release she walked back across the city, “barefoot and defiant, carrying the one remaining shoe to demand its pair at the police station” (100). Cracknell recognizes her privilege here: “My own feet still recalled our walk; some of the toughened skin was peeling off in a translucent film grained with contours. I enjoyed the sensation, the visceral reminder of the meeting of our skin with the skin of the earth. But it took on a different meaning now” (100). 

Another interlude at the writers’ retreat in Switzerland follows, which introduces her walks in the mountains of Norway and Switzerland. After those walks, she writes, “I became less intent on walking to ‘get away from it all’ and more interested in walking those paths that beat with a human resonance” (102). Her walk in Norway is a turning point in the project: “I set out on this walk principally for a holiday, but it came to mean much more. I discovered a richly peopled landscape. . . . the generosity of strangers playing their part contributed to a sense of a living, resonant pathway” (128).  She returned home thinking about that: “I felt the need to follow more whispering ways; to seek out stories that still echo underfoot” (128). That realization leads to her walk in Switzerland, in her father’s footsteps. After her account of those two walks, Cracknell returns to the writers’ retreat in Switzerland, but this time she’s gone away to walk in the Alps: “a day walk, a loop. I resisted the lure of well-marked trails leading the eye towards lengthier possibilities. It’s a joy, though, that’s hard to beat: setting out on a long walk, the agenda for forthcoming days dictated solely by the beckoning road. The landscape unrolls, fitness grows, and even the slight sense of hardship and rationed foot is enjoyable” (163-64). “On a long walk in remote terrain life becomes simplified into a line, daily rituals, the rhythm of day and night,” she writes. “Added to this, a passage through a mountain landscape is punctuated by dramatic geographical features; passes and rivers to cross, junctions, inns and settlements, each of which can gather symbolic significance in a mind channelled by motion and perhaps solitude” (164). Because walking connects places together, she continues, it creates continuity, and those places are both physical and mental: 

We discover ourselves as we discover the world. Perhaps reclaiming our own stories through a physical act can help ensure that life’s momentum doesn’t take us sleepwalking onwards, shedding memories carelessly along the way. We may even walk ourselves into a whole new geography. In an age in which our major life changes are mostly unmarked, a long walk can fulfil a necessary ritual. (165)

Those thoughts lead into Cracknell’s seventh chapter, “The Return of Hoof Beats,” an account of a droving journey in the Scottish Highlands.  “Our modest body of people and animals moving as one across an ancient-feeling landscape in Scotland was an ‘unnecessary’ journey,” she writes, but it “felt connected to a stream of time and a legacy of working journeys with animals. I’d envisaged it being a bit like a medieval pilgrimage; a flock of us grouping and regrouping as we moved, stories told along the way, and more created” (172). The group travelled “at a drover’s pace of 10-12 miles a day using old ways and passes which once forged lively connections between places” (172). They moved through a “statuesque landscape” that “seems ‘wild’ now because of its remoteness from most human traffic and habitation. It’s relatively unmarked physically by the web of seasonal trails that would once have kept it busy” (172).

This communal journey was organized by Joyce Gilbert, a historian of the old ways of travelling in Scotland. The journey was inspired by the history of droving in Scotland, a practice that ended in the second half of the nineteenth century (174), and participants, Cracknell writes, were fascinated by journeys and “the urge to discover a sense of place. There were also individual motivations such as a wish to walk with animals, explore and draw creative inspiration from the landscape, follow old ways and keep traditions alive” (173). However, few in the group had any experience with ponies, the animals they were walking with; only one woman, Vyv Wood-Gee, who in 2010 had travelled 800 miles with two ponies from the Isle of Skye to Smithfield Market in London, knew what she was doing (173). Leading ponies on foot is a skill: “you depend more on head-to-head proximity, and your voice, a hand on the pony’s nose, the occasional titbit to induce rapport. This gap between control and trust requires the human-pony relationship to be reciprocal, demanding respect on both sides. It feels more egalitarian than riding” (176). Cracknell is confused by the “slightly contradictory advice” they had received at the beginning of the journey: 

We were told that the ponies needed us to guide them—where best to put their feet, how to keep out of trouble in bogs and on steep ground. They needed to be able to trust us. But we were also told that they would need a very long rein, giving them the freedom to pick their own way, to jump if necessary, swerve out of danger. It suggested that their wayfinding was superior to ours and that they would know the best route. So which was right—did they need us or us them? (176)

It’s a good question, one that could only be answered through practice and experience.

The journey is an emotional one for Cracknell. She describes their arrival at Blair Castle:

I felt intensely aware of the fluid movement of our line; the beat of our feet and clatter of forty hooves on tarmac. . . . We must have made a bedraggled, raggle-taggle spectacle, having come through heavy rain with our loaded panniers and muddy boots. Neatly dressed visitors to the castle watched us go past. I heard a woman answer her daughter’s question with: “They’re travelling with their ponies, love.” I felt a great rush of pride; tears almost. I was a person of the road with my pony beside me, a pony that had become so much more than a luggage-carrier. (182)

That rush of pride is interesting, and suggests that Cracknell has adopted a temporary identity through her experience; she has become a drover, rather than just a walker. There are important differences between this journey and others she has taken:

The rhythms of any camping journey—pitching tents, cooking, sleeping—were extended by looking after the ponies’ needs—untacking, turning them out, finding water. The compassion we needed to find for our animals even when we were tired and hungry, characterised the culture of our expedition, and softened it. (182)

“Over the week the animals became like members of our extended family with distinct personalities and allegiances,” she continues (183). In addition, she writes, “[t]he journey also gathered people to us. Despite our often remote location, and the sense at times of a haunted, abandoned landscape, each night we had extra company of some sort; folk joining us with songs or stories, or hosting us in their fields and steadings” (183). Sometimes local communities would hold “Meet the Drovers” events where “local people and tourists” would “pat the ponies and ask about the way” (183). “It was clear by now that a nerve had been tingled by our quirky procession; a way of life suggested because we were moving alongside animals,” Cracknell writes. “Perhaps it raised a folk memory, barely lost, of our partnership with working animals and the land” (184). Travelling with ponies also brought the group “into tune with the landscape,” making them feel more a part of it and allowing wildlife to come closer, and allowing the travellers to notice more (184). There was something powerful in the repetition involved in this journey, and although detractors might describe Cracknell’s account as overly romantic, clearly she experienced something on that journey that she didn’t on the others she writes about.

In her eighth chapter, “The Dogs’ Route,” Cracknell walks for two weeks to the Isle of Skye from her home in Perthshire: “My route had been trodden before me by the numerous cattle-drovers who had once herded animals south to market at this time of year, streaming in black ghost-lines in the opposite direction” (190). Cracknell finds this walk also very moving, perhaps because it reminds her of passages or changes in her life:

Like a series of thresholds, there had been many crossings on my journey so far—rivers, railways, roads, the Great Glen fault-line, mountain passes, transitions between rock types, the boundaries of mental geography. Each threshold arose to demand from me a commitment of sorts, to the next step in a new terrain. (191)

Her ferry journey from the mainland, for example, took on “a mythic weight. I was in no danger of life or loss, but there was anxiety, the need gnawing at me to put the territory of the past behind me and complete a journey” (191). 

Perhaps this journey was so moving because Cracknell began at her home; that certainly made it different from the others she writes about. “The start in a familiar landscape joined up my day walks, gave me the pleasure of naming places, but also noticing the shifts in colour, and the slow changes in the bulky shape of Ben Lawers as I skirted its sides.” she writes. “It was strange but lovely that for the first two nights I was near enough home to stay with local friends” (193). “The line of the walk was taking me out of familiarity and then returning it to me. Crossing thresholds and linking places” (195). And I have to say, having just finished a walk in Scotland, I was waiting for Cracknell to finally get her boots wet, which she does while crossing a peat bog: “I abandoned the preserve of dry boots and socks. For the first time on the walk I was out of my comfort zone, wet and peat-spattered, travelling very slowly in an unknown land” (194).

Cracknell was walking alone, but because part of her route coincided with the West Highland Way, she found companions on the road: 

I fell into step with two lads I’d met in the pub the night before. Then I left them with a group of cheery Germans who stopped on the summit of the first hill to brew up coffee away from the midges. . . . I passed on to walk with two women from London, and then from them to two young Israeli men struggling under 25 kilo packs, and demanding reassurance about three words that were shivering them with apprehension about what was ahead: “The Devil’s Staircase.”

Unlike a cocktail party, no excuse was ever needed to pass on to the next conversation. It happened naturally with the tying of a bootlace. (196)

Conversations spontaneously happened during a lunch stop at a pub (196), which suggests something about the difference between walking and other forms of transportation:

I don’t think I’ve ever struck up a conversation with anyone in a motorway services, and yet the pubs and cafes on my route were rich with encounter. It was as if my solitude inclined me to drop barriers and delight in sharing experience. With walkers there’s always subject-matter—the route, weather, memories of past walks, advice on new places. Such journey-talk is a small step from how we choose to live our lives and what we value. It’s not, to me, superficial. (197)

Cracknell sometimes stays with friends, and while she enjoys the break from her journey, the impulse to continue moving always reasserts itself:

Despite the kindnesses, the tea and food and drying off, the exchanges of news about mutual friends from university days, I suddenly felt the need for movement. Pressed in this tight drama of valley, water, rock, memory, I needed to breathe, to be alone again, to work out what to do next. I needed to reclaim the journey; to prove that the line I’d partly invented behind me could also continue forwards. (205)

The impulse to move, and to be alone, are interesting here; not every walk needs to be made with other people, and sometimes the forward motion of the journey comes to take priority over other concerns. I’ve felt both of these, and that experience is one of the reasons I reject the prescriptive suggestion that long, solo walks are somehow without value.

Cracknell’s arrival on Skye leads to several important connections with others, however, One is with her B&B host, a man named Philip Tordoff. In the morning, he stands outside with her, 

continuing our conversation about the value of walking the old ways, about what it means to find enlightenment in land and books. . . . I walked off into a dry morning, gusted past the Co-op, and my boots strode me back into a rhythm. Rather than turning for home, I turned south-west towards Elgol, and the road rose to meet me. (206)

At this point, Cracknell reveals the reason for her interest in thresholds and her anxiety about completing the walk: “I’m not an old woman, and yet if you’re considered old once your fertile years are past, I’m heading towards that different way of being. This journey was challenging to my body, calling for stamina, energy, strength, mobility. These were qualities of youth” (207). 

She recalls a letter from her doctor, explaining that she has some kind of “joint disease,” and her response, which was to recall an old man she had seen, nearly bent double, walking along the sidewalk (207). Will she be able to continue walking? At a café in a village, she chats with a smiling woman she had passed earlier on the road, walking (211). She loves walking and encourages Cracknell to continue walking, noting that she has arthritis and can no longer walk: “‘But please, keep doing it,’ she said. ‘Keep walking. For as long as you can.’” (216). 

Cracknell gives this journey a strong conclusion: 

My journey took fifteen days. I passed through some of the most visited places in the Highlands—Glen Lyon and the Great Glen, and under the most climbed hills of Glencoe, Grey Corries, the Glenelg peninsula. Such was the conspiracy of route or time of year or weather that, with the obvious exception of the West Highland Way, I barely met a single walker on my route between days one and fourteen. (217)

People ask her after the walk if she was lonely, a question she ponders: 

There’s a different kind of loneliness that you confront on any walk in the Highlands. Just after crossing the river at the head of Glen Arnisdale at Glen Dubh Lochan, I passed through fragments of a village that was once a drovers’ overnight stance. It would have been a beautiful place to live, on a slightly raised point above the bend in the river. . . . Passing sheilings reduced to tumbled stone and still surrounded by an oasis of green in the high glens, I sometimes fancy I glimpse faces form the corner of an eye, or catch the murmur of voices—curious at a traveller passing. But they don’t discomfort me as the relics left from the deliberate clearance of people from the Highlands do, perhaps because such sheilings were always intended to be temporary. (217-18)

The notion of rewalking becomes personal here: 

The line of this walk had linked places and people warm in my affection from a twenty-five year relationship with this part of Scotland. I’d teased up memories of past climbs, pub nights, days spent with friends and lovers. I hadn’t planned the route around this, at least not knowingly, but now I see it as a string upon which the jewels of special moments are held in lapidary brightness. (221)

Her journey, she continues, “traversed a space ‘inbetween’”:

There were thresholds, an equinox, caves, shores, bogs, bridges, tidal flats, roadside hostelries—liminal places which can be turning points or transitions; places where normal limits don’t apply. I’d walked with the gods and with the dogs. It had been a period out of my normal life. And yet it had also been an intense period of my life. I’d set out to follow an old droving trail but I had also opened up some buried chambers inside myself and the walk had given me time to dwell on their contents. (221)

That intensity is reflected in the tears she sheds when she arrives at her destination on Skye and finds it stormy rather than calm (220). I think this might be Cracknell’s most personal walk, even more personal than the walk in her father’s footsteps in Switzerland. It’s certainly the one that provokes the greatest emotional reaction in her.

Another interlude at the writers’ retreat in Switzerland follows. Cracknell realizes that she and her fellow writers have “made a home” of the place they’re staying, and she wonders whether she will “‘double back’ one day to collect the memories of this special time and place” (224). “It’s a common experience for walking to bring a spiritual peace, a sense of ‘home’ or connection with places, nature, people, as well as offering excitement or enchantment,” she writes. “These are slow ways, with possibilities for stillness and reflection, qualities I associate with the melancholy acceptance of Autumn” (225). “This project,” she continues,

this retreading of former ways first with feet and then in words has left me with traces of red dust, glacier ice, granite, in my veins, and a spring in my step. I’ve beaten the bounds of things I half know, uncovered history and inhabited my wild, childish self again, to relive the thrill of being drawn into a landscape, connecting to nature, seeing where a way leads and who or what I meet. I’ve appreciated better the various motives of footfall and made peace with the contradictory impulses of familiarity and ‘otherness’; self-sufficiency and company. And there’s a sense now that, as well as doubling back, walking moves me forward into some new terrain. (225)

Those words lead into her ninth chapter, “To Be a Pilgrim,” an account of another retreading: a walk from Melrose to Lindisfarne on St. Cuthbert’s Way, following in the footsteps of many pilgrims, as well as Saint Cuthbert himself, “shepherd, monk, hermit, and Bishop of Lindisfarne” (231). On this walk, Cracknell is accompanied by her friend, or lover, Phil (232). It is late October: “I felt a need to refresh my body with physical movement, to feel the spark of sun and rush of wind on my skin before giving in to the dark; to walk the length of the daylight hours. But I was less sure of the landscape and the destination, the path safely way-marked with Celtic crosses that would lead us without any need to navigate” (233). She suggests that “any long walk is a pilgrimage, a ‘holiday’ (or holy day) from familiar places and routines, and from possessions. A simple journey with an ultimate goal holds a bud of transformation, a means of renewing lost parts of ourselves. The pilgrim’s goal has a similar focus to the mountaineer’s summit, but it’s steadier, quieter” (234). “I wasn’t walking Saint Cuthbert’s way for religious reasons,” she writes, 

and yet I love the stories of many traditions, and hoped to find some of these underfoot and to discover places that beat with a spiritual pulse I could connect to. In a curious way I realised that setting out on a journey, leaving home, also gives me a sense of “coming home.” The dropping away of anxiety and everyday concerns results in a feeling of just being “me.” (235)

Those sentences are interesting: what does it mean to have the journey itself give her a sense of being at home? 

Walking with Phil interrupts the forward movement of the walk; he likes to stop to pause, to photograph what they see: “He didn’t worry about time and ‘getting on.’ We were using our feet to explore; to digress for a ruined house or linger over the colour of a beetle. The pause was as important as the pacing” (239). Aside from the weather, the walk is relatively uneventful, until they arrive at their destination and decide to try to cross the mudflats to St. Cuthbert’s Isle at dusk, against all advice. I was expecting disaster, but they manage to cross to the island and back without incident: “Behind us, the world had turned to monochrome. The sea washed away our footsteps and cast Lindisfarne off to become an island sanctuary again, a lulled cradle. Tide and the night stopped our feet, halted the onward rhythm of our journey. We had arrived, and the place insisted that we rest a day or two before we go on our way again” (243). This journey, as many walks in the UK do, ends at a pub, The Crown and Anchor. How appropriate that an account of a journey, one in which the journey becomes home, ends at a pub with the word “anchor” in its name.

Cracknell’s tenth chapter, “Friendly Paths,” is the story of a domestic or home-like walk: “The Birks of Aberfeldy,” made famous by a poem by Robbie Burns (249). It’s an hour-long walk, “shared by locals and visitors with dogs and children” (249). “I’ve walked The Birks often, in many seasons and weathers, even at night,” Cracknell writes: 

The way responds generously to my habit, offering words or images when I’m stuck for them, or the gift of a change in mood. It airs my mind and exercises my body when it’s cramped and subdued by work. I walk it with friends, too, visitors or local people. I’m never bored by it, and can always vary the route slightly; descending by a different track or exploring further up the hill beyond the Falls. Sometimes I leave the etched ways and follow fainter, incipient paths, just to see where they go. They might dump me in bog or snaring heather but I like the deviation; the combination of heartily sharing the ground and absconding to the margins. (250)

As I read those words, I thought about my regular walks in this city, and the way that I do get bored by them, partly because those faint, “incipient” paths are harder to find here. 

Walking the Birks of Aberfeldy is one of the first things Cracknell  does after returning home from being away: “I re-learn the land with my repeated steps, my circuits. But it’s not static. Things happen. Each time there’s the possibility of new discoveries. And I might meet someone by chance who’s taking their own turn of The Birks” (250). “By keeping the paths beaten, our feet earn us the right to be here,” she writes, (250) noting that “birks” is the Scots word for birches (251). (It’s easy to forget that Cracknell isn’t Scots, despite having lived in Perthshire for 25 years.) As she walks, she thinks about Dorothy Wordsworth, who wrote about the place when she came her with her brother (253). She also considers the connection between walking and writing, and the importance of repetition and return in both activities:

The writing of any story is mostly re-writing. My first draft will have a rough sense of direction and content, a provisional resolution, but then I’ll revisit it again and again, re-seeing the material to tighten it, or even to allow it, if it insists, to follow a new route. I think of it as a repeated walk; a loop with varieties or diversions. Revisiting our own memories is like this too. We subtly reconstruct them as we go, so that our life stories are less like photographic, objective reality and more like an act of imagination, re-invented over and over again. (256)

A repeated walk also generates layers of memories: “On a walk like this made over many years, and on many occasions, I’ve cached so many memories amongst the rocks and trees and hills, that re-turning the walk also gives me a way of retracing my own story” (256). She thinks of the arthritic woman she met on Skye and the promise she made to her to keep walking (257). “And now my walking mind gives in to the familiar, agrees to close the circle as I turn, double back towards the town on a level road with views into the valley,” she writes (257). “Contained within this walk each time I do it is the forever-pleasure of turning for home. At this point I always start to think ahead to putting on the kettle and making tea. Tomorrow perhaps I’ll take a turn of the story once again” (258).

This has been an important book for me, not only because I admire it, but because it confirms my recent thinking that I need to incorporate a variety of different walks into my project—not just one epic plod across the prairies, but other kinds of walking: shorter walks, made alone and with other people. I have ideas about how to proceed, and Doubling Back suggests to me that I’m on the right track. Cracknell’s walking, and her writing about those walks, might prove to be a model for my work, and so I’m happy to have read it. 

Work Cited

Cracknell, Linda. Doubling Back: Ten Paths Trodden in Memory, Freight, 2015.

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.

Smith, Phil. Walking’s New Movement: Opportunities, Decelerations and Beautiful Obstacles in the Performances, Politics, Philosophies and Spaces of Contemporary Radical Walking, Triarchy, 2015.

75. John Steffler, Forty-One Pages: On Poetry, Language and Wilderness


I’m not sure John Steffler’s book Forty-One Pages: On Poetry, Language and Wilderness really belongs as part of this project. It’s a collection of essays and poems and fragments of thought on a variety of topics; I am primarily interested in Steffler’s thinking about what he calls “wilderness,” though, and perhaps, for that reason, it fits here. I honestly don’t know. I read the book between sessions at a conference I was at earlier this month, and my notes are, to say the least, cryptic. And Steffler’s arguments are complex; I doubt I’ll be able to do them justice. Nevertheless, I’ll try to make something out of his book. Perhaps by writing about it, I’ll come to know whether it’s actually part of this project or not.

In part, this is a a book about writing, about the blank page: “The page is a performance space,” Steffler writes. “It is an area framed by expectation and practiced conjecture: a ritual space, a forum for appearances and disappearances” (2). When we write, he continues, “[w]e speak to someone or something absent. We detach our words, our intentions, from ourselves and send them out of leave them to be found. We hunt inside ourselves, watch for a birth in language on an inner page and give a performance in words” (2). “[A]t the heart of literature,” he argues, is 

a speaking to someone or something absent or distant. This involves a faith in space and time and perhaps a belief in fate or destiny: that the message (the information, the thought, the wish) that has been sent or left will travel or wait unchanged, intact, and meet with its intended recipient at some future time. This is clearly at work in a letter or a prayer but also in every poem, story and song, every diary entry and tombstone inscription. (2)

Steffler’s meditations on writing, on the page, almost immediately shift to thoughts about language and the effect his own language, English, has on his thinking and on the culture he is part of, and those thoughts bring him to what I think is his primary concern, the relationship between our culture, and ourselves, and what he thinks of as “wilderness”:

I must say here that as time has passed I have come to think of the shared vision or world view implied in my language (and in what I know of a few other Western or Indo-European languages) as being based on a kind of delusion, a delusion of human species pre-eminence, of human world-ownership, of the world being naturally organized into an agreed-upon sphere of recognized entities like the furnishings of a vast human home—with the sky, stars, Earth, and all its creatures and materials labelled and arranged like theatre props around the central human actors, and notions of time, causation, ownership, hierarchy, and personhood embedded in the rules and mechanics of grammar. I think of my language as both a brilliant technology—a rich tool for expression and for knowing the world—and as a kind of brainwashing it is good to question. (14)

“Key assumptions rooted in Western tradition and encoded in my native language have led to the wide-ranging extirpation of plant and animal species, the unsustainable degradation of the planet’s environment, and the assimilation, homogenization and destruction of divergent local human cultures,” Steffler continues. “What seems to be at work in the world—especially in the post-Enlightenment, Western world—is a massive objectification of its many beings, a depersonalization of nature” (14-15). 

Steffler’s assumption is that “human language reflects and in turn shapes a culture’s world view” (15). Language, he writes, 

is a technology we carry with us for processing experience, and in writing, in giving words visual form and fixing them on a solid surface, we capture experience and record it. That’s obvious. The intention to write is in some ways similar to the intention to take photographs. It stimulates close observation, analysis, a search for patterns, relationships and processes—meaning, resonance—in the world around us and in our lives and our relationships with others. (15-16)

However, “in cultures like the one that dominates twenty-first century North America, language as a means of perceiving and knowing is in some ways restrictive,” he contends. “Words often function like line drawings. They isolate and demarcate things. With cultural reinforcement, they can invent things and set boundaries between one thing and another, while the unnamed world remains a phenomenal wave or totality without distinct or permanent inner or outer edges” (16). That “unnamed world”—a world outside of language—is what Steffler means when he writes about “wilderness.”

Despite his suspicion of language—or the effects that our language has on our understanding of the world—Steffler suggests that certain forms of language, such as poetry, can allow us to grasp that “unnamed world”:

Words—even in contemporary English—can be used to speak of the world experienced as an integrated body, a wholeness, or perhaps as a current of energy inhabiting all phenomena simultaneously. Poetry often attempts to speak of or allude to aspects of reality experienced in this way. . . . Poetry uses language to re-integrate or fuse experience into currents or waves of perception and understanding, to offer multiple meanings, ambiguities and contradictions as familiar significant phenomena. (16-17)

Since Steffler is a poet, his belief in poetry is not surprising. In contrast to poetry, he suggests, “contemporary English in its normal (non-poetic) use as a technology for analyzing and knowing the world brings with it built-in assumptions, habits and purposes. It channels experience. It inclines us to value some phenomena more than others. I suspect that in its twenty-first-century North American form it is blind, or nearly blind, to much of the universe” (17). That blindness troubles him deeply, and I would argue that his sense of unease with the effects contemporary English has on our understanding of the universe is the core of this book.

Steffler suggests that some languages are not “as noun-heavy as Indo-European languages,” although in his experience of language, 

the act of naming things seems to arrest or slow down the action of time and break the ever-changing flow of phenomena into separate enduring entities—an array of stereotypes—and thereby foreground space, making spatial continuity the platform of our idea of the world and time and ungraspable abstraction. We—in the culture I’ve inherited—live in the instant between past and future, but we can’t figure out how. We insist that the present fills available space and only gradually becomes history. (17)

“Named things, with reinforcement from anthropocentric culture,” he continues, “can come to seem like discrete concrete entities whose interactions can be imagined mechanistically in a billiard-ball-like chain of causal encounters rather than as connected things, as changing aspects of an integrated continuous process” (17). That sense of separation, that illusion of linear causality, is one of the metaphorical violences language effects on our understanding of the world.

Steffler is concerned with the link between that metaphorical violence and the destruction our culture is wreaking on the natural world. He notes that the biologist Edward O. Wilson, in his book Half-Earth, argues that “the only way to avoid environmental collapse and a catastrophic loss of biodiversity is to set aside roughly half the Earth as unimpaired wilderness” (24). That suggestion, Steffler notes, puts Wilson at odds with the biologists who see the Anthropocene “as a natural outcome of humanity’s evolutionary success and accept it as a new geological epoch in which wilderness will cease to exist” (24). “Wilson rejects the idea that humanity has either the wisdom or the right to henceforth treat the entire Earth as its farm and to continue exterminating nuisance or useless species and engineering new life forms to suit human needs,” Steffler continues, noting that Wilson refers to the Anthropocene as the Sixth Extinction (24). For Steffler, the concept of Half-Earth “is easy to grasp but at the same time so radical, so disruptive, that it fills the mind with wild surmise. How could we carry out such an enterprise? What changes would we have to make in our way of thinking to make such a thing possible? These questions have become a through-line in my thinking” (25).

Steffler tries to imagine how other cultures might relate to the natural world in a way that doesn’t create mass extinctions. “To imagine extending a degree of personhood to creatures, places and features in the natural world, to imagine respecting their mystery and otherness, their living character, and feeling a degree of kinship with them is, I think, to have a glimpse of precisely what is involved in the animist world view,” he suggests (36). That world view, he continues, 

was common everywhere prior to the monotheistic-scientific-industrial eras and thus can suggest ways to transform our idea of wilderness and its value to us. Honouring the otherness and mystery of the natural world is no more fraught with ignorance and superstition than honouring the otherness and mystery of our fellow humans. A new appreciation for nature’s sacred rights seems to be needed, since scientific data alone are not persuading us to curb our exploitation of the Earth.  (36)

Wilson’s notion of Half-Earth, Steffler continues, by setting “aside half the Earth as a sacred wilderness,” would make the planet “seem infinite” (36). “In the imagination, the presence of unknown territory is the spatial equivalent of unspent time—a future before us, which, to be the future, must be unknown,” he argues. “To trust that the Earth holds a treasure of undomesticated wilderness is to feel that we have before us an endless store of life” (36).

That word “wilderness” is, as I’ve suggested, at the heart of this book. Wilderness exists beyond language and culture, and so it can only be experienced directly:

In thinking about the limitations of language in relation to wilderness, I am thinking of the experience of wilderness. Since wilderness, as I define it, is outside culture and since language is inseparable from culture, wilderness, if it can be experienced directly and immediately, must be experienced wordlessly, non-conceptually, non-categorically. But few people apart from mystics, artists, spiritual practitioners, some deep ecologists and shamans will ever want a direct experience of wilderness. The closest most of us will ever get is likely our first months of life . . . bouts of madness or near-madness, maybe great beauty, maybe sexual rapture, maybe serious disease or accident, maybe the experience of dying if we’re conscious for any of it. (61)

I’m not sure such an appreciation is possible, or that it is anything more than a Romantic fantasy. Steffler’s words here remind me of Robert Graves’s poem “The Cool Web,”  which, like Steffler’s argument here, posits a rupture between language and a direct experience of the world. Moreover, Indigenous people have language and culture, and yet their understanding or experience of the natural world is different from that of post-Enlightenment Western capitalist modernity, as Steffler acknowledges. And yet this sense that it is possible to experience the world without language is something Steffler returns to repeatedly in the book.

That non-linguistic experience of the world is one thing; to set half the planet aside as a nature reserve would necessarily require language:

The appreciation of wild nature and the commitment to practical measures for preserving and restoring tracts of wilderness are another matter. Here language is involved in an essential way because fostering areas of wild nature in the midst of a domesticated environment is a cultural undertaking. And it’s not just that language is needed in order to work out the political, economic, legal and organizational logistics of setting aside wildlife reserves or preserving wetlands and woodlots, or indeed to work out whether reserves should be created when these disenfranchise people who depend on access to those lands for subsistence or for maintaining a traditional way of life. There is a relationship between an enriched enjoyment of language and an enriched appreciation for the complex living reality of the natural world as both a sensory experience and a body of knowledge and ideas, a web of narratives. (61)

Without realizing it, Steffler has touched upon one of the problems with Wilson’s proposal: it would very likely exclude Indigenous peoples from the reserves he proposes, the way that they were evicted from lands that later became national parks in Canada. That’s the problem with thinking about “wilderness” as something without language, and therefore without human connections or habitations: we come to think of wilderness as defined by an absence of human activity, when for most of our species’s history, traditional cultures functioned as stewards and managers of ecosystems in important and nuanced ways.

That notion of “a web of narratives” leads Steffler into a discussion of writing about nature, or environmental literature. This genre begins with Thoreau; other examples include Annie Dillard, Barry Lopez, Gary Snyder, and Canadian poets (Robert Bringhurst, Louise Halfe, Tim Lilburn, Don McKay, Jan Zwicky) (61-62). He also cites Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks and Paul Evans’s Field Notes from the Edge as examples. English nature writers particularly interest Steffler, because they tend to focus on the connection between language and environmental restoration, perhaps because “England has for a long time been a largely domesticated landscape,” in comparison to North America (62). That discussion leads to a brief analysis of Margaret Atwood’s poem “The Animals in that Country.” That poem’s distinction between the anthropomorphized animals of “that country” (Europe) and the unknown animals of this one (Canada) fascinates and I think troubles Steffler. He notes, correctly, that the “this country” of the poem, the one in which animals are merely glimpsed from behind the windshield of a vehicle travelling down a dark highway, is not a geographical space but rather a cultural one. “If I were not travelling so fast in this car,” he writes, 

if I were to stop and get out and grope my way into the roadside woods and sit and wait until my eyes got used to the dark, things would look different. If the animal passed close to me here I would probably be briefly frightened, at least surprised, as the animal also would be, seeing me here unexpectedly. But I might be able to say what kind of animal it is. (65)

In the same way, spending a lifetime in that forest would likely mean he would come to know the animal “in familiar detail,” from “encounters, stories, legends, from a whole web of shared knowledge” (65). According to Steffler,

seeing nature as unalterably alien and nameless can produce a culture that diverges further and further from its natural environment, a culture that evolves an ever thicker artificial shell and directs its energies into escapist fantasies. This seems to be what’s happening now, not only in “this country” but throughout Western civilization. We strive for a technological utopia while our efforts are destroying the natural environment on which our survival depends. (67)

Our culture as a whole needs to get out of the car and walk into the woods, in other words. That’s one of the reasons walking interests me: it’s a way to come to know the world that’s in a much deeper way than our typical modes of transportation allow.

Thinking along these lines brings Steffler to a consideration of Indigenous people and Canada’s ongoing colonial behaviour. “There is a convention among non-Indigenous writers in Canada—if they wish to avoid controversy—to write little or nothing about Indigenous people and issues,” he notes, “unless the writers are working alongside Indigenous people on matters such as treaty rights, land claims and the legacy of residential schools, or unless they have been accepted into an Indigenous community and can write of shared experience rather than as outside observers” (69). As a result, “many non-Indigenous writers choose to keep silent about the presence of Indigenous people in Canadian history, territory and culture” (69). “But it seems to me,” he continues, 

that it would show wilful ignorance or at least complacent naivety for me to go on thinking about the relationship between wilderness on the page and the role of wilderness in the dominant culture of this continent . . . without recognizing that I’ve entered other people’s home, that there are people whose ancestors have lived in this landscape for thousands of years and who no doubt think of it and know it in ways that are very different from mine, who probably don’t see it as wilderness in the way I do, who probably see it imbued with a history very different from the one I am capable of imagining. (69)

That might be true, but it also ignores the long history of colonial practices of misunderstanding and misrepresenting Indigenous peoples. Perhaps it would be better simply to attend to Indigenous voices, something he suggests in the very next paragraph:

I believe that being overly discreet and shy about Indigenous issues only serves to further marginalize Indigenous people and, perhaps most significantly—since there is an increasing number of Indigenous writers speaking eloquently for their communities and themselves—it serves to allow colonizers’ descendants to avoid taking an honest, responsible look at their history—it’s my own—and how those colonizers came to occupy and use territory the way they did. How their descendants still do. (70)

This section of the book is suffused with regret and shame at the history Steffler (and all settlers and descendants of settlers in this country) have inherited:

My ancestors should have sought to join and merge with the people who lived here authentically, who had drawn their identity from thousands of years of intimate knowledge of this land. Instead they scorned them or disregarded them or feared them and pushed them aside. So, I have inherited the land as ‘raw nature.’ The history I learned to read here is the history of geology and biology. On top of that is the recent history of industry, mining, roads, power lines, logging, and farming. (72)

The realities of power and racism prevented settlers from joining with the people who lived here, of course, and yet Steffler argues that even though they have been evicted, the presence of those original inhabitants remains:

Where I live the old forests have been cleared and have partly grown back. The long-time first human inhabitants were evicted. There is nothing left of them that I can see. And yet their absence and their accumulated lives are here all the time. It is something general, something nameless I experience as I walk in the woods. Perhaps they have left everything of themselves in what I see. (72)

At this point, I think that Steffler acknowledges the contradictions in his definition of “wilderness,” if only obliquely, and the problems in thinking about the land as something beyond language: “I want the land in itself to remain beyond names, unknown, eternal, bound to survive human stupidity; and yet I wish I could say it is as deeply my home as the home of the Anishinaabe” (72). The Anishinaabe, of course, understood the land through language and culture as well as through experience, or rather, their experience of the land was shaped through their language and culture. Why, then, ask the land to remain something unknown, beyond language? 

The land cannot be his home the way it was (or is) the home of the Anishinaabe because of the failure of settler mythologies:

What mythology did I inherit from my elders and surrounding culture? What narratives coloured the weather and landscape around me? I didn’t learn about Biboon and the Memegwesi as a child. I didn’t glimpse Artemis in the Ontario forest or sense Apollo in the sky. What I inherited was a combination of scientific materialism and generic Christianity. The scientific materialism taught that there is an infinite complex of physical systems at work all around in both animate and inanimate things—systems to learn about, admire and manipulate—and that every event and phenomenon is the result of explicable physical causes. Christianity taught that this is all charged with divinity and also moral meaning because it is God’s Creation within which humanity is being judged. The potential tension and incompatibility between the scientific and religious elements of this mythology were politely ignored. (73)

I posted part of that quotation on Facebook when I read it, because I think there’s something quite true in it, and I think that it helps to explain why settlers appropriate Indigenous stories and myths: it’s because they need them in order to indigenize themselves, in order to imagine themselves as belonging here. Immediately someone responded, suggesting that there are many mythologies (from Star Wars to Marvel comics) one can take on. I think that response missed the point: those narratives are, to say the least, shallow and inconsequential (sorry Star Wars fans) and they cannot give someone like Steffler the sense of rootedness he is searching for. That rootedness is only available in Indigenous narratives, and yet those stories are off-limits because they do not belong to descendants of settlers. Had settlers actually joined with the people they found in this land when they arrived, of course, the situation would be very different. Perhaps Steffler’s sense of being rootless is one of the many consequences of the form of colonialism we continue to perpetrate.

“In any case,” Steffler continues, it soon seemed to me that what I valued most in the natural world was wilderness, its fierce and mysterious nonhuman otherness”: 

I disliked hearing nature tamed in human narratives. I did not want to channel or ritualize my response to the seasons, to the rising and setting sun, to the stars or to anything in nature through reference to Christ or Persephone or any mythic figures. I wanted a more direct encounter with—a respect for—the things themselves, more in animistic than scientific terms. I wanted to let myself respond to trees beyond their names, beyond what I think I know of them, sensing them extended through space and time joined with other life forms and elements we normally think of as separate. 

Why this push into wilderness, this distrust of culture? Perhaps because I am stranded between cultures here. Or I am ashamed of my culture because of the harm it has done. (74)

But even that animistic encounter would necessarily be through language—perhaps through an Indigenous language, and I think Steffler realizes that:

Most of the Indigenous languages that evolved in this landscape and contain the legacy of human life here are spoken, if at all, but a minority of the country’s current population. It’s deeply encouraging that an Indigenous cultural resurgence is now underway, with the result that many Indigenous languages are being restored to active use. (81)

Nevertheless, those languages are, Steffler feels, unavailable to him, and his own language, English, is compromised by its history:

My language, English, is a deeply encoded history on a transparent sheet that has been slid across this landscape and continent after the old voices were silenced or went underground. There is little direct connection between my language and what lies beneath it. I am looking down into the depth of the land and the past as though from inside a glass-bottomed boat. 

I have to bore holes into that glass bottom, let the land, weather and old ghosts into the English-Canadian boat. I have to sink the boat, dissolve its hull, make English not English, make my words—ancient words rooted in Europe and the Middle East and all the people who have moved through that world—open containers, hollow my words so they can hold scoops of the world here, so that my language will register as English, be understood by all the English speakers, and yet be something else inside, the language of this place. (81)

I think what Steffler is describing here is a form of poetic language that can somehow transcend the colonial history of English and reach towards some kind of authentic “language of this place.” Of course, such languages already exist, as Steffler notes. However, he writes,

I have not learned Ojibwe; I have not even tried. Perhaps I’ve not done so out of fear of being rebuffed by the Anishinaabe or because I’m afraid of being accused of cultural appropriation. I value the few Indigenous words and place names I know. They feel like links to an underlying reality, to the deep land here, to its human history and perhaps to its authentic future. (81-82)

From my experience learning (or trying to learn) Plains Cree, I doubt that Steffler’s fears have any bearing in reality. Nevertheless, if he’s like me, Steffler would be unlikely to achieve any kind of fluency in Ojibwe. What he might learn, though, is something about the connection between that language and the land, and he might begin to put away his desire for a direct, non-linguistic connection to the land, along with (perhaps) the word “wilderness.”

Despite his sense that his connection to the land is inauthentic, Steffler does argue that he has a relationship with it:“although the land I live on is stolen land, land my ancestors barged into, I do have a deep relationship with it. It is the substance of my mind. Its life, its presence, is seamlessly part of my own life. The exchange is like breathing. The communication is much more ancient than words” (82). Nevertheless, he continues, 

I imagine there is a depth of experience, a richness of understanding, that comes only from having an intricate inherited relationship to a place, from having a sense of a history and ancestry that are palpably local, and from having a similar sense that one’s language is the creation of one’s people, their specific language, born from their interaction with the still-present, familiar, immediate world. (82)

That kind of relationship would be very different from the desire of Western culture to try to control things, a desire that is constantly subverted by wilderness, which “not only surrounds our culture; it invades it. Where we discover the things we’ve made are out of control or breaking down is a place where wilderness begins” (85). Our bodies, because they can’t be entirely controlled, are part of wilderness, as are our unconscious minds, our creativity, desires, and impulses (86). “In many ways we are still mysteries to ourselves,” Steffler writes (86).

“My guess is that if your gods are animals or part-human-part-animal you do not see yourself as essentially or entirely distinct from other creatures,” he continues (86). I think Steffler is on to something there, and that sentence made me think about the Cree and Saulteaux stories I’ve read, and their strangeness compared to the English or European stories I’m used to. Perhaps in figures like the Elder Brother (there’s no snow on the ground so I’m not going to spell out his name) we see a connection between humans and other animals. But even though Steffler makes this suggestion, he also believes that 

we made ourselves human by rebelling against nature—by taking more for ourselves than nature offers our fellow creatures—but now it seems we can retain our humanity only by accepting nature—accepting limits to what we make of ourselves. Perhaps the essence of the human was always in the tension between our limitless longing and our mortality, in our need to come to terms with this mystery. Perhaps the difficult, necessary practice of reconciling our desires and imaginations with the natural limiting conditions of our lives gives us a dignity and a kind of majesty that our celebrated gods with their easy immortality can never match. (87)

Were Indigenous cultures engaged in that kind of rebellion against nature? I don’t think so. Weren’t they trying to live in harmony or relationship with the land? Isn’t Steffler describing the culture that grew up in Europe over the past thousand years and spread all over the planet like a virus?

Steffler continues to think about the notion that, in an “acultural state,” 

the experience of wilderness and the self’s experience of the world” would see the self being dispersed, having “its life in the surrounding phenomena as part of the environment, as part of a network of active creatures and elements. Experience then is not a matter of projecting emotions and values into external things but of actually participating in those things, being constituted by them. (99)

Of course, the notion of an “acultural state” is a fiction; all human societies have cultures, ways of looking at the world, languages. Nevertheless, Steffler wants to see both the differences between wilderness and ourselves, and to claim that poetry might be able to bridge those differences:

Wilderness is made up of constant movement, constant change, which means individual things dying that do not want to die and individual things being born that exult in being alive, and this constant combined process, this life made up of birth and death, is what the self embraces in wilderness, and its fierce energy and joy is what the poet can bring back to people bent over and focussed on the consequences of each gain and loss, on the reprieve and demands of each birth, the loss and opportunity of each death. The human heart wearies, gripping things like that. (100)

And yet, he continues to seek that non-linguistic or unmediated experience of the world:

No words, however beautiful, terrifying, surprising, or disorienting, can serve as a substitute for the unmediated experience of the real world any more than the virtual reality of the computer monitor or TV screen can substitute for raw reality. Language shapes our experience of reality but can’t replace it. We evolved in the natural world over millions of years. The energies and unconscious meaning we draw from being alive on the Earth are different from and more powerful than anything we get from an artificial symbolic system, however intimately our minds are aligned with it. (107)

I’m still convinced that this desire for “the unmediated experience of the real world” is a dead end and a mistake; all human cultures have language, and yet non-Western cultures have a fundamentally different (and, arguably, less destructive and more holistic) way of understanding or experiencing the world. Shouldn’t Steffler be more interested in learning from those cultures than in seeking something that he’s not going to find?

So, does Forty-One Pages: On Poetry, Language and Wilderness belong in this project? I’m still not sure. I think it might, if only because it’s an example of a descendant of settlers trying to come to terms what that means. My larger project, too, is going to be an attempt to understand what it means to be a descendant of settlers living on Treaty 4 territory in southern Saskatchewan. And yet, I do think that the term “wilderness” and the desire Steffler has for an experience of the world unmediated by language is a false start. It would be better, I think, for him to overcome his fears and learn a little Ojibwe, even if he’s never fluent enough to write poetry in that language. Perhaps I’m being too hard on Steffler; perhaps his desire for experience unmediated by language is connected to his desire to make poetry that captures, paradoxically, non-linguistic experience in language. That’s a possibility. I’m not sure.

Work Cited

 Steffler, John. Forty-One Pages: On Poetry, Language and Wilderness, University of Regina Press, 2019.

74. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Reveries of the Solitary Walker


I was surprised to learn recently that long walks—the kind of walks that Deirdre Heddon and Cathy Turner refer to as “epic” or “heroic”—are completely out of fashion among (some?) walking artists. Actually, “out of fashion” is the wrong term. According to Heddon and Turner, 

the reiteration of a particular genealogy—or fraternity—which includes Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Henry David Thoreau, André Breton and Guy Debord generates an orthodoxy of walking, tending towards an implicitly masculinist ideology. This frequently frames and valorizes walking as individualist, heroic, epic and transgressive. Such qualities are not exclusive to men of course; however, as we go on to suggest, a lack of attention to gender serves to fix the terms of debate, so that qualities such as “heroism” and “transgression” are understood predominantly in relation to a historically masculinist set of norms. (224)

I’ve written about Heddon’s and Turner’s work here before, and I want to reiterate that their discussion of other kinds of walking opens up space for, as they write, “other types of walking practices and the insights they might prompt” (224), which is absolutely important. And yet, to abandon long walks as masculinist and to use apparently mocking terms like “heroic” and “epic” goes beyond opening up space for other kinds of walking; it narrows the range of walking practices that are considered acceptable. It’s important to construct, as they do, an alternate genealogy of women’s walking practices, and it’s important that such a genealogy include practices influenced by or derived from social or relational aesthetics, such as the work of London-based walkwalkwalk (Heddon and Turner 233) or Emma Bush’s Village Walk (Heddon and Turner 233-34) or Misha Myers’s Way from Home (Heddon and Turner 234), and that it include walking practices in domestic spaces and activities as well, such as Cathy Turner’s portion of Wrights & Sites’s performance Simultaneous Drift: 4 walks, 4 routes, 4 screens (Heddon and Turner 232-33). But it’s another thing entirely to mandate that walking practices that are not influenced by relational or social aesthetics, or that are not domestic, are therefore without value. True, Heddon and Turner refer to women who walk long distances—Linda Cracknell, Elspeth Owen, and the duo of Simone Kenyon and Tamara Ashley—but they also argue that those walking practices are significantly different from the “masculinist” ones they critique. If you’re a man, and you walk long distances, particularly if you walk by yourself, there’s something wrong with what you’re doing: that’s the implication.

Sometime, I’d like to write an essay entitled “In Defence of ‘Epic’ Walking,” but first I want to think a little bit about the canon of walking that Heddon and Turner describe (or deride) as “masculinist.” For that reason, I decided to read Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s short (and unfinished) book Reveries of the Solitary Walker. For Heddon and Turner, “Rousseau’s late-eighteenth-century assertion that he could only meditate when walking is much cited as a founding moment in the history of walking understood as a cultural act, as a means in itself,” one that has become canonized in recent accounts of walking written by Rebecca Solnit and Joseph Amato (226). “It is not walking, per se, that enables Rousseau’s deep contemplation but the sense of freedom engendered by walking alone,” Heddon and Turner continue, quoting a passage from Rousseau’s Confessions that is echoed in Reveries of the Solitary Walker: “Walking serves to erase ‘everything that makes me feel my dependence, [. . .] everything that recalls me to my situation’” (qtd. Heddon and Turner 226). “The specificity of the body that is able to walk alone in the eighteenth century is worth remarking,” they conclude, suggesting that only a masculine body that would be able to walk alone and, perhaps by extension, a masculine mind that would be interested in solitary contemplation. 

It might be unfortunate that Rousseau’s form of walking has become canonized, that it has come to be seen as one of the only possible forms of walking available to people. Actually, it is unfortunate, because there are other kinds of walking that have value, as Heddon and Turner point out. However, that doesn’t mean that solitary walking, or solitary walking as an aid to meditation, is necessarily a bad thing, does it? And, if we look at Rousseau’s life, we can see that there are obvious reasons the French writer preferred to walk by himself. As the translator of the Oxford edition of Reveries of the Solitary Walker, Russell Goulbourne, points out, the publication of Rousseau’s The Social Contract in 1762 “brought him not only the celebrity he loathed but also the infamy that saw him, in his terms, driven into exile, unfairly rejected by his fellow men” (xi). “In response to the events of 1762 and their traumatic repercussions,” Goulbourne continues, “Rousseau’s gaze turned inward and he wrote . . . a kind of triptych of autobiographical works”: his Confessions, Rousseau Judge of Jean-Jacques: Dialogues, and the Reveries, which was “his last attempt to achieve some kind of mental and spiritual balance in his life” (xi-xii). The Reveries was left unfinished when Rousseau died in 1778 and published posthumously, like the Confessions (xii). Goulbourne argues that the Reveries are a kind of continuation of the Confessions, but that they are also “different in character and scope,” because rather than explaining himself to others, in the Reveries he is addressing only himself, in an attempt at understanding himself (xiii). “His narrative is resolutely non-linear and profoundly introspective and personal,” since he no longer wishes to be understood by others, Goulbourne writes (xiii). Indeed, the Reveries show Rousseau “apparently accepting himself and endeavouring to give himself the space in which to express himself and feel as never before what it means to exist”; the book is intended “as a poignant response to, and an extended rebellion against, those who have tried to control him” (xiii). In the Reveries, Rousseau claims that “he finds strength in indifference towards his enemies and persecutors, and happiness in solitude amidst nature” (xiii). From the outset, he argues “that he must accept his fate” and “stop fighting against it,” and that acceptance becomes 

an apparent triumph over those who seek to control him: his introspection leads him to seek out and find a remedy for his sufferings in those sufferings themselves. In other words, he turns isolation and solitude to his own advantage. He revels in the fact that, in spite of themselves, his enemies have given him an opportunity he gladly embraces: the opportunity to be alone. (xiv)

But, Goulbourne asks, is Rousseau as happy as he claims? The text, he writes, 

gives voice to contradictions and obsessions which give us a very sharp sense of a Rousseau still working through the problems he claims to have overcome. Most obviously, this is a text shot through with such a vivid sense of there being widespread hostility towards Rousseau that it is difficult to accept that he is merely indifferent to misfortune and persecution. In addition, thoroughgoing self-analysis does not prevent Rousseau from engaging in more or less subtle self-defence, even self-exoneration. (xiv)

“It follows, then, that this is no straightforward text about a man fleeing society and finding happiness in total seclusion,” Goulbourne argues (xv).

According to Goulbourne, “Rousseau’s love of solitude is not simply a form of misanthropy, since he also insists from the outset on his own sociability”:

What he turns away from is not society per se, but rather the forms of social contact and interaction that supposedly polite society expects of him. . . . Solitude is a response to the specific realities of a particular society, since that society cannot in principle provide the kind of interaction he desires: the strictly codified norms of courteous behaviour are repellent for Rousseau, since they impede, according to him, true communication and undermine authentic sociability. It is precisely because his desire for authentic sociability is frustrated by conventional society that Rousseau feels alienated from it, and this is why he escapes the world of men in order to recover the true nature of things. (xv-xvi)

Contemporary readers might disagree with Rousseau’s reaction to the styles and norms of behaviour and communication in eighteenth-century France, but that reaction—particularly in the context of the persecution he experienced—needs to be understood as the source of his desire for solitude and his preference for walking alone. Goulbourne writes, 

From the demands of corrupt society Rousseau turns to the world of nature. Walking alone in nature guarantees and even intensifies his sense of self. . . . His happiness comes in part form his being at one with nature, which was a refuge for Rousseau from the anxieties of life, providing him with relative solitude and a rich source of distractions, both of which offer him peace of mind. (xvi)

“The diversity of nature keeps Rousseau busy and helps him not to think unpleasant, unwanted thoughts,” Goulbourne continues, and Rousseau “delves into this diversity through his interest in botany”; although he characterizes botany as an easy pastime, he was in reality serious and systematic about it (xvi). The solitary walks are often an excuse for botanizing—for identifying plants and collecting specimens—which becomes a way Rousseau relates to the natural world. (I sympathize with this, because I have often gone for walks on native grassland with a field guide in my pocket and a few bags for gathering ripe seeds to plant at home. And in my experience, that activity has been a solitary one, because nobody I know is interested in walks that include frequent stops to figure out what a particular plant is called or in collecting seeds.)

Rousseau’s self-analysis in the book “is structured around a series of ten walks,” which “allow his mind to wander” as his feet do, and give him an opportunity “to meditate and to muse” (xvii). For Rousseau, Goulbourne writes, such musings or reveries become  

a way of life, an ongoing means of triumphing over the grim realities of the existence that others seek to impose on him. He makes of it, not a passing phase, but a key to his existence, and crucially a key to his overcoming his enemies: meditation and (self-)mastery are as one. And more than that, for Rousseau reverie is also a means of storing up a treasure trove of happy memories that will in turn bring him happiness in the future. Reverie revives the past and ensures its survival; writing, reading, and rereading are all integral to Rousseau’s pursuit of happiness. (xviii)

Walking inspires thought, for Rousseau, and in representing those thoughts, the Reveries “attempt to portray the twists and turns” of Rousseau’s mind (xxi). In other words, Goulbourne writes, 

the Reveries paint the portrait of a thinking man as he thinks—and, crucially for Rousseau, as he walks and feels. Each of the ten walks in the Reveries is grounded in the everyday, and it is precisely their anecdotal, down-to-earth quality that makes them so appealing. The things Rousseau does, the places he visits, the people he encounters: all these are spurs to creative introspection. It is as Rousseau observes his fellow human beings and even interacts with them that he sets about analysing himself and, in so doing, reflecting on fundamental questions about life and human nature: the experience of suffering and death; the search for individual happiness and inner peace; the need for personal morality; sociability and misanthropy; love of others; the authenticity (or otherwise) of the individual in society. (xxii)

“The structure of the text is determined by the chance association of ideas as Rousseau’s mind wanders in tandem with his feet,” Goulbourne notes (xxii). But, he continues, “what is radically new about the Reveries: the text is intended as a means of expression of his own self for his own self” (xxiii). 

The Reveries was an influence on other walking writers, including William Hazlitt and Henry David Thoreau (xxiv), and Mary Wollstonecraft and William Wordsworth (xxv). Goulbourne also suggests that there is a connection between Rousseau with W.G. Sebald’s book The Rings of Saturn,” which he describes as “a meditative work blurring the boundaries between fact and fiction” (xxvii). Goulbourne concludes: 

The work of a great prose stylist and a controversial philosopher, the Reveries still appeal to modern readers because they are the enduring testimony of an alienated person who wants to know himself, rebel against the forces that constrain him, and live as an autonomous individual. They are the work of a person who is not afraid to lay bare his psychological frailty and human vulnerability. They give a window onto the soul of someone who is different, who does not fit in, an eccentric/ex-centric that cannot—or does not want to—find a place in conventional, supposedly civilized society. Rousseau is thus at once exceptional . . . and exemplary. (xxviii)

When I read those words, I wondered if there’s a place in contemporary walking aesthetics for people who don’t fit in, who aren’t extroverted or socially motivated, who are eccentric and solitary. I would hope that there is. After all, walking art is, from the perspective of the mainstream, an unusual activity. But the demand that all walking practices be defined by social or relational aesthetics suggests that there is no space in aesthetic walking for eccentric introverts or people who, like Rousseau, have been abused by others and therefore seek an escape from the potential for more abuse. That’s the root of my discomfort with Heddon’s and Turner’s essay: making space for other forms of practice is salutary, but dismissing all practices that do not conform to one’s preferred forms risks repeating the forms of exclusion that one is critiquing.

At the beginning of the “First Walk,” Rousseau emphasizes his isolation, but argues that his solitary situation is not his fault. It is, rather, the result of his banishment by society:

So here I am, all alone on this earth, with no brother, neighbour, or friend, and no company but my own. The most sociable and loving of human beings has by common consent been banished by the rest of society. In the refinement of their hatred they have continued to seek out the cruellest forms of torture for my sensitive soul, and they have brutally severed all ties which bound me to them. I would have loved my fellow men in spite of themselves. Only by ceasing to be men have they succeeded in losing my affection for them. So now they are strangers, persons unknown who mean nothing to me since that is what they wanted. But what about me, cut off from them and from everything else, what am I? This is what remains for me to find out now. (3)

Rousseau ignores his wife here, which isn’t surprising; an editor’s note points out that Rousseau thought little of women writers (111), and perhaps that disdain included women who didn’t write as well. I don’t know enough about Rousseau’s life to understand their relationship. He does mention his wife a few times in the Reveries, but for the most part she is taken for granted. Perhaps that wasn’t unusual in the eighteenth century, although it certainly stands out as a problem now.

Since 1762, Rousseau suggests, he has been thought of “as a monster, a poisoner, and a murderer” and that he has become “an abomination to the human race and the plaything of the rabble,” that “the only greeting that passers-by would offer would be to spit on me,” and that “a whole generation would by common consent delight in burying me alive” (3-4). That rejection, he writes, “plunged me into a frenzy which has taken no less than ten years to subside, during which time, as I reeled from one error to another, from one mistake to another and from one foolish act to another, my reckless behaviour gave those who were responsible for my fate all the ammunition that they have so skilfully used to determine it once and for all” (4). His battles against his antagonists—“fighting without cunning, without skill, without deceit, without caution, frankly, openly, impatiently, and angrily”—simply made things worse and gave his critics “new holds over me which they were careful to exploit” (4). Acceptance, or resignation, was the only way out of his quandry:

Finally realizing that all my efforts were useless and that I was tormenting myself to no avail whatsoever, I took the only remaining course of action left open to me, which was to accept my fate and stop struggling against the inevitable. I have found in this resignation the cure for all my ills through the peace of mind that it gives me and which was incompatible with continually pursuing a struggle that was as agonizing as it was ineffectual. (4)

According to Rousseau, his antagonists also left him without hope, which made such resignation easier (4-5). As a result, he continues,

Everything outside of me is from this day on foreign to me. I no longer have any neighbours, fellow men or brothers in this world. Being on this earth is like being on another planet onto which I have fallen from the one on which I used to live. If I recognize anything at all around me, it is only objects which distress and rend my heart, and I cannot even look at what touches me and what surrounds me without forever seeing something contemptible which angers me or something painful which wounds me. (7)

It’s worth pointing out the gendered language he uses here: he uses masculine nouns to stand in for men and women. That was probably commonplace in the eighteenth century; it was commonplace only a few decades ago.

According to Rousseau, this book is a way of “preparing the account of myself which I shall soon have to render” (7). But it is also an exercise in the only pleasure other people cannot take away from him:

Let me give myself over entirely to the pleasure of conversing with my soul, for this is the only pleasure that my fellow men cannot take away from me. If by dint of reflecting on my inner feelings I am able to order them better and put right the wrongs that may remain, my meditations will not be entirely in vain, and while I am good for nothing on this earth, I shall not have entirely wasted my days. The leisure of my daily walks has often been filled with delightful thoughts which I am sorry to have forgotten. I shall preserve in writing those which come to me in the future: every time I reread them I shall experience the pleasure of them again. I shall forget my misfortunes, my persecutors, and my shame by thinking of the honour my heart had deserved. (7-8)

“These pages will in fact be merely a shapeless account of my reveries,” he continues. “They will often be about me, because a reflective solitary man necessarily thinks about himself a lot. What is more, all the strange ideas which come to me as I walk will also find their place here.” (8) In its shapelessness and strangeness, it seems clear that Rousseau’s account is not intended for an audience; the Reveries was a private text, and as readers we become privy to Rousseau’s thinking—including his self-justications and defensive arguments—as if we were reading a diary or a journal.

The “First Walk” in the text is introductory—I doubt that any walking was involved. In the “Second Walk,” Rousseau claims that the book he is writing will be “a faithful record of my solitary walks and the reveries that fill them when I let my mind wander quite freely and my ideas follow their own course unhindered and untroubled” (11). He explains why solitude and meditation are important to him: “These hours of solitude and meditation are the only time of the day when I am completely myself, without distraction or hindrance, and when I can truly say that I am what nature intended me to be” (11). He is old, though, and his imagination less vigorous than it used to be, and so “now there is more recollection than creation in what my imagination produces, an apathetic listlessness saps all my faculties, and the spirit of life is gradually dying within me”; therefore, he decides to remember an earlier time when, “losing all hope here on earth and finding no more sustenance left on earth for my heart, I gradually became used to feeding it with its own substance and seeking out its nourishment within me” (11). That practice, he continues, 

proved so fruitful that it was soon enough to compensate me for everything. The habit of turning in on myself eventually made me insensible to my suffering, and almost made me forget it altogether, and so I learnt through my own experience that the source of true happiness is within us and that it is not within men’s ability to make anyone truly wretched who is determined to be happy. (11)

There is a sense here that, given his experiences, solitary and meditative walking is essential to Rousseau’s happiness, and that without them he would be miserable.

Rousseau writes about an afternoon walk into the country, during which he looked at and catalogued plants and thought about the approaching winter: 

I recalled with fondness all my heart’s affections, its attachments which had been so tender and yet so blind, and the ideas—more comforting than they were sad—which had nourished my mind for a number of years, and I prepared myself to remember them clearly enough to be able to describe them with a pleasure that was almost equal to the pleasure of experiencing them in the first place. (13)

As he was walking home, however, he was knocked down by a Great Dane that was running ahead of a carriage: “It was almost night when I regained consciousness. I found myself in the arms of three or four young men who told me what had just happened”: the coachman stopped the carriage, otherwise Rousseau would have been run over (13-14). Despite his injuries, the moments when he was coming back to himself were delightful, partly because he was removed from himself:

Night was falling. I saw the sky, a few stars, and a little greenery. This first sensation was a moment of delight. It alone gave me some feeling of myself. In that instant I was born into life, and it seemed to me as if I was filling all the things I saw with my frail existence. Entirely taken up by that moment, I could not remember anything else; I had no clear sense of myself as an individual, nor the slightest idea of what had just happened to me; I did not know who I was nor where I was; I felt neither pain nor fear nor anxiety. I watched my blood flowing as if I were watching a stream, without even thinking that this blood was in any way part of me. Throughout my whole being I felt a wonderful calm with which, whenever I think of it, I can find nothing to compare in the whole realm of known pleasures. (14)

When he finally arrived home, his wife cried over his appearance; his top lip was split open, and his face swollen and bruised; his left thumb was injured, his left arm sprained, and his left knee swollen and stiff; but he had not lost any teeth (15). As a sign of the ongoing persecution he experienced, rumours immediately spread across Paris that he had been disfigured and was now unrecognizable (16). Rumours of his death are printed in a newspaper (18). For Rousseau, the success of the plots against him seemed to be “one of Heaven’s secrets, impenetrable to human reason,” and this idea consoled and calmed him, and helped him to a feeling of resignation (19).

In Rousseau’s “Third Walk,” he notes that he grew up in “rural solitude”: “Lonely meditation, the study of nature, and the contemplation of the universe necessarily make a solitary person strive continually for the author of all things and seek with a sweet anxiety the purpose of everything he sees and the cause of everything he feels” (22). However, he continues, “[w]hen my destiny threw me back into the torrent of the world, I could not find anything there that pleased my heart even for a moment. Wherever I went I missed my sweet freedom and I felt indifference and disgust for anything that came my way that could have led to fortune and fame. (22-23). At the age of 40, then, he renounced his efforts to succeed socially (23), and began copying music by the page (24). “A great change that had recently taken place in me,” he writes:

a different moral world that was opening up before me, the irrational judgements of men, whose absurdity I was beginning to feel, though without yet realizing just how much I would fall victim to them, the ever-growing need for something other than literary notoriety, barely a whiff of which had reached me before I was already sickened by it, and finally the desire to follow a less certain road for the rest of my career than that on which I had just spent the better half of it: all this forced me to undertake this great examination which I had felt I needed for a long time. So I undertook it, and I neglected nothing in my power in order to carry it out successfully. (24)

His “complete renunciation of the world,” he writes, gave him “that great fondness for solitude that has never left me since”:

The work that I was undertaking cold only be accomplished in absolute isolation; it called for the kind of long and undisturbed meditations that the tumult of society does not allow. That forced me for a time to adopt a different way of life, which I was subsequently so glad to have done that, having since then interrupted it only against my will and for short periods of time, I returned to it most readily and limited myself to it quiet easily as soon as I could, and when men later reduced me to living alone, I found that by isolating me in order to make me miserable, they had done more for my happiness than I had been able to do myself. (24)

He decides that “this life was merely a series of trials,” and that they would lead to “recompense” later on (29); he finds contentment and consolation in acceptance of his situation (30-32), and in the study of virtues such as “patience, kindness, resignation, integrity, and impartial justice” (32). 

In the “Fourth Walk,” Rousseau decides to contemplate why people tell lies. He remembers “an awful lie I had told when I was very young,” a lie about a stolen ribbon which cost a servant her position (33-34). That lie “and the unceasing remorse that it left me inspired in me a horror of lying that should have protected my heart from this vice for the rest of my life,” although he then recalls many lies he told afterwards without remorse (34). He wonders if there are times “when one can deceive people innocently” (35); in other words, whether one must always tell the truth (35-37). “To lie for one’s own advantage is imposture, to lie for the advantage of others is fraud, and to lie in order to do harm is calumny; this is the worst kind of lie,” he writes. “To lie without benefit or harm to oneself or to others is not to lie: it is not a lie, but a fiction” (38). That distinction—between falsehood and fiction—structures the remainder of his musings. Rousseau realizes that he often has “recourse to fiction in order to have something to say” in social situations, in order to be able to engage in small talk: 

Conversation, flowing faster than my ideas and forcing me almost always to speak before thinking, has often led me to make stupid and inept remarks which my reason disapproved of and which my heart disowned even before they had passed my lips, but which, spoken before I could apply my judgement, were no longer susceptible to being corrected by its censure. (42)

Rousseau concludes, 

my professed truthfulness is based more on feelings of justice and rectitude than on the reality of things, and that I have followed in practice more the moral dictates of my conscience than abstract notions of truth and falsehood. I have often told lots of stories, but I have very rarely lied. By following these principles I have made myself very vulnerable to criticism from others, but I have done nobody any wrong, and I have not laid claim to more advantage than was owing to me. Only in this way, it seems to me, can truth be a virtue. In all other respects it is for us no more than a metaphysical thing which leads to neither good nor evil. (47)

However, that conclusion is not sufficient. In his writing, when he “embellished real things with made-up ornaments,” he argues that he was wrong; he should have committed himself “absolutely to truth,” and sacrificing the truth to his “interests and desires” was not enough: 

I should also have sacrificed it to my weakness and timid nature. I should have had the courage and the strength always to be truthful, on all occasions, and never to allow fictions or fables to pass my lips or come from my pen which was specifically dedicated to truth. . . . My lies were never dictated to me by falsehood; they all came through weakness, though that is a very poor excuse. With a weak soul one may at the very most be able to shun virtue, but it is arrogant and reckless to dare to profess great virtues. (48)

So the distinction between lies and stories ends up being abandoned, and the need to be honest at all times, which he earlier questioned, becomes his rule—even though he is probably too weak to follow it.

At the beginning of his “Fifth Walk,” Rousseau recalls an island where he lived for six weeks during his exile, on a lake in Switzerland; what seems to attract him to this place is its quietness and its well-kept domesticity: 

For all its smallness, the island is so varied in soil and position that it has all kinds of places suitable for all sorts of things to be grown. It includes fields, vineyards, woodland, orchards, and rich pastures shaded by trees and lined by shrubs of all varieties, all of which are kept watered by the edges of the lake; a raised terrace, planted with two rows of trees, runs the length of the island, and in the middle of this terrace a pretty summerhouse has been built, where the inhabitants of the neighbouring shores gather for dancing on Sundays during the grape harvest. (50)

He stayed on that island as a refuge after a mob stoned his house at Môtiers (50)—that’s an essential piece of the story he is telling. He writes,

the only company I had there, apart from my companion, was the steward, his wife, and his servants, who were certainly all very good people and nothing more, but this was precisely what I needed. I consider those two months to be the happiest time in my life, so happy in fact that it would have been enough for me to have lived like that for the whole of my life, without ever feeling in my soul the desire to live in any other state. (50)

On the island, he doesn’t read or write anything; he spends time botanizing (51). He also helped out with the harvest, picking fruit, which put him into a “good mood” (52). Then, in the afternoons, he would go out on a boat alone, he writes, and “let myself float and drift slowly wherever the water took me, sometimes for several hours at a time, plunged in a thousand vague but delightful reveries, which, although they did not have any clear or constant subject, I always found a hundred times preferable to all the sweetest things I had enjoyed in what are known as the pleasures of life” (52-53). “What does one enjoy in such a situation?” he asks:

Nothing external to the self, nothing but oneself and one’s own existence: as long as this state lasts, one is self-sufficient like God. The feeling of existence stripped of all other affections is in itself a precious feeling of contentment and peace which alone would be enough to make this existence prized and cherished by anyone who could banish all the sensual and earthly impressions which constantly distract us from it and upset the joy of it in this world. (55-56)

However, not everyone can experience those feelings of contentment and peace:

It is true that such compensations cannot be felt by every soul or in every situation. The heart must be at peace and its calm untroubled by passion. The person who experiences them must be suitably disposed to them, as must all the surrounding objects. There must be neither total calm nor too much agitation, but a steady and moderate movement with neither jolts nor pauses. Without movement life is but lethargy. If the movement is irregular or too violent, it rouses us; by reminding us about the surrounding objects, it destroys the charm of the reverie, tears us out of ourselves, immediately puts us back beneath the yoke of fortune and men, and makes us aware of our misfortunes again. Absolute silence leads to sadness. It offers an image of death. So the help of a cheerful imagination is necessary and comes quite naturally to those whom Heaven has blessed with it. The movement which does not come from outside is created within us on such occasions. (56)

I think that walking is an example of the kind of movement that helps to generate the feelings of peace Rousseau describes here, although he might also be thinking of the movement of the boat he was in as well. In any case, Rousseau is able to add “charming images” to his reveries or daydreams, and those images “enliven” them, although now, “as my imagination wanes, this happens with greater difficulty and for shorter periods of time. Alas, it is when one is beginning to leave behind one’s mortal body that one is the most hindered by it!” (58).

During his “Sixth Walk,” Rousseau thinks about the relationship between doing good things and social obligations (including obligations to do good things); he enjoys the first, and hates the second (59-60). For a long time he had a high opinion of his own virtue, but now he realizes that “there is no virtue in following one’s inclinations and, when they so lead, in offering oneself the pleasure of doing good. Rather, it consists in overcoming those inclinations when duty requires it in order to do what it tells us to do, and this is what I have been less able to do than any other man in the world” (61). Feeling obligated to do something—even a good act—destroys, however, his desire to perform such an act:

Obligation coinciding with my desire is enough to destroy that desire and change it into repugnance, even aversion, if the obligation is too strong, and that is what makes a good deed irksome for me when it is demanded of me, even if I was doing it of my own accord without anyone demanding it of me. A purely voluntary good deed is certainly something that I like to do. But when the beneficiary of it thinks it entitles him to demand more good deeds of me on pain of provoking his hatred if I refuse, and when he insists that I have to be his benefactor for evermore, just because I initially enjoyed being so, from that point on annoyance begins and pleasure subsides. What I do then, when I give in, is weakness and false shame, but good will is no longer part of it, and far from applauding myself for it, I reproach myself in my conscience for doing good unwillingly. (62)

For that reason, Rousseau sometimes avoids doing good deeds: “I have learned to foresee from afar the consequences of following my instinctive inclinations, and I have often abstained from a good deed that I wanted and was able to do for fear of the enslavement to which I would subsequently submit myself if I gave myself over to it unthinkingly” (63). Interestingly, he only began to feel this way after his misfortunes began (or so he claims): “From that point on I have lived in a new generation that looked nothing like the old one, and my own feelings for others have suffered from the changed I found in theirs” (63). “Once I was convinced that there was nothing but lies and falsehood in the affected protestations of friendship lavished upon me,” he continues, “I quickly went to the other extreme: for once we have left behind our true nature, there is nothing left to constrain us. From then on I grew sick of men, and my own will, coinciding with theirs in this respect, keeps me further removed from them than all their machinations do” (65). He suggests that he remains affected by “[t]he spectacle of injustice and wickedness,” but contends, “I have to see them and appreciate them for myself; for, given what has happened to me, I would have to be mad to adopt men’s judgements on anything or to take anything on trust from anyone” (65). “The conclusion I can draw form all these reflections,” he writes, 

is that I have never really been suited to civil society, where there is nothing but irritation, obligation, and duty, and that my independent nature always made me incapable of the constraints required of anyone who wants to live with men. As long as I act freely, I am good and I do nothing but good; but as soon as I feel the yoke of necessity or men, I become rebellious, or rather, stubborn, and then I am incapable of doing good. (67-68)

One might doubt Rousseau’s conclusions here, or the argument that leads to them, but clearly he is arguing that freedom is more important to him than the pleasure he receives from doing good things for others.

In his “Seventh Walk,” Rousseau notes that, in his old age, he has returned to his interest in botany, despite having given away his guides, books, and herbarium (69). He’s not interested in plants for their potential medical benefits—in other words, his interest in botany is not instrumental—but rather he prizes plants for themselves: “In this respect I feel I am completely at odds with other men: everything to do with my needs saddens and spoils my thoughts, and I have only ever found real charm in the pleasures of the mind when I have completely lost sight of the interests of my body” (74). Rousseau emphasizes that division between his body and his soul: “No, nothing personal and nothing to do with the interests of my body can truly concern my soul. My meditations and reveries are never more delightful when I forget myself. I feel ecstasy and inexpressible rapture when I melt, so to speak, into the system of beings and identify myself with the whole of nature” (74). As with his dislike of social obligations, Rousseau suggests that he didn’t always feel that way. It was only after his persecutions began that he began to prize solitude; those attacks made him into “a solitary or, as they call it, unsociable and misanthropic, because the fiercest solitude seems to me preferable to the society of the wicked, which thrives only on treachery and hatred” (74-75). “Fleeing men, seeking solitude, no longer using my imagination, and thinking still less, yet endowed with a lively temperament that keeps me from falling into listless and melancholy apathy, I began to take an interest in everything around me, and, following a very natural instinct, I preferred the most pleasant things,” he writes (75). 

However, he is not interested in minerals, which require digging and refining, nor zoology, which requires necropsies; not “everything” around him interests him. Rather, he is engaged by botany: 

Brightly coloured flowers, the varied flora of the meadows, cool shade, streams, woods, and greenery, come and purify my imagination, sullied by all these hideous things. My soul, being dead to all great impulses, can no longer be touched by anything except things that appeal to the senses; sensations are all I have left, and through them alone can pain or pleasure now reach me here on earth. Attracted by the charming things that surround me, I look at them, consider them closely, compare them, and eventually learn to classify them, and all of a sudden, I am as much a botanist as anyone needs to be who wants to study nature with the sole aim of continually finding new reasons for loving it. (77)

Rousseau claims that botany “is what an idle and lazy solitary studies” (78):  “There is in this idle occupation a charm which is only felt when the passions are completely calm, but which is then enough on its own to make life happy and pleasant” (78). And that apparently idle pursuit—although, as Goulbourne suggests, he is serious about it—has become a motivation for walking: 

I climb up rocks and mountains, I go down deep into valleys and woods in order to escape as far as possible the memory of men and the attacks of the wicked. It seems to me that, in the shade of a forest, I am forgotten, free, and undisturbed, as if I no longer had any enemies or as if the foliage of the woods could protect me from their attacks as it distances them from my memory, and I imagine, in my foolishness, that if I do not think about them, they will not think about me. . . . The pleasure of going to some isolated spot to look for new plants gives me the added pleasure of escaping from my persecutors, and when I reach places where there is no trace of men, I breathe more freely, as if I were in a refuge where their hate can no longer pursue me. (79)

However, such isolation is difficult to achieve; he remembers finding what appeared to be an isolated spot and then discovering it was only 20 yards from a factory: 

I cannot express the confused and contradictory commotion I felt in my heart on discovering this. My first instinct was a feeling of joy at finding myself among human beings again, having thought myself to be entirely alone; but this instinct, swifter than lightning, was soon followed by a more lasting feeling of distress at not being able, even in the caves of the Alps, to escape the cruel clutches of those men bent on tormenting me. (80)

His first reaction suggests that he is not a natural solitary or misanthrope, but someone whose interest in solitude was created through experience.

For Rousseau, botany has become an aid to memory:

All my botanical walks, the varied impressions made on my by the places where I have seen striking things, the ideas they have stirred in me, and the incidents that became connected to them have all left me with impressions which are renewed by the sight of the plants I collected in those very places. . . . all I have to do is open my herbarium and it quickly transports me there. The pieces of plants that I gathered there are enough to remind me of the whole magnificent spectacle. This herbarium is for me a diary of my botanical expeditions which makes me set off on them again with renewed delight and which produces the effect of an optical chamber, showing them again before my very eyes. 

It is the chain of secondary ideas that attracts me to botany. It brings together and recalls to my imagination all the ideas which please it most. It constantly reminds me of the meadows, the waters, the woods, the solitude, above all the peace and the tranquillity one finds in the midst of all those things. It makes me forget the persecution of men, their hate, their scorn, their insults, and all their evil deeds with which they have repaid my tender and sincere attachment to them. It transports me to peaceful places amongst good and simple folk like those with whom I used to live. It reminds me of my youth and my innocent pleasures, it makes me enjoy them all over again, and very often it makes me happy, even in the midst of the most miserable fate ever endured by a mortal. (82)

Again, one sees the way Rousseau continues to react against the persecution he suffered, despite his claims that through acceptance and resignation he has come to terms with it.

In his “Eighth Walk,” Rousseau suggests that, during his mediations, he has realized that even during those persecutions he “enjoyed the pleasure of existence more fully”:

in all the hardships of my life I constantly felt full of tender, touching, and delightful emotions which, as they poured a healing balm over my wounded heart, seemed to turn its pain into pleasure, and the memory of which comes back to me on its own, without that of the adversities I experienced at the same time. It seems to me that I enjoyed the pleasure of existence more fully, that I really lived more fully, when my feelings, concentrated, as it were, around my heart by my destiny, were not wasted on all the things prized by men, which are of such little value in themselves and which all supposedly happy people are concerned with. (83)

In the past, he reacted strongly to the “infamy and treachery” he experienced, but now, although he is “still in it, indeed more deeply than ever before,” he has regained his “calm and peace,” and lives “happily and quietly” while laughing at “the incredible torments” his “persecutors continually inflict upon themselves” while he goes about botanizing and meditating (84-85). How has that change taken place? “I have learned to bear the yoke of necessity without complaining” (86):

I realized that the causes, instruments, and means of it all, which were unknown and inexplicable to me, should be of no significance to me whatsoever; that I should consider all the details of my destiny as the workings of simple fate in which I should presuppose no direction, intention, or moral cause; that I had to submit to it without arguing or resisting because to do that would be pointless; and that, since all that remained for me to do on earth was to consider myself a purely passive being, I should not waste on futile resistance to my destiny what strength I had left to withstand it. (87-88)

Nevertheless, he still felt some dissatisfaction, which he discovered came from his “self-love which, having become indignant with men, now rebelled against reason” (88). That’s why he had to separate himself from “the yoke of public opinion” (88). His self-love becomes love of self, a natural rather than artificial passion (88); the distinction between self-love and love of self (which apparently is clearer in French) is central to the point he is making here. 

Accepting his situation, he contends, 

allows me to indulge my natural insouciance almost as much as if I were living in the greatest prosperity. Apart from the brief moments when I am reminded by the things around me of my most painful anxieties, the rest of the time, following my inclinations and indulging the affections which attract me, my heart still feeds on the feelings for which it was created, and I enjoy them with imaginary beings who produce them and share them with me, as if these beings really existed. They exist for me, since I created them, and I do not worry about their betraying or abandoning me. They will last as long as my misfortunes themselves and will suffice to make me forget them. 

Everything brings me back to the happy and sweet life for which I was born. I spend three quarters of my life either busy with instructive and even pleasant things, to which I am delighted to devote my mind and my senses, or with the children of my imagination, which I created according to my heart’s desires, whose feelings are nourished by contact with them, or else with myself, contented with myself and already full of the happiness I feel is owing to me. In all this, only love of myself is at work, and self-love has nothing to do with it. (90)

However, in the “sad moments I still spend among men,” “self-love always plays a role. The hatred and animosity I see in their hearts through their crude disguises fills my heart with pain, and the idea of so naively being duped compounds this pain with a very childish irritation, the product of a foolish self-love which I know full well but which I cannot control” (90). Solitude has become essential for Rousseau as a way of managing those feelings:

On the days when I see nobody, I no longer think about my destiny, I am no longer conscious of it, I no longer suffer, and I am happy and contented, with neither distraction nor obstacle in my way. But I rarely escape any physical assault, and when I am least thinking about it, a gesture, a sinister look that I catch sight of, a poisoned remark that I hear or a malicious person I meet is enough to upset me. All I can do in such circumstances is to forget as quickly as possible and run away. My heart’s distress disappears with the object that caused it, and I become calm again as soon as I am alone. (91)

His living situation makes that solitude difficult to achieve:

I live in the middle of Paris. When I leave home, I long for the countryside and solitude, but they are to be found so far away that before I can breathe easily, I come across a thousand things that oppress my heart, and half the day is spent in anguish before I have reached the refuge I was looking for. I am fortunate, though, when I am left to make my way in peace. The moment when I escape the train of the malevolent is one to be savoured, and as soon as I am under the trees and surrounded by greenery, it is as if I were in the earthly paradise, and I experience an inner pleasure as intense as if I were the happiest of mortals. (91-92)

Surprisingly, before his troubles began, Rousseau had no need for or interest in solitude or solitary walks:

I remember perfectly how, in my brief periods of prosperity, these same solitary walks which today I find so sweet I then found insipid and tedious. When I was staying with someone in the country, the need for exercise and fresh air often made me go out alone, and, escaping like a thief, I would go walking in the park or in the countryside, but, far from finding the happy calm that I enjoy there today, I carried with me the agitation of futile ideas which had occupied me in the salon; the memory of the company I had left behind followed me in my solitude; the mists of self-love and the tumult of the world soured the freshness of the groves in my eyes and troubled my secluded peace. I had fled in vain to the depths of the woods: an importunate crowd followed me everywhere and veiled the whole of nature from me. It is only once I had cut myself off from social passions and their dismal retinue that I rediscovered nature and all her charms. (92)

Clearly his interest in solitary walking is the product of his experiences.

In Rousseau’s “Ninth Walk,” he thinks about his love of children and tries to justify putting his own children into the Foundlings’ Hospital in Paris. He loves “seeing little children romping and playing together,” he writes, but “the reproach of my having put my children in the Foundlings’ Hospital has easily degenerated, with a little distortion, into that of being an unnatural father and a child-hater,” even though he made that decision with their interests in mind, because he feared that their fates “would almost inevitably be, under any other circumstances, a thousand times worse” (95-96). Perhaps he is concerned that his children would have been affected by the reaction of society to his writing. Even in the present, when people discover who he is, they turn away from him: “I must admit that I still feel pleasure in living among men as long as my face is unknown to them. But this is a pleasure which I am rarely allowed to enjoy” (104). That rejection clearly stings, despite his claims to having become resigned to it.

Rousseau’s “Tenth Walk” is unfinished. In it, he notes that when he was young and in love with Madame de Warens, he developed an interest in solitude and contemplation: “The taste for solitude and contemplation was born in my heart together with the expansive and tender feelings whose purpose is to feed it. Turmoil and noise constrain and suffocate them, calm and peace revive and intensify them. I need to retire within myself in order to love” (108). 

So, what can we take from Reveries of the Solitary Walker? The inclusion of Rousseau’s form of walking within the canon of walking may have established solitary walking as a norm, and because that norm excludes other forms of walking, it is (to say the least) unfortunate. However, there’s no suggestion in the Reveries that Rousseau’s walking is long in duration or distance; he is essentially engaged in day-hikes from his home in Paris to the surrounding countryside. It’s possible that those are long walks, but from the evidence in the text it’s hard to tell how long they might be. In addition, while solitary walking may have become the default form of walking, it’s clear that solitude was important for Rousseau; he had been rejected by French society because of his writing, and vilified by people as a result, and so to be alone was safer than being with others. Solitude and contemplation became ways for Rousseau to manage his feelings about that rejection—despite his claims that he has come to accept it—and walking was an aid to his musing or contemplation or reverie. In addition, walking was the form of transportation that was best suited to his interest in collecting and identifying plants—an activity that is sometimes solitary in nature. What others made of Rousseau’s form of walking is one thing; his need for solitude and contemplative walking, however, becomes clear when one reads his Reveries. I wonder if his Confessions provides a similar explanation. There’s only one way to find out.

I think Heddon’s and Turner’s essay is important, and as I wrote in this blog earlier, that essay opened up new forms of walking for me. At the same time, the suggestion that the only valuable forms of walking are informed by social or relational aesthetics is a problem. Is there really no space for solitary walking? Is contemplation a bad thing? Isn’t it possible that some walkers are, like Rousseau, withdrawing from other people because of bad experiences that have had in the past? Like Rousseau, I don’t like the idea of being obligated to do things, including the idea of being obligated to walk with other people–unless that’s something I choose to do. Surely there is room for multiple forms of practice and multiple forms of walking.

Works Cited

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

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, Reveries of the Solitary Walker. Translated by Russell Goulbourne, Oxford University Press, 2011.

Walking to (and around) Jupiter Artland

When Christine was in Edinburgh several years ago, she heard about a nearby sculpture park called Jupiter Artland. It wasn’t yet open for the summer, and when she knew she would be in Glasgow this month, she excitedly bought tickets online. It was an easy walk from the local train station, she was told, and we could easily catch a train from Glasgow. So we arranged to spend a day there.

Getting to Jupiter Artland turned out to be an adventure. A conductor put us on the wrong train, which we only realized after it had left the station. When we finally got on the right train and alighted at the village of Kirknewton, there was no indication of which way to go. We walked into town, hoping to find someone who could explain the way. Christine did get directions, but they were a little vague. We walked across a pedestrian bridge over the railway and along a winding farm track. There was no sign of anything resembling a sculpture park, and I joked that the whole thing was a conceptual prank: there was no art except the walk into the country looking for the art.

The track ended in a busy highway and there, finally, was a sign: Jupiter Artland. We had arrived! First, though, we had to walk a narrow, nettle-lined path along the road, where we picked up hundreds of small black insects. I hope we brushed them all off and won’t be bringing some new pest back to Canada.

First, we ate lunch in the café, which was busy and loud. Our server was possessed by the spirit of Manuel from Fawlty Towers, reincarnated in the form of a young Scottish lass: nice but utterly incompetent. Then we walked out to see the sculptures.

The art, as often happens, turned the day around. There are some two dozen pieces, including three by Andy Goldsworthy, who might be Christine’s favourite artist. Many of the works were impossible to photograph because they appealed to senses other than vision: smell, hearing, touch. Others were too monumental to get in the frame. I should’ve stopped trying and just enjoyed the work, but I was thinking of this blog and the need to illustrate it.

I particularly liked Goldsworthy’s Stone House, a stone structure with a floor made of bedrock, which brings the natural world inside, and his Stone Coppice, in which stones left over from Stone House are balanced between coppiced trees. Anthony Gormley’s Firmament also stood out: a crouching figure made of corten bars through which one can see the sky. (It’s too big to photograph.) I liked Henry Castle’s Hare Hill as well, although I didn’t understand it. But I think the standouts were Christian Boltanski’s Animitas–hundreds of Japanese bells tinkling in the wind, which reproduce a map of the stars on the night Boltanski was born–and Tania Kovats’s Rivers, a boathouse with samples of water from 100 British rivers on shelves inside. There were many other works worth seeing: Jupiter Artland is worth a visit.

Christine wanted to catch the 15:51 train, so we took a cab to the station. The driver knew where Saskatchewan was; her friend had lived there, on a farm with llamas. Now we’re heading back to Glasgow for dinner at a restaurant specializing in food from southern India. Is there a dosa in my future? It’s a real possibility.

Whithorn Way, Day Six

The pilgrimage to Whithorn doesn’t end at the ruins of Whithorn Priory. It continues with a trip to St. Ninian’s Cave, where the saint repaired for private devotions, and a walk to Isle of Whithorn, where a now-roofless stone chapel dedicated to St. Ninian’s stands. We’re going the opposite way of medieval pilgrims, who would have come by sea, stopping at St. Ninian’s cave along the sea shore before disembarking at St. Ninian’s chapel and then proceeding overland for the short walk to Whithorn and a visit to the saint’s (now missing) remains.

We shunned the medieval pilgrims’ method of transportation at first this morning–we took a taxi to the parking lot above the cave, where we met Matthew’s friends Chris and Clare, who had driven over from Newcastle to see him. Together we walked along the shore to the cave. It’s smaller now than it would’ve been when Ninian was there–erosion caused parts of the entry to fall in–and the crosses that medieval pilgrims carved into the stone walls are lost among other graffiti, but there are signs of people visiting out of faith: crosses and coins and, strangely, the name “Manson.”

Then we climbed up onto the cliffs above the sea and walked to Isle of Whithorn. It was windy and a little rainy–nothing like the forecast had promised, though–and the path was often just inches from a vertiginous drop to the rocks below. I relaxed whenever we went through a gate into a pasture, because then there would be a fence between us and the edge. Usually, however, there was no fence. It was the setting of a Scots murder mystery: two business partners go for a walk along the shore, hoping the fresh air and exercise will help them settle their differences, and only one returns. “He fell, officer, honest!” But Detective Milngavie finds out the truth, somehow, within the 200 pages the publisher asked for, and the social contract is reaffirmed.

I had left my heavy pack behind and was carrying Christine’s day pack, and I felt like skipping over the hills. And my boots finally dried last night, mostly, so my feet were comfortable. Despite the cliff edge, it was a great walk.

In Isle of Whithorn, we saw the chapel ruins and had coffee–and some of Clare’s delicious fruit cake–and then Chris and Clare drove us back to Whithorn before turning for home. Our plan is to go back to Isle of Whithorn for supper at the pub. Yes, we could’ve stayed there–a band was playing folk music in the pub–but an entire afternoon in the pub might have meant overstaying our welcome, especially in our smelly walking clothes. “Get the stinking drunk Canadians out of here!” the barman would shout, and we would end up walking, or staggering, back to Whithorn.

That’s the end of this walk. Tomorrow we head for Glasgow, where Matthew will had back to Nottingham and then, two days later, we’ll return home. What have I learned from walking in Scotland? Bring rain pants! And if your path reaches a dead end, don’t be afraid to turn back. And take time to enjoy a lovely country. At least we’re done the last one, very well.

Whithorn Way, Day Five: Arrival

It was pouring rain when I got up this morning, but by the time we’d finished our massive full Scottish breakfast, the sun was shining and it stayed shining all day. Our landlord drove us to Mochrum, where we began our short(ish) walk to Whithorn. On the way, he explained how a man in his forties managed to retire and move from southern England to what he calls “the least populated corner of Scotland” to run a pub and hotel with his wife and daughter. It’s not an easy life–they closed last night after midnight and we’re up to serve us breakfast at nine o’clock, but although he says he wouldn’t do it again, he seems to be enjoying himself.

We walked along a busy B road most of the day. But our path took us past a trio of menhirs (two had fallen), called the Drumtrodden stones. Neolithic people dragged those huge stones to that spot and then pulled them erect, so that thousands of years later they are still vertical (some of them). And there are menhirs all over Europe. Nobody knows exactly what they were for, but they were clearly important–otherwise those people wouldn’t have gone to so much trouble putting them up.

My boots are still wet, despite being stuffed with newspaper last night. And that means damp socks and, eventually, more blisters. But because our walk was short today, and because the sun was shining, I’m no worse off than I was at the end of yesterday’s walk.

The traffic got busier as we drew nearer to Whithorn, with relays of tractors hauling wagons of loose hay (for silage, perhaps) and then returning empty. That meant a lot of hopping out of the way every few minutes. Soon we could see Whithorn in the distance–the clock tower on the town hall is quite distinctive–and in a few miles we were there.

Our B&B hosts weren’t around, so I stashed my pack in their garden and walked on to Whithorn Priory. There’s a Church of Scotland church next to the roofless priory chapel, which was abandoned after the Reformation (many of the priory’s other buildings seem to have been pulled down and the stone reused–perhaps for the new church). The crypt where St. Ninian’s remains used to be is below–it can be accessed through the museum, which holds a small but impressive collection of stone crosses dating back more than a thousand years.

It was a little underwhelming, perhaps because of the small size of the chapel, or perhaps because my feet hurt and I was tired. I enjoyed hearing about the stone crosses, though, and we met the author of the guidebook to the Whithorn Way, Julia Muir Watt, at the town’s visitor centre. (We bought copies for future reference.) She said we were the first Canadians to walk the Way–or in our case, parts of it.

A taxi will arrive shortly to take us to a pub in Garlieston for supper. And after that, I’m excited about doing a little laundry–since we’re going to be here for two days, it might even dry!

Whithorn Way, Day Four

Last night, Peter Ross, one of the group who are working to revive the Whithorn Way, stopped by our lodgings (a renovated shed named Nadav’s Hut) to say hello. He was kind enough to take Matthew and Christine to a nearby village (I needed a nap) where they bought some food for breakfast and, more importantly, beer. This morning, we met Peter at Glenluce Abbey, and he walked with us much of the day. No waymarking troubles–Peter led the way and put us on our road when he turned for home–and much explanations of the history of the Way and the politics of reviving it, as well as the nuts and bolts of living in this corner of Scotland. He was a welcome addition to our walk.

We crossed the famous Southern Uplands Way, which Peter helped to create in the early 1970s. It hasn’t taken off, partly because of the difficulty of the route and partly because the Borders are too unpopulated to provide much in the way of services for walkers. Many of the things that make life here easy–cars and trucks, for instance–make walking harder, since they encourage rural depopulation, which makes pedestrians’ lives harder. Eighty years ago there might’ve been more villages where walkers might’ve been able to get food and drink–like Arthur Wainwright wandering around in the Pennines just before the war.

The sun came out briefly in the morning, but it started to drizzle while Peter was touring us through the ruins of Glenluce Abbey, and the rain, ranging from steady showers to a fine mizzle, stayed with us all day. Away went the camera, and on went the rain gear. As lovely as my camera is, its weight and fragility count against it, and I wonder if I need something lighter. We stopped for lunch in Glenluce village–I had a haggis and cheese sandwich, an odd yet tasty combination–and then carried on down the road. Peter showed us a loch with two crannags–artificial islands built by Bronze Age people–before he turned back to Glenluce. The islands were intended for defence, archaeologists think: if raiders appeared, the people could pull away their drawbridges and be safe. Or at least safer.

After Peter left for home, our path led us over the moors and through a forest. I spooked a pair of sheep, who stumbled across a cattle grid and headed for parts unknown. Then an approaching vehicle sent them running back our way. I thought of how my friend Geoff was knocked down by a rogue sheep in Spain. I got out of the way. The sheep ran past–Matthew has a great photo of them–and back over the obstacle that was supposed to keep them on the other side of the fence.

Then we went through the forest. The path became a track covered in knee-high grass, which soaked our boots and trousers. We plashed across the moor to the point where our landlord from the Craighlaw Arms in Kirkowan was to pick us up. We were early and as soon as we stopped walking we got cold. Shivering cold. But Dave arrived quickly and carried us to his hotel where we were offered a dryer for our clothes and a warm place for our soggy boots. Maybe they’ll dry overnight! We also were served an excellent supper accompanied by an IPA. What could be better?

During the last hour of any walk, when my feet hurt and my pack is heavy, I curse myself and ask why I go on these walks. After a shower and dry clothing and eating and drinking, I have my answer. Although I do wonder how I’ll get back up the stairs to our room…..