Reading and Walking

Walking, Reading, and Reading about Walking

38. Simon Coleman and John Eade, eds., Reframing Pilgrimage: Cultures in Motion

reframing pilgrimage

When I finished Ian Reader’s short introduction to pilgrimage as a field of inquiry, I decided to dive headfirst into the literature on the subject. My first stop: this 2004 anthology on mobility and pilgrimage, edited by Simon Coleman and John Eade. Coincidentally, as I was reading the essays collected by Coleman and Eade, my friend Matthew Anderson, an expert on pilgrimage, as a scholar and a practitioner, suggested Reframing Pilgrimage: Cultures in Motion as one possible starting point, which reaffirmed my decision to crack open this book.

The most useful part of this anthology, for me, is the editors’ introduction, “Reframing Pilgrimage,” which begins with a discussion of Victor and Edith Turner’s 1978 book Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture, which occupies an outsized place in the literature about pilgrimage—and which I have yet to read. According to Coleman and Eade, the Turners consider movement in pilgrimage—the topic of Reframing Pilgrimage—as an “embodiment of populist, spontaneously articulated ‘anti-structure,’” although the Turners’ argument is “largely place-centred”—that is, centred on the sacred place that is the pilgrims’ destination (2). (How interesting to see the term “populist” used approvingly.) The essays Coleman and Eade have assembled pick up on that interest in movement in pilgrimage, focusing on “various forms of motion—embodied, imagined, metaphorical—as constitutive elements of many pilgrimages” (3). Those essays, they continue, “examine both movement to and movement at sites (and sometimes from sites as well), and in certain cases trace the ways in which mobile performances can help to construct—however temporarily—apparently sacredly charged places” (3). This emphasis on movement is “intended to move the study of pilgrimage away from certain aspects of conventional anthropological discourse on the subject” in an attempt “to widen the theoretical location of studies of ‘sacred travel’” (3).

Much of this introduction wrestles with the significance of the Turners’ work on this subject. For example, Coleman and Eade note the resonance of the “Turnerian notion of pilgrimage as a liminoid phenomenon, which is productive of social encounters without hierarchical constraints” (3). I’m sure the Turners explain what they mean by “liminoid” in their book on pilgrimage, but not having read it (yet), I found myself wondering what the distinction between this new (for me) word, “liminoid,” and the word “liminal” might be. According to an essay by Victor Turner that I stumbled across online, “liminoid” and “liminal” mean very different things, although they both derive from the same Latin root, which means “threshold.” “Optation pervades the liminoid phenomenon, obligation the liminal,” Turner writes. “One is all play and choice, an entertainment, the other is a matter of deep seriousness, even dread, it is demanding, compulsory” (74). Turner is discussing different forms of rites of passage here (building on the notion of the threshold, a movement from one place to another), and in some cultures those rites of passage are obligatory, or liminal, while in others they are optional, or liminoid. Turner continues:

Liminal phenomena tend to predominate in tribal and early agrarian societies possessing what Durkheim has called “mechanical solidarity,” and dominated by what Henry Maine has called “status.” Liminoid phenomena flourish in societies with “organic solidarity,” bonded reciprocally by “contractual” relations, and generated by and following the industrial revolution. (84)

In addition,

Liminal phenomena tend to be collective, concerned with calendrical, biological, social-structural rhythms or with crises in social processes whether these result from internal adjustments or external adaptations or remedial measures. Thus they appear at what may be called “natural breaks,” natural disjunctions in the flow of natural and social processes. They are thus enforced by sociocultural “necessity,” but they contain in nuce “freedom” and the potentiality for the formation of new ideas, symbols, models, beliefs. Liminoid phenomena may be collective (and when they are so are often directly derived from liminal antecedents), but are more characteristically individual products, though they often have collective or “mass” effects. They are not cyclical, but continuously generated, though in the times and places apart from work settings assigned to “leisure” activities. (85)

Turner’s third point about the distinction between “liminal” and “liminoid” phenomena suggests that the latter is marginal and experimental:

Liminal phenomena are centrally integrated into the total social process, forming with all its other aspects a complete whole, and representing its necessary negativity and subjunctivity. Liminoid phenomena develop apart from the central economic and political processes, along the margins, in the interfaces and interstices of central and servicing institutions—they are plural, fragmentary, and experimental in character. (85)

Unlike “liminal” phenomena,

Liminoid phenomena tend to be more idiosyncratic or quirky, to be generated by specific named individuals and in particular groups—”schools,” circles, and coteries. They have to compete with one another for general recognition and are thought of at first as ludic offerings placed for sale on the “free” market—this is at least true of liminoid phenomena in nascent capitalistic and democratic-liberal societies. Their symbols are closer to the personal-psychological than to the “objective-social” typological pole. (85-86)

Finally, liminoid phenomena can participate in social critique; they can expose “the injustices, inefficiencies, and immoralities of the mainstream economic and political structures and organizations” (86). So, if pilgrimage is a liminoid phenomenon, it would be optional or voluntary; focused on the individual at least as much on the collective; marginal, fragmentary, experimental, and plural; and playful or “ludic” to some degree, rather than being obligatory, collective, central, and serious. I’m not sure, though that leads to “social encounters without hierarchical constraints” (Coleman and Eade 3), or what the relationship between pilgrimage as a liminoid phenomenon and Turner’s notion of communitas might be. Clearly I’m going to have to read the Turners’ book about pilgrimage, which I’ve ordered, since it’s for some reason not held by this university’s library.

I didn’t intend to get carried off on such a tangent, but that’s sometimes what happens when one is reading about something that requires an understanding of specific and even idiosyncratic terminology. In any case, the point Coleman and Eade is making, I think, is that the Turners’ suggestion that pilgrimage is a liminoid phenomenon is useful and productive, while at the same time, their paradigm risks “taking studies of pilgrimage down a theoretical cul-de-sac, both in its all-encompassing character and in its implication that such travel could somehow (or at least should ideally) be divorced from more everyday social, political and cultural processes” (3). The dialectic the Turners construct “between structure and process,” Coleman and Eade continue, “has provided an inflexible analytical tool, according to which the relationship between pairs of dichotomized variables is seen as a zero sum—the more of one, the less of the other” (3-4). Coleman and Eade wonder “whether pilgrimage needs by definition to be seen as ‘exceptional,’ and to ask whether a different approach can help the topic emerge from a theoretical ghetto that is still contained largely within the anthropology of religion” (4). In particular, Coleman and Eade want to think about the importance of mobility, of movement, in pilgrimage. They note that James Clifford and Zygmunt Bauman argue that the figure of the pilgrim is “emblematic of aspects of everyday life,” and that “the era of unconditional superiority of sedentarism over nomadism and the domination of the settled over the mobile is grinding to a halt” (5). Of course, that notion of the pilgrim is a metaphorical one, and as we see in contemporary politics, the valorization of rootlessness and nomadism provokes a powerful (and populist) response in favour of fixed identities (national, ethnic, and/or religious). To be fair, Coleman and Eade do not claim that pilgrimage “can be brandished as an all-purpose metaphor for ‘our times’” (6); rather, they are “more interested in the fact that certain forms of travel, labeled pilgrimages (or the rough equivalent) by their participants, appear to be flourishing in many parts of the world,” and that such journeys “prompt further investigation into the specific cultural, social and economic dimensions of these examples of contemporary travel” (6). Nevertheless, Coleman and Eade do find two aspects of Clifford’s and Bauman’s thinking useful. First, “the assumption that both mobility and change are chronic—or at least not unusual—conditions of many people’s lives goes some way towards challenging dichotomies (evident in Image and Pilgrimage) between structure and process” (7). Second, “when mobility can be regarded as mundane, pilgrimage—as either metaphor or institution—is less likely to be seen as rigidly exceptional or set apart from society” (7). In fact, “[s]ocially informed examination of the history of travel has also tended to emphasize the need to understand pilgrimage in the context of other, roughly parallel activities, and this has sometimes blurred the boundaries between genres of mobility” (9). The distinction between pilgrimage and tourism, for instance, is one of those boundaries that becomes blurry when one ceases to view pilgrimage as something set apart from other genres of travel.

Coleman and Eade also discuss Nancy Louise Frey’s ethnographic account of pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago, another book I need to read. They note that in Frey’s account, distinctions between religious and non-religious travellers (or religious and non-religious forms of pilgrimage?) are not significant, and that reaching a specific sacred place (such as the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela) is often less important than the mode of journeying (for most pilgrims on the Camino, that means walking). Walking, according to Frey, is a form of self-sacrifice and a way to engage with the past, as well as a way of subverting or transcending “the rushing, mechanized world of modernity and postmodernity” (11). Frey’s arrival in Santiago de Compostela is anticlimactic, and she barely touches on the shrine in her book (11). According to Coleman and Eade, “the intense experience of the journey almost blocks out interest in the destination, and renders overtly analytical (and necessarily distancing) techniques of writing problematic” (12). 

Another account of pilgrimage which focuses on movement rather than destination is Michael J. Sallnow’s Pilgrims of the Andes, “a detailed account of a group pilgrimage that is also a kinesthetic mapping of space” in which the style of movement—the pilgrims dance, rather than walk—“has symbolic significance” (12). Sallnow’s work, Coleman and Eade contend, “shows how pilgrimage can indeed provide a release form the everyday, but is also a recurring event, building up local memories and putting down strong roots in local networks of cooperation and competition. In this context,” they continue, “pilgrimage emerges as deeply embedded in peasant life, rather than as an isolated social phenomenon” (13). Many medieval pilgrimages in England were similarly part of everyday life; they often did not take pilgrims more than a few days from home, and were more routine and regular activities than the lengthy, distant, and one-off pilgrimages the Turners describe (13).

Literal movement need not be a part of pilgrimage at all, according to Coleman and Eade, referring to the work of Alan Morinis. For example, some Hindu mystics and Sufis “have developed a concept of the inner pilgrimage by which the person visits sacred spaces within the microcosm of the mind and body” (14). Therefore, “to gain an understanding of any given journey we might well need to consult a number of possible semantic fields, and not merely . . . those associated with movement” (14). Moreover, according to Morinis, the symbolic meaning of movement in pilgrimage “may be informed by and juxtaposed with cultural representations of its opposite, stasis, and so for Morinis a good part of the meaning of sacred journeys is uncovered in culturally sensitive analysis of this central opposition” (14). Therefore, Coleman and Eade write, returning to the Turners, it is possible to view the 

opposition of structure to anti-structure/process as consisting of a contrast between fixity and fluidity that is powerful both symbolically and in rhetorical terms, even if it fails to take into account the much more complex and mutually enmeshed relations between continuity and transformation, home and homelessness, so-called “everyday life” and sacred travel. (15)

There is a larger significance to this discussion, one I’ve already touched on: studies of globalization suggest that there is a “precarious balance . . . between ‘global flows’ and ‘cultural closure,’” and that being aware of their involvement in open-ended global flows may trigger, for some of us, a search for fixed points of orientation and efforts to affirm old boundaries and construct new ones (15). In other words, “Build that wall!” Isn’t this what motivates Trump and his base of supporters? It might motivate some pilgrims as well: “many pilgrim sites, rather than being contexts for the cultivation of anti-structure, can provide arenas for the rhetorical, ideologically charged assertion of apparent continuity, even fixity, in religious and wider social identities” (15). In other words, globalization can “stimulate the rediscovery of different kinds of particularism and localism,” and the construction of such ideologies within pilgrimage discourses may act in opposition to those who, like Marc Augé, celebrate the “‘non-places of super-modernity” or other examples of postmodern rootlessness (15).

“These perspectives on movement clearly do not yet add up to a discrete analytical debate,” Coleman and Eade write, “in contrast to the ways in which communitas and contestation have often been explicitly juxtaposed in pilgrimage studies” (16). Instead, they provide a number of distinct but not necessarily mutually exclusive understandings of movement in pilgrimage. One is the notion of movement as performative action: “the sense that movement can effect (not always consciously) certain social and cultural transformations” (16). Here Coleman and Eade refer to de Certeau’s claim that walking can be constitutive of social space the way that speech acts constitute language. “Performative,” here, doesn’t mean performance; rather, “performative” is being used in the sense of a performative utterance, a speech act that makes something happen, like “I now declare you husband and wife” or the Biblical “Let there be light!” Another is movement as embodied action, or the way that pilgrimage can provide “the catalyst for certain kinds of bodily experiences” (16). A third is movement as part of a semantic field: “the need to contextualize the meaning of ‘pilgrimage’ within local cultural understandings of mobility” or “such terms as place, space and landscape,” or to recognize that “a given style of mobility may take on particularly charged meaning as a marker of difference (just as the label ‘pilgrim’ may be adopted in rhetorical contradistinction to that of ‘tourist’),” so that “the movement involved in pilgrimage may invoke, play on, appropriate, domesticate, sometimes even negate another form of journeying, such as tourism or migration” (16). “The broader point,” Coleman and Eade suggest,” is “that we must avoid essentializing movement as a category” (!6). Finally, movement can be understood as a metaphor: “the ways in which pilgrimage-related discourses may evoke movement rather than require its physical instanciation,” including the idea that pilgrimage is a metaphor for the journey of the Christian soul (17). 

“Is there any connecting thread that might link these dimensions of mobility?” Coleman and Eade ask. “One is that we see both informants and ethnographers coming to regard movement as a marked activity: it becomes an object of attention and reflexivity, and is transformed from a largely taken for granted physiological act into a cultural performance,” they write. “Much of this book is precisely concerned with such processes of translation, within a framework that seeks to understand actors’ own models of pilgrimage or sacralized travel but does not assume that such marked travel is, by definition, divorced from other aspects of social, cultural or indeed religious life” (17). “If pilgrimage can be seen as involving the institutionalization (or even domestication) of mobility in physical, metaphorical and/or ideological terms,” they continue,

such a focus can be located on various levels. Within the macro-context of the political economy of travel and the globalization of (religious) cultures, dynamic interplays between transnational, national and regional processes may be evident. Theorizing around themes of mobility and movement can also be located within—and integrated with—micro-level examinations of the embodied motion inherent within pilgrimage practices, combined with analyses of the sacred geographies and architectures that provide the material and symbolic background to such motion. In such cases, the focus on pilgrimage as ritual and performance is to the fore, with it involving sometimes unpredictable encounters between liturgical forms, personal imagination and memory translated into acts of the body. (17)

The essays they have collected view the phenomenon of pilgrimage from the perspective of movement, although movement is not the only way to think about pilgrimage: “there are many paths for us to trace,” they write (18). The essays in the anthology explore diverse cultural and religious contexts, although “each case study involves diverse processes of sacralization of movement, persons and/or places” (18). In addition, the essays they have brought together explore “movement within movement”—“particular styles of episodes of motion within the broader framework of a journey”—to show “how pilgrimage can provide opportunities to reflect upon, re-embody, sometimes even retrospectively transform, past journeys. We therefore examine journeys about journeys, and which in the process often turn history into both myth and ritual” (18).

For me, the case studies Coleman and Eade are somewhat less useful than their introduction, although they do suggest the range of activity that can be captured by the term “pilgrimage” and their authors suggest additional readings that would broaden my understanding of pilgrimage. In “‘Being There’: British Mormons and the History Trail,” Hildi Mitchell discusses the importance of embodied knowledge, which is “central to the way in which Mormonism works” (26). That embodied knowledge is produced by visiting places associated with Mormon history, including museums, as a way that “Mormons are able to actively participate in their theology and cosmology” (26). Her essay is divided into three sections. The first explores Mormon history and its central importance to Mormon theology. The second considers how this relationship “echoes the interplay between persons, place and both text and object in wider Mormonism, most especially in Mormon temples and in the Mormon practice of testimony bearing” (26). The third examines “how this Mormon engagement with temples and testimonies works to shape their interaction with historical sites, thus illuminating the extent to which pilgrimage activities are different or similar to everyday religious action” (26). Her purpose, she writes, is “to show how embodied memory acts as the interface between individual experiences and wider religious structures, which perhaps helps to integrate the apparent opposition of the individual/structure dichotomy” (27). For example, she suggests that emotion should be considered “as an embodied and collective phenomenon” (32) as a way of explaining collective religious experiences (32-33). She also uses Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of habitus to think about this embodied knowledge (36)—yet another sign that I need to read his Outline of a Theory of Practice. Mitchell concludes that British and American Mormons experience historical objects and sites “not merely as secular travel, but as faithbuilding explorations of sacred places and feelings,” and that “embodied memories are important in giving rise to religious feelings,” as well as an entry point to the history of their faith (43).

In “From England’s Nazareth to Sweden’s Jerusalem: Movement, (Virtual) Landscapes and Pilgrimage,” Simon Coleman examines two separate pilgrimage events: the annual Anglo- and Roman-Catholic pilgrimage to Walsingham in the UK, and Swedish evangelicals of the Word of Life church who travel regularly to the Holy Land. His aim is to demonstrate how these two groups “reveal significantly different attitudes towards ritual, time and materiality,” and “to show how they are united in their focus on movement itself as a marked activity, as a cultural performance that incorporates performative action” (46). These two very different constituencies can “be seen as providing significantly divergent ways of negotiating the relationship between macro-processes associated with the political economy of travel and micro-level forms of actual physical mobility” (46). Like Mitchell, Coleman refers to habitus in order “to show how rigid distinctions between supposedly sacred and supposedly secular actions cannot be sustained once one sees how forms of worship become embodied dispositions that cannot be shut off once the believer leaves a service” (46-47). He also wants to explore “how ‘non-pilgrimage’ activities and assumptions leach into those making up sacralized travel, not as forms of ‘impurity’ but as constitutive aspects of the travel itself” (47). It’s easy to see the connection between his case study and the book’s introduction: Coleman’s interest is in contextualizing pilgrimage activities, rather than in seeing them as exceptional or special. 

Unlike the pilgrims who travel to Walsingham, the Swedish evangelicals are developing “a charismatic theory of idealized global action,” with people travelling overseas for mission work, and with guest speakers arriving from elsewhere (53). “In travelling to all continents,” Coleman suggests, the Word of Faith believers “are delineating a landscape of evangelical agency, where faith is shown to transcend barriers of culture, territory and nationhood” (53). One distinction between the pilgrimages he is discussing, then, is the distinction between the global and the local that he and Eade made in the book’s introduction. After all, one of the important activities at Walsingham is walking—through the town and between various important religious sites (56-57). Yet both groups of pilgrims are seeking legitimacy for their faith through travel—the Walsingham pilgrims by invoking history (65), and the Word of Life pilgrims “through a global landscape of missionization oriented theologically and imaginatively, temporally and spatially, towards Jerusalem” (63). “If Catholics seek a kind of ‘recurrence’ of history,” he suggests, “charismatics look more to a metaphorical and literal ‘progression’ towards a future that leads ultimately to the Last Days” (65). At the same time, both groups use pilgrimage “as a form of witness, a defence of identity in relation to religious and secular alternatives” (65). There are, he concludes, “many ways to move, just as there are many ways to be modern” (66).

For me, the most valuable part of Coleman’s essay is his brief discussion of walking and slowness, particularly in relation to pilgrims walking to Santiago de Compostela: 

The bodily and temporal modes involved in slow, effortful travel appear to subvert the rushing, mechanized world of the present, allowing space a kind of victory over time and helping to produce a sense of contact with the past. If the contemporary world appears to be about the compression of time and space, pilgrims to Compostela are entering a kind of sacred decompression chamber. (66)

Slowness and effortfulness (which my word-processing software tells me isn’t a word) are essential aspects of walking as a form of travel, and along with a sense of contact with the past, I would argue that walking may also provide a sense of contact with the land through which one is walking.

In “‘Heartland of America’: Memory, Motion and the (Re)construction of History on a Motorcycle Pilgrimage,” Jill Dubisch explores the Run for the Wall, a cross-country motorcycle rally from California to the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in Washington, DC, as a pilgrimage of connection (107). Although the Run for the Wall is arguably a secular pilgrimage, Dubisch argues that it has a “sacred destination” and “combines the individual search for healing and identity with the creation of a collective narrative” (107). Through the construction of that narrative, the Run for the Wall becomes “a ritual performance that constructs a collective view of the past as well as contributing to the construction of a common identity” (107). However, 

this narrative and this collective memory are not developed in the context of the pilgrimage alone. Although the riders are the ones who are making the journey, the ones who are moving across the ‘heartland,’ this heartland itself is created by the many individuals and groups along the way who host the Run, who honour the veterans, and who utter the words that have become part of the ritual of the Run: “Welcome home, brother.” (107-08)

A repeated pilgrimage event, the Run represents issues—PTSD and healing, and POW/MIA accounting (109)—as well as provides an opportunity for a search for belonging or acceptance that Vietnam veterans feel was denied them when they returned from the war (109-10).

Dubisch provides her definition of pilgrimage early in her essay:

Pilgrimage usually involves the conjunction of a moving body or bodies of individuals with a specific geographic location, or locations, which will have their own cast of characters involved in various ways in the pilgrimage. In addition, a specific pilgrimage is an ephemeral production (although much the same could be said for any social activity) and certain pilgrimages . . . may take place only once a year, or in some cases even less frequently. (111)

Unlike Coleman and Eade, Dubisch acknowledges that pilgrimage may be one of the “extraordinary and exceptional events that may radically shape individual and collective lives” (112). The Run, she recounts, generates experiences of “liminality, communitas, the power of ritual, suffering and transformation,” and even though she is not a Vietnam veteran, she was able to experience these concepts “in a vivid emotional, even physical, way,” providing her with “an understanding of pilgrimage I am not certain I would otherwise have had” (113).

Participants in the Run for the Wall identify themselves as pilgrims, and that identification is collective rather than idiosyncratic: “the run is not mere travel, but a journey with a mission, contrasting with trips taken for novelty and pleasure” (113). That sense of mission, of being serious travellers and not just tourists or sightseers, is what makes the Run a pilgrimage (114). This description, however, does not suggest “that seriousness is always a defining characteristic of pilgrimage, nor that there is no time for fun or socializing during the course of the Run. Rather, what is important here is the participants’ own view of what distinguishes their journey from other mundane trips, and particularly from purely recreational motorcycle rides” (114). In addition, the Run is transformative: it transforms meaning, history, and the emotional states of those who participate (114). It also creates a sense of communitas through shared experiences and common goals (116). Through her participation in the Run for the Wall, Dubisch concludes, 

It also became clearer to me . . . that pilgrimage can be many, even contradictory things at once: a political movement and a personal journey of healing, a celebration of the warrior and a memorial to the tragedy of war, an experience of liminality by the marginal and a mode of integration and the overcoming of marginality, a place of communitas but also riven with divisions and conflict, a journey and a coming home. (128)

That description resonates with my own pilgrimage experience on the Camino de Santiago, as well as on other walking journeys that I have characterized as pilgrimages. That complexity is, I think, part of what makes pilgrimages so powerful, and which leads people to want to repeat the experience.

In “Coming Home to the Motherland: Pilgrimage Tourism in Ghana,” Katharina Schramm notes that there is a struggle over the meaning of homecoming and pilgrimage versus tourism, particularly for African Americans seeking their roots in Africa. “The recent literature on pilgrimage has shown that the framing of pilgrimage within the discourse and practice of the tourism industry is far from unusual,” she writes. “Rigid distinctions between (serious) pilgrims—always on a journey to a sacred site—and (playful) tourists—always on a trip to places of secular pleasure, has become blurred” (134). Strict divisions between sacred and secular are therefore called into question (134). Pilgrimage and tourism are also “brought together within wider theories of travel and identity” (134-35), such as Zygmunt Bauman’s suggestion that pilgrims and tourists are “opposing metaphors, each standing for a distinct conception of identity”: pilgrims as metaphors for the modern subject, “constantly preoccupied with the building and sustenance of an identity through which he can give meaning to the confusing world around him,” and tourists (like strollers, vagabonds, and players) as metaphors for the postmodern subject, for whom “fixation needs to be avoided and identities must be prevented from ‘sticking’” (135). Still, Schramm continues, a longing for a stable identity is not outmoded, even if, as a goal, such stability cannot be reached: “as I would like to demonstrate in my discussion of homecoming,” she writes, “the promise of fulfilment and arrival lingers in the notion of return to Africa—even though such expectations may be unfulfilled and the journey towards an ‘African identity’ may have to continue” (136).

Neither tourist nor pilgrim are fixed or one-dimensional identities, Schramm argues: “Both categories are open to transformation and inclined to internal diversification and hierarchy” (136). She refers to Erik Cohen’s writing on the phenomenology of tourist experiences, which may work as a way to grasp the continuum of tourism and its motivations. Cohen divides travel into five types: recreational, diversionary, experiential, experimental, and existential. “For my discussion of homecoming,” Schramm writes, “the categories of experiential and existential tourism are the most significant” (136). Experiential tourism suggests a quest for authentic experiences and meaning, whereas existential tourism suggests the traveller is engaged spiritually, although that engagement may be marginal to his or her society and culture (136). The notion of centre is important here: “the pilgrim is seeking to reach the centre of his own world, no matter how far away it might be in place,” and the “archaic pilgrimage,” where distance isn’t spatial but temporal, is a special case: “This archaic centre is associated with a pristine existence and is mythically constructed as a paradise forever lost—never to be fully restored, yet always longed for” (137). 

According to Schramm, African Americans who travel to Ghana in a search for their roots have many different motives and aspirations, and therefore their activities cannot be grouped together in a single category (137). This heterogeneity “is mirrored in varying understandings of the meaning of homecoming as well as the perceptions of the actual process,” she continues (138). As a result, “the ambivalent meaning of pilgrimage tourism becomes particularly clear” (139). This complexity is also revealed by Paul Basu in “Route Metaphors of ‘Roots-Tourism’ in the Scottish Highland Diaspora,” a discussion of genealogical tourism in Scotland. Participants in such tourism tend to refer to their journeys as pilgrimages, homecomings, or quests (151). Basu’s objective is “to explore the dominant ‘root metaphors’—which are, inevitably, also ‘route’ metaphors—through which roots-tourists in the Scottish Highlands and Islands typically characterize and understand their journeys” (152). He examines the denotative and connotative qualities of these metaphors—pilgrimage, homecoming, and quest—which, he contends, 

together provide a more appropriate ‘grammar’ (including a repertoire of actions and attitudes) for roots-tourism than tourism itself is able to offer: a grammar, furthermore, which has the potential to bear fruit and empower these journeys with the capacity to effect personal transformations, rendering them quite literally ‘life-changing’ experiences for many participants. (153-54)

Such metaphors, however, can obfuscate as well as illuminate, so it’s important to be aware of “the potentially misleading persuasiveness of metaphors” (156). 

Basu suggests that “as roots-tourists leave behind the ‘ordinary’ world of their diasporic homes and enter the ‘non-ordinary sphere’ of the ancestral homeland,”

they do appear to enter a ‘liminal’ zone where they often report supernatural occurrences and altered states of mind (feeling ancestral presences, having premonitory dreams, etc.). Such other-worldly experiences add to the transformative potential of these rites of passage, and roots-tourists may return to their ordinary homes significantly changed, sometimes experiencing difficulties re-adjusting to domestic routines and commitments or else determined to resolve outstanding problems. (168)

I find myself confused, again, between the related concepts of “liminoid” and “liminal,” particularly since the latter term is used by Dubisch and Basu to describe pilgrimage experiences, while Coleman and Eade use the former. Clearly, despite my brief reading of Turner, I have more work to do in order to understand the distinction between these terms.

For Basu, roots-tourism journeys are “are once homecoming, quest and pilgrimage,” and “qualities of these differently symbolic ‘other’ genres of travel and their respective destinations are clearly ‘active together’ in engendering meaning and transformative potential” (173). As pilgrimage, these journeys are simultaneously literal, or “terrestrial,” and metaphorical (173). As homecomings, they are journeys “to the source, to the cradle of belonging” (173). And yet, as quests, their destinations remain “essentially elusive and incommunicable” (173). “By implicitly and explicitly drawing on the route metaphors of homecoming, quest and pilgrimage to provide a composite grammar for roots-tourism,” Basu concludes, “roots-tourists are also provided with a repertoire of appropriate actions and attitudes for their journeys . . . and their vague, incommunicable longing is thus given form” (173-74).

One can’t expect that every essay in an anthology will speak to one’s interests. Two of the essays collected here are primarily useful to me for their citations of other writers on pilgrimage or travel. For instance, Eva Evers Rosander, in “Going and Not Going to Porokhane: Mourid Women and Pilgrimage in Senegal and Spain,” refers to John Urry’s typology of movement—physical, imaginative and virtual, and corporeal (70), which might be helpful in my research. Similarly, Bente Nikolaisen, in “Embedded Motion: Sacred Travel Among Mevlevi Dervishes,” discusses the introduction to the second edition of John Eade and Michael J. Sallnow’s Contesting the Sacred, which suggests that no universal definition of pilgrimage is likely to be useful (93). 

In any case, thinking seriously about pilgrimage is useful for me, because it helps me distinguish my artistic walking practice from the very different practice of pilgrimage. These two types of activity are related, but they are different, and being able to understand pilgrimage literally, rather than metaphorically, is something I very much need to be able to do. At this point, I am thinking that my walking practice appropriates the form of pilgrimage while focusing on a very different style of content—although as I continue to read and think about this topic, I will no doubt change or refine that notion. In any case, being able to discuss pilgrimage coherently will be essential preparation for my conference paper on the subject, which I will be writing over the next few weeks. Until then, I have time to continue my research into this subject.

Works Cited

Coleman, Simon, and John Eade. Reframing Pilgrimage: Cultures in Motion. Routledge, 2004.

Turner, Victor. “Liminal to Liminoid, in Play, Flow, and Ritual: An Essay in Comparative Symbology.” Rice University Studies, vol. 60, no. 3, 1974, pp. 53-92.

37. Ian Reader, Pilgrimage: A Very Short Introduction

pilgrimage a very short introduction

If I’m going to write about pilgrimage, or consider my walks to be pilgrimages, I’m going to need a clearer sense of what pilgrimage is, even though I’ve made one recognized pilgrimage: the walk to the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain. That’s why I turned to Ian Reader’s short book on the subject, part of Oxford University Press’s “Very Short Introduction” series. Reader, a retired professor at Lancaster University and the University of Manchester, is an expect on pilgrimage, and Pilgrimage: A Very Short Introduction is a useful starting point for my reading on this topic.

According to Reader, “Pilgrimage is a global phenomenon found almost universally across cultures,” and large numbers of pilgrimage places have flourished both historically and in the contemporary world (1). These places of pilgrimage range “from major religious institutions with national and international reputations, to regional shrines and local copies of major pilgrimages,” including Catholic pilgrimage centres such as the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico and Lourdes in France; the Islamic holy sites of Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia; the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, the terminus of the Camino de Santiago; pilgrimages to cities like Hardwar and Varanasi, sacred to Hindus, in India; the trek to the cave-temple of Amaranth, sacred to Shiva, also in India; and the 1,400 kilometre circuit of the island of Shikoku in Japan, which encompasses 88 temples and follows the Buddhist holy man Kōbō Daishi (1-3). Books, movies, and television shows have made some pilgrimages into media phenomena (2). According to Reader, these pilgrimages “are but a small sample of the many pilgrimage sites around the world and across religious traditions that have prominent reputations and are attracting pilgrims in the present day” (4). In fact, there are examples of pilgrimage within virtually every religious tradition, according to Reader (4). Some sites, such as Jerusalem or Sri Padi and Kataragama in Sri Lanka, are sacred to more than one religion, a situation that can generate feelings of mutual harmony, or of tension and conflict “grounded both in differences of faith and because of competing ethnic, religious, and political claims” (6). 

Many pilgrimages, however, are local in nature; there are several hundred local pilgrimages in Japan, for example (7), and local shrines and holy wells in England were available for medieval pilgrims who could not afford to travel to Canterbury (7-8). There are local shrines in India as well that function as pilgrimage sites (8). Local pilgrimages can be replicas of more famous and distant ones; small-scale replicas of temples such as Varanasi’s Sri Vishwanath are found widely in India, often in the courtyards of other temples, to enable those who are far from Varanasi to visit (8). In Japan, there are replicas of the 88-temple Shikoku pilgrimage (8). At Walsingham in the UK, a replica of Jesus’s family house in Nazareth was built during the Middle Ages, and it became the centre of a Marian cult that survived suppression during the Reformation and remains a major English pilgrimage site for Catholics and Anglicans (9). Replicas of the Lourdes grotto have been constructed in the US, Japan, and the UK (10). 

Reader notes that “[t]he popularity of pilgrimage is not just a modern phenomenon. Many of the pilgrimages that have been mentioned have long histories of attracting pilgrims,” such as Santiago de Compostela, Ise shrines in Japan, Canterbury Cathedral in the UK, and Lourdes (11). The pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela flourished in the Middle Ages, for example, and although it became almost moribund in the nineteenth century, it was revived after the restoration of Spanish democracy in 1975 (11-12, 47-48). And there are 600 historical pilgrimage sites in the Netherlands, of which 250 are still visited (12). 

In addition, there are secular or nonreligious pilgrimage sites as well, “places that have no religious affiliation but whose visitors may refer to themselves as pilgrims and who perform actions that resonate with what goes on at places such as Lourdes, Santiago, and Shikoku,” such as the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, DC, and Graceland in Memphis. In addition, “existing sites may be adopted by newly emergent traditions,” such as Glastonbury in the UK or Sedona in Arizona, both of which have become centres of pilgrimage for New Age devotees (12). 

According to Reader, pilgrimage has become a major industry, promoted not only by religious authorities but also commercial concerns, such as tourist agencies and transportation concerns, which provide infrastructure used by pilgrims (13). Whether it is known as “spiritual tourism,” “religious tourism,” or “pilgrimage tourism,” such travel generates a great deal of economic activity, with some pilgrimage centres, such as Lourdes, dependent on it (13). “This has led to concerns about the apparent commercialization of pilgrimage and its transformation from a seemingly ‘spiritual’ activity into one centred around markets and tourism,” Reader writes. “One should not, however, think that such developments or commercializations are simply products of the modern day any more than one should think that pilgrims were necessarily only interested in spiritual issues in earlier eras” (13-14). In fact, “[c]omplaints about corruption and commercialism, the clusters of souvenir shops around shrines, and the behaviour of visitors, who appear to be little more than tourists, reverberate across history” (14). Part of the reason for such historical complaints is the fact that in earlier times, pilgrimage was often the only way that people could travel; mobility was restricted in feudal societies, and therefore going on pilgrimage was the only legitimate people could give for travelling (15). So, while pilgrimage has always had a devotional element, it also contained tourist elements from the outset (15). In addition, the need for services, such as food and accommodation, has always generated economic activity that resembles tourism (15-16).

“Pilgrimage practices may differ across religious traditions and countries, and be enacted by people speaking different languages, expressing different faith perspectives, and even at times appearing to be less interested in formal religious orientations than in devotion to a deceased rock star,” Reader writes, “yet, at the same time, there is a readily discernible coherence and commonality across traditions” (16-17). For example, pilgrims often wear particular items of dress to identify themselves as pilgrims. In addition, pilgrimage shrines often require specific forms of activity. Reader suggests “that there is enough common ground across the spectrum for us to talk of pilgrimage in universal terms, as a common human phenomenon spanning cultures, religions, and continents” (17). He concludes that pilgrimage is “a global phenomenon that nowadays is attracting large numbers of people who manifest many feelings and attitudes in common” (18).

Pilgrimage predates Christianity; there are sites in ancient Greece, China, and India (20). “Thus,” Reader suggests,

pilgrimage as a concept and practice incorporated themes of people leaving home, going to and performing acts of veneration at places where holy figures from their tradition had been, where significant events associated with them had occurred, and where their spiritual presence could, it was believed, still be felt. From early on, too, it contained a sense of performing spiritual exercises to bring the pilgrim closer to the divine. This did not, however, mean that pilgrims saw their journeys solely or even primarily through such a lens. Many, perhaps the vast majority, viewed their pilgrimages as a means through which to gain graces and merits that would benefit them both in life and, through the eradication of sins, after death, while praying for all manner of worldly benefits, particularly miraculous cures from maladies. They were also inspired by the idea that being in places that were marked out as specially sacred because of their links to saints and other holy figures, enabled them to directly encounter those figures and receive their grace. Other themes that accrued to the idea of pilgrimage included that of penance; by the 6th century CE, Christian ecclesiastical and other courts began to sentence wrongdoers to perform penitential pilgrimages in order to expiate their sins. (20)

There is a commonality in pilgrimage practices across history, according to Reader, and many of the themes he sees in ancient pilgrimages are still prevalent today.

The English word “pilgrimage” derives from the French pèlerinage and the Latin words peregrinus, meaning “foreign,” and per ager, meaning “going through the fields” (20). Thus, Reader notes, “it indicates the idea of journeys, travelling, leaving the comforts of home, and being a stranger in the lands through which one journeys” (20). He also examines words in different languages that translate into English as “pilgrimage,” and concludes that pilgrimage and related terms, such as junrei in Japanese and tirthyatra in Sanskrit, 

contain notions of crossing, sacred geographies, movement between states of being, the integral nature of travel and worship, and of journeys to get to and be in places that are considered holy. They further indicate that pilgrimage involves both the places themselves and the practices engaged in on the way to them. They also point to a tension that often exists in pilgrimage between movement and place, and about whether the essence of pilgrimage is located in travel to a sacred place or primarily in the actions engaged in when there. (22-23)

For example, those who walk to Santiago de Compostela tend to emphasize the journey, while those who travel by train or plane tend to emphasize the activities they perform at the cathedral, a division that exists in other pilgrimage traditions as well. “In essence,” he continues, “both journey and place can be key elements in pilgrimage. However, different pilgrims, depending on how they do their pilgrimages, may emphasize different aspects of it (23-24). In addition, some sites, like Lourdes and Mecca and Hardwar, lend themselves to an emphasis on the destination rather than the journey there (particularly in a contemporary context) (24). This question is one that interests me very much. While I was moved by my arrival in Santiago de Compostela when I walked the Camino Francés, that experience was nothing compared to the long walk to the cathedral. Moreover, at the moment I am particularly interested in whether walking pilgrimages can make the space through which one travels into place.

According to Reader, “[t]he themes of itineracy,” of movement, “and being in foreign lands relate also to basic human conditions of being restless and wishing to seek new horizons and see new places” (24). Such themes, he continues,

express feelings that impel many travellers and pilgrims: that one’s everyday circumstances, routines, and social contexts are restrictive, that one needs to escape from them in order to find new meanings and change one’s life, that the truth is “out there” somewhere, and that one needs to break away from one’s normal life in order to find it. Pilgrimage has long provided a prime mechanism through which people have striven to deal with such feelings. Indeed, in many religious contexts it has been interpreted symbolically as an externalized enactment of a spiritual journey through life, perhaps as a journey to God or to enlightenment. (24)

These suggestions are very true; in my own pilgrimages in Spain and in Canada, I have experienced both a desire to see new places (or to re-experience in a different way places I already know), and to find new meanings. However, as Reader also points out, “[b]eing a pilgrim also offers people the opportunity to temporarily cast off their normal mundane status and become akin not just to the sacred figures, in whose footsteps they walk, but also to religious specialists” (24). This theme is powerful in Buddhist pilgrimage, where pilgrims temporarily become like monks or nuns (24). Pilgrims may also be, symbolically, “temporarily dead to the everyday world. The pilgrimage clothing worn by Japanese pilgrims in Shikoku, for example, is redolent with the symbolism of death” (24-25). Such death symbolism, Reader continues, “is also suffused with images of rebirth and renewal, in which the pilgrim, on completing the pilgrimage, is spiritually reborn and returns, reinvigorated, to the mundane world” (25).

“While pilgrimage reflects the human condition of restlessness,” Reader writes, “it is not aimless: there is somewhere specific to go, a goal and destination, often (as with the Santiago Camino or the Shikoku pilgrimage) a route to follow along with ritual actions to be performed” (27). In abstract terms, that goal “may be associated with spiritual union or enlightenment,” but in practical terms, 

it invariably means going to and being at specific places that have particular resonances for the pilgrim and his/her faith, where, it is believed, spiritual forces and deities can be encountered and venerated, where their powers and the worldly benefits that flow from them can be assimilated, and/or where pilgrims can stand in the place where their spiritual leaders stood. (27)

Places associated with the origins of a faith and the figures at the faith’s core often become places of pilgrimage, such as the Holy Land, Mecca and Medina, and Bodh Gaya in India, where the Buddha achieved enlightenment. Sites are also commonly associated with apparitions from another realm, such as Lourdes and other Marian shrines (31). Relics and tombs are also important (31-33). “Places of pilgrimage do not rely on just a striking physical location, story, or narrative linking them to saints, apparitions, or the like,” Reader argues. “Almost invariably they also develop a built environment that enshrines the central facet of their spiritual alure” (34). That aspect was missing from my pilgrimage to Wood Mountain last summer in honour of poet Andrew Suknaski; when I arrived in the village, there was little there, and certainly no tangible evidence that Suknaski was from there.

Along with themes of devotion or encountering the divine or seeking spiritual advancement, however, pilgrimage has always included elements of entertainment and tourism, Reader argues. “Particularly as pilgrimages have been popularized and as sites have become more accessible, the facilities to cater to pilgrim needs and wishes have also grown,” he writes. “As they have done so, they have increasingly offered scope for more than austere behaviour” (36). Pilgrimages involve elements of play such as eating and drinking. In addition—and this is something that was missing from my pilgrimage to Wood Mountain, and my walk through the Haldimand Tract in southwestern Ontario—pilgrimage is a social affair, performed in groups, in which participants develop “a sense of common belonging” (36-37). One drawback of inventing one’s own pilgrimages—in my experience, anyway—is that they tend (or have tended) to be solo affairs, without the overarching meaning (the sense of connection to other pilgrims traveling the same path in the past and present) or sociality that are typical of conventional pilgrimages. 

“In essence pilgrimage incorporates three main elements: travel and movement, veneration in some form, and a special place or places considered to have some deep significance (often associated with sacred figures or founders) that makes them stand out from the world around them,” Reader contends. “Similarly,” he continues,

those who perform pilgrimages—pilgrims—are people who travel to and perform acts of meaningful significance such as praying and performing rituals at and on the route to such special places. These may be built places (churches, temples, shrines, tombs) as well as natural features (such as mountains, caves, and river-crossing places), although usually such locations, too, are marked out by physical buildings that have been built there. (40-41)

“What remains constant,” he continues,

is the notion of people making their way to and seeking to be in such places, in the ambit of the special figures associated with them. The journey can have both real and symbolic meanings: a movement to a physical place and a metaphorical journeying to a spiritual destination. Pilgrimage thus can be universal in meanings as well as highly localized. Within this framework pilgrimage can provide the setting for expressions of individual development and self-awareness along with group-related senses of togetherness and belonging, and yet also provide potential for contest and conflict. In such ways pilgrimage encompasses a wide variety of themes and meanings, frequently dependent on individual interpretations and volition, that are sometimes (for instance, in simultaneously offering pilgrims scope for a sense of communal harmony and a means of expressing difference) contradictory. (41)

“It is this complex richness of potentialities and scope that is so central to its appeal,” Reader concludes, “and to the seemingly simple act of leaving one’s normal life and, and the Latin term expresses it, ‘going through the fields’” (41).

Along with tales of miracles and apparitions and associations with religious leaders, pilgrimage sites need to be accessible; the development of Lourdes, for example, was assisted by train travel (43-45), and Camino routes to Santiago were developed in the Middle Ages (45-47). Regarding the Camino de Santiago, however, Reader notes that the way that many pilgrims no longer have religious motivations has led to accusations that it is turning into “a hiking route as much as a path of pilgrimage” (48). Contemporary pilgrims, he writes, “may well eschew any overt associations with faith and religion and see their pilgrimages more through the lenses of personalized spiritual search, the challenge of hiking and issues of cultural identity” (49). “Everyone has their own Camino” is a saying I heard often among pilgrims in northern Spain, and everyone has their own reasons for making the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela—or other pilgrimages, for that matter. I would argue that those who demand some kind of uniformity in the motivations of pilgrims are unlikely ever to be satisfied, and that, as Reader’s book suggests, multiple motivations and experiences have always characterized those who engage in pilgrimages (70):

While it is thus difficult to express all the reasons while people become pilgrims, studies of pilgrims in numerous settings have produced very similar results, showing that generally they express multiple reasons for so doing, and that a number of fairly common themes can be found cross-culturally. In some cases it may be the appeal of communal worship, of being together with and forming a bond with fellow-believers. . . . Returning to a centre of one’s religion or to sites associated with its holy figures provides and intensification, reaffirmation, and reinvigoration of faith. (70-71)

At the same time, “[t]he symbolic notion of pilgrimage as a metaphor for life and as a journey to enlightenment or spiritual transcendence may be significant for some pilgrims, although it is more common for them to express more pragmatic reasons for their journeys, linked either with making things better in this life or the hereafter” (71). Making pilgrimages for the benefit (or in honour of) deceased family members is a common motivation (71); I met many people walking the Camino for that reason. In addition, some pilgrims “are motivated by the wish to leave their personal problems behind by escaping from their ordinary existence and going on the road, where they may then confront their problems on their travels” (72-73). Others seek emotional or physical healing (72-73). Some are looking for assistance with daily concerns (75-76), and others are experiencing anxieties about mortality (77-78). 

The conclusion of a pilgrimage, for many pilgrims, may also be a starting point for the rest of their lives (77). However, many seek to repeat the experience (77-81), something Reader describes as almost an addiction (80). “The recurrence with which people perform pilgrimages, sometimes becoming permanent pilgrims on the road, treating pilgrimage places as second homes to return to again and again, or becoming residents of sites they have journeyed to,” Reader suggests, “shows that pilgrimage need not be an exceptional activity that happens rarely or perhaps just once in a lifetime” (81). The compulsion to repeat the experience of pilgrimage suggests something of its power, I would suggest. I would love to return to Spain and walk a different Camino route, for example, and I hope that someday the opportunity to do that presents itself.

Pilgrimages, Reader suggests, are not only spiritual experiences: “Relaxation, celebration, and entertainment are often woven into pilgrimage structures, with pilgrims who may have been abstemious while on pilgrimage subsequently ‘letting off steam’ at the end of the journeys or on the way home” (83-84). Souvenirs are important, and complaints about their tackiness miss the point, because their significance is not aesthetic but rather resides in the meanings they carry for pilgrims (95). Souvenirs “contain and represent the spiritual presence and essence of the site or deities visited,” Reader writes (95), which makes me wonder how pilgrimage souvenirs are any different from other mementoes of travel. For many participants, pilgrimage is not “a hermetically sealed activity separate from pleasure,” but rather is “intertwined with (and in many respects thus inseparable from) tourism” (97). “As such,” Reader contends,

it is difficult to clearly separate pilgrimage and tourism, especially when the same people stop their buses to pray earnestly at a shrine and then drop by at a scenic place or beach to take photographs or bathe. Such is the significance of sightseeing that tourism and cultural heritage have become a central marketing theme in many contemporary pilgrimage contexts. (98)

That certainly reflects my experience on the Camino de Santiago; the separation between pilgrimage and tourism in that pilgrimage, I would argue, lay in the mode of transportation, walking. However, as Reader pointed out earlier, “complaints or contrasts between walkers and others are unreasonable, as are notions of who is or is not an ‘authentic’ pilgrim” (67). My sense that walking somehow guaranteed my experience of the Camino as a pilgrimage, then, may be untenable.

Most of Reader’s book discusses religious pilgrimages, but he notes that, in modern contexts, pilgrimage has also

become widely associated with places that have no specific religious affiliations or links to formal religious traditions. Many of the themes associated with pilgrimage may be visible in a variety of settings that include visits to the graves and homes of deceased celebrities, war memorials, places associated with seminal political figures, and itineraries relating to the search for cultural roots, identity, and heritage. Moreover, those who participate in such visits may refer to their activities as pilgrimages and to themselves as pilgrims. (100)

This is the kind of pilgrimage that interests me; the pilgrimages I have made, at least since I walked the Camino Francés, have been secular in nature.  According to Reader, such pilgrimages are

especially, and perhaps increasingly, prevalent in the modern day, and particularly in Western contexts, where the term “pilgrimage” is nowadays widely used by the mass media to describe such practices. Academics, too, have applied the term ‘pilgrimage’ to activities that occur outside of formal religious contexts but that incorporate modes of behaviour and phenomena similar to more traditional forms of pilgrimage. Frequently, too, the terms “secular pilgrimage” and “nonreligious pilgrimage” have become widely used in such contexts. (100)

Reader notes that people make pilgrimages to Graceland (102); the graves or death sites of talented and charismatic figures are often “memorialized and visited in ways similar to those of pilgrims to the tombs of saints” (103). War graves and the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial are also pilgrimage sites (103-05), as are Robben Island in South Africa (105-06), Lenin’s Tomb (106-07), and Mao’s mausoleum (107-08). In addition, journeying to places “associated with one’s ancestral roots is frequently seen as a modern form of pilgrimage associated with issues of quest, personal search, and identity. Such ‘roots pilgrimages’ are particularly poignant and important for those who are aware that their ancestors were immigrants” (108). Many African Americans, for instance, make pilgrimages to Africa (although it is incorrect to refer to enslaved Africans as immigrants). Fan culture also occasions journeys that can be considered pilgrimages, such as trips to Liverpool to visit sites associated with the Beatles (109). Hiking trails can also be pilgrimages. The obvious example is the Camino de Santiago, but St. Olav’s Way in Norway and St. Patrick’s Way in Ireland can also be considered to be hiking trails that function as pilgrimages. That suggestion, however, suggests that those who walk those pilgrimage paths are without any religious devotion or spiritual engagement—a claim that would be difficult to support.

Reader also discusses the New Age pilgrimages to Sedona and Glastonbury as examples of contemporary pilgrimages that are outside of traditional religious structures. He cites Phil Cousineau’s book on pilgrimage, The Art of Pilgrimage: The Seeker’s Guide to Making Travel Sacred, as an example of a New Age approach to pilgrimage, because Cousineau presents pilgrimage as a “spirit-renewing ritual” and suggests ways of transforming ordinary journeys into sacred ones (112). I’m not interested in New Age spirituality, but I do like Cousineau’s book, because it suggests ways that the notion of pilgrimage can be broadened, and that by approaching journeys with a spirit of gratitude (he suggests that travellers keep a journal in which they express gratitude for the things they encounter, something I practiced on the Camino) their meaning and significance can be deepened. For Reader, these examples “indicate that pilgrimage need not be just about formal religious traditions” (117). The themes he locates in religious pilgrimage—“landscapes and places imbued with deep meanings and as sources of special powers and graces for those who visit or walk through them, of associations with special and emotionally significant figures, and of travel to and through such places”—are, he notes, 

also present in secular contexts and at places with no formal religious connections. So are practices commonly associated with pilgrimage to religious sites, such as memorializing and paying reverence to a special figure, communing with the dead, making physical journeys that are spiritually symbolic, seeking emotional healing and searching for inspiration and personal meaning. (117-18)

“What is certainly recurrent and seemingly unchanging,” Reader concludes,

is the desire of people to get away, even if temporarily, from their everyday circumstances, to look for new meanings and reaffirmations of personal identities, and to go to places that they feel can help them in such quests. So, too, are their hopes that this will enrich their lives, offering them spiritual and other benefits, and enabling them to encounter and commune with figures and powers that they believe reside and can be accessed in the places they go to. Pilgrimage offers such opportunities, which is why so many places have developed and been sought out by pilgrims and promoted by religious and other authorities over the ages. It is why new places of pilgrimage are continually being created, and why communities that move across cultures and environments . . . feel the need to recreate their traditional pilgrimage sites in their new homelands. (119-20)

Pilgrimage, then, “has been a recurrent theme in religious contexts, and nowadays increasingly in more clearly nonreligious ones, that offers scope for self-development, escape, faith, and hope, as well as play and entertainment” (120).

Reader’s book does its job; it is a useful introduction to the concept of pilgrimage, and the chapter on secular or nonreligious pilgrimage is important for my research. I wonder, though, whether it is possible, in Reader’s opinion, to develop one’s own pilgrimages, or if the collective or communal nature of pilgrimage requires following examples that have been already established. At the same time, someone must have been the first to consider a journey to Sedona or Glastonbury or Robben Island a pilgrimage. Perhaps I ought to return to Cousineau’s book, although it’s not particularly scholarly, as I recall, for examples of journeys that become pilgrimages through the attitudes, purposes, and motivations of the travellers involved. I would argue that many of the walks I’ve made since returning home from Santiago de Compostela have been pilgrimages, from the 35 kilometre walk to the town where my father grew up and where my grandparents lived to my walks through the Haldimand Tract and to Wood Mountain. What I hope to get from my reading over the next couple of weeks will be a firmer sense that it’s appropriate to consider such journeys as pilgrimages. Reader’s book is a step in that direction.

Works Cited

Cousineau, Phil. The Art of Pilgrimage: The Seeker’s Guide to Making Travel Sacred. Conari, 2012.

Reader, Ian. Pilgrimage: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford UP, 2015.

36. Iain Sinclair, London Orbital: A Walk around the M25

london orbital

After I read Thelma Poirier’s Rock Creek, I found myself thinking about a book that is, in many ways, its opposite: Iain Sinclair’s London Orbital: A Walk around the M25. But how am I going to find time to read Sinclair’s epic 550-page account of a 120-mile walk around London, tracking the route of the M25 superhighway? I asked myself. The answer was simple: I would find the time by finding the time, I would read Sinclair’s book by reading it. And so I did.

It’s a good thing that I read Sinclair’s book, too, because I’ve learned a great deal from it. The territory Sinclair circumambulates is, one would think, an obvious example of space, as Yi-Fu Tuan describes it: abstract, undifferentiated, open and potentially threatening, defined by movement, and (unlike place) unknown and not endowed with value (Tuan 6). The perimeter suburbs of London, and the orbital highway that encircles the city, are closer to what Marc Augé describes as “non-places,” spaces of circulation, consumption, and communication. And yet, I would argue that Sinclair, by walking and thinking and researching and writing about that territory, turns the kind of location that Tuan would describe as obdurate space into place, something experienced “through all the senses as well as with the active and reflective mind” (18). In fact, I think that London Orbital has answered my question about turning space into place by walking. It’s true that walking, by itself, isn’t enough to make space become place. But walking and research and writing (or some other kind of response to the experience, the memory, the narrative of the walk) appears to be sufficient. Sinclair, in fact, discloses his method of working at the beginning of the leg of the walk that starts at the former Leavesden Hospital in Abbots Langley, the point where the previous walk ended: “Since our last visit I’d read up on the history of the estate; I’d looked at maps and plans, drawings by the original architects John Giles and Biven of Craven Street, London—who produced the successful application in March 1868” (175). Later in the text, he’s even more specific: “Memory is a lace doily, more hole than substance. The nature of any walk is perpetual revision, voice over voice. Get it done, certainly, then go home and read the published authorities; come back later to find whatever has vanished, whatever is in remission, whatever has erupted” (272). That process is the source of all of the esoteric historical and literary and biographical and architectural information with which Sinclair layers his account of walking; those elements in the text come from research. No wonder every section of the walk takes place at least a month after the previous journey. The lag isn’t to allow blistered feet to heal; no, it’s an opportunity for uncovering the significance of locations visited on the previous walk, to revisit them if necessary, and to begin writing together memory and fact. However the conference paper I am delivering in Ireland this July at the Sacred Journeys 6th Global Conference begins, I’ve found the conclusion.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. London Orbital begins and ends with Sinclair’s antipathy to the Millennium Dome (now the O2)—both to the architecture itself and to the financial folly of the project. In between, though, the book tracks two separate sets of walks. The first set, made with musician Bill Drummond and photographer Marc Atkins, takes Sinclair and his companions up the Lea River valley, which separates London from its eastern dependencies, past the Lea Navigation canal and the former armaments factory at Enfield (now, like almost every other complex of Victorian buildings in London’s green belt, being redeveloped for housing, despite the contaminated soil on the site). These walks serve as a preamble; they whet Sinclair’s appetite for more:

I think we can assume that we have penetrated the Lea Valley’s recreational zone. Boats. Wet suits. Easy access to the North Circular Road, the broken link of an earlier orbital fantasy. This border is marked by a permanent pall of thick black smoke. Urban walkers perk up; we’re back in the shit. The noise. The action. (60)

The descriptive sentence fragments, the tone of cynicism verging on paranoia: that is Sinclair’s operative mode. Passing the “retail park” where the North Circular Road crosses the Lea Valley, taking in the colours of warehouses and road, of river and sky, Sinclair declares:

I love it. I like frontiers. Zones that float, unobserved, over other zones. Road users have no sense of the Lea Navigation, they’re goal-orientated. Going somewhere. Noticing Atkins, foot on barrier, perched in the central reservation, snapping away, drivers in their high cabs see a nuisance, an obstacle. A potential snoop. They’d be happy to run him down. Atkins sees a speedy blur, abstractions, the chimney of London Waste Ltd blasting steam. (60-61)

I must make a confession: I made an attempt at London Orbital, several years ago, but for some reason was defeated by Sinclair’s idiosyncratic prose. This time I enjoyed its inventiveness. By completing the book, I feel I’ve had a significant change in my perception of Sinclair’s writing.

The second set of walks is announced near the beginning of the text. During a walk on New Year’s Day, 1998, Sinclair stops for a break and makes a momentous decision:

I sit, comfortably, with my back to one of the piers, munching my sandwiches and deciding that, yes, I want to walk around the orbital motorway: in the belief that this nowhere, this edge, is the place that will offer fresh narratives. I don’t want to be on the road any more than I want to walk on water; the soft estates, the acoustic footprints, will do nicely. Dull fields that travellers never notice. Noise and the rush of traffic, twenty-four hours a day, has pushed “content” back. An elaborate scheme of planting (two million trees and shrubs, mostly in Surrey and Kent) would hide the nasty ditch with its Eddie Stobart lorries, its smoke belchers. The M25 walk was the next project. The form it would take and the other people who might be persuaded to come along, to liven up the tale, was still to be decided. (16)

Sinclair’s 12-part walk (an essential number, associated with literary epics from Homer to Milton) will be, he tells us, a “pilgrimage” (31)—a key word for my work (and for the conference paper I have to write this month). And that walk, and the writing and thinking and research that it occasions, turns that “nowhere” into somewhere, space into place. London Orbital becomes the “fresh narrative” Sinclair was hankering for, the new story the city has to tell.

I read London Orbital without a London street map beside me, and because I don’t know that city very well, many of the place names Sinclair enumerates, rapid-fire, have little significance for me. Nevertheless, you would have to be sleep-reading not to get the gist. Take this example, a description of a highway heading east, out of London:

East India Dock Road, with its evocative name, has a secondary identity as the A13, my favourite early-morning drive. The A13 has got it all, New Jersey-going-on-Canvey-Island: multiplex cinemas, retail parks, the Beckton Alp ski slope; flyovers like fairground rides, three salmon-pink tower blocks on Castle Green, at the edge of Dagenham; the Ford water tower and the empty paddocks where ranks of motors used to sit waiting for their transporters. The A13 drains East London’s wound, carrying you up into the sky; before throwing you back among boarded-up shops and squatted terraces. All urban life aspires to this condition; flux, pastiche. A conveyor belt of discontinued industries. A peripatetic museum, horizon to horizon, available to anyone; self-curated. The wild nature graveyard in Newham. Inflatable, corn-yellow potato chips wobbling in their monster bucket outside McDonald’s in Dagenham. River fret over Rainham Marshes. (45-46)

Is that a description of an edge city or an inner suburb? I’m not sure it matters: what is important is the claim that urban life—and the life of the edge cities through which he and his companion, artist Renchi Bicknell (and occasional walkers writer Kevin Jackson and Atkins) will perambulate—is “flux, pastiche,” a “peripatetic museum, horizon to horizon, available to anyone; self-curated” (45-46). Sinclair and his companions curate their own museums of the territory near the M25; their writing and photographs (for Sinclair is not the only one to respond creatively to this experience) will constitute their individual records of the walk: 

Drummond’s account, should he give it, would sheer away from mine. Marc’s considered prints would contradict my snapshots. The memory of the memory slips. We invent. New memories, unaccountable to mundane documentation, are shaped. The dream anticipates the neurotic narrative. (116)

London Orbital does not pretend to objectivity, to facticity, but its subjective account of the walks Sinclair and his companions make is, I think, a true one.

Much of the territory these walkers cover is part of London’s green belt, land that is, Sinclair believes, under an assault by developers and government rationalization:

In December 1999 the Cabinet Office issued a consultation paper, the green belt had created an undesirable “moat effect.” A moat or ditch or ha-ha to keep out, as architect Nicholas Hawksmoor wrote of the denizens of Whitechapel, “filth Nastyness & Brutes.” The document was, in effect, an early warning on behalf of the developers, the mall conceptualists, the rewrite industry. Government was pure Hollywood: hype, the airbrushing of bad history; dodgy investors, a decent wedge in disgrace or retirement. A pay-off culture of bagmen and straightfaced explainers. (83-84)

The government’s explanation of its proposal echoes neo-liberal rationalizations everywhere: 

A sweeping away of fussy restrictions. “A planning system more supportive of an enterprising countryside.” The only way the countryside could become enterprising was to cease to be countryside: to become “off-highway,” a retail resort (like Bluewater), a weekend excursion that depended on a road that we were being advised to avoid. (84)

In order to save the countryside, it must be destroyed. This is, for Sinclair, a disaster: “Metropolitans need this green fantasy, the forest on the horizon, the fields and farms that represent a picture book vision of a pre-Industrial Revolution past” (84). I found myself thinking about Doug Ford’s promise to allow development in Ontario’s Green Belts, and whether populism and New Labour come together at the point where developers make political contributions.

That sense of the green belt’s future, or its lack of one, is a recurring theme in London Orbital; it seems that every estate, every disused hospital and asylum and estate near the M25 is being redeveloped as a housing estate for commuters who will use that expressway to drive into the city for work. Shenley Hospital, for instance, a former asylum whose extensive grounds are being turned into tract housing, occasions these ruminations: 

History is being revised on a daily basis, through the northern quadrant of the motorway, by copywriters employed by the developers. “The historic village of Shenley combines excellent local interest with outstanding travel convenience.” Much is made of the “pleasant undulating countryside” and the “fine views northward over the historic city of St Albans.” To qualify as “historic” you need green belt development permissions, new estates across a bowling-green from an old church. History is an extra zero on your property prices. (151)

The destruction of the green belt occasions a certain paranoia, I think, which is reflected in Sinclair’s accounts of walking where no one is supposed to walk:

Whatever it is they don’t like, we’ve got it. NO PUBLIC RIGHT OF WAY. Footpaths, breaking towards the forest, have been closed off. You are obliged to stick to the Lee Navigation, that contaminated ash conglomerate of the Grey Way. Enfield has been laid out in grids; long straight roads, railways, fortified blocks. Do they know something we don’t? Are they expecting an invasion from the forest? (69-70)

One of Sinclair’s early walks took him and his companions from Waltham Abbey to Mill Hill, where German conceptual artist Jochen Gerz (an associate of Joseph Beuys and Reiner Ruthenbeck) was giving a lecture on art in public spaces, and the juxtaposition of hospital and artist brought out Sinclair’s suspicions:

But the hospital block on the summit of Mill Hill is a real marker, generator of paranoid imaginings. I’m always uneasy when covert research, generously funded, starts to cosy up to subversive art. There’s something awkward about the relationship. To access the art manifestation (conceptual corridor, lunchtime lecture) you have to blag your way into the Pentagon, into Langley. Surveillance swipe, signature in book, electronic barrier, phone call to a higher authority. (103)

It doesn’t take institutional security precautions to generate those “paranoid imaginings,” however. Trying to get to the village of Otford, for example, involves dodging speeding cars on a road without room for pedestrians:

Ugly motors eager to do damage. Rage pods caught between hedges. Better to head off, dodging oncoming traffic in the fast lane of the motorway, than stick with the Pilgrims Way. It’s a rat run, the revenge of the commuters. Deserted villages are coming to life: it’s madness, so we’re told, twice a day. And death-in-life the rest of the time. Lights on, blue TV windows, dogs to walk. 

We manage to get off the road—which has no verge—and into the fields, the heavy earth, but we’re soon returned. There is no other route. Every third car is a red Jag: either they’ve been watching too many episodes of Morse, or they want to hide the roadkill on the paintwork. Otford, with its quaint High Street, its proudly timbered survivors, its pond and Tudor ruins, is notable, so far as we’re concerned, for one feature: the railway station. (408-09)

I’ve been in similar situations before, walking from Marlborough House into Oxford, where a gap between footpaths meant walking along a road, a situation where speeding cars forced me into a thorny hedgerow; or last summer, trudging on the broken shoulder of Highway 2 towards Assiniboia: the place where every car seems to be aiming right for you, as if every driver is playing a macabre video game in which points are given for each pedestrian maimed or killed. What must make this situation even more infuriating for Sinclair is the fact that the Pilgrims Way is supposed to be a walking route. Clearly not a very good one.

After the preliminary walks in the Lea Valley, the main event commences:

Here it begins, the walk proper. No detours. No digressions. We decided to take Waltham Abbey as our starting point, the grave of King Harold, and to shadow the motorway (within audible range whenever possible) in an anticlockwise direction. We wanted, quite simply, to get around: always carrying on from where we left off at the finish of the previous excursion. From now on the road would be our focus, our guide. We’d snatch days whenever we could (when Renchi’s shifts permitted) and get it done before the millennial eve. (125)

“The structure of our walk is elegaic: discontinued rituals, closed shrines,” Sinclair writes. “The funeral service, the emptied pond. The horse-trough near Theobalds Grove station filled with flower petals. Fenced off monuments and gates that are not gates” (133). But if the walk is elegaic, it is also mystical. Sinclair is a psychogeographer, and as such he has a taste (as does Renchi) for occult interpretations of the landscape: ley lines, fields of force, invisible axes, “invisible threads of influence” (144-45). “The markings on the motorway are shamanic,” he states. “Noise takes us out of ourselves into a dispersing landscape. Giddy, we enter movement. We could do the whole thing here, on the ramp. We could dream it” (133). Or take his comparison between the M25 and Avebury Circle: “Think of the motorway in terms of Maiden Castle or Avebury, earth engines, machines designed to provoke enlightenment. The hoop of continually moving light is a gigantic crop circle, visible from space. A doughnut of powdered glass. A winking eye” (530). Such occult or “shamanic” mysteries provide Sinclair with another layer to go along with the history and art and literature and lives of those who have lived in the places through which he walks; an unnecessary layer, I would suggest, but that’s perhaps a matter of taste and my own lack of faith in such things.

Sinclair compares this walk to walks undertaken by French labourers in the nineteenth century, walks he read about in Ian Hacking’s book Mad Travelers (Reflections on the Reality of Transient Mental Illnesses). That book, he writes, “offered one perfectly reasonable explanation of our orbital pilgrimage: an hysterical fugue—attended by the sort of minor epileptic seizures (electrical storms in the consciousness) Renchi suffered in Dublin” (146). There are no seizures, as it turns out, but Sinclair continues to argue that the notion of fugue is the best way to describe the walk:

I found the term fugueur more attractive than the now overworked flâneur. Fugueur had the smack of a swear word, a bloody-minded Tommy muttering over his tobacco tin in the Flanders trenches. Fugueur was the right job description for our walk, our once-a-month episodes of transient mental illness. Madness as a voyage. The increasing lunacy of city life (in my case) and country life (in Renchi’s) forced us to take to the road. The joy of these days out lay in the heightened experience of present time actuality, the way that we bypassed, for a brief space of time, the illusionism of the spin doctors, media operators and salaried liars. The fugue is both drift and fracture. The story of the trip can only be recovered by some form of hypnosis, the memory prompt of the journal or the photo-album. Documentary evidence of things that may never have happened. The fugue is a psychic commando course . . . that makes the parallel life, as a gas fitter, hospital carer, or literary hack, endurable. (146-47)

In contemporary representations of the fugue, Sinclair continues, “the walker disappears from the walk:

Landscape artists Richard Long and Hamish Fulton erase the trauma, along with the figure of the troubled pedestrian. Minor interventions are tactfully recorded; a few stones rearranged, twigs bent. The walker becomes a control freak, compulsively logging distances, directions, treading abstractions into the Ordnance Survey map. Scripting minimalist asides, copywriting haikus. (148)

By contrast, Renchi’s paintings “merge walker and landscape”:

Chorographic overviews, diaries. In earlier times, the brush-strokes were looser, the paint thicker. Walks were shorter, paintings fiercer. As the fugues extended—London to Swansea, Hopton-on-Sea to St Michael’s Mount—the records were calmer; there was more of a narrative element, transit across landscape remembered in chalk, flint, granite, slate. (149)

Sinclair continues to think of these walks as fugues throughout the book, imagining himself as a “mad traveller”: “We were discovering a useful genealogy: gas fitters, painters, novelists. Through the suburbs and night, the motorway verges by day, we were there, heel-and-toeing it, sucking water from a plastic bottle, trying to find some way to unravel the syntax of London” (158). I really like that last phrase; I wish I had thought of it as a way of describing my own walks, here and elsewhere.

Reaching Heathrow called to mind, for Sinclair, novelist J.G. Ballard, one of the inspirations for the walk:

You couldn’t help being drawn into the tremble, the jet roar, the throb of traffic streaming in every direction. M4, M25, A4, A30; slip roads, link roads, trunk roads, deleted coach roads. Two hundred thousand vehicles a day used the section of the M25 between Junctions 13 and 14. Ballard was absolutely right: if you set aside human interference (aka life), London was a mausoleum. Kensal Green Cemetery with the walls knocked down. Pompous monuments, redundant public buildings, trash commerce, heritage tags. Oxford Street was a souk. Charing Cross Road a gutter. [new paragraph] The city, in its Victorian overcoat, the muck of centuries on its waistcoat, bored Ballard. He promoted this new place, the rim. The “local” was finished as a concept. Go with the drift, with detachment. The watcher on the balcony. Areas around airports were ecumenical. They were the same everywhere: storage units, hangars, satellite hotels, car hire companies, apologetic farmland as a mop-up apron for Concorde disasters. If you see the soul of the city as existing in its architecture, its transport systems, its commerce and media hot spots, then Ballard’s championship of the suburbs is justified. But they’re not really suburbs if they don’t feed on the centre. The Heathrow corridor has declared its unilateral independence, that’s what makes it exciting. The abdication of responsibility and duty; glossy goods, ennui, scratched light. (214)

Later, Sinclair interviews Ballard. “I don’t need what Ballard says, I know what he says, I’ve read the books,” he writes. “What I need is the chance to pay homage, in the course of this mad orbital walk, to the man who has defined the psychic climate through which we are travelling. It’s a romantic foible on my part, the impulse that once had De Quincey tramping off to the Lake District to make a nuisance of himself in Wordsworth’s cottage” (268).

Ballard is not the only literary figure who ends up in these pages; Sinclair writes about H.G. Wells, George Tomkyns Chesney (author of The Battle of Dorking), William Blake, Bram Stoker, and poet John Clare, who walked 120 miles from London to Northborough without a cent to his name, eating grass, drinking nothing except a pint of beer purchased with coins thrown to him by migrant farm labourers (533). “Fugue as exorcism,” Sinclair writes: “Clare’s walk successfully performed the ritual we were toying with. He’d been in the forest long enough to understand the peculiarity of its status as a memorial to a featureless and unreachable past, a living stormbreak at the limit of urban projection” (534). But there is an essential difference between Clare’s walk and the one Sinclair and Renchi are making: “The Great North Road was still a route down which everything and everyone travelled; coaches, gypsies, farmers, the military, masterless workmen. The M25 goes nowhere; it’s self-referential, postmodern, ironic. Modestly corrupt. It won’t make sense until it’s been abandoned, grown over” (534-35). 

That isn’t going to happen any time soon. The walk continues. According to Sinclair,

A good day on the hoof should include: (1) a section of river or canal, (2) a Formica-table breakfast, (3) a motorway bridge, (4) a discontinued madhouse, (5) a pub, (6) a mound, (7) a wrap of London weather (monochrome to sunburst), (8) one major surprise. So far, so good. (230)

The surprise on that day—at West Drayton, near Heathrow—is discovering an unlocked church, which occasions mystical ruminations:

Being inside a church, after the locked doors of the northern quadrant, is a minor shock: the 800-year franchise works its spatial and temporal magic, the narrow building detaches itself form its surroundings, the bluster of West Drayton. 

Hats off, from custom or superstition, we creep and whisper. Cruise the usual circuit, interrogating the fabric: in expectation of some clue or sign. Or confirmation. Thicker air. Stone-dust and candle grease. Stained light. (230-31)

On a later trip back to West Drayton, Sinclair was able to climb the church tower, providing him with a panorama of the land to the north:

To see for myself how the land opened out: the path to St Mary’s Church at Harmondsworth. The crop of torpedo graves. The M25 with its constant flickering movement. We had stumbled on an active, but little used, pilgrims’ path. The Avenue. Heading, through a tunnel of pink blossom, towards the motorway and the site of a Benedictine priory at Harmondsworth. The sequestered principality of Heathrow. (232)

I was collecting references to pilgrimages as I read London Orbital, and this is one of the important ones, from my perspective, because here we see Sinclair once again inventing a pilgrimage, rather than confining himself to pilgrimages blessed by authorities—and a pilgrimage in an unlikely place, under Heathrow’s flight path. 

England is known for its walking paths, its National Trust-approved green spaces, but Sinclair, cantankerously, wants nothing to do with them:

Why let someone else nominate sites that are worth visiting? If you want a shop, you should find a shop. Sainsbury’s (Cobham) has a better servery than Box Hill. The space underneath Runnymede Bridge is more exciting than the National Trust recommended Runnymede Meadows (with “popular tea-room”). Don’t take my word for it, don’t bother with my list of alternative attractions—Junction 21 of the M25, the Siebel building in Egham, Hawksmoor’s gravestone in Shenley; discover your own. In the finding is the experience.” (318-19)

One unrecognized attraction is a footbridge over the M25 in West Drayton:

The footbridge trembles and vibrates. If it ran across the Thames between St Paul’s and the Tate Modern, they’d close it down. The West Drayton bridge isn’t a tourist attraction, not yet. It ought to be. All the powers and thrones and dominions of transport are here, angelic orders of diesel, jet fuel, crop spray, animal and human shit. Burial grounds of lost villages. The Perry Oaks Sludge Disposal works. (233)

For Sinclair, such places say more about the contemporary moment than Runnymede Meadows. They are the reason for the walk, its purpose and its payoff.

Nevertheless, Sinclair and Renchi occasionally find themselves engaged in “the kind of walking that guidebooks promote” (368).  It’s a contradiction, perhaps, but a productive one, I would argue. Those guidebooks include The London Loop, The Green London Way, Country Walks Around London, The Shell Book of British Walks. Sinclair finds the latter “a bit odd,” wondering about how those hikes came to be sponsored by a Dutch oil company. “I’m fond of these books with their selective maps, line drawings that try to look like woodcuts, topographic views,” he writes, describing most of the walking books I own (368):

The walking they promote is benign: it begins at a car park, saunters, by way of a quaint church and some “typical high downland scenery,” to “the highest point in south-east England.” Hikers are discreet, eyes averted from contemporary horrors, tutting from time to time at the excesses of developers or upwardly mobile vulgarians. These are strolls for the visually impaired, guided tours with checklists of flora, fauna, archaeological remains. The walk is an interlude of “somewhere between and hour-and-a-half and three hours.” It’s good for you. And it brings you back to the point from which you set out. To the car. (368-69)

Of course, it’s (at least in part) the “contemporary horrors” and “excesses of developers” and “upwardly mobile vulgarians” that interest Sinclair. Why else walk across St. George’s Hill—once the site of the radical Diggers, now the home of mobbed-up Russian emigrés—despite the high security? Why else, in fact, decide to walk through London’s edges? Why else explore the link between golf courses and the illegal dumping of toxic waste (370-71)? Why else walk where they aren’t wanted?

We are on our own in country that doesn’t want us. It’s a strange feeling, climbing and descending, in and out of woods, views across ripe fields of corn, and being unable to get any purchase on the experience. Our walk is compromised. We’re pulled between the territorial imperatives of Surrey, Kent and Greater London. The old Green Way is barely tolerated, a dog path, a route that might, if you stick with it, offer accidental epiphanies. It’s more likely to lose heart, be swallowed by a disused chalk quarry, an agribiz farm, a radio mast. Some unexplained concrete structure, fenced in, and surrounded by tall trees. (375-76)

They are walking in places where walking is unknown (as many walkers find themselves doing). Renchi asks a girl in a corner shop how far it was to Chartwell, Winston Churchill’s country place. “She couldn’t do distance, miles, metres; didn’t understand the concept,” Sinclair writes (391) She could only report that it was a five minute drive away; the notion of walking there was incomprehensible to her. “These days, as the girl in the newspaper shop so shrewdly recognised, distance has no meaning,” Sinclair continues. “Miles only matter to horses and pedestrians. We have to deal in drives measured by the hour. Units of nuisance between pit stops. Road works, accidents, congestion: a geography defined by junction numbers on the M25” (392). 

On the way to Otford, near the end of the walk, Sinclair loses his glasses (forgotten on a bench after a brief stop), and his camera breaks. The resulting imagery—photographic and purely visual—strikes him as wonderful, and is worth reproducing at length here:

Focus, which had been playing up since we left Merstham, gave way entirely: into the Valley of Vision. My spectacles were lost, abandoned, and my camera had a bad case of the Gerhard Richters: Richter pastoral. Snapshots with the shivers. The results, from here on, were truer to the way I felt, the way I really saw the road, than all my previous impersonal loggings. Incompetence meant: insight. Inscapes. The photograph of ‘Renchi on the Pilgrims Way’ is a painterly stew, not an identity card. The abandoned blue shirt, hanging across the white ground of the T-shirt, is a squeeze of Vlaminck.

There is liberation in these soft images. The road sign I recorded, PILGRIMS WAY, is now a long thin shape that defies interpretation; you can’t tell if it’s stone or tin. But the green that surrounds it, busy with black smears, white floaters, has a wondrous ambiguity. I’ve never (on our orbital walk) had the courage to let go in this way, the economics of photography require a visible return. I’m only doing it to keep a record of where we’ve been, the provocative details I’m sure to forget. (403-04)

The blurred images his broken camera creates push Sinclair “into territory explored and espoused by visionary filmmakers such as Stan Brakhage” (404). But they do more than that:

The blurred images, first, simplify the narrative—then worry me towards a deeper, more considered sense of place. What doesn’t matter—script, commentary, hierarchy of significance—vanishes. It seems that the “faulty” camera is now dictating the terms: I didn’t pass it over to anyone met on the road, no such person existed. And yet, here we are, developed print in hand: Renchi and I in the same image. Two figures standing in a gap in the hedge. Distance is realised by bands of colour. The white lines on the road float free—like angelic footsteps. The camera, unprompted, has produced a double portrait. (403-04)

“The rest of our walk is recorded on the same terms: soft shapes, ripe colour, more dream than document,” Sinclair concludes (404). Perhaps this episode is a lesson in photography for walkers (like me) who try to record their walks with a camera. 

Past Dartford, “a town that can’t be negotiated on foot” (450), Sinclair and Renchi approach the River Thames:

We moved on towards the bridge. Heavy clouds hugged the shoreline, black at base, blooded as the sun climbed above the Littlebrook Power Station. Backlit dredgers. Two skeletal towers, one on each short, carrying power lines. They never fail: river, marshland, the pier that looks like a concrete boat. All the sensory buttons are pushed. Space. Flow. Dereliction. New estates springing up. The thick tongue of oil on the shoreline, its ridges and patterns. (490)

“All the sensory buttons are pushed”: like other walkers, Sinclair is trying to capture the sights, smells, and sounds of the walk. Such sensory data, such witnessing, is a feature of the walk, from its inception to its conclusion at Waltham Abbey on a cold night in December, 1999:

Church and grounds are painted with searchlight beams. Renchi, at long last, pilgrimage completed, finds an unlocked door. We have to witness the astrological ceiling, the wall-painting in the side chapel (a fifteenth-century Doom mural). Unseen, it predicted our journey. In darkness, we set out. And in darkness we returned. (536)

From there, like good Englishmen, they repair to a pub, where they celebrate the conclusion of the walk with double brandies and bandages for their blistered feet.

It’s impossible to summarize a book of such scope as London Orbital, and I have merely scratched the surface of this text, I know. Nevertheless, this book will be important for my research. I intend to follow Sinclair’s methodological example, for one thing. And the freedom of his prose makes mine seem pinched and stultified by comparison. In fact, London Orbital might be an exemplar of the kind of work I intend to do here. I’m going to read Sinclair’s other books about walking as well. But that will come later. My next task is to read about pilgrimage, something I know about as a practitioner, but not as a theorist—which could be a problem for the paper I have to write this month about walking and pilgrimage.

Works Cited

Augé, Marc. Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity. Translated by John Howe. Second edition, Verso, 2009.

Sinclair, Iain. London Orbital: A Walk around the M25. Penguin, 2003.

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

35. Thelma Poirier, Rock Creek

rock creek

My plan had been to spend the past week and a half reading Iain Sinclair’s London Orbital, a 500-page account of walking around London, roughly following the route of the M25 expressway. That plan didn’t take into account the vicious chest cold I developed the day after I wrote my Cree examination. It was impossible to concentrate on Sinclair’s ornate prose for the better part of a week. Meanwhile, I saw a reference to Saskatchewan writer and rancher Thelma Poirier on my friend Matthew Anderson’s Facebook page. How had I never heard of her work? Luckily, Spafford Books had a copy of Poirier’s Rock Creek in stock, and Leah was willing to deliver it to the house, as I was too ill to go to the store (and I don’t want to pass this cold along to my friends: let it die with me!). I’ll try to find time to read London Orbital, but I’m happy that I discovered Poirier’s work, even if I had to get sick in order to do so.

Rock Creek is primarily an account of a walk along Rock Creek, which runs through the ranch Poirier works with her husband near Fir Mountain, Saskatchewan. (That’s close to Wood Mountain, the destination of my pilgrimage of last summer.) Rock Creek, or Morgan Creek as it apparently is known on official maps (39), begins in the hills near Wood Mountain, and it empties into the Milk River across the border in Montana. Not only does Poirier live on Rock Creek, but her father homesteaded there, and it’s where she grew up. Nevertheless, Poirier doesn’t feel that she knows the creek very well:

I have seen two oceans, but I have not seen all of the creek in my own backyard. It is as though I have been wearing blinders, only removing them at certain places, long enough for glimpses of the creek, the edges of the water.

The heron knows Rock Creek better than I do. (5)

The heron Poirier mentions is a great blue heron she has seen fishing in the creek; from the direction of its flight, it seems to roost in a heronry at the creek’s headwaters. “If I follow the heron,” Poirier writes, “I too will experience every bend of the creek, every shift of the landscape. If I walk up Rock Creek,  will see what the heron sees” (5-6). 

So that’s what Poirier does: she walks along the creek, beginning in her yard, looking for or waiting for the heron. She makes an overnight journey along the creek to an abandoned homestead, accompanied part of the way by a coyote that is curious about her. And as she walks, she develops another plan: a walk from the point where the creek crosses the Canada-U.S. border to the headwaters. “I plan the walk in my mind, plan how I will borrow three or four days from the ranch after the cattle are moved to summer pastures, after the crop is seeded, before branding, before haying,” she writes (8). She approaches landowners and leaseholders—including Grasslands National Park, since part of the creek runs through it—for permission to walk on their property. She knows she has a limited window to make this walk, because she has a terrible allergy to wolf willow, and she will need to complete the walk before it comes into bloom. She plans to stay overnight at places that were part of her father’s ranch: at the old line camp, which was named because of its proximity to the international border, and at the home place, the homestead where she was born. Not surprisingly, these places, as well as the creek and the valley it flows through, evoke memories for Poirier. What is surprising, though, is her insistence that this knowledge is insufficient:

I have been told that living here, living in this same place nearly all my life, I am like a minnow. I take this place for granted, the way the minnow takes water for granted. Because I live here, because I presumably have not looked at this place through the other end of the binoculars, because I have not sat on a beach in Spain or walked along the Great Wall in China, there are things about this place I will never know. There are things I can not see because I see them every day, and I cannot name them. That may be so, but there may be other things I know because I have lived here. I know the minnows in Rock Creek have been privileged. Water has a way of magnifying the buffalo beans on the creek bank. (25)

One of the things Poirier knows is the sights and sounds and smells of this place. On a drive to the home place, to see whether she could stay overnight in the old farmhouse, she notices “the smell of the creek: the aroma of old clay, old willow bark mixed with new willow leaf, arrowhead, and tender rushes” (14). During a similar trip to the line camp, she writes, “I rest my arm on the open window and breath in the many scents of spring, buffalo bean and psorallea, silver sage” (28). Clearly Poirier knows the names of the plants and animals and birds as well. One of the pleasures of this book is her evocation of those creatures through their names. Another is the intimacy with which she reports what she sees and hears and smells.

The middle section of the book, “Upstream,” recounts Poirier’s walk. Everywhere she goes on this walk has a name or function or something that indicates that it is a place, as opposed to undifferentiated space (to return to Yi-Fu Tuan’s distinction yet again). For instance, on the drive south to the border, where she will begin walking, Poirier catalogues the places she and her husband pass:

We follow a winding trail through grazing leases, through park land, sometimes over the Trader’s Trail used more than a hundred years ago by Metis buffalo hunters, pass the site where Ed McPherson’s cow camp once stood, the camp that probably marked the east end of the Turkey Track range, drive past a single coyote, past the lakes until we reach the boundary, turn east and pass boundary markers, until we are opposite Bowerys’ or Davenports’ place. The names changed with the residents. They are left over from adult conversations heard at the dinner table during my childhood. (44)

Despite Poirier’s suggestion that she doesn’t know the land well enough, it’s clear (to me, anyway) that she has an intimate knowledge of these places. All of those places, or the names or stories Poirier knows them by, are echoes of a long-lost past. Nearly all of the homesteads or ranches she sees or walks past have been abandoned, evidence of the way rural Saskatchewan has been emptied of people, of settlers, since the drought of the 1930s. The names linger, but the evidence of human habitation is fragmentary now: cellars, steel objects slowly turning to rust, occasionally a building that has not yet collapsed. This is one of the reasons Grasslands National Park has been able to expand: as they retire, ranchers often sell their land to the park. Poirier is ambivalent about the park, partly because she’s not sure grazing will be allowed there, and without grazing, the prairie grasses will not thrive (47). That’s not surprising; she reports that ranchers tend to be opposed to the park because of their deeply rooted desire for privacy (46).

Poirier is not unaware that others called this valley home before settlers arrived. For twenty years, she notes, she has travelled with her friend Wasu Mato (William Lethbridge), a Lakota man who has shown her places where his ancestors camped while Sitting Bull was seeking refuge from the U.S. cavalry north of the border (26). She reports that Rock Creek was once known as Medicine Lodge Creek, because the Lakota held a sun dance there in 1879 (54-55). On the second day of the walk, she discovers quartzite artifacts—not arrowheads or scrapers, but something else, something knapped by human hands—as well as a “chert point . . . wedged into the clay bank of the creek,” evidence of “a stonesmith camped along Rock Creek,” who “squatted among the pygmy cacti, the stunted grasses and the sedges, and fashioned this simple point form a chunk of chert” (107). Poirier imagines that the stonesmith might have been a woman (107). 

One of the pleasures of this book, as I’ve said, is the catalogue Poirier creates from the creatures she encounters on her walk: ferruginous hawks, ticks, and Canada geese (57-59); mule deer—a herd of 37 at one point (91)—and antelope, including a doe who walks alongside of her (94); a short-eared owl (66); sage grouse (69); rose, buffaloberry, and silverberry (70); ducks, a pair of western kingbirds, cushion vetch or pussy toes, buffalo beans and June grass (87); northern wheatgrass, little bluestem, blue grama, rough fescue, spear grass (93); big bluestem and green needle grass (104-05); a barn owl (98); pelicans (100); long-billed curlews (106); a golden eagle and killdeer and sharptailed grouse (113); nighthawks. Often naming the things she sees evokes a memory: seeing buffaloberries growing along the creek brings to mind childhood experiences of making jelly from their soapy fruit with her mother (71-72). The hill with the Dominion Land Survey marker on the top reminds her of her annual flower count there (120). She remembers the ritual of repairing fences (107), stories about branding cattle (115-16), about the small coal mine that settlers dug near a spring (116-17). Poirier moves back and forth, from memory to the present and back again—this is, not surprisingly, the primary narrative mode of her account, this shifting from present into memories of the past. Other times she tells stories about the creature she encounters, as with the antelope doe that walks beside her for a while, or the barn owl that surprises her at an old farmhouse. Walking, as Poirier has discovered, generates narrative—perhaps because of its rhythms, perhaps because of its slowness. “I am walking with memory,” she writes (128).

Another pleasure of this book is Poirier’s evocation of the things she sees, hears, and smells. She writes of the colours of a cutbank: “Today the cutbanks are not yellow, but mauve and rose and turquoise, colors trembling beneath the thunderclouds” (73). She finds a speckled blue egg in the ruts of the trail (75). The sunrise on her second morning begins with everything being “a mute brown,” but “then a silvery light wavers on the tips of the buffalo berry and the sage. It slips between the silhouettes of the dobies. The brown bottle turns blue. A wash of yellow light. Indigo. Chartreuse. Magenta” (81). “How easily colour comes to the canyon, to the line camp,” she reflects (81). At the end of the second day, she looks back at where she has walked: the horizon is “a blur of mauve and purple shadow,” the creek “an intermittent blue thread” (102). “The day was linked by special moments: quiet mule deer, one blue heron, a solitary antelope, rock wrens, an owl, pelicans, and shooting stars. And best of all was the overwhelming sense of timelessness. How old am I?” (102).

Poirier’s feet blister on the first day of her walk, and she is so exhausted that she falls asleep before sunset. On the second day, when she reaches her own yard, she stops for four days to enable her blisters to heal. That morning, as the sun rises, she turns to survey the land:

A pale light brushes the western horizon, the western slope is brown. I drop into the valley, into the land of shadow along Rock Creek, measure the morning by the first rays of the sun, a strange sensation of light creeping down the western slopes toward me. The sky is smoky rose, the horizon obscure. Then a sudden wash of light spreads across the valley and the only shadow is my own, stretching off to one side as I move northward up the creek in the south pasture. (103)

This close to home, Poirier knows the land intimately. “Where I walk today the landscape is the one that I know best,” she writes. “Over the years I have come to know these hills, the contours as well as my own body” (107). There is a level of intimacy in those sentences that contradict Poirier’s earlier hesitation regarding her knowledge of the land through which she is walking. 

At one point, Poirier experiences what can only be described as an ecstasy of belonging, an epiphany of being part of the land through which she is walking:

I pause on the road and know that as surely as the earth draws me, as surely as I can feel the weight of my hands increasing as I walk, pulling me down, I can also feel the earth surging upward inside of me. I can taste the scent of leaf mold and sweetgrass and a multiple of water weeds. Maybe it is true that our sense of smell is co-dependent on the sensitivity of our taste buds.

Best of all I feel buoyant, almost like the deer in mid-air. It seems I walk on the tips of the grass, float over flowers. Perhaps I do not have to look through the other end of the binoculars after all. I just have to be here. (121-22)

The merging of senses here (smell and taste), and the simultaneous senses of being pulled down by the earth and floating above it, both suggest the power of this moment. And yet this experience is juxtaposed against the mundane: a stop to eat a granola bar and check her legs for ticks. Even the ordinariness of that moment is special, though. “Beside me is a beaver dam, a very small dam, the first of many between this point and the headwaters, each dam larger than the previous one,” she writes. “A red-tailed hawk nests in a hawthorn beside the beaver dam, is nervous because I am there. She lifts her wings, shifts her feet and meets my gaze. Her mate soars and dives. It is time for me to leave” (122). 

As she walks past her childhood home, her memories become even more powerful. She remembers riding with her sister, Marjorie; the land is shadowed by her memories of those rides. She sees the grave of her infant sister, Florence May, who was born 18 years before her: “As I walk I carry her in my arms, bundled against me. And in the house I think my mother still sits at the window, grieving for a daughter that did not live” (130). The corrals her father built and the pasture where her father kept the rams evoke memories: “That was nearly fifty years ago; time keeps getting in the way” (131). Although Poirier could walk up to the house, she decides not to: “I focus on the creek and the headwaters, on finishing this walk” (131). And shortly afterwards, she arrives there and drinks from the spring that feeds Rock Creek: “This water, too, is cold and sweet. Here, I can say with solemnity, Rock Creek begins here. I can sip from the beginning and know something of beginnings at the end of my journey” (135). She climbs a nearby hill and writes in her notebook, “reluctant to leave, reluctant to end this journey” (136). It’s a feeling many distance walkers will experience, although Poirier’s reluctance might be more powerful because of the intimacy with which she knows the land and the memories it contains for her.

The last section of the book recalls a road trip to the confluence of Rock Creek and the Milk River in Montana five years later. It took that long to find time when she and her sister Marjorie could make the drive. She wanted to walk again, but the only time Marjorie can travel with her is in October, a bad time for walking. It is less than a day’s drive to the confluence, which reminds Poirier of the creek’s source, despite the differences between the two places:

Deer paths cross the clearing, wind through a tangle of ash and silver willow, meadow grass and dogwood, all beneath a grove of cottonwood at the confluence. On one side of a “V” is Rock Creek, on the other side, the Milk River. Waters of the larger river drift into the creek, swirl and carry the creek away, a convoluted progression. Morning light shatters on the surface of the water and it seems pieces of mica reflect the sun. . . . And then it comes to me, how this confluence is like the headwaters of Rock Creek. It is the tangle of underbrush, the silver willows, the tall trees overhead and the aroma of mint and moss. It is the blend of light and shadow. I am compelled to look to the tops of the trees, look for a heronry. There is not a single nest or a heron in the sky. (141-42). 

The confluence also reminds her that the Milk River flows into the Missouri, and then the Mississippi: “Last winter I visited New Orleans, and sat on the quay and watched the roiling water of the Mississippi, knowing some small portion of it came from Rock Creek, flowed past this confluence I had not yet seen” (142). Poirier and her sister drive through the canyon the creek has formed, and Poirier is overwhelmed by the differences between that canyon and the valley she knows so well: “It is unlike any part of Rock Creek I have ever seen” (143). The sisters meet an old woman at a farm who tells them that the farm was once a town (144-47). She is auctioning off her brother’s farm three days later, and Poirier and her husband and a neighbour come back. They visit the neighbour’s sister’s farm and Poirier goes for a walk near an abandoned ranch. She wades into Rock Creek and finds that the water is tepid despite the late season: “Rock Creek, I think, dear Rock Creek” (155).

Poirier meets several women at the auction, and at the end of the book she wonders about them, about their relationship with the land and with each other:

They shared their memories, their present realities with me. If they were poets, what poems would they write? Rock Creek bonds us to each other and to other women who live along its banks and tributaries. No boundary can separate us. 

By nightfall most of the Montana women return to their homes in Hinsdale, Opheim or Glasgow. Only a few of them remain on the creek, listen to the night wind yipping like a bunch of Canadian coyotes. Likewise I return to my Canadian home on a branch of Rock Creek. (158)

Why, I wonder, are the coyotes Canadian? What is Poirier suggesting with that adjective? She is thinking about the similarities between women on both sides of the international border, but I wonder why the coyotes are identified as Canadian. In any case, crossing the border on the return home gives the book a circularity. “The journey ends where it began, at the crossing,” Poirier writes. “The water gurgles through the rushes. An elongated cloud stretches across the horizon, blue as a heron’s wing” (158)—like the heron Poirier followed in the first section of the book, the heron whose flight towards the creek’s headwaters gave her the idea for the walk.

Rock Creek reinforces the idea that writing about place—or experiences of place—require a deep level of intimacy. After all, Poirier is writing about the place where she was born and raised, the place she has spent her adult life, and she still wonders if she knows it well enough. I felt the same way when I walked in the Haldimand Tract in southwestern Ontario three years ago, although that’s where I grew up. And yet I know that not every book about place comes from that kind of intimacy. That’s the reason I wanted to read Iain Sinclair’s London Orbital: yes, he knows part of that journey intimately, since it begins in the London neighbourhood where he has lived for 30 or 40 years, but surely the rest of his walk takes place in territory with which he is unfamiliar. Perhaps I will find time to read London Orbital sooner rather than later. And perhaps, at some point in this project, I’ll be able to repeat Poirier’s walk. My experience would be completely different from hers, of course, but I wonder what someone who isn’t intimately familiar with the land might take from the experience. The trick, of course, would be getting permissions from landowners, but my friend Hugh does that before the walks he organizes, and so it’s clearly not impossible. It’s something to think about, anyway, as I consider what book to read next.

Works Cited

Poirier, Thelma. Rock Creek. Coteau, 1998.

Sinclair, Iain. London Orbital: A Walk Around the M25. Penguin, 2003.

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

34. Robert Bringhurst and Jan Zwicky, Learning to Die: Wisdom in the Age of Climate Crisis

learning to die

Honestly, I should be working on the final assignment for my Cree course today. And I’m not sure that Learning to Die: Wisdom in the Age of Climate Crisis, a sobering little book by Robert Bringhurst and Jan Zwicky, who are both poets and philosophers, belongs on my reading list. Perhaps by writing about it, I’ll come to some sort of decision about the connection between this book and my research. If nothing else, reading Learning to Die: Wisdom in the Age of Climate Crisis is timely. After all, in the past couple of weeks, reports have been issued (or leaked) suggesting that global carbon emissions reached an all-time high in 2018, despite our half-hearted attempts at slowing them down, and that Canada itself is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, which is going to have devastating effects here. Meanwhile, our provincial premier addressed a rally of people protesting the one policy our federal government has come up with to address this catastrophe: the carbon tax. That tax, Premier Scott Moe told the crowd, will restrict the growth of our province and our economy. If only someone had explained to him that the only thing that lives in an expectation of limitless growth is cancer.

Learning to Die: Wisdom in the Age of Climate Crisis consists of three essays: the first, by Robert Bringhurst, considers the fraught relation between our capitalist, technological civilization and what Bringhurst calls “the wild” (8); the second, by Jan Zwicky, turns to Plato to uncover the virtues we need to cultivate at a time when “[c]atastrophic global ecological collapse is on the horizon” (43); and the third, co-written by Bringhurst and Zwicky, attacks the work of professional optimist Stephen Pinker—especially his 2018 book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress—for playing fast and loose with the facts about the grave ecological situation that faces human civilization. Both Bringhurst and Zwicky take as given that the earth’s sixth great extinction event is likely to wipe us out as well—and, if our species, certainly our civilization. “If there are any human survivors of the next mass extinction,” Bringhurst writes, “their cultural slate will be wiped pretty clean. No one may have heard of Shakespeare or Bach, Picasso or Plato. No one may get the joke if a survivor digs up a fragment of a book and, as he rips it up for fuel, sees there beneath his dirty thumb the cheerful title Political Geoecology for the Anthropocene” (20-21). We are at an end, Bringhurst and Zwicky argue, and we need to face up to the situation we have created—not only for ourselves, but for every other species that calls this planet its home.

Bringhurst begins his essay, entitled “The Mind of the Wild,” with a comment Mark Twain made about Columbus’s landfall in the Bahamas in October 1492: “It was wonderful to find America, but it would have been more wonderful to miss it” (8). “Meditating on how good it might have been for European sailors not to discover America is one way of stepping a little outside ourselves and starting to learn to see things with precolonial eyes, and with nonhuman eyes—or, as David Abram would say, with more-than-human eyes,” Bringhurst writes (8). The people who lived in the Americas before the arrival of Europeans “knew a great deal about the wild because they lived in intimate contact with it all their lives,” he continues. “We have mountains of hard evidence that they studied it and respected it, and that it served as the foundation for their educational practices” (8). Their stories tell us that “they didn’t aspire to run the world or tame it,” that “they understood that the land has a mind of its own, that the wild is in control of itself and has room within it for humans but does not need and cannot tolerate human domination” (8-9). Compare that way of thinking to the one revealed in the first chapter of the Book of Genesis, or at least the translated version that Columbus’s sailors would have carried, which promises, without irony, that humans can “subdue” and “have dominion over” every living thing on the planet (10). Perhaps, Bringhurst suggests, it was the speed at which the Europeans crossed the ocean that was the problem:

If the European colonists and traders had come here by meandering over a land bridge, or by paddling, over several generations, along a chain of islands, then their stories, dreams, and songs would have shifted step by step and had ample time to change. Instead, they came in fast little ships: carracks, caravels, and galleons. Like people who fly in airplanes today, they travelled too fast ever to get where they were going. So they stepped ashore and walked right by the wild. (11-12)

When those Europeans noticed the wild at all, “they routinely misconstrued it as a barrier and a challenge” (12).

What does Bringhurst mean by “the wild”? It is “everything that grows and breeds and functions without supervision or imposed control. It is what lives in the long term without being managed” (12). It is not “a portfolio of resources for us or our species to buy and sell or manage or squander as we please” (12). Rather, “[t]he wild is earth living its life to the full” (12). “The earth’s life is much larger than our own life,” he continues, “but our lives are part of it. If we take that life, we take our own” (12). But the wild is also inside of us, at least as a possibility: if we can see “how profoundly complete and self-sufficient, how intricate and beautiful” the wild is, “how little it can benefit and greatly it can suffer from human interference,” we will actually come to discover this place (13). And yet, 

We will never know the wild completely, because the wild is sufficient to itself—self-directed, self-sustaining, self-repairing, with no need for anything from us. Yet because we are a part of it—and cannot, even in death, be disconnected from it completely—we always know a little bit about it, however tame or urbanized we are. The little we know is not nearly enough to recreate it if it goes—but in a sense that does not matter. When it goes, we will not be here to try. (13)

We depend on the wild. We need it, even though we typically don’t recognize that is the case. That lack of recognition feeds the rapid growth of our population and the “feverish building and trashing” that accompanies it (15). “Roughly fifty years ago, we as a species started using the planet’s accumulated resources faster than they are replenished,” Bringhurst writes, even though the wild always generates a surplus (15). “A billion more people per decade, each with machinery in tow, is more than the wild will bear,” he concludes (16).

Our planet has seen several mass extinctions. One, at the boundary between the Paleozoic and Mesozoic eras, some 250 million years ago, wiped out more than 80% of all existing genera and species (17-18). Another, at the boundary between the Mesozoic and Cenozoic eras, 65 million years ago, killed three quarters of all existing plant and animal species, including the dinosaurs (18). “Depending on where you set the bar—at 50% or 30% extinction—there have been at least five, or at least nine such planetary holocausts or global mass extinctions in the last 600 million years,” Bringhurst writes (18). At least one of them was caused by cyanobacteria, which developed a form of photosynthesis that produced oxygen as a waste product, killing off the majority of species of bacteria on the planet, which could not tolerate oxygen (18-19). The mass extinction we have set in motion “by overbreeding, overbuilding, overexploiting, overhunting, overfishing, and by relentlessly overconsuming fossil fuel, can claim to be unique,” Bringhurst argues: it will be the first mass extinction “provoked by a single species”—homo sapiens.

From the perspective of geological time, Bringhurst suggests, this may not matter very much. Our sun will eventually run out of fuel, and as it does, it will consume the planets closest to it (25-26). And given the frequency of mass extinction events, it’s unlikely that humans would be able to continue to exist until that happens, some 500 million years from now (26-27). “Even if life were going to live forever—which it isn’t—all forms of life are mortal,” Bringhurst argues:

Few, if any, animal species have survived for half a billion years. No species of placental mammal has lived for more than a few million. So if we’re thinking about maximizing our future, on this all-too-mortal planet, circling that all-too-mortal star we call the sun, we should be thinking about our descendants, not ourselves as individuals nor ourselves as a species either. And those descendants are far more likely to be our species’ nieces and nephews, rather than our species’ daughters and sons. (29)

“In other words, if we want to polish our hopes for the future,” he concludes, “we should take a broader view: an avuncular rather than strictly grand-parental view” (29). 

Humans, Bringhurst argues, are “liminal creatures” who “live on the edge of the wild,” like “hive-building and nest-making and lodge-building and burrow-digging” creatures, and like lichen (because of their use of algae) and trees (because they “congregate in forests” (32). All of these creatures modify the wild, domesticate “some tiny part of it,” and therefore “contribute to its richness and complexity” (33). “The wild, you could say, is a big, self-integrating system whose edges are everywhere and whose centre is nowhere,” he writes, noting that humans have so many creatures living inside and on them “that their cells outnumber our own. Inside and out, we are dwarfed by the wild and reliant upon it” (33). If we live on the boundary of the wild, what is on the other side of that boundary? Nothing, Bringhurst replies. Death: “the lifeless world that was here before the wild came to be—and will be here still when the wild has vanished” (34).

“Because we are liminal creatures, we often get closer to the wild by pushing against it—brushing out a trail, for example, or catching and cleaning a trout, or killing and gutting a deer,” Bringhurst writes. But by pushing harder—by constructing a highway or running a salmon farm—we paradoxically find that we’ve pushed ourselves farther away (34). “We as an increasingly globalized culture have tried to turn the delicate and permeable membrane between us and the wild into a wall,” he continues (36). Now we are up against that wall, and “it’s more important than ever before that we learn to think like an ecosystem, not like a spoiled brat or a biological singularity” (36). Why? “One reason is, so we can go down singing, happy to know what we know, hopeful that the earth will go on living its life to the full as long as it can,” Bringhurst suggests. “The other reason is, so that we as individuals and small groups, with limited resources, can do what it is possible to do on the wild’s behalf—on being’s behalf—and thereby on ours” (37). Civil disobedience is one action we can take (37-38). But we can also side with older, more sustainable cultures against “the unsustainable mainstream, and with other species against our own” (38). He concludes by citing a Haida proverb that translates as “The ground might see me” (38). “It’s a moral and ethical benchmark,” he explains. A benchmark with eyes. . . . the basic moral reference is the ground beneath your feet” (38-39). Attending to that benchmark “won’t enable you to save the world, but you might just manage to save your self-respect. And that is something” (39).

In a way, Zwicky picks up where Bringhurst left off: with the kinds of moral virtues that are necessary for us at the end of our civilization. With catastrophic climate change beginning to transform our planet, and without coherent political action to stop it, and with our demand for fossil fuels increasing, we are going to go—and “take a lot of innocent beings with us” (43-45). Zwicky turns to Plato, or to Socrates, about whom Plato wrote, to discover what constitutes virtue in such circumstances. “The answer is surprisingly straightforward,” she writes: “what has constituted virtue all along. We should approach the coming cataclysm as we ought to have approached life” (45). 

The core Socratic virtues, Zwicky writes, are “knowing what’s what,” which means having an awareness of the world “coupled with humility regarding what one knows”; courage; self-control; justice; contemplative practice; and compassion (49). For Zwicky, “knowing what’s what,” or awareness, involves a “limpid recognition of mortality” (50). “It is to look at the world openly and to see it, and one’s own actions, and the actions of others, for what they are: gestures that vanish in the air like music,” she writes (50). “Being will be here,” she states, quoting one of Bringhurst’s poems. “Beauty will be here.” But we may not be (50-51). This recognition does not mean wallowing in despair, however. The natural world “is still, in many ways, very much alive,” and we need to remember that after other mass extinctions, “life has proliferated again” (51). 

Courage will be required to face what is coming—both physical courage and the moral courage “to continue to exercise the virtue of awareness” (54). “Humility—a deep unconcern for the social fate of the self—is the foundation of courage as well as wisdom: it frees one to see the truth,” she writes. And part of that wisdom involves another virtue: self-control. That is something contemporary humans—“consumers”—lack (55). Self-control “allows a joyous simplicity, a delight in living as lightly as possible on the earth” (55). “It is an embrace of simplicity,” a shift in our understanding of happiness (56). 

Another virtue we will need, according to Zwicky, is justice. For Plato, justice was one of the cardinal virtues, along with awareness, courage, and self-control. Those four virtues are “facets of an integrated whole” (57). Justice “is manifest in the whole soul or state, Plato argues, when each part submits willingly to the direction of the intellectual faculty or class,” Zwicky writes (57). It is interior harmony:

Justice as interior harmony effectively summarizes the internal relations we’ve already noticed among awareness, humility, courage, and self-control. Humility—getting the ego and its fears out of the way—gives one the courage to seek truth; it helps one discern where one must press further. Awareness makes self-control easy: it turns it from an onerous task into a series of self-reinforcing behaviours that allow one to feel at home. The resulting simplicity supports humility; awareness widens and courage builds. (59)

“If ‘justice’ seems the wrong name for this virtue,” she continues, “call it something else: nobility; integrity; shiningness. What produces it is the self-sustaining interdependence of awareness, humility, courage, and self-control” (59).

Compassion is also important—“compassion for those struggling to come to awareness,” that is (63). There is no point in feeling contempt for those whose fear prevents them from coming into awareness, she writes; such contempt is both graceless and damaging. It “intensifies anxiety, thereby intensifying denial” (63). I ought to feel compassion for the carbon-tax protestors and for our premier, then, instead of frustration and anger. That is a tall order. Perhaps the final virtue, contemplative practice, would help me be compassionate. For Zwicky, contemplative practice is an attention “to the real, physical world, its immense and intricate workings, its subtlety; it’s power, its harshness, and its enormous beauty” (64). It means attending to the “miracle” of the physical world, by slowing down so that we can sense its rhythms (64-65). It is also an attention “to the world’s extraordinary surprise: its refusal to quit, the weed flowering in tar, the way beauty and brokenness so often go together” (65). “The more we attend to the world, the less we find ourselves wishing to control it,” she continues. Instead, we find ourselves desiring to become a member of the community of the physical world (65). Along with the wonder we begin to feel comes respect and “a willingness to take intuitive forms of knowing seriously” (65). And contemplative practice can help us understand and acknowledge what we have destroyed, which “can free us into real and cleansing grief” (66).

We don’t possess those virtues, individually or collectively, of course. Why? For Plato, we misjudge the facts of the case. For instance, we incorrectly judge that the pleasure of immediate gratification outweighs the pain of the future suffering to which that immediate gratification will contribute. So we fly to Mexico for a holiday without thinking of the global warming that goes along with air travel (67). But ignorance isn’t our only failing. Even when we know what virtue is, that knowledge does not “seem to compel most of us, most of the time. This may simply be a brute fact about the species” (68). So people like me, citizens of the rich, technocratic nations on this planet, have been unwilling to “impose mindful constraints on our own consumption when the science came in decades ago” (68). “We knew, we knew well enough to be made uncomfortable by our knowledge, but we didn’t want to know” (69). We pretended the problem would just go away. “We see once again that there is no sharp distinction between awareness and justice conceived as integrity; it routinely takes courage and self-control—steadiness of vision in the face of fear or shock or disbelief—to admit what we know, just as it takes courage and humility to admit what we don’t know,” Zwicky writes (69). For virtues to be virtues, in other words, they must be practised together. “Becoming an excellent human being requires one to adopt a moral ecology,” and “[m]oral ecologies, like biological ones, are organic wholes, whose distinguishable aspects—the virtues—stand in internal relations to one another” (69-70). In other words, none of the Socratic virtues “can be acquired without acquiring the others” (70).

So, Zwicky asks, “[h]ow are we to die?” (70). With a sense of humour, she answers, with a “lightness of touch that comes from not taking one’s self too seriously. We will sense it as a smile: the absence of fear and the refusal of despair. Even in the face of death” (70-71). I don’t know, though. Why would we suddenly acquire and begin practicing these virtues as we die, if we haven’t acquired or practiced them during our lives? In our last moments as a species, or as a civilization, will we suddenly change our ways? I doubt it. 

Do these two essays—I’m skipping over their critique of Pinker’s optimism, his lack of awareness, and his inability to sympathize with people “who sense that a genuine connection to the natural world is fundamental to human flourishing” (90), because I haven’t read Pinker’s work and so cannot measure their response to it—connect to my research? I wasn’t sure before I began writing this summary, but now, I am convinced they do offer something. Perhaps, by walking, I can begin to become aware of the wild, in Bringhurst’s term, or “the real, physical world,” in Zwicky’s (64). At the same time, I will likely come to understand the degree to which the ecosystems through which I will walk have been damaged. Perhaps that walking could become a form of contemplative practice that could lead to “deep acknowledgement” and “cleansing grief” at what we have wrought (66). And no doubt my attempt at learning Cree will help me, even in a limited way, come to understand the notion that “the land has a mind of its own, that the wild is in control of itself and has room within it for humans but does not need and cannot tolerate human domination” (8-9). I don’t know. I feel a connection between my project and this book, and while I am aware of the need not to let my research sprawl out of control, at the same time I want to remain open to important connections and possibilities, and those are what this little book offers.

Work Cited

Bringhurst, Robert, and Jan Zwicky. Learning to Die: Wisdom in the Age of Climate Crisis. U of Regina P, 2018.

33. Katherena Vermette, North End Love Songs

north end love songs

I’m not totally convinced that I’m the best person to write about Governor General’s Award-winning poet and novelist Katherena Vermette’s book North End Love Songs, since I’ve never spent much time in Winnipeg and I’ve never made the trip up Main Street to Winnipeg’s North End, the place explored in these poems. And I always feel some trepidation, as a môniyâw, whenever I set out to say anything about a book by an Indigenous writer. But North End Love Songs is a book about place, and I’ve been reading and thinking about and writing about books about place, so it might not be completely out of line for me to think out loud about these poems in this space.

Like Chelsea Coupal’s Sedley, another book of poems about place I’ve been reading, North End Love Songs is an autobiographical portrait of what it’s like to grow up as a young woman in a particular space. But whereas Sedley is about growing up in a rural and white community in Saskatchewan, North End Love Songs is about a very different experience, urban and Indigenous. There are four sections in North End Love Songs. The first, “Poised for Flight,” imagines the good and bad experiences of an Indigenous girl growing up in Winnipeg’s North End through birds. Not all of the poems in that section of the book draw on that conceit, but most of them do. There is a fragility suggested in these poems, as well as a potential for something else, realized or not. But most of all, there’s a sense of foreboding as in “chickadee”:

chickadee loves sun
sits in it all summer
singing the song
that is
her name:

when she’s thirteen
she stays at her granny’s
for a summer
the house has a long
screened in porch
that smells like
spilt beer and old people
the floor crunches
with sunflower seed shells

an old man hangs out there
watches the sun
through the screen
when she meets him
he looks her up and down
and up again

well he sighs through
toothless gums
you must be your mother’s (20)

The sun-loving chickadee is transformed into a girl in a musty (and, I assume, shady) screened-in porch, confronting a nameless old man. Who is this old man? If he were her grandfather, wouldn’t he be identified as such? Is he her grandmother’s partner? Someone else? Isn’t there something creepy, even lascivious, in the way he looks at the girl? How does he know her mother? There is a sense of innocence that’s perhaps about to be lost in this poem, as in the other poems in this section. The lines, here and elsewhere in the book, are short, blunt, straight-forward, but the movement from one stanza to the next is what gives the poem its power.

Many of the poems in the book are named after streets in Winnipeg’s North End, and that city’s elm trees are ubiquitous. (I had never seen an elm tree until driving through Winnipeg on the way to Regina.) Take, for example, the first part of “bannerman avenue,” the first poem in the book’s second section, “nortendluvsong”:

girl looks down
bannerman avenue
elms tower
branches overhead
interlaced like fingers
cup around her
hold her in

grey street goes
bone straight
right under
fingers making a steeple
a church adorned

black leaves
across pavement

branches wave
in the sun (41)

The suggestion that the elms grasp or hold the human figures in these poems is repeated throughout this section, much like the way that birds returned in the book’s first section: “girls walk back down / bannerman avenue / sip big gulps/ talk too loud // elms curve / above them / like a roof” (55), or “she is with a boy / in the heavy / summer rain / they are dry / under a shroud of trees // impossible elms / so intertwined / the concrete / underneath / barely changes colour // where the boy / leans her against / the soft bark / cups his palms / to her cheeks” (65). But the elms aren’t always so comforting: “in summer the elms / gentle / thick / intertwined / block out sun” (49), or “in winter the elms / black / skeletons” (50).

In fact, the place of the natural world in Winnipeg’s North End is uneasy, troubled: wildflowers, despite their beauty, are poisoned before they “take over / choke out all those / poppies and marigolds / roses and daffodils / no planted flower / stands a chance / against a pack of weeds” (57), and an elm tree, its bark spray painted with a “bright orange / X / a kill mark,” is cut into pieces by a city work crew “as if carving a sculpture / or trimming hair,” not stopping “until the tree is barely / taller than the grass” (63-64). The lives of the people in the North End are similarly threatened. In “Guy,” a classmate of a young girl is repeatedly beaten by his father: “when he shows up / at school all bruised / tells everyone / how he got jumped / she just nods / like everyone else” (47-48). But it’s not all doom and gloom. A quartet of girls sits on the steps of a church, drinking Big Gulps and eating chips and sharing cigarettes, their conversation both a catalogue of bad experiences and a communal sharing. Like the wildflowers setting seed in flower beds, there is life here as well as death; the poems reproduce that vitality even as they suggest the things that threaten it.

In “November,” the book’s third section, Vermette turns to the disappearance of her brother. He loved 1980s pop metal—one poem, “mixed tape,” is structured through a series of song titles by bands like Poison and Mötley Crüe (78-80)—and, the night he disappeared, wore a concert t-shirt and checked “his reflection / in the mirror” (70), agreeing to let his sister borrow one of his sweaters before he left the house. He didn’t come home. His family put up posters, the photo of him “holding the teddy bear / her mother bought / last christmas” (72) undercutting the newspaper headline: “Native Man Missing After Binge” (71). The police do little:

indians go missing
they tell the family
indians go missing
blue suits shrug
no sense looking
they said
he’ll turn up when
he gets bored
or broke (90)

His body was found in the spring, in the river, and identified through dental records. He had tried to cross “a frozen river / not quite frozen” and hadn’t made it “to the other side” (90). The section ends with the poem “epitaph,” the story of a journey to visit the dead boy’s grave. The speaker leaves a rose there, although she doesn’t know if her brother liked roses, “but somehow / it reminds her of / long haired boys with / good intentions / and mischevious smiles // brothers annoying / and kind // lost little boys / just trying to find / their way / home” (97).

The book’s final section is “I Am A North End Girl,” which I understand to be a documentary poem that reproduces the voices of girls and women living in Winnipeg’s North End. Those voices speak of children, of addiction and the sex trade, of illness and domestic violence, but they also speak of graduating from high school, of celebrating “each full moon with a / drum circle” (103), and of strange and comical acts of resistance to the city’s racism and to being undesired at the same time:

. . . when the night’s been too long, when I get bored or
just mad and cold I run out into early morning traffic,
down by Aikins where those fucking white people are
going to their fucking jobs and I yell, “Hey you know
you want some of this!?” or something. The looks on
those faces, shit, you should see, it’s fucking hilarious.
Have to get some attention some time fuck, they all
stopped noticing me there long ago. (103)

Most importantly, though, those voices—or at least the last one—speak of unflinching witness: “but I’ve never / not once / not for one second / looked away” (105). Nor, apparently, has Vermette herself.

These are powerful poems, but they also reiterate the necessity to know a place intimately before trying to write about it. North End Love Songs would have been impossible without a deep knowledge of that place and its people, a knowledge that could only come from growing up there. In that way, North End Love Songs is similar to Warren Cariou’s Lake of the Prairies: A Story of Belonging, or Sarah de Leeuw’s Unmarked: Landscapes Along Highway 16, which are also books that come from the experience of being raised in a particular place (or, in de Leeuw’s case, in particular places). Nevertheless, Nora Gould’s I see my love more clearly from a distance suggests that an outsider to a place can also gain such an intimate knowledge over time. Perhaps that’s the equation for writing about place? Time + experience = knowledge. Could it be that simple? Somehow I doubt it: nothing is ever that simple. I am going to have to continue my research.

Works Cited

Cariou, Warren. Lake of the Prairies: A Story of Belonging. Anchor, 2003.

Coupal, Chelsea. Sedley: Poems. Coteau Books, 2018.

Gould, Nora. I see my love more clearly from a distance. Brick Books, 2012.

de Leeuw, Sarah. Unmarked: Landscapes Along Highway 16. Newest, 2004.

Vermette, Katherena. North End Love Songs. The Muses’ Company, 2012.

32. Eudora Welty, “A Worn Path”

eudora welty

I used to teach Eudora Welty’s story, “A Worn Path,” and I still love it anyway. The story’s main character, Phoenix, is “an old Negro woman” (142) walking from her home somewhere “away back off the Old Natchez Trace” (147) into the town of Natchez, Mississippi. The narrator tells us that Phoenix

was very old and small and she walked slowly in the dark pine shadows, moving a little from side to side in her steps, with the balanced heaviness and lightness of a pendulum in a grandfather clock. She carried a thin, small cane made from an umbrella, and with this she kept tapping the frozen earth in front of her. This made a grave and persistent noise in the still air, that seemed meditative like the chirping of a solitary little bird. (142)

Phoenix is poor; her apron is made of “bleached sugar sacks” (142). She is unable to tie her shoes, because her laces “dragged” as she walked, and her eyes are “blue with age,” a description that suggests cataracts (142). As the story unfolds, it also becomes clear to us that she is experiencing some form of age-related cognitive impairment. For most of the story, we don’t know why she has embarked on her journey. All we know is that she is determined to get to Natchez. We don’t know how long her walk is, exactly, but it might be as long as four or five hours, which would mean she walks as far as 20 kilometres. That’s a good morning’s walk for anyone, never mind someone whose wrinkled face suggests that she might be in her eighties. When I taught this story, I knew that none of my students had ever made such a walk—that they couldn’t even imagine walking that far—and that their understanding of the difficulty of Phoenix’s walk was incomplete as a result.

While I was reading Yi-Fu Tuan’s book, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience, I thought about “A Worn Path,” and the way the distinction Tuan makes between space and place could be mapped onto this story. “‘Space’ is more abstract than ‘place,’” Tuan writes:

What begins as undifferentiated space becomes place as we get to know it better and endow it with value. . . . The ideas ‘space’ and ‘place’ require each other for definition. From the security and stability of place we are aware of the openness, freedom, and threat of space, and vice versa. Furthermore, if we think of space as that which allows movement, then place is pause; each pause in movement makes it possible for location to be transformed into place. (6)

The path of Phoenix’s walk might suggest that it is a space between two places: her home, and her destination in Natchez. But I would argue that because Phoenix is walking, and because that walk is the occasion of a story, and because she knows stories about that path from her repeated journeys along it, her path is actually made up of a series of places linked closely together. Walking and narration, then, turn space into place in this story. But so too does the fact that Phoenix has made this walk many times before. She is following a path worn (at least in part) by her own feet; she knows the obstacles and difficulties she will encounter; and, as we learn at the end of the story, she has been making this walk regularly for two or three years. From what I’ve read over the past months, I’ve determined that turning space into place requires storytelling, repetition, and slow movement (like walking). Tuan thinks that pauses are essential, and I think he’s correct, but I would extend his argument a little: walking is slow enough to enable us to experience space as place, and it also allows for the frequent pauses which Tuan argues are necessary for this transformation to occur.

What places does Phoenix experience? The first is a thicket where Phoenix perceives animals “quivering” (142). She warns the animals not to obstruct her progress:

“Out of my way, all you foxes, owls, beetles, jack rabbits, coons and wild animals! . . . Keep out from under these feet, little bob-whites. . . . Keep the big wild hogs out of my path. Don’t let none of those come running in my direction. I got a long way.” Under her small black-freckled hand her cane, limber as a buggy whip, would switch at the brush as if to rouse up any hiding things. (142)

The next place she encounters presents another challenge: a hill. “Seem like there is chains about my feet, time I get this far,” Phoenix says. “Something always take a hold of me on this hill—pleads I should stay” (143). The climb is difficult, but so too is the descent: “Her eyes opened their widest, and she started down gently” (143). Two things are worth noting about this hill. First, Phoenix identifies it by the trees she encounters: “‘Up through pines,’ she said at length. ‘Now down through oaks’” (143). That identification is part of what helps to make this location a place, rather than undifferentiated space. But the multiple challenges she experiences—the climb, the descent, and a bush that catches her dress—also help to define this hill as place. Phoenix faces these challenges with equanimity, even though her eyesight is clearly a source of difficulty for her: addressing the thorn bush that has caught her dress, she says, “Old eyes thought you was a pretty little green bush” (143).

At the bottom of the hill, the narrator tells us, “was a place where a log was laid across the creek” (143). Phoenix knows this log bridge is there: “Now comes the trial,” she says (143):

Putting her right foot out, she mounted the log and shut her eyes. Lifting her skirt, leveling her cane fiercely before her, like a festival figure in some parade, she began to march across. Then she opened her eyes and was safe on the other side.

“I wasn’t as old as I thought,” she said. (143)

Now comes a pause: a brief stop to rest, during which she either hallucinates, or falls asleep and dreams about, a little boy offering her “a slice of marble-cake” (143). When she returns to her walk, she immediately comes to another place of difficulty: she has to crawl through a barbed-wire fence. Once past the fence, she encounters a stand of “[b]ig dead trees,” on which “sat a buzzard” (144). Both the trees and the buzzard suggest death, which (given Phoenix’s age) is not far off, but the words Phoenix directs at the buzzard—“Who you watching?” (144)—suggest her tenacious hold on life despite her age and apparent infirmity.

Phoenix passes through a field of old cotton—notable because, in winter, it doesn’t contain the hazards of bulls or snakes, as it did earlier in the year, when she saw a two-headed snake (144)—into a field of dead corn. The sense of repetition—of having stories to tell about the locations through which she walks—is an important aspect of the rendering of those locations as place. This corn field presents another obstacle, because there is no path through the field. “Through the maze now,” Phoenix says to herself (144). She mistakes a scarecrow in the field for a ghost, and when she realizes her error, she laughs at herself—“I ought to be shut up for good,” she says (144)—and dances with the scarecrow. At the end of the corn field, Phoenix comes across quail “walking around like pullets, seeming all dainty and unseen” (144). Their movement reminds her of the quality of the path at this point in her walk: “‘Walk pretty,’ she said. ‘This is the easy place. This is the easy going’” (144). She follows “the track” past cabins with boarded-up windows and doors, “all like old women under a spell sitting there” (144). “I walking in their sleep,” Phoenix observes, “nodding her head vigorously” (144). Then she encounters a spring “silently flowing through a hollow log” (144) and stops for a drink. This spring appears to be a well-known place on her route, because she notes, “Nobody know who made this well, for it was here when I was born” (144). Clearly this well is a place she shares with others, all of those who do not know the well’s origin.

After crossing a swamp—“Sleep on, alligators, and blow your bubbles,” Phoenix says (145)—the track goes up into a road, where Phoenix is knocked down by a black dog: “Over she went in the ditch, like a little puff of milkweed” (145). She briefly loses consciousness and, when she recovers, finds she cannot stand without help. That assistance comes from a white man who has his own dog on a chain. He patronizes her, calling her “Granny” and dismissing her desire to go to town as a mere desire “to see Santa Claus” (145), but he does help her up. More importantly, Phoenix notices that a nickel dropped out of the man’s pocket onto the ground. She encourages the man to chase the black dog away by praising its courage and size, and while he is doing that, she carefully bends over and pockets the nickel. “God watching me the whole time,” she says. “I come to stealing” (146). When the man returns, he points his rifle directly at Phoenix and asks if she is frightened. “No sir, I seen plenty go off closer by, in my day, and for less than what I done” (146)—a reference to her theft of the nickel, I presume. The man departs with a warning: “you take my advice and stay home, and nothing will happen to you” (146). The point of retelling this event is that Phoenix’s encounter with the hunter will (assuming she remembers it) become another story she will tell herself the next time she is walking along that road, like the two-headed snake or the well where she drank. Spaces become places as they are experienced and as stories are told about them, and that otherwise nondescript roadside will become another story for Phoenix.

When she arrives in Natchez, Phoenix is exhausted and confused by the coloured Christmas lights; she “would have been lost if she had not distrusted her eyesight and depended on her feet to know where to take her” (146). That embodied knowledge is another way in which undifferentiated space becomes place: Phoenix knows the way with her body, rather than her eyes or her conscious mind. In Natchez, she once again triumphs over a white person, stopping a well-dressed woman carrying presents to ask she would tie her shoes. That woman also patronizes Phoenix, calling her “Grandma,” but she does as Phoenix asks (147). Then Phoenix continues walking “until her feet knew to stop” (147). She has arrived at her destination: a doctor’s office. However, tired from her walk, she has forgotten the purpose of her journey, a lapse which frightens her. Nevertheless, prompted by the nurse, she recalls the purpose of her long walk. She receives medicine for her grandson and demands another nickel from the “attendant” (148-49). Now that she has 10 cents, she intends to buy her grandson “a little windmill they sells, made out of paper. He going to find it hard to believe there such a thing in the world” (149). 

“A Worn Path” is about a lot of things: love, determination, the need for objects capable of generating wonder along with more practical things. But it is also about place, I think, and the way that repeated walking journeys have made the path that Phoenix travels into a place or, at least, into a series of contiguous places. Movement, in this story, is not divorced from place-making, as it is in Tuan’s discussion of place, and that makes “A Worn Path” a useful (if fictional) example of the potential for mobile forms of place-making, especially place-making through walking.

Works Cited

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

Welty, Eudora. “A Worn Path.” The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980, pp. 142-49.

31. Nora Gould, I see my love more clearly from a distance

gould i see my love more clearly from a distance

I was asking around about contemporary poetry about place a while back, and my friend Michael Dennis (who blogs about contemporary poetry here) suggested I take a look at Nora Gould’s I see my love more clearly from a distance. I’m so glad he did. It’s a wonderful evocation of place, similar to but so different from the works of creative nonfiction I’ve written about here in the past couple of weeks.

One of the reasons I see my love more clearly from a distance is so powerful is the relationship Gould creates between herself and the ranch in central Alberta where she and her family live, and which is the subject of these poems. In many of the poems, Gould reads (or writes) herself (and particularly her bout of endometriosis and the surgery it occasioned) into the land or the cows she and her husband raise. Take, for example, the poem “Downer cow”:

The bellow, the swing of the head,
scrabble of front legs, the breath,
points north.

Coyotes uncork the belly south,
magpies follow
and if the season’s right, blowflies.

In the hospital room I opened
my eyes to blues, dull gold, white
cranes flying behind the morphine

pump, across the moon: a swath
of fabric I’d tacked on the wall.
And Cousin Matt with yellow tulips. (36)

So much is happening in this poem. The dying and then dead cow in the first two stanzas is written against two of the cardinal directions (“north” when it is dying, “south” after it is dead and the food of coyotes, magpies, and blowfly larvae). But that animal is juxtaposed against Gould herself (these poems are personal and confessional, and it’s clear to me that Gould is speaking of her own experience here) in hospital, waking up after (I think) her operation to the sight of “a swath” of fabric—and “swath” is an important word here, suggesting the way that grains or oilseeds are harvested—and the oddly springlike “yellow tulips” her cousin (or more likely her husband’s cousin, since “Matt” seems to be a common name in his family) had brought to brighten up the room. One animal dies, and another comes back to life. One animal is perhaps dead in winter—isn’t that why she suggests that “blowflies” will only lay their eggs in the dead cow “if the season’s right”?—and the other, given the colours of the fabric and the tulips, is possibly in spring. In that case, the “cranes flying behind the morphine / pump” would be returning: sandhill cranes, perhaps, flying north in spring to mate and breed—an ironic counterpart to Gould’s (I think) hysterectomy.

So that’s one remarkable aspect of these poems: the way Gould writes her own body into the land and its inhabitants (wild and tame). Another is the personification of the land as “Prairie,” the lover of Orion, a homebred mythology of fecundity and, in the current moment, environmental destruction:

Now, pipes in sections, each joint rigid,
drilled deep in her parenchyma, have shifted, mixed
her fluids, frayed, broken her. Her hills
cut down, long scars converge
where flares stillbirth her northern lights

in sorrow. Sorrow, in the silences between her
measured phrases, she tastes air-
borne emissions, switches from her native

tongue. Frac fluid benzene H2S sulphur
dioxide cannot be spoken with coneflower,
ascending milk-vetch; drilling mud with scarlet

mallow. Prairie turns to Orion, toluene blue
in his blood, his fluids
in her, her blood
loose in her body. (12)

The enjambment here suggests, for me, urgency; the brief catalogue of pollutants that “cannot be spoken” with the catalogue of indigenous prairie forbs suggests what is being lost. Such catalogues—of plants, birds, animals—are one of Gould’s default procedures. But she does not only catalogue the natural environment; her use of ranching and farming language brings her readers directly into a world they might know little about, as in “Roundup Ready® canola”:

Jim says if he didn’t use chemicals, his fields would be all
dandelions and other weeds, some of them noxious.
There’s the pre-burn, the in-crop—hopefully only once—and
the desiccant pre-harvest.
He has ag advisors, GPS and weather monitoring.
He juggles degrees of tillage, crop rotation, seed banks and windows
of opportunity with rainfall, frost and his account balance.
He has a washer in his shop for the clothes he wears under his disposable
coveralls, goggles, hat and nitrile gloves. Otherwise the recommendation
is to wash these clothes alone, then run the washer empty
with detergent, the water level set for an extra large load.
Roundup® extended control product prevents weed control in your yard
for up to four months. The label says to wash your hands after use. (19)

Did you know that farmers would keep a washing machine in their shops for the clothes they wear when spraying? I didn’t. The last two lines of the poem shift away from the fields, either to farm yards or, perhaps, urban yards. How many of us have used some version of glyphosate ourselves? How many of us remembered to wash our hands afterwards?

Another aspect of these poems is their openness to thinking about life and death. Both are part of Gould’s world, and both are intrinsic to the place about which she is writing. Here’s a paragraph from “Allan discerns Psalm 29:6,” a prose poem about a hired man, a “preacher’s kid from Burlington” (68) who helps with calving:

Somehow, live birth after live birth: head back, backwards, leg back,
twins. Allan saw nothing dead until he’d fallen in love with the brown
of Prairie’s throat, her collar open to the sun that dried the calf, its head
twisted under a front leg. The open eyes echoed the crescendo of his
prayer nailing flawless imperfection. Selah. (68)

It’s not just dead calves: everything dies, or must be killed. Gould’s four-year-old daughter asks of a dead horse, “how does Deadstock get Lady to heaven?” (96). A “neighbour kid” shoots a coyote and gets $25 for the frozen body: “didn’t have to skin it” (69). Sometimes in these poems death is an assault, and other times it is a mercy, but it is always a part of life, something that cannot be avoided or turned away from.

I find all of this all the more remarkable because Gould, although she hails from Alberta, does not seem to have grown up on a farm. In “Thank you for Seed Catalogue”—the poem’s title references Robert Kroetsch’s epic prairie poem—Gould seems to acknowledge that fact:

With Robert Kroetsch, and Roger Tory
Peterson, and Vance Jowsey and McLean’s
revised and expanded Wild Flowers Across
the Prairies, and Poisonous Plants Agdex 666-2,
you could grasp the prairies, almost, okay you couldn’t,
but they could remind you if you knew,
if you were, through it all, still, gazing
at three-flowered avens, still startled by Horned Larks. (78)

Like the person referred to here—whom I take to be Gould herself, although I could be wrong—I’ve come to know the grassland through Peterson’s Field Guide to Western Birds (which lists all of the birds that live west of the 100th meridian) and Wild Flowers Across the Prairies. That book knowledge is one thing, but it’s not the same as the men she has met—Art Spencer and Jim—who “knew,” with a knowledge other than “book knowing,” the prairie (78). But the speaker in this poem, and the two men she refers to, are very different from others whose approach to the prairie is domination and destruction: “Men, who think they’re familiar / with what they think is theirs, / figure they can school Prairie with a D9 cat, push / the Great Horned Owls to other land” (78). “Prairie,” here, is a return to the earlier poems in which the grassland is personified, but more importantly, the suggestion this poem makes seems to be that using a bulldozer to teach that the prairie a lesson, or push the birds that live in grassland somewhere else, is worse than futile. Their familiarity with the prairie is superficial; their attempts at teaching involve its destruction.

I wanted to think about this book through Edward Soja’s “trialectics” (262) of Firstspace (perceived space), Secondspace (conceived space), and Thirdspace (lived space). I’ve been wondering if the distinction Soja makes between perceived space and conceived space could be mapped onto the usual distinction made in the social sciences between quantitative and qualitative inquiry. If that’s the case—and it might not be—then we can see elements of both of these in Gould’s poems. Quantitative approaches are suggested in poems which describe the way the ranch is mapped and named, such as “Our place is medium-sized: the school board deals with sparsity and distance issues”:

This land where we till the soil, raise a few
chickens, pasture cattle, goats, horses, is all named
officially by number. The north half of twenty-eight
we call Johnny’s, after the man who stacked his hay
and when he finished that load, let his fork slide
to the ground, slid down after it. The handle
entered him through his groin.

The northwest of four, the Nelson Place with the little girl’s
grave. The northwest of seventeen is where the Scot
built his stone house to overlook the Watson Coulee.
The steep depression that was Johnson’s cellar, where we
found the calf, the cow worrying us during the rescue.
The old shed on thirty-five where we found the steer
dead behind the shut door, the same way
the neighbours had found Kistner in the house. (17)

The quantitative elements of numbering land according to sections and grids (I’m bluffing, of course: I’m no expert on how land is identified for taxation purposes—isn’t that the reason for the reference to “school board” in the poem’s title?—in Alberta) is, of course, overwhelmed by the fragments of stories about those places, the accounts of deaths and rescues that are referred to, obliquely, here. But if I understand Soja correctly, it seems that both Firstspace and Secondspace are present in this poem.

But what of Thirdspace? Can these poems be understood as representations of lived space? As representations, they are pulled back into Secondspace, no doubt, but to what degree can they be read as lived space? Thirdspace, for Soja, is politically engaged; it is a combination of “a strategic attachment to a new cultural politics of difference and identity, and a radical postmodernist critical positioning” that has become the source of writing “from the wider fields of feminist and post-colonial criticism” (272). Gould’s work is not post-colonial, but I would argue that it is engaged in a feminist politics, in the way it looks, without flinching, at the experiences of farm women, and especially in its focus on the body of its author. Does that mean this book could fall into Soja’s definition of Thirdspace? Since bell hooks’s essay “Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Openness” is Soja’s paradigmatic example of Thirdspace, perhaps I need to return to that essay before I can begin to formulate an answer to that question.

What a disappointment: to find myself drawn back into a text I’ve already read. And yet, how inevitable as well. What is not a disappointment, though, is having read Gould’s poems. I wonder how teachable they might be. I’ve been thinking about teaching a course on literary representations of place, and this book would fit that topic very well—so long as the difficulty of these poems does not overwhelm their beauty. That’s something I will have to think about.

Works Cited

Gould, Nora. I see my love more clearly from a distance. Brick, 2012.

hooks, bell. “Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Openness.” Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics, Between the Lines, 1990, pp. 145-53. 

Soja, Edward. “Thirdspace: Expanding the Scope of the Geographical Imagination.” Human Geography Today. Edited by Doreen Massey, John Allen, and Philip Sarre, Polity, 1999, pp. 260-78.

30. Edward W. Soja, “Thirdspace: Expanding the Scope of the Geographical Imagination”

human geography today

Tim Cresswell’s book on place could send its readers in any number of different directions. It sent me in at least two, and possibly three: I read Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life because of Cresswell’s discussion of it, and I just finished an essay by Edward Soja, “Thirdspace: Expanding the Scope of the Geographical Imagination,” for the same reason. The third text I want to read as a result of reading Cresswell’s book—Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space—is a big part of Soja’s argument as well, which reinforces the need for me to read it sooner rather than later. Our library, unfortunately, doesn’t have a copy of the anthology which contains Soja’s essay, and it took ages for a used copy to find its way to me, so while I would rather have read “Thirdspace” back when I was reading de Certeau, better late than never. Right?

Soja’s essay is a condensation of the argument he makes in his 1996 book Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real-and-Imagined Places. That book sounds interesting, but because I’m on a deadline, I’m happy to have this compressed version available to me. Soja establishes his purpose at the very start of the essay: he intends “to encourage the development of a different way of thinking about space and the many associated concepts that compose, comprise and infuse both the inherent spatiality of human life” and in the contemporary study of human geography (260). He encourages geographers to question “familiar notions” like “space, place, territory, city, region, location, and environment,” with the aim of “opening up and expanding the scope and critical sensibility of your already established spatial imaginations” (260). That’s a tall order, perhaps, but in this essay Soja presents five theses or “summative arguments”: “Each is rather boldly stated, addressed specifically to an audience of human geographers, and expansive and open in its implications for human geography today” (260). Moreover, Soja intends to provide “cumulative and fugue-like variations on the many ways of defining Thirdspace,” a term which is (as his title suggests) at the centre of his argument. “There is no singular definition presented for this different way of thinking about space and spatiality, but rather an open-ended set of defining moments, every one of which adds potential new insights to the geographical imagination and helps to stretch the outer boundaries of what is encompassed in the intellectual domain of critical human geography” (260). I’m not a human geographer, of course, and so I am not part of the essay’s audience, but I will forge ahead anyway, to see what I can take from Soja’s five theses.

Thesis number one argues that there has been “an unprecedented spatial turn” in the humanities and social sciences (261). “In what may in retrospect be seen as one of the most important intellectual developments in the late twentieth century,” Soja writes, “scholars have begun to interpret space and the spatiality of human life with the same critical insight and interpretative power as have traditionally been given to time and history (the historiality of human life) on the one hand, and to social relations and society (the sociality of human life) on the other” (261). This turn, Soja continues, constitutes “a third critical perspective”; it represents “a growing awareness of the simultaneity and interwoven complexity of the social, the historical and the spatial, their inseparability and often problematic interdependence” (261). This spatial turn, for Soja, is associated with “the emergence of a Thirdspace perspective and an expansion in the scope and critical sensibility of the geographical imagination” (261). It is part of “an ontological shift, a fundamental change in the way we understand what the world must be like in order for us to obtain reliable knowledge of it” (261). Spatiality is being recognized as “an assertive third term” in “the ontology of human existence” (262), creating “an ontological trialectic of spatiality-sociality-historicality, or more imply, a three-sided rather than two-sided way of conceptualizing and understanding the world” (262). In other words, “the social production of human spatiality or the ‘making of geographies’ is becoming as fundamental to understanding our lives and our life worlds as the social production of our histories and societies” (262). For Soja, none of the three terms he identifies here—spatiality, sociality, or historicality—is privileged. “Studying the historicality of a particular event, person, place or social group is not intrinsically any more insightful than studying its sociality or spatiality,” he writes. “The three terms and the complex interactions between them should be studied together as fundamental and intertwined knowledge sources, for this is what being-in-the-world is all about” (262). A combination of perspectives is the best way to make “theoretical and practical sense of the world” (262). All three perspectives are equivalent, and there is always a possibility that they are “working interdependently together” (263).

Soja’s second thesis argues against the “encompassing dualism, or binary logic, that has tended to polarize spatial thinking around such fundamental oppositions as objectivity v. subjectivity, material v. mental, real v. imagined, things in space v. thoughts about space” (264). “Expanding the scope of the geographical imagination to the breadth and depth that have been achieved for historicality and sociality,” he writes, “and hence rebalancing their critical empowerment, requires a creative deconstruction and rethinking of this bifurcation into two modes of spatial thinking and analysis” (264). The “trialectics of spatiality,” according to Soja, identifies “‘lived space,’ an alternative mode of spatial enquiry that extends the scope of the geographical imagination beyond the confining dualism of . . . spatial practices or ‘perceived space’ on the one hand, and the representations of space or ‘conceived space’ on the other” (265). 

Perceived space, for Soja, is “Firstspace”: it “refers to the directly experienced world of empirically measurable and mappable phenomena. This materialized spatiality, which presents human geographies primarily as outcomes, has been the dominant and familiar focus for geographical analysis, often to the exclusion of other ways of thinking about space and geography” (265). Firstspace, Soja continues, “forms the geographer’s primary ‘text’ or subject matter,” and it is read in one of two ways. The first mode of reading is constituted by endogenous approaches, which provide “accurate descriptions of patternings and distributions,” “the search for recurrent empirical regularities,” and “the correlation or spatial covariation of one geographical configuration with another” (265-66). In endogenous approaches, “empirical analysis, theory building and explanation remain internal to geography, that is, geographies are used to explain other geographies” (266). In comparison, exogenous approaches “explain material geographies by focusing on the underlying social or physical processes that produce them” (266). In exogenous approaches, human geographies are seen “as the product or outcome of forces which are not themselves geographical or spatial, but are derived from the inherent sociality and historicality that lie behind empirical patternings, distributions, regularities and covariations” (266).

“Secondspace,” on the other hand, is conceived space. It is “more subjective and ‘imagined,’ more concerned with images and representations of spatiality, with the thought processes that are presumed to shape both material human geographies and the development of a geographical imagination” (266). Secondspace “concentrates on and explores more cognitive, conceptual and symbolic worlds. It thus tends to be more idealist than materialist, at least in its explanatory emphasis” (266). Therefore, Secondspace focuses on discourses and ideologies about space (266). According to Soja, Henri Lefebvre argues in The Production of Space that conceived space is not secondary; rather, it is dominant, because “it powerfully controls the way we think about, analyse, explain, experience, and act upon or ‘practice’ human spatiality” (266). The word “practice” here reminds me of de Certeau’s argument that “space is practiced place” (de Certeau 117), and I wonder to what extent Cresswell’s claim that Lefebvre’s notion of social space—and I think that’s what Soja is talking about here—is very close to the typical definition of place in human geography (Cresswell 19). It’s possible, then, that “conceived space” is related to place, but I’m reluctant to make that claim, because Soja is trying to break out of binary oppositions like space versus place, and I don’t want to jam his ideas back into that  kind of dualism—at least not right away: I would want to be very sure that Soja’s conceived space is actually place before trying to make that argument.

“Most human geographers do not work at the extremes of these two approaches, but somewhere in between, conceiving of ‘pure’ materialism/objectivity and idealism/subjectivity as opposite poles of a continuum of approaches,” Soja writes (267). There has been a tendency, though, to see Firstspace and Secondspace as a dualism, a situation which “has been primarily responsible for the difficulty many geographers have in accepting the deeper meaning of the ontological restructuring” that is required in order to understand “Thirdspace,” or lived space (267). “Instead of responding to the growing spatial turn as a profound challenge to develop a new mode of understanding the spatiality of human life . . . that is commensurate in scope and critical insight with life’s intrinsic historicality and sociality,” Soja concludes, “many geographers, pleased with the growing attention being given to their discipline, simply pour the new wine into the same old double-barrelled containers, thus reinforcing the constraints and illusions of the Firstspace-Secondspace dualism” (267).

That comment leads to Soja’s third thesis: “A radical break from this confining dualism was initiated in France in the late 1960s, largely through the works of Michel Foucault and Henri Lefebvre,” and Soja attributes “to their challenging geographical imaginations the origins of Thirdspace as a radically different way of looking at, interpreting, and acting to change the embracing spatiality of human life” (267). Confined within the Firstspace/Secondspace dichotomy, “the geographical imagination could never capture the experiential complexity, fullness and perhaps unknowable mystery of actually lived space,” Soja continues (268). Thirdspace, as lived space, 

is simultaneously (1) a distinctive way of looking at, interpreting, and acting to change the spatiality of human life (or, if you will, human geography today); (2) an integral, if often neglected, part of the trialectics of spatiality, inherently no better or worse than Firstspace or Secondspace approaches to geographical knowledge; (3) the most encompassing spatial perspective, comparable in scope to the richest forms of the historical and sociological imaginations; (4) a strategic meeting place for fostering collective political action against all forms of human oppression; (5) a starting point for new and different explorations that can move beyond the “third term” in a constant search for other spaces; and still more to come. (269-70)

Clearly Soja has immense, even utopian, hopes for the possibilities of Thirdspace; the possibilities it offers are, in his conception, nearly limitless.

Soja’s fourth thesis suggests that “the most creative explorations of Thirdspace, and hence the most accomplished expansions in the scope of the geographical imagination, ahve come from the broadly defined field of critical cultural studies,” rather than geographers, particularly “the work of feminist and post-colonial critics who approach the new cultural politics of class-race-gender from a radical postmodernist perspective” (270). As a result, human geography has become more transdisciplinary than ever before (270). The most important figure in this transdisciplinary work is bell hooks, whose work, particularly the essay “Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Openness,” “enriches our understanding of lived space by infusing it with a radical cultural politics and new political strategies to deal with the multiple axes of oppression built around race, class and gender” (270). (You may recall that I wrote about that essay here.) For Soja, hooks’s work “does this in part by empowering lived space with new communicative meaning and strategic significance” (270). It provides

many glimpses of a different kind of human geography, one that combines the grounded and politically conscious materialism of Firstspace analyses and the rich, often metaphorical representations of space and spatiality characteristic of Secondspace geographies; and at the same time stretches beyond their mere additive combination to create “Other” spaces that are radically open and openly radicalized, that are simultaneously material-and-metaphorical, real-and-imagined, concretely grounded in spatial practices yet also represented in literary and aesthetic imagery, imaginative recombinations, epistemological insight, and so much more. hooks literally cracks open lived space to new insights and new expectations that extend well beyond the long-established boundaries of the traditional geographical imagination. (271-72)

Other exemplars of Thirdspace analysis include Rosalyn Deutsche, Teresa de Lauretis, Barbara Hooper, Gillian Rose, Gloria Anzaldúa, Edward Said, and Homi Bhabha (271-75). Most of those writers and thinkers are not geographers, but that speaks to the transdisciplinary nature that Soja sees in Thirdspace analyses. 

In his fifth and last thesis, Soja suggests that “the new human geographers emerging from critical cultural studies” whom he identifies with Thirdspace analysis have continued and expanded Henri Lefebvre’s work. They are

explicitly spatializing radical subjectivity and political practice, imbuing both with a critical spatial consciousness that extends far beyond what has existed in the past. Reflecting what was earlier described as an ontological shift and a critical thirding-as-Othering, these scholars are opening up a new and still relatively unexplored realm of radical political action centred and sited in the social production of lived space, a strategic choice that is aimed at constituting a community of resistance which can be as empowering and potentially emancipatory as those formed around the making of history and the constitution of human societies. (275)

The best contemporary human geographies, Soja continues, are

more comprehensive in scope, more empowered and potentially empowering, more explicitly politicized at many different levels of knowledge formation, from ontology to praxis, from the materially concrete to the imaginatively abstract, from the body to the planet. They are made more “real” by being simultaneously “imagined.” The metaphorical use of space, territory, geography, place and region rarely floats very far from a material grounding, a “realandimagined” that signals its intentional Otherness from more conventional geographies. Thirdspace as Lived Space is portrayed as multi-sided and contradictory, oppressive and liberating, passionate and routine, knowable and unknowable. It is a space of radical openness, a site of resistance and struggle, a space of multiplicitous representations, investigatable through its binarized oppositions but also where il y a toujours l’Autre, where there are always ‘other’ spaces, heterotopologies, paradoxical geographies to be explored. It is a meeting ground, a site of hybridity and mestizaje and moving beyond entrenched boundaries, a margin or edge where ties can be severed and also where new ties can be forged. It can be mapped but never captured in conventional cartographies; it can be creatively imagined but obtains meaning only when practised and fully lived. (276)

This is high praise, but Soja has a tremendous belief in the capabilities of this radically postmodern “new socio-spatial movement or ‘community of resistance’” that “is beginning to develop around what I am describing as a Thirdspace consciousness and a progressive cultural politics that seeks to break down and erase the specifically spatial power differentials arising from class, race, gender, and many other forms of the marginalizing or peripheralizing . . . of particular groups of people” (276-77). This movement represents “a shared spatial consciousness and a collective determination to take greater control over the production of our lived spaces that provide the primary foundation—the long-missing ‘glue’—for solidarity and political praxis” (277). The “new coalitions” represented by this movement add to previous “empowering sources of mobilization and political identity” a “reinvigorated spatial consciousness and subjectivity, an awareness that the spatiality of human life, the making of human geographies, the nexus of space-knowledge-power also contain the sources of continued oppression, exploitation and domination” (277). That sentence might be a surprise, but Soja is tempering his optimism with the recognition that “the new spatial politics is not exclusively confined to progressive forces” (277). Therefore, there is a need for “progressive thinkers and activists” to “recognize and participate in the expanding sites and communities of resistance and assertion that bell hooks and others invite us to enter, to move in consciously spatial solidarity and begin a process of re-visioning the future” (277). Soja concludes, “[t]his opportunity to reassert the expanded theoretical and strategically political importance of the critical spatial imagination may be what is most new and different—and most challenging and exciting—about human geography today” (277).

Twenty years later, I wonder if Soja is as excited about the possibilities offered by Thirdspace geography. Cresswell’s discussion of this essay in Place: An Introduction suggests that other geographers may still find Soja’s intervention valuable. But what do I make of it? I have been working with the dualism of space/place for several months now, thinking about the distinction that Yi-Fu Tuan draws between space and place and considering what is necessary for space to be transformed into place. Soja would probably say that thinking about spatiality through such a binary is a problem. Does the notion of Thirdspace, lived space as opposed to perceived or conceived space, help me to break out of that binary? Isn’t lived space just another way of referring to place, as Tuan defines it? Or can place be thought of using the combination of these approaches, which Soja calls a “trialectic”? I’m honestly not sure. One thing I am certain of, though, is that I definitely need to read Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space. Perhaps by studying that text, which has been so influential for Soja, I will begin to be able to find answers to my questions about his argument. I am also curious about the other essays in this anthology, and what they might have to offer for my research. Perhaps it contains more challenging and provocative essays and ought to be added to my reading list. There’s only one way to find out.

Works Cited

Cresswell, Tim. Place: An Introduction. Second edition, Wiley-Blackwell, 2015.

de Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. Translated by Steven F. Rendall, U of California P, 1984.

hooks, bell. “Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Openness.” Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics, Between the Lines, 1990, pp. 145-53. 

Soja, Edward. “Thirdspace: Expanding the Scope of the Geographical Imagination.” Human Geography Today. Edited by Doreen Massey, John Allen, and Philip Sarre, Polity, 1999, pp. 260-78.

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

29. Warren Cariou, Lake of the Prairies: A Story of Belonging

cariou lake of the prairies

I met Warren Cariou once. I was volunteering at a conference on Indigenous performance and ended up driving him to the airport for his flight back to Winnipeg. I suppose that encounter is part of the reason I put his book Lake of the Prairies: A Story of Belonging on my reading list—that, and the fact that it’s a book about the way that stories are how we come to understand both place and identity, in all of their complexity.

The book begins with a question that brings together the complexities and contradictions of identity, origin, and place: “Where do I come from?” (3):

We always have to take someone’s word for it, that mystery of origins. Maybe that’s why I believed I was not so much from a place as from a story—or rather a collection of stories, mutually contradictory and continually evolving in the mouths of my many relatives. (4)

Stories were important in Cariou’s family and in his extended family; they were competitions, “word-wars” (4-5), and entertainment provided by his Cariou uncles and especially by his father, Ray, a monumental figure in Cariou’s life. “Bedtime was in fact renamed storytime,” Cariou recalls (6). There were stories about his mother’s memories of growing up in Ituna, Saskatchewan; stories about Meadow Lake, Saskatchewan, where Cariou grew up; animal stories; and stories about characters invented by his father, “Simpleton Simon Sasquatch” and “Rosie Belly” (7-10). “I don’t remember all of Dad’s stories, but what remains in my memory is the magic of lying there in the dark and witnessing the tale as it came into being, out of nothing, at the very moment we heard it,” Cariou recalls. “No two were ever the same, even when we asked for repeat performances” (10). 

No wonder Cariou became a writer. In fact, he tried to write down his father’s stories before he could even read: “Many evenings I sat on the couch with a Giant scribbler on my knees, serious as a stenographer, inscribing row after row of curlicues, which represented the collected stories of Simpleton Simon Sasquatch and Rosie Belly and all my aunts and uncles” (11). “And now Dad is gone,” Cariou continues,

and I’m still scribbling. Not only to preserve but also to understand those stories and the people and places that inspired them. And to continue on in Dad’s tradition, turning life into stories and stories into life. Because if they are where I come from, then maybe they can tell me something about where I belong. (11)

The link Cariou sees between identity and place is clear here, but he also understands that our relationship to place can be complex. He writes of the way people move around in the contemporary world, an experience he shares, but he suggests that it’s not necessary “to stay in one place all our lives in order to reconnect with our environments. We need instead to re-examine our stories, to discover a more fluid kind of belonging, one that melds memory and voice and sensation into the complex geometry of our lives” (11). And that is what he sets out to do in this book:

It is a story of belonging, an account of the myriad connections to the place I come from and the family that brought me there. Meadow Lake might be an insignificant place in the eyes of the larger world, but it has been crucially important to me, and I want to explore that personal experience. I suspect that most people have a Meadow Lake of their own, a place they can’t let go of. They need not have been born in that place, or still live there now, but somehow it has taken hold of them and shaped them so irrevocably that they can’t imagine who they would be without it. That’s how it is for me. I have lived away form Meadow Lake for almost half my life, and I will probably never live there again, yet it is still unquestionably the place I mean when I say “home.” (12)

The question of determining one’s origins has turned out to be “one of the most difficult and necessary questions” he has asked himself, “not because origins provide the answers but because origins must be questioned deeply and continually if we are to be at home in the world in a meaningful way” (12). “The closer we look at our stories of origin,” he continues, “the more likely we are to find other and sometimes contradictory stories beneath them. And it can be a lifelong task, to learn the many histories of the place and the family you come from” (12). Cariou’s book examines the contradictory stories he has learned about his own identity and about Meadow Lake, the place he is from; in other words, it presents the complex answers that have resulted from his questioning.

Cariou next turns to Meadow Lake—or at least to the significance of its name, and what that name can tell us. As a child, he was confused about what Meadow Lake was; different people called the town different things, and different neighbourhoods had different names (15). In the past, Métis people had called the place Lac des Prairies, and the Cree had called it paskwâw sâkâhikan, because of the large area of grassland or meadow beside the lake (16). Logging had obliterated the boundaries of the meadow (18), which had been, Cariou writes, a patch of tall-grass prairie: 

When I try to picture the meadow now, it’s like imagining an entirely different place, a place I have never been. Based on the photos taken by Frank Crean’s surveying expedition in 1909, I know it was a tall-grass prairie, a rare spot in this northern forest where sunlight could penetrate nearly to the ground. In summer it would have hosted big bluestem grasses and daisies and prairie lilies, and perhaps delicate lady’s slippers. It would have been populated at times by woodland caribou, elk, moose, white-tailed deer, and dozens of smaller animals and birds. The Cree people would have hunted along the perimeter of the meadow, and they would have gathered berries and roots there. (18-19)

That patch of grassland was mostly destroyed when settlers arrived, but Cariou notes that not all of it has been lost: “Almost all the plants and animals that once lived here can still be found in the area,” he writes, although “everything has had to adapt to the changes that deforestation, cultivation, fencing, and road building brought along with them” (19). Many of the species of plants and animals that once lived in the area are now struggling. “Recognizing this is enough to make me lament the coming of the farmers and foresters and community builders who pushed so many things out of the way in order to make a settlement,” he continues. “But this thought puts me in an uncomfortable position. If those people hadn’t come and hadn’t brought those changes, then I could never have called this place home” (19).

The Meadow Lake that Cariou knows is “a sleepy town, a violent town, a town with secrets, a town of simple beauty and brazen ugliness. It resonates with contradictions, like many other communities” (20). One of those contradictions or conflicts is between settlers and the Cree people who live in the area, including the Flying Dust Cree Nation, whose reserve is right next to the town. As a child, Cariou always sensed that the reserve was “somehow off-limits,” a place where he “felt conspicuous, vulnerable. Like a trespasser” (22-23). There are ten First Nations in the Meadow Lake area, along with other Métis and non-status communities, and Cariou notes that it’s possible that Indigenous people now outnumber the whites (23). “The district is far from being a utopia of racial harmonization,” he writes. “Most of the time the tension just simmers, fuelled by racism and inequality and long-held grudges” (23). But the town is also home to new immigrants and their hopes for a safe place where they can start new lives (24-25). “I get the impression that people are flowing like some volatile liquid over the globe, seeking a place to cling onto, a place to belong,” Cariou writes. “A few of them have found that here. They have learned their own ways of coming to terms with the place, making it a home, even if they have other faraway homes too” (25). While many people want to find a home in Meadow Lake, Carious notes that others, especially the young, have “a burning ambition” (25) to leave the town. Others, who want to stay in the community, often cannot: “Jobs and loves and plain old restlessness can take people away, and can make it very difficult to return. I know this from experience. But I still like to think it’s possible to retain that attachment from a distance, to take a place with you when you leave. Stories, after all, are portable” (26). Again we see Cariou’s belief that stories are an essential part of place-making; indeed, stories about a place can even substitute for being present in that place.

As a child Cariou realized that Meadow Lake, like his family, was made of stories. Gossip, he writes, was “the fabric of the community. We gossiped each other into being” (29). Most of the stories that circulated were about illnesses or disasters of various kinds (29), but there were also fish stories (30-31); stories about poaching, racist stories about Indigenous people, and stories about fights and pregnancies (35-37); stories learned from books in the town library (37-38); and stories in other languages, including Cree, Ukrainian, German, Cantonese, and French (38-39).  Cariou did not hear all of these stories, and not all of them made sense to him. “But I knew that even the people I did hear and did understand were not telling everything there was to be told,” he writes:

I saw that every story grew on top of another story, covered it up, and telling one thing was always a way of not telling something else. Sometimes I wanted to pry underneath, to dig up those stories that were buried under the layers. But that was for the most part an idle desire. I did little to seek out the hidden stories. I had enough to keep me busy with the ones that were obvious. (40)

Cariou had his own secrets and assumed that other people had theirs as well. “I suppose all of that explains why I grew up in such remarkable ignorance of my hometowns’s past,” he continues. He had been told about Big Bear and Gabriel Dumont and the events of 1885, but those stories didn’t seem real to him (41). What did seem real were stories about homesteading, “the closest thing to our creation myths. I couldn’t imagine what would have existed in Meadow Lake before the homesteaders came and cleared the land, broke the soil, built roads, dug wells” (42). “It was only much later that I realized how much had been left out of this story,” he continues. “No one told me, for instance, that Meadow Lake had been a settlement of sorts for at least a hundred years before the arrival of the first homesteaders” (43). And he didn’t understand that only a few generations earlier, all of the land had belonged to the Cree (43). He didn’t know about the pass system, residential schools, or an attempt to relocate the reserve away from the town. “For years, no one told me any of this,” he writes (43-44). 

In the next chapter, “The Height of Land,” Cariou writes about the boundary between the Churchill River watershed and the Saskatchewan River watershed, a boundary visible to the south of Meadow Lake: “These two watersheds are different worlds, with distinct climates, geographies, ecosystems, and cultures” (47). But for Cariou, the Height of Land was “more of a cognitive construct than a geological formation”:

As far back as I can remember, it was the most important defining feature of what was home and what was not. It was the place of transition between our way of life and all the incomprehensible ways of life that I imagined, and sometimes saw, in the outside world. But it was always an elusive boundary, one that slipped away as we approached. (47-48)

Cariou’s father had told him a story about the area around Meadow Lake having once been an inland sea, and for Cariou the existence of muskeg was evidence that story was true. Muskeg, he writes, is “a thin layer of turf floating on the water, an earthy membrane that fuses land and liquid” (49). His fatherused to tell a fishing story about a floating island of muskeg (50). Muskeg defined the country around Meadow Lake; there was no muskeg south of the Height of Land. “There is a corresponding psychological difference between the south and the north too,” Cariou writes. “In the south, facts matter more than stories” (53).

Along with muskeg, the north is defined by wildfire. Every spring, residents of Meadow Lake could smell smoke in the air (59-60). “Smoke was the medium we lived in during fire season, sometimes for weeks at a time,” Cariou writes. “We breathed it. It soaked into our clothes. Usually we couldn’t see it at all, except perhaps as a slight haze in the distance, a blurring of the Height of Land” (60). He recalls the sight of a forest after a fire: “The trees became their own tombstones, standing in craggy reminiscence of themselves” (61). But wildfires were mostly represented in his childhood imagination by the figure of “The Scorcher,” which was painted on a billboard at the Height of Land. “The Scorcher” was

a naked, smirking, red-skinned comic-book devilkin with orange and yellow flames bursting out of his head. The Scorcher’s eyes were the most successful representation of mischief I had ever seen, expressing a combination of askance malevolence and caught-in-the-act startlement. In one hand he clutched a lit match, which he held down toward the lower edge of the billboard, as if to ignite the real forest in the background. (61)

Cariou and his siblings, Glenn and Michelle, “loved the Scorcher even as we scorned him. His defiant flouting of the most sacred rule of our fire-paranoid culture made him attractive, as only a bad-boy rebel can be. He made arson seem almost fun” (61). But more than that, The Scorcher “was the gatekeeper of the north, the usher and gargoyle and menacing giant who signalled to everyone that this was a place where things were different. This was the kingdom of fire” (62). Cariou tells other stories about fire—playing with matches as a child, the racist suspicions that First Nations people set fires in order to get work on fire-fighting crews, and his father’s belief that careless campers were responsible for fires (63-65)—but the most important story he tells is of the Great Fire of 1919 (66-69). This story demonstrates the research he did for the book, travelling in northern Saskatchewan and gathering stories. That fire, he writes, made life easier for the homesteaders who followed it: “In the ashes of the fire the place became a different place, with new inhabitants and new stories and new ways of relating to the land” (69). In the process of settlement, however, the story of that fire was somehow forgotten, and like so many stories about Meadow Lake, Cariou only heard it after he became an adult.

In the next chapter, “The Blood Magnet,” Cariou recalls how, as a boy, he often reflected on the coincidence and improbability of his own existence. After all, if his parents hadn’t met, he wouldn’t have been born (71). That leads to the story of how they met, married, and settled in Meadow Lake (71-75). “But that knowledge didn’t fully answer my questions about where I came from and why,” Cariou recalls. “I wondered what it was that held me to my parents—or to any of my family—and the myriad choices they had made in the past. I wanted to have some say in the matter, to plant my own flag on my chosen place and claim it as my point of origin. But it didn’t work that way. I couldn’t choose my family either” (75-76). One consolation came from the question of family origin—“a question of ethnicity, of blood allegiance” (76)—which led young Cariou to proclaim, “I’m French, German, and Norwegian,” although sometimes he added “English” to the list as well (76). “I knew almost nothing about those European countries that I claimed as ancestral homelands,” he writes, “but nevertheless I understood that it was important to claim them, to have an uncomplicated answer to that question of allegiance that was thrown out at me so often” (76). That purported connection to the places of origin of his grandparents becomes important, even though he wondered what linked the various members of his extended family together:

At weddings and funerals and anniversaries, I surveyed the assembled relatives and wondered what they really had in common, these farmers, oilfield workers, mechanics, carpenters, bank clerks, wheeler-dealers, card sharks, housewives, raconteurs, and retirees. Their hair, their eyes, and even their skin colour were just about everything on the spectrum. And yet there was definitely something that linked them all together, and linked me to them: some magnetism of the blood or some collective delusion of tribal affiliation. But I couldn’t pinpoint it. (78)

Cariou and his cousins were fascinated by the family’s secrets, even though they didn’t know any and ended up relying on innuendoes and outright lies (78-79). They might have been “sensitized” to the existence of such secrets, he writes, because “as recent arrivals in the fold, we knew more clearly than the adults that family was a tenuous arrangement, even an absurd one” (78-79). Cariou recalls that he didn’t really believe the stories he and his cousins shared, but once again he is highlighting the importance of stories, even made-up ones, in the construction of identity.

Cariou then turns to the house in Meadow Lake where he grew up: the yard, the ice rink his father would make every fall and the hockey games he and his friends would play on it, the summer garden and the taste of fresh peas and of carrots stolen from the neighbour’s garden (83-88). The notion of boundaries and trespassing puzzled young Cariou (88). He and his friends idolized criminals, because they seemed to be able to go anywhere they wanted (89). There were other “nomads” in Meadow Lake, though: mentally ill people who walked the streets and were mocked by children and adults alike (89-91). Another nomad was the Rototiller Man, Mr. Fontaine, who travelled the town’s muddy streets every spring, offering to turn over vegetable gardens (91-92). In winter, Cariou and his friends would make tunnels in the snow (93-94); in the summer, they would capture bees in glass jars (94-95). Once he fell face-first into a hornet’s nest, and hornets became an addition to his list of fears: bees, large dogs, horses, bears, hypodermic needles, bombs, and God (99). “There were stories behind each of these terrors,” he recalls (99). For instance, his fear of bombs came from his awareness of the Cold War and the weapons testing that took place at the nearby Cold Lake airforce base (99-102). But he also had a secret fear: “I was afraid of Native people. Not so much the women, and certainly not the girls, but the men and especially the boys” (102). There was a separation in Meadow Lake between the Cree and the settlers, something he took for granted as a kid: “I didn’t wonder where it had come from, how it had developed,” he writes. “It’s clear to me now that there was a vast history to my fear, one that began generations before my birth and that I would not become aware of for many years. It was built on stereotypes of savages and heathens that dated back to a time when Meadow Lake was known only as Paskwâw Sâkâhikan” (103-04). 

“I think that simply by being who they were, aboriginals made everyone else question their own belonging, and that questioning tended to raise the most fundamental kinds of fears and insecurities,” Cariou writes. “I absorbed those fears unconsciously and began to enact them, to give them my own personal reality” (104). He had heard, and sometimes repeated, racist stories about Indigenous people, for example (104). In addition, his relations with “the Native boys” were not good: “Everything about my relationship with them was conditioned by the environment at school, where I was often favoured and usually the Native kids were not” (105). Some of the teachers were obviously prejudiced, but the racism was more visible among the school’s children (106). White boys would taunt the Indigenous girls—and, in a different way, the Indigenous boys, who would fight back (106-07). Particular boys—Billy Tootoosis and the Fiddler boys—frightened him, and he was never good at disguising his fright (107-08). Now, though, he doesn’t blame those boys for their hostility. “I had been blessed with all kinds of things that they were excluded from: relative wealth, the respect of teachers, an expectation in the community that I would make something of myself,” Cariou recalls. “And I took it all for granted. I can see how blithely annoying I must have been” (109). The conflicts, he continues, were really about the question of belonging: 

In Meadow Lake, belonging was written on our skin. We all shared a knowledge of this difference between brown faces and white, knowledge that came complete with a whole series of lessons in racism: rules about whom we could associate with, where we could feel safe, what we could become when we grew up. Everyone lived by those rules. I knew I belonged in school and in our backyard, whereas theirs was the kingdom of the roadways, the stampede grounds, the reserve. We all patrolled our territories, watching for each other. (109)

The question of belonging was partly territorial, a matter of places, but it was also a matter of stories as well. 

Cariou’s family liked to spend weekends exploring the farm and ranch country around Meadow Lake, where the question of belonging was simpler than it was in the town. “Despite the profusion of No Trespassing signs on the road allowances,” Cariou writes, “I felt like a visitor rather than a trespasser whenever we roamed the countryside” (111). They particularly like to walk around on ranches: “Around any corner we might see prairie lilies, lady’s slippers, a deer, a coyote, a family of partridges. It seemed there was little difference between ranchland and wilderness” (111). Much of the family’s wandering took place on a place called Leonard’s Ranch, owned by Leonard Evans, a friend of Cariou’s father, a place “nearly the size of a township: twenty-two quarter sections strewn along the Meadow River north of the river” (111-12). Leonard had a big collection of arrowheads, and Cariou and his siblings became interested in finding some of their own (115-17). Once they found a caribou skull and a stone hammer, and Cariou imagined what life might have been like when that hammer had been made (118-21). 

Given their interest in the countryside, it’s not surprising that the family eventually moved to a farm three miles from the edge of Meadow Lake. The farm, Cariou writes, “was a revelation” (127). The farm had 20 acres of bush, and Cariou and his siblings enjoyed walking there. “There was no end to the possibilities for exploration, and we dedicated ourselves to experiencing all of it, in every season,” he recalls. “Over the coming years I came to know that place more intimately than anywhere I have ever been” (127). “It was an elemental life,” he continues. “We learned to appreciate the minutest progress of the seasons by watching the growth and eventual death of the plants, the movements of the sun on the horizon, the smells in the air” (127-28). Cariou would eat snow, and learned that it has different flavours and aromas at different times of the winter (128). “We came to know the place by feeding on it, absorbing it into ourselves,” he writes (128), recalling the profusion of wild fruit that grew on the farm: wild strawberries and raspberries, dewberries, chokecherries, saskatooons, pin cherries, and blueberries: “We foraged all summer long, if not on wild fruit, then on rhubarb pulled from the garden or dried wheat straight from the granary,” or on rosehips in the fall, “the leathery skin with its rich red paste on the underside” (128-29). “To be there was to always have our senses full,” he writes (129), noting that the sky was “more immense and more sharply focused than in town” (129). But the farm was also a place of death: kittens, dogs, an old horse. “On a farm, death can’t be avoided,” Cariou writes. “We had heard the agricultural gothic of Dad’s farm stories for years, and now we saw that it was true” (132). “Death was a constant presence, and I think we were affected by that, by the physicality of it, even the necessity of it,” he continues. “Being at home there meant coming to terms with the omnipresence of mortality, and understanding that we were often responsible for the lives of the creatures that lived there with us” (132).

“We formed a bond with the place almost immediately,” Cariou recalls, “but this was not the same thing as being accepted into the farm community” (132). He was afraid of being proven inept and wimpy and fearful (as town kids were imagined to be, compared to their rural counterparts) (132). He delved into the history of the farm, digging through accumulated garbage like an archaeologist, and looking in the shop and the granaries (133-35). “Whatever their delusions may have been, it was clear that the homesteaders had indeed worked slavishly for most of their lives to make a living here, to make a home,” he notes. “I wondered if that was still the case, if there would be some test of belonging that I might have to endure” (135-36). His parents didn’t have to take such a test; they learned to farm with the help of their neighbours, who welcomed the family “with a hospitality and a generosity that was far beyond what anyone could have expected” (136-37). The neighbours often volunteered to help out with jobs on the farm without any expectation of reciprocation (137). Cariou raised a calf for the 4-H Club, and he bought a dirt bike with the money he made from selling it. That dirt bike, it seems, helped him to disprove the notion that town kids were wimps.

As Cariou and his siblings got older, the family’s weekend rambling became more elaborate; they ranged further afield and explored new places. Each place they passed “was connected to the others through webs of stories,” he recalls (146). His parents often knew farmers or ranchers, but even more, “a place was marked in Dad’s stories by the disasters that had occurred there” (146). Cariou begins to accumulate his own stories: having his boot torn off by the spiked chain that carried bales of hay into the loft of the barn (148-49), or getting lost during a deer hunt (154-59). Some of his father’s stories were connected to his work as a lawyer in Meadow Lake, although it took years before Cariou began to understand what a lawyer actually did for a living. Part of being a small-town lawyer involves making enemies: at the end of every trial, “there would always be at least one person who hated him,” Cariou recalls. “He accepted this with equanimity most of the time, but it must have been difficult, especially in such a small community where everyone knew him, and where certain grudges were passed down through the generations” (165-66). Virtually everyone knew Ray Cariou: “Native and non-Native, young and old, farmers and town dwellers” (166). Cariou’s father “was regularly exposed to the most violent and depraved aspects of our community and yet he still clearly loved the place. Not everyone would have been able to do so” (167). Ray Cariou regularly received threats—some anonymous, some not—and once someone made a threat against Cariou himself just as he was graduating from high school, something he didn’t learn about until years later (167-72). “It makes me wonder,” Cariou writes: “what else do I not know about myself?” (172). 

“I think I was always going to leave Meadow Lake, at least from the age of six or seven when I discovered that it was not, after all, the centre of the universe,” Cariou writes. But when he did leave, it didn’t feel like he was leaving, because he was only going away to university and planned to return for the summer:

It’s difficult to mark a time or place or event at which I crossed from Meadow Lake to the outside world. There was no moment when I chose exile, no last look back, no great boat journey to separate me finally from the place. There were no real goodbyes; only see-you-laters. I don’t remember ever surveying the countryside with a sense of loss, of regret. I would always be back soon, and the place would be the same. There was none of the poignancy and drama of a clear break. I simply began to exist in two places: one a real home, and the other temporary, contingent, moveable. I have lived like that ever since. (176)

Nowhere he lived after leaving Meadow Lake—Regina, Saskatoon, Toronto—was home, but at the same time, his feelings of being distant from Meadow Lake gradually increased, even though he still felt that town was where he belonged (176-78). When he returned to Meadow Lake, changes were disconcerting. Sometimes the new buildings or businesses or people in the town would be welcome, but more often “they were disturbances, interruptions in the clean orderliness of my memory. Things were not supposed to change there. Perhaps complete exile from Meadow Lake would have been more comfortable than these repeated returns to a place that was no longer exactly what I remembered” (178-79). 

Cariou tells a story about going to the annual Meadow Lake stampede one year, when he was working in Regina:

I was a little big smug then, a little too proud of myself for having made my way past the Height of Land, having “escaped,” as some of my fellow escapees liked to say. I had started to think of Meadow Lake as a quaint but backward place—“a good place to come from,” I told my city friends. (179)

He recalls his childhood visits to the stampede—the games, the rides, the sights and sounds and smells, and notes that after being away for eight or nine years, much of the experience was the same: “The smells of pine chips and cotton candy and cow shit were there as always” (183). He goes to watch the bull riders, and looking up into the stands, he realizes that he has become a stranger to the others watching the event (184-86): “I was no longer one of them; I was an outsider, a city boy. . . . I had become a tourist in my hometown” (187). That feeling intensifies when a group of boys calls him a “fag” and sprays the back of his pants with barbecue sauce (187-88). “I almost had to admire their gleeful, reckless xenophobia,” Cariou recalls. “How many other people in town would think the same thing as these boys, but not express it?” (188). 

Up to this point in the memoir, Cariou hasn’t mentioned his Métis heritage, something I was waiting for him to do. He finally does so in a chapter entitled “Blockade.” He is living in Toronto now, going to graduate school, feeling “more and more isolated from Meadow Lake” (191). “Meanwhile,” he writes,

in Meadow Lake, things were happening. A group of Native protestors started a blockade on a logging road adjacent to a large clearcut on the way to Canoe Lake. They objected to clearcutting and refused to allow the forestry company, Mistik Management, to have access to a stockpile of logs that had been cut the previous winter. They vowed to stay there in their roadside encampment until the company changed its policies. (192)

Ray Cariou was the chair of Mistik Management and the local sawmill, which was jointly owned by the mill employees and the tribal council of ten local First Nations. “In a town where the racial divide had often kept people apart, the mill was a monument of community cooperation,” Cariou writes. “But the alliance had never been easy, and now it looked like the whole enterprise might collapse” (192). His father, he continues, “found himself at the nexus of all the major conflicts in the town: racial, economic, environmental, legal” (194). Cariou watches the situation develop on the television news and in the papers. In one report, he reads this about his father: “Cariou himself has recently affirmed his Metis heritage” (196). Cariou describes his response:

This information wasn’t entirely a shock to me, but seeing it there in the newspaper was mystifying. Dad had never “reaffirmed his Metis heritage” to us, at least not in so many words. There had been rumours in the family and comments about the dark features of some of the relatives. But Dad himself had red hair and freckles, and so did Glenn, and so did many of our cousins. The idea of publicly claiming Metis heritage was bizarre. (196-97)

Previously, Ray Cariou had said that one of their ancestors had been a voyageur, a coureur de bois, and that that ancestor, François Beaulieu, had married an Indigenous woman (197-98), but Cariou had assumed that was the end of the story. Cariou leaves that part of his story for a moment, and explains that not long after the RCMP arrested the protestors for trespassing, his father had a heart attack. “The blockade had almost killed my father,” he writes. “That was what I thought and what I knew Mom was thinking” (200).

The next chapter, “Remembering Clayton,” tells the story of Cariou’s relationship with Clayton Matchee, the soldier who participated in the murder of Shidane Arone, a Somali teenager, in 1992 in an event that led to the disbanding of the Canadian Airborne Regiment. Cariou went to school with Matchee and knew him, although not well, perhaps. But he knew him well enough to offer this analysis: “I can’t help remembering that Clayton had learned all about racism and power during his childhood and youth in Meadow Lake” (206). It is only after this discussion of racism in the town that Cariou returns to the topic of his Métis heritage. One of his aunts tells him that all of his ancestors on his father’s side had been Métis (219). “Where do I come from?” Cariou asks himself. “The story I had been telling myself all of my life was incomplete, incorrect. Norway, France, Germany, my mother’s belly, my hometown, yes. But Indian? How could that be?” (219-20). The silence in his family about their background, he continues, “is not at all surprising, given the prejudices against Native people and against the Metis in particular” (220):

Many Metis were pushed off their lands after the rebellion, by soldiers and then by settlers. After this, most of them had absolutely nothing: no home, no pride, no status in the eyes of the nation. They were at the absolute bottom of the social scale, lower even that the Status Indians, who at least had some land and the dubious honour of treaties. In the great dispersal of Metis people after the rebellion, it was no wonder that many of them chose to suppress their Metis identity when they moved to new places. Passing as white was a survival technique; those who couldn’t do that would often try to pass as Cree. The result was that generations of Metis were born into a vast canyon of forgetting. (221)

Different members of his family responded to having “been shaken into remembering” (221) in different ways. “For me,” Cariou writes,

the knowledge did matter. I started to wonder if I really was the person I had thought I was, if I really belonged where I had assumed I did. I found myself in a between-space, a location that the logic of Meadow Lake didn’t allow. It was impossible to be both a Native Person and a non-Native person; the two notions were mutually exclusive. (222)

Cariou sensed he might not be believed if he told others the story, but the secrecy left him feeing guilty, and while he wondered if it was hypocritical to make a public announcement about his Métis heritage, “to keep that aspect of my family’s past a secret also felt wrong, was a perpetuation of the racial divide that had existed for so long in Meadow Lake and across the continent” (222). 

“Once I had mentioned the family secret to a few people,” he recalls, “it began to take on a life of its own, and I started to wish I had kept it to myself” (223). That was particularly true when he became a published writer:

A few years later, when I ended up being called “a Metis writer” in the national media, I realized that I had to think seriously about the ways I would advertize my identity. And the more I thought about it, the more it became clear to me that I simply don’t feel like I am exclusively an aboriginal person. I have some Metis ancestry, and I have been raised among many Native people, but I didn’t grow up with the sense that I was one, and I have never learned their cultures from the perspective of an insider. I feel closely connected to Native people, and particularly to the Metis, but it doesn’t seem quite right to claim that I am one. I am instead a little of this and a little of that; a child of the heterogenous multitudes. I come from half the globe, and I come from Meadow Lake. (224)

This feeling isn’t unusual, he suggests, since demographers have estimated that hundreds of thousands of Canadians have some Indigenous ancestry but either don’t know it or don’t care to admit to it. Cariou then returns to Clayton Matchee’s story:

I think of this in relation to myself and Clayton Matchee. When we were growing up, people were considered either Native or white, and that distinction went a long way toward deciding what you were going to do in life. Clayton and I had been placed on different sides of the division. But the more I have learned about us, the more I see that the very idea of this division is a falsehood. I have gleaned all the benefits, while Clayton and many others have suffered devastating discrimination. What is the real difference between us? (226)

Then he returns to his Métis grandmother, a powerful presence in his memory: 

I wonder if she was consciously keeping her Metis past a secret, or if she had simply moved on to another way of thinking about herself. Perhaps she did still think of herself as Metis all along but saw no need to make an issue of it, to declare it repeatedly and publicly. It’s hard to know whether there was ever really a secret at all. (229)

While Cariou does not know how his grandmother identified herself, he does note that when he went to bingo with her, it was “the one public occasion when I wasn’t afraid of Indians” (238).

In subsequent chapters, Cariou explores his memories of his maternal grandparents; tells the story about how he met Alison, his wife; and tells the story of his father’s death. When he returned to Meadow Lake for the funeral, he experienced an outpouring of support from the town:

I saw something that made me understand why Mom and Dad lived there. The people know each other in small towns, and while that knowledge can be grating at times, at other times it is the basis of a necessary community support. There were friends, relatives, and neighbours with us for days, cooking and cleaning and talking, just working to keep the household going. (297)

After the tears came stories: “we overflowed with stories,” Cariou recalls. “Dad was intensely, palpably present. He had become his stories” (298). He also became the farm itself: “He became this place, too, as the days went on. He had in fact spent his life becoming this place, and it was only now that we really understood it” (298). As the mourners walked around the farm, taking in Ray’s garden and the trees he had planted, they realized that “[t]he whole place was imprinted with him, and as we walked, separately and in groups, we came to understand the geography of mourning” (298-99). 

After the funeral, Cariou returned to Vancouver, where he was teaching. “Whenever I got back home I was overwhelmed by the place and the memories that were waiting there for me,” he recalls. “It was no longer just a home; it was also the scene of a vague and inescapable fear” (308). One day he returned to the house in Meadow Lake where the family had lived before moving to the farm. That house, he writes, “had become little more than a symbol of my childhood, an empty structure to be furnished with stories” (312). Something similar is true about the farm: it is now a place of stories as well, not only of the Cariou family but of the people who lived there before as well:

I like to think that the land doesn’t forget, that our stories echo somewhere around our places, and that it only takes an inquisitive soul to come along and listen for them.

Yes: places have voices. I listen more carefully than I used to. I seek them out, especially the ones that might have been forgotten. Last summer I learned about one such place in the heart of my hometown. (313)

That place was the town’s Old Cemetery, part of the original meadow, where the original homesteaders had been buried. “I felt unaccountably like I was visiting the oldest part of my home, the place with the most history, the most voices,” Cariou writes (314). And he ends by thinking of his father walking in that place: “I wondered what stories he told himself about these people and their place. For a moment, I thought I could hear his voice” (315).

Place and identity are complex, in Cariou’s rendering. They are enmeshed, and they exist in story. That is what connects this book to my own research. I’m not planning to return to the place where I grew up, and I’m not sure that my research will enable me to come to know any places as intimately as Cariou knows Meadow Lake or his parents’ farm. And I’m more certain now that spaces become places through repeated encounters, through the existence of multiple narratives, through an investment of time and energy. But surely there are different kinds of places. I’m not sure Cariou is correct when he dismisses other places where he’s lived as non-places in comparison to Meadow Lake. I mean, I’ve lived in Regina for 20 years now, longer than I’ve lived anywhere else, and I wouldn’t say that this place is unimportant compared to the place where I grew up. Perhaps there are places one knows intimately, the way Cariou knows Meadow Lake, and then there are other places one knows less well. Maybe that’s okay. Maybe, if those places, have voices, they would be able to tell stories about us even if we don’t know them the way Cariou knows his home town. In any case, Lake of the Prairies is a powerful account of the complexities of identity and place and their relation to stories, and it’s given me a lot to consider in relation to these issues.

Works Cited

Cariou, Warren. Lake of the Prairies: A Story of Belonging. Anchor, 2003.