Reading and Walking

Walking, Reading, and Reading about Walking

Category: Reading

57. Raja Shehadeh, Palestinian Walks: Forays into a Vanishing Landscape

shehadeh palestinian walks

After so many books on the theory of walking, here’s one about actual walking. Raja Shehadeh’s Palestinian Walks: Forays into a Vanishing Landscape is essential reading for any descendant of settlers contemplating walking in colonized space. Shehadeh is a Palestinian lawyer, human rights activist, and writer, and a comparison between his experience, walking in the occupied West Bank between 1978 and 2006 is uncomfortably close to what it might be like for Indigenous people to walk here, in Canada. Certainly there are parallels between the occupation of the West Bank and Canada’s ongoing history. I’ve been asked whether I have the right to walk in Saskatchewan, because it is a colonized space (the numbered treaties, according to Sheldon Krasowski, were cruel tricks in which any discussion of the land surrender clause was omitted from discussion, not completely unlike the legal chicanery used to acquire land for Israeli settlements in the West Bank), and that is a question to which I feel I must respond. Shehadeh’s book is another spur that makes such a response more urgent.

Much of Shehadah’s concern is with the immense changes that have taken place in the Central Highlands of the West Bank, near Ramallah, since the 1970s, due to the construction of Israeli settlements and roads. “When I began hill walking in Palestine a quarter of a century ago, I was not aware that I was traveling through a vanishing landscape,” he states at the beginning of the book’s introduction (xiii). When he was growing up in Ramallah, he thought the hills of the Central Highlands of Palestine were “one of the natural treasures of the world,” and all his life he has lived in houses that overlook those hills: “I have related to them like my own private backyard, whether for walks, picnics or flower-picking expeditions. I have watched their changing colors during the day and over the seasons, as well as during an unending sequence of wars” (xiii). Shehadeh has always loved hill walking, and he started taking long walks in Palestine in the 1970s: “This was before many of the irreversible changes that blighted the land began to take place” (xiii). The hills then were “like one large nature reserve with all the unspoiled beauty and freedom unique so such areas” (xiii-xiv). All of that has changed. The book describes six walks, in the hills around Ramallah, the wadis in the Jerusalem wilderness, and ravines by the Dead Sea, made over 26 years. “Although each walk takes its own unique course, they are also travels through time and space,” a journey beginning in 1978 and ending in 2006, and he writes about the changes in his life and surroundings during that time (xiv). 

There have been many past visitors to Palestine—pilgrims, travellers, and invaders—but their accounts of their journeys describe a land unfamiliar to Shehadeh, one from their own imaginations (xiv). “Palestine has been constantly reinvented, with devastating consequences to its original inhabitants,” he writes (xiv). When cartographers made maps or travellers described the landscape, “what mattered was not the land and its inhabitants as they actually were, but the confirmation of the viewer’s or reader’s religious or political beliefs. I can only hope that this book does not fall within this tradition” (xiv). Examples of travelers who, for Shehadeh, have misunderstood the landscape include Thackeray and Twain (xiv-xv). “I hope to persuade the reader how glorious the land of Palestine is, despite all the destruction that has been wrought over the past quarter of a century,” he writes (xvi).

That destruction includes the building of Israeli settlements on hilltops, “strategically dominating the valleys in which most Palestinian villages are located” (xvi). These settlements are part of an ongoing effort to erase the Palestinian presence in the West Bank: “It is not unusual to find the names of Arab villages on road signs deleted with black paint by overactive settlers” (xvi). For Shehadeh, the settlements represent a paradox: the supposedly Biblical aspects of the landscape—the olive orchards, stone buildings, and terraces—have been produced by Palestinians, who are excluded from the Israeli imagination, and whose history is obliterated, denied, distorted, twisted (xvi-xvii). “Such an attitude fits perfectly into the long tradition of Western travelers and colonizers who simply would not see the land’s Palestinian population,” he contends (xvii). Shehadeh does not hold back when he describes the effect the settlements have had on the land, and on himself:

Ever since I learned of the plans to transform our hills being prepared by successive Israeli governments, which supported the policy of establishing settlements in the Occupied Territories, I have felt like one who is told that he has contracted a terminal disease. Now when I walk in the hills I cannot but be conscious that the time when I will be able to do so is running out. Perhaps the malignancy that has afflicted the hills has heightened my experience of walking in them and discouraged me from ever taking them for granted. (xviii)

It is now impossible to imagine recreating the 1925 walk of historian Darweesh Mikdadi, who took his students on a walking trip through Palestine, all the way to Syria and Lebanon, inspecting battle sites and staying with villagers. It is even impossible to follow in the footsteps of Palestinian geographer Kamal Abdul Fattah, who took his university students on trips throughout historic Palestine. Since 1991, travel restrictions have made that journey impossible (xviii-xix). Along with the settlements and the roads constructed to serve them, Shehadeh condemns the Separation Wall that circles the “settlement blocs” and annexes them to Israel, “in the process penetrating the lands of the Palestinians like daggers” (xix). (Note the violence of that simile.) “As a consequence of all these developments,” he writes,

even shorter school trips have not become restricted, so students can only repeat forlorn visits to the sites within their own checkpoint zone. The Palestinian enclaves are becoming more and more like ghettos. Many villagers can only pick the olives from their own trees with the protection of sympathetic Israelis and international solidarity groups. (xix)

Meanwhile, he continues, “[a]s our Palestinian world shrinks, that of the Israelis expands, with more settlements being built, destroying forever the wadis and cliffs, flattening hills and transforming the precious land that many Palestinians will never know” (xix-xx). Half a million Israeli settlers now live in the West Bank: 

The damage caused to the land by the infrastructural work necessary to sustain the life of such a large population, with enormous amounts of concrete poured to build entire cities in hills that had remained untouched for centuries, is not difficult to appreciate. . . . Beautiful wadis, springs, cliffs and ancient ruins were destroyed by those who claim a superior love of the land. By trying to record how the land felt and looked before this calamity, I hope to preserve, at least in words, what has been lost for ever. (xx)

Every wadi, spring, hill, and cliff has a name—some names Arabic, others Canaanite or Aramaic, indicating their antiquity—but Shehadeh didn’t know these names until Fattah and his students interviewed old men and women who still remembered them (xx).

For the most part, settlers are omitted from the stories Shehadeh tells. They are the “main villains” of those stories, and despite their omission, they are a constant presence:

I despise the aggressiveness of their intentions and behaviour toward my land and its inhabitants but I rarely confront them directly. They are simplified and lumped together, just as the nineteenth-century travelers generalized about the local “Arabs” as they tried to obliterate them from the land they wished to portray. At various points the settlers are viewed from a distance. I fear what they might do. I wonder what they must be thinking. I ask whether I and my people are at all visible to them. (xxi)

Only on his last journey does he meet and have a length conversation with a settler:

I knew that a large part of his world is based on lies. He must have been brought up on the fundamental untruth that his home was built on land that belonged exclusively to his people, even though it lay in the vicinity of Ramallah. He would not have been told that it was expropriated from those Palestinians living a couple miles away. Yet despite the myths that make up his worldview, how could I claim that my love of these hills cancels out his? And what would this recognition mean to both our future and that of our respective countries? (xxi-xxii)

That meeting, he writes, led to the book’s “troubled conclusion” (xxii). This is not a happy book—given the context, how could it be?—but its descriptions of the land’s beauty are powerful, and Shehadeh’s anger at its destruction is palpable.

Shehadeh’s first journey, “The Pale God of the Hills, Ramallah to Harrasha,” took place in 1978, and he begins with a description of the changes has seen taking place in Palestine: 

Cities were being erected in its midst, as were industrial and theme parks, and wide, many-laned highways more suited to the plains of the Midwest of American than the undulating hills of Palestine. In two and a half decades one of the world’s treasures, this biblical landscape that would have seemed familiar to a contemporary of Christ, was being changed, in some parts beyond recognition” (1) 

Shehadeh’s pain at the failure to save the land “would in time be shared by Arabs, Jews, and lovers of nature anywhere in the world. All would grieve, as I have, at the continuing destruction of an exquisitely beautiful place” (1). 

Then he introduces a key term in the book, the Arabic word sarha: 

To go on a sarha was to roam freely, at will, without restraint. The verb form of the word means to let the cattle out to pasture early in the morning, leaving them to wander and graze at liberty. The commonly used noun sarha is a colloquial corruption of the classical word. A man going on a sarha wanders aimlessly, not restricted by time and place, going where his spirit takes him to nourish his soul and rejuvenate himself. (2)

This book is a series of six sarhat, sometimes alone, sometimes with others: “Each sarha is in the form of a walk I invite the reader to take with me. I hope, by describing what can be seen, heard and smelled in the hills, to allow the reader to enjoy the unique experience of a sarha in Palestine” (2).

Shehadeh notes that the land he knows changed before he began walking on it. “There was a time, I’m told, when the hills around Ramallah were one large cultivated garden with a house by every spring,” but in the 1970s, when he returned from studying law in London, “[t]hey had become an extensive nature reserve, with springs and little ponds where frogs hopped undisturbed and deer leaped up and down terrace walls, where it was possible to walk unimpeded” (3). When he was growing up, his family did not own an olive grove, and so their experience of the hills was limited to picnicking in spring. “Otherwise the hills, so close to the house where we lived, were remote and foreign,” he recalls, “little more than a derided buffer that separated us from the horizon where usurped Jaffa lay and at which we looked longingly in the evenings, when the faraway Mediterranean coast blazed with light” (3-4). He only came to know the hills after his return from London. But even then, the hills he would come to love were under threat. The occupation of the West Bank was in its eleventh year and “[i]nsidious but significant changes in the law provided strong indications of Israel’s long-term policies toward the Occupied Territories, my home” (5). He was worried, and “[t]he hills began to be my refuge against the practices of the occupation, both manifest and surreptitious, and the restrictions traditional Palestinian society imposed on our life. I walked in them for escape and rejuvenation” (5). Much of the long first chapter is a meditation on the experiences of his grandfather’s cousin, Abu Ameen, who would often go on sarhat when he was a young man; Abu Ameen also walked in the hills “for escape and rejuvenation.” “To go on a sarha, which was expansive, open-ended and uncontrolled, allowing the soul to roam freely, must have been liberating for the inhabitants of Ramallah, confined as they were within the raggedy hills that offered no view of open territory or wide fertile fields,” Shehadeh writes (4). 

When Shehadeh began walking in the hills, it took time for him to learn how to spot the ancient tracks that crossed the terrace walls and the newer ones made by sheep and goats looking for food and water: 

Some of these were marked on Ordnance maps, others not. I found myself to be a good pathfinder even though I easily got lost in cities. As time passed I began to venture farther and farther into these hills and discovered new terrain, hills with different rock formations, where flowers bloomed earlier because the ground was lower and closer to the sea. (5)

One spring day in 1978, he stumbled on “the legendary Harrasha of Abu Ameen, deep in the hills of Palestine” (7). He found the path he wanted to walk just outside of Ramallah, and “a certain peace and tranquility descended on me. Now I could go on with no need to worry, just walk and enjoy the beauty of the nature around me” (7). Because it was spring, the earth was carpeted by wildflowers: miniature blue irises, low pink flax, Maltese Cross, pyramid orchids (7). He stopped at a wadi where there was a spring. The brown cliff across the wadi were “studded with cyclamens that grew out of every nook and cranny” (8). Then he discovered “a well-preserved qasr,” a round stone structure where farmers kept their produce and slept on the open roof (8):

Before visiting the qasr, I took a moment to look around. It was as though the earth was exploding with beauty and color and had thrown from its bosom wonderful gifts without any human intervention. I wanted to cry out in celebration of this splendor. As I shouted ’S-A-R-H-A!’ I felt I was breaking the silence of the past, a silence that had enveloped this place for a long time. (9)

He sat beside the qasr and surveyed the scene. The ponds along the wadi filled with frogs and spearmint (11). A rock rosebush was growing along the terrace wall, “green against the gray as if someone had carefully chosen it to decorate this ancient wall,” with more cyclamens between the stones of the wall (9). He stepped from one terrace to the next, and beside them, he saw “a yellow broom with its spiky green leaves,” its “sweet scent” filling the air, and lower down, “some tall asphodels and lower still bunches of blue sage,” and grasses (9). On the next terrace, there was another beautiful garden, with an olive tree many centuries old, and above that garden, two more olive trees in another terrace, “surrounded by a carpet of color that spread all the way to the wall that led to yet another garden above, one garden hanging on top of another and another, going up as far as the eye could see. I felt I could sit all day next to this qasr and feast my eyes on this wonderful creation” (10).

Shehadeh begins climbing the hill to the north, thinking about what it would have taken to terrace these hills (11). He hears a rustle, but instead of wild dogs, he sees six grey gazelles running up the hill (11-12). An owl flies directly at him, as he climbed, thinking and “smelling the sharp brittle scent of thyme,” and he falls (12). He espies another qasr, surrounded by pines and oregano, nearby: 

On this walk I had passed at least a dozen abandoned qasrs. Those who had once inhabited them were gone, that way of life was no more. Their owners had moved on to other places. At a certain point the land ceased to be capable of sustaining those cultivating it and other more lucrative opportunities for making a living opened up in the petroleum-rich Gulf and the New World. (12-13)

That exodus has caused a problem, because under Israeli law, if a Palestinian leaves his property, it “‘reverts back’ to those whom the Israeli system considers the original, rightful owners of ‘Judea and Samaria,’ the Jewish people, wherever they might be. Abandonment, which began as an economic imperative in some instances and a choice in others, had acquired legal and political implications with terrifying consequences” (13). The land can end up being expropriated as “public land” and used to build settlements.

Inside that qasr, Shehadeh looks out of the window at the fields: 

The ground was carefully terraced in an almost perfect crescent; the olive trees were evenly spaced and the field between them was cleared fo stones. The surrounding area was wild and chaotic, the terracing was half completed and many of the fields were covered with wild shrubs and thickets. I wondered who the owner of this qasr was and marveled at his industry. (14)

He imagines the lives of those who had lived in that qasr: “It was as though in this qasr time was petrified into an eternal present, making it possible for me to reconnect with my dead ancestor through this architectural wonder. Would this turn into the sarha I had long yearned to take?” (15). Then he discovers a dirt-covered rock that turns out to be a high carved seat (16-17). That seat was an a’rsh, a throne: “I remembered hearing as a child that Abu Ameen, my grandfather’s cousin, had in Harrasha an a’rsh next to his qasr. Could this be it? Could this be the Harrasha where Abu Ameen and my grandfather Saleem used to go for their sarha?” (17). Shehadeh listens to the sound of the wind in the pines and remembers Abu Ameen (17). He worked as a stonemason, saved money to build a qasr, and wanted to get married and have children (19). Abu Ameen’s desires were much different than Shehadeh’s grandfather’s ambitions; he became a lawyer and ended up working for the English occupiers during the Mandate. In fact, Abu Ameen became the the only one of his family who stayed in Ramallah; the others (like Shehadeh’s grandfather) pursued education in the United States, and did not return to the hills (21). “They deserted Ramallah as if it were not their town, their home, the place where they should strike roots, get married and bring up children as their fathers and forefathers had done,” Shehadeh writes (21). He recalls the story he heard as a child about Abu Ameen building his qasr with his wife on their honeymoon (23):

I suspect that the description of the occasion as a honeymoon came later. When the couple was married I don’t believe this concept existed. Couples had no leisure time at all. They were hard-nosed people who had little to survive on. What I marvel at is that in the midst of all this drudgery, Abu Ameen found the time to indulge himself and, using the skills he had learned, carve out of stone his own a’rsh, a monument that has survived for some seventy-five years. (24)

After 1948, Abu Ameen had worked building houses in Ramallah for refugees from coastal towns, but in 1955, a stroke left him lame, unable to farm (25-26). Meanwhile, the other landowners were absent, working in the Gulf or the United States (26). Without them, neglect, the land seemed abandoned; the terrace walls fell, erosion became a problem, the paths were obliterated and the springs clogged (26). The hills became covered in thistles and weeds: 

But in spring they were once again transformed with swaths of purple flax that could be glimpsed from afar, crisscrossed by different patterns of blue from the bugloss, clover and miniature iris like wafts of color painted with a wide brush. In the early morning, as the droplets of dew clung to the delicate petals of the wildflowers catching the sunlight, the valleys seemed to glitter in a kaleidoscope of color. (27)

None of Abu Ameen’s children took up farming—they didn’t even want to visit Harrasha (27). No wonder: life in the qasr was hard; the house was crowded and fuggy from the fumes of charcoal brazier they used to try to keep warm (27). But Abu Ameen preferred it to living in Ramallah. He lived for the spring, when he could leave to live at his qasr (28). 

Abu Ameen “could not have been aware how fortunate he was to have had the security and comfort of seeing the same unaltered view of the hills,” Shehadeh writes. “I was born among hills that looked more or less as they did during the last years of Abu Ameen’s life. But throughout my adult life I had the misfortune of witnessing their constant transformation” (32)—a transformation caused by the constant influx of settlers. “The hills that had provided the setting for tranquil walks where I felt more freedom than I did anywhere else in the world would eventually become confining, endangered areas and a source of constant anxiety” (32): 

One hilltop after another was claimed as more and more Jewish settlements were established. Then the settlements were joined with one another to form ‘settlement blocs.’ Roads were built between these clusters and ever-expanding areas of land around them were reserved for their future growth, depriving more villages of the agricultural land they depended on for their livelihood. (32-33)

When Shehadeh looked at the hills at night, he saw “a continuous stretch of settlements and roads that were creating a noose around Ramallah” (33). Then came the Separation Wall, which “would further divide Ramallah from the villages surrounding it, complicating our life immeasurably and causing yet greater damage to our beautiful landscape” (33). “How I envy Abu Ameen his confidence and security in the hills where he was born and died, which he believed would remain unchanged forever,” Shehadeh writes: 

Could Abu Ameen have ever dreamed that one day the open hills to which he escaped the confinement of life in the village would be out of reach for his descendants? How unaware many trekkers around the world are of what a luxury it is to be able to walk in the land they love without anger, fear or insecurity, just to be able to walk without political arguments running obsessively through their heads, without the fear of losing what they’ve come to love, without the anxiety that they will be deprived of the right to enjoy it. Simply to walk and savor what nature has to offer, as I was once able to do. (33)

It would be easy to dismiss Shehadeh as a romantic, a term he accepts (64), and to critique his nostalgia, but his love of the land is sincere, as is his grief at its transformation.

In 2003, Shehadeh took his nephew Aziz to show him his ancestor’s qasr and have him sit on the a’rsh (36). This was during the expansion of Ramallah after Second Intifada begins—growth caused, in part, because life in other West Bank cities was becoming unbearable because of Israeli policies—and “[t]he wild and beautiful hills surrounding it began to be invaded, not only by the Jewish settlements, which were being established all around its wide periphery, but also by the insatiable appetite of the city’s inhabitants for expansion and growth” (37). When Shehadeh and Aziz got to the qasr, it was intact, but a stone thief had damaged the a’rsh, knocking it over on its side (37-38). Then, on their return walk, they visited a Palestinian police station destroyed by an Israeli airstrike, where his nephew picked up a long thick metal tube, asking “What is this?” Shehadeh froze: it was part of an unexploded missile. He took the bomb from the boy and told him to run, then set it down on the ground, whispering a quiet prayer (38-39). “I have often wondered about Abu Ameen as I stand in the early morning looking over the countryside,” Shehadeh concludes. “What would he have said had he seen the state it now was in? Would his spirit be brimming with anger at all of us for allowing it to be destroyed or usurped, or would he just be enjoying one extended sarha as his spirit roamed freely over the land, without borders as it had once been?” (39-40).

Shehadeh’s second journey, “The Albina Case, Ramallah to A’yn Qenya,” takes place a year later. It shifts back and forth between the walk and Shehadeh’s preoccupations at the time of the walk. “For the first two decades of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank I was still able to walk in the hills unhampered,” he writes, despite the creation of a large number of settlements. “We still believed that it was possible for the occupation to end one day and for peace to be established on the basis of a Palestinian state in the West Bank alongside Israel”—but changes to the laws regarding land were a concern (41). Since 1979, for example, Palestinians have been denied access to land ownership records (41-42). The day he was first refused access, Shehadeh returned home and realized he had locked himself out of his house. He decided to walk “to the enormous pine tree midway down the hill and read” (42-44). Instead of reading, though, he looked at the hills, the mixture of pines and olive trees; the pines were evidence of the abandonment of the land, since farmers would prefer the olive trees (45). The sight of the hills and the blooming wildflowers made him decide to walk down into the valley (46).

The Orndnance Maps Shehadeh sometimes relies on trace their roots to the 1880s, when the Palestine Exploration Fund mapped and surveyed these hills, a process he describes as prerequisite for conquest (47). Europe, and later Zionism, was searching for its cultural roots in the Holy Land, and in the process they have “silenced Palestinian history and relegated it to prehistory, paving the way for the modern state of Israel to take control not only of the land but also of Palestinian time and space” (47). It is lucky Ramallah not mentioned in the Bible, otherwise it would be experiencing “the terror of fanatic fundamentalists squatting inside our town claiming that it belongs to their ancestors on biblical grounds” (47-48). Those first maps became the basis for land registration, which began during the British Mandate, but the 1967 war interrupted the process of registering land deeds and it was not completed. In the Albina case, Shehadeh was representing a Palestinian landowner who was caught up in this situation, a landowner with no Certificate of Registration: “This formality was the loophole the settlers used to question my client’s ownership of his land” (48).

The grasses, shrubs, flowers, were all damp from the rain: 

There were blue hyacinth squills between the rocks. When I slid down and stood again on the path I noticed the crocuses that had sprung out after the rain, filling the little patch around the rock I was sitting on like a pink haze. I didn’t want to crush their delicate petals so close to the ground but this was unavoidable for they were everywhere. (49)

The growth suggests freedom for Shehadeh. “Living as I did in a stifling community, these hills were my only escape, as they had been to Abu Ameen,” he writes (49):

The other day I had to plead with a soldier to be allowed to return home. I was getting back from our winter house in Jericho, where I had spent a relaxing day. I had to implore the Israeli soldier. I told him that I really did not know a curfew had been imposed on Ramallah. I was away all day and hadn’t listened to the news. . . . Oh, the humiliation of pleading with a stranger for something so basic. (50)

Nevertheless, leaving the West Bank was not an option for Shehadeh—then the land would be taken (50). So, as he walked, he pretended there were no settlements nearby, and that he had the hills to himself (50). It was hard to keep up the pretence, though. The hills were covered in natsh, a common thistle; its presence in a field was used by Israeli courts to argue that the land was abandoned and could be taken by Israeli settlers (52-53). Those settlements, Shehadeh argues, were destructive: “By creating new human settlements where none existed, connecting them with roads and isolating existing ones, it would not only strangle our communities but also destroy this beautiful land, and in a matter of a few years change what had been preserved for centuries” (55-56).

At this point, somewhat confusingly, Shehadeh jumps ahead to another walk taken in 1981 with his friend and colleague Jonathan Kuttab, during which they discussed their intention to challenge the Israeli settlement plans in court (55-60). The Israeli argument was that non-registered land was public land, the Palestinians living there were squatters, and the Jews were the only rightful owners: “Legally this position was not sustainable. And yet it was not being challenged. Most Palestinians boycotted Israeli courts, where these challenges could be presented. The settlers could comfort themselves that they were not taking anyone’s private land to establish their settlements” (57). During the walk they came up with a plan, and eventually they found a Palestinian farmer willing to fight the government in court, Sabri Gharib. Despite threats and harassment—the nearby settlers shooting at him, threatening to demolish his house, and repeated night arrests by the military—Gharib stood his ground until his death in 2012: “The resilience of Sabri, whose name itself means patience, was legendary,” Shehadeh writes, noting that his client’s motivation was not nationalism but the land: “Not to fight in every way possible to hold on to his land was a sacrilege” (58-59). Shehadeh and Kuttab were confident when they came up with their plan; 25 years later, Shehadeh mourns their inability to achieve results: “How complicated and dismal the future has turned out, with the land now settled by close to half a million Israeli Jews, living in hundreds of settlements scattered throughout our hills and connected by wide roads crossing through the wadis,” and more recently surrounded by the Separation Wall, a process which has destroyed “the beauty of our hills, separating our villages and towns from one another and annexing yet more of our land to Israel, demolishing the prospect for a viable peace” (60).

Shehadeh reached the village of A’yn Qenya, which he had first visited as a Boy Scout in 1969. He and his friends tried to walk there from their campsite at night: “We were eight young and uncertain men in the dark and for the first time I understood how it was possible to feel comfort in numbers” (62-63). They get lost, sleep on some rocks, wake up in the morning to the sounds of the village (63). When he got to the village, he encountered gazelles again, and they give him the idea of running up the hill to see the sun setting over the Mediterranean (65): “The air was dry and fresh. Lower hills spread below me like a crumpled sheet of blue velvet with the hamlets huddled in its folds. . . . The farther away the hills the smaller they looked. The most distant was a dark blue, like a little pond” (65). However, he continues, “I was unaware that this would be the last time I would be able to stand here on an empty hill. Shortly afterward the Israeli authorities expropriated the land and used it to build the settlement of Dolev” (66). Compared to 2006, when he was writing this book, the 1980s were a time when Shehadeh could walk without restraint: 

I feel gratified to have used that freedom and taken all those walks and got to know the hills. There was one walk that I had always planned which to my great regret I never got around to taking. It would start from the west of Ramallah, passing through Beitunia to Wadi El Mahkwm, passing north of Beit ’Ur. (66)

“I had planned this walk so carefully,” he continues. “Now with the settlements and the Separation Wall it was impossible” (66).

Here Shehadeh begins thinking about the Albina case, one of the first land cases he had handled (66). Settlers were claiming Albina’s land, suggesting he was an absentee, but he was living in East Jerusalem; their second argument was that if he wasn’t an absentee, then his land must be public, although it was registered (69). If those arguments were unsuccessful, they had one more: Albina’s land had been expropriated by the Jordanian government, despite lack of evidence (69-70). Shehadeh describes this case as a “swindle” (70), and notes that by the time he got involved, construction of the settlement had already begun (71). No injunction to stop work was granted, because that would involve a financial loss to the agency promoting the settlement; instead, the work continued as the court heard the case (72). The president of the court tried to get him to convince his client to sell the land (73)—because it was already lost (73). Shehadeh made a visit to Albina’s land. He expected the settlers to be “devils incarnate, fanatic, crazy people, starry-eyed and religiously inspired, who were forcing us to a confrontation and to many years of bloodshed,” and he worried about his safety (76). That turned out not to be the case: 

We were met by earnest-looking men, with no women. They served us tea in Styrofoam cups. We sat around a long table. I felt myself a witness to what it must have been like for the old Zionist settlers. I expect their latterday counterparts were living out an old dream. They were in their thirties and were wearing jeans. Many were bearded. They seemed amiable. They were not starry-eyed, they were hardheaded men who were fully committed to what they were doing and had no conception of how Albina, the victim of their actions, would see them. Nor did they seem to care. (76)

“Their enthusiasm was contagious,” Shehadeh continues. “They were literally camping on the land, pushing out their enemies and expanding the area of their state, perhaps carried away by a sarha of their own. What were a few legal objections against the elevated nobility of their purpose?” (76-77). But they were also, Shehadeh contends, “efficient and calculating businessmen who wanted to get over this legal hurdle” (77). They were without any sense of guilt; they didn’t care about the residents of the nearby village of Beit ’Ur, “[n]or did they have any qualms, as I discovered later, about using any sort of trickery or deceit to get their way. To them the end seemed to justify the use of any means. This was how those who believed they were serving a higher purpose behaved” (77).

When Shehadeh and Kuttab made their plans, they didn’t realize that the legal aspects of the issue “were only one small, ultimately insignificant, component,” or that the building of settlements in the Occupied Territories was a state project that “was not going to be hampered by questions of law. . . . Higher national objectives overrode legal niceties” (77-78). During the hearing on the Albina case, a masked witness (there was no reason for the mask, but court allowed it) baldly lied about the Jordanian army’s use of the land, and Shehadeh wondered whether it was worth continuing “with this farce”: “Was it good for Palestine for us to continue to the end or were we only lending legitimacy to an illegal court?” (79). In the end, he went through “the charade” (80), and while the court found that Albina was the owner of the land, it also decreed that the lease for settlement was legal and binding (81)—a contradictory ruling that made no sense. The court also found that Albina deserved no compensation (82).

Shehadeh jumps ahead in time again, to November 2006, when he went to visit writer Adel Samara in Beit ’Ur. It was a long drive because of the Separation Wall. The new highway’s exit to Beit ’Ur was blocked with a concrete barrier (83-84). The settlement that was built on Albina’s land was separated from the village with a wall, as if the settlers 

belonged to another world, that of a modern consumer society which subsidizes luxury homes built on land that came to it free of charge, with breathtaking views and clean air, connected to the center of the country by a fast four-lane highway built on their neighbors’ land and to which their neighbors had no access. No part of the settlers’ dwellings, not even the roofs of their villas, could be seen from the village, only the high streetlights that were lit all day and night to provide further protection in case one of the village youths decided to put a ladder up and climb the wall and attack the settlement. (85)

Shehadeh considered asking about relations between the settlement and the village, but the wall showed there was no point in asking (85). “Standing before the wall I could see in concrete terms the consequence of the policy of building Jewish settlements pursued by successive Israeli governments over the past thirty-nine years,” he writes: 

For an occupier to take through legal chicanery the lands of the occupied, and in stark violation of international law settle its own people in the midst of the towns and villages of the hostile occupied population can only lead to violence and bloodshed. There is no way that such usurpation of land could be accepted. A bloody struggle was inevitable. (85)

He looked at the wadi to the north and asked whether there were good walking tracks. Yes, ge was told, there were. “I realized this was the wadi I had long wanted to take to fulfill my ambition of walking from the Ramallah hills to the coastal plain and the sea,” he states. “Now it was too late” (87). The Separation Wall, and the settlements, block the way: “This is one walk I will never be able to take” (87).

But there are other hazards involved in walking in the country. Shehadeh jumps in time again, to 1999, and a walk he and his wife, Penny, made in the hills near Ramallah. It was a period of hope that the settlement question would be answered in Palestinians’ favour, because of the negotiation of the Oslo Accords; it was also a time of investment and construction in Ramallah, expansion (88). Shehadeh and Penny were walking to Abu Ameen’s qasr when they heard shots. Someone was shooting at them: “I held her hand and we ran to take shelter against a rock that formed the wall of one of the terraces down the side of the hill. The shots were coming from behind us, from above. We hoped that by flattening our bodies against the rock no part of us would be exposed to the fire” (89). The shooting intensified—but who was shooting? Shehadeh shouted in Arabic, asking them to stop, thinking it’s the Palestinian police, mistaking them for settlers (89). “The shooting continued mercilessly, giving us no respite, no time to take a breath, to think calmly of our next step, to manage, somehow, to escape,” he continues. “A hail of bullets whizzed overhead, struck the rock right in front of where we took shelter, sending splinters up in the air. It seemed likely that some of the bullets would ricochet and hit us” (90). There was a lull in the firing and he stood up and saw two young Palestinian men with guns; he thought they would stop, but they didn’t—they kept firing (90). After 20 minutes, it was over; Shehadeh and Penny walked to a checkpoint on the road to report what had happened, but the police there wouldn’t take a report (90-91). Later, Shehadeh was told later that the valley was dangerous; the young men engaged in target practice there, and there was nothing the government or police could do (92-93).

Six years later—another shift in time—Shehadeh went to the same valley with poet Ramsey Nasr. They saw new buildings and roads. The paths were covered with rubble dumped from higher terraces, but eventually they found a path and begin following it (93). They heard a pack of wild, possibly rabid, dogs barking (94). On the hill above them, soldiers were pointing their guns at them. They didn’t shoot; they asked for identification, because they suspected the poet, a foreigner, was being kidnapped (95-96). Shehadeh was told that one of the soldiers had been there in 1999, shooting at him and his wife (96). Another soldier said, “The hills are dangerous, we have found many corpses here” (97). “I never thought I’d ever meet one of the men who shot at Penny and me and almost killed us,” Shehadeh concludes. “He didn’t seem particularly sorry, and certainly did not apologize, though I was not expecting him to after all those years. Still I was grateful to be reminded that to every story there is an ending” (97). “An ending”—not a happy ending; that is too much to expect in Palestine, it seems.

Shehadeh’s third journey is entitled “Illusory Portals: Qomran, the Dead Sea and Wadi El Daraj.” He writes that he continued fighting against acquisitions of Palestinian land for Israeli settlements, even though outright victories were impossible (98). He was also concerned about land use planning, which seemed to be solely for the benefit of Israelis, and aimed to “designate most empty land for their future use, isolate Palestinian population centers and fragment their territorial continuity by encircling the with settlements” (99). Such planning was intended to confine Palestinian urban development, but the plans for Jewish settlements were prepared with the opposite objective; they had lots of room to expand, “a highly discriminatory, segregated town-planning reality” (99). These developments made him rethink his strategies; it was clear that legal challenges ineffective at curbing or even slowing the settlements (99-100). When the Palestinian Authority was created by the Oslo Accords, it had no power to change village or town zoning or repudiate Israeli claims to land acquired for settlements (100). As a result, Shehadeh rejected the Oslo Accords (101). 

Because of the Accords, some Palestinian cadres were allowed to return, and he and Penny took one of them, Selma Hasan, for a walk near the Dead Sea (101). On the drive to the Dead Sea, Shehadeh felt obligated to tell Selma about the various changes he had seen, but at the same time resented being a guide and would rather have pursued his own thoughts (103). The building of settlements and roads had completely changed Jerusalem and the land to the east (105-09), evidence of the planning regime he criticized:

For twenty-five years I had studied the development of the Israeli sovereign legal language in the West Bank. I monitored how the Israeli state was being extended into the Occupied Territories through the acquisition of land and its registration in the Israeli Land Authority. How large areas were being defined as Israeli Regional Councils and included within Israel. How the planning schemes were changed, how one area after another became for all intents and purposes annexed to Israel, and our towns and villages were left as islands within those Israeli extensions. . . . It was all done ostensibly through “legal” maneuvers, using the law in force in the West Bank because formally speaking the West Bank was not annexed to Israel. To understand and fight this was my war. (109-10)

They were stopped by a checkpoint, which surprised Hasan, who didn’t know that under the Oslo Agreement Israel had jurisdiction over roads (110). She also had no idea what the settlements were like. In that, she was like the PLO negotiators in Oslo (111)—they didn’t listen to legal advice about the settlements,“[a]nd so the Accords the PLO signed saddled us with the Israeli legal and administrative arrangements that envisioned an unequal division of the land between Arab and Jew,” Shehadeh writes (111).

During the journey, there was friction between Shehadeh and Hasan: she thought the Oslo Accords meant new times, while he thought the PLO sold out the Palestinians on the issues of land usage and the settlements (112):

Vast areas of my beloved country were being fenced to become off-limits to us. I felt the gravity of what was happening and I was willing to give everything for the struggle to stop it. My weapon was the law. All my time was taken up with it. Nothing was more important. I had no doubt that if we tried hard we would win and justice would prevail. For that glorious day of liberation there was no limit to what I was willing to sacrifice. 

Now after Oslo was signed and the struggle as I saw it was betrayed, I was back to real time. (114)

In addition, the agreements had made his work redundant, and he was “unable to make any practical use of my legal knowledge and expertise to stop Israeli violations of the law” (118). After 1967, his father had become despondent, and now he was becoming despondent as well (118-19). He was realizing that his work “was nothing but a grand delusion” (123). 

During a brief walk in a wadi, Hasan received a phone call from her husband; he had been given a permit to return to the West Bank, and she took a taxi home to get ready for his arrival. Shehadeh and Penny continued south along the Dead Sea to walk in Wadi El Daraj (124). On the trail, there was a rock that has to be climbed using a rope, and an Israeli soldier guarding a group of students helped him make the ascent: “I couldn’t but be grateful. Without him we would not have been able to proceed with our walk. In the course of this brief encounter the two of us did not exchange a single word. I wondered who he took me to be. Surely not a Palestinian” (126). He experienced vertigo on the trail where it ran between a rock and the cliff edge. He wondered why, and quickly came up with reasons (128):

The emotions were not too difficult to work out. The first was the old and persistent one of wanting a father, or an older brother, to protect me. . . . The second I interpreted as resulting from being at a point when my hold on life was being shaken. In the past I had lived with a strong sense of mission. What had framed my existence and given it a heightened sense of purpose was my resistance to the occupation, my work for justice. I felt called upon to save something, to speak out the truth, warn, resist and win. Now my struggle had been brought to an end. Consequently I lost the confidence that I wouldn’t let myself all to my death. The failures and disappointments I had been going through these past few years had loosened my grip on life and made me almost suicidal. (128-29)

The vertigo was a symptom of his despair. The chapter ends with the Israeli soldier who helped him climb up the cliff firmly closing the door of the bus the students had taken to the trail, clearly symbolizing an ending (129).

Shehadeh’s fourth journey is also near the Dead Sea: “Monasteries in the Desert: Wadi Qelt to Jericho.” It begins ominously:

By the end of the Nineties the future seemed to be moving to only bloodier times. This had been heralded by the increased rate of Israeli settlement and road building, the closing off of parts of the West Bank to Palestinians, settlers’ attacks on Palestinian civilians and the brutal killings of civilians by Palestianian human bombers inside Israel. (130)

However, there was brief respite after the Oslo Accords, and Shehadeh wanted to take advantage of that fragile peace: “It was essential not to hesitate but to venture out and take walks where it was still possible. And though most of upper Wadi Qelt, including the Faraa spring, was already closed to Palestinians, lower Wadi Qelt was still accessible” (130). So, with Penny and a group of friends, he planned to walk part way to Jericho through the hills, although need to get through checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem first (131). At the checkpoint, a soldier wouldn’t let them through, although another did: Shehadeh was angry at himself for not standing up for them, for not doing anything: 

Had this taken place before the Oslo Agreement I would have screamed at the soldier, demanded to see his superior, made it clear that he was exceeding his orders and made sure I put an end to my friend’s ordeal. Instead we all stood by meekly, without so much as a whimper of protest, and ended up feeling grateful just to have been allowed to pass. Perhaps it was time for me to leave. (133)

When they reached the hills where they were going to walk, the group was euphoric because of the contrast with Ramallah, a city surrounded by checkpoints: “the experience of open space, with no walls, no barriers and a wide open sky, made us giddy with joy” (137). They found a carob tree, where they sat to have a picnic (139). “Then we heard noises,” Shehadeh writes:

We looked up and, below the escarpment at the opposite end of the stream, saw a number of settlers approaching. . . . They must have seen us as trespassers, potentially dangerous but perhaps, by the way we looked sitting there drinking coffee and eating our salads, not quite on a military mission. One of the girls from the group approached Rema and asked her: “Where are you from?” Rema’s answer was both straightforward and correct. She simply said: “From here.” (139)

They continue walking and meet some Bedouins, living in brick houses by a canal, who treat them generously (142-44). The Bedouins have been evicted from their land, which is going to be turned into a nature reserve (145). 

Shehadeh used to support the creation of parks, but the damage to the environment, and to his father, caused by the construction of settlements had made him change his mind: 

They were acting like a sovereign, reshaping the countryside, exploiting empty land for the benefit of their own people and designating other areas as reserves for their future benefit. After 1967, when Israel occupied and then annexed East Jerusalem, my father lost many valuable plots of land when the Israeli municipality designated them green areas. I began to think Israel was going to turn East Jerusalem into a paradise of green parks, only to realize that a few years after the land had been acquired from its Arab ownership through expropriation, its designation was changed. The noble aim of keeping East Jerusalem Green was dropped in favor of using the land to construct neighborhoods for the exclusive benefit of Jewish residents, making the city more cluttered and depressing, and my father more despondent, than ever. (145)

Shehadeh’s friend Saba was upset by the news of the Bedouin’s impending eviction: “I have always known it,” he said. “The Israeli plan is to confine all of us in reservations in preparation for our eventual expulsion. Just as they did in 1948” (146). Shehadeh notices the differences between the area now, and what he remembered from past walks there:

During earlier walks all that I could see was the empty wilderness. Now the area looked like a construction site as the new roads to the settlements of Maaleh Mikhmas, Kfar Adumim, Mishor Adumim and Mitzpe Jericho were dug into the hills and land was leveled in preparation for building yet more houses there. Once these settlements are complete a wedge will divide the West Bank into a northern and a southern enclave and put an end to the dream of a Palestinian state. (149)

Everything he had seen that day made him angry—and more and more that was his default emotion.

The group visited the church at the Monastery of St. George of Koziba. It was a place of tranquility, and Shehadah decided he should draw inspiration from it: 

I cannot continue in this state of anger, otherwise it will consume all my energy and I shall waste my life in grumbling and regret. A time comes when one has to accept reality, difficult as that might be, and find ways to live through it without losing one’s self-esteem and principles. Was this not what these hermits and monks had been doing over the centuries, keeping their distance from the world, holding on to what was theirs as they waited for the tide to turn, while around them all they held sacred was violated? (153-54)

“The time had come for me to dedicate myself to a different project, one I could make work, which no one could take from me,” he continues—and that project would be writing (154). “I knew I would be able to find ways of dealing with the trauma of defeat,” he concludes. “Somehow despite the problems and fears I would continue to walk and to write. At my age my father had successfully survived two catastrophic defeats. I was more fortunate. So far, I have had to deal with only one.” (155)

At the beginning of Shehadeh’s fifth journey, “And How Did You Get Over It? Janiya, Ras Karkar and Deir Ammar,” he writes that he knew enough about the Oslo Accords to realize they would lead to chaos, so he protected himself: he built a house within Ramallah, safe from Israeli expropriation, and wrote a memoir (156). “I was digging my heels in, taking refuge in a stone house and waiting for the tide to change, an honorable tradition in the Holy Land,” he writes (156). During this period he went for a walk with his friend Mustafa Barghouti, a doctor and the founder of the Medical Relief Organization. They wanted to talk about the changes they were seeing in the West Bank, after the Oslo Accords (157-58). They intend to begin their walk in A’yn Qenya and finish in Deir Ammar: 

I was aware before we began that the route Mustafa and I were planning to take was prohibited to us. We did not have permission from the military governor to walk there and if we came upon soldiers we could be arrested. A Jewish settler also has the power to make a citizen’s arrest. We had to be careful of both. I was certain that Mustafa, like most Palestinians, was unaware of this prohibition. Before we started our walk I considered telling him but in the end decided against it. One anxious person on this lovely walk was enough. (161)

Shehadeh and Barghouti found their path, crossed the wadi, and walked through an overgrown field of olive trees, where “The unplowed earth . . . had an abundance of wildflowers mottled with the shadows of the clouds” (162-63). They discovered wet ground and realized that they had walked into the open sewers of the Talmon settlement, which disposed of its waste down the valley into land owned by Palestinian farmers (163). Two boys showed them the way out of the bog and told them walking near the paved road was too dangerous—the settlers would try to run Palestinians down deliberately, and the military would shoot at them (163-64). Settlers had practical immunity from prosecution, Shehadeh notes, and could threaten or shoot at Palestinian neighbours without penalty (165).

Although Shehadeh suggests that the land was owned by farmers, he notes that no one was working it: 

Traditionally these were agricultural villages. Within a few decades the inhabitants have been intimidated, their life made unsafe and many of their fields expropriated, and they have been turned into construction workers building the settlements that stood on land that once belonged to them. These were the beginnings of new times, a new relationship to the land and the destruction of the hills as I knew them. (165-66)

Such thoughts threatened his enjoyment of the day, as well as his peace of mind:

For a long time my enjoyment of these hills has been impaired by a preoccupation with the changes in land law relating to them. But such man-made constructs can be diminished if looked at in a particular way. Viewed from the perspective of the land they hardly count. A road makes a scar in the hills but over time that scar heals and becomes absorbed and incorporated. Stones are gathered to build houses but then they crumble and return to the land however large and formidable they might once have been. . . . As these thoughts crossed my mind, I could not help but wonder whether this long-term perspective was simply another justification for having curtailed my activism, or a reasonable defense against Israel’s positing of these changes as permanent and incapable of ever being altered. I realized that the stronger the attempt at impressing me with their permanence, the more my mind sought confirmation of their transience. (167)

As they walked, Barghouti asked how Shehadeh had gotten over his anger. He responds, “By accepting the fact of our surrender and moving on,” but he realized also the way that writing was liberating for him (168-69). The chapter ends, as do the others, with a sense of foreboding: 

As Mustafa and I witnessed during out walk in the hills, our land was being transformed before our eyes, and a new map was being drawn. We were not supposed to look, only to blindly believe in the hollow language of peace proclaimed by Israeli leaders, a peace that amounted to mere words, rhetoric that meant nothing. (177)

That make-believe peace could not last for ever, he concludes; another violent intifada was predictable (177).

Shehadeh’s final journey is“An Imagined Sarha: Wadi Dalb.” “Much has happened since the walk described in the last chapter,” he begins. “My hope that I would find refuge in my stone house was dispelled in the spring of 2002, when the Israeli army invaded Ramallah, entered my home and broke the sense of sanctuary I had ascribed to it” (178). The stated reason for the invasion was self-defence; but Shehadeh argues that for Israel, defending settlements on illegally acquired land had become the same as defending the rest of the country (178). The invasion followed by drastic security measures that closed the entrances of all cities and hundreds of villages (180). There were more checkpoints and obstacles on roads (180). Travel was difficult and Palestinians were subjected to constant harassment (180). There was a feeling that Palestinians would be victims of a mass expulsion, and a ghetto life was imposed on West Bank cities (180). The most destructive development, though, was the Separation Wall (181). “Still,” Shehadah writes,

I was determined that none of this was going to prevent me from taking more walks in the hills. Not the military orders closing most of the West Bank, not the checkpoints and roadblocks and not the Jewish settlements. Weather-wise that spring of 2006 was one of the best for many years. The rain had been plentiful but also well distributed. It continued to rain through April, giving vital sustenance to the wildflowers that by the end of the month usually begin to shrivel and die. I could not let this season pass without a walk. (181-82)

However, Shehadah had gotten lost driving in new settlements and industrial zones a few months earlier and didn’t want to repeat the experience (182). Besides, the changes wrought upon the land meant that he would have to choose a route carefully:

I surveyed my prospects. I could not go to A’yn Qenya through the Abu Ameen track because much of it had been destroyed by new buildings in the course of Ramallah’s expansion to the northwest. Added to this was the fact that the Jewish settlers from Dolev and Beit Eil had raised money to build a bypass road through our hills and valleys, going over private Palestinian lands to connect their two settlements. This badly designed private road caused much damage to the hills and obstructed the passage of water through the wadi. It also destroyed a number of the springs and many unique rock formations, among them a beautiful cliff studded with cyclamens that I often stopped to admire. (183-84)

In addition, the valley to the south was now used for target practice by members of the Palestinian security forces, and access to A’yn Qenya was blocked by an army post (184). Shehadeh decided to look at a map—not something he liked to do, “for it implied submission to others, the makers of the maps, with their ideological biases. I would much rather have exercised the freedom of going by the map inside my head, signposted by historical memories and references” (184). Nevertheless, he continues, “I had no choice. To find a track I could take that without settlers or practices shooters or army posts or settler bypass roads had become a real challenge” (184).

Shehadeh worked out a path, one that avoided army posts, bypasses and settlements (184). He began walking in land that might once have resembled Abu Ameen’s. There was a pine tree, a spring, and a cultivated orchard: “My spirits revived. I felt empowered by the memory of Abu Ameen and his much different times. I did not care what happened to me, I was going to enjoy my walk in the hills” (185). He walked until he found a gully where the track was 

made gorgeous by the view it offered of the valley below with its wide swath of green and the water flowing in its midst shimmering in the mid-morning light. I could not get over how unusual it was to see a green valley with a brook in these dry hills. My heart leaped. I almost ran down the path but thought better of it and, out of kindness to my knees, I slowed down, (185)

When he got to the water he realized there was someone there—an armed settler, smoking “hashish mixed with another more potent substance” in a water pipe, a nergila (186). He tried to cross the stream, but he dropped his hat in the water, and the settler retrieved it for him (186-87). 

Then begins a conversation—or confrontation—between the two men. Shehadeh told the settler that it was a beautiful day and his gun didn’t belong to it—the settler agrees, but said, “I have to” (187). Shehadeh asked the settler if he was afraid of being there alone. “Why should I be?” he answered. “I’ve done no evil to anyone” (188). Shehadeh thought,“Done no evil . . . after all the land he and his people have stolen, after destroying our life for so long” (188). The settler tells him that Dolev, his settlement, is built on public land, and that “All of Eretz Israel is ours” (189). Palestinians could go and live in another Arab states, the settler continues—there are 21 of them (190). “This young man had internalized the official propaganda and was just parroting it.,” Shehadeh writes. “Why should I spoil my walk by listening to such annoying nonsense?” (190). The settler stated that the land is a nature reserve, preserved by the Israelis; Shehadeh’s response was to ask about the settlements, the bulldozers digging highways, and the damage they have done. He described what the land was like before: “You could not see any new buildings, you did not hear any traffic. All you saw were deer leaping up the terraced hills, wild rabbits, foxes, jackals and carpets of flowers. Then it was a park. Preserved in more or less the same state it had been in for hundreds of years” (190). “Progress is inevitable,” the settler responded. He told Shehadeh that the Arab villagers, without running water, have a difficult life, and that they dump their garbage everywhere: “You lack the know-how and the discipline. Leave planning and law enforcement to us. We have built many towns and cities out of wild empty areas. Tel Aviv was built on sand dunes and look how vibrant it is today. The same will happen here” (191).

Then the settler said something that surprised Shehadeh: “I love these hills no less than you. I was raised here. The sights and smells of this land are a sacred part of me. I am not happy anywhere else. Every time I leave I cannot wait to get back. This is my home” (191). The conversation changed to the land they both love, and Shehadeh asked what the settlers called this wadi and this spring, and the men agreed that they both loved walking. However, this shared passion did not calm Shehadeh: “I held my breath. I wanted to blurt out all the curses I had ever learned: You . . . you . . . who’ve taken my land and now walk it as master, leaving me to walk as a criminal on a few restricted paths. But this time I held my tongue” (191-92).

The settler recalled a childhood memory of passing through Ramallah in a car, having stones thrown at them (192).“[I]t destroyed something inside me, perhaps forever,” he said. “I was so afraid. . . . because I could not understand why the Arabs hate us so much. When we got to school I asked the teacher why” (192). Her answer was, “Because they are bad people . . . and they hate Jews. This is why we have to be strong to defend ourselves” (193). Shehadeh responded that by taking the land and refusing to recognize the fact, the presence of settlers means “perpetual war” (193). The settler was not concerned. Shehadeh asked about international law; the settler said that’s “for the weak” (193). “I went to the army for three years,” he continued. “I will defend everything my family fought for. There was a war and we won. Our presence here is a fact that you will have to live with. My grandfather died fighting in the war of independence”—that is, the war for independence from the British (193). Shehadeh was surprised: “But they came to take our country from us and give it to you.” (193). The settler told him that there could be no compensation for properties taken in 1948 unless Palestinians compensated for Jewish losses in Cairo, Baghdad and Yemen. “What have we to do with Egypt, with Iraq, with Yemen?” Shehadeh replied. “Ask them. They are different countries. As far as I’m concerned all people who lost property should be compensated. But you should not link the two cases” (194). The settler’s response was simple: they’re Arabs (194). He saw no difference between the Palestinians and other Arabs, and argued that Palestinians are not a nation: “You never had your own government. . . . you don’t have, you never had, a national presence in Eretz Israel,” but the Jews did, in Judea, three thousand years before (195). “So with the exception of small communities in Jerusalem and Hebron there were no Jews living in the West Bank since that time. The land has been continuously populated predominantly by Arabs. Does this not count in your eyes?” Shehadeh asked.  The settler answered, “It took the Jews three thousand years to return to their land. It’s the only country we’ve got. And you want us to give it up?” (195).

Shehadeh states that taking all the land without sharing is discriminatory, but the settler disagreed: “You want to walk? We have designated areas as natural parks which we forbid anyone, Arab or Jew, from building on. You and us can enjoy these areas” (195). “I have not been able to enjoy these hills since your people came,” Shehadeh replied. “I walk in fear of being shot at or arrested. There was a time when this place was like a paradise, a cultivated garden with a house by every spring. A small, unobtrusive house, built without concrete” (195). The settler scoffed: 

And then the Jews came like the serpent and ruined everything in the idyllic garden. You blame us for everything, don’t you? But it doesn’t matter. We’ve learned our lesson from our long, tortured history. Here in our own land our existence is not premised on your acceptance. We’ve long since found out that we have to be strong if we are to survive here. (196)

Then Shehadeh retrieved his wet hat and turned to walk away. However, the settler asks if he wants to smoke with him, and he does: “I knew from experience that often the first impulse is the best one to follow and my intuition on this occasion was not to refuse” (196). 

“As the strong stuff began to take effect,” Shehadeh recalls, he began to think about another sarha in the same hills, walking with a friend, sitting on rocks near the cyclamen rock, resting at the midway point of their walk. It was sunset and the colours of the hills were changing. A man walked by with long, deliberate strides, as though he was taking measurements: 

In the clarity of the moment I suspected the worst, tidings of a terrible future for our beautiful hills. A short time after this, work began on the settler road connecting Dolev to Beit Eil, which passed along the exact path this man had traversed. He must have been working for the Arab contractor who executed the work on behalf of the settlers. The hills where never the same after that. (197)

That memory made him feel guilty about sharing the hills with the settler, but then he thought, “these are my hills despite how things are turning out. If I postpone my enjoyment of them I might never achieve the sarha that I have sought for so long” (197). “With every draw of the nergila, I was slipping back into myself, into a vision of the land before it became so tortured and distorted, every hill, watercourse and rock, and we the inhabitants along with it,” he continues.  “I was fully aware of the looming tragedy and war that lay ahead for both of us, Palestinian Arab and Israeli Jew. But for now, he and I could sit together for a respite, for a smoke, joined temporarily by our mutual love of the land” (198). The pair began to hear shots in the background but they didn’t know who is firing. “We agreed to disregard them for now and for a while the only sound that we could hear was the comforting gurgle of the nergila and the soft murmur of the precious water trickling between the rocks,” Shehadeh concludes (198). It is a rather ominous conclusion, a brief moment of wary peace with gunfire in the background.

Palestinian Walks: Forays into a Vanishing Landscape left me thinking about the parallels between the West Bank and Saskatchewan. There are many differences, of course, but in both places, settlers have done everything possible to displace the original inhabitants of the land, and in both places the settlers—or at least most of them—are blind (wilfully, perhaps, or through ignorance) to that face. I can imagine the conversation Shehadeh has with the settler taking place between a Cree or Saulteaux man out for a walk and a môniyâw hiker or hunter. More importantly, Shehadeh’s final chapter suggests that a love of the land, or even a sense of its sacredness, cannot make up for a history of colonization and displacement, that it cannot generate a sense of shared purpose or understanding. How could it? In addition, the changes Shehadeh has seen in the hills and wadis he loves since the 1970s are not unlike the ones settlers brought to this land by destroying the grassland ecosystem. Unlike the roads Shehadeh imagines becoming part of the landscape, that destruction is permanent, and ongoing, so that less than 14 percent remains. And all of this reinforces my sense that settlers and their descendants do need to justify their walking in this land, because it does belong to others. The shape such a justification would take eludes me right now, but it’s something I’m going to have to think about—and discuss with Elders.

Work Cited

Shehadeh, Raja. Palestinian Walks: Forays into a Vanishing Landscape, Scribner, 2007.

56. Francesco Careri, Walkscapes: Walking as an Aesthetic Practice

careri walkscapes

In Walkscapes: Walking as an Aesthetic Practice, architect Francesco Careri constructs a genealogy of walking that is somewhat different from Phil Smith’s in Walking’s New Movements. It moves from the Dadaists, Surrealists and Situationists, as does Smith, but it ends up with Minimalism and Land Art, rather than performance. My sense that walking as an aesthetic practice is a very broad field is confirmed by the twin genealogies Smith and Careri create. 

In his 2017 forward, Christopher Flynn suggests that walking is “as much an architectural act as a pilgrimage” (8), and that is a good summary of Careri’s argument. The book also has two introductions (one from 2013 by Careri, the other from 2002, the date of the book’s original publication, by Gilles A. Tiberghien). In the 2013 introduction, Careri describes the colonial urban grid of South American cities, and his comments on such grids, and on walking in those cities, also apply to cities in North America, at least to a degree:

I have to look for the points in which the grid breaks up, lose my way along rivers, skirting around the new residential zones, plunging into the mazes of the favelas. Walking in South America means coming to terms with many fears: fear of the city, fear of public space, fear of breaking rules, fear of usurping space, fear of crossing non-existent barriers, fear of other inhabitants, nearly always perceived as potential enemies. To put it simply, walking is scary, so people don’t walk any any more; those who walk are homeless, drug addicts, outcasts. The anti-peripatetic and anti-urban phenomenon is clearer here than in Europe, where it still seems to be on the verge of taking form: never leave the house on foot, never expose your body without an enclosure, protect it in the home or in the car. (13)

There are no favelas in North America, not exactly, but there is a sense of fear attached to urban walking (to a lesser degree, no doubt, than in South America), and those who walk are considered as marginalized (unless, in this city, they are taking a stroll around the artificial lake in the park). There’s no question, though—particularly when it comes to rural walking—that the “anti-peripatetic” phenomenon is deeply rooted here: no one goes anywhere outside of the cities without protecting their bodies inside an automobile. It’s worth noting as well that Careri sees the urban grid as a colonial imposition, whereas Smith (in Rethinking Mythogeography in Northfield, Minnesota) suggests that such grids are utopian. Is there a crossover (from the perspective of the colonizer) between colonial imposition and utopian construction? If colonialism was intended as a utopian project (not for the colonized, obviously), does that help to explain why it is so hard for settlers, for colonizers, to address its ongoing legacy? 

Careri’s remarks on the politics of urban walking echo Jane Jacobs: 

It might sound banal, but the only way to have a safe city is to have people walking in the street. This factor alone allows people to watch and watch out for each other, without any need for fences and surveillance cameras. And the only way to have a living, democratic city is to be able to walk, without erasing conflicts and differences, to be able to walk in protest, to reassert our right to the city” (13)

Walking trains citizens; it is “capable of lowering the level of fear and of unmasking the media construct of insecurity” (13-14). So Careri walks with his students: “One motto that guides our walks is ‘lose time to gain space’” (14). He wants them to “get out of a functional-productive system in order to enter a non-functional, unproductive system” (14): 

You have to learn how to lose time, not always seeking the shortest route, letting yourself get detoured by events, heading towards more impenetrable paths where it is possible to ‘stumble,’ maybe even to get stuck, talking with the people you meet or knowing how to stop, forgetting that you were supposed to proceed; to know how to achieve unintentional walking, indeterminate walking. (14)

He calls the Situationist dérive a form of indeterminate walking, and suggests that it has the potential “for the transformation of the nomadic—or more precisely informal—city (14). “Drift,” he suggests, is a nautical metaphor: it connotes ways “to designate a direction, but with extensive openness to indeterminacy, and to listen to the projects of others” (15). That’s important, because determinate projects will fall apart at the first gusts of wind: “There are definitely greater hopes of achieving an indeterminate project” (15). 

At this point, Careri looks back at what he’s written so far, and sees it as connected to “relational” or “participatory” creative processes, which “cannot meet fulfillment without an exchange with the Other” (15). I’m hearing echoes of Smith or even Pujol here: in such relational creative processes, 

the operation usually happens in one of two ways: either you get the ‘other’ involves in your own project, to obtain consensus, or you cancel out your own creativity, leaving the completion of the work completely up to the other. Instead, I believe it is interesting to navigate between these two shores, aware of the fact that we have our own creative project (even our desire to participate is a project in its own right), but also knowing that we want to leave it open, indeterminate. The steering will therefore be done by the inner coherence between the things we come across and those we create, between things that happen and things we make happen, the ongoing discovery of a hidden order we can observe as it comes to life beneath our feet and the perspective they afford us, the possibility of constructing a meaning and a coherent, shared story-route. (15)

This is a reasonable take on relational aesthetics, worth remembering if (or when) I engage in that kind of project later on.

In the 2002 introduction, Tiberghien suggests that Careri offers “a rereading of the history of art in terms of the practice of walking” (20). The book’s main idea, he writes, is that “walking has always generated architecture and landscape, and that this practice, all but totally forgotten by architects themselves, has been reactivated by poets, philosophers and artists capable of seeing precisely what is not there, in order to make ‘something’ be there” (21). Walking serves practical needs, Tiberghien contends, but once they have been satisfied, it takes on a symbolic form that enabled humans “to dwell in the world. By modifying the sense of space crossed, walking becomes man’s first aesthetic act, penetrating the territories of chaos, constructing an order on which to develop the architecture of situated objects” (25). “Walking is an art from whose loins spring the menhir, sculpture, architecture, landscape,” he continues. “This simple action has given rise to the most important relationships man has established with the land, the territory” (26). Only in the 20th century has walking 

freed itself of the constraints of religion and literature to assume the status of a pure aesthetic act. Today it is possible to construct a history of walking as a form of urban intervention that inherently contains the symbolic meanings of the primal creative act: roaming as architecture of the landscape, where the term landscape indicates the action of symbolic as well as physical transformation of anthropic space. (26)

This is the perspective through which Careri looks at the shifts from Dada to Surrealism, from the Lettrist Internation to the Situationist International, and from Minimal Art to Land Art (26): 

By analyzing these episodes we simultaneously obtain a history of the roamed city that goes from the banal city of Dada to the entropic city of Robert Smithson, passing through the unconscious and oneiric city of the Surrealists and the playful and nomadic city of the Situationists. What the rovings of the artists discover is a liquid city, an amniotic fluid where the spaces of the elsewhere take spontaneous form, an urban archipelago in which to navigate by drifting. A city in which the spaces of staying are the islands in the great sea formed by the space of going. (26)

For the first part of the 20th century, walking was a form of anti-art: in a series of excursions “to the banal places of the city of Paris” in 1921, the Dadaists, for the first time, rejected art’s assigned places and set out to reclaim urban space; walking was one of the tools they used “to achieve that surpassing of art that was to become the red thread for any understanding of the subsequent avant-gardes” (27). Three years later, the Dadaists travelled to the open country, where they “discovered a dream-like, surreal aspect to walking and defined this experience as ‘deambulation,’ a sort of automatic writing in real space, capable of revealing the unconscious zones of space, the repressed memories of the city” (27). Then, in the 1950s, the Lettrist International, began to construct the theory of drifting (27). After the Lettrists had transformed into the Situationists, Guy Debord began making the “first images of a city based on the dérive,” as the Situationists experimented “with playful-creative behaviour and unitary environments” (27). 

In the second half of 20th century, walking seen as one of the forms used by artists to intervene in nature (27). In 1966, the journal Artforum published an account of Tony Smith’s journey along a highway under construction. After that, sculptors began exploring theme of the path, first as object, then as experience (27). According to Tiberghien, “Land Art re-examined, through walking, the archaic origins of landscape and the relationship between art and architecture, making sculpture reclaim the spaces and means of architecture” (27-28). In 1967, Richard Long’s created his famous A Line Made By Walking and Robert Smithson’s A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic (a work I had never heard of) became “the first such voyage through the empty spaces of the contemporary urban periphery,” a tour which led Smithson to conclude that “the relationship between art and nature had changed, nature itself had changed, the contemporary landscape autonomously produced its own space, in the ‘repressed’ parts of the city we could find the abandoned futures produced by entropy” (28). “Today’s city,” Tiberghien writes, “contains nomadic spaces (voids) and sedentary spaces (solids) that exist side by side in a delicate balance of reciprocal exchange. Today the nomadic city lives inside the stationary city, feeding on its scraps and offering, in exchange, its own presence as a new nature that can be crossed only by inhabiting it” (28). If you’re hearing echoes of Deleuze and Guattari in the types of space Careri identifies in the city, you’re probably right. 

According to Tiberghien, the first aim of this book is “to reveal the falseness of any anti-architectural image of nomadism, and thus of walking” (29). Paleolithic hunters and nomadic shepherds are “the origin of the menhir, the first object of the landscape from which architecture was developed. The landscape seen as an architecture of open space is an invention of the civilization of wandering. Only during the last ten thousand years of sedentary living have we passed from the architecture of open space to the architecture of filled space” (29). The second aim is “to understand the place of the path-journey in the history of architectural archetypes,” which means looking at the relationship between path and architecture, between roaming and the menhir, “in an age in which architecture did not exist as the physical construction of space, but as a symbolic construction—inside the path—of the territory” (29). In this context, “path” means three related things: “the act of crossing (the path as the action of walking), the line that crosses the space (the path as architectural object) and the tale of the space crossed (the path as narrative structure)”—he intends another meaning, path as aesthetic form available to architecture and landscape (30) In the 20th century, the rediscovery of the path happened first in literature (the Dadaists, Surrealists, and Situationists were writers), then in sculpture (Carl Andre, Long, Smithson), while in architecture it led to radical anti-architecture in nomadism, without (yet) a positive development (30). Through the path different disciplines have produced their own “expansion of the field,” paraphrasing Rosalind Kraus, as a way to come to terms with their own limits (30). “Retracing the margins of their disciplines, many artists have attempted not to fall into the abyss of negation consciously opened by Dada . . . but to leap beyond it”: so Breton transformed Dadaist anti-art into Surrealism by expanding the field into psychology; the Situationists tried to transform anti-art into a unified discipline by expanding into politics; and Land Art transformed the sculptural object “into construction of the territory by expanding the field toward landscape and architecture” (30). “Today architecture,” Tiberghien continues,

could expand into the field of the path without encountering the pitfalls of anti-architecture. The transurbance between the edges of the discipline and the place of exchange between the nomadic and the settled city can represent a first step. In this space of encounter walking is useful for architecture as a cognitive and design tool, as a means of recognizing a geography in the chaos of peripheries, and a means through which to invent new ways to intervene in public metropolitan spaces, to investigate them and make them visible. (30-32)

“The aim is to indicate walking as an aesthetic tool capable of describing and modifying those metropolitan spaces that often have a nature still demanding comprehension,” he writes, “to be filled with meanings rather than designed and filled with things” (32). Walking is a tool which, “due to the simultaneous reading and writing of space intrinsic to it,” enables attending and interacting with “the mutability of those spaces, so as to intervene in their continuous becoming by acting in the field, in the here and now of their transformation, sharing from the inside in the mutations of these spaces that defy the conventional tools of contemporary design” (32). This is a transformation of the path “from anti-architecture into a resource,” a way of expanding architecture’s field of disciplinary action (32), and Careri’s book is intended to be a contribution in that direction (32). I’m not interested in architecture, of course, but I am interested in walking, so my approach to this book was to skim over the passages devoted to architecture (including the final chapter, about Stalker, Careri’s walking group, which investigates the design of urban spaces) and focus on the genealogy of walking Careri constructs.

After Tiberghien’s summary of the book’s argument, Careri begins unpacking his ideas. In the first chapter, Errare Humanum Est . . . (wandering is human), Careri’s thinking takes an anthropological (even mythical) turn: “The primordial separation of humanity into nomads and settlers results in two different ways of living in the world and therefore of thinking about space” (35). He reads the story of Cain and Abel (one of his sources of information about nomadism and settlement) in architectural terms, arguing that it demonstrates“how the relation nomadism and settlement establish with the construction of symbolic space springs from an original ambiguity” (35). That story is about a division of labour: Cain is sedentary, a farmer, while Abel is nomadic, a herder (35). “[I[n the wake of an argument”—there is no Biblical justification for this claim, but never mind—“Cain accused Abel of trespassing and—as we all know—killed him, condemning himself to a destiny of eternal wandering as punishment for his fratricidal sin” (36). According to Careri, as a pastoralist, Abel has more free time, which allows him to experiment, to construct a symbolic universe, to map space and attribute symbolic and aesthetic values to the territory, all of which lead to landscape architecture (36). “So from the very beginning artistic creation, as well as that rejection of work and therefore of the opus that was to develop with the Parisian Dadaists and Surrealists, a sort of recreational-contemplative sloth that lies at the basis of the anti-artistic flânerie that crosses the 20th century, was associated with walking,” he writes (36). The two brothers’ different ways of dwelling (pastoralist versus agriculturalist) “correspond to two conceptions of architecture itself: an architecture seen as physical construction of space and form, as opposed to an architecture seen as perception and symbolic construction of space” (38). That doesn’t mean that settlement led to architecture: “it is probable that it was nomadism, or more precisely ‘wandering,’ that gave rise to architecture, revealing the need for a symbolic construction of the landscape” (39):

The division of labor between Cain and Abel produced two distinct but not fully self-sufficient civilizations. The nomad, in fact, lives in contrast to but also in osmosis with the settler: farmers and shepherds need to continuously trade their products and require a hybrid, or more precisely neutral, space in which this trade is possible. (39)

The Sahel, on the southern the edge of the Sahara desert, functioned as “an unstable buffer zone between the settled city and the nomadic city, the full and the empty,” or as Deleuze and Guattari suggest, striated and smooth space (39):

In other words sedentary space is denser, more solid, and therefore full, while that of the nomad is less dense, more fluid, and therefore empty. The nomadic space is an infinite, uninhabited, often impervious void: a desert in which orientation is difficult, as in an immense sea where the only recognizable feature is the track left by walking, a mobile, evanescent sign. The nomadic city is the path itself, the most stable sign in the void, and the form of this city is the sinuous line drawn by the succession of points in motion. (39-41)

Those points in motion, the “space of going,” are the “very essence of nomadism” (41): “Just as the sedentary path structures and gives life to the city, in nomadism the path becomes the symbolic place of the life of the community” (41). According to Careri, “The nomadic city is not the trail of a past left as a tracing on the ground, it is the present that occupies, again and again, those segments of the territory on which the journey takes place, that part of the landscape walked, perceived, and experienced” (41). “It is from this vantage point,” he continues, “that the territory can be interpreted, memorized, and mapped in its becoming” (41). 

While settlers see nomadic spaces as empty, “for nomads these voids are full of invisible traces: every little dissimilarity is an event, a useful landmark for the construction of a mental map composed of points (particular places), lines (paths), and surfaces (homogenous territories) that are transformed over time” (41). “The ability to know how to see in the void of places and therefore to know how to name these places was learned in the millennia preceding the birth of nomadism,” in the earlier Paleolithic period (41). “The slow, complex operation of appropriation and mapping of the territory was the result of the incessant walking of the first humans,” Careri continues (44). He calls the kind of walking characteristic of hunters and gatherers in the Paleolithic period “erratic” and distinguishes between such roaming and nomadism: “While the nomadic journey is linked to cyclical movements of livestock during the transhumance, erratic movement is connected to the pursuit of prey of the hunter-gatherers of the Paleolithic era” (44). Both nomadism and settlement result from “the new productive utilization of the land that began with the climate change following the last glacial period” (44). They are simultaneous developments, Careri is arguing; settlement did not come out of nomadic transhumance.  Nomadism is not wandering: it “takes place in vast empty spaces, but spaces that are familiar, and a return trip is planned; wandering, on the other hand, happens in an empty space that has not yet been mapped, without any defined destination. In a certain sense the path of the nomad is a cultural evolution of wandering, a sort of ‘specialization’” (49). “[B]oth the routes of the sedentary world and the journeys of the nomad are derived from the erratic, Paleolithic path,” he continues. “The notion of path belongs simultaneously to both cultures, i.e. to the builders of ‘settled cities’ and to those of ‘errant cities’” (49). But the path comes out of the Paleolithic world: the path was “the first anthropic sign capable of imposing an artificial order on the territories of natural chaos” (49). Eventually there was a change from a quantitative to a qualitative space, “filling the surrounding void with a certain number of full places that served for orientation. In this way the multidirectional space of natural chaos began to be transformed into a space ordered, in keeping with the two main directions clearly visible in the void: the direction of the sun and that of the horizon” (49). At the end of the Paleolithic era, then, the landscape, deciphered by human activity, was “a space constructed by vectors of erratic pathways, by a series of geographical features connected to mythical events and assembled in sequence, and it was probably ordered in keeping with the fixed directions of the vertical and the horizontal: the sun and the horizon” (49-50). 

Walking, Careri writes, “though it is not the physical construction of a space, implies a transformation of the place and its meanings” (50). Prior to the Neolithic period and its menhirs, “the only symbolic architecture capable of modifying the environment was walking, an action that is simultaneously an act of perception and creativity, of reading and writing the territory” (50). The menhir, “[t]he first situated object in the human landscape,”

springs directly from the universe of roaming and nomadism. While the horizon is a stable, more or less straight line depending on the landscape itself, the sun has a less definite movement, following a trajectory that appears clearly vertical only in its two moments of vicinity to the horizon: sunrise and sunset. The desire to stablize the vertical dimension was probably one of the motivations behind the creation of the first artificial element in space: the menhir. (50)

Menhirs, simple objects with great density of meaning, were the first human, physical transformation of landscape: they are stones raised vertically, planted in the ground, and thereby “transformed into a new presence that stops time and space: it institutes a ‘time zero’ that extends into eternity, and a new system of relations with the elements of the surrounding landscape” (50). There are many different interpretations of the way menhirs were used, because this invention “could satisfy many different aims” (50-51). They might have had many different simultaneous functions, possibly linked to fertility cults, possibly places where heroes had died, sites where water was found, or boundaries (51). What interests Careri, though, is where they were placed—the possibility that they revealed the geometry and geography of the place, that “they were signals placed along the major routes of crossing” (51):

It is hard to imagine how the travelers of antiquity could have crossed entire continents without the help of maps, roads and signs. Yet an incredible traffic of travelers and merchants continuously crossed nearly impassable forests and uncharted territories, apparently without excessive difficult. It is very probably that the menhirs functioned as a system of territorial orientation, easily deciphered by those who understood its language: a sort of guide sculpted into the landscape, leader the traveler to his destination from one signal to another along the intercontinental routes. (51-52)

Some menhirs are megaliths, requiring large populations to erect, so they may have been situated in neutral zones between populations (52). For Careri, that fact suggests that the places in which the megalithic works were built were “either a sort of sanctuary utilized by the surrounding populations for festivities, or more probably stopping places along the main routes of transit, places with the function of today’s highway rest stops,” visited by many different people, perhaps communicating “the presence of singular facts and information regarding the surrounding territory, information useful for the continuation of the journey,” but also perhaps places of ritual celebrations (52-56). If they were intended to pass along information about the journey, then “[t]he entire voyage, which had been the place of events, stories, and myths around or along the menhirs, encountered a space for representation of itself: tales of travels and legends were celebrated and ritualized around the stones planted in the ground” (56). 

The important thing about menhirs, for Careri, is what came before them: 

Before the physical transformation of the face of the Earth that began with the menhirs, the territory had undergone a cultural transformation based on walking, an action that took place only on the surface of the planet, without penetrating it. The space of the path, therefore, precedes architectonic space; it is an immaterial space with symbolic-religious meanings. For thousands of years, when the physical construction of a symbolic place was still unthinkable, the crossing of space represented an aesthetic means through which it was possible to inhabit the world. (58)

Architecture, then, was not the invention of a sedentary, settled world, if the path was the first example of human place-making.

I’m not sure whether the anthropological evidence supports Careri’s argument. It’s rather Eurocentric, for one thing, despite the reference to the Sahel. In this part of the world, there are no menhirs—medicine wheels, yes, but no standing stones. What does that mean? There was also little pastoralism in North America, as far as I know, although agriculture and hunting and gathering existed side by side. What might that do for Careri’s claims? What about the temporary or semi-permanent structures hunting and gathering peoples built? Don’t they count as architecture? For that matter, what about the structures pastoralists must have erected for shelter? Besides, as Robert Moor points out in his book on paths and trails, many human paths are (or were) first made by animals, not people; people simply used paths that were already in existence. Since Careri’s argument is that paths were the first human interventions in a landscape, what might that point do to his argument? Nevertheless, the suggestion that architecture was nomadic is key to his argument, especially his conclusion (which, as I indicated at the outset, I only skimmed) about the types of urban space Stalker investigates.

Careri begins his second chapter, “Anti Walk,” with an account of the Dadaists’ first excursion, to the church of Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre, on 14 April 1921. This was the first of what was to be a series of excursions to banal places in the city, “a conscious aesthetic operation backed up by press releases, proclamations, flyers and photographic documentation” (67). For Careri, it “remains the most important Dada intervention in the city,” “the first step in a long series of excursions, deambulations and ‘driftings’ that crossed the entire century as a form of anti-art” (67). The excursion also “marks the passage from the representation of motion to the construction of an aesthetic action to be effected in the reality of everyday life” (67). “With the Dada visits and the subsequent deambulations of the Surrealists the action of passing through space was utilized as an aesthetic form capable of taking the place of representation, and therefore of the art system in general,” he writes (68). In other words, “Dada effected the passage from the representation of the city of the future to the habitation of the city of the banal” (68). “Dada raised the tradition of flânerie to the level of an aesthetic operation” (74). In fact, that first excursion was an urban ready-made work, “the first symbolic operation that attributes aesthetic value to a space rather than an object. Dada progressed from introducing a banal object into the space of art to introducing art—the persons and bodies of the Dada artists—into a banal place in the city” (74). The excursion was neither decoration nor representation; it was not a material operation and left no physical traces except documentation (74-75). It merely consisted of an event, and actions performed during that event: reading from a dictionary, giving gifts to passers-by, attempts to get people to join them in the street (75). But for Careri, “[t]he work lies in having thought of the action to perform, rather than in the action itself” (75). That would suggest that this excursion was the first example of Conceptual art as well.

In May 1924, the Dadaists performed another intervention in real space, but this time “the plan was for an erratic journey in a vast natural territory”: this event, a deambulation in open country in the center of France, a country walk from Blois, a small town chosen randomly, to Romorantin, marks the passage from Dada to Surrealism (78). It was organized by André Breton, Louis Aragon, Max Morise, Roger Vitrac; afterwards Breton wrote the introduction to Poisson soluble, what would become the first Surrealist manifesto (78). According to Careri, “[t]he trip, undertaken without aim or destination, had been transformed into a form of automatic writing in real space, a literary/rural roaming imprinted directly on the map of a mental territory” (78). The choice or rural space was important for what would become the Surrealists:

Space appears as an active, pulsating subject, an autonomous producer of affections and relations. It is a living organism with its own character, a counterpart with shifting moods, with which it is possible to establish a relationship of mutual exchange. The path unwinds amidst snares and dangers, provoking a strong sense of apprehension in the person walking, in both senses of ‘feeling fear’ and ‘grasping’ or ‘learning.’ This empathic territory penetrates down to the deepest strata of the mind, evoking images of other worlds in which reality and nightmare live side by side, transporting the being into a state of unconsciousness where the ego is no longer definite. Deambulation is the achievement of a state of hypnosis by walking, a disorienting loss of control. It is a medium through which to enter into contact with the unconscious part of the territory. (78-79)

The rural deambulation only happened once, but there were walks through the outskirts of Paris: “one of the most assiduously practiced activities of the Surrealists for investigating that unconscious part of the city that eluded bourgeois transformation” (79). The Surrealists saw the city as amniotic fluid, “where everything grows and is spontaneously transformed, out of sight”—that is where “the endless walks, the encounters, the trouvailles (discoveries of objets trouvés), the unexpected events, and collective games happen” (80). 

Dadaism and Surrealism had different ways of thinking about the city, Careri notes. In Dadaism, the city becomes a place “to notice the banal and the ridiculous” and “unmask the farce of the bourgeois city” (80). The Surrealists, in contrast, move to a positive project, using psychoanalytic theory to look for what is hidden in the city’s unconscious, its non-visible reality (80): “The Surrealist research is a sort of psychological investigation of one’s relationship with urban reality, an operation already applied with success through automatic writing and hypnotic dreams, and which can also be directly applied in walking through the city” (80-81). According to Careri, “[t]he Surrealist city is an organism that produces and conceals territories to be explored, landscapes in which to get lost and to endlessly experience the sensation of everyday wonder” (81). The phrase “everyday wonder” made me wonder if there’s a connection between Surrealism and Smith’s mythogeography—although that is incorrect, or at least premature. Careri suggests that there is one more distinction to be made between the Dadaist exploration of the city and those of the Surrealists:

Dada had glimpsed the fact that the city could be an aesthetic space in which to operate through quotidian/symbolic actions, and had urged artists to abandon the usual forms of representation, pointing the way toward direct intervention in public space. Surrealism, perhaps without yet fully understanding its importance as an aesthetic form, utilized walking—the most natural and everyday act of man—as a means by which to investigate and unveil the unconscious zones of the city, those parts that elude planned control and constitute the unexpressed, untranslatable component in traditional representations. (81)

The Situationists would later accuse the Surrealists of failing to take the potential of the Dada project to its extreme consequences, Careri suggests: “The ‘artless,’ art without artwork or artist, the rejection of representation and personal talent, the pursuit of an anonymous, collective and revolutionary art, would be combined, along with the practice of walking, in the wandering of the Lettrist/Situationists” (81).

In the early 1950s, the Lettrist International began to see getting lost in the city as “an aesthetic-political means by which to undermine the postwar capitalist system,” and the term dérive was coined. Literally, dérive mean “drift,” “a recreational collective act that not only aims at defining the unconscious zones of the city, but which—with the help of the concept of ‘psychogeography’—attempts to investigate the psychic effects of the urban context on the individual” (86). In the dérive, “the contruction and implementation of new forms of behaviour in real life, the realization of an alternative way of inhabiting the city,” outside the rules of bourgeois society, aimed at going beyond Surrealist deambulations (86). According to the Lettrists/Situationists, the Surrealists didn’t understand “the potential of deambulation as a collective art form, as an aesthetic operation that, if performed in a group, had the power to annul the individual components of the artwork” (86). Moreover, they depended too much on a Freudian model of the city:

The miserable failure of the Surrealist deambulation was due, according to the Situationists, to the exaggerated importance assigned to the unconscious and to chance, categories that were still included in the Lettrists’ practice, but in a diluted form, closer to reality, within a constructed method of investigation whose field of action must be life, and therefore the real city. (86)

Lettrist drifting attempted to transform the subjective interpretation of the city (of the Surrealists) into an objective method of urban exploration (86): “The Lettrists rejected the idea of a separation between alienating, boring real life and a marvellous imaginary life: reality itself had to become marvellous” (87). That notion suggests that Smith’s mythogeography is closer to Lettrists rather than Surrealists—not a surprise, given the importance he gives to the Lettrists and the Situationists in his own genealogy. “It was no longer the time to celebrate the unconscious of the city,” Careri writes; “it was time to experiment with superior ways of living through the construction of situations in everyday reality: it was time to act, not to dream” (87).

Walking in a group was, for the Lettrists, 

a means of escaping from bourgeois life and rejecting the rules of the art system. The dérive was, in fact, an action that would have a hard time fitting into the art system, as it consisted in constructing the modes of a situation whose consumption left no traces. It was a fleeting action, an immediate instant to be experienced in the present moment without considering its representation and conservation in time. (87)

For that reason, the dérive fit with the Dadaist logic of anti-art (87). Although the term dérive first appears in an essay by Ivan Chtcheglov (Gilles Ivain), it was Debord, in 1955, who sets out to define experimental methods for observing urban spaces, and 1956, in “Theory of the Dérive,”  he formulates a definition of the dérive and its relation to psychogeography (92). According to Careri, the dérive and psychogeography “replaced the unconscious dream city of the Surrealists with a playful, spontaneous city”: they 

replaced the randomness of Surrealist roaming with the construction of rules of the game. To play means deliberately breaking the rules and inventing your own, to free creative activity from socio-cultural restrictions, to design aesthetic and revolutionary actions that undermine or elude social control. The theory of the Situationists was based on an aversion for work and the premise fo an imminent transformation of the use of time in society,” through automation, work would be reduced, free time increased, “Therefore it was important to protect the use of this non-productive time form the powers that be. Otherwise it would be sucked into the system of capitalist consumption through the creation of induced needs. (97)

For the Situationists, the revolution would have to be based on desire: “to seek the latent desires of people in the everyday world, stimulating them, re-awakening them, helping them to take the place of the wants imposed by the dominant culture” (100). “The construction of situations was therefore the most direct way to realize new forms of behavior in the city, and to experience the moments of what life could be in a freer society within urban reality,” Careri writes (100). And the way to realize new forms of behaviour was through the dérive: “The Situationists saw the psychogeographical dérive as the means with which to strip the city naked, but also with which to construct a playful way of reclaiming its territory: the city is a toy to be utilized at one’s pleasure, a space for collective living, for the experience of alternative behaviors, a place in which to waste useful time so as to transform it into playful-constructive time” (100). The city needed to be experienced as a playful territory that could lead people toward authentic lives (100).

Careri begins his third chapter, “Land Walk,” with the story sculptor Tony Smith’s journey along the unfinished New Jersey Turnpike. Smith was the “father” of American Minimal Art, and this event said to be the origin of Land Art and a series of walks in deserts and suburbs in the late 1960s (111). “The story leads to many questions and many possible paths of investigation,” Careri writes. “The road is seen by Tony Smith in the two different possible ways that were to be analyzed by Minimal Art and Land Art: one is the road as sign and object, on which the crossing takes place; the other is the crossing itself as experience, as attitude that becomes form” (111-14). In both cases, art was moving out of the gallery and museum and reclaiming the experience of lived space and the larger scale of the landscape (114). It is a crucial moment, according to Careri:

from this moment on the practice of walking begins to be transformed into a true autonomous artform. What seemed like an aesthetic realization, an immediate flash of intuition, an almost indescribable ecstasy, is then utilized in countless ways by a great number of artists—most of them sculptors—who emerged at the end of the 1960s in a passage from Minimalism to that series of very heterogenous experiences categorized under the generic term of ‘Land Art.’ (114)

Careri compares the work of Carl Andre and Richard Long: Andre “tried to make objects that could occupy space without filling it, to create presences that were increasingly absent within real space”; for him, the ideal sculpture was a road (114). What distinguishes Long’s work from Andre’s is that Andre makes flat sculptures on can walk on, whereas Long’s art is made by walking (114-15):

Therefore, Smith’s perplexities seem, just a few years later, to have already found resolutions in two directions: for Andre the road experienced by Smith is not only art, it is the ideal sculpture; Long goes further, saying that art consists in the very act of walking, of living the experience. At this point is seems clear that the fundamental step has been taken. With Long the passage has been made from the object to its absence. The erratic path returns to its status as an aesthetic form in the field of visual arts. (115)

“The first attempts to use walking as an art form—or, more precisely, as a form of anti-art—were made as an expansion of the field of action of literature into the visual arts”—the field visit, deambulation, the dérive (115). In the 1960s, however, performance art and sculpture expanded to include walking as well (115), and this expansion—especially into sculpture—is important, according to Careri, because it leads back to the path and the menhir:

The return to walking in the field of sculpture is an integral part of a more general expansion of sculpture itself. The artists take steps that seem to trace back through all the stages that led from the erratic journey to the menhir, and the menhir to architecture. In their works we can once again see a logical thread that goes from minimal objects (the menhir), to the territorial works of Land Art (the landscape) and the wanderings of the Land artists (walking). A thread that connects walking to that field of activity that operates as transformation of the earth’s surface, a field of action shared by architecture and landscape design. To effect this passage it is again necessary to find an empty field of action, in which the signs of history and civilization are absent: the deserts and the terrain vague of the abandoned urban periphery. (115)

Later, artists would engage with history and geography, adding their walks as layers of investigation into space.

The next step in the evolution of walking, Careri writes, is the shift from Minimalism to Land Art:

Minimal sculpture, in order to re-appropriate architectonic space, had to go back to come to terms with the menhir, in order to then evolve in the direction of Land Art. And in this journey back to and from the menhir, the path suddenly reappears, seen this time as sculpture in an expanded field, and no longer as a literary form. (124)

Minimal artists, by attempting to annul everything that had been considered sculpture up to that point, found themselves as a sort of “ground zero” of their discipline:

In this process of subtraction they had found objects extraneous to nature, contrasting the natural landscape by means of the artificial signs of culture, erasing that sort of animated presence that had always lurked inside sculpture. The artists had undertaken a series of passages that led them back to the menhir: the elimination of the base or pedestal to return to a direct relationship with the sky and the ground (the menhir is directly planted in the ground); the return to the monolith and the mass (the three parts of the column in architecture corresponded, in sculpture, to the subdivisions of the totem); the elimination of color and natural materials in favor of artificial, industrial materials, artifacts (the stone of the menhir was, in the Stone Age, the most “artificial” material found in nature, and its vertical position was the least natural imaginable); compositions based on simple rhythmical, and serial repetition (points, lines, surfaces); elimination of any adjectival impulses in favor of pure, crystalline forms; removal of the figurative mimesis that still existed in zoomorphic, anthromorphic, and totemic modern sculptures; recovery fo a sort of human dimension and therefore of a more abstract, theatrical anthropomorphism due to that residual ‘animated presence’ that continues to persist in sculpture. (124)

The result of all of these operations was “a monomateric, situated, fixed, immobile, inert, inexpressive, almost dead object,” but nevertheless 

an object that imposes a certain distance and has a new relationship with its space; it is a character without internal life but, at the same time, it takes possession of the space, forcing the observer to participate, to share an experience that goes beyond the visible and that addresses, like architecture, the entire body, its presence in time and space. (124-25)

“While the Minimal object moves toward the menhir, still seen as an object with an internal presence,” Careri continues, “Land Art moves, instead, more directly toward architecture and landscape, i.e. toward the menhir as an inanimate object to be utilized to transform the territory” (125). Land Art was no longer interested in modeling objects in space; instead, it sought 

the physical transformation of the territory, the use of the means and techniques of architecture to construct a new nature and to create large artificial landscapes. Any sculptural anthropomorphism still surviving in Minimalist sculptures is abandoned in favor of that even more abstract mimesis that characterizes architecture and landscape. (125)

In other words, “[i]n Land Art we can see a conscious return to the Neolithic” (125). What interests Careri about Land Art is the way some of its practitioners “rediscovered walking as a primary act of symbolic transformation of the territory, but a crossing of it that doesn’t need to leave permanent traces, that acts only superficially on the world, but can achieve proportions even greater than those of the earthworks” (126).

One of those artists (although he rejects the label Land Art) is Richard Long, particularly his work A Line Made by Walking, which, “thanks to its radical clarity and formal simplicity, is considered a fundamental point of passage in contemporary art” (126-28). It is a line that avoids transforming into an object (128): instead,

A Line Made by Walking produces a sensation of infinity, it is a long segment that stops at the trees that enclose the visual field, but could continue around the entire planet. The image of the treaded grass contains the presence of absence: absence of action, absence of the body, absence of the object. But it is also unmistakably the result of the action of a body, and it is an object, something that is situated between sculpture, a performance, and an architecture of the landscape. (128)

For Long’s fellow walking artist Hamish Fulton, walking is a celebration “of the uncontaminated landscape, a sort of ritual pilgrimage through what remains of nature,” an engagement with ecological concerns and a form of protest (128). In the work of Long and Fulton, “nature corresponds to an inviolable Mother Earth on which one can walk, design figures, move stones, but without effecting any radical transformation” (129). 

However, their approaches are different. One of the main problems in the art of walking is the communication of the ambulatory experience in aesthetic form (129). The Dadaists and Surrealists did not map and avoided literary representation; the Situationists produced psychogeographic maps but avoided representing the real routes of their dérives (129-34). Fulton and Long, though, use maps as an expressive tool (134): “The two English artists in this field follow two paths that reflect their different ways of using the body. For Fulton the body is exclusively an instrument of perception, while for Long it is also a tool for drawing” (134). In Fulton’s work, “the representation of the places crossed is a map in the abstract sense. The representation of the path is resolved by means of images and graphic texts that bear witness to the experience of walking with the awareness of never being able to achieve it through representation” (134). His text works are “a sort of geographical poetry” (134). (What about Long’s text works?) For Long, on the other hand, “walking is an action that leaves its mark on the place,” “an act that draws a figure on the terrain and therefore can be reported in cartographic representation”; also, though, in an inverse sense, “the paper can function as a surface on which to draw figures to be subsequently walked” (134). Walking is thus both an action and a sign, “a form that can be superimposed on existing forms, both in reality and on paper” (134). As a result,

the world becomes an immense aesthetic territory, an enormous canvas on which to draw while walking. A surface that is not a white page, but an intricate design of historical and geographical sedimentation on which to simply add one more layer. Walking the figures superimposed on the map-territory, the body of the wayfarer registers the events of the journey, the sensations, obstacles, dangers, the variations of the terrain. The physical structure fo the territory is reflected on the body in motion. (134-37)

I think this is true of both Long’s work and Fulton’s, although one difference between them is that Fulton tends not to make any alteration to the surface of the earth while he walks, unlike Long, who makes lines and arranges stones. Perhaps, then, Fulton’s work is a better model for my practice than Long’s.

Robert Smithson’s emphasis is “on the quality of the landscape crossed,” Careri suggests. (144). For Smithson, earth art opened up new spaces for physical and conceptual experimentation (144). But first came walking, in the form of Smithson’s exploration of the outskirts of Passaic, New Jersey, A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic:

For Smithson urban exploration is the pursuit of a medium, a means to glean aesthetic and philosophical categories with which to work form the territory. One of Smithson’s most extraordinary abilities lies in that constant mingling in his explorations of physical descriptions and aesthetic interpretations: the discourse crosses several planes simultaneously, loses its way on unfamiliar paths, delves into the material surrounding it.(146)

Smithson’s explorations took place in the city, unlike Long’s and Fulton’s: “The urban periphery is the metaphor for the periphery of the mind, the rejects of thought and culture” (152). The point, for Smithson, is not to condemn the destruction of the river or the industrial wastes that poison it; instead, 

there is a delicate balance between renunciation and accusation, between renunciation and contemplation. The judgement is exclusively aesthetic, not ethical, never ecstatic. There is no enjoyment, no satisfaction, no emotional involvement in walking through the nature of suburbia. The discourse starts with an acceptance of reality as it presents itself, and continues on a plane of general reflection in which Passaic becomes the emblem of the periphery of the occidental world, the place of scrap, of the production of a new landscape made of refuse and disruption. The monuments are not admonishments, but natural elements that are an integral part of this new landscape, presences that live immersed in an entropic territory: they create it, transform it, and destroy it, they are monuments self-generated by the landscape, wounds man has imposed on nature, and which nature has absorbed, transforming their meaning, accepting them in a new nature, a new aesthetic. (153)

In the territory Smithson crosses, “one perceives the transient character of matter, time and space, in which nature rediscovers a new ‘wilderness,’ a wild, hybrid, ambiguous state, anthropically altered and then escaping man’s control to be reabsorbed again by nature” (154). I didn’t know about Smithson’s walk in Passaic, and I intend to learn more about it; Careri’s description of the territory Smithson explores is surprisingly similar to the rural/industrial/natural landscapes of rural Saskatchewan.

So, Careri presents a genealogy of walking as an art practice that is similar to, yet different from, Smiths—no doubt because Careri is an architect, whereas Smith is a playwright and performer. Is it possible to bring those genealogies together? Is that necessary? Must one choose between them? Does Careri’s genealogy leave more room for the kind of walking Smith criticizes as epic or heroic and therefore undemocratic? These are some of the questions that Careri’s book leaves me thinking about. One thing is certain, though: I am going to need to dig into the Dadaists, Surrealists, and Lettrists/Situationists beyond the summary I’ve read in Merlin Coverley’s book on psychogeography. I’m also going to need to learn more about Fulton, and about Smithson’s walk in Passaic (and the art that came out of that walk). As is always the case, one book demands more, leads to more. That’s the point of this exercise: to open doors, to get me thinking, to identify the areas of inquiry of which I’ve been unaware.

Works Cited

Careri, Francesco. Walkscapes: Walking as an Aesthetic Practice, translated by Steven Piccolo, Culicidae Architectural Press, 2017.

Coverley, Merlin. Psychogeography, Pocket Essentials, 2010.

Moor, Robert. On Trails: An Exploration, Simon & Schuster, 2016.

Pujol, Ernesto. Walking Art Practice: Reflections on Socially Engaged Paths, Triarchy, 2018.

Schott , John, and Phil Smith, Rethinking Mythogeography in Northfield, Minnesota, Triarchy Press, 2018.

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

55. Ernesto Pujol, Walking Art Practice: Reflections on Socially Engaged Paths

pujol

Ernesto Pujol is a site-specific performance artist, a walking artist, a social choreographer and an educator. He is also a mystic and a moralist; the book’s author biography notes that was trained in a Cistercian-Trappist cloister before going on to social work among the homeless and then graduate school. If you set out to find someone whose approach to walking was very different, even unsympathetic, to mine, Ernesto Pujol would be an excellent choice. I found his book hard to read for that reason. 

Pujol’s preface says this is “a hybrid book with art book elements and the personal content of a field journal,” which “may serve as a manifesto for artists who walk and a resource for performers—a performative walking manual,” made up of 68 reflections in three thematic sections (iii). Those three sections, “Walking Practice,” “Roadside Spiritualities,” and “Teaching Walking,” focus on what he does, the spiritual beliefs behind what he does, and how he works with others in his practice. The latter point is key to Pujol’s walking, because he believes that all art needs to be socially engaged practice, and that the goal of art is a cultural or spiritual or social transformation. “Without social transformation, traditionally defined art-making in a social context is nothing but the perversity of style,” he writes. “The socially transformative is the difference between a static product and a living product” (12). He’s not concerned with justifying walking as art, because art is only “an aesthetic tool to generate meaningful and transformative experience,” and his goal is “generating conscious experience,” using whatever tools are available (28). Walking is just one such tool: Pujol believes that “walking can be a transformative experiential component to creating ephemeral public art” (87).

In the book’s introduction, Pujol describes his working definition of what he does—in other words, of socially engaged, performative practice: it is “the site-specific embodiment of urgent social issues,” “through considered human gesture, such as conscious walking,” “ethically made and generously shared with a community,” “as a form of diagnostic, collective, poetic portrait,” “freely offered for aesthetic appreciation and meaningful reflection,” “ultimately seeking a socially transformative, cultural experience” (3). Walking is, by its nature, a performative practice: 

Walking as art practice is performative, even if this is unintended, because the moment a body wants or needs to walk and enters the space and flow of the public, joining the sited public, it becomes a public body, a body whose performing in society is watched by society, all the more as it seeks social agency. (28)

Moreover, for Pujol socially engaged art practice is not the gesture of a solitary body: “The performativity of the practice reclaims the full repertoire of individual and collective connections, currently reduced to the notion that connective change can only be triggered through informed group consumption, or the refusal to consume” (29). In other words, it is, and must be, a group activity; the artist’s role, it seems, is to lead people on walks. Such a socially engaged art practice is, by definition, performative: “It automatically turns its artist practitioners into public performers, whether they are skilled in performance or not” (29). And it is not easy: “choreographing people sensitively into and through the safe performativity of aestheticized gestures that support increased consciousness” is not “a simple form of making” but a “complex collective process” that “should not be fast-tracked” (30). 

There seems to be little room in Pujol’s version of walking art practice for solitary practitioners: the actual art work must be collaborative and involve the public. “I believe that walking as art practice, in terms of socially engaged art, radically changes the nature of art-making,” he writes, because it moves art-making outside the studio by engaging audiences (97). That kind of practice “signals the increasing freedom of artists that began with conceptual art”; both audience engagement and artistic freedom are democratizing, because they put “artists back into the commons through their common and uncommon skills” (97). In addition, “as the acquaintance between artists and audiences deepens through available, everyday, participatory, aesthetic, meaningful experiences, the need to make and experience art begins to shift from the artist to the community,” and the community will continue to make meaning long after the artist is gone, “because it is valuable to them” (97). At the same time, though, he notes that his walking art practice began as solitary walks. “A public art walking practice often begins with a private walking practice,” he writes, and so he encourages people to write their personal history of walking (47). His own walking began “as an embodied response to an undeclared American war,” the first Gulf War in 1990, and it became even more public during the invasion of Iraq. Like me, Pujol is walking in response to events and histories, although I find it difficult to make the connection between those events and the simple act of walking. It’s as if there is a missing piece in my sense of what I’m doing, or what I want to do, and for my own peace of mind, I need to locate it. In any case, Pujol suggests that such solitary walking can teach us how to walk, and how to walk with others: “The act teaches itself if we are mindful, if we study our steps and learn from them. We also learn how to walk by teaching others how to walk, by studying and learning from their steps. In this process, a walker becomes the walk. In the process, a mindful group of walkers is formed” (89).

Pujol says he’s not interested in “creating rigid rules for walking practice” (87), although I have to say that he does have a lot of rules and requirements for walking artists who would engage with the public. Presenting challenging social issues as an aesthetic experience requires empathy, persistence, and patience: “Social justice cannot be achieved without social healing” (30). That healing must begin with artists themselves. “The best way to engage a path is when the walker is already healed and capable of healing others,” he writes (21). In order to lead a walking group that needs healing, or entering a path that needs healing, “the lead walker should already have walked through healing” (21), or at least be “healed enough so that we have the ability to put our story away”—so that the walk isn’t about the artist, but the path or community (22). “Walking requires self-knowledge, even as walking increases our self-knowledge,” and we need to be aware of death, “the supreme test of our interior life placed in evidence,” and facing death requires self-knowledge (22). “How can a walker pretend to resolve anything along the way if the walker has left an unresolved life back home?” he asks. Moreover, while walking can help resolve personal issues, “that cannot be the way of a walking practice, because the private places an unfair extra burden on a public path that may already be burdened with issues” (21). “We should not walk out of balance. We should not depend on a walk, on a people and a landscape, to balance us,” he writes. “I must first do the work of balancing myself, achieving inner balance, long before I walk” (79). The artist, it seems, needs to be a paragon, willing to face death, healed of his or her personal traumas. It is a lot to ask. 

Pujol also rejects the idea of failure. Failed material practices result in “tons of waste dumped on Nature, by way of garbage and ensuing contamination,” but failure in socially engaged practice is unacceptable, because it means failing people (90). If one makes a mistake while making socially engaged art, one must make “a profusion of humble private and public apologies. However, the failure of an entire project to which life stories have been entrusted and on which the sustainable development of a community may depend, is not acceptable” (90). Again, this is a lot to ask from fallible humans. Perfection is not a reasonable standard for measuring performance.

Pujol also rejects art practices that focus on making things; the only art form that is acceptable is socially engaged performance. “We are experiencing the dawn of a post-art period,” he writes (94), a time when “art no longer embodies the visual currency of contemporary daily life” (94). Walking as art, however, “points us in the right direction for creative making in the 21st century” (94). “For me, the practice of creative walking, when performed within the more generous definition and context of culture, reclaims the original intention of all art-making, and its future” (95). “[W]e do not need more things; we need more awareness of things,” he concludes (95). And walking art—along with socially engaged performance more generally, I think—can, for Pujol, lead to such awareness. Walking in particular requires a change of identity, “from a passive, bored or distracted viewer” to “an intellectually, emotionally, and physically present participant, knowing and intuiting that this is the only way to fully perceive reality” (111). Apparently other art forms cannot engage people the way that participatory forms do. A lot of artists would vehemently disagree with Pujol on this point.

Questions of morality and ethics tend to dominate Pujol’s discussion of walking art practice:

There is no amoral gesture. There is no amoral step. All steps outside a studio are to be questioned. Those steps are either ethical or unethical. There is no making outside an ethical regard. If a site is threatened or endangered, contaminated or polluted, will a mapping artist-walker help it receive more attention that will lead to more protection? Sites have the right to make such demands. (11-12)

“Socially engaged practice has the right to make ethical demands of its aspiring practitioners,” he continues.” Those ethical demands are what makes the practice social”—and they lead to social transformation (12). He’s not interested in “feeding the celebrity persona of a walker who turns territories into spectacular stages” (12). Such celebrity is a myth—and a false one:

The only myth that a walking practice should support is the mythical qualities of place, which an artist-walker may experience to study, perform (witness), document, promote, and help protect. We need to understand once and for all that the ephemeral, mythical, public embodiment of people and place is not an entertaining spectacle but the mediated performativity of consciousness and so requires ethics. (12)

Pujol distrusts what Smith calls heroic walking—or at least heroic gestures made in public: 

I admire publicly heroic stands but believe in the greater sustainability of privately heroic practices. I believe in a multitude of short walks, in unassuming daily walks for countless reasons, from the pragmatic to the poetic. I value the acquisition of the humble habit of walking for every form of getting and gathering, for thinking and feeling something through, and for getting lost so as to be found. (13)

Perhaps he believes that long walks, as opposed to short ones, lead to celebrity, to the transformation of “territories into spectacular stages”? He also claims that the consumption of the stories of others can be “curated by ethics”; he defines “a moral imagination as the ability to imagine yourself in someone else’s shoes. An ethical imagination is the ability to imagine yourself wearing those shoes—inhabiting them—walking through the world as another person” (117). Aren’t those the same thing? Aren’t there limits to what an ethical or moral imagination can accomplish? Pujol thinks not: “Inhabiting and walking in someone else’s shoes begins to generate a radical imagination, that is, an imagination at its most productive, socially heroic and prophetic” (117). How is the imagination prophetic? This needs to be explained, but it isn’t.

As an immersive process, walking can evoke empathy, from experiencing and thereby understanding what others (human or non-human) experience, Pujol suggests (77). “Walking is punctuated with immersive experiences that can help walkers understand the violation of an environment that communicates its distress”; it also “confronts us with human architecture and inhabitants, whose way of life may be threatened, under seige, and with people who share their stories, actively seeking our empathy” (77). Because it generates empathy, “[t]here is a morality implicit in walking,” because we confront the world, seeing and listening firsthand, “placing ourselves within the reality of others,” connecting with others (77). “Selflessness is the first moral principle connected to walking, at the very foundation of walking” (77). A desire to witness, to experience with the senses, “is followed by empathy” and an ability “to better differentiate between good and bad conduct in a place” (77). However, while some can walk without being affected, without experiencing empathy, they are “only seeing what they wish to see through the harsh filter of rigid agendas”; he prefers “the permeable, evolving morality brought about by empathy for the most unexpected peoples and places” (77).

Walking is a central aspect of pilgrimage, and pilgrimage is one of the ways Pujol thinks about his practice. He is fascinated by religious processions and pilgrimages (84). He suggests that not walking during a pilgrimage poses the question of whether there was a pilgrimage at all (64). “If people are truly present at a site of pilgrimage, it may provide them with a psychic blueprint that produces existential scaffolding in reverse, like skin that finds a skeleton,” he writes. “The destination stands as their material reminder of who they are supposed to be, to keep becoming, and to forever remain” (65). However, Pujol’s primary model for walking is, perhaps not surprisingly, monastic. It is easier to “attain material detachment and some degree of consciousness”—his walking goals—“when one commits to a cloistered life with a flexible rule of silence that edits superfluous talk, a vow of celibacy supported by a celibate community’s friendships, voluntary aestheticized poverty, and a life behind protective garden walls, than trying to achieve these states in the world”; “conscious life in the world is harder than life in a monastery” (60). In monasteries, cloister walks are a devotional practice, with the cloister often being lined with images of the Way of the Cross (60). “This is a sheltered walk that meditates about a daring walk synonymous with taking on and carrying the so-called sins of others,” he contends. “It follows a notion of walking as cleansing, which requires the sight to see the burdens people carry invisibly through their walk. It constructs a collective healing walk through the sacrifice of the leading walker’s body” (60). This is clearly the model for his artistic practice. A cloister walk isn’t horizontal: its “true architecture lies below the surface: the vertical architecture of a bottomless well, or a topless mountain. The ‘farness’ of a cloister walk consists of psychic verticality” (61). Repetitive walking on the same path also opens up that vertical architecture (61). Walking can lead to the obliteration of the ego:

Walking can be about desiring and achieving a form of psychic death, in Western monastic terms, the death of the man or woman of the world, so that they can become empty vessels and the universe can finally begin to trickle or rush in, filling and overflowing them with the right contents for others to drink from. Sometimes, after such a journey, we remain forever journeying; journeying becomes our interior life and our public practice. (64)

“I invite performative walkers to consider a silent retreat in a monastery to experience this form; considered step, sustained slowness, and punctuating stillness as an ancient training which is not provided in contemporary art schooling,” he states (62).

Indeed, silence is central to Pujol’s walking practice. He encourages people to walk in silence, and suggests that “a group walk can be spoiled by a distracted walker or by a walker with a secret agenda, whose unfocused or disruptive behavior gradually begins to sabotage the movement, concentration, and experience of the rest” (104). Such a walker destroys the depth of the experience for the other walkers, and if that happens, he removes the walker from the walk: “I do not enable that narcissistic or troubled ego. I send the ego home” (104). “A walker is a gatekeeper,” he writes: 

of the gate to the bodies of walkers; of the gate to the heart of an ecology; of the gate to the heart of a village or town. . . . It is my responsibility not to let a human-made or natural landscape become the stage for destructive dynamics. A walk is an effort at seeing, listening, and pointing to what the landscape and its human and non-human communities need. (105)

Even if that disruptive individual needs healing, such healing “should never happen at the expense of a group or a path” (105). For Pujol, leading a silent group walk is a social service because “it creates the conditions for mindful perception, which is the foundation for a more grounded construction of human reality” (106). Silence as a methodology runs against our culture, sometimes evokes hatred from other pedestrians and from drivers (106). However, “[i]t is precisely because of this individual and collective cathartic potential that I value the experience of group walking in silence” (106). Walking in silence, he claims, “brings the gift of psychic rest, of resting from the job of voicing the ego. Silence is the key that opens the door to meditation, which leads to mindfulness. Silence is a strategy that both protects the walker, like armor, and creates an open space for the stories of others to enter and be listened to in silence” (106). In fact, a walker “may wish to remain in a healing silence long after the walk,” strengthening his or her true self (107). Again, however, he demands that everyone be silent: “Walkers seeking silence need to rein in the potentially destructive dynamic of spontaneous, sporadic, superficial chat along the way” (107-08). Along with silence comes slowness: “We cannot let our walking art practice be curated by speed. We cannot let our walking practice be dictated by fear of slowness” (127).

Christianity is not the only religious tradition from which Pujol draws. He writes of the Buddhist notion of Boddhisattva, “the enlightened body whose heightened awareness is manifested through the public gesture of walking individuals and groups toward increasing consciousness. . . . In this construction of a walker, the state of enlightenment is a state of pilgrimage, of constantly walking with new people” (59). “If illusions are the condition and language of humanity, let us use illusions to create conscious paths; let us perform the illusion of beautiful, wise walks that point at the reality of consciousness,” he writes (67). “Buddhist teachings invite us to walk on an unknown path with no promise of safety, but with thoughtful suggestions,” like “walk carefully without hurting what you find along a path,” because you may find yourself reincarnated into the thing you hurt (71). “The Buddhist walker is aware that he kills too, that every human step crushes plants and insects,” he continues. “The walker apologizes to them with each step, and in between steps” (71). “Walking is not a religion,” he acknowledges, “but for some it can be a form of worship within their religion, a kinetic religious practice, as walking meditation is for Buddhists” (76). “Walking can be the purest act of worship in the cult of life” (76). He also draws from Hinduism, or at least the tradition of the sadhus, itinerant mystics. When sadhus stop wandering in middle age, he believes, “a psychic wandering begins,” because “the road now lies within the former walker,” along with past destinations. “The older walker walks the memories of a lifetime,” and continues walking “to nonmaterial destinations” (70). “One is a walker forever, moving or not, because one has achieved detachment from everything, even from walking, because walking was never the end in itself,” he contends (70). Artists should study the history of spiritual reality and of religion, “as manifestations of our desire for survival,” and these should “inform all art training, all social practice and public performativity,” or else art practices will risk failing because they “will be limited by the prejudices of secular modernity” (84). Walking is also broadly theistic:

Walking witnesses the one or more gods according to the culture of the path and the place, from making Nature into god, to importing god from across an ocean. As a walker, I acknowledge sited versions of god as an expression of local, regional, and national culture over time. These versions range from the mythical to the scientific, no more and no less, as culture is to be respected. (78)

I don’t understand what a scientific god might look like; that seems to be an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms, although perhaps I’m wrong. Moreover, all of this spirituality and theism excludes people who are not believers; there are limits to Pujol’s democratic definition of walking, and some (atheists and agnostics and those who don’t incline to mystical thinking) are going to be left out.

Pujol also tends to speak of walking as if it were a singular practice, as if everyone who walks has (or ought to have) the same experience. For example, he writes that “[a] true walking practice sooner or later confronts us with love,” because everyone we have ever met emerges from deep memory to meet us, and if we are perceptive walkers, we will see them (23). As a result, all paths turn into a kind of lovers’ lane: “This is a pulsating threshold, a turning point in a walking practice. This is a path of love completely lined with once-loved individuals, where we remember everyone we have ever loved and been loved by, as a secret community of the wounded heart” (23). Confronting these memories leads to healing (23-24). It isn’t dying, it’s “walking profoundly” (24). Walking is transformative, and it brings about a coming together of “all-of-me,” “a healed unity” (7). “Brain and body become mind,” and therefore he is mindful; he walks mindfully (7). Walking also brings together dualities, such as humanity and Nature; walking “unifies the interiority of the walker, and walks it back to Nature, completing and reintegrating the walking, and thus, completing Nature” (7). The goal of art is and always was “to achieve greater consciousness” (92-93). “Perhaps it is time to transcend art in our efforts to reach consciousness,” he suggests (93). My question is, what if one’s walking practice doesn’t lead to such confrontations or transformations? What if it doesn’t achieve a greater consciousness? Is it then illegitimate? It seems that Pujol would argue that it would be.

Walking art can have many different purposes, however. It can be an attempt to recover human intimacy with the environment that has been lost, repairing a disconnection between human and non-human. It can be a way of bringing attention of outsiders to a threatened space. It can manifest a knowledge of a way of life or landscape that is in danger of being lost. It can help “to awaken the awareness of the psychic value of a site by revisiting and renewing its meaning, or by exposing how contemporary forces are trying to erase an important piece of history,” so that the site again becomes a destination, even if a contested one, “a place to walk to and through, through the excuse of art” (32). “A walker walks because the body needs to walk, to step forward, because the body needs to stand, to take a stand—to respond,” he writes.  “We walk as response, sometimes as the only possible, legal response, to the loss of humanity” (34). As a public art practice, walking can make little known stories and memories public, “revealing the human ideologies and experiences that have shaped a place” (56), he suggests, following Lucy Lippard’s The Lure of the Local. That process “is about artists as humble, entrusted students of place, as grounded scholars who walk the landscape as a library, giving up their personal reading preferences, allowing themselves to be led to unknown readings, ultimately pointing creatively to the many contradictory texts a place often contains” (56). An artist’s job isn’t to be an editor, he continues, but instead to generously voice “a public that is often without voice,” to craft “a careful reading by everyone for everyone out loud” (56). Walking can also help us “deconstruct the mistakes that have defined civilization and reintegrate into Nature” (“Nature” is always capitalized in this text); his practice is performing “from this holistic insight in society, no matter the abundance or lack of resources” (63). He believes that “Nature is not the background to the play of the human condition . . . there is no separation” between humans and nature (63).

Pujol often sees his art practice in metaphysical terms—and unfortunately (or not), I cannot follow him in that direction. In his second meditation, “Flowing Stillness,” he recalls how, in 2003, he and curator Saralyn Reece Hardy invited the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Kansas homesteaders to revisit their ancestral landscape: “It was like walking on water across a vast green ocean. My body dissolved during that prairie walk. My mind experienced no envelope. I was everywhere, and everywhere was in me” (8). “We are dispersion,” he suggests: we emit scents, drop discarded skin cells and hair, produce waste. All of that is interesting, but then he becomes metaphysical: “Our evolving thoughts and feelings hover silently around us and beyond, a kind of tentacular energy field” (8). In addition, he writes,“[w]hen we walk, we are invisible motion in visible motion” (8). “We simply have to become aware of this invisible biological motion. We have to exteriorize that awareness” (8). (I honestly don’t know what that means.) “You need to give yourself permission to see all there is, visible and invisible,” he writes. “You need to give the universe permission to show you all there is, visible and invisible, because the universe will rarely force this on you” (73).  A walker who has experienced this enlightenment, “this new awareness,” can walk in any direction, listening to everyone and everything, embodying “the comprehensive methodology of full perception” (74).

He suggests that humanity created the notion of the past as permanent loss, and that North Americans may be the first culture to pretend to live without a past, which is true. “But in Nature, nothing is ever lost, and thus, past, present, and future are simultaneous,” he claims (19). “The cyclical nature of the planet and the universe means that we can walk this uninterrupted thread back to prior moments in the motion”—but this is beyond time, and therefore beyond language (19-20). It’s also beyond possibility, in my experience. How can we walk our way back into the past or forward into the future? For Pujol, 

the walker’s body can begin to achieve this if we decide to perceive in this way, step by step. . . . it takes a willingness to open our perception, followed by a conscious decision to sustain that perception, articulated out loud so the brain can hear it, and the body has permission to enact it, which opens a normally invisible door to the yet-unknown, which the walker needs to walk through. (20)

Pujol believes that we can walk with our ancestors, with walkers of tomorrow, that the flow of time “is in all directions” (37). “We walk with invisible others,” and our steps create the past and the future: “[t]he present is but the length of our step” (37). Because time is not linear, when he is walking Pujol becomes aware of past and future lives, or “embodiments,” which may lead us to “questioning our civilized beliefs” (41): “I have been walking, empty of thought, and fragments of past embodiments have unexpectedly flashed before me, as well as images of my next embodiment. I have been here before. I will be here again. I am walking through lives” (41).  For Pujol, “it is up to use to decide whether we are going to continue disregarding” the so-called impossible “as part of the explanation of a complex, visible and invisible greater reality, beyond the ideations that constitute human civilization,” or whether we will embrace it “as one more piece of the mystery that is rarely seen in the expanding universe” (41). All of this reminds me of Shirley MacLaine walking the Camino and discovering that she was an Egyptian princess (or whatever past life she encountered). Moreover, for Pujol “[w]e are complex energy forms not fully contained by moist mineral bodies. We are permeable fields of energy with undulating edges and tentacular wisps. We experience by moving and being moved” (68). Because we are fields of energy, “[h]uman experience can leave sited energetic residue as part of a former life attachment to place. The effects of intense experience can overflow from a body and leave an intangible rooted imprint, like an invisible footprint in the shadows” (68). That is the source of stories about ancestors, spirits, ghosts, visions, apparitions, hallucinations, hauntings, and poltergeists (68). Walking, he argues, is a way of perceiving such energy: “Some walkers are like Geiger counters, whether aware of unaware of their perceptual skills, of their ability to perceive such residue in various degrees” (68). I can’t help finding such notions ludicrous. We might have many strange experiences while walking—and I have had them too—but that doesn’t mean we need metaphysical explanations for them. Physiological ones work, too.  So do psychological ones. Occam’s Razor is my working heuristic: the simplest explanation is probably the correct one. The physiological and psychological explanations of the strange things that happen while walking are simpler than the mystical or metaphysical ones, and are therefore probably better.

The New-Agey ideas and language keep coming. Pujol also suggests that one can “see” without one’s eyes: “I have seen without eyes in unforgettable, ego-less sight moments. We cultivate them by walking, by seeing through the ankle and the knee, by seeing through the wrist and the elbow” (27). He advocates the cultivation of a state where the body is ahead of the brain, in which the brain sees the motion as purposeless, because “it is during those moments of not-knowing, of walking for no reason, of walking without reason, that our walking is at its most pure, at its most connected” (34). Such purity is “the essence of human connectivity, very close to the state of the animal—reclaimed” (34). In that state, “[o]ur steps are an unknown language being physically articulated,” until we “are found by understanding” (34). He listens to the pain of urban trees with his hands (39-40). “Magical thinking is not escapist childish fantasy,” he writes. “The magical is the language of Nature, filled with the complex webbing of myriad visible and invisible cyclical patterns, including the patterning of chaos, of chaotic patterns with a purpose” (66):

As a walker, I seek to enter this complex web so that I can walk in all directions and dimensions, even if I only seem to be walking along the pattern that we humans see. I have no words with which to accurately describe this walk, really. All verbal efforts are incomplete and embarrassing.

If magical language is the medium of fools, then foolishness is a requirement for walking. (66)

I can’t help thinking, though, that an awareness of the complex ecological web one walks through is not the same as magical thinking, and that a magical language (or foolishness) is not required to describe that web. Scientists set out to describe it, however incompletely, but Pujol (like Machen) appears to abhor science. 

Pujol believes that everything is One: “All paths lead to the reality of our Oneness with each other and all there was and is” (67). He says this (or something like it) many times. Walking appears to be a way of appreciating that mystical unity:  “I am the walker on the path, the dirt on the path, the air on the path, the sky above the path, the soil beneath the path, what grows along the path, what flies over the path, what swims by the path, what lies behind and waits ahead. I am the other walker I meet on the path. I am I and not I” (67).

Sometimes Pujol reveals himself to be a Romantic. He writes of the experience of seeing a grassy hill as individual blades of grass, “each one unique yet similar, same but different”: “It was the kind of walking experience that takes over the body; it halts your body and throws back your head to face the sky in a kind of walker’s ecstasy” (53). Afterwards, he seemed the same, outwardly, “but, inwardly, I was suddenly focused, more than ever before, so profoundly focused that this began to change me, to make me look for more such moments of full perception, seeing to sustain deep sight for all of life” (53). In the following meditation, he writes, “Reality is complex and mostly unknown. There is no time, or perhaps we could try to say something more comprehensible through a time-based language that cannot comprehend much outside linear time: that there are simultaneous renderings of time and timelessness” (54). “I walk through the veils of this mystery, catching glimpses as they part,” he continues (54): 

I do not know how others walk. I can only speak about how I try to walk, vulnerably, trying to explore what feels like the simultaneity of past, present and future invisible territories through psychic acuity. It may strike some as ridiculous, as stretching beyond believable grassroots scholarship. But this is an embarrassing practice, the lineage of the village’s witchy idiot, the town’s prophetic fool, and the city’s mad visionary. All those categories speak of a child-like, creative, critical outsider walking dreamland. Indeed, they are inexact elements found by the roadside. Nevertheless, they are experiential elements of subtle perceptions, as important to understanding the complexity of the human condition as seeking the exactitude of science. (55)

All of this Romanticism—I am convinced that’s the aesthetic or philosophical origin of the notion that reality is hidden by veils and, as Pujol suggests at one point, more readily accessible to children (36) or the mad—echoes Arthur Machen in a way that would shock occult psychogeographers, who tend to draw a line between their practices and Romantic ideas. 

Pujol also advocates “the performative invocation of the mythical as an effective tool for the public manifestation of people and place through pre-scientific ideologies, helping contemporary audiences to experience the desire for transcendence that past generations sought” (56). “Inhabiting myth can offer a transformative point of view that can unleash unknown psychic potential among participants,” he continues (56). “Manifesting and inhabiting the mythical in a public, durational group performance always challenges our abilities much more than experiencing the mundane,” and it “requires us to go an extra psychic mile,” sometimes requiring the extraordinary, which “is always remembered as greater than itself” (56-57). Unfortunately, Pujol does not give any examples of myths with that kind of transformative or transcendent power. In an odd echo of Smith, however, he suggests that, over time, if we commit to a walking practice, we will experience and understand “roadside signs and symbols” easily, “surrounded by the appearance of clear psychic signage and decoded mythical symbol, because that is how the true path of our life, of all life, of the entire universe flows consciously” (75). Again, he gives us no examples of that “psychic signage,” so it’s hard for me to understand what he’s talking about.

Perhaps my inability to tolerate Pujol’s mysticism (which I earned during my Baptist upbringing) makes me what he would describe as a cynic who should be excluded from socially engaged walking art practices:

True walking practice, enacted by vulnerable bodies willing to enter the unknown without weapons, disarmed of cynicism and only empowered by empathy, excludes cynical bodies. A vulnerable body seeks other bodies willing to become vulnerable with it, not as the surrendered raw material of public art, but as collaborators, partners, performers, volunteers, and audiences in a humble, strong practice. Socially engaged art practice is not about the author’s body but about all the participants’ bodies. All concerns as to whether a piece represents the state of the arts are replaced by whatever it takes to culturally reveal the state of the people. (29)

Pujol notes that he sometimes encounters negativity, cynicism, or a refusal to listen, and suggests that these are signs of “a closed culture that lacks curiosity, that has stopped growing” (110). “Walking practice is intrinsically sincere, because the path edits even the most insincere,” he writes.” The path takes care of itself. A true walking practice walks away from negativity. Every step is a gesture of hope. Daring steps dispel hopelessness” (110). “There is no way to sustain a walking practice but by harboring hope,” and hope requires sincerity, because it is “the true fuel of sustainability” (110). Of course, one can be sincere without believing in mystical ideas. Despite his claims to be open, I can’t help feeling that Pujol is actually quite closed.

When he discusses how to lead a walk, Pujol suggests that not leaving room for silence while leading a walk is a negative form of leadership. But leadership is sometimes crucial: 

Some walking projects require pedagogical leadership, particularly when the walkers are foreign to a landscape, or when the walkers have lost their connection to their landscape and need to reacquaint themselves with it through a walking artist who is trying to facilitate their experience of it anew. (121)

“Walking requires a methodology of generosity,” he writes, but “[a] walk’s leader must embrace authority. Otherwise a walking group can become fragmented and the walking experience can deteriorate quickly” (122). My sense is that Pujol struggles against his own prescriptiveness; he wants to be open, but he also wants the walks he leads to unfold in a particular way.

Is there anything valuable here for my research? Yes, there is. In his introduction, for example, he notes that in the contemporary West, there is no need to walk anywhere, and that walking is associated with poverty. “Yet,” he writes, “performative walking practice is now a form of contemporary public art precisely for these reasons—because, when a vital aspect of our humanity is at the point of being lost, artists take note. And artists are walking, everywhere” (1). This reminded me of the argument that contemporary artists work with obsolescent materials and processes. American experimental filmmaker Hollis Frampton, for instance, suggests that “no activity can become an art until its proper epoch has ended and it has dwindled, as an aid to gut survival, into total obsolescence.” (112) Is that why Smith refers to art walking as non-functional? Smith is making a distinction between walking to the corner store and walking for art, but in North America, or in Saskatchewan, unlike in Europe, I would assume, almost all walking is non-functional. I hadn’t made that connection until I read Pujol’s introduction.

Pujol also gestures towards phenomenological ideas. Artists want to give “the gift of full perception through immersion,” he suggests. “They seek to see, hear, smell, taste, touch, feel, think, and remember the forgotten, to experience something through our minds and bodies. To shiver in the woods, sweat in a jungle, and thirst through a desert. To see the visible and sense the invisible seeing us, fully experiencing through all our organs of perception—again” (2). Of course, he is making this argument in the context of his wider claim, that socially engaged walking is the only acceptable walking practice, but still, that gift of perception through immersion is available to artists as well as participants in walking events. However, Pujol’s notion of embodiment is more mystical than phenomenological: 

We are embodied. Everything, even what is disembodied, is expressed through the body. Even the immaterial is expressed through the material. The immaterial uses the illusion of the material to talk about what matters. . . . Mindful walking through the material world is one of the building blocks for consciousness of the immaterial. (70)

He also believes that the land has its own form of embodiment: “If we believe in the stored muscle memories of a body, we should be open to considering that these extraordinary moments are the stored memories of the body of a landscape” (69). I’ve heard others make similar suggestions, and as a metaphor I think the notion of the land having a memory can be quite powerful.

Pujol notes that, because everything is constantly changing, walkers need to spend time walking particular paths, in different seasons, from different directions, and at different times of the day: “A walker knows that knowing a path is not merely walking it from beginning to end,” he writes (16). “A true walker knows that knowing a path requires walking that path in both directions, because things look totally different when seen from opposite directions, practically forming two distinct experiences through opposing views,” so that one path is actually two, and in every round trip, the end is the beginning and the beginning the end (16). But we also need to walk the path at night and during the day, “so that we see what dwells in the light and in the shadows,” but because light has a range, and shadow has a range, we must try to experience “what dwells in the soft and in the harsh light, on the edge of the shadows and in the deep shadows.” (16)“We must walk that path every month for many years, so that we experience birth and growth, peak and reproduction, illness and decay,” he suggests, “so that we see the cycles of life and death of the path. That is the truth path knowledge; that is true walking practice” (16). We must also talk with a path, speaking with mouth, hands, and feet; we must also listen with our bodies. Walking barefoot makes a walk into “a truly tactile walk,” in which we learn through the skin, experiencing the skin of the path (16). All of this reminds me of Nan Shepherd’s wonderful book, The Living Mountain; she spent years walking in the Cairngorms and as a result came to an intimate understanding of those mountains.

Pujol is also conscious of the potentially colonial aspects of certain types of walking. In his fourth meditation, “Decolonizing Walking,” he begins with the notion that every one of John James Audubon’s bird paintings—and Audubon walked great distances to collect his specimens—is a tombstone (11). That leads him to a discussion of colonialism: “The history of walking is contaminated by the pale, masculine virus of colonialism: by the fever of ‘discovery,’ of being ‘the first man’ to arrive and step into an ‘unknown’ territory” (11). This colonizing notion of walking erases Indigenous people in two ways: 

First, it erases them through the attribution of discovery as a mythical form of authorship, as if the heroic discoverers were authoring a new land. Second, the conquest, oppression, and eventual removal of the native peoples obliterates, so that those who follow in the discoverers’ footsteps find paupers, social nobodies considered subhuman, confirming the white myth of discovery. (11)

Pujol concludes by suggesting that non-humans also have ownership of territories, an idea that tends to be dismissed by “aggressive anthropocentrism” (11), but that still has value. In any case, Pujol is calling for a form of walking that abandons authorship and discovery, and I am also trying to find such a form of walking.

For Pujol, walking is a way of understanding the sacred. Like me, he believes the earth was in balance before industrial civilization began consuming and contaminating it: 

There was a time when everything and everyone was in balance. . . . I call that former perfect natural balance “the sacred.” The sacred is a secular term I apply to an ancient object or space that embodies or contains that former balance, which should be approached with reverence for the memory it evokes and the importance of its survival for our future. (78)

Pujol seeks “to walk the sacred,” to reinsert himself into that former balance: “But for that, the walker must be sacred, too. The walking entity must engage in the sacred. . . . the balance starts inside the balanced walker. My internal balance is what will connect to the external balance. These balances are but reflections of each other” (78-79). This is where I part company with Pujol: I think that balance is gone and although the land’s sacredness can sometimes be apprehended, we cannot insert ourselves into a balance that has been disturbed or destroyed.

Pujol argues that walking is political, at least potentially. “As we walk, we hope to harvest information that leads to knowledge, processed as wisdom,” he writes. “We hope to be free, exercising our right to walk, demanding more rights. We hope for safety, and walk away from violence toward refuge and rehoming” (110-11). “Walking is a new form of radicalism because it not only fights and resists the neo-fascism that fears globalism, but it challenges the urban bubble of embittered liberalism that enables our disunited states of polarization,” he writes. “Sincerity disarms polarities and contributes to unity” (111). The problem is, of course, that Pujol is denying conflict here. Polarization exists for a reason: some people want to do things, like destroy the planet, that others want to resist. Disagreements are going to exist in any human community, and the oneness or unity Pujol seeks is, in my opinion, not possible. His mysticism stands in the way of his political engagement. Nonetheless, Pujol is convinced that art is just a visual language for addressing issues (112). In fighting for justice, he does not wear metaphorical armour, or carry metaphorical weapons, because armour “ultimately suffocates the capacity to listen,” and weapons harden the heart (112), “[A] forgiving heart” is the greatest weapon, he suggests, and his performances are “invitations to collectively disarm gradually, catching glimpses of a just society, experiencing that society one project at a time” (113).

Pujol also addresses questions about the aesthetics of walking, questions I need to think about carefully. “For me,” he writes, “aesthetics are not a contaminated envelope or straightjacket (sic). They exist somewhere in-between welcoming points of safe entry into a work and acts of generosity” (114). (Note the way that his concern with ethics—with generosity—muddies his concern with aesthetics.) He asks what one looks like while walking? Does one wear a costume or uniform? 

Is it a costume that you created as the skin of this gesture? Is it a uniform constructed as an expression of your identity in the world, which you wear every day of your life? Alternatively, is it a secret uniform to reveal your true identity, perhaps seldom revealed in the world, which you are selectively willing to reveal during a performance? (114)

Wearing “nothing special” is still a uniform—“the uniform of the unnoticed, the result of a decision to walk mostly unnoticed,” which is “mostly a white experience” (114). Walking unnoticed is not automatically humble; it can be thoughtless or an avoidance of responsibility (because being unnoticed means not being bothered by people) (115). “Yet, some sites demand our courage, in the form of our visibility, to be seen to be engaged, to model engagement, if not the prophetic,” he writes (115). “If walking is an art practice, then, I inevitably wonder about recognizable elements of form” (115). He asks,

what is your form? Does it have a skin? Are you interested in aesthetics? What are your aesthetics? Or do you distrust and even reject aesthetic qualities? If you are eliminating all aesthetic traits from your work, then, what are you giving the viewer? Play? Does relating to play rather than relating to beauty replace aesthetics in your work? What makes the viewer approach your work from a distance? What welcomes the viewer into your work? What helps the viewer to remain inside your work? Is there a sensory difference between recruitment and engagement? (115)

But these aesthetic questions are merely preliminary to ethical questions about generosity: “Where is your generosity? What are the visual components of your generosity? Can you reconsider beauty as an act of generosity? If not, then, please do not forget that you need to give” (115). Despite the slide from aesthetics into ethics, I need to think about these questions; when I walk, I tend to wear practical things, because the walking itself can be so difficult that I have no extra energy for elements of costume. Perhaps that’s okay, but perhaps it isn’t. I think about these questions and never quite reach an answer; I’m afraid that I’m caught up in what Smith might describe as a functionalist trap.

In the book, Pujol lays out his particular socially engaged strategy, which could be useful for socially engaged or collective walks. He begins by downplaying notions of originality:

 Walking belongs to everyone. I do not own walking. No one artist owns walking. Just because one artist has walked “successfully” does not mean that walking has been “done” and should not be funded and performed, again and again. Walking is not about the modernist myth of originality. (9)

Everyone walks, which is what a) eliminates the myth of originality and b) makes walking as art so hard, “because it dwells outside the notion of artistic talent and crafty skill” (9). Of course, everyone is not able to walk—a strange blindness for an artist who is so concerned with the ethics of his practice. Pujol believes that the best way to walk is with “a known gatekeeper or stakeholder who can introduce an artist to all the human and non-human inhabitants of that path”: “I cannot stress enough the importance of a walking facilitator, of someone who invites the walker to walk. This facilitator entrusts with the mysterious responsibility of walking their landscape, translating it for us before the walk or during a first walking experience” (9). 

Once one has been invited to walk, Pujol suggests a path the project can follow. First comes research (reading, conversation, interviews, walking, “focus groups,” and “charrettes” (stakeholder meetings to figure out solutions to problems), which leads to a project proposal (30). Next, there needs to be free public readings of the project proposal, and project promotion, with audiences including potential funders, institutional partners, community gatekeepers and stakeholders. An advisory board needs to be recruited to help in the continuing process of refining the project. Next comes “[a] detail-oriented, accountable, public production third stage, negotiating access permits and safety, recruiting and training performers, docents, volunteers, and documentarians” (30). The project’s enactment “through a complex, durational staging,” with “non-invasive documentation” is the fourth stage (31). After that come evaluations, conversations and meetings about the event, lectures, an exit report, and “farewell correspondence” (31). Finally, the artist must “the people and the site years later in order to follow-up responsibly, because we become bonded by deep experience” (31). He stresses that this is not a complete or definitive list, but a socially engaged artist needs to cover these bases (31). It’s a tremendous amount of work, but it must be rewarding for Pujol, or he wouldn’t do it. Despite all this planning, however, “a walk ultimately curates itself, which is to say that a walk always surprises us with unintended results and no results, or with nothing new” (87). He also suggests that “all walkers should consider writing about walking, because paths give us a vocabulary, verbal and nonverbal, literary and physical, which eventually amounts to a holistic language, to the generous language of walking” (135).

There are valuable ideas here, and important questions, but overall this book might be an example of the kind of Romantic or New Age walking Smith rejects. And, as I suggested at the beginning of this summary, Pujol’s mysticism doesn’t work for me at all. That doesn’t mean it might not work for others, however. If you tend towards mystical thinking and like to walk, you might get a great deal out of Walking Art Practice: Reflections on Socially Engaged Paths. And if you think that socially engaged art practice is the only kind of practice artists should engage with, then you will find support in Pujol’s book. However, if you question Pujol’s assumptions, you will likely find this a frustrating read.

Work Cited

Frampton, Hollis. Circles of Confusion: Film/Photography/Video Texts 1968-1980, Visual Studies Workshop Press, 1983.

Machen, Arthur. The London Adventure or the Art of Wandering, Martin Secker, 1924.

Pujol, Ernesto. Walking Art Practice: Reflections on Socially Engaged Paths, Triarchy, 2018.

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

54. John Schott and Phil Smith, Rethinking Mythogeography in Northfield, Minnesota

rethinking mythogeography

Rethinking Mythogeography in Northfield, Minnesota, a collaboration between John Schott and Phil Smith, helps to explain what mythogeography (Smith’s walking practice) is, and suggests the ways that practice is still developing and changing. In that way, it’s a companion to his earlier book on mythogeography, perhaps as an example of practice to accompany that text’s theory. In his introduction, Schott explains the book’s context: in 2016, Smith spent two weeks at Carleton College as artist-in-residence at WALK!: A Festival of Walking, Art & Ideas, a ten-week celebration of walking as an artistic practice (4). The festival’s high point, for Schott, Smith’s mythogeographic exploration of Northfield, “The Blazing Worlds Walk,” the focus of this publication (4). During that walk, 15 people walked for three hours, stopping at locations Smith selected; at each location, he spoke about “a wide range of ideas provoked by our discoveries” (4). “His technique—and this walk was both a demonstration of mythogeographic procedure and an invitation for participants to devise their own walks in future—was a bravura enactment of personal place-making,” Schott writes:

At each stopping point Phil undertook an archaeology of the devalued and ‘invisible’ that blended post-modern theory and a well-studied command of local history—Phil did his homework!—in an ebullient, spontaneous performance. With its mix of theoretical playfulness and improvisatory poetic association, Phil’s mythogeography of Northfield modeled for participants ways to excavate their own invisible cities. (4-5)

This book consists of  two independent but parallel texts: Schott’s photographic documentation of the walk, with brief explanations of essential ideas presented at each location with which the participants engaged; and Smith’s essay reflecting on mythogeography and his Northfield experience (5). My response is going to focus on Smith’s essay. Schott’s photo documentation and descriptions, however, are an important part of the book, because they help me to understand what a mythogeographical guided walk might look like.

In the second introduction, Smith writes, “In Northfield I realised just how serious the magic of the ordinary is” (6). On his first morning in the city, a small college community in eastern Minnesota, he met a maintenance man repairing signals in the Union Pacific yard—“a man mending signals! How much more symbolic could it get?”—and gave him a map of Northfield, UK: 

I knew that such poetic moments were not exceptional in themselves, Not even in their accumulation were they special. It was their resolute meaningfulness in the face of all odds that was remarkable; they come to us in bits and pieces, in the blur of a chance moment or in the miasma of sleep, but somehow we still “get” them. (6-7)

Such moments, he continues, give access to “a sur-reality”—“a space where things make their own connections and we must wait our turn for the trucks to pass” (7). The reference to “trucks” here might be part of this passages use of trains as an extended metaphor:

The magic of the ordinary may at first strike you in flashes or by the sudden falling of a shadow across a scene; but if you can hold onto those moments for a while, stay calm and not grab for the first wonder, then—like the passing freight train—the magic will begin to stream around you in unfolding loops. (7)

In Walking’s New Movement, Smith eschews an emphasis on the magic in the everyday in favour of political engagement, but in this book, he returns to what seems to be the primary purpose of mythogeography: discovering a sense of wonder in the quotidian.

Smith’s essay. “Rethinking Mythogeography in Northfield, Minnesota,” begins with another story about his first morning there. He bluffed his way into a prayer room and the congregants laid hands upon him for a prayer; in the words of that prayer, he was “re-imagined in ways that were fantastical for their ordinariness; so far from my intentions I felt wholly unharmed. Being turned into something like an erudite and caring octopus with a fan of praying tentacles, I was lifted up in the arms of a community within a community” (9). “Such encounters,” he writes,

when entered into mythogeographically, as part of one’s questing journey to understand and intervene in places that are strange or deeply unfamiliar, leave one touched, sometimes deeply, yet unobliged. There is no surrender of one’s nomadic slipperiness, no surrender to the grand narratives that are all around. Even in places where belief and worldview are strictly codified, the mythogeographical pilgrim presents such a benign ambiguity that even the language of faith struggles to get any grip on the edge of the abyss we all hang onto. (9)

Such “unbalanced but efficacious connections” are ambivalent, even when they are intense:  “They rely on the mythogeographer paying close, polite and respectful attention to everything and yet being ‘not quite there’; and so able to make a deft, intuitive connection to the big picture beyond (or beneath and within) the big pictures” (9). When he left Northfield, he continues, he was “more determined than ever to be an evangelist for this mythogeography; to encourage more people to take its path—its pilgrimage, even—beyond the big things, through the small things, to the even bigger picture, the picture before decisions” (9). That residency in Northfield changed Smith and his thinking about mythogeography—hence the essay’s title. You really have to admire someone who, 20 years into an art practice, is still rethinking its fundamental characteristics.

For example, Smith mentions pilgrimage (one of my interests) for the first time (that I know of) in this essay:

The walking I practice (some call it “walking art,” some “psychogeography”) is a kind of pilgrimage, though not in a usual sense. It is less of the “special” thing that is usually understood by pilgrimage. I am not on pilgrimage all the time, but I switch in and out from everyday life more regularly than a traditional pilgrim. This is a pilgrimage that anyone can take, that anyone can weave in and out of their daily lives dependent on the pressures and limits that bear upon you. It is a sporadic journey in which you, the pilgrim, seek two things: firstly, to appreciate the sacredness (in the sense not of any religion, but of its need and right to be venerated) of the road itself; secondly, to find in oneself the edge of the hidden and unrepresentable part and to learn how to protect its borders from algorithms and other attractive invasions. (11)

Such a pilgrimage has no set destination (11); the road the pilgrim takes is more important:

The route of a spiritual, alchemical or psychogeographical pilgrimage—the actual road with its signposts and potholes, hedgerows and roadkill—is sacred in itself, but is only discovered as sacred by the pilgrim’s own transcendence (or just plain thinking) that might occur at any point in a quest. (11)

Smith’s walking practice, which he calls “disrupted walking, walking that breaks from an everyday and functional walk,” adopts the idea of the road as sacred, but drops the singularity of a unique sacred destination “in favour of a multiplicity, a quantum dance with super-positioned elements” (11). “The mythogeographical pilgrim,” he writes, “is much less about arriving at a shrine or a mystical state and more about entangling, physically and psychically, with a (not ‘the’) bigger picture” (11). Such pilgrimages aren’t special or rarefied events: “On any walk, a stroll or a walk to the shops, there is some engagement with those bigger pictures,” such as a view that resembles a particular period of oil painting, or anticipating the taste of “a particular processed food” (11). 

How is Smith’s version of pilgrimage different from ordinary pilgrimage—or, for that matter, ordinary walking? “The difference in what I am proposing is that the walker acknowledges and works in the big pictures they walk with: critiquing, enthusing, embracing, wrecking . . . whatever it is you need to do to achieve your two primary aims of veneration and wary self-discovery,” he writes (11). That means every disrupted walk is reflexive, “messing with its own pretensions, setting out for things never done or never experienced or not even entertained, all in a wobbly dance across volatile fields” (11). Such reflexivity is joined up with “a serious desire to understand what the hell is going on in the world,” and the result is the beginning “of a journey walked in relation to distant particles, in relation to the adopted, rejected or assimilated personal of your role as ‘pilgrim-knight’”—Smith’s example of pilgrimage is a quest for the Holy Grail—“on a quest without an object, yet packed with objects” (11)—objects, I think, that the pilgrim discovers along the way, because he emphasizes the need to attend to “the resilient weirdness of bland things,” to know how “to tap the magic in the ordinary” (11). He also stresses “stillness, enigma and quietly reflecting, and reflecting upon, things” (13). There is a tremendous value, he continues, in 

[k]nowing and loving the darkness in ourselves, mapping the spaces the Spectacle cannot see and re-encoding its codes in our own symbolist doings in the streets. If that seems self-absorbed or indulgent, then see it as the fuel you need to hold yourself in that “not quite there” that gives you a deftness and intuition necessary for connections to the big picture beyond, beneath and within the big pictures. (13)

The reference to “the Spectacle” is yet another suggestion that Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle is, along with A Thousand Plateaus by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, essential theoretical background to understanding Smith’s work. 

Understanding the big picture in Northfield begins with realizing that there are no stories in the town about anything prior to 1855: “Even about the survey of 1851 or the Dakota Treaty of the same year which removed the Siouan-speaking people from the region, yet along any kind of narrative of geological time. Yet almost every garden in some suburbs sported a glacial boulder” (13). The bigger picture can connect disparate things, “while attending to the effects of the parts of an object (like those parts of ourselves) that are, and should be, entirely hidden and inaccessible” (15). According to Smith, 

in mythogeography the “bigger picture” skirts the obsessive narrowness of the “local historian” (and other anti-interdisciplinary expertises) and the reductionism of those religions, materialisms, and so on that boil everything down to the unitary of a great 1 (or Great One). A mythogeographical pilgrim, instead, attends to the multiplicity of the bigger picture (which may, of course, include local history and “Great Ones,” but only as parts, layers or substrates of its swirling orrery of events). (15)

“Such connections and meanings, relations and scales can be directly intuited from the realm perceivable by a body’s senses,” he continues (15). Smith sensed that, in Northfield, the city’s genesis story was the source of the blank void in its self-representations before 1855: 

a genesis story generates an excessive idealism and energy as a result of the denial of things destroyed in order to begin from “nothing,” from “empty space.” In Northfield the origin story has an ideal nature, and John North’s grid plan for the town is certainly utopian in flavour, settling onto the land as if descending from the sky, only to be kinked at its centre by the river. (17)

In such ideal spaces—and the suggestion that the imposition of a grid on the landscape is a utopian gesture surprised me, used as I am to thinking of a similar imposition onto the entire southern part of this province as an affront—“the silencing of what was there before their creation is the generator for their troubled mythogeographies” (17). In other words,

It is the zero that determines their complex set of ones; the sum left after extraction and destruction, concealed and silenced by tales of a Great One or a single idealistic and magic form. This zero, this revenant of the obliteration prior to a place’s genesis, if reclaimed and repaired, is also a machine of future change. (17)

Deletions of prior histories “are often shadow silences; they obscure the overspeaking of even older narratives of geological action” (19):

Mythogeography’s generalisation motor, its big picture making, is powered by these absences and difficulties in historical and geological time. We are back at the zero, or the hidden part of any matter; that seems to be at work in stories of genesis and in overarching general descriptions. So here is a mythogeographical principle that I learned for the first time in Northfield: as you assemble all the multiplicity of informations about a place, look for the zeroing and silencing, large and small, originary and incidental, that these chunks of narrative and idea have been produced (at least partly) in order to obscure. Just as you have precious hidden parts, so does a place. (19)

All of this is pertinent to thinking about Saskatchewan, a place marked my many examples of zeroing and silencing, many gestures towards a blank slate upon which the settler apparatus is built. It might be pertinent to any place that where the ground zero was the genocide and displacement of other peoples. It would be very interesting to bring Smith to Regina to walk in spaces where that genocide and displacement are tangible.

The excess one senses in places, “a blurting out of things generated by the suppression of something else,” is “one of the languages of mythogeography; one that you can intuit in the streets and then back up with a little desk-based research or other kinds of nosey-ing around” (21). That excess, he continues,

is the reason why, on a mythogeographical mis-guided tour of such places, it is always necessary to under-tell the narrative, to dampen it down a little, to mimic the grander narrative of sinking into silence in order to draw the audience into its extreme taciturnity, to which much has already been lost and because of which much may still be at stake. (21)

Smith’s discussion of this excess heads in an existential direction:

In general terms, this silence is the historical manifestation of the mythic abyss, the void around the rim of which we all hang existentially. Hence the personal importance and the social necessity for good faith, fidelity and witness in respect of the accidental poetries, the eroded signs and the textural ironies to be found in every place (and I have found them in every place I have ever visited) which are generated by the silencing of colonialism and other place-making forces; it is not enough to fasten on just any cipher going or to use these things for effect. Hence the need for dampening down; fidelity means connecting to a bigger picture, not always through complexity, but always by a sinking beneath the event horizon of the surface Spectacle, by putting oneself, at least a little, at the mercy of the hidden zero. (21)

I’m not entirely sure how one might put oneself “at the mercy of the hidden zero,” or what that might mean in practical terms, or the connection between those “accidental poetries” and the underground narratives that exist in places like Northfield—or Regina; that’s something I’m going to consider.

Smith moves to a discussion of space that is clearly derived from Deleuze (and possibly Guattari): “There are no borders in space; a border is the antithesis of space. There is small and there are margins in places; but in space there is only folding and unfolding” (21). The same theoretical background informs his discussion of space versus power:

Power is necessarily concentrated and bounded, otherwise it would not be power, it would be free energy vulnerable to democratic uses. Space is dispersive and subject to democratic abstraction. Space can be grasped imaginatively and imagination requires no armies. A refugee in a Jordanian camp can invade England if they have access to a translation of H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds. (21)

I wouldn’t downplay the power of the imagination, but isn’t it important to realize that, in reality, Smith’s refugee remains in a camp, whatever he or she is reading? People who read Tolkien don’t actually—and this might surprise some of them—end up in the Shire. In any case, Smith’s discussion of space is definitely indebted to Deleuze and Guattari:  “space is finely interconnected; it is both material and imagined,” he writes (21). “The margin folds back to the centre. Those of us who feel left out are doubly tricked—first geographically, then subjectively—any marginalization is only partly real and partly a belief enforced upon us. We have been recruited into a conspiracy against ourselves” (21). Mythogeographers, he continues,

do not escape from one place to the other, but find and explore them curled up inside each other. Openness is not in one place and narrowness in another; they are different characteristics of the same places. This is part of the ‘and and and’ characteristic of mythogeography; of speaking of one’s own place as if it were space, never completed, always in motion, floated free from the binding and restraining power of identity and the binding and restraining identity of power. What is usually narrated as a doubleness or an opposition, in the space of mythogeography returns as a series of folds and loops, writhing and connecting and embracing the open within the narrow and the narrow within the open. The array of reflective surfaces created by this interweaving illuminates the narrow self-interests at work in the open space of grand narratives; the churning of their curved edges excavates the grandeur in the common symbols painted on the sidewalk by maintenance workers. If only we were to start pulling on the connections, the whole thing might swing around. (23)

Perhaps, then, rather than an opposition between space, as Yi-Fu Tuan proposes, one might assert an enfolding of them together? What would that look like? Would I have to return to the Deleuze’s The Fold or read A Thousand Plateaus to figure that out?

Smith argues that the dérive is always the motor of mythogeography, “the sociable, leaderless and destinationless wander with shifting themes and pilgrimage-like symbolisms” (25):

This derive is a simple way to take back some of the missing pleasure-surplus that has been subtracted from us—and from our public spaces—by various means including rent, exploitative labour and a Spectacle that turns its consumers into unpaid producers. In the “drift” this recovered surplus reappears like the nervous emergence of things the Spectacle has never “seen” before, spectres and unexchangeable artefacts, and an “under-selling” (a restrained telling) of the route. (25)

A dérive in Northfield took place entirely in a parking lot (25); the route can be anywhere. That dérive left behind an ad-hoc site-specific sculpture made with materials found on the edges of the parking lot; I wonder whether that is common in dérives. In any case, what Smith wants from being a walking artist, he discovered in Northfield, is for people “to walk mythogeographically, but under their own steam; not led, not guided by anyone, least of all by me” (27). He wants to be a part of walking groups but not as a leader; instead he wants “a place among the irresponsibilities and sociabilities of the mob” (27).

In fact, in Northfield, Smith found himself having to reconfigure ideas he had thought of as fixed and fundamental to what he does: 

I became aware of the need to work through pleasure more, to evangelise more and to reconstruct mythogeography as something sociable and convivial, as something people do together. I learned (and continue to learn since) to attend more, not less, to my own body as a site of inadequacy and illness that provides its own route for itself as a vehicle and agent of pleasure. (31)

He suggests as a goal he suggests for leading group walks (I think), a form of “talented” walking, with “talented” meaning a suspendedness or structural capability: 

by repeatedly walking, the walker learns to become ‘transparent,’ practising a calm and extreme openness to the experiences and capabilities of the route, so the walks increasingly take on the quality of narratives without walkers. 

The route becomes the walker. 

The prepared walker, by becoming transparent, passes through places as if he or she were the ignored ghost of it. The prepared walker becomes a haunting but not a frightening or interesting presence. The prepared walker’s transparency allows others to see the place through the walker; not by their leading or narrating, but by emptying themselves of leadership and narrative. . . . So, by their preparedness and transparency, a “talented” walker illuminates their route; and their deferral of action allows those they are with to imagine their own fading into “talented” agency. (31-33)

I’m not sure how a walker in this part of the world—or in Northfield—could become “transparent,” given the fact that so few people walk in these places, but if he is talking about a way of leading walks, this might make sense.

Indeed, Smith notes what while walking in Northfield he was often alone; few others out walking (35)—so he “mostly had meetings with things” (35). He thinks of Margaret Cavendish’s 1666 book The Blazing-World, in which the main character is marooned after a shipwreck on an island of bear-men, bird-men, fly-men, all physicists and philosophers; she is made empress and asks for a spirit amanuensis, the spirt of her own author, Margaret Cavendish (37). “Here was the model for me as a lone walker, washed up in alien suburbs and subject to a storm of my own reveries and unfamiliar resident objects,” he writes. “Be the spirit-amanuensis of your own earthbound ventures. Walking alone is a fine way of learning how to blend hard things with soft imaginings in the same journey” (37).

Here Smith returns to the notion of pilgrimage. He notes that medieval nuns engaged in virtual pilgrimages (they were not allowed to leave their convents to go on actual ones); he imagines that this could be a provocation for his walking (37). Since medieval guidebooks for pilgrims ignore the road and focus on the shrines along the way, that might suggest the road was “a profane obstacle to be overcome” (37). He sees a different extreme in what he calls “neo-romantic and contemporary pilgrimage: “its walk is privileged and democratised . . . and arrival is no longer realised by the transformation of space at the opening of the shrine, but by the transformation of the self along the way” (37). The pilgrim’s arrival at the shrine, he continues, 

is little more than an opportunity to celebrate the apotheosis that has already happened. What this removes is the “otherness”—weirdness, numinous and alien divine—from the heart of pilgrimage; relegating it to a consumable, if uncomfortable, exotic surplus. Ordinariness and the route remain burdens to be endured; this means that all neo-romantic pilgrimages are partly virtual, whether they are walked in a cell or across a continent. For the shrine of the neo-romantic pilgrimage—the transformable self—is always present and might be reached at any time. Pilgrimage becomes, then, a smooth and mobile space. The soul is not saved, but relocated to the ego. (39)

The reference to “smooth” space suggests Deleuze and Guattari again, but more importantly, I’m not convinced that Smith’s description fits my experience on the Camino—a walk that, not surprisingly, radical or art walkers who talk about democratizing walking sneer at. 

Mythogeography, Smith continues, sets out to push romanticism “to be itself but more extremely so,” so why not “privilege the way of the pilgrim not primarily as a metaphorical or psychological way,” but rather focus on tangible things? “Only by walking with and through such stinking things and squeezy organisms can a sacred way open up for this pilgrim,” he writes (39). Such a pilgrimage, “along the road of things,” would reorient one’s focus 

to the ugly matter of work and production, to medieval clumsiness and striation, to the hierarchy as well as the dispersal of space. On such a rough journey the pilgrim is no longer obliged to progressively dematerialise (emptying her rucksack as she goes), but instead to take on a new thickness, becoming increasingly loaded in the sustenance and resilience of things of the way, an ecological pilgrim wading through, and held up by, sloughs of responsive things. (39)

The drift, like the pilgrimage, is “a colonial revenant, appropriating the surplus of pleasure not from giant corporations but from passers-by, which survives inside even the most radical of walkings” (39). When I saw the word “colonial,” I perked up, but Smith is using is as a metaphor, not a literal term.

“The next step for everyday pilgrimage, if it is to escape neo-romantic, new-age opportunism, is towards ambulant architecture,” Smith writes, giving examples of disrupting the path, or creating new ones (39-41). That’s where he notes that a discussion on the Walking Artists Network focused on ways to disrupt the Camino. I’m not sure that impulse isn’t anti-democratic, given the number of people who walk that pilgrimage route every year. Why can’t they do that if they want to? Others can make more adventurous or philosophical walks if they want to, find different routes, or disrupt their own path by leaving objects behind, as Smith suggests (although where one would get those objects is an open question). There is a sociability and conviviality on the Camino—and sometimes a competitiveness—that might be worth exploring; sneering at it is not engaging with it.

“‘New menhirs’ are accidental versions of the ambulatory architecture that once combined as waymarking signs and ritual objects for prehistoric people in Europe,” Smith notes, suggesting that they “were probably the first architecture” (43)—if you ignore the shelters they lived in, perhaps that might be true. He describes the strange, typically discarded or unnoticed things he discovers when he is walking as “new menhirs” (43):

The pole of attraction of a new menhir swings things back towards junctions and magic squares, towards connectivity. It is a facilitating symbol of the human octopus and the social web; a mark that—despite its apparent isolation and its relation to journeying—connects and reconciles. While the general motor of the void is driven by loss and trauma, the new menhir is all about reparation and the reconciliation of opposites. (43)

Honestly, I’m not convinced that those objects, however strange, can actually generate connectivity—unless a group of walkers stop to examine them, perhaps. But Smith makes larger claims for these objects: 

A new menhir marks the spot where ideology touches the ground and becomes substantial. It marks the spot where deregulated images put down a footprint and can be caught. They are there to be touched, leaned against and held as connectors to something or somewhere else, channels to thinking and wands for moving things by something other than broadband. (45)

The reference to “broadband” suggests that he is talking about the Spectacle again; he is putting a great deal of weight on these “new menhirs,” but his poetic prose isn’t quite explaining—to me, anyway—their importance. Perhaps I’m too dull to pick up on it.

Smith’s experiences in Northfield “illuminated the process by which a mythogeography connects texture and detail to the big picture and how, as a common practice it can change situations and not just comment on them” (51). The essay ends with a call for readers to do “this stuff” in their own ways; one final section, “How Can We Do This Stuff In Our Own Ways?” consists of one sentence: “It wouldn’t be your way if there was anything under this heading, would it?” (51). That’s a good question. What I take, immediately, from my reading of this essay is that I ought to pay more attention to the objects and places I encounter on my walks—I am thinking right now of a hay bale at the side of the highway with a water bottle embedded in the centre—as well as to the people. And, again, I realize that my solo walking practice is probably not Smith’s cup of tea, although perhaps, after walking in Minnesota, he realizes how focused North America is on automobiles, how much it has turned its back on self-propelled motion. I am also more convinced than ever that I need to read Deleuze and Guattari—particularly if the relationship between space and place can be expressed as an enfolding rather than an opposition. I sense that such an idea has possibilities, but I would need a better grasp on the fold, and an understanding of the different kinds of space Deleuze and Guattari explore. 

Work Cited

Schott , John, and Phil Smith, Rethinking Mythogeography in Northfield, Minnesota, Triarchy Press, 2018.

53. Clare Qualmann and Claire Hind, eds., Ways to Wander

ways to wander

Ways to Wander is a collection of 54 different sets of suggestions, reflections, instructions, or scores about walking, created by 54 different walkers. It also contains an introduction by Carl Lavery and copies of e-mails between the two editors. All of this material is assembled randomly, and I think that was deliberate. The list of contributors at the end of the book gives contact information and web addresses for all of the contributors, which is helpful information. The book isn’t paginated, which suggests (to me) that its intent is more artistic than scholarly.

Let me start with Lavery’s introduction, which isn’t where the book begins. (I’m straightening out this book, at least a little, in this summary; I hope nobody minds.) Lavery begins by likening a walk to a performance score (indeed, what I’ve called “instructions” as I’ve taken notes perhaps ought to have been described as scores):

there is no simple method for walking or indeed for describing a walk. Like a performance score, a walk is an open-ended phenomenon, no knows in advance what will present itself or who you might mean. The meaning is in the doing, properly performative then, which is to say, self-generating, contingent, improvisatory, light-footed and rooted in the everyday. It is also unexpected. ([9])

Like performances, walks also risk failing; there’s always the possibility that a walk won’t amount to very much ([10]). Chance is important—Lavery cites Robert Walser’s story “The Walk” on that score. The comparison between walking and a score organizes his discussion of the scores, or instructions, presented in this book.

When I read Phil Smith’s Walking’s New Movement, I was a little concerned by what I took to be a demand that walking be collaborative and relational. Lavery doesn’t agree. He notes that some of his walking friends, including Deirdre Heddon and Wrights & Sites, walk with others, but says that he prefers to walk alone:

Though fully aware that my gender and “ablebodiedness” assign me a special privilege, I walk in order to think, to engage in a kind of embodied thinking, to let an idea, like a landscape, unfold. . . .There is nothing exclusive or regulatory in this strategy. Other users will doubtless have different ideas and practices of engagement ([11])

Lavery prefers to walk alone because he finds it conducive to thinking; he cites Kant, Benjamin, Nietzche, and Solnit on this point ([11]). However, these days he thinks of walking and thinking “in terms of a creative process of ruination, which troubles normative notions of the archive” ([12]). He compares that “process of ruination” to Derrida’s notion of “archive fever,” noting that Derrida described that fever as an “infinity of evil” because it tries to impose an order on the past that transcends the fictions of memory. Archive fever sets out to fix the past, whereas walking is “an act of necessary negation” because one step follows the next, and one’s previous steps are typically forgotten ([12-13]). Lavery suggests that it makes sense “to celebrate walking as an act of perpetual and incessant ruination, an instance of a secret that refuses, stubbornly, to reveal itself” ([13]). That secret could be a catalyst for imagining, looking ahead and affirming the future, “which is tantamount to affirming the impersonal flux and flow of a time that we can never inhabit fully or know” ([13]). 

Lavery notes that his article, “25 Instructions for Performance in Cities,” was a stimulus for this book ([14])—everyone seems to cite that article, which means I need to read it. Those instructions, or scores, bring him back to the place where he started:

To perform a score is not to perform in the name of truth, as if one were somehow concerned with idealising a perfect, self-contained actualisation of the original instruction; rather, it is to affirm the necessity of betrayal and the ineluctable reality of failure. In this way, through the necessary ruination of the instruction, the performed score, like the walk, is a guardian of the secret. It realises that the footprints it leaves are a kind of wreckage, an act of creative destruction that has the generosity to foreclose in advance its own will to truth, to temper its own archive fever, and to leave a space for ghosts of the future to come, those spectres who are always still to arrive but yet are strangely already here. ([14])

I’m not sure what Lavery means by the last words of that final sentence—the part about the “ghosts of the future”—but the notion of walking as a form of creative destruction, of footprints as wreckage, is interesting. Often my feet leave no footprints behind at all—if I’m walking on gravel or pavement or dry ground—and I often think of the traces I leave behind as more or less entirely imaginary. However, my walks are not scored—ever. I wonder if that means they aren’t performative at all. That is something I am going to have to think about.

Next, I want to think about the e-mails between the editors that are included here. In the first, Claire Hind praises Rebecca Solnit’s book Wanderlust and suggests “if there is ever a pilgrimage then it is the walk that slips between Ludus (serious play) and Paidia (free play)—which Roger Caillois talks about in his book Man, Play and Games” ([4]). I haven’t read Caillois, but I’m surprised that Hind praises Solnit’s book, given Smith’s critique of its romanticism and literariness. Clearly there are many ways of thinking about walking, and Smith’s version isn’t the only one. The second e-mail sees Clare Qualmann recalling childhood walks in Cornwall and comparing them to her artistic practice of walking in urban spaces ([24]). They are very different forms of walking, and it’s hard for Qualmann to make connections between them. In the third, Claire Hind thinks about the word “wander” in the context of performing and walking and a response to the book they have assembled ([36]). In the fourth, Clare Qualmann notes her affection for following instructions and in “the combination of structure and freedom that rule-based works give me” ([58]). That’s not surprising, since many of the works included here are rule-based. The suggestion that rule-based works combine structure and freedom is interesting. My garden is rule-based—all of the plants included must be native to Saskatchewan—but within that rule there is a tremendous amount of freedom as to what goes where and why. (Most of my reasons are what Smith would call “functional”: I put plants that like shade in the shade, and plants that like sun in the sun). I had not thought much about rule-based walking works, though, which is what the majority of the 54 contributions here are.

Now to those 54 contributions. I’ve left them numbered, because that’s how they appear in the book:

  1. Roger Bygott, “River Rural; River Urban”: Bygott suggests identifying some significant point of a river in an urban area, and then walking to the source and returning; then doing the same, from the city to the river’s mouth and back, taking notes and reflecting, thinking about “how the journey of the river changed as you walked along it” and “how your journey changed as you walked along it” ([2]).
  2. Debbie Kent, “Feeling and Touching: a tactile-kinaesthetic walk”: Kent calls upon the reader to feel the ground beneath our feet; then experiment with walking on different surfaces (soft, hard, slippery, bumpy), or touching the surfaces we see (touch everything, or take samples), and thinking about how long our skin holds the memory of what it touched; or try imagining the feel of everything you see, checking for accuracy by touching something. “With practice,” she writes, “perhaps your brain will start directly converting the visual to the tactile and you can feel the landscape on your skin without thinking” ([3]).
  3. Ranulph Glanville: he suggests wandering is a metaphor for the creative process; one arrives at a place without knowing that place was there when starting out ([5]).
  4. Romany Reagan: she describes a walk in Abney Park Cemetery in London, a place where she goes to think ([6]).
  5. Townley and Bradby: these collaborators present a game for two players, using mobile phones, in which walkers head off in different directions by make the same turns/pauses/resumptions etc. The leader lets the follower know of changes in direction or pauses by sending text messages ([7]).
  6. Alison Lloyd, “I Cannot See the Summit from Here”: Lloyd describes a walk in the Scottish Highlands in which she felt she discovered and owned the landscape, following the map’s contours, which she calls “contour walking” ([8]).
  7. Bronwyn Preece and her daughter, Similkameen O’Rourke, “Off-the-Grid Walking cARTography”: This piece is a collaborative poem written by mother and daughter, and it includes instructions for writing such a poem together over the course of a 24-kilometre walk on a gravel road ([15]).
  8. Alexander “Twig” Champion: Champion presents a meditation on walking in circles, particularly around an object with some personal importance ([16]).
  9. Helen Frosi’s contribution is a poem about walking ([18]).
  10. Simon Pope, “The Underpass”: Pope gives instructions for using one of London’s “multi-exit” pedestrian underpasses to generate a random walk ([19]).
  11. Lizzie Phelps, “Maternity Leaves”: Phelps presents instructions for taking a walk with a young child, walks that are performances, and reflects on having a child has changed her practice ([20]).
  12. Clare Qualmann, “Perambulator”: Qualmann gives suggestions for creating a “Perambulator Parade” to identify places that are difficult for stroller use—a performance that sets out to make a small, local change. I wonder if this is the kind of work Smith is referring to when he criticizes localism—it seems possible ([21]).
  13. David Prescott-Steed, “Walking in Drains”: in Melbourne, Australia, there is a vast network of underwater drains for stormwater runoff; Prescott-Steed likes to walk in them as “a way for me to transgress the rigid structures of the city that routinely discipline our bodies, in turn shaping how we communicate with each other” ([22]), and he suggests a game in which one speaks into a storm sewer, because someone might be passing by below ([22]).
  14. Robin Smith, “Notes to the novice pedestrian”: Smith gives instructions for walking in a city for someone who has never done that before ([23]).
  15. Andrew Brown presents instructions for walking on water: you just have to imagine that it’s an inch deep ([25]).
  16. Bridget Sheridan, “Following Forgotten Footprints”: Sheridan offers instructions for returning to a place where you walked as a child, and then creating a new walk in response ([26]).
  17. Misha Myers: she instructs readers on how to make a journey from home to some special place nearby ([27]).
  18. Neil Callaghan and Simone Kenyon, “Step-By-Step”: these collaborators challenge readers to walk with eyes closed, to walk slowly, to walk backwards, and to walk while imitating someone else’s gait ([28]).
  19. Tom Hall, “City Centre”: Hall, a geographer, gives instructions for walking away from and towards the city centre, watching for signs of the direction you are taking from the cityscape ([29]).
  20. Helen Stratford and Idit Elia Nathan, “Play the City Now or Never!”: this piece is a die that can be cut out and assembled that will, when rolled, issue random instructions for things to do while walking, actions that will make the walk fresh or strange ([30]).
  21. Annie Lloyd, “Walking with my Dog”: this piece is a description, in the form of instructions, for walking in the park with her late dog ([31]).
  22. Phil Smith: he presents a series of instructions for making walking strange, or making walking into a performance; I wondered, as I read them, if this piece is an example of Smith’s mythogeography in action ([32]).
  23. Jess Allen, “Long Shore Drift”: Allen issues instructions for a walk in which the reader carries a stone from one beach to another, in homage to Richard Long’s Crossing Stones ([33]).
  24. Barbara Lounder, “Walker”: Nova Scotia artist Lounder offers three approaches for walking, using the word “walker” as a starting point ([34]).
  25. Marie-Anne Lerjen, “The Closer Walk”: Lerjen gives instructions for walking close to fences, walls, hedges, buildings, without touching them ([35]).
  26. Vinko Nino Jaeger, “Walking Ideas”: Jaeger offers five different ideas about walking and art, including “Walk a poem/tale” and “Walk the gravitational force” ([37]).
  27. Karen McCoy, “Folding Paper Listening Trumpet”: McCoy gives instructions for assembling and using a paper listening trumpet (included on the facing page), which may give its user the ability “to hear and see in alternative ways,” and can be used as “a device for locating minute visual phenomena” by looking through the large end. “In experiencing sound as geographical, the process is one of assembling sound into an aural picture of the landscape or urbanspace,” she writes. The listening/viewing trumpet is intended as a way to cultivate awareness of what is around us ([38]).
  28. Blake Morris: he givesinstructions for using Google Maps to generate a walk, by walking to the pin Google drops on your town, city, or neighbourhood ([40])—except Google Maps doesn’t seem to do that anymore? It doesn’t on my phone, anyway. 
  29. Nick Tobier, “The Best of All Possible Places”: Detroit artist Tobier issues instructions—or mock instructions?—for finding “the best of all possible places” by walking south from a transit station for 15 minutes ([42]).
  30. Thomas Bolton, “The A-Game”: Bolton makes suggestions for walking major highways (not expressways) in London ([43]).
  31. Chance Marshall, “A Walk for Seaton Carew Beach in Hartlepool at Low Tide”: Marshall gives instructions for walking along a beach and helping a group of sea-coalers shovel sea-coal into their trucks ([44]); sea-coalers, according to Wikipedia, are men who collect coal that washes ashore. That would explain why Marshall asks readers to carry a shovel with them on this walk.
  32. Penny Newell, “How to Wander Lonely as a Cloud”: Newell presents a poem, intended for performance, about clouds ([45]).
  33. walkwalkwalk, “Chip Walk”: the three collaborators in walkwalkwalk (Gail Burton, Serena Korda, and Clare Qualmann) present readers with a game that involves walking from one chip shop to the next until full or exhausted ([46]).
  34. Gary Winters and Claire Hind, “Walking With Limited Longevity & A Bottle of Soap Bubbles”: these collaborators offer instructions for a walk that involves blowing soap bubbles and following them as they move ([47]).
  35. Carl Lavery, “Walking in a Gallery”: Lavery’s piece gives instructions for watching Douglas Gordon’s installation 24 Hour Psycho (a version of the Hitchcock film that slows it down so that it runs for 24 hours rather than the original 109 minutes), instructions that include going away for a walk ([48]).
  36. Bram Arnold, “Transecting”: Arnold issues instructions for drawing a line on a map between two points and then walking that line, transecting its “social, historical and personal archives,” along with suggestions about documenting this activity ([49]).
  37. Chris Green, “Radically Walking”: Green gives instructions for taking back public space (space that has become, or feels, private) by walking together with others in a group ([50]).
  38. Jane Fox, “For the River Valley”: Fox presents a poem (apparently made collaboratively with students ) that issues instructions for walking through a river valley ([51]).
  39. Matthew Reason, “Perhaps we are like stones”: Reason offers what is either instructions for or a description of a walk in Yorkshire with a group of fine arts students ([52]).
  40. Molly Mullen, “On the Maunga”: this piece is a bilingual (English/Maori) inviting readers to walk on a mountain ([53]).
  41. Cecilia Lagerström and Helena Kågemark, “In One Step”: the collaborators give instructions for walking slowly, very slowly, one step at a time, with attention ([54]).
  42. Chris Mollon, “Intertidal Walking”: in a poem, Mollon presents instructions for a long walk before and after low tide ([55]).
  43. Vanessa Grasse: she offers instructions for watching people and movement—“The space is performing for you,” she suggests; for walking between two things; for following things; and for reorienting your whole body “to observe and reframe what you see” ([56]).
  44. Emma Cocker: this work is a call to pay attention to the decisions one makes while walking, rather than allowing those decisions to become automatic and thoughtless ([57]).
  45. Kris Darby, “The city as a site of performative possibilities”: Darby presents six walking games, two each for groups, pairs, and individuals ([60]).
  46. Kerstin Kussmaul, “Wolf Trot”: Kussmaul presents instructions for a dance she calls “wolf trotting” and scores to use for this movement ([61])—this piece is interesting, because it separates the terms “instruction” and “score” quite clearly.
  47. Steve Fossey, “Love at First (Site)”: Fossey offers instructions for a walk in which you imagine falling in love, and an invitation to share those moments, or the fictions you construct about them, with Fossey by e-mail ([62]).
  48. Tobias Grice: this piece gives instructions for a walk in which you bounce a tennis ball against various surfaces, allowing it to dictate (somewhat) your pace and direction ([63]).
  49. Charlie Fox, “Waylaid Walking”: Fox offers instructions for a walk in which you see objects, attend to the thoughts they “conjure,” write those thoughts down, and then, after the walk is over, thread those words together to create a longer text ([64]).
  50. Isabel Mosely, “Psithurism”: this piece is a description of, or instructions for, three walks, each of which takes place in a specific, and unnamed, urban environment ([65]).
  51. Linda Rae Dornan, “A Certain History”: Dornan gives instructions for a walk, with repeated demands to document what you see in writing in a notebook, or by drawing them ([66])—the text is arranged in a figure eight, so that it continues indefinitely or infinitely.
  52. Wrights & Sites, “Nostalgic and Pre-Nostalgic Drifts”: this piece is made of instructions (reprinted from the Exeter Mis-Guide) for revisiting scenes from your past (houses you lived in, places you had a memorable conversation or kissed), and marking them with chalk or a wreath ([67]).
  53. Mark Hunter, “Welcome to. . .”: Hunter presents detailed instructions for a guided walk led by someone who knows little about the location where the walk occurs; as a performance it requires the performer to spend a day interviewing people, collecting stories, histories, facts, whatever, and presenting the results in an alternative to the “official” guided tour ([68]).
  54. Claire Hind, “Ways to Reflect”: Hind offers instructions for interpreting or reflecting on walks, using specific theoretical approaches; by researching the histories of a place you photographed; and by making visual connections between 12 different memories by drawing lines between them ([69]).

I realize that by reading this book in this way, cover to cover, I have not read it properly. The back cover copy, in fact, invites readers to put it in their backpacks and refer to it while walking, or to use it in creative workshops, or to treat each page as visual art or poetry (I haven’t mentioned the creativity involved in many of the layouts, although at the same time sometimes those complex layouts make it hard for me to read the text). I might carry this book with me on some walks, as a way of shaking up the dull routines I sometimes feel I fall into, and certainly the range of activities and suggestions and scores and instructions presented here gives a clear sense of the richness of contemporary art walking. At the same time, though, there is a slightness to some of the offerings, which makes me wonder if this book is an example of the kind of work Smith criticizes in Walking’s New Movement, and if it is the reason he is calling for a much more politically radical and engaged form of walking. I don’t know. There is a rich culture of walking art in the UK, and trying to piece it together from here, a long ways away–to figure out who likes what kind of work and who doesn’t, or what kind of work is important and what kind isn’t–is a little like being a Sovietologist during the Cold War, trying to figure out what’s happening in the Politburo by reading the classified ads in Pravda. But that’s my hunch, anyway: I think that Smith wants to inject some of the political energy he sees in psychogeography into the kinds of disparate practices on display in Ways to Wander. I will have to read more to find out for sure.

Work Cited

Clare Qualmann and Claire Hind, eds., Ways to Wander, Triarchy, 2015.

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

52. Arthur Machen, The London Adventure or the Art of Wandering

the london adventure

Arthur Machen’s The London Adventure or the Art of Wandering is one of the central texts in occult and literary psychogeography. It’s also a very strange book. Its digressive narrative is characterized by endless deferral; the narrator (I’m not sure whether this book is a novel, an autobiography, or a pseudo-autobiography) tells one story after another, all in preparation for writing a book called The London Adventure, a text that ends without beginning (142). I’m certainly no expert on Machen, but I have to say that this book is less gothic than romantic, even neoplatonist, and that the “wandering” of its subtitle is as much discursive as ambulatory or geographical. And yet, after reading The London Adventure, the role it plays in particular types of psychogeography becomes clear, as does (to a degree) the term “psychogeography” itself.

The book begins in a tavern in the suburbs of London. The narrator is thinking about the difference between those who work because they have a gift, like the painter J.M.W. Turner, and everyone else—the narrator included—whose employment is “but the curse of Adam, the slavery that we have to endure; about as blessed as oakum-picking and limestone quarrying and treadmill climbing and the other employments of the poor fellows that we call convicts, as if we were not as much convicts as they,” sentenced to earn an honest living (6-7). A man arrives in the tavern, someone the narrator knows. He looks at the narrator in a threatening manner and says, meaningfully, “The leaves are beginning to come out” (10). The narrator knows exactly what that statement means:

I knew what the man meant. I had told him some months before that I was to write a book about London, that it was to be a really great book, this time. But, I explained, I was not going to begin writing it till the leaves were out on the trees, since the green leafage of the boughs made such a marvellous contrast with the grim greyness of the streets; of the streets of which I meant to write: unknown, unvisited squares in Islington, dreary byways in Holloway, places traversed by railway arches and viaducts in the regions of Camden Town. (10-11)

In other words, the book is supposed to be about unfashionable and suburban places, the kinds of locales most writers would avoid because they prefer more chic environs, displaying an obvious importance or heritage. 

The narrator then recalls going to the “waste portions of the world down beyond the Surrey Docks” and visiting a neighbourhood he had never seen before: “Everything was shapeless, unmeaning, dreary, dismal beyond words; it was as if one were journeying past the back wall of the everlasting backyard” (11). Then, on a grey street, he sees something wonderful: 

from the area of one of the sad houses there arose a great glossy billow of the most vivid green surging up from the area pavement half-way up the height of the ground floor windows; a veritable verdant mountain, as blessed as any wells and palm trees in the midst of an African desert. It was a fig tree that had somehow contrived to flourish in this arid waste; but to me a miracle and a delight as well as a fig tree. (12)

“[T]his was to be the kind of adventure out of which I had agreed to make a book; and thus it was that I had talked of waiting till the time of the opening of the leaves before I began it” (12). The problem is—remember, the narrator doesn’t like to work—he doesn’t want to start writing: “Always, or almost always, I have had the horror of beginning a new book. I have burnt my fingers to the bone again and again in the last forty years and I dread the fire of literature” (12).

Nevertheless, that sense of wonder in an apparently banal space is important enough that the narrator tells another story about it: he describes “with absolute veracity” strange events he experienced while in chambers at Gray’s Inn (he must have been a law student, once; he discusses his career as a journalist at length later), and, he states, “I have never forgotten my almost incredulous amazement when I found out, seven years afterwards, that some of these experiences of mine had also been experiences of the monks of St. Columba’s congregation at Iona in the sixth century” (13). This sense of a mysterious connection between past and present events seems to be a characteristic of occult psychogeography, but I think (if The London Adventure is a model for occult psychogeography) that it has other characteristics as well.

One of those characteristics is an anti-materialist, anti-scientific belief in wonders and miracles—wonders and miracles which are, apparently, experienced, like the eerie parallels between the narrator’s experiences and those of sixth century monks:

so corrupt and bewildered is our nature; on the one hand inclined to the crudest, most bestial materialism, to the simple, easy, natural explanation of all wonders, all miracles; on the other, so sickened with sham marvels, with pantomine-chorus fairies on photographic plates, with ghosts that gibber indeed in the vulgarest, silliest manner possible; so bewildered are we, I say, between these two sides that we hardly dare to testify to the things which we have actually known, seen, experienced with our own senses and our own souls, if these experiences go beyond the limits laid down in some twopenny “science” text-book. (13-14)

The narrator continues, “I do my best to conquer this ‘scientific’ nonsense; and so, as I have noted, I try to reverence the signs, omens, messages that are delivered in queer ways and queer places, not in the least according to the plans laid down either by the theologians or the men of science” (14). Those who seek to know, or are certain about their knowledge, are this narrator’s enemies; those who accept mystery are his allies.

The narrator tells another story, this one about how one such message came to him two and a half years earlier, in another tavern, at a time when he was being bullied by his employer and mocked by his co-workers, facing dismissal, which would have meant ruin for his family (14-16). (This experience, and others, seems to be at the root of his dislike of journalism as a profession.) A man walked up to him and asked how the Latin word exaltavit, from the phrase et exaltavit humiles, “and lifting up the lowly,” according to Google, is spelled (17). Being reminded of that phrase—our narrator has had a classical education and sprinkles his text with Latin tags—allowed him to begin to hope, “to life up a little corner of the black curtain of despair” (18). For the narrator, the man with his question about Latin orthography was a messenger, one of two or three he had met in his life, and he states, “I never think of them without great wonder, awe, and reverence” (19). Was it just a coincidence? “It may be so; and I am too keenly aware of the dangers and follies of credulity to deny that it may have been so,” he writes. “Yet, I am a practical man above all things, and coincidence or no coincidence, I know that I was comforted and sustained and enabled by that word through many months of horrible and shameful suffering” (20). 

For the narrator, and for Machen himself, for all I know, those supposed coincidences are significant: they suggest something about the world itself. “It is possible, just dimly possible,” the narrator suggests,

that the real pattern and scheme of life is not in the least apparent on the outward surface of things, which is the world of common sense, and rationalism, and reasoned deductions; but rather lurks, half hidden, only apparent in certain rare lights, and then only to the prepared eye; a secret pattern, an ornament which seems to have but little relation or none at all to the obvious scheme of the universe. (21)

This is, I think, the occult psychogeographer’s sense of the city: it is a text with multiple levels, and the hidden level(s), its “secret pattern,” can only be apprehended by the initiated, in “certain rare lights.” Reason has “nothing to say in the presence of the unknown” (22); forty years before rational people would have dismissed ideas like radio as mere fantasies (23-24). “[W]e know nothing of matters concerning which we know nothing,” the narrator states. “And so this applies to the ghostly world—always allowing that there is any such world. What do we know?” (24-25).

In fact, it seems pretty clear that the narrator does believe in that “ghostly world.” “I firmly believe that the two worlds”—that is, the world of the living and the world of spirits—“have that gulf between them, that magnum chaos, which yawns, let us say, between painting and music”, he suggests, (25) and while one can make analogies between them, or speak of one in metaphors of the other, they “remain worlds apart” (25). The relationship between the two is like that between an actor on the stage, and the actor’s life off the stage (25). Taking that analogy further, he suggests that, just as the world of King Lear is a dream of Shakespeare’s, “it may turn out that this world of ours is but one of the dreams of the Supreme Artist” (26). His sense “of the probable order of things at large” inclines the narrator “to believe that very high messengers—in the play, in the mystery which we are enacting—may be quite ordinary fellows in private life” (27-28). Again we see the sense of (at least) two worlds, which is picked up on by psychogeography, and the belief that the ordinary might actually be extraordinary. Also—and I don’t want to push this too far, because it’s clear that Machen (or his narrator) was an actor as a younger man—the emphasis on performance here might be important as well, given Smith’s belief that the best forms of “new psychogeography” are performative and relational rather than literary. The narrator acknowledges that all of this has been a digression, but he notes, in a manner that is almost metafictional, that such digressions will be characteristic of this book. The point of the digression was “to show that one should hear and weigh all sorts of messages delivered in all sorts of places” (28). 

The narrator’s plan for the book, The London Adventure, “originated in old rambles about London, rambles that began in 1890 when I lived in Soho Street and began to stroll about Soho and to see that here was something very curious and impressive; this transmutation of late seventeenth-century and early eighteenth-century social solidity and even, in some cases magnificence, into a wholly different order” (30-31). He imagines the previous residents of buildings in Soho, what those buildings might have been over time—the residence of an ambassador, a pickle factory or printer’s works, “a camping ground for poor people, a place where almost every room sheltered a family”—or how one particular building that “looked as if it had been built for a Doctor of Divinity, c. 1720,” now houses (apparently) the sex trade (31-32) (I’m not entirely sure because Machen’s description is somewhat obscure). Like occult psychogeographers, the narrator is reading the past over the present, exhibiting an awareness of multiple possibilities for a space, at least in historical or antiquarian terms. 

But rather than Soho, the narrator wants to focus on the years after 1895, when he began exploring London’s suburbs:

when I first found out the wonders that lie to the eastward of the Gray’s Inn Road, when Islington and Barnsbury and Canonbury were discovered, when Pentonville ceased to be a mere geographical expression. And there was a later time still that was to yield fresh fruit; the days when I ran errands that were often in themselves of inconceivable folly, but led me all the same into queer outland territories that otherwise I should never have seen. (33-34)

Those errands were stories he was assigned to write about by his editor. He recalls one experience, when he went to Enfield (one of the destinations in Iain Sinclair’s London Orbital) to “taste the newly brewed Government ale—some horrible teetotal concoction of those bad times,” but even though he couldn’t find a pub that new anything of this new drink, the journey was not a failure: 

I had passed through such unsuspected countries in my voyage and travel from Enfield through Enfield Wash to Enfield Lock, through fragments of market garden and fragments of wild thicket, by sudden apparitions of grey houses built in the early ’sixties when it had dawned upon the mind of some madman that the day of the Wash was at hand and that the time for ‘development’ had come. (36)

He walks through apparently abandoned suburban developments and shops, ghost estates interspersed with remnants “of much older days,” such as Georgian mansions, now fallen into disrepair, about which the narrator creates a story: “There a substantial man, maybe an Alderman, had once lived; now, everything was falling down, broken, discoloured, desolate, uninhabited” (35-36). This varied suburban cityscape, the mixture of things he saw, and the stories he imagined about them, pleased the narrator: “And while I journeyed back to the office, I felt that I had been enjoying a rich and various experience” (36).

At this point, the narrator interrupts himself to point out that his point of view “is totally  removed from the ordinary tourist, guide-book point of view. I hope I am not without a due sense of the historic and literary interests of London, with which the guide and my guide-book are very properly occupied” (36). The narrator he respects the past, partly because of “literary and historical association,” partly because “of the love of antiquity for its own sake; a curiously compounded pleasure,” although “the more noble, terrible, notorious the associations called up, the less I am moved, in my heart of hearts” (36-37). In other words, he prefers ordinary histories. Nevertheless, he notes that “this love of antiquity for its own sake, apart from any particular literary or historical associations, has always been a great puzzle to me and still remains so” (37). Sometimes the associations that attract him are fictional: the remaining wall of the Marshalsea debtors’ prison reminds him of Dickens’s Little Dorrit, even though she never existed (37-38). “[W]hy should we be interested in places more or less connected with the fortunes of people who never existed, outside the brains and the pages of the romancers?” he asks. “I do not know why we are thus interested, but I know that we are so and that this interest constitutes one of the gentlest of pleasures of life” (38). So, when the narrator goes to Tower Hill, he thinks of Dickens’s characters Mr. and Mrs. Quilp (38-39), the way that the Marshalsea’s wall reminds him of Little Dorrit. “Perhaps, the explanation may be that the historic people are actual people,” he surmises, “creatures of fact not of fancy; and that fancy is infinitely more impressive than fact, partaking, as it does, not of actuality, but of reality” (39). Again, there is a suggestion of multiple layers of associations here, although these associations have their roots in fiction rather than in history, and I think that is another link between The London Adventure and certain forms of psychogeography.

In any case, the book he intended to write “was not to deal in the main with the historical or literary associations of London, nor even with antiquity as such, though sometimes antiquity would form part of the queer pattern that I had in my mind” (39-40). But he immediately plunges into another digression about the strangeness of unknown suburban districts, the individuality of taste, and the notion that life is a play within a play—“that there is no such entity as the thing in itself, there is no absolute existence in things seen,” and that even the “vile, red stones” of a modern suburb “may be transmuted into living, philosophical stones,” that there are mysteries in such places, rituals performed, “though those who officiate are ignorant of the secrets in which they, nonetheless, share” (40-44). Again, the sense of mysteries in the ordinary, which Machen’s book shares with occult psychogeography. This leads to a discussion of Freemasonry: “the ancient rite is duly performed, and so other ancient rites are performed in the rawest, reddest suburbs” (45). Those suburbs would be the subject of his book, even though, on one level, he despises them: 

Well, I was saying, I think, that the book on hand, this famous London Adventure, would have to deal with the raw, red places all around the walls of London; places detestable in themselves, no doubt, from the artist’s point of view, from the point of view of the lover of green fields and woods and shady lanes; but most of all detestable, I think, from my point of view, which is that of a many who loves ancient, memoried things; things of all kinds that have a past behind them, things of all kinds that show use and the touch of men upon them, and have become, in a sense, almost human or, at all events, partake of humanity. (47)

He imagines a worn doorstep, hollowed by a hundred years of feet, and imagines whose feet they might have been: “The feet of the weary and hopeless, the glad and the exultant, the lustful and the pure have made that hollow; and many of those feet are now in the hollow of the grave: and that doorstep is to me sacramental, if not a sacrament” (47-48). The book he intends to write would take all of these things into account: “the old, the shabby, the out of the way; and also the new and the red and the raw. But it was utterly to shun the familiar”—in other words, it would explore the London incognita rather than the London cognita (49).

That book, it seems, would perhaps imagine the lives of people who lived in places in the past, the way the narrator imagines the people whose feet wore down that doorstep. He recalls once wandering into a street between Camden Town and Holloway, where the houses were modest, but where each had a coachhouse and a stable: “for me here were compact histories of the Sketches by Boz period,” he states (50), and he describes the people who would have lived in an 1830s suburb. They are richly imagined in great detail (50-53).  “So much I saw as I passed down that street, Camden Town—Holloway, and I believe that most of it is truly seen; deduced, rather, from the little coach-houses and the little stables; and all a vision of a mode of life that has passed utterly away” (53). 

But, “in spite of the rows and rows of cheap red villas, which we must expect everywhere, there are still remnants of a former age” (55)—such as poltergeists. He concludes, regarding poltergeists, that

a human being is a world and cosmos of forces that reach out to other worlds wholly, or almost wholly, unknown and unconjectured; that, in most cases and probably, as things are, for the best, these forces and powers are dormant and unsuspected; that occasionally and by accident they assert themselves and produce results which prove—nothing. (61)

That odd word, “unconjectured,” shows up many times in this book, and it’s a sign of the narrator’s, and/or Machen’s, interest in mysteries, in the unknown, in esoterica or the occult. For example, he remembers visiting Bath when he was an actor, and how his fellow cast members decided, at a party, to hold a séance. Although he doesn’t believe “that the spirits of the dead can be conjured into a parlour by people sitting round a table in the dark” (66), one of the party clearly felt the presence of a spirit and was horrified by it (66). He notes the differences between that party and a real séance, at which the participants are serious: “They are investigators. They are intensely interested. They have a profound belief that the spirits of the departed can and do communicate with the living” (66-67). And yet, despite their lack of earnestness. a spirit appeared (he says) at that party: “I think that something happened; that the doors were opened; that the human spirit came into momentary contact with unconjectured worlds which it is not meant to visit” (68). “I think of all these things as I pass along the interminable wandering of the London streets,” he writes, “of the strange things which may have been done behind the weariest, dreariest walls” (68).

Now the narrator returns to the tavern where the book began, and the demand that he begin writing his book: “here was I well equipped with long-gathered material for a sermon on the great text that there is wonder in everything and everywhere, wonder above all in this great town that has grown so vast that no man can know it, nay, nor even begin to know it!” (69). The notion that there is wonder in everything and everywhere would be the book’s thesis, if it were an essay, which it’s not. It’s also one of the central characteristics of Smith’s version of psychogeography, although he wants it to include ideological critique as well. Those wonders, though, are (I think) neoplatonic and romantic: “We see appearances and outward shows of things, symbols of all sorts; but we behold no essences, nor could we bear to behold them, if it were possible to do so” (69-70). “We see nothing real, we can no more see anything real that we can take our afternoon tea in the white, central heat of a blast furnace,” he continues. “We see shadows cast by reality” (70). Those who attempt to explain the world using scientific methodology are kidding themselves:

The more foolish of us gather up some of the shadows and put them in saucepans and boil them and then strain: and find out that water is really H2O, which is true enough in its way, and will remain so: till it is found out that H2 is shorthand for ten distinct forces, while O is a universe of countless stars, all revolving in their eternal order about an unknown, unconjecturable orb. (70-71)

“[W]e see nothing at all,” he continues, “though poets catch strange glimpses of reality, now and then, out of the corners of their eyes” (71). 

The suggestion that the world is not real, and that the real world is inaccessible, might bother anyone, and our narrator admits as much: “the recognition of these obvious truths cast me down a little. I had not, then, got the unique object for investigation that I had supposed. London, it was true, was unknowable, an unplumbed depth, but so was Caerleon-on-Usk, that you could see in its totality form the top of the hill; so was the pebble on the path” (71). He looks into an old notebook, and wonders if there is a recurring pattern in his writing. He finds one; it is

the sense of the eternal mysteries, the eternal beauty hidden beneath the crust of common and commonplace things; hidden and yet burning and glowing continually if you care to look with purged eyes. Nay, I think that in this age, which has probably lost what I may call the epic sense, as it lives in villas and flats instead of castles, and goes in tweeds in place of chain mail, for us, I think, it is easier to discern the secret beauty and wonder and mystery in humble and common things than in the splendid and noble and storied things. (75)

I could be wrong—it’s 30 years since I took a course on romanticism—but this strikes me as an example of one form of Victorian romanticism. Nonetheless, the narrator describes himself as “a determined realist,” because he demands “a certain degree of assent in the reader to the propositions which are laid down before him,” and he wants his work to be seen as “credible . . . in the artistic sense, as Micawber is credible, though there never was, in actuality, any such person” (79). 

Back to his notebook, where he is disappointed by various sketches and outlines that led nowhere. “I find my destiny a hard one,” he writes. “Here am I, born apparently with this itch of writing without the faculty of carrying the desire into execution” (91). But he thinks about being a newspaper reporter, and its primary benefit—not being forced to write something to its end, but having seen “queer things and odd prospects” which he would not have seen otherwise, particularly strange places and neighbourhoods (96-97). He tells a story about climbing a mountain when he was a young man, and feeling something spiritual or religious in his encounter with those hills, so that the only expression in words for that feeling was “For ever and ever. Amen” (99). That experience is evidence that “the unknown world is, in truth, about us everywhere, everywhere near to our feet; the thinnest veil separates us from it, the door in the wall of the next street communicates with it” (100). “Men of science”—those who would disagree, perhaps, with that claim—“are always wrong” (100). The stories about his experiences as a journalist are all about running across something mysterious, something that suggests that “we . . . live in an illusory world” (105). He recalls being sent to investigate a dispute over a will in which a man named Campo Tosto left all of his possessions (Flemish paintings and candlesticks) to a man named Turk. He writes, 

here was a man called Campo Tosto living in a place called Burnt Green, which is, practically, a translation of Campo Tosto. Here was a man whose property consisted chiefly in Madonnas and medieval candlesticks, who shot at intruders with the bow, either long or short. Here was his heir, with the good old English country name of Turk. (110-11)

The narrator wrote the story, and his editor didn’t believe it: “He understood, better than I, that one order of illusion must not be allowed to impinge on another” (110-11). He tells similar stories from his career as a journalist, but what the narrator considers to be his strangest story had nothing to do with journalism: he was walking along, thinking about a passage in Boswell’s Life of Johnson about a fashionable baronet named Sir Michael Le Fleming, “when suddenly I saw on a brass plate on the garden-gate the very name that had just entered my mind”—an incident of “mad inconsequence,” meaning nothing at all (118-119). That story led nowhere, he admits:

But I do think that in each there is a hint of certain things. We move, as I have said before, in a world of illusions, but of illusions on one plane. We are mistaken if we think that there is, in ultimate reality, any such thing as a cube, any such thing as a cow; but, at all events, these two are apparently on the same surface of being. But, now and then, there are intrusions upon us from other worlds, probably quite as illusory as our own. And we are accordingly left stupefied. There is no “therefore”; no ratio. (122)

The moral is that the world is infinitely strange, “that even in the rind or surface of it the strangest essences are lurking, that tremendous beauties, amazing oddities are everywhere present,” even if they appear commonplace “123). “Such things are constantly happening in real life, or, at all events, the only life of which we know anything” (124). 

In case you don’t believe me about this book’s romanticism, take a read through this quotation, which presents two pastiches of Keats (one from a letter, the other from a poem): “Strangeness which is the essence of beauty is the essence of truth, and the essence of the world. I have often felt that, when the ascent of a long hill brought me to the summit of an undiscovered height in London; and I looked down on a new land” (127). The narrator recalls living in Notting Hill Gate 40 years before, and how, on one October day, dreaming about becoming a writer, and “seeing the stones glow into a spagyric gold beneath his feet, seeing the plane trees in the back gardens droop down from fairyland, seeing a mystery behind every blind, and the infinite mystery in the grey-blue distance, where, as they tell me, for I have never sought to know, the street becomes dubious, if not desperate” (131-32). That is the way he sees the world, and I think the way occult psychogeographers see the world: there is mystery everywhere, if it can only be sensed.

“But here we are, still delaying over the great work, The London Adventure; and nothing done,” the narrator states:

I begin to reflect on the matter very seriously, as the summer wears on. It strikes me that I had better try an old recipe of mine, and start out, on a book of a totally different kind, in the hope, I suppose, that the one undertaking, going prosperously—as of course it will—may stimulate the other. (137)

That story would symbolize the soul through “exterior things” (137). He would write of a man on summer holiday, who goes to the hills he climbed as a young man, where he would see “something outland,” and then to Caerlon-on-Usk to see the sunset and the river and the Roman walls: “He should go wandering away, this unfortunate fellow, into such a country as he had never dreamed of; he should lose himself in intricacies of deep lanes descending from wooded heights to hidden and solitary valleys, where the clear water of the winding brook sounds under the alder trees” (137-38). Then he would return to London “and perceive that wonderful things have been wrought in him”—that everything he saw “discoursed to him a great mystery, whereby his soul has been renewed within him” (138-39). But this is a story he will never tell, even though he has been thinking about it for 40 years (139). He doesn’t explain why—perhaps because he has just told it.

There is one more story, though, another one about his sense that the real world is hidden from us. Once, while writing an earlier book, he went out for a walk and lost his sense of direction. He couldn’t tell where his lodgings were, or what was north or south, east or west (140-41). “I got home somehow by complicated and dubious calculations,” he writes, “and in a some[wh]at confused and alarmed frame of mind. And odd as it may seem, this perplexity has never wholly left me” (141). That, he thinks, is a story he might be able to tell: a man “who became so entangled in some maze of imagination and speculation that the common, material ways of the world became of no significance to him” (141). 

It’s easy to see the intersection between The London Adventure and occult psychogeography. I don’t know that much about that form of psychogeography, to be honest; I’m still gathering string on the subject of psychogeography in all of its forms. If I were to read Iain Sinclair’s Lights Out For The Territories, for instance, I’m sure I would see more connections. I also see intersections between the form of psychogeography that Phil Smith advocates in Walking’s New Movement and The London Adventure. I wonder, for instance, how close the process of coding or recoding spaces is to the stories Machen’s narrator invents about the places he passes when he walks around London. I think there might be other echoes or resonances, and that wouldn’t be surprising, given the powerful influence of psychogeography on Smith’s version of radical walking, and given the importance of The London Adventure to a particular branch of that activity. The more I read about psychogeography—the more I read about any and all forms of radical or aesthetic walking—the more I’m going to understand about it. So I’m happy I tackled one of the practice’s primary texts.

Work Cited

Machen, Arthur. The London Adventure or the Art of Wandering, Martin Secker, 1924.

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

smith walking's new movement

This is an important book. Phil Smith makes an argument in favour of a specific kind of walking that is both politically and aesthetically radical, drawing on psychogeography as a resource but subjecting it to a thorough critique. I can’t say that I understand all the nuances of Smith’s argument—that’s what this summary is for, to help me see what I understand and what I don’t—or that I agree with it; indeed, I sense that, from Smith’s perspective, I’m the wrong kind of walker (I think he would call me “neo-romantic” and “literary,” which are bad things, in his opinion). That doesn’t matter. Walking’s New Movement is a tremendous resource, and it packs a tremendous amount of thinking and arguing and research into its pages. 

In the book’s introduction, Smith explains that he was motivated to write after going to talks by Laura Oldfield Ford, Frédéric Gros, and Alastair Bonnett (they are writers and walking artists—don’t worry, Gros was the only one I knew of before reading this book) shook his thinking about radical walking (1). He decided to write this book as a response to those talks. The book, he suggests, proposes “some massive practical projects,” offers “some smaller-scale tactics,” and promotes “a handful of new ideas” about walking (1). Smith says that he is attempting to write with a kind of binocular vision—both inside walking, as a practitioner, and also above, as if looking down from a satellite or a helicopter: “I am trying to tease out the most progressive threads from the meshworks of walking, which means I have sided with some and against others”—but his arguments are about ideas and practices, he continues, not his personal feelings about individuals (1). 

The introduction also, not surprisingly, outlines Smith’s purpose in this book: “Something extraordinary has happened in radical and art walking in the last fifteen years, the work of many people and of many non-human forces, and this book is intended both to celebrate that and to furiously urge a new change and to help radical walkers realise it” (1). At the same time, rather than list his demands or create a manifesto made up of numbered points, he suggests that while he has attempted to speak directly, he has “also sought to lure you into new trajectories by the curling and folding back of arguments and narratives”—a style of argument he calls “drift-thinking” (2). So the book makes its argument in both form and content, as Smith does in his book on mythogeography, which I wrote about earlier in this project.

The first chapter, “Threat,” begins with an a question: “Things look pretty good for radical walking and for the latest generation of psychogeographers and walking artists. Don’t they?” The answer, though, amounts to a list of the issues Smith wants to address, and is worth reproducing in full:

Yet the change and expansion is neither even nor simple. The performances of radical walking inside the expansion are shifting. Contradictory currents cross the zones of change. General flows and tides emerge to show themselves: an increasing multiplicity of styles and means orbiting around a variety of ideas that together form and re-form approximate coherences; the growth in the number, visibility and influence of women walking, which in its turn exposes other and continuing absences; art and performance practices dispersing across the field; the return of romanticism and the attraction to ‘new nature writing’ within the prospect of an ecological catastrophe; the exposure of semi-hidden places of violence, intensification of the invasion of the subjective, the return of repressed legacies of psychogeography including iconoclasm and the occult; a renegotiation of the relation of theory to practice and the fraying at the edges of epic and sociable walkings. (3)

Smith’s assumption has been that “the explosion of walking arts,” informed by “a political psychogeography with its roots in the early practices of the International Lettrists and Situationist International (IL/SI), are the right ingredients for a difficult, complex, savvy, corporeal, subversive, self-aware, increasingly post-dance-like walking, part of a broad and loose meshwork of resistant practices” (4). He’s optimistic about this, and yet concerned about “an accelerating discontinuity spreading across the field of radical, non-functional and art walking,” and wonders what ought to be done in response (4). That wondering or questioning is genuine: this book has emerged from a period of reflection and activity, of thinking and asking questions, as well as walking and writing. Part of what has emerged from that work, Smith suggests, is “a set of ideas for performing walking practices”:

some are original, others are hybrids or adaptations of existing practices. Taken together, they model performances of walking in relation to eco-romanticism, to misogyny, to occult ambiguity, to apocalypse, to Savilian space and to the encoding of the city. They are a prescription for a new dérive that is already emerging, and has been for a decade or so now. (4-5)

Those ideas are what this book will address.

Smith’s second chapter, “Space Wars,” is partly about a battle for “holey space,” or what Stephen Barber calls “city-space aperture[s] able adeptly to traverse all divisions between underground and surface, in order to instil its disruptive content into the relentless regulation of surface space” (6). Examples of holey space include tunnels in Gaza, place hackers accessing railway tunnels under London, air exclusion zones, basements, silos, bunkers, and hideouts, “but also those invisible above-ground ‘tunnels’ we (and they) deploy for hiding in plain sight in the anonymity of city life” (6). I can’t pretend to understand this, and that’s not surprising, since the concept of “holey space” (according to my quick Google search) originally comes from Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s book A Thousand Plateaus, a book I haven’t read but that, it’s becoming increasingly clear, I need to, even though it’s notoriously long and  difficult. Smith’s explanation of the application of the idea of holey space to walking leaves me bewildered: “A radical walking can respond by accessing and keeping open some of the less vulnerable networks of holey space such as the trajectories of saluted magpies and imaginary sky creatures, processional walkways revealed by aerial photography, hollow lanes, and the encoding of spaces as pathways of joy and of night time revellers” (6-7). I honestly don’t know what that means, but perhaps after reading Barber, and Deleuze and Guattari, I’ll have some idea. What is clear from Smith’s remarks about holey space is that it is a space of freedom, but I am not sure how it applies to the walks I make, since I don’t wander into sewers or bunkers or silos when I walk. Such places are off-limits, usually for good reasons (wandering around in a subway tunnel isn’t safe), and in any case, I can’t think of anything like holey space in this city or in the surrounding areas. Perhaps trespassing, particularly in rural areas, might be an example? Climbing through a barbed-wire fence to walk on a piece of unbroken grassland without permission? I don’t know. 

Complementarity to the notion of a battle for holey space is the “ongoing assault on the hospitable upper surfaces of urban space” by power—so that parks and benches are under attack, becoming cluttered by signs that connote “aggressive visual incoherence and anxiety” (7-8). This assault leads to a degradation of public space:

a long process of re-spacing that discourages congregation and contemplation, subjects signs to an over-pixilation, strips human anomalies from public space in order to more starkly distinguish the suspicious from the harmlessly alienated and allows rich, affluent, comfortable, exploited, disturbed and poor individuals to move rapidly through central urban spaces without recognising each other. (8)

By “over-pixilation,” I think Smith means that there are more and more signs in public spaces, signs that make increasing (and threatening?) demands of people in those spaces (I’m thinking of the signs in Wascana Centre here in Regina that forbid smoking or vaping, or that warn of thin ice even in the middle of summer—but Smith is referring to a more threatening variety, I believe). The purpose of those signs, and the rules and regulations they announce, is to strip “human anomalies from public space,” and those anomalies are important, particularly if individuals from different groups are to recognize each other as they move through urban spaces.

Another form of space that concerns Smith is what he calls “Savilian spaces,” the subject of his third chapter. The reference is to Jimmy Savile (those of us outside of the UK may have forgotten the scandal occasioned by the decades of abuse that Savile, a British celebrity, perpetrated on the living and, apparently, the dead as well). A Savilian space is a space of abuse, “a space that seems to have gone missing, become invisible or meaningless, that seems to have been largely unacknowledged in public, legal or academic discourses but to have been consistently exploited semi-publicly/semi-privately by abusers, both individual and organised” (10). Smith’s examples of Savilian spaces include churches, hospitals, special schools—and spaces within those institutions, I should think; these “are often located somewhere between private and public space. They are places to which access is negotiated; though not public places they are usually ‘known’ to, even administered by, the institutions, families, and communities the abusers operate within” (10-11). Savilian spaces are not “places of confinement or concealment, nor are they clandestine or taboo, covert or transgressive. They are inversions or inlets of semi-informal and semi-official space: dressing rooms, offices, private rooms on wards, curtained beds, and so on” (11). These, I think, are the kinds of spaces where Savile abused people. They are “very effective in creating a symbiotic relationship between criminal and official spaces,” because “[s]emi-hidden abuses in semi-hidden space put the official world in a position of ‘semi-knowing’; hearing tales whispered behind the hand, gossip about ‘bad reputations,’ and so on” (11). The institutions responsible for those spaces end up legitimating the outrages perpetrated in them through inaction and collusion. For Smith, the behaviour of police during nineteenth-century pogroms is a parallel; the police would arrive while Jews were being assaulted and murdered, and then step back, allowing the mob to do whatever it wanted and legitimating its violence (11). What makes Savilian space different is that “it is a semi-private space adjacent to public space, rather than public space itself, but it is subject to the same evacuation and validation (and to a greater or lesser extent the same disinterested witness) by official authority,” and in such space, “abusive agents act with the accommodation, tolerance, connivance and embarrassment of public power and authoritative communal relations,” in which the authorities signify their authority but withdraw their responsibility (12). As I read this description, I found myself thinking of offices or dormitories in residential schools, or those rooms in churches adjacent to the sanctuary, where abuses take place. In Savile’s case, though, his celebrity, and the way he was able to psychologically transform space, creating “unreal places of invisibility and silence” (13), was a key factor in the production of Savilian space.

Smith wants radical walking to address Savilian space: “Part of any new movement in psychogeography, if any such thing is to genuinely exist as a force for change, might be an obligation to identify and classify in popular taxonomies the locations and general dynamics of these and other spaces of exploitative and repressive power; requiring an inquisitiveness every bit as un-tame as place hacking” (14). That activity “will be a harsh and threatened mapping,” and as psychogeographers take on this task, they should do so with the understanding “that reactionaries, with the advantage of hegemony, will be able to exploit our discoveries about transit and affordance while we can never re-utilise theirs about exploitation and repression” (14). First of all, “transit” suggests mobility or movement, I think, and “affordance” comes from the work of James Gibson, whom I read about when I read about embodied cognition back in January. It means, I think, what an environment offers to an organism, the possibilities of action an environment allows. 

Given the semi-private, improvised and temporary nature of Savilian spaces, I’m not sure how one would map them (does every hospital bed, surrounded by privacy curtains, constitute a potential Savilian space? If so, would that mean mapping them all?). But for Smith, that mapping would be part of radical walking’s political engagement: “if we really want to engage with the exploitative power as well as the magic of the city, including the ‘magic’ of its exploitative power, then one of the tasks of the new psychogeographers will be to devise maps to locate, and toolkits to provoke, the textures and layers of the exceptional relations of the Spectacle”—here, and elsewhere, Smith is referring to Guy Debord’s theory of the spectacle—“in the same way as we have for the textures and layers of the spectacular Everyday. And Savilian space will constitute one of those layers” (14). This political engagement is essential for Smith:

Shifts in the nature of space challenge us to make new kinds of radical walking that take themselves more seriously as activisms against the Spectacle and against power. They challenge us to generate the movement (rather than ‘create the organisation’) capable of researching and sharing taxonomies of spaces of power, exploitation and affordance to freedom, exacerbating the pleasure we find in the free enchantments of everyday space and expanding the liberties we enjoy in holey space, while tracing, exposing and ending the abuses of Savilian and similar spaces.

This means more than a politics of everyday life; it means a politics for everyday life as politics, privileging everyday life as the site of politics against the discourses of the state and the agents of the Spectacle. (15)

This political activity is, for Smith, an important part of any new form of psychogeography, and he concludes this chapter with a series of questions about what that new form, the new movement of the book’s title, might look like: “What stories would such a movement tell itself and others? What dreams would it have, despite itself? What shapes would it form and what meshworks of structure and desire would it weave?” (15). Smith addresses those questions as the book unfolds.

Smith’s fourth chapter, “Ripping Yarn,” is about women and walking. “The female walker faces the challenge to get beyond or around the threats that women face, in varying degrees, in public space,” he writes, and managing and avoiding such threats, and getting beyond or around “imaginaries in which women are not agents in the landscape but figure as a landscape or as agents missing from it” (16). He cites Judith Walkowitz, who suggests that the figure of the flâneur emerged from horror narratives and a “voyeurism that essentialises the walker as a male ‘explorer’ who reproduces the binaries of the city by retelling narratives of physical peril and sexual threat” (17). I recall that Merlin Coverley mentions this fact neutrally; in contrast, it angers Smith, who notes that some male walkers, including Will Self, consider it to be an exclusively male activity. I was disappointed to read this; I know Self is considered too mainstream a figure among walkers these days, but I like the fact that he walks to and from airports when he travels, something I’d like to try. It’s not just Self, though; many walkers, and writers about walking, ignore women. Smith notes that Iain Sinclair and Richard Long typically stand “at the head of a canonised procession from which women are almost entirely excluded” (17). “It is from this procession that a ‘new psychogeography’ must, painfully, detach itself,” Smith writes, “leaving behind some cherished sources, and find new precedents for itself (Margaret Cavendish, Charles Fourier or Nan Shepherd, for example), freeing itself from ‘the limitations of situationist psychogeography . . . ground[ed] in the male gaze’” (17-18)—the quotation is from an essay by Alexander John Bridger. 

As an aside, that’s one of the great things about this book, from my perspective; it is a rich resource of books and articles about walking that I knew nothing about before. In a note, for instance, Smith acknowledges that he is “purposely fuzzying” the distinctions between other forms of radical walking and psychogeography (18). Those other forms include Nick Papadimitriou’s “deep topography,” Cara Spooner’s “greater choreography,” Tina Richardson’s “schizo-cartography,” Roger Bygott’s “integral drift,” and Bill Psarras’s “hybrid flânerie” (18)—all terms I had never heard of and need to follow up on. Smith celebrates these hybrids and overlappings, celebrating multiplicity without worrying about losing a clarity of definition (18). 

Back to the main focus of the chapter: Smith suggests that the male domination of psychogeography—its older form, the form he would like to see replaced—is bolstered and articulated by 

a very longstanding and resilient literary positioning of women in a landscape of passivity; this is just as common in past accounts by radical walkers as in those of more conservative literary walkers. In radical literature the landscape is female. The male writer explores the secrets of the landscape, often portrayed as someone seducing or penetrating a female entity. (18-19)

Male writers who have participated in that positioning have included Thomas de Quincey, André Breton, Louis Aragon, Stephen Graham, Julian Gracq, Walter Benjamin, and Iain Sinclair (19). “It is hardly surprising, then,” Smith continues, “that a critical geographer like Doreen Massey might mistakenly conflate such a psychogeography with a parody of urban exploration to excoriate ‘the least politically conniving of situationist capers. . . . eroticised colonisation of the city” (19). I have to admit that I missed that quotation when I read Massey’s book—I must have been too busy thinking about space and place and not open to other ideas, which suggests that I ought to re-read it. 

What makes this situation particularly intolerable is that women were and are walking: there were women in the Lettrists International, women participating in the situationists’ drifts, women walking as an art practice (19). Ignoring them, Smith contends, is a “memetic war on memory and agency” (20). More importantly, “the sheer exponential growth in numbers of women practising some kind of radical or art walking” is “shifting the ground away from under the malevolent gaze” (20). It’s important to keep telling this story, he suggests, to continue noting the women engaged in radical or art walking (20). He suggests that the work of Tina Richardson is important as a way of resituating a new psychogeography. Her table of opposing elements—the negative side included the terms masculine/colonial, singularly literary, and univocal, while among the positives was post-Sinclairian—suggests, for Smith, “that while a generation of male literary psychogeographers would not be forgotten, they would be superseded, as the precursors to, rather than the originators of, a new psychogeography” (22). That new psychogeography would come from somewhere else—from the theories and practices of women walkers, in part.

Another source of the new psychogeography, according to Smith, will be an emphasis on performance. In his fifth chapter, “The Return of Art Through Performance,” he suggests that the concept of “ludibrium” “may help us make sense of what is emerging, self-consciously and unplanned, form ambulatory arts” (22). What is a ludibrium? It is “a fiction of an organisation” that brings “a real organisation into being,” Smith contends (22). A ludibrium is made up of actions and provocations, rather than dialogue and stage directions, and it lets loose “a fictional narrative and a dramatic world that invites its realisation in practice in the real world. It is a fictional score to be brought to life not by actors playing parts, but by its characters emerging from real life (22). One example is the London Psychogeographical Association of the 1990s, which was a fictional creation that, through its critiques and provocations, led large groups of people to remap their cities emotionally (22). Other examples of ludibria, defined as “journeys through metaphorical terrains, volatile sites of contestation, and inner landscapes,” include Blake Morris’s memory palaces, Jess Allen’s tilting@windmills around the wind farms fo Wales, the meditative processions of Robert Wilson, Theun Mosk and Boukje Schweigman’s Walking, the collecting/carrying/passing on of precious objects by Elspeth Owen (24). Theatre, despised in visual arts by modernist critics, “has prevailed in walking” (24), Smith suggests, and it seems that ludibria have been the vehicle for that theatricalization.

There are many practices involved in this theatricalization, but Smith wonders whether there needs to be more discussion of political strategy (24). He gives the work of Wrights & Sites as an example (a group he, of course, was part of). Their work in the mid-2000s suggests that strategy can emerge from tactics; “they suggested melding situation-making with dérive to make a walking that could in itself change the city” by attacking “the usual functionalist role of the dérive” as a gathering of information (24). Instead, the point of the dérives conducted by Wrights & Sites was to make situations, “located events that defy the present economic and political system and prefigure a new kind of society” (24). According to Smith, Wrights & Sites

proposed collapsing the walking into landscaping, taking from Michel de Certeau his empowering of pedestrianism, but getting beyond the structuralist passivity of de Certeau’s everyday tactics by adding art-making without an aesthetic product; suggesting that performance and other arts practices could be integrated into situationist praxis on a walk in which the options, to perceptually reframe the city or to physically intervene in the city, were kept open. This had the advantage of change not being planned from above . . . and instead coming by exploration and jouissance (intense pleasure) on the ground. The meanings of a place could be transformed in the process of “re-discovering” and re-enacting it and, when necessary, re-constructing it. In effect Wrights & Sites had invented a new drift-as-ludibrium: a”‘situational dérive.” The touchstone of this “situational dérive” is the whole-body jouissance of the walker, the city defined by the pleasure of a walking body; hypersensitised and micro-architecturally agentive; a prefigurative activity for a “jouissant city”; a ludibrium awaiting a walking movement capable of fully enacting it. (25)

Smith notes that geographer Alastair Bonnett complained in 1998 of the failure of the Situationists to develop an approach to creativity that abandoned avant-gardism and artistic production and engaged with the ways that people explore or mutate their environment. “It is precisely this kind of ‘approach’ that characterises the creative activity around walking today,” Smith contends: 

the sources of that approach are a loosely meshed and at best vaguely psychogeographically-informed array of artists and post-artists, quite capable of negotiating (if not always successfully) the dematerialisation of the art object, relational aesthetics and post-dramatic performance. It is a commonplace (taken from live art, postmodern dance, spatial practices, mapping, and so on) for these artists to place themselves in the junctions of art and the everyday, more oriented to deferral from, than refusal of, art. (25-26)

Such work, he notes, is more likely to engage with the everyday than gallery or theatre spaces (26). Ambulatory artists and activists “engage with the way in which environments are both explored and mutated in a walk,” a practice that is similiar to ludibria, “but more welcoming to the uninitiated, grasping the provocative qualities of a teatrum mundi or of ‘a game of war,’ yet working more often in a vernacular register than in poeticised theory or abstruse symbolic mapping” (26). “Where today’s practices might occasionally spill over into opportunism or un-theorised spontaneity,” Smith continues,

walking might, equally well, suddenly spill over into dance; far better that, then, than to realise rationally and wholly (as localism or obscurantism does) some detail of a scenario that short circuits the “ideal-entire” by giving credibility either to pragmatic things only or to the making of values by the exclusion of others from them. (26)

This statement makes me think about the walks I’ve been making, and whether my focus on pragmatic (Smith might use the word “functionalist”) issues (because I know I require certain things to be able to walk 30 kilometres in the summer heat) would be, for Smith, a problem, or whether he would consider that establishing a goal of 30 kilometres excludes others. Yes to both questions, I would think, but I don’t intend to move away from that kind of walking, and for that reason I might need to begin to develop a defence of long, rural walks as a practice.

Smith sees Rebecca Solnit’s and Morris Marple’s work on walking as both too romantic and too literary (a theme he returns to later); as an alternative, he suggests Henri Lefebvre’s Critique of Everyday Life, and his belief in “a lay wisdom of the ordinary that would be as sophisticated as the technical learning required for complex science and quite different from the ‘great ideas’ of philosophy” (27). Smith doesn’t mind Lefebvre’s romanticism, because it is addressed to the future, rather than nostalgically, to the past. “I have become worried,” he writes,

that I have sometimes over-emphasised seeking wonders in the everyday . . . at the expense of exposing the oppressive homogenisation, fragmentation, marginalisation, policed containment and repressive incoherence inflicted on people in public space. . . . At the same time I have no with to leave behind my wonder-tactics for “a folk politics of localism, direct action, and relentless horizontalism.” (28-29)

“My attempt at a response, following Lefebvre’s model of revolutionary-romantic strategy,” he continues, “is to plan a distribution of alternative codes to the common things, signs, patterns, flows, encounters, and so on, in everyday public space” (29). The coding process looks like this: first, “identifying the ways in which these public spaces are constructed and rearranged as means to inflict codes that are both limiting, tedious and disorienting,” then assembling 

a taxonomy of things, patterns and so on through which these ideological processes operate in a particular public space. In response, I then place this re-encoding on the buildings in these spaces, record their placing and distribute this information; so, now, the built environment can be read by others as a series of subversive and anti-ideological mnemonics. (29)

“This is a mapping of rebel ideas, dream theories and pleasure principles onto the built environment,” he continues; “an environment that is, of course, always changing and thus itself would be always finessing the codes, and helping to conceal their meanings from those who think themselves above going down into the streets to read the changes in the art of memory there” (29). This process is similar to that of occult psychogeography (29-30). It is “an art of memory for anywhere, education without system; inscribing simply-reasoned radical and vitalist theories into the fabric of things, transforming everyday life into a giant ludibrium” (30). The strategic virtue of the kind of project, for Smith, is that “once the codes and arts have been devised, released and distributed in samizdat and rumour forms, those in central power will be unable to remove them or their architectural and everyday signifiers form an everyday invisible discourse without bulldozing the entire everyday world” (30). “Those reading the codes in the everyday will learn how to do so without outwardly signalling their finessing of their mind maps (dancing with their eyes only)” (30). It would be “a strategic deployment of performance-like tactics that is not realised in art, but in everyday walking through everyday space, enabled by aesthetic technique but without aesthetic product” (30).

I have trouble imagining how this coding project might work in practice—mostly because I’ve never seen it done. Let me imagine a local example: one might walk with a group of people to Victoria Park, where a statue of Sir John A. Macdonald stands. He holds in his left hand a rolled object that I think is supposed to be the British North America Act, but it looks like a burrito or a hot dog. The ideological processes operating through that statue are pretty obvious, I should think: it asserts the right of Canada to this territory; it holds up Sir John A. as an example, as the “Father of Our Country”; it obviates or negates the genocide Sir John A.’s government committed against Indigenous peoples, including the execution of Louis Riel, whose trial took place (so a nearby plaque tells us) very close by. In a recent performance, Métis artist David Garneau, dressed as Riel (about to be hanged, wearing a hood and a noose), engages in a dialogue with the statue about why it should be removed, including attempting to pull it down with a Métis sash. Is that the kind of recoding Smith is thinking about? Is Garneau engaged in “a mapping of rebel ideas, dream theories and pleasure principles onto the built environment” (29)? I’m not entirely sure—perhaps I’ll get a chance to see this kind of coding exercise in action, some time: it seems to be the kind of thing you need to experience in order to understand.

In the following chapter, Smith gives what might be an example of a performance that engaged in a similar coding project: Nando Messias’s The Sissy’s Progress, which was a response to a homophobic assault he experienced near his home in London, a performance which “blends elements of vulnerability and display” (31). “There was no undisputed meaning, no secure space for identity-making, not even a reclaiming of the space from violence; all these things remained unresolved,” Smith writes:

What, instead, was revealed and celebrated/exorcised/invoked were the different spaces within the one space, no one of them more “real” or authentic than any of the others; different strata of conflicting personal and cultural performances and displays, layers of violence . . . different and conflicting narrations of the same places, all cutting through and across each other. (33)

Those layers did not mesh comfortably, as in an idealist, pro-Situationalist approach to the city, but rather they “remained conflicted and tense” (33). At the same time, the spaces “had positive dynamics,” and they offered the possibility of multiple positioning (33). There is a rich potential, he continues, in “deploying multiple tactics sensitive to terrain, to layers, to planes, to rights, to gender and to appearance if and where there is a primary body-identity-provocation to shake the layers of that terrain,” Smith writes (33).

Next, he describes an event in Plymouth that uncovered “a certain model-like conflation of ideas and tactics. . . . I was able to meet whatever the sum of that conflation was by moving abstractly in relation to pigeons and blown packaging—a shift to dance, a refusing to be scared of dance” (35). In other words, Smith subjected himself to a combination of physical forces, and performed that subjection. The result, he continues, was

a complex and multiplicitious dynamic patterning in engagement with multiple complex memes, “other” than human consciousness yet patterning human consciousness, while engaging against the constructing of illusions of legitimacy. . . . I was implicated and implemented. . . . I had (literally) stumbled across a de-normalising trajectory, from vertical to horizontal, to add, with difficulty, to nomadic thinking’s walk away from sedentary thought. (36)

I’m not sure if there’s a connection between these performances and the recoding project Smith describes in the previous chapter. I don’t think there is; I think he is describing a different mode of performance, but I could be wrong. Again, I would need to be part of such performances (I don’t think one is merely a spectator) in order to understand the connection between theory and practice.

Chapter seven, “War of Selves,” is about “the serious business” of psychogeography: the “struggle for the subjective” (38):

The architecture of multiple selves rather than the architecture of the streets is the key terrain of psychogeographical change; nothing changes until we first realise, each one of us, that we are alone and that nothing changes unless we allow that aloneness to change it. Everything else—comradeship, violence, democracy, environment, ideas—is scaffolding. No wonder revolutionary capitalism is so indifferent to structure and so vampiric upon every impulse to create, every desire to produce and every spirit of enterprise. (38)

But subjectivity, Smith insists, is not introspection or solipsism:

We are in the midst of a guerrilla war for what people once called ‘the soul,’ that properly dark and appropriately hidden part of you, a delicacy once hungered after exclusively by priests and false messiahs, but now desired by business and government just as much. Once upon a time acts of non-normative self-affirmation were accompanied by fear of exposure . . . today such exposure is translated into information currency in a digital marketplace. The performance that once disrupted and differentiated itself from the normative is made digestible. (39)

Given this struggle, what is necessary is for walkers to play stupid, to refuse to produce themselves as commodities, to be discreet, to put “machines of invasion into reverse so they become the means of dispersal rather than exposure,” to seek “secret places of footfall for confession and intimacy”—all tactics “that have been prefigured in the intricacy, presentness and presence of live art or in those modern pilgrimages described by Robert Macfarlane and others” (39). (As an aside, that is one of Smith’s few positive remarks about Macfarlane, who is one of my favourite writers.) “The work of the ideology-pilgrim is doubled, and then doubled again,” Smith argues:

It is not an initiation into mysteries hidden within, but, to begin with, a double journey, firstly through a real landscape saturated by ideology, a space where “virgin,” “wild,” “primal” and “unspoiled” are marks of fabrication (in both senses of nobly crafted and scandalously faked), where materiality cannot be relied upon as a counter to its own deceptions, and, secondly, a walk towards a revelation that is no more a given than the rest of the route, but is constructed and reconstructed by each journey . . . not a solipsist or spiritual journey to some “revelation” about the self, other than revealing how much the self is implicated in making everything that imprisons it. (40)

Walkers need to become walker-artificers, finding the reality in illusion, then constructing a new fabrication: that is how one does the “situational dérive” (40). The “situational dérive,” he continues,

is a baroque form of walking. . . . it is a rejection of conventional planning, even of the utopian “New Babylonian” kind, and instead prosecutes a conflation of walking and architecture; a re-making of the city’s meaning through both spontaneous and choreographed walked armed with détournement and performance. (40-41)

Walkers have a responsibility to invent: it “can only be fulfilled by the irresponsibility of refusing to imagine even what contradictions or forces of production might power up such invention; imagination being the most saturated site of ideological reproduction,” Smith continues (41). The “situational dérive is an interrupted and limited mobility, “not by destinations and productions but by decompression chambers, vaults, airlocks and encounters” (41). What is needed is something like the “ambulatory architecture” championed by Wrights & Sites (42). I don’t know enough about their work, but I’ve ordered their book(s).

And yet, Smith continues, “it is clear that there are times when psychogeography has to unclip itself from architecture and physical trace and listen for the silence, feel for the absence, dream the trauma of colonial spaces” (43). Yes—I agree. That’s what I try to do in my walks. The question is, what are the best ways to do that? “The malevolent wreckages of colonialism and misogyny are everywhere in the far-reaching strata that are crossed by our drifts; material ‘depth’ that may have to be accessed by ludicrous dreams” (43). Perhaps, but at least in this part of the world, the reality of colonialism and misogyny is probably powerful enough; I’m not sure why “ludicrous dreams” are necessary. Again, I’m not getting Smith’s point. The contemporary dérive needs the occult, it seems, or at least dreams, magic, vampires and ghosts (44). I don’t understand why that would be; why is gothic fantasy necessary? “[A] new walking movement might appropriate the baroque style of occult psychogeography and begin to ‘quietly’ but publicly encode the existing city in an art of memory, making small material interventions when necessary to finesse the code,” he continues, a suggestion that is related to Doreen Massey’s demand that we examine anew and reinvent (44). As before, I don’t understand the coding or recoding process Smith is alluding to, and I’m not sure how small a material intervention has to be before it becomes illegible. “Psychogeography can ‘re-shape’ a city into ‘as if’ patterns, using the template of ‘occult’ exegeses . . . to attribute new meanings to both generic and unique elements of a city,” Smith continues (44)—and again, I don’t understand how such gothic fantasies are a model. But my confusion grows ever deeper: “To walk a city re-encoded would be a re-composition of that city’s meaning. . . . By writing and then refining the incomplete codes, the mostly unseen and undetectable process of de-composing and re-composing a city might predominate over any cod-sinister hiddenness or finality of meaning” (45). How does a subjective process of asserting codes to objects or buildings change what the city means? David Garneau’s intervention with the statue of Sir John A. Macdonald might add to that statue’s meaning, at least for those who were present at the performance, but if the process is supposed to be “mostly unseen and undetectable,” then how does it have any effect? 

“By sharing and deploying decompositions and limited encodings through unprofitable ‘art’ (technique without product),” Smith writes,

the process can shift gear from subjective pleasure to a democratic ‘art of memory’ anywhere. To be effective would of course require a qualitative leap beyond what passes at the moment for representations of walked place and a strategy for laying various encodings over, under and around each other in ways that others could understand and commit to memory. Theoretical sophistication and (a sometimes sectarian) passion have proved no substitute for artistic technique divorced from art production: a code, a fanciful mapping that cannot be read except through another journey, a score that is only visible when performed. (45-46)

Smith insists that this coding or mapping is essential to walking (at least, walking in urban spaces), and the suggestion that those codes constitute “a score that is only visible when performed” suggests that what he is talking about is close to Garneau’s performance, but I am still confused about what any of this means. I intend to follow up with Smith’s references as a way of trying to sort out my confusion, but I’m honestly not sure how telling fictional stories about places changes them. The difference between what Smith seems to be advocating and what Garneau performed is that Garneau’s narrative isn’t fictional; it’s an Indigenous perspective on the truth about Macdonald, and the reasons that he should not be celebrated with statues.

Interrupted walking, the form Smith has been disscussing, is, he suggests, “an example of slow revolution; not a sudden rupture which leaves everything still to be done and everyone vulnerable to power in other masks, but longstanding in prosecution and effects” (47). “The work of slow revolutionaries,” he continues,

is to place a nail in the flow, to subject it to the torque of resistance, upset and the foot stuck out to trip, to everywhere block and barricade revolutionary capitalism, refusing to “wipe the slate clean” but instead to conserve and détourn the smears on the slate (this is why we love the everyday and its ruins) against the imperative to “start again from scratch,” conserving and transforming obstacles into mini-barricades, chicanes and blockades. (48)

“Contemporary psychogeography,” he concludes, 

may do better to draw upon the dematerialisations of the art object, the co-optation of everyday processes (like mapping) and the anachronisms like slow analogical coding, performance and iconoclastic practice (while rejecting its iconoclastic principles) as the collective means to discreetly navigate a creative space between a hiddenness within subjectivities’ interior worlds and invisible encodings upon an unremovable and uncensorable everyday. (49)

Now the codings have shifted from being mostly undetectable to being invisible. If they cannot be seen, how can they have any impact? Through a performance that names them? I honestly don’t understand this emphasis on coding. Mapping is problematic, too, since as a settler in a territory that is claimed by Canada through an unjust treaty (see Sheldon Krasowski’s book No Surrender: The Land Remains Indigenous), I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to start drawing maps. So I’m not sure how much of this I can take away. Again, I’m going to have to see this done to understand what Smith is talking about, and I hope I get that opportunity.

The next chapter, “Gros and Romanticism,” argues that Frédéric Gros’s book, A Philosophy of Walking, along with Solnit’s Wanderlust and Marples’s Shanks’s Pony, roots “modern non-functional walking in the nineteenth century romantic movement” and privileges “literary practice” over performance (50). In addition, like other men writing about walking, Gros leaves women walkers out of the story (50). “Gros attempts to relocate radical walking to an actively anti-modernist tendency, championing a direct, uncluttered and innocent encounter with the terrain; aligning it with a romanticism mostly stripped of ‘terror sublime,’” and focusing on presence and mystical fusion with the environment (50). I’m not sure that is an entirely accurate description of Gros’s book, but since Smith is responding to a talk Gros gave in Bristol, it might summarize his remarks there. In any case, Gros apparently described himself in Bristol as a fellow-traveller of the Situationists, a suggestion that bothers Smith, because of Gros’s “nostalgia for the authentic and the pre-modern” (51). Could that be true? he asks. Could psychogeography (both its occult and politically revolutionary forms) be about “a sense of loss of authenticity, a nostalgia for a sense of presence that was more accessible in a pre-modern era, a preference for the antiquarian over the modern, and a savouring of physical and biological ruin and social redundancy over the revolutionary contradictions of production and social organization”? (51). That would mean “that the two main traditions of resistant ambulation—the romantic tradition that began with radical literary walkers (most lively now in ecologically informed visual art, ‘new nature writing,’ performance and poetry) and the disruptive and iconoclastic Dada deambulations and situationist dérives—had disappeared into each other” (51).

That possibility upset Smith very much, and he started reading widely, including authors who identify the dérive as romantic:

Their interpretations struck deep into a practice I had always regarded as disruptive, anti-essentialist, anti-realist and subversive. The more I read, the more fuzzy seemed the break from the romanticism on which I had tried, following others, to found my own wobbly walking; at the very least, with legs astride, trying to walk on both sides of the abyss. But Gros, Bonnett, Rancière and Cooper seemed to deny that abyss in favour of shades of Thomas Gray. (51-52)

All walks, according to Gros, “are romanticist variations, greater or lesser fusions with what is already there. The revolutionary walk is not the making of the terrain itself, but simply a less successful fusion with it” (52). That argument forces this question: “what is it that the situationist-inspired, performance and post-art influenced dérive does that distinguishes it from a romantic walking with a radical veneer?” (52 ).

That question leads to the following chapter, “Yes to Romanticism and Beyond,” which begins with this surprising statement:

To walk as an exchange of presences, not to walk beyond the human, not yet, but to walk alongside ideals and things as companions, to walk sociably, footsteps stretching out the hours, living longer but not forever, slowing light and bending time, but possessing neither. Any new landscape we may discover is inside ourselves, not a possession, but a gratitude for the exchange of presences with the landscape within us and our attending to and tending to the terrain without. Understanding that there is no external and objective ‘landscape’; just as there is no modern world without some foundations resting on the graves of the colonialised, some barely dug. (53)

“Some of what passes for ‘presence and mystical fusion’ is a potent concoction of self-delusion, appropriation of the agency of others and the brutal excisions of a kind of historiographical cutting room floor,” Smith continues, identifying Rochard Long, Philip Marsden, and Robert Macfarlane as practitioners of that form of walking (53). Macfarlane’s book The Old Ways, for example, is too traditionalist, too cautious: “It will not set its whole project at the mercy of the road” (53-54); its “brief dérive” is “followed by epic trails with fixed destinations” (55). Despite his walking—and Smith makes the same critique of Linda Cracknell’s Doubling Back (which I haven’t read) and Simon Armitage’s Walking Home (which I loved)—”it is still the ‘main road’ . . . conserved by its perilous narratives, picturesqueness and vulnerability to gaze and imagination, that is somehow more certainly real” (54). Both Crackness and Macfarlane interpret their journeys, Smith continues, and “when that happens the mobility solidifies into a commodity that is reassuringly unique and recognisable” (54). Well, they are writing books, and books are commodities, right? Or have I missed Smith’s point again? 

Smith is no more convinced by the “new nature writing”—a term I had to look up, because it doesn’t seem to be in use in this country. The “new nature writing,” Smith writes,

may pose some threat to radical walking (more than that from the literary psychogeographers; for while there is very little room at the top of the literary greasy pole anyone can convince themselves that they “appreciate” the natural world) it need have no fears of any new strand of neo-romanticism (very different from its own neo-romantic roots in, say, Arthur Machen, Hope Mirrlees or Paul Nash). In the business of intensity of experience, authenticity, the “real,” risk or immersion, radical walking need not shuffle back, embarrassed. It is on the other side of these writers, it does not have them in its sights, not because they are so far down the road, but because they are at its coat tails. (54)

“Radical walking tops all this by clinging to the rim of the abyss not as an extreme moment on a mountain pass but as the modus vivendi of precarity that mythogeography promotes . . . the walk of uncertainty in ‘uncertain times’ done anywhere,” he continues (55). Anywhere, perhaps, but mostly in urban spaces, it seems, and (certainly in this country) there is a distinction to be made between urban and not. I’m not entirely sure how Smith reaches the conclusion that a concern with ecology is somehow retrograde or inauthentic, but then again, I don’t know anything about these “new nature writers,” and not having read their work, I cannot speak of it. I would say that my walk last summer to Wood Mountain was an intense and authentic experience that involved risk and immersion, and one of its goals was to try to apprehend the sacred in the cultivated land of southern Saskatchewan—a goal I was not able to reach, and one which might in fact be unreachable. I know that Smith has made walks in rural areas (he writes about one of those in Mythogeography) but because his primary interest in this book is in urban walking, I’m not entirely surprised that he finds an attention to nature—an admittedly problematic category, but one many of us find ourselves falling back on, because we are interested in something other than urban or suburban environments—wrongheaded.

I think what Smith objects to is literary representation of walking, rather than walking as a mode of performance:

We need not be cowed by authenticity, nor from admiring these writers for their attention to detail. But we can bring something from post-dramatic performance that goes beyond their romanticist authentic and that is the facility to stage authenticity; when the mask fits it disappears. Knowing that masks are authentic things made of vital matter, which express as well as hide. And for a modernist art tainted by theatre we can draw from Yves Klein, who put his signature on the sky; we can appropriate his absurdly inflationary gesture for an effective asymmetrical relation to climate change, a more appropriate relation to the environment we partly constitute, applying satellite capture techniques to the global climate’s accelerationism, aware that our harmonies may not be the same as other parts of “nature,” that a good parasite does not kill its host, that sustainability will only come with excess, at the very moment we grasp our monstrosity, that our uncanniness is a product of “Nature,” and that a “new psychogeography” honed to finding wonders in alleyways will be better placed than ecologists, who are too busy naturalising globalisation, when it comes to turning the oil tanker. (55-56)

I doubt that ecologists are “naturalising globalisation,” or that the “new psychogeography” is better suited to averting ecological catastrophe than those who study the intricate relations between parts of ecosystems. Perhaps, as Smith’s reference to the Dark Mountain manifesto might suggest, he is looking ahead to a future after our civilization collapses due to climate chaos (I don’t think there will be one, not for our species). The new romanticism, he writes lacks “unreal risks”: 

the walking that mostly informs it, while its efforts and dangers are real and its paths exceptional, is hardly unpredictable. It has yet to “step outside the human bubble,” in the words of the Dark Mountain manifesto. Again, radical walking can be, already is (if it would acknowledge it itself) beyond these new romantics; the epic trails taken by Gros, Cracknell and Macfarlane . . . are safely separated by their own estrangement, their depredation is part of a complicated movement within which distinctions between wild and human-built environment are increasingly disappearing, boundaries between city and country eroded materially and mentally (I, now, no longer get asked repeatedly “can you drift in the countryside as well?”), and public and private meshing. (56)

I don’t understand how any human activity can “step outside the human bubble.” Nor do I understand how one cannot see a distinction between an environment that is primarily wild and one that is constructed by human activity. All environments now are affected by human activity, but a native grassland or the boreal forest is not built by humans: maintained, protected, used and abused, yes, but there is a fundamental difference. I must not be understanding Smith’s point here. And I’m not sure one can drift in the countryside—at least, not in Saskatchewan, given the distances involved: if you don’t have a sense of where you’re going, you will get lost, and that could be a serious problem.

In fact, Smith goes on to celebrate an invasive species—buddleia or butterfly bush—as an ally:

Radical walkers do not need to go lining up with the siege defenders of public space or wilderness, nor enter into exciting hypervelocity-embraces with globalised information space; instead we can seek out and define our own holey space. . . . we can enjoy the edgelanding of everywhere. Buddleia, anonymous animal migrations and expanding microbial colonies are our allies in the marinated terrains of climate changes, and we can help them by opening up disruptive “wild channels” across our cities. (56)

This must be some English thing that Canadians don’t get: invasive species are a problem, sometimes a disaster. How can one celebrate Asian carp in the Mississippi, or giant hogweed or purple loosestrife taking over riparian habitat all over North America, or Dutch elm disease and the mountain pine beetle destroying forests? I just don’t understand, and I think it might be because I lack a certain imaginative flair, that I am too dull and stodgy and grounded, to follow Smith’s flights of fancy. I’m trying, and I’m not succeeding.

Smith recalls his “inter-garden wanderings” in the suburban neighbourhood where he grew up. What he learned, he writes, is that 

you do not have to trample, nor build ramparts in defence of the “natural” or the old, but find a holey space as much in the everyday as in the exceptional, a place between the banal and the fanciful. That within private space there are gaps that are explorable and trespassable, connective and ambiguous; these are the efficacious spaces of subjective and intimate mutual exploration that Savile and his ilk appropriated for Power and that we must take back whenever they are taken from us. (57)

Okay. Fair enough. But not every space is a suburban neighbourhood. And sometimes, to save the “natural,” you do have to build a rampart. I live in a province where just 13.7% of the original grassland ecosystem is left. The rest? It’s gone: destroyed, ploughed under. And we lose more every year—to resource development and cereal agriculture. Don’t the species that need the grassland—animals, birds, grasses and forbs—don’t they deserve a place to live? They can’t exist without habitat. Why is it that humans must take everything for their own uses? Perhaps someone living in the UK can’t understand this point—although Europe is having its own extinction crises because of pesticides and habitat loss. My point is that some spaces are different from others, and we owe it to them, and to ourselves, to recognize that.

Perhaps I am simply anti-modern, or expressing a dislike of the modern or the urban, a reactionary, as Smith suggests much of what passes for radical criticism too often is (57). Perhaps my walks are too difficult, too “ascetic,” not enjoyable (57). Perhaps I don’t understand that cities “are spaces for face to face contact of amazing variety and richness,” that they “are spectacle—and what is wrong with that?” (58). Actually, I do understand that, but I also see “amazing variety and richness” in parts of the natural world that we have not yet destroyed. What is wrong with that?

Smith suggests that cities shouldn’t have to be spectacles: “they could be villages, machines, works of art, telecommunications stations and spaces with the stillness necessary for face to face meetings and the instability conducive to fictional and multi-located contacts” (58). What is a fictional contact? What is a “multi-located contact”? I don’t understand. Cities, he continues, are products of nature, and “city” and “nature” are “parts of a pattern of interlocking extended organisms and cold rhythms” (58). Yes, since humans are part of nature, then our civilization and everything in it has its starting point in nature, but there is, as I have tried to suggest, a significant difference between a functioning ecosystem and a city—which can only be an ecosystem metaphorically. It’s not that, as Smith sarcastically comments, human activity takes place “on remote Platonic planes” which “allow the alternate idealisation of one and demonisation of the other: switching back and forth between ‘innocent nature’/corrupt society’ and ‘nature red in tooth and claw’/‘welfare state’” (58). I’m not talking about deconstructing a binary opposition between the opposition city/nature; I’m talking about an extinction crisis, a climate crisis, and my fear that the outcome of both will be the end of the human experiment. This kind of deconstruction, at a time when our governments and corporations are doing everything they can to destroy our home, is not radical. It’s collaboration.

It would be best, Smith concludes, to “wait in slowness and quietness, for a moment to come when nature and agency are superseded by something no one will or ever could predict” (61). Oh, given our ongoing use of our atmosphere as a carbon sewer, it’s pretty clear what is going to supersede nature and (human) agency—and it won’t be pretty for the species that are wiped out as a result. Including humans. 

In chapter 10, “Psychogeography Never Existed,” Smith writes about reading the introduction to Alastair Bonnett’s 2014 book Off the Map, which renounces nomadic thinking, psychogeography, and spatial theory (62-63). Bonnett’s argument suggests that “a practical psychogeography never actually existed in the UK,” and Smith began to wonder whether psychogeographical writings are imaginary, “black holes of anti-practice” (63). That notion is the second encounter that destabilized Smith’s sense of what psychogeography is. In the subsequent chapter, Smith turns back to the Lettrists and the Situationists. Without their affection for the city, their revolutionary desire to realize it fully, free of capital, and their techniques for achieving that desire, “we might now be far more vulnerable than we are to purveyors of novelty tours and self-deluding ‘leisure walking plus’” and other “hegemonising operations” (64). Most walkers, he contends, “have deployed and transformed situationist techniques to their own ends,” but Bonnett’s contempt for those techniques is not exceptional; he lists more than a half-dozen examples of writers who arrived at conclusions similar to Bonnett’s. “These denigrations hit right at the workings fo what, for many walkers, have been essential motors for interrogating and provoking idealist walking into interesting hybrids; they reach right to the door of IL/SI,” Smith writes. “If the motors have always been useless, then psychogeography’s history is phantom and any connection between contemporary dérivistes and a tradition of useful precedents is fanciful,” because it has never been practiced (65). 

So Smith looks again at the psychogeographical literature, and he decides that in the 1990s, at least, psychogeographers’ walking was “routinised and simplistic,” “testimony to the morbid and annihilating energy of ideas floating about on an absence of complex practice” (66-67). How can radical walking, conceived of in this way, “stand up to a revival of romantic walking with its resources of poetry, escapism, heritage and deep ecological sensitivity in the face of global climate derangement?” he asks (67). I’m not sure why escapism and heritage are necessarily part of romantic walking, along with poetry and ecological sensitivity—I don’t think they are in my walking practice, which I’m pretty sure Smith would describe as both romantic and literary. 

Nevertheless, the following chapter, “Wooooooohoooooo!!!!,” begins to answer those questions—and the answers are, surprisingly (to me), in “the much maligned literary and occult psychogeographyers”: despite their deliberate obscurity and misogyny, they maintained “a space for the irrational, unconscious, haptic, poetic and noumenal,” Smith writes. “It was they who identified where inner life imbeds itself in architectural form, who knew how to walk and explore and to identify where the psychogeographical becomes mythogeographical and engage directly with ideology in motion” (68). (Mythogeography, according to Smith’s online definition, “describes a way of thinking about and visiting places where multiple meanings have been squeezed into a single and restricted meaning.”) “I have enjoyed and learned a great deal from works by occult psychogeographers,” he continues, including Iain Sinclair’s Lights Out For The Territory, which helped sensitize him “to complexities, ironies, textures, narratives and layering,” and Arthur Machen’s The London Adventure (the next book I’ll be writing about here) and Hope Mirrlee’s Lud-In-The-Mist, which “have partially shaped my re-imagining of the terrains I explore; simple ways to write code over the top of an existing space and a semi-allegorical approach to built environment” (70). That helps me understand a the notion of coding a little better; what Machen seems to do is imagine histories for spaces, including stories he imagines through Charles Dickens. “Though I have been embarrassed by the antiquarianism and credulity of much of what has passed for occult psychogeography,” Smith concludes, 

what I realise now, in a flash of understanding that cuts through a grey mire of defeatist leftist interpretation, is that it was these very obfuscations of occultism and the well-worn tracks of the uncanny (in a virtuous ambiguity that is as objective as it is human) that brought at least some dérivistes, including myself, into an immersed rather than a token practice. (70)

“[I]f judged on the basis of practical effects . . . it was occult psychogeography that kept the ‘drift’ alive and practised,” he writes (70).

That realization brings us to the book’s thirteenth chapter, “Recently,” which includes a list of exemplary publications about radical walking, which I intend to read, particularly Carl Lavery’s “25 Instructions”; a list of gatherings of radical walkers; web sites related to radical walking and related practices; and examples of practical precedents for performative walking, including Fluxus scores. “By practising a range of tactics the walker can develop their walking as a discipline, skills deployed and hybridised independently, as part of a recognisable ‘mystery’ (in the sense of a skilled trade),” Smith argues. “Accumulations of multiple tactics can tip over into qualitative change; into an uneven, evolving and always, and necessarily, partly covert ‘life score’; what this is all about (75). I was not aware of most of the resources Smith includes here, and I’m grateful that I came across them relatively early in my reading, so that I can include them on my list.

Smith also suggests that “there has also been a significant change of tone in psychogeographically informed writing, a greater commitment to openness and accessibility” (76). While “the heroic solo art walk” of Richard Long or Hamish Fulton, “inaccessible to most people due to its epic proportions, continues to garner admiration among arts managers (and the public),” more recent walking performances are “more sociable”: “The general trend is democratic, but not necessarily yet transformational” (76). My practice is closer to Long’s or Fulton’s (although I don’t move rocks around as I walk), but I would resist the suggestion that my walks are epic or heroic or inaccessible. I’m not a heroic male specimen, just a middle-aged man with bad knees and feet, but I manage to walk distances I’m comfortable with. And I’m not convinced that a relational aesthetics or social practice approach is the only acceptable form of walking. As Smith himself suggests, “a wide range of tactics is now available to anyone willing to seriously engage with radical walking. . . . there is a far deeper immersion of psychogeographical thinking in practice and there is a widespread if approximate understanding of psychogeography among the majority of practising art walkers” (78). While “many longstanding ambulatory explorers and artists engage uninhibitedly with psychogeographical and other ideas,” the expansion of practice-as-research in universities has meant that universities are moving to meet them (78). 

Chapter 14, “The Movement,” casts a critical eye upon the expansion of radical and art walking Smith celebrated in the previous chapter. “Since the 1990s,” he writes,

the burgeoning multiplicity of new walkers has changed the terrain for radical walking. The growth in useful rather than bewildering publications and in opportunities to gather together seems to reflect the growth in the practices themselves; both in the deepening sophistication of ambulatory practices and in the crude numbers participating. (80)

“But is there a dialectical process at work within the increase and diversification?” he asks. 

What if the sudden growth in disparate practices, by its very mass, generates a sudden condensation of practice, a tightening of connections? Might the development of a co-operative and relational (rather than literary and individualistic) psychogeography actually constrain the dispersal and performance of a practice that can only come from the subjective, whose performance is always ‘to the side’ of itself? I have no idea, but I have my suspicions. (80-81)

Is there a need for something “more agitational and dispersive,” something “with a harder edge, more evangelical, more at war with the Spectacle”? (81). Is there a need for a focus on strategies and tactics? Once again, he turns to the work of Wrights & Sites as a model:

we choose very general areas of agreement around practices to work with, then, for a specific project we make a bare collective structure that we can agree on. This structure will consist of Happenings-like spatial and temporal compartments which, by mutual consent we allot to each other. Then each of us, within our allocated, personal compartments, is free to put or do whatever we want without interference from the others. . . . Once the compartments are full the project is complete. (82)

That is how the Mis-guides were written, and how their manifestos and videos were made (82). “By making each of ourselves an ‘anywhere’ we can learn to be a stranger to ourselves,” Smith writes,

and to be better strangers to each other, facilitating a kind of holey organising; creating bare collective structures in order to provide compartments for free activity? Although Wrights & Sites is quite incapable of collectively subscribing to or evolving a political meta-narrative, if you have ever heard or read one of the group’s manifestos . . . you will know that while each of the policies or tactics or demands on its own can be deployed or realised under the conditions of the present political economy, the totality cannot. (82)

Despite or because of the lack of organization among dissident walkers, though, there is “a surprising commonality of general purposes and principles, alongside a huge range of different styles, approaches and genres”—which is a good thing (82-83). Smith suggests that his work on tourists pointed out “just how profound and witty was their agency, and that it was from that agency that everything radical can start” (83). For that reason, he now takes subjectivities seriously and myths positively (as, he contends, psychogeography itself does): “I see not only obfuscation, ideology, the script of neo-liberalism and the ‘shadows of gods,’ but also their revolutionary negation by actions that we cannot predict and should not try to second guess, but must instead await and respond to slowly and anonymously” (83). 

Nevertheless, challenges remain. While more women are walking, there remain few “black and ethnic minority walkers” engaged in radical walking in the UK, and “class division continues to put a moat between practice and theory” (83). That moat “too often consigns creativity to tiny parcels of content-based provocation, milieu specialisation and formal experimentation: niches unvisited by most people in their everyday lives,” he writes. “While the relation between practice and theory is being transformed in the academy by the return to actual practice (a rare anomaly of institutional content), there is at present no similar prospect for a resolution of practice and theory in everyday life” (83). (I wonder if that’s because most people aren’t interested in anything labelled “theory”?) The challenge for radical walking, then, is to extend its reach to those who are excluded: to

disperse those means to free pleasure in the city, getting them out beyond the artists and to those who are least well-prepared to recognise or disposed to use them? Radical walking must learn the creative means of absenting itself in order for others to walk radically; its mortal remains left behind as fallen strategies—global art of memory, collective independence, war on two fronts, open infiltration, leaping over neo-romanticism’s head—for others to pick up or crush to dust as they walk far beyond. (84)

How can an art practice absent itself in order for others to engage in that art practice? What would that look like? I can’t imagine. 

The next chapter, “The Problem is Walking Itself,” returns to the issue of walking artists in public spaces:

The relentless squeezing of the possibilities for artists in public space has had the positive effect of their returning to that space, and along with other pedestrians, not as artists as much as lay architects; leaving the traces of their journeys rather than depositing product, changing images rather than completing representations . . . . The contradiction for power is that the more it denudes and disarms the public and the public artist, the more it clothes and weaponises the nomad. (85)

The word “nomad,” like the term “holey space,” points to the presence of Deleuze and Guattari behind Smith’s argument, and it’s clear that I won’t be able to avoid reading A Thousand Plateaus for this project. It’s also clear that Smith, given his roots in performance, does not like object-oriented art practices:

Walking, by its transient nature and by its relations to materials, has always been placed problematically, paradoxically and productively in relation to “site-specificity”; the “site-specific” being that aesthetic approach which privileges the particularity of a place in the making, content and performance of an artwork. By the time the specificity of site in art-making came to be challenged by Miwon Kwon (2004) and others as essentialising and enclosing itself in identity, art walking had already “moved on” and was carrying its specificities lightly, as much by necessity as self-analysis, but was not yet (or ever) ready to drop them in the flow to globalisation. (85-86)

The “torque enacted” on the flow to globalization 

by the spiky particularities of specificity and the anachronistic pace of the pedestrian are together capable of exerting revelatory distortions. Not as some form of localism . . . but by the irritating, eccentric, anomalous, perverse, de-contextualised and non-representative qualities of individual granules (nothing very attractive to the market there), scratched and broken, snagging on the fine weave of smooth space. (86)

“Smooth space”: Deleuze and Guattari again. “Walking in specificity, by its inherent and contradictory qualities, when armed with a disruptive Brechtian verfremdungseffekt . . . is more capable than other practico-aesthetic-theoretical activities of attending to and breaking up the slippery spaces of hypermodernity . . . and tripping up the mobilities paradigm” (87). Don’t be fooled, though; Smith does not advocate asserting the idea of place as a way of resisting hypermodern space, because doing so loops back to romanticism and authenticity, “as if certain terrains have perhaps yet to qualify for reality” (87). It’s an argument I don’t quite understand: an airport (a hypermodern space) is a place for the people who work there handling baggage or cleaning toilets, just as a grassland is a place for the people who spend time there. I’m not sure one can suggest Nan Shepherd as a psychogeographical precursor on one hand, and dismiss the notion of place as romantic on the other. Smith, though, sees that notion as a temptation that must be resisted, and finds a better model in the “anywheres” of Wrights & Sites, real places that can be found anywhere (88). “Immersed walking practitioners require neither an essentialist conception of place nor an idealist conception of thought,” Smith writes. “By necessity walkers have always had to process the intense specificity of textures and signs with the motion and transience of their own mobility; a slipperiness which renders them not immune to, but at least prepared for and ready to deploy or take advantage of, the subtle adaptations of specificity and site” (89). But the activities that take place in those sites need to become more performance-like and performative, he argues:

By bringing an understanding of post-dramatic performance to such walking we begin to see that part of the problem, a problem we have not solved yet, is “walking” itself. A “walking” that takes no account of those who cannot or do not or who refuse to walk, including the very young, the injured, the reclusive, the excluded, the confined. (90)

I’m not sure that those who refuse to walk matter as much as those who cannot—after all, there are other forms of mobility that operate at more or less the same speed as walking and that could fit together with it. Those who refuse—well, that’s most of the population of this province, and if I were to take into account those who will not walk, then what would I do? Stop walking myself? What would that prove? This is a line of argument I’m never comfortable with, one that suggests that just because I can’t kick a football, nobody else should kick a football either. Still, as Smith points out,

The post-dramatic is one way of understanding that there is nothing natural or universal about walking; every aspect of it is in question. . . . Under challenge is the very idea that there is a normal and ubiquitous behaviour—walking—in which we are all engaged and which therefore gives a universal legitimacy and a level playing field to all our walks. There is no such thing. (90)

Absolutely: walking, in this city, in this province, especially walking more than three or four kilometres, is neither normal nor ubiquitous, and most of my fellow citizens are not engaged in it. So walking is not a technique that provides equal access for everyone to the public sphere; instead, walking is performative, 

an enactment in relation to an illusion of normalcy, to threat, to inhibition, to disability, to appearance, to signs, in which the meaning of “walk” is reinvented and within which the conditions of repression and exclusion are enacted and reinforced whenever resistance to them is not explicitly and structurally inscribed in an anti-walk in the walk. (90-91)

“If we do not resist the universality of walking we condemn ourselves to never finding out how different it can be,” Smith contends, and crawling and falling performances may show us the way to disrupt walking and its “structural assumptions” (91). Radical walkers, he continues, need to assault “the normalising assumptions about what is an acceptable passage through these spaces by addressing the specific inequalities in our assumptions about the pedestrian act, opening up a new and wider range of possible trajectories” (91). Perhaps that’s what he means by inscribing the anti-walk within the walk? I’m not sure. I am sure, though, that I’m not interested in engaging in crawling or falling performances. That’s just not something I want to do, although I respect Smith for engaging in that kind of work. I’m becoming increasingly aware that I’m not a performer, and I’m okay with that.

The last chapter, “What the Laura Said” (sic), is about the third comment that sent Smith on the road to writing this book: an offhand remark by Laura Oldfield Ford, contrasting her art practice to the “coffee table” books of Will Self. That didn’t bother Smith—he thinks that Self and Sinclair have become shorthand terms for “mainstream psychogeography,” against which others define themselves—but he didn’t like the criticism she received as a result, online, from neo-situationists (93). He read her book, Savage Messiah, a collection of zines under a single cover, and was struck by its “raw anger at the alienation of communities and individuals fuelled by feelings, rushes, love, desiring, dreaming and the erotic urge to fight back” (94). “More than anything I have written here, Laura Oldfield Ford prefigures what an engaged and vividly serious and sensitive and sophisticated and historically aware and reflexive walking might be,” Smith writes—but he wouldn’t have read her book if not for her criticism of Self (and the response it received). For that reason, he hopes that his readers will forgive and respond to his attacks on Gros and Bonnett and others, “as a good excuse to make up your own walkings and watchings and readings and thinkings and to take the next steps of an unpredictable movement” (94-95). 

It’s a surprisingly open and humble conclusion, and it emboldened me to express myself fully about this book—the points I didn’t understand, and the points I didn’t agree with—and I appreciate that. As I’ve suggested, there is much in this book with which I don’t agree, and I fear that Smith would dismiss my walking as romantic, literary, and heroic (that is, insufficiently radical, not performative, and not relational), but that doesn’t mean this isn’t an important book for my research. It is. It’s a tremendous resource of writing and thinking on contemporary walking practices, and I wish I had read it as my first text, rather than my fifty-first. At least I have read it now.

Work Cited

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

50. Merlin Coverley, Psychogeography

coverley psychogeography

While thinking and writing about Iain Sinclair’s London Orbital this week, I realized that I needed a firmer sense of exactly what psychogeography is. Good thing Merlin Coverley’s little book on the subject was on my shelf. It’s a brief but informative look at a variety of writers–Coverley is primarily concerned with literary manifestations of psychogeography, which isn’t surprising, since his 2012 book Ways of Wandering: The Writer as Walker, is also focused on literary texts. (I’ve read Ways of Wandering but because I didn’t taken notes on it, I’m going to have to read it again for this project.) I wouldn’t be surprised if, for that reason, Psychogeography were somewhat controversial among psychogeographers. That wouldn’t bother me if it were the case, because I’m not a psychogeographer and come at this subject without any preconceived ideas about what falls within the definition.

The book’s introduction rehearses Coverley’s argument in too much detail–I sense that the publisher asked for some padding to get the book to a desired length–but it does explain Coverley’s approach to psychogeography. He begins by noting that psychogeography is now a common term, frequently used, but that nobody knows exactly what it means (9). Is it a literary movement, a political strategy, a new age idea, or a set of avant-garde art practices? “The answer, of course, is that psychogeography is all of these things,” Coverley writes, “resisting definition through a shifting series of interwoven themes and constantly being reshaped by its practitioners” (10). The term originated in Paris, in the writings of the Lettrist Group, a forerunner of the Situationist International, but it was not defined clearly until 1955, when Guy Debord wrote a rather vague definition that suggested psychogeography was the effects of geographical environments on the emotions and behaviour of people (10). In other words, Coverley writes, psychogeography is “the point at which psychology and geography collide, a means of exploring the behavioural impact of urban place” (10). Since the 1950s, however, “the term has become so widely appropriated and has been used in support of such a bewildering array of ideas that it has lost much of its original significance” (10).

Coverley’s account of psychogeography doesn’t begin with Debord or the Situationists, however. He has preferred, he writes, “to ignore the Situationists’ claims for the originality of their own ideas by placing them within the wider historical context that gave rise to them” (29). He reaches back, historically, to earlier writers: Daniel Defoe, William Blake, Thomas de Quincey on the city of London; Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Baudelaire, and Walter Benjamin on the flâneur; writers of urban gothic tales, such as Robert Louis Stevenson and Arthur Machen; and the Surrealists. He also looks at the work of contemporary psychogeographers, including Iain Sinclair, Peter Ackroyd, and Stewart Home. Psychogeography, he argues, “may usefully be viewed less as the product of a particular time and place than as the meeting point of a number of ideas and traditions with interwoven histories,” Coverley writes (11). The predominant characteristics he sees within the “mélange of ideas, events and identities” he discusses in the book include the activity of walking, in cities that are increasingly hostile to pedestrians, so that walking becomes a subversive activity (12). “Walking is seen as contrary to the spirit of the modern city with its promotion of swift circulation and the street-level gaze that walking requires allows one to challenge the official representation of the city by cutting across established routes and exploring those marginal and forgotten areas often overlooked by the city’s inhabitants,” Coverley writes. “In this way the act of walking becomes bound up with psychogeography’s characteristic political opposition to authority” (12). Along with walking and political resistance, Coverley identifies “a playful sense of provocation and trickery,” “ironic humour,” a “search for new ways of apprehending our urban environment” and seeing it in a new way, a “perception of the city as a site of mystery,” and a desire “to reveal the true nature that lies beneath the flux of the everyday” as characteristics of psychogeography (13). The sense of urban life as mysterious and unknowable leads to gothic representations of the city, but it also gives rise to an obsession with the occult, which is often allied to an antiquarianism that focuses on the city’s past (14). “As a result, much contemporary psychogeography approximates more to a form of local history than to any geographical investigation,” Coverley writes.

In the next chapter, Coverley examines those writers whom contemporary psychogeographers identify as precursors: Daniel Defoe, “whose character Robinson is a recurrent figure within the literature of psychogeography; William Blake, described by Iain Sinclair as “the ‘Godfather of Psychogeography'”; Thomas de Quincy, who was recognized by the Situationists as an influence; Robert Louis Stevenson’s urban gothic novella, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde; Arthur Machen, another writer of the urban gothic; and Alfred Watkins, whose theory of ley lines became “a cornerstone of the new age ‘Earth Mysteries’ school that has since provided an esoteric counterbalance to the stern revolutionary proclamations of the Situationists” (32-33). Other than a shared interest in London, all of these writers demonstrate “a wider awareness of genius loci or ‘spirit of place’ through which landscape, whether urban or rural, can be imbued with a sense of the histories of previous inhabitants and the events that have been played out against them” (33); an interest in visionary or esoteric or occult or irrational resistance to rationalism (33-34); and a desire to “expose the essence of place obscured by the flux of the everyday and highlight the threat to the identity of the city posed by the banalisation of much urban redevelopment” (34).

First, because Coverley’s discussion is organized chronologically, is Daniel Defoe. “With his twin roles as political radical and father of the London novel, Defoe is the first writer to offer a vision of London shaped according to his own peculiar imaginary topography,” Coverley argues, “and in his most famous work, Robinson Crusoe, Defoe introduces a character who has haunted both the novel and the literature of psychogeography ever since” (35). That novel’s “twin motifs of the imaginary voyage and isolation” is important, but even more so is its titular character, “who encapsulates the freedom and detachment of the wanderer, the resourcefulness of the adventurer and the amorality of the survivor”–all characteristics necessary for anyone walking unfamiliar urban streets, particularly in the seventeenth century.

However, it is in Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year that he can be said “to provide what is, in essence, the first psychogeographical survey of the city” (36). Both in style and content, that book “portrays the city in a manner that shares almost all the preoccupations that have come to be termed psychogeographical” (36). It brings together statistical facts, topographical details, local testimonies, and these are presented in a non-linear, digressive way that recalls the Situationists’ dérive (36). In its blend of fiction, biography, local history, and personal reminiscence, Journal of the Plague Year forms “an imaginative reworking of the city,” in which its familiar layout “is shown to be transformed beyond recognition by the ravages of the plague” (36-37). For anyone travelling in the London of the 1660s, a city without street lights or house numbers, a “mental map established through trial and error and by reading the signs that the environment displayed to you” was essential. “This alertness to topographical detail and the construction of a mental overview of the city would later form the basis of psychogeographical technique,” Coverley suggests (37). During the plague, however, the city was reshaped, as streets were deserted or blocked and buildings were marked with red crosses, signifying the presence of the disease. These changes created “a map of contamination,” making the city alien to its residents, “who had previously prided themselves upon an intimate knowledge of its secrets” (38). “This sense of the ground shifting beneath one’s feet, as the plague advances and retreats,” Coverley writes,

is mirrored in Defoe’s prose style, as a series of digressions and narrative cul-de-sacs afford the reader, both spatially and temporally, that sense of dislocation experienced by the characters. In effect, the catastrophe of the plague creates the characteristic sense of disorientation that we find in all narratives of urban catastrophe. . . . In such moments the city is momentarily made strange, defamiliarised, as its inhabitants are granted a vision of the city as it might be, as heaven or hell. (38)

Defoe’s “image of the solitary walker navigating the city and recording his impressions of it . . . dominates the tradition which he inaugurates” (39). I wonder if those who study eighteenth-century literature would agree with Coverley’s suggestion that Defoe was the first psychogeographer. It would be interesting to find out.

The next figure Coverley discusses is the poet William Blake, whose emphasis on “the imaginative reconstruction of the city” makes him one of the forebears of contemporary psychogeographers. Blake was a walker, “a wanderer whose poems describe the reality of eighteenth-century street life,” but those poems are “overlaid by his own intensely individualistic vision to create a new topography of the city,” transforming familiar landscapes into “a transcendent image of the eternal city,” which was, for Blake, Jerusalem (40). Blake’s poetry features apocalyptic imagery, since to rebuild London as the New Jerusalem means it must be destroyed. For Coverley, Blake’s “revolutionary call for the destruction of the power structures of his day” is another way he prefigures psychogeography. “Here, then, we find all the features ascribed to psychogeography today,” Coverley writes:

the mental traveller who remakes the city in accordance with his own imagination is allied to the urban wanderer who drifts through the city streets; the political radicalism that seeks to overthrow the established order of the day is tempered by an awareness of the city as eternal and unchanging; and the use of antiquarian and occult symbolism reflects the precedence given to the subjective and the anti-rational over more systematic modes of thought. (41-42)

If Defoe and Blake were theorists of psychogeography, Thomas de Quincy may be described as its first practitioner: “The drug-fuelled journeys through London of de Quincey’s youth seem to capture exactly that state of aimless drift and detached observation which were to become the hallmarks of the situationist dérive 150 years later,” Coverley writes (42). De Quincy, he continues, “is a prototype for the obsessive drifter allowing his imagination to shape and direct the perception of his environment; his purposeless drifting at odds with the commercial traffic and allying him to the invisible underclass whose movements map the chaotic and labyrinthine aspects of the city” (43). The combination of walking and observing, along with a sense of the fantastic, was influential on Poe and Baudelaire, writers who helped establish the figure of the flâneur and, through that figure, “the tradition of French avant-garde writing and theorizing that was to continue via the Surrealists to the Situationists” (44).

Robert Louis Stevenson is another important precursor of psychogeography. Contemporary psychogeographers draw on Stevenson’s gothic imagery “to symbolise the mystery beneath the apparently banal surfaces of the everyday city” (45). The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is central in formulating an “occult division between appearance and reality” that is found in later psychogeographers (45). Coverley suggests that Stevenson’s London has a twofold nature, suggested by the duality between Jekyll and Hyde (46), and that his “imaginative topography” established “an unreal but eternal landscape that colours forever our experience of the city” (47).

Like Stevenson, novelist Arthur Machen applied his sense of the fantastic to the streets of London (47-48). “For Machen, the trained eye can reveal the eternal behind the commonplace,” Coverley contends, and London gave him a means of experiencing the strangeness of the urban environment: walking (48). Machen’s representations of London are both autobiographical and imaginative (48-49); “it is in these wanderings through the city that Machen becomes a prototype for both the flâneur and today’s breed of psychogeographer” (49). Machen was a prolific writer, but in this context his books Things Near and Far and The London Adventure are the most important: they are conscious attempts at ignoring the city’s known aspects in favour of aimless wandering, driven solely by the narrator’s imagination, and they suggest “the degree to which Machen is a hybrid figure in which walking and writing merge” (49). Machen’s version of the city was a discovery of the exotic within the commonplace, of the foreign close to home (49). He frees himself from historical or geographical markers, remapping the city as he moves through it, “establishing a trajectory away from the more well-trodden centre toward the overlooked suburban quarters of the city,” which makes him a forerunner of writers like J.G. Ballard and Iain Sinclair (50).

Another forebear of contemporary psychogeographers is Alfred Watkins, whose theory of ley lines shows the extent to which psychogeography has become caught up in occult, esoteric ideas, far from Debord’s original conception (51). A commercial traveller in Hertfordshire, in 1921 Watkins suddenly perceived the familiar landscape “to be covered by a vast network of straight tracks, aligned through the hills, mounds and other landmarks”–a network of lines connecting prehistoric sites (52-53). Watkins also suggested that these ley lines were connected to the locations of some London churches, making him an influence on Ackroyd and Sinclair (53). The books in which Watkins expressed these theories were rediscovered in the 1960s, and ley lines have become one of the staple ideas of New Age beliefs (I heard them discussed when I was walking in Spain) and an influence on psychogeographers interested in the occult.

The following chapter sees Coverley cross the English Channel and focus on Paris rather than London. In his telling, psychogeography is very much a tale of two cities (57). On the one hand is the dark gothic vision of London; on the other, the elegant arcades of Paris, the haunt of the flâneur. “Today the flâneur has become a somewhat overworked figure, beloved of academics and cultural commentators,” Coverley writes, “but while he (the flâneur is invariably seen as male) remains inseparable from the Paris of his day, his origins remain obscure” (57-58). Typically those origins are traced to Baudelaire’s essay “The Painter of Modern Life,” or Walter Benjamin, who analyzed the flâneur and his relationship to modernism in his (unfinished) The Arcades Project (58). But both writers took the flâneur from Poe’s short story, “The Man in the Crowd” (58). That story was the first appearance of a new urban type: “an isolated and estranged figure who is both a man of the crowd and a detached observer of it and, as such, the avatar of the modern city,” Coverley writes (60). This figure “heralds both the emergence of a new type of city and the passing of the old, his aimless wandering already at odds with his surroundings and his natural habitat threatened, in Paris at least, by the emergence of a more regimented topography,” as the city is redeveloped by Baron Haussmann (60-61).

In Baudelaire’s essay, the flâneur is an idealized figure in an idealized city–a figure that never actually existed, but one that is elusive, that cannot be located, although in searching for him, one begins to take on his characteristics (61-62). Like London, nineteenth-century Paris had expanded to the point where it could not be apprehended as a whole. Navigating the city thus became a skill, a secret form of knowledge available only to a few, “and in this environment the stroller is transformed into an explorer, or even a detective solving the mystery of the city streets” (62). As the city’s chaos was domesticated through redevelopment, however, the walker’s “arcane knowledge” becomes obsolete, and walking is reduced to window-shopping (62).

Benjamin, on the other hand, argues that London’s streets were too crowded for true flânerie, and that Paris and its arcades were a more suitable habitat for “the dandified stroller,” even though those sites were being destroyed by Haussmann’s redevelopment (63). Benjamin considered Poe’s character to be “a portrayal of the fate of the flâneur in the machine age,” a walker “reduced to little more than a cog in the machine, an automaton governed by the pressures of a barbaric crowd, not so much the hero of modernism as its victim” (64). The flâneur is thereby “inevitably caught up by the commercial forces that will inevitably destroy him,” and he becomes a window-shopper, which is “both the high point and the death knell for the flâneur” (64). Nevertheless, the figure of the flâneur retains its subversive age: “this insistence upon a walker’s pace questions the need for speed and circulation that the modern city promotes (yet seldom achieves). The wanderer remains essentially an outsider opposed to progress,” and “a non-paying customer” (64-65). “Ultimately, the flâneur is a composite figure,” Coverley contends: “vagrant, detective, explorer, dandy and stroller” (65). Yet, within these multiple and contradictory roles, “his predominant characteristic is the way in which he makes the street his home and this is his true legacy to psychogeography” (65).

As the flâneur found himself increasingly barred from the streets, he “devised new methods of travel that could be conducted from the safety of one’s armchair,” and his wandering became internalized (65-67). Joris-Karl Huysmans’s novel Against Nature (Á Rebours), published in 1894, is one example; in that book, an aesthete discovers the advantages of mental or imaginary travel in the city (67). Other modern novels use Robinson Crusoe as a figure undertaking an imaginary journey–from Kafka’s America to Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night–and so Crusoe becomes an emblem for contemporary psychogeographers (68-70). “Robinson is a totemic figure mapping out his journey from text to text,” Coverley writes,

providing a parallel history of urban wandering as it moves from London to Paris and around the world. Here we see writ in miniature the development of psychogeography, as it mutates from detached observation to a more committed and involved practice engaged with its surroundings and increasingly determined to change them. (71-72)

The flâneur may be a male figure, but his female counterpart, the flâneuse, has a very specific role: a prostitute. Those women met their clients–including Baudelaire and Benjamin and the Surrealists–in the Paris arcades (72). “As we approach the avant-garde flowering of the inter-war period,” Coverley suggests, “the streets of Paris are increasingly characterised as an erotic location–a place to procure, seek out of simply think about sex” (72). This is where the Surrealists come into the picture: not because of their political theorizing or attempts at walking around Paris, but because in 1918 André Breton and Louis Aragorn, between them, produce a psychogeographical novel:

With their absence of plot and digressive style, Breton’s Nadja and Aragon’s Paris Peasant offer accounts of journeys conducted through the Paris streets which are governed, in varying degrees, by sexual desire, and in their aimless strolling, they provide not only a precursor to the situationist dérive but a blueprint for contemporary wanderers on the streets of London. (72-73)

Coverley doesn’t explain how two men wrote one novel with two titles–that’s a mystery that will have to be solved through research. Nevertheless, he points out that Surrealism was about the resolution of dream and reality, and that its goal was not just art, but a transformation of our experience of everyday life “with an appreciation of the marvellous” (73). Surrealism’s domain, he continues, “was the street and the stroll was a crucial practice in its attempt to subvert and change our perceptions” (73). The walker–a combination of the flâneur and Robinson Crusoe–becomes, for the Surrealists, “a figure whose journey through the streets is both directed and transformed by the dictates of these unconscious drives” (73). The Surrealist practice of automatism, giving the unconscious free reign, was used not only in automatic writing but also in walking: “The aimless drifting that was later to become the dérive was initiated here in a series of walks whose free-floating exploration of Paris” was intended to discover new places (74). However, the walks the Surrealists took together provided “rather tedious and uninspired results, and as far as walking was concerned, a lot of legwork was expended with little obvious result” (76). Coverley is therefore more interested in the writing of the Surrealists. In addition, their history as a group, including their engagement with Communism and their collapse amid infighting, suggests, to Coverley, that “the day of the apolitical and dispassionate stroller was at an end” (77). The flâneur would have to fight against the destruction of the city, and that radicalization, Coverley argues, was the birth of psychogeography (77).

Next Coverley turns to Guy Debord and the Situationist International. After the Second World War, the Surrealists had split up, and new groups began to take shape in the French avant-garde. Some of those groups came together, in 1957, as the Situationist International. Under the strict control of Debord, the Situationists produced a series of statements defining psychogeography, the dérive and the détournement, and those theoretical writings are important to contemporary psychogeography. However, it’s important to understand that psychogeography was only one of the Situationists’ tools, “one whose role was to become more oblique, as situationism moved away from the subversive practices of its unacknowledged forebears and towards the revolutionary politics with which it has since been associated” (82). Psychogeography isn’t mentioned, for example, in either of the group’s major theoretical statements, Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle and Raoul Vaneigem’s The Revolution of Everyday Life (82-83).

The terms dérive and psychogeography were actually coined by one of the Situationists’ predecessors, the Lettrist International (85), although they made nothing of them, other than “adolescent humour” (87). In Debord’s article “Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography,” he provided a more rigorous approach and the first real definition of psychogeography (88-89). That definition was rather vague, as Debord admitted, and that vagueness has “allowed so many writers and movements to identify themselves and their work under this label” (89). According to Coverley,

Psychogeography becomes for Debord the point where psychology and geography collide. Gone are the romantic notions of an artistic practice; here we have an experiment to be conducted under scientific conditions and whose results are to be rigorously analysed. (89)

The emotional zones of the city were to be identified “by following the aimless stroll (dérive), the results of which may then form the basis of a new cartography characterised by a complete disregard for the traditional and habitual practices of the tourist” (90). However, as the Situationists developed, the sense of playful creativity that informs the dérive was set aside, and overt political protest took priority (91). That meant that psychogeography, the dérive, and the détournement were subordinated to the group’s political critique (92). Nevertheless, before he abandoned them, Debord did define dérive and détournement. A détournement was a subversion of existing aesthetic elements–through parody or plagiarism, for example (94). A dérive, on the other hand, was a method of psychogeographical investigation, a form of fieldwork or a way to reconnoitre the city (96-97). “The dérive takes the wander out of the realm of the disinterested spectator or artistic practitioner and places him in a subversive position as a revolutionary following a political agenda,” Coverley writes, and the dériviste‘s aim is to identify currents, points, and vortexes of psychogeographical relief (97). Debord’s writing on the dérive provide a theoretical basis for the activity, along with practical suggestions (98), but “the actual results of all these experiments are strangely absent” from the Situationists’ writings; there is little “concrete evidence of clear instances of psychogeographical activity” (99). That is surprising, since the Scots writer Alexander Trocchi, a friend of Debord’s (until he was expelled from the Situationist International), recalled “long, wonderful psychogeographical walks” in London with Debord (101). According to Coverley, Debord ultimately “came to recognise the essentially personal nature of the relationship between the individual and the city, sensing that this subjective realm was always going to remain at odds with the objective mechanisms of the psychogeographical methodology that sought to expose it” (101). I find this very strange, because there seems to be little if anything objective about the dérive as a methodology; from what I understand, it is entirely subjective. Perhaps it was that subjective nature that led Debord to abandon psychogeography in favour of what was, for him, a more objective political theorizing?

In the final chapter, Coverley turns back to contemporary psychogeographers, all of whom are English writers. Psychogeography is very popular at the moment, he notes; it “remains alert to the increasing banalisation of our urban environment that preoccupied the Situationists, and it continues to provide a political response to the perceived failures of urban governance,” but it is also a literary form based around London (111). The first contemporary psychogeographer Coverley discusses is the novelist J.G. Ballard, whose books explore “the behavioural impact of urban space” (112). Ballard’s writing draws on surrealist imagery and techniques, but his fiction provides “a more detailed psychogeographical map of the modern urban hinterland than any situationist survey could ever hope to replicate” (116). Ballard believes that modern life leads to a loss of emotional sensitivity, but his fiction challenges the Situationists’ belief that this loss would lead to banality; instead, he presents the non-places of contemporary suburbia “as liable not merely to provoke boredom but to result in more extreme forms of behaviour that increasingly mirror the violent and sexualised imagery that surrounds us” (116-17). “In this sense the spectacular society”–Coverley is riffing on the title of Debord’s famous book–“will, of its own accord, produce that element of unpredictable and even revolutionary behaviour that Debord himself hoped to engineer,” but for Ballard, that behaviour “will constitute a full-scale descent into savagery, sexual perversity and complete breakdown as the brand of community living engineered by the tower block or executive village dissolves into a series of individual retreats into personal obsession” (117). Unlike other contemporary psychogeographers, though, Ballard has no interest in history or literary tradition, nor does he care about “occult connectivity” or walking (118). “By dispensing with these themes,” Coverley argues,

Ballard is able to pare down his prose into a simple allegory of modern urban life that focuses solely on the relationship between individual and environment. . . . This is psychogeography rendered in its most stark and unforgiving manner, and these texts have mapped, in advance of anyone else, the layout of a future city characterised by a transient population living lives of anonymous isolation. (118)

Next up is Iain Sinclair, who is, Coverley contends, more responsible than anyone else for the current popularity of psychogeography (119). Sinclair’s complex “London Project”–made up of poems, novels, documentary studies and films–sets out to restore that city “to its dominant psychogeographical position” (119). Sinclair’s work has little connection to the Situationists, but he is “heavily indebted both to the surrealist drift of Breton and Aragon and to the visionary tradition of London writers from William Blake to Arthur Machen,” but his greatest influence is Alfred Watkins and his theory of ley lines, especially in his early writing (119). In works like the 1975 book Lud Heat, Sinclair espouses a belief that lines of force mapped between architect Nicholas Hawksmoor’s remaining London churches can reveal “the true but hidden relationship between the city’s financial, political and religious institutions” (119). Sinclair’s writing is, Coverley suggests, a “delightful blend of paranoia, occult imagination and local London history” (120). Sinclair is a walker, too, but not a flâneur–his pedestrian activities are too directed, too focused on his task of challenging the modern city (120). Sinclair’s “peculiar form of historical and geographical research displays none of the rigour of psychogeographical theory”–as outlined by Debord, I think he means–“and is overlaid by a mixture of autobiography and literary eclecticism,” but it is politically engaged and furious about the legacy of Thatcherite redevelopment in London (121). That anger displays his debt to Aragon, Coverley suggests (121). London Orbital, which I have written about in this blog, offers Sinclair’s “own highly successful brand of psychogeography in which urban wanderer, local historian, avant-garde activist and political polemicist meet and coalesce” (122). Sinclair’s writing is so successful that “he appears to have inaugurated an entirely new genre of topographical writing centred upon London which has gone some way towards displacing Debord and situationism as the official psychogeographical brand” (122). This success “has inevitably blunted its impact, as what was once a marginal and underground activity is now offered mainstream recognition” (123). That complaint–it’s not cool any more because other people like it–is unworthy of Coverley, in my opinion, but then again, I’m a fan of Sinclair’s writing and of his psychogeographical methodology as well.

Peter Ackroyd moulds psychogeography “into a conservative and irrational model diametrically opposed in both spirit and practice to Debord’s conception,” Coverley argues. Ackroyd’s difference from Sinclair–both wrote about ley lines and Hawksmoor’s churches–is that he believes that the spatial correspondences he identifies in the city are “not only governed by historical resonances inherited from the past, but are also subject to temporal patterns through which the city may be subdivided once again,” an idea Ackroyd calls “chronological resonance” (124-25). He also believes that these resonances have “observable effects upon the behaviour of Londoners themselves” (125). Ackroyd “follows the implications of his theory to their logical, but unverifiable, conclusions, eventually moving from London to the country as a whole and identifying two opposing strands of national identity”: rational Protestantism and irrational or visionary Catholicism (125). The latter is able to reveal the city as it truly is, and enables us to recognize the magic beneath its mundane surface (126). Other Londoners who were “attuned to the revelatory vision of the city” are named “Cockney Visionaries” by Ackroyd, and among their number he includes Blake, Machen, and Sinclair (126). For Coverley, “Ackroyd’s theory grows ever more mystical and all-embracing, becoming a quest for the defining characteristics of English national identity in which the spirit of scientific inquiry is rebutted by Ackroyd’s irrational and wholly subjective sense of time and place” (126), and “his insistence that the city is eternal and illimitable,” “governed by a cyclical current that views the present merely as the past revisited,” is even more damaging to Ackroyd’s “psychogeographical credentials, at least in their situationist form” (126). That’s because Ackroyd’s cosmology obviates any call for revolutionary change; it leaves us “stranded within a kind of eternal recurrence in which the flux of the present is subsumed within a mystical sense of eternal stasis that renders all political engagement redundant” (126-27). “If psychogeography is the behavioural impact of place,” Coverley concludes, “then Ackroyd’s historic-mystical version is at odds not only with its revolutionary forbears but also, despite any superficial similarities, with the current brand favoured by Iain Sinclair and his acolytes” (127). I have little patience with mysticism, and had no idea that the author of London: The Biography, among other important books, held such–let me say it like I feel it–silly beliefs. That doesn’t mean, though, that I should ignore his writing; it could be important.

Stewart Home is the third contemporary psychogeographer Coverley discusses. Home was “a prime mover within the resurgence of psychogeographical and avant-garde groups in the 1990s but his relationship with those groups remains tangential and obscure,” Coverley writes, although I’m not sure what that would matter (128). Home is associated with the London Psychogeographical Association, and he is “responsible for a deluge of psychogeographical pamphlets, statements and events,” often humorous (128-29). Home “combines a peculiar blend of occultism, avant-garde theorising and radical left politics,” but he seems unable to take himself or his subject too seriously” (129). He is a provocateur, in other words, and yet, Coverley suggests, that should not obscure “the accuracy of his critical commentary upon the avant-garde movements that he has sought to revive” (131). (Coverley is clearly interested in these groups; I am not.) Because he combines humour with an awareness of psychogeography’s roots and its relationship to earlier traditions, Home “appears to have successfully wrong footed those critics unable to work out what he’s up to and unsure how to respond” (132). In other words, Coverley concludes, “Home has effectively liberated psychogeography from the constraints of any one set of practices or aims, creating a highly effective weapon in his assault upon the artistic establishment” (132-33). I’d never heard of Home before reading Coverley’s book, and I have no idea if his writing is available in North America, but I must say, after reading Coverley’s discussion, that it’s Sinclair’s work that interests me more than the others’.

“Instead of seeking to change their environment,” Coverley concludes,

psychogeographers in their contemporary incarnation seem satisfied merely to experience and record it. In this sense, psychogeography has overlooked its political and ideological roots in situationism in favour of a return to the primarily artistic concerns of earlier avant-garde and literary traditions. These authors certainly voice dissatisfaction with the political shortcomings of the present but are unable to supply any practical measures to alleviate their concerns. (136)

In that sense, they are not like Defoe, “in whom the figure of novelist, pamphleteer and radical combined to provide a lasting template for a future psychogeography in which literary endeavour and political activism are once again inseparable” (137). But what did Defoe actually accomplish politically? And what “practical measures” does Coverley think can address contemporary political problems? Why does he expect writers to provide the answers to political questions? The world is a complicated place, and who among us really understands how to address our collective challenges?

Despite Coverley’s disappointing conclusion, and his apparent belief that the Situationists accomplished something tangible, this is a useful book. I do wonder if other writers on psychogeography see historical antecedents in Defoe and Blake and de Quincey, or if they begin, simply, with the Situationists. I could find out. I also wonder if the kind of activity that falls under the rubric of psychogeography must take place in an urban environment. Couldn’t one walk and think and research the history of rural areas as well? Is that a possibility, despite the lack of attention to the world outside of Paris and London by psychogeographers? And, of course, Coverley’s list of references provides an excellent starting point for looking further into psychogeography–if that’s something I’m going to do. I’m not sure yet; I’ll need to think about it.

Work Cited

Coverley, Merlin. Psychogeography. Pocket Essentials, 2010.

——. Ways of Wandering: The Writer As Walker. Oldcastle, 2012.

49. Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain

living mountain

I’ve read Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain before, but for pleasure. It’s a beautiful book, and a powerful evocation of a specific place: the Cairngorms, a mountain range in northern Scotland. Because I wanted to write about it in the paper I’m currently working on, I had to read it again–this time, taking careful notes. Believe me, reading Shepherd’s prose more than once is a joy, and it’s a book I will return to again and again.

The 2011 paperback edition features an introduction by Robert Macfarlane, a fine writer and, among other things, a walker, as was Shepherd. That introduction is worth discussing in detail, because Macfarlane both reads the book carefully and sensitively and places it within a specific philosophical context that I would not have considered. He begins by describing the Cairngorms (a place I’ve never been, although I’d like to go) as “Britain’s Arctic”: “a low-slung wilderness of whale-backed hills and shattered cliffs” (ix). Shepherd only ever lived in the village of West Cults, near the foothills of the Cairngorms, and those mountains, Macfarlane writes, “were her heartland”:

Into and out of those mountains she went in all seasons, by dawn, day, dusk and night, walking sometimes alone, and sometimes with friends, students or fellow walkers from the Deeside Field Club. Like all true mountain-lovers, she got altitude sickness if she spent too long at sea-level. (x)

Shepherd lectured in English at the College of Education at Aberdeen University and was the author of five books; The Living Mountain, her last, was written in the final years of the Second World War but not published until 1977. Its focus is on the Cairngorms, which Shepherd knew “‘deeply’ rather than ‘widely,'” according to Macfarlane: “They were her inland-island, her personal parish, the area of territory that she loved, walked and studied over time with such concentration within its perimeters led to knowledge cubed rather than knowledge curbed” (xv-xvi).

Shepherd walked and hiked and climbed in the Cairngorms for decades, and yet unlike mountaineers, who seek the summits of mountains, Shepherd walked over them with a different goal in mind. For Macfarlane, she practiced “a kind of unpious pilgrimage”:

She tramps around, over, across and into the mountain, rather than charging up it. There is an implicit humility to her repeated acts of traverse, which stands as a corrective to the self-exaltation of the mountaineer’s hunger for an utmost point. The pilgrim contents herself always with looking along and inwards to mystery, where the mountaineer longs to look down and outwards onto total knowledge. (xvii)

Shepherd’s “first idea,” according to Macfarlane, was her belief that a mountain has an inside: “a superbly counter-intuitive proposition, for we tend to think of mountains in terms of their exteriors—peaks, shoulders, cliffs. But Shepherd is always looking into the Cairngorm landscape, and I now find myself doing the same when I am in the massif” (xx). “Again and again,” Macfarlane writes,

her eyes pry into the luminous interior of clear-watered lochs or rivers. She dips her hand into Loch Coire an Lochaine, she walks naked into the shallows of Loch Avon, she pokes fingers down mouse holes and into the snowpack. “Into,” in The Living Mountain, is a preposition that gains—by means of repeated use—the power of a verb. She goes to the mountain searching not for the great outdoors but for profound “interiors,” deep “recesses.” (xx)

“This preoccupation with the ‘inside’ of the mountain is no conceit, Macfarlane continues; “rather, it figures the book’s attempts to achieve what she calls an ‘accession of interiority.’ For Shepherd, there was a continual traffic between the outer landscapes of the world and the inner landscapes of the spirit” (xxi).

Shepherd’s second idea is her refusal to privilege a single perspective. “Her own consciousness is only one among an infinite number of focal points on and in the mountain,” Macfarlane contends. “Her prose watches now from the point of view of the eagle, now from that of the walker, now from that of the creeping juniper. In this way we are brought–in her memorable phrase–to see the earth ‘as the earth must see itself'” (xxiii-xxiv). “The first law of ecology is that everything is connected to everything else,” Macfarlane writes, “and The Living Mountain is filled–woven–with images of weaving and interconnection,” showing that the world is “an unmappable mesh of interrelations” (xxiv-xxv). The fact that this mesh is “unmappable” is vitally important. For Shepherd, “knowledge is mystery’s accomplice rather than its antagonist,” Macfarlane argues (xxvi). “What Shepherd learns–and what her book showed me–is that the true mark of long acquaintance with a single place is a readiness to accept uncertainty: a contentment with the knowledge that you must not seek complete knowledge” (xxvi).

The Living Mountain‘s most radical proposition, according to Macfarlane, is Shepherd’s claim that “‘the body must be said to think'” (xxix). The book was written at the same time that Maurice Merleau-Ponty was writing The Phenomenology of Perception, in which the French philosopher

argued for the foundational role that sensory perception plays in our understanding of the world as well [as in] our reception of it. He argued that knowledge is “felt”: that our bodies think and know in ways which precede cognition (the processing of experience by our minds). Consciousness, the human body and the phenomenal world are therefore inextricably intertwined or “engaged.” The body “incarnates” our subjectivity and we are thus, Merleau-Ponty proposed, “embedded” in the “flesh” of the world. (xxix-xxx)

For Merleau-Ponty, body and world are “endlessly relational,” and the world is “made manifest only by presenting itself to a variety of views, and our perception of it is made possible by our bodies and their sensory-motor functions. We are all co-natural with the world and it with us, but we only ever see it partially” (xxx). There are many affinities between Shepherd’s thinking and Merleau-Ponty’s, Macfarlane argues, but more importantly, her “belief in bodily thinking” gives the book a contemporary relevance:

More and more of us live more and more separately from contact with nature. We have come increasingly to forget that our minds are shaped by the bodily experience of being in the world—its spaces, textures, sounds, smells and habits—as well as by genetic traits we inherit and ideologies we absorb. We are literally losing touch, becoming disembodied, more than in any previous historical period. Shepherd saw this process starting over sixty years ago, and her book is both a mourning and a warning. . . . Her book is a hymn to “living all the way through”: to touching, tasting, smelling and hearing the world. (xxxi)

Shepherd’s book offers “a rigorous humanism, born of a phenomenology that–astonishingly–she mostly deduced by walking rather than developed by reading” (xxxii-xxxiii). The Phenomenology of Perception is on my reading list, and while I was aware of its importance before, Macfarlane’s discussion of the parallels between it and The Living Mountain makes me want to turn to it sooner rather than later.

“For Shepherd, the body thinks best when the mind stops, when it is ‘uncoupled’ from the body,” Macfarlane writes. “This is Shepherd’s revised version of Descartes cogito. I walk therefore I am. The rhythm of the pedestrian, the iamb of the ‘I am,’ the beat of the placed and lifted foot” (xxxiii). The knowledge The Living Mountain offers “arrives slantwise, from unexpected directions and quarters, and apparently limitlessly,” just like the knowledge the mountain offers” (xxxiii). “However often I read The Living Mountain, it holds astonishment for me,” Macfarlane concludes; “there is no getting accustomed to it” (xxxiv).

The Living Mountain is divided into 12 chapters; each focuses on one aspect of the Cairngorms–the geology and topography, water, frost and snow, air and light, plants, animals, human activities–but all are interconnected. The first chapter, “The Plateau,” begins with what is in many ways a summary of the book and its purpose:

Summer on the high plateau can be delectable as honey; it can also be a roaring scourge. To those who love the place, both are good, since both are part of its essential nature. And it is to know its essential nature that I am seeking here. To know, that is, with the knowledge that is a process of living. This is not done easily nor in an hour. It is a tale too slow for the impatience of our age, not of immediate enough import for its desperate problems. Yet it has its own rare value. It is, for one thing, a corrective of glib assessment: one never quite knows the mountain, nor oneself in relation to it. However often I walk on them, these hills hold astonishment for me. There is no getting accustomed to them. (1)

Shepherd describes the Cairngorms for readers unfamiliar with them and then writes, “this is a pallid simulacrum of their reality, which, like every reality that matters ultimately to human beings, is a reality of the mind” (1). Part of that reality is the “malady” that afflicts people like her, who are susceptible to mountains:

This bodily lightness, then, in the rarefied air, combines with the liberation of space to give mountain feyness to those who are susceptible to such a malady. For it is a malady, subverting the will and superseding the judgment: but a malady of which the afflicted will never ask to be cured. For this nonsense of physiology does not really explain it at all. . . . No, there is more in the lust for a mountain top than a perfect physiological adjustment. What more there is lies within the mountain. Something moves between me and it. Place and a mind may interpenetrate till the nature of both is altered. I cannot tell what this movement is except by recounting it. (8)

The Living Mountain recounts that movement between place and mind, the interpenetration that alters the nature of both.

In the second chapter, “The Recesses,” Shepherd recollects her earlier encounters with the mountains. “At first, made to discover the tang of height, I made always for the summits, and would not take time to explore the recesses,” she writes (9). Then, she went with a man “who knew the hill better than I did then” to the Coire an Lochain, where she saw Loch Coire an Lochain, a loch whose unremarkable name–“Loch of the Corrie of the Loch, that is all” (10)–belies its remarkable character: “I put my fingers in the water and found it cold. I listened to the waterfall until I no longer heard it. I let my eyes travel from shore to shore very slowly and was amazed at the width of the water” (10). This experience changed Shepherd’s sense of how things are: “Details are no longer part of a grouping in a picture of which I am the focal point, the focal point is everywhere. Nothing has reference to me, the onlooker. This is how the earth  must see itself” (11). “So I looked slowly across the Coire Loch, and began to understand that haste can do nothing with these hills,” she continues. “I knew when I had looked for a long time that I had hardly begun to see” (11). She had a similar experience later, encountering Loch Avon, whose icy waters she waded into: “My spirit was as naked as my body,” she recalls. “It was one of the most defenceless moments of my life” (13). She sees the edge of the shelf along the shore, the dividing point between the loch’s shallows and its great depths, and is shaken: “I do not think it was the imminence of personal bodily danger that shook me,” she writes–so it was not a fear of drowning that prompted her strange response. “That first glance down had shocked me into a heightened power of myself, in which even fear became a rare exhilaration: not that it ceased to be fear, but fear itself, so impersonal, so keenly apprehended, enlarged rather than constricted the spirit,” she continues (14).

Part of the loch’s power, she continues, is its inaccessibility. “Silence belongs to it,” she writes. “If jeeps find it out, or a funicular railway disfigures it, part of its meaning will be gone. The good of the greatest number is not here relevant. It is necessary to be sometimes exclusive, not on behalf of rank or wealth, but of those human qualities that can apprehend loneliness” (14). Listening, in the hills, is better than speaking, and having no destination, rather than heading for the mountain’s summits, is necessary if one is to understand: “Yet often the mountain gives itself most completely when I have no destination, when I reach nowhere in particular, but have gone out merely to be with the mountain as one visits a friend with no intention but to be with him” (15).

The third chapter, “The Group,” recounts two ideas that have persisted for Shepherd since her first experience climbing in the Cairngorms, a summit of Ben MacDhui. The first idea is the notion “that a mountain has an inside,” because at the top of Ben MacDhui was a “silent shining loch” (16). The second idea, she continues, “is of the inside of a cloud,” because a bank of cloud rolled in while she was on the mountain (17). That is not an uncommon experience in the Cairngorms, and Shepherd recollects her experiences inside clouds. “Once I was inside a cloud that gave no sensation whatever,” she remembers. “From within it, it was neither tangible nor visible, though as it approached it had looked thick and threatening” (17-18). A few times she has been able to “walk out through the top of a cloud” (18). “Once or twice I have had the luck to stand on a tip of ground and see a pearled and lustrous plain stretch out to the horizons,” she writes. “Far off, another peak lifts like a small island from the smother. It is like the morning of creation” (18).

Much of these first three chapters is about vision, about seeing the mountains from a distance, and silence. The fourth chapter, “Water,” moves from distant objects to closer ones. It begins with a return to the mountains: “So I am on the plateau again, having gone round it like a dog in circles to see if it is a good place. I think it is, and I am to stay up here for a while. . . . I can see to the ends of the earth and far up into the sky” (22). The  sense of repetition conveyed by the word “again” is important; Shepherd’s repeated encounters with this place are the precondition for her intimacy with it. “As I stand there in the silence,” she continues, “I become aware that the silence is not complete. Water is speaking. I go towards it, and almost at once the view is lost: for the plateau has its own hollows, and this one slopes widely down to one of the great inward fissures, the Garbh Coire” (22)–the source of the River Dee:

Water, that strong white stuff, one of the four elemental mysteries, can here be seen at its origins. Like all profound mysteries, it is so simple that it frightens me. It wells from the rock, and flows away. For unnumbered years it has welled from the rock, and flowed away. It does nothing, absolutely nothing, but be itself. (23)

Streams and burns are everywhere on the mountain, appearing and then disappearing into the rock. “The water from the granite is cold,” Shepherd writes. “To drink it at the source makes the throat tingle. A sting of life is in its touch. Yet there are midsummer days when even on the plateau the streams are warm enough to bathe in” (26). “The sound of all this moving water is as integral to the mountain as pollen to the flower,” she continues:

One hears it without listening as one breathes without thinking. But to a listening ear the sound disintegrates into many different notes—the slow slap of a loch, the high clear trill of a rivulet, the roar of spate. On one short stretch of burn the ear my distinguish a dozen different notes at once. (26)

When in spate, the water’s force is dangerous:

For the most appalling quality of water is its strength. I love its flash and gleam, its music, its pliancy and grace, its slap against my body; but I fear its strength. I fear it as my ancestors must have feared the natural forces that they worshipped. All the mysteries are in its movement. It slips out of holes in the earth like the ancient snake. I have seen its birth; and the more I gaze at that sure and unremitting surge of water at the very top of the mountain, the more I am baffled. . . . I cannot fathom its power. (27)

The idea that there are mysteries to this place that cannot be understood is, as Macfarlane stated in the introduction, one of the central arguments of The Living Mountain.

The next chapter, “Frost and Snow,” covers topics you would think Canadians would understand, but Shepherd has spent a lot of time observing winter on the mountain. She begins with “the struggle between frost and the force in the running water,” a struggle that “is not quickly over” (29). She once spent a day in midwinter watching burns freeze as the weather turned cold: “I had no idea how many fantastic shapes the freezing of running water took. In each whorl and spike one catches the moment of equilibrium between two elemental forces” (29). Sometimes, she notes, a third force, the wind, complicates the forms produced by the freezing water:

The ice may be crystal clear, but more probably is translucent; crimpled, cracked, or bubbled; green throughout or at the edges. Where the water comes wreathing over stones the ice is opaque, in broken circular structure. Where the water runs thinly over a line of stones right across the bed and freezes in crinkled green cascades of ice, then a dam forms further up of half frozen slush, green, though colourless if lifted out, solid at its margins, foliated, with the edges all separate, like untrimmed hand-made paper, and each edge a vivid green. (31)

“In short, there is no end to the lovely things that frost and the running of water can create between them,” she concludes, but she also registers her sense that descriptions of “these delicate manifestations” cannot possibly describe them adequately (30-31).

Shepherd recalls sleeping out on a mountain top in winter (like Macfarlane, who often sleeps out in winter, Shepherd has no fear of the cold):

The intense frost, the cloudless sky, the white world, the setting sun and the rising moon, as we gazed on them from the slop of Morrone, melted into a prismatic radiation of blue, helio, mauve, and rose. The full moon floated up into green light; and as the rose and violet hues spread over snow and sky, the colour seemed to live its own life, to have body and resilience, as though we were not looking at it, but were inside its substance. (29-30)

The following day, in the sunshine, the mountain was very different: “How crisp, how bright a world! but, except for the crunch of our own boots on the snow, how silent,” she writes. “But it was not an empty world. For everywhere in the snow were the tracks of birds and animals,” tracks which “give to winter hill walking a distinctive pleasure. One is companioned, though not in time” (30).

Shepherd’s attention to what happens when the burns freeze is matched by her attention  to them when they melt:

At one point . . . near the exit of a loch, the peculiar motion of the current among ice-floes has woven the thousands of floating pine-needles into compacted balls, so intricately intertwined that their symmetrical shape is permanently retained. They can be lifted out of the water and kept for years, a botanical puzzle to those who have not been told the secret of their formation. (33)

She notes the shapes formed as snow is “played with by frost and wind” (33), and the appearance of clouds that foretell the coming of snow (33), and the colours of snow falling and of the land after it has fallen, and of a snowy sky (34). The snow-covered plateau, “seen from without, while snow is taking possession, changes with every air,” she writes (34). Yet the snowy mountain is dangerous, not only because of the risk of getting lost in a storm and freezing to death, but because of the reflection of sunlight. “The winter light has not the strength to harm,” she notes, but in the spring, when the light is stronger, shat isn’t the case, and she was once left badly sunburned and snow-blind at the end of April (35-36).

Still, it is the blizzards that are the greatest danger:

I have watched, from the shoulder of Morrone, the Cairngorm mass eddy and sink and rise (as it seemed) like a tossed wreck on a yellow sea. Sky and the wrack of a precipice and overhang were confounded together. Now a spar, now a mast, just recognisable as buttress or cornice, tossed for a moment in the boiling sea of cloud. Then the sea closed on it, to open again with another glimpse of mounting spars—a shape drove its way for a moment through the smother, and was drawn under by the vicious swirl. Ashen and yellow, the sky kicked convulsively. (36)

It was not long before that storm reached the place where she stood watching: “Soon I could hardly stand erect against their force. And on the wind sailed minute thistledowns of snow, mere gossamers. Their fragility, insubstantial almost as air, presaged a weight and solidity of snow that was to lie on the land for many weeks” (37). “Blizzard is the most deadly condition of these hills,” Shepherd writes:

It is wind that is to be feared, even more than snow itself. Of the lives that have been lost in the Cairngorms while I have been frequenting them (there have been about a dozen, excepting those who have perished in plane crashes) four were lost in blizzard. Three fell from the rock—one of these a girl. One was betrayed by the ice-hard condition of a patch of snow in May, and slipped. All these were young. Two older men have gone out, and disappeared. The body of one of these was discovered two years later. (37-38)

She tells a story of two boys who foolishly headed out onto the mountain just before a blizzard hit, and who froze to death. “They committed, I suppose, an error of judgment, but I cannot judge them,” she concludes. “For it is the risk we must all take when we accept individual responsibility for ourselves on the mountain, and until we have done that, we do not begin to know it” (39-40). The mountain has dangers, and that it is impossible to know the mountain unless one accepts them–and the possibility that one might be harmed by them.

Shepherd begins chapter six, “Air and Light,” with a discussion of the “deep and intense” shadows that the mountain’s “rarefied air” creates (41). “The air is part of the mountain, which does not come to an end with its rock and soil,” she continues. “It has its own air; and it is to the quality of its air that is due the endless diversity of its colourings” (41). In addition to colour, the air’s moisture can cause optical illusions–“those shifts in the apparent size, remoteness, and height in the sky of familiar hills” (42). Those illusions are “part of the horror of walking in mist on the plateau, for suddenly through a gap one sees solid ground that seems three steps away but lies in sober face beyond a 2000 foot chasm” (42). “And once in the Monadhliaths,” she writes,

on a soft spring day when the distances were hazed, valley, hills and sky all being a faintly luminous grey-blue, with no detail, I was suddenly aware of a pattern of definite white lines high above me in the sky. The pattern defined itself more clearly; it was familiar; I realised it was the pattern of the plateau edge and corries of the Cairngorms, where the unmelted snow still lay. There it hung, a snow skeleton, attached to nothing, much higher than I should have expected it to be. (42)

Rain, haze, and mist also affect how one sees. Mist is the most frightening; “when the mist thickens, one walks in a blind world,” she writes. “And that is bad: though there is a thrill in its eeriness, and a sound satisfaction in not getting lost” (44). There is beauty in the rain, she writes, but not a “sodden, sullen black rain that invades body and soul alike”; at such times, the mountain “becomes a monstrous place” (44). It is also desolate in the early spring, “when the snow is rather dirty, perished in places like a worn dress”:

But even in this scene of grey desolation, if the sun comes out and the wind rises, the eye may suddenly perceive a miracle of beauty. For on the ground the down of a ptarmigan’s breast feather has caught the sun. Light blows through it, so transparent the fugitive spindrift feather has become. It blows away and vanishes. (44-45)

On another “drab” spring day, “feeling as drab as the weather,”

I stand on a bridge above a swollen stream. And suddenly the world is made new. Submerged but erect in the margin of the stream I see a tree hung with light—a minimal tree, but exquisite, its branches delicate with globes of light that sparkle under the water. I clamber down and thrust a sacrilegious hand into the stream: I am holding a sodden and shapeless thing. I slip it again under the water and instantly again it is a tree of light. (45)

The “tree of light” turns out to be a branch of St. John’s Wort, the oily leaves of which are reflecting the light (45).

“Storm in the air wakes the hidden fires,” Shepherd writes (45). Those “hidden fires” include lightning, the aurora borealis, and “the electric flickers we call fire flauchts” (45). “Under these alien lights the mountains are remote. They withdraw in darkness” (45). That reminds Shepherd of what it’s like walking in the dark, which “can reveal new knowledge about a particular place” (46). Once, during a wartime blackout, she walked over the moor:

it amazed me to find how unfamiliar I was with that path. I had followed it times without number, yet now, when my eyes were in my feet, I did not know its bumps and holes, nor where the trickles of water crossed it, nor where it rose and fell. It astonished me that my memory was so much in the eye and so little in the feet, for I am not awkward in the dark and walk easily and happily in it. Yet here I am stumbling because the rock has made a hump in the ground. To be a blind man, I see, needs application. (46)

The more one comes to know the mountain, the more mysteries it appears to possess.

In her seventh chapter, “Life: The Plants,” Shepherd sets out to correct a misapprehension her readers might have about the mountain after reading the previous half of the book:

I have written of inanimate things, rock and water, frost and sun; and it might seem as though this were not a living world. But I have wanted to come to the living things through the forces that create them, for the mountain is one and indivisible, and rock, soil, water and air are no more integral to it than what grow from the soil and breathes the air. All are aspects of one entity, the living mountain. The disintegrating rock, the nurturing rain, the quickening sun, the seed, the root, the bird—all are one. (48)

It is surprising, though, given the “terrible blasting winds,” that anything can grow on the mountain (48). “The plants of the plateau are low in stature, sitting tight to the ground with now loose ends for the wind to catch,” she writes. “They creep, either along the surface, or under it; or they anchor themselves by a heavy root massive out of all proportion to their external growth” (49-50). Lower down the slopes and on the moors is the “profuse luxuriance” of the heather (50). Walking through the heather in summer, its pollen “rises in a perfumed cloud” and

settles on one’s boots, or if one is walking barefoot, on feet and legs, yellowy-fawn in colour, silky to the touch, yet leaving a perceptible grit between the fingers. Miles of this, however, stupifies the body. Like too much incense in church, it blunts the sharp edge of adoration, which, at its finest, demands clarity of the intellect as well as the surge of emotion. (51)

The best thing about heather is the feel of it underfoot–especially when she removes her boots and walks barefoot on the mountain.

There are many smells on the mountain, but they are all of life, “plant and animal. Even the good smell of earth, one of the best smells in the world is a smell of life, because it is the activity of bacteria in it that sets up this smell” (52). She loves the odours of plants, particularly fir trees and pines, which, because “the fragrance is the sap, is the very life itself”: “When the aromatic savour of the pine goes searching into the deepest recesses of my lungs, I know it is life that is entering. I draw life in through the delicate hairs of my nostrils” (52). Here is the interpenetration between Shepherd and the mountain that Macfarlane describes; Shepherd’s nostril hairs are an interior version of the pines’ needles, and the life of one enters into the life of the other. The birch trees, though, require rain to release their odour: “It is a scent with body to it, fruity like old brandy, and on a wet warm day, one can be as good as drunk with it. Acting through the sensory nerves, it confuses the higher centres; one is excited, with no cause that the wit can define” (53). The birches are loveliest when naked: “Without transfiguration, they are seen to be purple–when the sap is rising, a purple so glowing that I have caught sight of a birchwood on a hillside and for one incredulous moment thought the heather was in bloom” (53). But even more spectacular than spring is October, “the coloured month here, far more brilliant than June, blazing more sharply than August,” as the leaves of deciduous trees and shrubs turn colour (54).

Shepherd shifts now to the effect of human activity on the forests. The great old-growth pine forest of Rothiemurchus is mostly gone, she notes, and the effects on animals, birds, and the land itself are marked (54-56). Other activities seem less catastrophic; she describes how old women use fir roots to make fire for tea (57-58), and recalls her childhood experiences of picking stag moss:

We lay on the heather and my fingers learned to feel their way along each separate trail and side branch, carefully detaching each tiny root, until we had thick bunchy pieces many yards long. It was a good art to teach a child. Though I did not know it then, I was learning my way in, through my own fingers, to the secret of growth. (58)

The mountain “never quite gives away” that secret, Shepherd writes, and although humans are “slowly learning to read it,” watching, pondering, patiently adding “fact to fact,” “[t]he more one learns of this delicate interplay of soil, altitude, weather, and the living tissues of plant and insect . . . the more the mystery deepens. Knowledge does not dispel mystery” (59).

The following chapter, “Life: Birds, Animals, Insects,” examines the other life forms on the plateau. Shepherd recalls her first visit there in summer, on a warm day, and her discovery of swifts:

Something dark swished past the side of my head at a speed that made me giddy. Hardly had I got back my balance when it came again, whistling through the windless air, which eddied around me with the motion. This time my eyes were ready, and I realised that a swift was sweeping in mighty curves over the edge of the plateau, plunging down the face of the rock and rising again like a jet of water. (60)

She is “shocked . . . with a thrill of elation. All that volley of speed, those convolutions of delight, to catch a few flies! The discrepancy between purpose and performance made me laugh aloud–a laugh that gave the feeling of release as though I had been dancing for a long time” (60). There is something erotic in that release, and in the strength of her response to these birds:

I have never felt so strongly as when watching swifts on the mountain top. Their headlong rush, each curve of which is at the same time a miracle of grace, the swishing sound of their cleavage of the air and the occasional high pitched cry that is hardly like the note of an earthly bird, seem to make visible and audible some essence of the free, wild spirit of the mountain. (61)

“Imagination is haunted by the swiftness of the creatures that live on the mountain–eagle and peregrine falcon, red deer and mountain hare,” she writes. “The reason for their swiftness is severely practical: food is so scarce up there that only those who can move swiftly over vast stretches may hope to survive” (64). And yet, she continues, “their grace is not necessity. Or if it is–if the swoop, the parabola, the arrow-flight of hooves and wings achieve their beauty by strict adherence to the needs of function–so much the more is the mountain’s integrity vindicated. Beauty is not adventitious but essential” (64).

But speed is not the only characteristic of the animals and birds living on the plateau. Deer, especially, seem to have the ability to become invisible: “Indeed there are times when the earth seems to re-absorb this creature of air and light,” Shepherd writes. “Roes melt into the wood–I have stared a long time into birches where I knew a doe was standing and saw her only when at last she flicked an ear” (72). Fawns, though, lack patience, and will walk away rather than stand still (72).

Shepherd concludes the chapter with a catalogue of bird, animal, and insect life on the mountain:

Other young things–leverets in the form wrapped in silky hair–fox cubs playing in the sun in a distant fold of the hill–the fox himself with his fat red brush–the red-brown squirrel in the woods below, whacking his tail against the tree-trunk and chattering through closed lips (I think) against the intruder–gold-brown lizards and the gold-brown floss of cocoons in the heather–small golden bees and small blue butterflies–green dragon flies and emerald beetles–moths like oiled paper and moths like burnt paper–water-beetles skimming the highest tarns–small mice so rare seen but leaving a thousand tracks upon the snow–ant-heaps of birch-twigs or pine-needles (preens, in the northern world) flickering with activity when the sun shines–midges, mosquitoes, flies by the hundred thousand, adders and a rare strange slowworm–small frogs jumping like tiddly-winks–rich brown hairy caterpillars by the handful and fat green ones with blobs of amethyst, a perfect camouflage on heather–life in so many guises. (74)

Those life forms are so varied and wonderful, compared to the creatures humans value for economic reasons–sheep, deer, and Highland cattle, whose faces, Shepherd suggests, must “be the origin of the Scots conception of the Devil” (74-75). The life that exists outside of what we value, outside of what we consider to be a resource, is nearly beyond our comprehension; I think that’s the reason Shepherd relies on a catalogue to convey its variety and wonder. The range of living creatures simply outstrips her descriptive power.

The next chapter, “Man,” is about human activity on the mountains. “Up on the plateau nothing has moved for a long time,” Shepherd writes. “I have walked all day, and seen no one. I have heard no living sound. Once, in a solitary corrie, the rattle of a falling stone betrayed the passage of a line of stags. But up here, no movement, no voice. Man might be a thousand years away” (76). And yet, she continues, “as I look around me, I am touched at many points by his presence”: in cairns, paths, stepping stones across burns, bridges, “the remains of the hut where the men who made the Ordnance Survey of the eighteen-sixties lived for the whole of a season,” “in the map and compass that I carry, and in the names recorded in the map,” “in the hiding-holes of hunted men,” “in the sluices at the outflow of the lochs, the remnants of lime kilns by the burns, and the shepherds’ huts, roofless now, and the bothies of which nothing remains but a chimney-gable,” and “in the wrecked aeroplanes that lie scattered over the mountains” (76-77). The traces of human activity are everywhere on the mountain, even when it seems to be utterly devoid of people.

It is a hard life for those who live in the Cairngorms. “These crofts and farms and gamekeepers’ cottages breed men of character,” Shepherd writes. “They are individualists, gritty, tough, thrawn, intelligent, full of prejudice, with strange kinks and a salted sense of humour. Life here is hard and astringent, but it seldom kills grace in the soul” (80). The days are long, the work hard: “In these crannies of the mountains, the mode of supplying elemental needs is still low, laborious and personal” (82). Nevertheless, in “these simple acts” of drawing water, building fires, and cooking, “there is a deep pervasive satisfaction”: “Whether you give it conscious thought or not, you are touching life, and something within you knows it” (82). But before you accuse Shepherd of romanticizing a life she did not care to lead, she notes that “if I had to do these things every day and all the time I should be shutting the door on other activities and interests”–including, no doubt, exploring the mountain and writing about it–“and I can understand why the young people resent it” (82). Not all of the young want to leave, she continues: “Far from it. Some of them love these wild places with devotion and ask nothing better than to spend their lives in them” (82). But others “are restive, they resent the primitive conditions of living, despise the slow ancient ways, and think that praising them is sentimentalism. They clear out” (82).

Shepherd’s contact with those who live on the plateau has been as one of “the lovers of the hills whom they allow to share their houses,” accepting such strangers “on equal terms without ceremonial” (82-83). They accept mountain climbing and “oddities like night prowling and sleeping in the open,” but they have no tolerance for irresponsibility:

They have only condemnation for winter climbing. They know only too well how swiftly a storm can blow up out of a clear sky, how soon the dark comes down, and how terrific the force of a hurricane can be upon the plateau. . . . Yet if a man does not come back, they go out to search for him with patience, doggedness and skill, often in appalling weather conditions; and when there is no more hope of his being alive, seek persistently for the body. (84)

“These people are the bone of the mountain,” she writes, after describing and naming several whom she knows well. “As the way of life changes, and a new economy moulds their life, perhaps they too will change. Yet so long as they live a life close to their wild land, subject to its weathers, something of its own nature will permeate theirs. They will be marked men” (89). What an odd phrase to end the chapter with–“marked men”–with its (to my ear) negative connotations, its source (I think) in the story of Cain and Abel. Wasn’t Cain the first “marked man”? Why end this chapter’s evocation of those who live on the mountain with that phrase?

The following chapter thinks about sleep. It begins with a summary of Shepherd’s experience in the Cairngorms:

Well, I have discovered my mountain—its weathers, its airs and lights, its singing burns, its haunted dells, its pinnacles and tarns, its birds and flowers, its snows, its long blue distances. Year by year, I have grown in familiarity with them all. But if the whole truth of them is to be told as I have found it, I too am involved. I have been the instrument of my own discovering; and to govern the stops of the instrument needs learning too. Thus the senses must be trained and disciplined, the eye to look, the ear to listen, the body must be trained to move with the right harmonies. I can teach my body many skills by which to learn the nature of the mountains. One of the most compelling is quiescence. (90)

“No one knows the mountain completely who has not slept on it,” Shepherd argues, and in sleeping on the mountain, one only “dwells in pure intimacy with the tangible world” (90). She has slept on the mountain at night, and during the day (90-91). Such outdoor sleeping, she suggests, empties or uncouples the mind. “I do not ascribe sentience to the mountain; yet at no other moment am I sunk quite so deep into its life,” she writes. “I have let go my self. The experience is peculiarly precious because it is impossible to coerce” (91). The chapter ends with recollections of different experiences sleeping–or more accurately, awakening–on the mountain, in different seasons, and the strange experiences she has had waking at dawn with birds walking on her, or deer feeding nearby, experiences which leave her wondering if she dreamed them.

Chapter 11, “The Senses,” returns to the evocation of Shepherd’s various senses that has formed much of the earlier chapters. “Having disciplined mind and body to quiescence, I must discipline them also to activity,” she begins. “The senses must be used” (96). Each of the senses is a way to what the mountain has to give” (97): hearing; taste; scent; vision and touch, which “have the greatest potency for me” (97-98). Sight is clearly paramount for Shepherd: “How can I number the worlds to which the eye gives me entry?–the world of light, of colour, of shape, of shadow; of mathematical precision in the snowflake, the ice formation, the quartz crystal, the patterns of stamen and petal; of rhythm in the fluid curve and plunging line of the mountain faces” (101). “Perhaps,” she wonders,

the eye imposes its own rhythm on what is only a confusion: one has to look creatively to see this mass of rock as more than jag and pinnacle—as beauty. Else why did men for so many centuries think mountains repulsive? A certain kind of consciousness interacts with the mountain-forms to create this sense of beauty. Yet the forms must be there for the eye to see. And forms of a certain distinction: mere dollops won’t do it. It is, as with all creation, matter impregnated with mind: but the resultant issue is a living spirit, a glow in the consciousness, that perishes when the glow is dead. It is something snatched from non-being, that shadow which creeps in on us continuously and can be held off by continuously creative act. So, simply to look on anything, such as a mountain, with the love that penetrates to its essence, is to widen the domain of being in the vastness of non-being. Man has no other reason for his existence. (101-02)

But touch is, she writes, “the most intimate sense of all” (102). She uses her hands to touch the mountain, but also her feet (102-04). Some experiences of touch are so powerful that they seem to annihilate her: “This plunge into the cold water of a mountain pool seems for a brief moment to disintegrate the very self; it is not to be borne: one is lost: stricken: annihilated. Then life pours back” (104).

Not surprisingly, perhaps, the book’s last chapter, “Being,” picks up on the senses:

Here then may be lived a life of the senses so pure, so untouched by any mode of apprehension but their own, that the body may be said to think. Each sense heightened to its most exquisite awareness is in itself total experience. This is the innocence we have lost, livingin one sense at a time to live all the way through. (105)

When she lies on the plateau, she experiences “the total mountain”: “Slowly I have found my way in. If I had other senses, there are other things I should know” (105). “Yet,” she continues,

with what we have, what wealth! I add to it each time I go to the mountain–the eye sees what it didn’t see before, or sees in a new way what it had already seen. So the ear, the other senses. It is an experience that grows; undistinguished days add their part, and now and then, unpredictable and unforgettable, come the hours when heaven and earth fall away and one sees a new creation. The many details—a stroke here, a stroke there—come for a moment into perfect focus, and one can read at last the word that has been from the beginning. (105-06)

“These moments come unpredictably, yet governed, it would seem, by a law whose working is dimly understood,” she writes (106). They come to her when she is waking up outdoors; when she is “gazing tranced at the running water and listening to its song”;

and most of all after hours of steady walking, with the long rhythm of motion sustained until motion is felt, not merely known in the brain, as the ‘still centre’ of being. . . . Walking thus, hour after hour, the senses keyed, one walks the flesh transparent. But no metaphor, transparent, or light as air, is adequate. The body is not made negligible, but paramount. Flesh is not annihilated but fulfilled. One is not bodiless, but essential body. (106)

“It is therefore when the body is keyed to its highest potential and controlled to a profound harmony deepening into something that resembles trance,” she continues,

that I discover most nearly what it is to be. I have walked out of the body and into the mountain. I am a manifestation of its total life, as is the starry saxifrage or the white-winged ptarmigan.

So I have found what I set out to find. I set out on my journey in pure love. (106)

She recalls her first experiences in the Cairngorms, when she was a child. “I drank and drank,” she writes. “I have not yet done drinking that draught. From that hour I belonged to the Cairngorms” (107). “So my journey into an experience began”–an experience of discovering “the mountain in itself,” a process that “has taken many years, and is not yet complete. Knowing another is endless. And I have discovered that man’s experience of them enlarges rock, flower and bird. The thing to be known grows with the growing” (107-08). Finally, she suggests that this journey of discovery has been a kind of pilgrimage:

I believe that I now understand in some small measure why the Buddhist goes on pilgrimage to a mountain. The journey is itself part of the technique by which the god is sought. It is a journey into Being; for as I penetrate more deeply into the mountain’s life, I penetrate also into my own. For an hour I am beyond desire. It is not ecstasy, that leap out of the self that makes man like a god. I am not out of myself, but in myself. I am. To know Being, this is the final grace accorded from the mountain. (108)

This has been a quite lengthy summary of a rather short book, but I think The Living Mountain deserves this kind of attention. There is so much going on in this book, so much to admire: its detailed evocation of the experiences of the five senses, particularly sight and touch; its suggestion that coming to know a place is also a process of coming to know one’s self; its description of the way walking can produce a state of trance; its loving acceptance of the mountain and all of the creatures, plant and animal and bird and insect, that make it their homes. I find myself wishing I had found, years or decades ago, a place that I might have explored in the way that Shepherd explored the Cairngorms, deeply and thoroughly and humbly–something few of us are able to do, I think, and yet another reason why The Living Mountain is so important.

Work Cited

Shepherd, Nan. The Living Mountain. Canongate, 2011.

48. Tim Ingold, “The Temporality of the Landscape”

ingold temporality of the landscape

I decided to read Tim Ingold’s essay “The Temporality of the Landscape” for two reasons. First, Doreen Massey mentioned it as an example of thinking about space and temporality, and second, in my experience, I’ve always found that Ingold has interesting things to say. It’s an odd essay, though, and while I don’t agree with everything in it, I think it’s a valuable example of phenomenological thinking about space and place.

Ingold begins by stressing what he sees as two central themes in both archaeology and anthropology:

First, human life is a process that involves the passage of time. Second, this life-process is also the process of formation of the landscapes in which people have lived. Time and landscape, then, are to my mind the essential points of topical contact between archaeology and anthropology. (152)

That contact between archaeology and anthropology is really the thing Ingold is interested in exploring. He states that his purpose in writing this essay is

to bring the perspectives of archaeology and anthropology into unison through a focus on the temporality of the landscape. . . . such a focus might enable us to move beyond the sterile opposition between the naturalistic view of the landscape as a neutral, external backdrop to human activities, and the culturalistic view that every landscape is a particular cognitive or symbolic ordering of space. (152)

Rather than those oppositions, Ingold argues that we need to adopt what he calls “a ‘dwelling perspective,’ according to which the landscape is constituted as an enduring record of—and testimony to—the lives and works of past generations who have dwelt within it, and in so doing, have left something of themselves” (152). That perspective is what connects archaeology and anthropology together; anthropology, he suggests, is about “knowledge born of immediate experience,” but archaeology isn’t knowledge about people who are now dead; “the practice of archaeology is itself a form of dwelling” (152). The use of the word “dwelling” suggests that Ingold’s argument is based in Martin Heidegger’s essay “Building Dwelling Thinking,” which he cites halfway through this essay (162). I really would have to re-read “Building Dwelling Thinking” if I wanted to get the most out of Ingold’s essay. 

According to Ingold, for both anthropology (knowledge provided by “the native dweller”) and archaeology,

the landscape tells—or rather is—a story. It enfolds the lives and times of predecessors who, over the generations, have moved around on it and played their part in its formation. To perceive the landscape is therefore to carry out an act of remembrance, and remembering is not so much a matter of calling up an internal image, stored in the mind, as of engaging perceptually with an environment that is itself pregnant with the past. (152-53)

The methods used by archaeologists and anthropologists are different, as are the stories they tell, but “they are engaged in projects of fundamentally the same kind” (153). He gives, as an example, an imagined experienced hunter, who knows about the land and has learned about it through experience and being taught. If asked to communicate this knowledge (by an anthropologist), that hunter may do so in the form of stories. Such stories would be different from the anthropologist’s site report, Ingold notes, but

we should resist the temptation to assume that since stories are stories they are, in some sense, unreal or untrue, for this is to suppose that the only real reality, or true truth, is on in which we, as living, experiencing beings, can have no part at all. Telling a story is not like weaving a tapestry to cover up the world, it is rather a way of guiding the attention of listeners or readers into it. A person who can “tell” is one who is perceptually attuned to picking up information in the environment that others, less skilled in the tasks of perception, might miss, and the teller, in rendering his knowledge explicit, conducts the attention of his audience along the same paths as his own. (153)

I might not be interested in the relationship between archaeology and anthropology, but I am interested in stories as the result of being perceptually attuned to an environment, and so, despite the disciplinary framework of Ingold’s essay, I decided to keep reading.

Ingold notes that his essay is divided into four parts. The first is a defence of his use of the term “landscape.” Landscape, he suggests, is not “land,” or “nature,” or “space” (153). The term “land,” he argues, “is a kind of lowest common denominator of the phenomenal world, inherent in every portion of the earth’s surface yet directly visible in none” (153). We can ask how much land there is, he contends, but not what that land is like (153-54). “But where land is thus quantitative and homogenous,” he continues, “the landscape is qualitative and heterogenous” (154). Landscape is what we see all around us; it is “a contoured and textured surface replete with diverse objects—living and non-living, natural and artificial” (154). “Thus,” he writes, “at any particular moment, you can ask of a landscape what it is like, but not how much of it there is” (154). 

Nor is landscape “nature.” For Ingold, “nature” is a concept “whose ontological foundation is an imagined separation between the human perceiver and the world, such that the perceiver has to reconstruct the world, in consciousness, prior to any meaningful engagement with it” (154). That separation between humans and the natural world suggests that it is “out there,” while we are “in here,” “in the intersubjective space marked out by our mental representations” (154). That dualism, he contends, leads to a conception of nature as a cultural image, a pictorial way of representing one’s surroundings—a division between inner and outer worlds that Ingold rejects: “The landscape, I hold, is not a picture in the imagination, surveyed by the mind’s eye; nor, however, is it an alien and formless substrate awaiting the imposition of human order” (154). Landscape, he continues, is not identical to nature; nor is it “on the side of humanity against nature” (154). “As the familiar domain of our dwelling,” Ingold writes, landscape “is with us, not against us, but it is no less real for that. And through living in it, the landscape becomes a part of us, just as we are a part of it. Moreover, what goes for its human component goes for other components as well”—in a landscape, that is, “each component enfolds within its essence the totality of its relations with each and every other” (154). 

Landscape isn’t space, either:  “To appreciate the contrast, we could compare the everyday project of dwelling in the world with the rather peculiar and specialized project of the surveyor or cartographer whose objective is to represent it” (154). Space, then, for Ingold, is the result of the surveyor’s measurements, which “produce a single picture which is independent of any point of observation” (154-55). In other words, space is a particular form of representation. However, Ingold shifts from a discussion of space to one of place over the course of a complicated analogy between what geographers and anthropologists mean by space, and Ferdinand de Saussure’s claim that there is a homologous relation between thought and sound (155). “Just as the word, for Saussure, is the union of a concept with a delimited ‘chunk’ of sound,” Ingold writes, “so the place is the union of a symbolic meaning with a delimited block of the earth’s surface” (155). Place is associated with landscape in this argument, rather than with space. In its relation to place, landscape is different from space:

For a place in the landscape is not “cut out” from the whole, either on the plane of ideas or on that of material substance. Rather, each place embodies the whole at a particular nexus within it, and in this respect is different from every other. A place owes its character to the experiences it affords to those who spend time there—to the sights, sounds and indeed smells that constitute its particular ambience. And these, in turn, depend on the kinds of activities in which its inhabitants engage. It is from this relational context of people’s engagement with the world, in the business of dwelling, that each place draws its unique significance. Thus whereas with space, meanings are attached to the world, with the landscape they are gathered from it. (155)

In addition, “while places have centres—indeed it would be more appropriate to say that they are centres—they have no boundaries” (155-56), a suggestion that seems to contradict Ingold’s earlier assertion that places are delimited. No feature of the landscape is, of itself, a boundary: “It can only become a boundary, or the indicator of a boundary, in relation to the activities of the people (or animals) for whom it is recognized or experienced as such” (156). “In short,” he continues, “the landscape is the world as it is known to those who dwell therein, who inhabit is places and journey along the paths connecting them” (156).

Ingold’s suggestion that a place is a nexus reminds me of Massey’s suggestion that places are “the foci of the meeting and the nonmeeting of the previously unrelated” (71), but I think his sense of place is much closer to Yi-Fu Tuan’s than Massey’s, since he is suggesting that place is the product of a phenomenological or sensory engagement with the world, and that it is also the result of the activities of its inhabitants. Place, for Ingold, is what is known and experienced, I think, rather than, as for Massey, a location of coherence in identity formation (71). It is difficult to bring together writers working from such variant intellectual starting points, and should I try to bring Tuan and Massey together, I think I’ll discover that such a rapprochement is nearly impossible. I’m still convinced that Tuan and Massey, or for that matter Ingold and Massey, do have points of connection regarding place, but making that argument is going to be hard.

Landscape isn’t environment, either, according to Ingold. An environment is an organized system of dynamic functioning (156)—like an ecosystem—while landscape, in contrast,

puts the emphasis on form, in just the same way that the concept of the body emphasizes the form rather than the function of a living creature. Like organism and environment, body and landscape are complementary terms: each implies the other, alternately as figure and ground. The forms of the landscape are not, however, prepared in advance for creatures to occupy, nor are the bodily forms of those creatures independently sustained in and through the processual unfolding of a total field of relations that cuts across the emergent interface between organism and environment. (156)

The notion of a “processual unfolding of a total field of relations” suggests the ways that the inhabitants of a landscape, both human and nonhuman, play a role in constructing the forms of a given landscape. Landscape is about processes and relations which shape that landscape.

It doesn’t really matter to me that Ingold prefers the term “landscape” over nature or environment or land or space, but I would rather avoid it, for several reasons. I recall that, years ago, reading about landscape in course I was taking on the sublime at York University, I read an essay that argued that landscape is a visual and aesthetic term, typically modified by adjectives like “sublime” or “picturesque.” Ingold’s ekphrastic recourse to Pieter Brughel the Elder’s 1565 painting The Harvesters in the fourth section of his essay suggests, ironically, the connection between the term “landscape” and aesthetic representation. I prefer to use the term “land,” partly because that’s the term I’ve heard Indigenous people use to describe their relation to the territory where they live and work. I don’t accept Ingold’s argument that the word “land” is necessarily “quantitative and homogenous” (154); there’s no reason to assume that it cannot be “qualitative and heterogenous,” terms he applies to “landscape” (154). I understand why he avoids “nature,” a term that is a cultural category, an imagined space free of human activity—a definition that has led to Indigenous people being forced off their land to make way for national parks in this country. 

The term “environment” leads Ingold to think about life-cycles, and he wonders whether it might not be possible “to identify a corresponding cycle, or rather a series of interlocking cycles, which build themselves into the forms of the landscape, and of which the landscape may accordingly be regarded as an environment” (157). Before he can answer that question, he suggests, it’s necessary to define temporality (157). I suppose that’s because the existence of such “interlocking cycles” suggests things happening in the landscape over time. Temporality is not chronology or history; it is not “a regular system of dated time intervals, in which events are said to have taken place” (chronology), nor “any series of events which may be dated in time according to their occurrence in one or another chronological interval” (history) (157). Rather, according to Ingold, “temporality entails a perspective that contrasts radically with the one . . . that sets up history and chronology in a relation of complementary opposition” (157). Temporality is about “time immanent in the passage of events,” events which encompass patterns of “retensions from the past and protentions for the future” (157). I remember a course I took at the University of Ottawa about the connection between temporality and literary texts, and the idea that the present involves both memories of the past and anticipations of the future, an idea derived from Heidegger, has stayed with me. History and chronology, unlike temporality, treat events “as isolated happenings, succeeding one another frame by frame,” events which are “strung out in time like beads on a thread” (157). However, “temporality and historicity are not opposed but rather merge in the experience of those who, in their activities, carry forward the process of social life,” Ingold contends. “Taken together, these activities make up what I shall call the ‘taskscape’” (157). 

The taskscape is inherently temporal, and Ingold sets out to distinguish task from labour as a way of clarifying what he means by taskscape. The distinction is not unlike the one he drew between land and landscape; “labour is quantitative and homogenous, human work shorn of its particularities,” whereas tasks are “the practices of work in their concrete particulars” (158). Tasks are, he continues, “any practical operation, carried out by a skilled agent in an environment, as part of his or her normal business of life. In other words, tasks are the constitutive acts of dwelling” (158). Tasks are not, however, individualized, or suspended in a vacuum, any more than features in a landscape are: “Every task takes its meaning from its position within an ensemble of tasks, performed in series or in parallel, and usually by many people working together” (158). The taskscape, then, is inherently “qualitative and heterogenous,” as well as social (158-59). Participants in the taskscape perceive its temporality as they perform their tasks, Ingold argues. “The notion that we can stand aside and observe the passage of time is founded upon an illusion of disembodiment” (159). The taskscape, then, must be embodied, but that embodiment involves both past and present—in other words, it is temporal:

Reaching out into the taskscape, I perceive, at this moment, a particular vista of past and future; but it is a vista that is available from this moment and no other. As such, it constitutes my present, conferring upon it a unique character. Thus the present is not marked off from a past that it has replaced or a future that will, in turn, replace it; it rather gathers the past and future into itself, like refractions in a crystal ball. (159)  

“The temporality of the taskscape is social, then,” Ingold continues, “not because society provides an external frame against which particular tasks find independent measure, but because people, in the performance of their tasks, also attend to one another” (159-60).

For Ingold, “music mirrors the temporal form of the taskscape”: orchestral musicians play their instruments, attend to the conductor, and listen to the other players, all at the same time. These activities are inseparable parts of the same action (160). And music, he continues, is simpler than social life, in which “there is not just one rhythmic cycle, but a complex interweaving of very many concurrent cycles” (160). Therefore, “the forms of the taskscape, like those of music, come into being through movement” (160). Just like music, which only exists as it is being performed, the taskscape only exists “so long as people are actually engaged in the activities of dwelling” (160). But if landscape and taskscape are not to be opposed, the way nature is to culture, how are they related? How can we distinguish between them?

To answer these questions, Ingold turns to another art form: painting. Painting, he claims, is the “most natural medium for representing the forms of the landscape” (161). The work of creating a painting is subordinated to the final product, the painting itself, because (at least in Western cultures) painting is not performed; therefore, the painting itself becomes the only object of contemplation, with the labour of creating the painting hidden (161). For Ingold, a painting, like a landscape, is not given to us, “ready-made”: the landscape, he argues, is a living process, making and being made by human activity:

the landscape takes on its forms through a process of incorporation, not of inscription. That is to say, the process is not one whereby cultural design is imposed upon a naturally given substrate, as though the movement issued from the form and was completed in its concrete realization in the material. For the forms of the landscape arise alongside those of the taskscape, within the same current of activity. If we recognize a man’s gait in the pattern of his footprints, it is not because the gait preceded the footprints and was “inscribed” in them, but because both the gait and the prints arose within the movement of the man’s walking. (162)

Because “the activities that comprise the taskscape are unending, the landscape is never complete: neither ‘built’ nor ‘unbuilt,’ it is perpetually under construction” (162). This notion of the landscape as a work-in-progress is the reason why the “conventional dichotomy between natural and artificial (or ‘man-made’) components of the landscape is so problematic”:

Virtually by definition, an artefact is an object shaped to a pre-conceived image that motivated its construction, and it is “finished” at the point when it is brought into conformity with this image. . . . But the forms of the landscape are not pre-prepared for people to live in—not by nature nor by human hands—for it is in the very process of dwelling that these forms are constituted. (162)

This claim is interesting, but surely we can distinguish between, say, biological components of a landscape (in this province, the presence of a grassland or a forest) or geological components of a landscape (hills, valleys, glacial erratics, different soil types) and components that are clearly the result of human activity (from tipi rings and medicine wheels to fences and buildings and pumpjacks and cell towers). That doesn’t mean I’m not aware of the way that biological components of a landscape are shaped by human activity—by the use of fire by Indigenous people, for example, to clear undergrowth in a forest or to renew a grassland—but it seems to me, particularly as human activity (suggested by the word Anthropocene) is destroying the biological components of the landscape, such as birds or grasslands, that we live alongside, we need to see the difference between our activity and the activity (or even work) of the nonhuman world.

The taskscape, Ingold continues, “exists not just as activity but as interactivity,” because it “must be populated with beings who are themselves agents, and who reciprocally ‘act back’ in the process of their own dwelling” (163). This interactivity involves both humans and animals (163). It also involves what we might consider inanimate forces, because we resonate to cycles of tides, of light and dark, of vegetative growth and decay, and of seasons, resonances which are embodied, “in the sense that they are not only historically incorporated into the enduring features of the landscape but also developmentally incorporated into our very constitution as biological organisms” (163). “It would seem, then,” Ingold writes, “that the pattern of resonances that comprises the temporality of the taskscape must be expanded to embrace the totality of rhythmic phenomena, whether animate or inanimate” (163-64). If we think of the world “as a total movement of becoming which builds itself into the forms we see, and in which each form takes shape in continuous relation to those around it,” he continues, “then the distinction between the animate and the inanimate seems to dissolve,” and the world takes on the characteristics of an organism itself (164). “This means that in dwelling in the world, we do not act upon it, or do things to it,” Ingold contends; “rather we move along with it. Our actions do not transform the world, they are part and parcel of the world’s transforming itself. And that is just another way of saying that they belong in time” (164). Again, I’m not sure how, in a context where human activity is reshaping the planet—by, among other things, driving at least a million other species to extinction—that anyone could argue we aren’t doing things to the world. We are changing its climate, for instance. Okay, I can see how Ingold is arguing that our activity is not separate from the activity of other species, but really, our effect on the planet is so outsized, compared to other species, that it is different—if not in kind, then in impact. I mean, isn’t there a big difference between a tipi ring and a tar sands tailings pond?

“[I]n the final analysis,” Ingold writes, “everything is suspended in movement”: “What appear to use as the fixed forms of the landscape, passive and unchanging unless acted upon from outside, are themselves in motion, albeit on a scale immeasurably slower and more majestic than that on which our own activities are constructed” (164). This is a point of contact between Ingold and Massey; both emphasize the importance of geological time, glacial activity, continental drift, and erosion. “[T]he rhythmic pattern of human activities nests within the wider pattern of activity for all animal life,” Ingold continues, “which in turn nests within the pattern of activity for all so-called living things, which nests within the life-processes of the world” (164). If we place “the tasks of human dwelling in their proper context within the process of becoming of the world as a whole,” he suggests, “we can do away with the dichotomy between taskscape and landscape—only, however, by recognizing the fundamental temporality of the landscape itself” (164). This statement may be the reason Massey cited this article, given her insistence on the temporality of space. It would be interesting, though, to see how she would respond to Ingold’s choice of “landscape” over “space.” 

Having defined landscape and taskspace, and having used the notion of temporality to construct a relation between them, Ingold now moves on to his conclusion, an ekphrastic discussion of Brueghel’s The Harvesters. He invites his readers to imagine themselves in the landscape depicted in the painting, watching and listening to the scene unfolding (164-66). This section of the essay is odd, but there are parts that I find useful. For instance, Ingold argues that the division between hill and valley is “not spatial or altitudinal but kinaesthetic”:

It is the movements of falling away from, and rising up towards, that specify the form of the hill; and the movements of falling away towards, and rising up from, that specify the form of the valley. Through the exercises of descending and climbing, and their different muscular entailments, the contours of the landscape are not so much measured as felt—they are directly incorporated into our bodily experience. (166)

This is one of the arguments I would make about walking as a way of perceiving the land: it is a kinaesthetic perception, through the activity of our muscles and joints as we climb and descend, as we experience “the contours of the landscape” with our bodies. But even standing still, the same principle applies: our eyes move, or we tilt our heads in accord with our attention, as we follow its course through the landscape (166). He notes that we move through the landscape (typically) on paths and tracks, which are “the accumulated imprint of countless journeys that people have made . . . as they have gone about their everyday business,” imprints that reflect their “muscular consciousness,” as Gaston Bachelard would have it (there’s another book to read: The Poetics of Space). “In this network is sedimented the activity of an entire community, over many generations,” Ingold writes. “It is the taskscape made visible” (167). I wonder if my friend Matthew Anderson, who is so interested in historical paths in Saskatchewan, has read this article; he might find the notion that paths and trails are “the taskscape made visible” very suggestive. Ingold discusses the tree in the painting, and the field of wheat the harvesters are reaping, and the church in the background. Both the church and the tree are what Mikhail Bakhtin would call “chronotopes,” he suggests: places charged with temporality, where temporality “takes on palpable form” (169). Both the tree and the church are also subject to temporality through change: the tree grows, while the church is subject to processes of weathering and decomposition, of maintenance and repair (169-70). That is an example, I suppose, of the similarities (if not the lack of a distinction between) the natural and artificial in the landscape.

For Ingold, the landscape “is not a totality that you or anyone else can look at, it is rather the world in which we stand in taking up a point of view on our surroundings. And it is within the context of this attentive involvement in the landscape that the human imagination gets to work in fashioning ideas about it” (171). “Meaning,” he concludes,

is there to be discovered in the landscape, if only we know how to attend to it. Every feature, then, is a potential clue, a key to meaning rather than a vehicle for carrying it. This discovery procedure, wherein objects in the landscape become clues to meaning, is what distinguishes the perspective of dwelling. (172)

Since dwelling “is fundamentally temporal, the apprehension of the landscape in the dwelling perspective must begin from a recognition of its temporality,” he continues: 

Only through such recognition, by temporalizing the landscape, can we move beyond the division that has afflicted most inquiries up to now, between the ‘scientific’ study of an atemporalized nature, and the ‘humanistic’ study of a dematerialized history.  (172)

“And no discipline is better placed to take this step than archaeology,” which is, he concludes, the study of “the temporality of the landscape” (172).

As I said at the outset, I’m not interested in creating connections between archaeology and anthropology, and I wonder if archaeologists would accept Ingold’s definition of their field of inquiry as “the temporality of the landscape.” Nevertheless, “The Temporality of the Landscape” was worth reading, even though I disagree with aspects of its argument. I particularly like the phenomenological emphasis on attending to the land, and to one’s embodied experience of land by walking in it. I also like the way that Ingold arrives at the notion that the land is spatial and temporal, although he gets there through a very different intellectual trajectory than Massey. Who knows? I might end up returning to this essay in future writing about walking and about attending to the land. 

Works Cited

Heidegger, Martin. “Building Dwelling Thinking.” Poetry, Language, Thought.  Translated by Albert Hofstader, Harper, 2013, pp. 141-60.

Ingold, Tim. “The Temporality of the Landscape.” World Archaeology, vol. 25, no. 2, 1993, pp. 152-74.

Massey, Doreen. For Space. Sage, 2005.

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