Reading and Walking

Walking, Reading, and Reading about Walking

Tag: Phil Smith

Some Things to Read While Self-Isolating

A lot of us are stuck at home right now–or at least don’t feel comfortable going out, particularly those of us living in cities with icy sidewalks, as I do. What are walkers supposed to do?

Well, we can at least read about walking. Here is a lovely short essay on walking as an art practice by Julie Poitras Santos on walking as an art practice. If you are at home self-isolating but hankering to get outside, you might enjoy it.

And here is a whole lot of writing about walking by Phil Smith. This would be an excellent time to read his book on “armchair pilgrimage”–and you can request a .pdf on that site.

Stay well!

124. Fiona Wilkie, “‘Three Miles an Hour’: Pedestrian Travel”


I read Fiona Wilkie’s book, Performance, Transport, and Mobility: Making Passage, during my MFA, but I don’t remember it. That’s what happens when you read a bunch of books quickly, without taking good notes—at least, that’s what happens to me. I remember reading the book. It came by interlibrary loan; I remember the yellow paper band around the cover and having to rush to finish it by the due date. And I remember finding it useful. I wish I could remember the argument, though. A couple of months ago, I found a cheap(ish) copy online, and it arrived, finally, just before Christmas. On this snowy day, I decided to give it a (second) look.

“‘Three Miles an Hour’: Pedestrian Travel” is the first chapter in the book—the others discuss mobile performance by train, automobile, boat, and airplane, none of which interest me—and I thought I would return to it today. I’ll read her introduction as well. The introduction begins by positing a homology between performance and movement: performance “moves its audience to a range of feelings” and “tours from one place to another” (1). “Performance has always been a slippery business,” Wilkie writes: “on the move, ephemeral and difficult to contain” (1). Wilkie has “two opening premises”:

The first is simple: that transport systems are important to our experience and understanding of mobility. The second is that, perhaps less obviously, a rich dialogue exists between transport and performance, and that this is worth investigating in order to consider how concepts of mobility are explored and debated. An underlying assumption of this book is that how we travel is intimately connected with the ways in which we both understand that travelling and conceive of ourselves—and others—as travellers. And part of this understanding comes through performance. A wealth of performances and related cultural practices have been, and continue to be, actively engaged in imagining, exploring, revealing and challenging experiences of being in transit. (1)

For Wilkie, “transport systems are a means of enabling collective imagining,” as theatre and performance is, and so thinking about these two different practices together “raises questions of the kinds of imagining that have been, and might be, done through them, and of those who are included in, and excluded from, such imaginings” (2). Her case studies, she hopes, will show that “performance not only responds to but can also produce new mobilities, reshaping existing models and engendering new, alternative possibilities for movement” (2).

Wilkie acknowledges that she has been influenced by work on “the ‘mobility turn’” in the social sciences—work by geographers and sociologists on travel—and her intention is to bring “scholarship in geography and sociology . . . into dialogue with that in theatre and performance studies” (2). “My hope . . . is that this book begins to signal some of the ways in which, when we consider performance, ‘mobilities make it different,’” she writes, citing John Urry. “By bringing ideas from within the mobility turn to bear on theatre and performance analysis, I suggest, we open up a rich field of inquiry,” she continues. “Conversely, I believe that performance has much to bring to the conversation and so, by discussing a wide range of performances and artworks that offer nuanced explorations of what it is to be mobile, I argue that the perspectives of performance extend existing discourses of mobility” (2).

Next, Wilkie summarizes the idea of the “mobility turn” (3). One of the clearest arguments about the significance of this shift is made by John Urry, who “conceives of a ‘mobilities paradigm’ . . . which provides a theoretical framework for analysing social groupings and practices in terms of movement instead of spatial rootedness” (3). She cites Urry’s 2007 book Mobilities, which I should probably read. Mobility theorists presuppose “that social life consists of movements and stillnesses at different levels that sustain one another” (3). “Broadly, the concept of mobility enables an enquiry into how the movement and transmission of ideas, arts practices, theory, capital and information relate to the physical movement (voluntary or otherwise) of people,” Wilkie writes (3-4). However, mobility isn’t just about physical movement. Wilkie quotes geographer Tim Cresswell: mobility “is about the contested worlds of meaning and power. It is about mobilities rubbing up against each other and causing friction. It is about a new hierarchy based on the ways we move and the meanings these movements have been given” (qtd. 4).

Wilkie discusses Cresswell’s distinction between a “sedentarist metaphysics,” in which “place is unmoving and mobility is perceived as a threat to fundamental human values,” and a “nomadic metaphysics,” in which “mobility is coded as freedom, figuring centrally in postmodern culture and positively linked to subaltern power,” as in the work of Michel de Certeau on walking (5). For Cresswell, neither the sedentarist nor the nomadic metaphysics is aware of the ideological meanings they ascribe to mobility (5). Janet Wolff’s feminist analysis is suspicious o the postmodern sense of travel as freedom, suggesting that this assumes “a patriarchal model of movement as the norm and thus excluding the experiences of women and other less dominant groups” (5). “Much of the current scholarship on mobilities takes care to avoid universalizing assumptions,” Wilkie writes. “For example, Cresswell’s proposed way out of the nomadic/sedentarist/dichotomy is an approach that is alert to the ‘historical conditions that produce specific forms of movement, which are radically different’” (qtd. 5-6). Doreen Massey’s work also argues for a consideration of place “as fundamentally mobile” (6). “One consequence of these debates,” Wilkie continues, “is a focus on mobilities as fundamentally relational” (6). In other words, “the various scales on which mobility operates, and the vastly different levels of privilege and empowerment in experiences of being mobile, exist not in spite but in direct relation to one another” (6). Writing on mobility tends therefore “to be invested in a notion of connection. It frequently reveals the ways in which movements on a small or local scale have generated important ideas about mobility, in turn informing a much wider set of movements across different scales” (6). We might, Wilkie suggests, 

consider the range of mobilities involved in theatre and performance as not merely arbitrarily linked by meaningfully connected in terms of ideas about mobility. In this way, the audience’s applause, stage entrances and exists, the dramaturgical structures of movement, thematic explorations of travel within theatre works, the actors’ journeys home, and the global tour of a mega-musical might all be understood to contribute to a sense of the theatre’s mobility. But the seductive power of such connections should not mask an awareness that these various movements at different scales are not connected equally. An emphasis on the relationship of mobilities requires also an acknowledgement that difference rather than similarity is often the result of relations between mobile experiences. (7-8)

Many of Wilkie’s case studies “work to tease out the disparity and power imbalance of vastly different mobilities” (8).

Wilkie is interested in the ways that “performance always already attends to, and is expert in, a number of different levels of movement” (8). Movement is part of the content of theatre and performance works. Historically performers moved from place to place, seeking audiences. “These various movements—of the performers and the characters—then circulate in a variety of ways: as theatre tours, as documents (for example, playscript, photograph, video, and web presence), in the memories of spectators, and in critical responses,” she writes. “Underpinning all of this is the travelling that enables performance events to happen at all: the temporary relocation of actors required in rehearsal periods, national and international touring schedules, and the travel of audiences. The circulation and production of contemporary arts practices have an intrinsic mobility that is worth conceiving as such” (9). She cites Miwon Kwon’s comments on the way that travel has become a marker of artworld success (9). It’s part of academic success as well. And many artists address travel in their work.

The purpose of this book is to demonstrate that “a range of performances and artworks that might otherwise not be considered together” do actually “have something to say as part of a larger conversation about movement and travel” (11). The book focuses on modes of travel other than walking as a way to extend discourses about walking and performance, “to signal a rich set of performance dialogues taking place in and through other means of travel” (11). Moreover, “transport has not often been a focus for scholars of theatre and performance,” even though “transport frames ideas of social experience in ways that are worth investigating” (12). One of the ways she tried to understand performance’s relationship to mobility at the beginning of this book project was “through a concept of ‘registering passage’” she takes from the work of David Pascoe on the architecture of airports: we move through airports “‘without registering passage’” (qtd. 16). This idea echoes Marc Augé’s discussion of such spaces as “non-places” (16-17). “Performance as a set of mostly live practices has a vested interest in meaningful encounters, and it is therefore not surprising that there are many examples of performance that seek to mark the significance of transit spaces,” Wilkie writes. “Such performances work against the logic of uninterrupted flow as sites of transport, encouraging spectators to register their passage as a complex activity, simultaneously public and private, and culturally, socially and even morally loaded” (17). Now, however, she wants to claim “something more for the practices discussed in this book” (17). She cites sociologist Peter Frank Peters, who discusses the relationship of time and passages, and the Australian artist Mick Douglas, who describes his participatory art projects “as a kind of ‘making passage’ and therefore a creative ‘method of mobility’” (17). “Following Peters and Douglas, then, I suggest that the cumulative effect of the case studies gathered in this book is one of making passage, developing not merely a commentary on travel but a valuable means of shaping experiences of transit and thereby creating new momentum,” she concludes (17).

Wilkie’s introduction outlines her general approach; the first chapter, on walking, presents specific instances of the ideas she discusses in that introduction. (So do her other chapters, which I’m not going to reread this time.) Walking, “the form of mobility that occupies the most central place in twentieth and twenty-first century performance practices,” provides her with a context in which other forms of mobility can be discussed (18). Wilkie’s argument is that “the well-established tradition of thinking, writing and performing the pedestrian yields a rich critical legacy that informs both theoretical and artistic explorations of other kinds of mobility” (18). Walking, she continues, “establishes a set of values and ideals against which the choice of mechanized transport is measured (and frequently found wanting)” (18). 

While walking is often seen in opposition to other forms of movement, it also complements other kinds of travel. “The fact that an overwhelming majority of the walking attended to in the critical discourse is undertaken as a choice also has implications that we should note,” Wilkie continues:

For the most part, Romantic poets, landscape artists, Situationists, ramblers, cultural geographers and flâneurs walk because they want to, not because they have to. The stories of those who walk because they are too poor to do otherwise are far less visible in the vast literature on walking. . . . There is therefore a context of privilege in which most documented walking occurs, and a corresponding context of walking in poverty that needs to be acknowledged. In some places this is more apparent than others. (19)

At the same time, many artists “position their work as a political response to the situation found in LA and elsewhere,” the notion that walking is pathological, and “walking is thus perceived as a radical choice in the face of cultural pressure to relinquish any prolonged contact between pavement and footwear” (19).

In the work of Guy Debord, Michel de Certeau, and Walter Benjamin, the radical potential of walking is a key theme, and these writers “have created a pervasive critical apparatus, setting out the figures of the dérivist, the pedestrian and the flâneur as standard positions from which to theorize one’s walking” (19). This critical apparatus “has become academically favoured—the accepted means of accounting for the role of the walker—and at least one of these three writers is likely to be employed in any discussion of walking in the arts, humanities and social sciences” (19-20). One consequence of this dominance is “the shift of focus to urban settings” (20). After all, all three of those “standard positions” are urban walkers. “The critical discourse of walking also tends to be organized, albeit often implicitly, around two pairs of opposing terms: urban/rural and solitary/collective,” Wilkie continues. “That is to say, the claims made for pedestrian mobility frequently rest on its status as either urban or rural; similarly, different claims are made for walking depending on whether it is undertaken alone or as part of a group. The urban/rural pairing emerges from quite distinct genealogies” (20-21). Rural walking begins with Romanticism, and “[s]till today, discourses of rural walking emphasize introspection, beauty, imagination and inner discovery,” while discourses of urban walking, which begins with avant-garde walkers, focus on “modernity, subversion and political comment” (21). (My walking practice, I think, tries to apply subversion and political comment to rural spaces, which is part of what makes it strange.) So-called “natural” country walking is both historically unusual and demographically limited: that’s the point made by “[t]he black British artist Ingrid Pollard’s Wordsworth Heritage” billboards (1992): “Pollard’s photographic project draws attention to the dearth of black pedestrians in narratives of rural walking, and cautions us to consider the ownership of various types and sites of mobility” (21-22). Walking practices also tend to be organized around “[t]he solitary/collective pairing”: Romantic rural walkers are supposed to walk alone, as are Benjamin’s flâneur and de Certeau’s pedestrian (22). Rousseau makes it clear that he walks alone “not through choice but through circumstance,” but nonetheless “the prevailing image of the Romantic walker is a solitary figure,” and that figure can be seen in the art of Richard Long, who walks alone: “the point of encounter with others is in the documentation rather than the journey” (22). Alternative versions of walking prize the collective: the dérive is a collective form, as is Misha Myers’s “conversive wayfinding” and Deirdre Heddon’s “Turning 40” project (22-23). Collective walking is said to be sociable, as well as “an enduring form of protest, found in both rural and urban situations” (23). 

The term “walker” is very broad, and it “encompasses a wide variety of approaches to, and reasons for, travelling on foot”:

The walker, as we have seen, is frequently theorized as flâneur, dérivist, or pedestrian. Elsewhere, the walker is figured as pilgrim, hiker, wanderer, activist, stroller, climber, migrant, nomad and tourist, among others. Further, walking art constructs a number of different modes of encounter: the artist walks and reports back; the spectator walks, guided by the artist in the form of recorded voice, written instructions or “smart” technology; spectators walk with performers, experiencing sections of performance en route. (23)

“Across all of these discourses, figures and structures,” Wilkie writes, “the themes of belief, retracing, resistance and pace recur, emerging as guiding ideas that inflect every other experience of travel” (23). These are the themes Wilkie goes on to discuss in this chapter. 

Wilkie begins the section on belief by quoting Phil Smith: “When the writer and performance-maker Phil Smith writes ‘I am a great believer in walking as far more than physical exercise,’ he is expressing something akin to a spiritual belief, and it is a belief that has many historical precedents” (23). Many grand claims are made about walking; it is “conceived by some as a life choice rather than, or as well as, a means of getting from A to B. And it is as a life choice that walking becomes associated with values of truth and authenticity” (23-24). Walking is both physical and spiritual, “prized for its directness,” because “it seems to offer an unmediated encounter between environment and traveller,” and because “[i]t enables a contact with the elements—with open/fresh air and changes in weather—that many other modes of transport prevent with barriers of glass and metal” (24). Rebecca Solnit suggests that walking “engenders a feeling of embodiment,” in contrast to the disembodiment produced by automobile travel. An important aspect of this belief, Wilkie suggests, is “the connection made between physical contact and self-knowledge” (24). Walking pilgrimage is the clearest expression of this “strand of belief in discourses of walking,” which “emerges as a fertile model for walking artists,” such as Hamish Fulton and Richard Long, who “both adopt tropes of pilgrimage in their work,” as does the poet Tom Chivers (24). “The structure of pilgrimage—or at least walking as a ritual act of belief—is also there in Carl Lavery’s Mourning Walk (2006), a performance documenting a walk made to mark the death of Lavery’s father,” Wilkie suggests (25). “Another engagement with the pilgrimage model—this time collective and somewhat extended, as befits a pilgrimage—is offered in the Louise Ann Wilson Company’s Fissure (2011),” she continues. “Wilson’s project takes the form of a large-scale secular ritual: a three-day journey through the Yorkshire Dales, in the company of scientists, dancers and musicians, for around 100 participants/audience members” (25). The “fissure” referred to in the work’s title “connects the workings of the brain to the shape of the Yorkshire landscape: the performance was created in direct response to the death of Wilson’s sister from a brain tumour, and was staged in the environment of the sisters’ childhood” (25). What Wilkie finds interesting in both Lavery’s and Wilson’s projects “is that it is specifically a walk, rather than any other mode of engagement, that is chosen as having the required weight and depth to address the subject of grief” (27). For Lavery, that engagement is solitary, while for Wilson it is collective, “[b]ut both artists, through these works, profess a belief in the power of walking: to remember, to mark and, perhaps, to heal” (27).

“Perhaps the belief that I am tracing through these examples is, for some at least, a consequence of a sense of awe,” a feeling that might not be true for urban walkers, “who may feel spurred on to a feeling of mastery by a Certeaudian confidence that their walking ‘transgresses . . . the trajectories it “speaks”’” (de Certeau, qtd. 27). That sense of awe, as Wilkie points out, is primarily associated with the Romantic tradition. “The theme of belief that runs through discourses of walking is, then, tied up with the dialectic of the rural and the urban,” she continues. “It is based on a combination of seemingly paradoxical feelings of autonomy on the one hand and connectedness within a larger ecology on the other, a combination that is arguably unique to walking among modes of transport” (27). In this context, it might be appropriate to note the Romantic connotations of what, for Wilkie, is intended to be a neutral term, “transport”: the O.E.D. suggests that one of that word’s meanings is “The state of being ‘carried out of oneself’, i.e. out of one’s normal mental condition; vehement emotion (now usually of a pleasurable kind); mental exaltation, rapture, ecstasy,” all feelings associated with the Romantic experience of the sublime, as I recall from the course I took on the Sublime so many years ago, taught by Dr. Ian Balfour.

Retracing is next. Wilkie suggests that “[o]ne aspect of the enduring spiritual belief in walking is a sense that walking might enable a kind of communion with those who have gone before” (27-28). She sees this idea in Robert Macfarlane’s book The Old Ways, and suggests that “[t]here is a significant strand of performance practice that responds to such ‘voices heard along the way’ by figuring the walk as reenactment. Retracing another’s steps offers a rich structural and thematic framework for performance walks. It is a framework that immediately imagines a historical relationship, establishing a dialogue between a past and a present” (28). That relationship reveals both similarities and differences between past and present, although Wilkie suggests also that “[t]he historical walk—the one that has gone before—also becomes a means of validating the present one, justifying the choice of pedestrian movement over other modes of travel” (28). 

Wilkie gives Smith’s 2008 performance In Search of Pontiflunk as an example of “this doubling effect” (28). In Search of Pontiflunk is a theatre project based on two walks: Charles Hurst’s acorn-planting walk in the early twentieth century in the English midlands, and Smith’s 16-day reprise of that walk in 2007, “with a variety of accidental and invited companions at various stages along the way” (28). Smith’s account of the journey became a solo play and was toured by Nottingham’s New Perspectives Theatre Company in 2008 (28). During the walk, Smith looked for 100-year-old oak trees that might have grown from Hurst’s acorns. “The performed account reveals both the pleasures and the frustrations of walking,” Wilkie states: “alongside memorable meetings . . . and the enjoyment of ‘private journeying,’ Smith records encounters with others unwilling to talk, blisters and a burning pain in his left knee. He confesses to taking a taxi for part of the route. Certainly, Smith’s enduring belief in the power of walking is tested here, but it remains strong” (28-29). Smith’s belief in the power of walking is political, though, rather than spiritual, an important distinction to be made in relation to his work. Smith’s play (as opposed to his walk, or as well as his walk?) “emerges as a study in time,” contemplating temporality through the acorn. As well as looking back in time at Hurst’s journey, Smith looks ahead, to our responsibility for the planet’s future. He also conceives of his walk in opposition to other forms of transportation: the point is to meditate on walking and the way motorized transportation “displaces us” (qtd. 29). In her chapters on other modes of transportation, Wilkie says, she discusses “many examples of artistic practice that parallel this concern with ‘what our mobility makes us’ at the same time as they challenge Smith’s argument by articulating ways in which transport still has the power to move us and to reassert our sense of place” (29). As a walker, I would be interested in reading those chapters—not now, but eventually—partly because I believe it would be difficult to make that kind of argument successfully.

Another example of walking as reenactment is Esther Pilkington’s A Long Walk (2009), in which Pilkington retraces half of one of Richard Long’s walks: a 626-mile walk carrying a stone from the beach at Aldeburgh to the one at Aberystwyth, and then retracing the journey with another stone. “Divided into 20 short sections, the performance text describes weather conditions, clothing, walking companions, stopping points and photographs taken along the way,” Wilkie writes.  “Alongside such details, the artist considers issues of generosity, identity and documentation. Her focus is on the relationship ‘between the walk and its documentation,’ the activity and its description, and it is a relationship that we can only guess in Long’s work,” which is documented with a sparse text work, as is his practice (30). With its emphasis on anxiety, Pilkington’s text “makes an appealing contrast to the prevailing image of the confident walking artist in command of the task to be undertaken and fully equal to the distances involved” (30). Her decision to treat Long’s text work as instructions rather than a record of a past event “complicates the apparent simplicity” of Long’s Crossing Stones (30). Pilkington’s text “could be read as a postscript to Long’s attending to the sometimes messy realities involved in long-distance walking and art-making. She recasts the closed, completed work as an open invitation, and in doing so implicitly reminds us that any experience of walking is circumscribed by gender, age and expertise” (30). In fact, for Wilkie Pilkington’s performance leaves her inspired to think that she could walk across Britain one day. That is “part of the appeal of conceiving the walk as reenactment: the fact that another has gone before not only validates and lends historical weight to a current walk but also acts as reassurance that it can be done” (30-31). It also generates a sense of being in dialogue with previous walkers even as we are issuing an invitation to future walkers who might follow in our own footsteps (31). 

“As A Long Walk makes clear, though, none of these manifestations of one route can every really be understood as the same walk” Wilkie continues. “When a walk enacts a retracing, it also marks out—footstep by footstep—historical changes, personal differences and cultural shifts” (31). Deidre Heddon’s reenactment of Mike Pearson’s autobiographical talking tour Bubbling Tom is one example: when she reperformed Pearson’s work in 2000, “she found that the ‘original’ guided tour was ‘remembered, written over, added to, forgotten, extended, transformed, recontextualized, reinvented, as space and place were shared, contested, and for the ‘outsider,’ borrowed” (Heddon, qtd. 31). “Indeed, Bubbling Tom itself might be understood as an act of retracing, attempting a communion with the cumulative power of many childhood explorations of the same territory more than 40 years earlier,” Wilkie writes. “By similarly unsettling any sense of a stable ‘original’ walk that exists unproblematically to be traced and retraced, we might view each of the reenactments discussed here as creative exploratory acts, positing histories of walking as open-ended conversations stretched across time” (31). 

Audio walks, such as those created by Janet Cardiff, are another kind of retracing: “The artist walks and records that walk along with instructions for repeating it,” Wilkie writes. “In doing so, she makes claims for the significance of the route: it is, implicitly, worth walking again. The effect of the binaural recording technique used by Cardiff is that the walker follows in the artist’s footsteps, retracing the walk that she has done before” (31-32). This retracing is a layering, and the power of these audio walks lies in the slippages between the two layers. “My suggestion here is that a significant proportion of walking art is premised not just on walking but on walking again: reenacting; retracing; reconsidering,” Wilkie continues. “Legacy thus emerges as one of the value-based claims made for walking over other forms of transport: walking practices are supported, or perhaps haunted, by historical precedence” (32).

Resistance is another theme in walking art: “it is one means by which we can conceive of separate instances of apparently private walking as, cumulatively, a public art. Walking more explicitly engages with the public realm—and with pressing questions of what it is to be public—in those instances when it is figured as an act of resistance” (32). Wilkie suggests that there is an etymological link between “mobility” and “mob” and that protestors are usually on foot. “But resistance, of course, does not necessarily mean protest,” she continues. “Rather quieter forms of resistance involve walking as a deliberate choice in the face of its perceived ‘others,’ including commerce, globalization, transport culture and urban planning” (33). Debord and de Certeau provide key theoretical texts about walking as resistance, and many art projects use walking as a form of resistance: Platform’s 2006 And While London Burns; FrenchMottershead’s 2012 Walkways; Bruno de Wachter’s ongoing series Circling Around (Without Taking Off), in which de Wachter and participants walk around the perimeters of international airports (33-35). 

“In all of these examples, the choice to walk is deemed important to the capacity of resistance,” Wilkie writes, partly because walking is literally out-of-step with modern (or postmodern) forms of space, time, and embodiment (35). “The claim for slowness is used to set walking apart as a more virtuous choice than other means of travel, and therefore has clear implications for the practices discussed in the chapters that follow,” she continues (35). Whereas French theorist Paul Virilio has been called “the ‘high priest of speed,’” he is interested in deceleration as well as acceleration. “One of the means by which the world might now be said to be slowing down is the advocacy of slow travel, which, by association with slow food, signals ‘a concern for locality, ecology and quality of life’” (Dickinson and Lumsdon, qtd. 36). The 2010 performance installation Slow Travel Agency (presented by Sustrans in Bristol) is an example of a performance that emphasizes slowness (36). The work of Wrights & Sites is another example of work that uses slowness to resist hierarchies that value speed. “Many of those employing pedestrian travel in practice and theory rely, implicitly or explicitly, on celebrating the pace of the walk over the speed of mechanized transport,” Wilkie writes. “The comparison with other forms of transport is fundamental to this celebration of walking” (36-37). She notes that slowness is not the only important aspect of walking, and suggests that “pedestrian performance is not so much a return to ‘slowness’ . . . as a quest to find a more fluid and mobile mode of interaction with our surroundings, one which is based on a self-generated rhythm” (Lavery, qtd. 37). Nevertheless, Wilkie emphasizes slowness “because it continues to be cited by those performing and documenting pedestrian travel. Lavery’s caveat would be that walking is a reaction against both the speed and the passivity of contemporary life” (37).

Writer Andie Miller highlights these elements in her book on walking. The artist Ohad Fishof’s Slow Walk series announces its emphasis on slowness: rather than travelling at three miles per hour, Fishof walks at one metre per minute (37-38). The Slow Walk project is intended to have an audience; Robert Wilson’s Walking, another “slowed-down walking event, operates rather differently” (39). First created for the Oerol Festival in the Netherlands in 2008, “Wilson’s immersive installation does not really work in conceptual terms” but rather operates “as something to be experienced” (39-40). “The work sends its participant-spectators on a three-mile, three-hour walk,” Wilkie writes. “Participants set off at intervals of about a minute: the piece works . . . by creating a continuous line of walkers” (40). Participants leave “stress-inducing” items (phones, watches, cameras) behind (40). “The central event of the walk insists on silence, and explicitly strips away what might be seen as the trappings of a fast-paced walk,” Wilkie continues (40). The experience is both solitary but also a communal ritual. “Even as I find myself resistant to any straightforward equation of thought, landscape, pedestrian travel and well-being, I cannot deny the physical invigoration I feel at the end of Wilson’s walk,” she recalls (41). That’s because the work operates through a slow pace and “what it means for the artist or participant to switch to a different tempo” (42). While Fishof connects slowness to political resistance, Wilson “constructs an enjoyably escapist experience that sidesteps any sense of its relationality” (42). Running performances, though, address a very different pace: “Part of its potential, perhaps, will be to problematize the historically enduring sense that contact between the foot and the ground is characterized by slowness and leads to [a] profound relationship with both the self and the environment” (43).

In her conclusion, Wilkie notes her attraction to and skepticism about statements that equate walking with thinking. Despite caveats about the connection between those two activities, “walking seems to maintain an air of righteousness, whether it lies in the ‘one-ness with nature of rural walking or the potential for subversion often claimed for urban walking” (43-44). “Walking is valued because it inspires belief,” she continues, “because it has a strong legacy that can be trace and celebrated, because of its power to resist dominant structures, and because it is slow. It is connected rhetorically or symbolically with ideals of autonomy, freedom, insight, truth, political subversion and critical reflection” (44). But we need to be cautious about claims that the values of walking are “universally available and when the differential experiences of walking are overlooked” (44-45).

Wilkie’s discussion of walking is both a brief introduction and an interesting analysis, through her four themes, of the practice. It would be worth assigning as reading in a course on walking. But my sense, from the chapter’s conclusion, is that Wilkie is more interested in the other forms of transportation she explores in the rest of the book. That might explain some of her missteps: I don’t think Phil Smith’s walking practice is about belief, for instance; it would be better to consider his walking as a form of resistance. That’s how he would frame it, anyway. 

Work Cited

Wilkie, Fiona. Performance, Transport and Mobility: Making Passage, Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

109. Stephanie Springgay and Sarah E. Truman, Walking Methodologies in a More-than-Human World: WalkingLab

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Published as part of a series on research methods in the social sciences, Walking Methodologies in a More-than-Human World: WalkingLab still has something to offer for those of us who walk as an artistic practice. However, it’s not an easy read, particularly if, like me, you’ve never read A Thousand Plateaux, know little about assemblage theory or affect theory or other theories that come out of the work of Deleuze and Guattari. Those ideas were circulating at the recent Walking’s New Movements conference at the University of Plymouth, and I intend to give myself a crash course on them once my comprehensive examinations are over. Still, my sense is that Springgay and Truman expect their readers to have a certain philosophical or theoretical background, and they aren’t interested in slowing down for those of us who haven’t read what they’ve read. My strategy throughout my reading of this text has been to find the articles they refer to, which I’ll read (eventually) as part of an attempt to understand what Springgay and Truman are arguing. But it’s possible that even all of that additional reading won’t be sufficient. I’m just not part of their intended audience. So this has been a frustrating read.

Given the text’s difficulty, I began with the foreword, by Patricia Ticineto Clough, a sociologist, and Bibi Calderaro, an artist, which starts by suggesting that Springgay and Truman “have a curiosity typical of walkers on a walk. But they do not rest where others might. Where others stop, curiosity moves them on; at every turn they refuse taken-for-granted understandings of land, people, movement and memory” (xii). Springgay and Truman also interrogate the “privileges of race, class, gender, sexuality, region and ableism” as they “turn their attention, and ours, to what is often beneath what has become normalized” (xii). “Definitions, frameworks, and the use of categories become objects of critical reflection as their walking becomes a performative writing of fresh conceptualization,” Clough and Calderaro continue (xii). “On their walks, and in their mode of ‘walking-with,’ Springgay and Truman seek the collaboration of Indigenous, queer, trans, women, people of color and differently abled walkers,” they write, and in this book the authors “share these collaborations of walking/writing/conceptualizing and draw on embodiment, place, sensory inquiry, and rhythm, four major concepts that shape what has already been dubbed ‘the new walking studies,’” offering “a timely and important contribution through the expanded concepts of Land and geos, affect, transmateriality, and movement” (xii). Their reflections on method “provide strategies for turning process of collecting data to experimentation that will greatly enrich qualitative research including walking methodologies” (xii).

According to Clough and Calderaro, “Springgay and Truman offer a critical account of the way the new materialisms, posthumanisms and speculative realisms can inform methods of walking,” approaches that have already “instigated a lively debate in the social sciences about knowledge production, about the subject and object of knowledge” (xii). Springgay and Truman “follow the current ontological turn deconstructing human privilege, not only inviting a reconsideration of the relationship of subject and object, but the organic and the nonorganic as well” (xii). In their idea of walking-with, “foot touches matter but matter touches foot as breeze touches skin; the world displays sensibilities other than our own, prior to consciousness, even to bodily-based perception. There is a sense, if not recognition, of the vibrancy of matter, of a worldly sensibility, of the force of the world’s casual efficacy” (xii-xiii). I am hearing in this echoes of Phil Smith’s discussion of object-oriented ontology in his book on site-specific theatre and performance, and these ideas are worth further exploration. In fact, this aspect of “walking-with” is probably more central to the model of walking Springgay and Truman advance in this book.

For Springgay and Truman, the more-than-human “points to the ethical and political relevancy of walking-with to feel/think or surface the intensities of the entanglements of knower and world,” Clough and Calderaro continue. “Becoming accountable to the more-than-human also involves taking account of the erasures of other knowledges and methods, erasures which, in part, have enabled thinking about the more-than-human as only a recent turn in thought” (xiii). “Walking-with becomes a movement of thought not only with others, but a process of engaging with erased or disavowed histories,” they write. “It is also a moving re-engagement with the ways that the earth and the elements have been understood, protected, feared and treasured” (xiii). The notion of walking-with should be understood as way of thinking “about experience differently, to experience differently, and to experience difference in experiencing” (xiii). The ontological shift encouraged by the idea of walking-with “requires a recognition of an alterity  within the self, an indeterminacy prior to consciousness and even bodily based perception—that is, the nonexperienced or inhuman condition of all experience” (xiii). Recognizing the inhuman within the self is “an opening to all that has been defined as other than human, nonhuman, or inhuman. Walking-with invites a sense of multiplicities in a queering of being and time, a nonexperienced time at all scales of being that affords infinite variation and multiplicities of space” (xiii). For Clough and Calderaro, “[t]he falling of the foot, and the catching-up of the body moving along with the world, allows for the rhythmicity of a multitude of indeterminate beings diffracted through different spacetimes. But because every moment conceals the bifurcation by which anything can take a conflictive turn, utmost care must be taken to move in an affirmative register” (xiii). I’m not quite sure what those last sentences mean, except that all of this is making tremendously large claims about walking.

Walking-with, Clough and Calderaro continue, “is an important methodology for thinking ethically and politically,” although it “is best practiced with a method that betrays any strict adherence to method” (xiii). This book, they write asks questions about what knowledge is, how it emerges and how, how it becomes “settled, sedimented into racial, gendered, classed particulars, the stuff regularly called the social, the political, the economic” (xiv). It’s a book about walking and thinking together, and is best approached that way. Unfortunately, I first read it on a plane, crammed into a tiny seat in economy class, but I hope I was able to get something from it nonetheless. Maybe I didn’t. In any case, Clough and Calderaro are making big claims about this book, and part of the goal of this summary is to determine whether those claims hold up under scrutiny. I can say that the notion of walking-with is gaining traction; several of the papers at the recent Walking’s New Movements conference at the University of Plymouth referred to this idea, and I am interested in learning more about it.

In their introduction, Springgay and Truman discuss how the book came out of a “walk-with Micalong Creek” in New South Wales, Australia. Drawing on the work of Isabelle Stengers, during that walk they wondered about what it might mean to think “‘in the presence of others” (1). “For Stengers, to think ‘in the presence of others’ creates a space for hesitation and resistance that produces new modes of relating,” they write (1). It is a form of thinking that is collective, unpredictable, and open to possibility (1). Its “presentness must include a ‘geo-centred dimension,’ which requires we consider different scales than those that are human-centred” (1). It is a kind of slow thinking in which “in the event of relation, ethics and politics become situated, indeterminate, and artful,” as well as (citing Donna Haraway) accountable (1). The research project that came out of this and other “walk-withs” is WalkingLab, and this book reflects on the collaborations that WalkingLab has generated.

The introductory chapter, Springgay and Truman write, “situates the book in two methodological areas in qualitative research: i) walking methodologies in the humanities and social science; ii) qualitative methodologies that are informed by new materialisms and posthumanisms, and which are called by different names including non-representational methodologies and post-qualitative methodologies,” which they call “more-than-human methodologies” (2). In their empirical research, they bring more-than-human methodologies to bear on walking research (2). The first section of the introduction summarizes “the impact of walking methodologies on qualitative research,” focusing on four major concepts: place, sensory inquiry, embodiment, and rhythm (2). “These concepts . . . mark significant contributions to social science and humanities research in that they foreground the importance of the material body in disciplines that have traditionally privileged discursive analysis,” they write. “Building on the important walk that has been done in walking research, we offer our expanded concepts that are accountable to an ethics and politics of the more-than-human: Land and geos, affect, transmaterial, and movement,” concepts they “activate in each of the remaining chapters” (2). (Bold, italicized text is in the original.)

The book, the authors continue, “interrogates the more-than-human turn in qualitative methodologies” by making “new materialist methodologies and walking research accountable to critical race, feminist, Indigenous, trans, queer, critical disability, and environmental humanities scholarship” (3). They note that Indigenous scholars “have interrogated the more-than-human turn, arguing that it continues to erase Indigenous knowledges that have always attended to nonhuman animacy,” and that “[q]ueer, trans, disability, and critical race scholars argue that while a de-centering of the human is necessary, we need to question whose concept of humanity more-than-human theories are trying to move beyond” (3). 

Next, Springgay and Truman briefly summarize the four themes—pace, sensory inquiry, embodiment, and rhythm—they found in walking research. Place, they write, is understood in this research 

as a specific location and as a process or an event. Walking scholars discuss the ways that walking is attuned to place, how place-making is produced by walking, and the ways that walking connects, bodies, environment, and the sensory surrounds of place. Walking becomes a way of inhabiting place through the lived experience of movement. Walking is a way of becoming responsive to place; it activates modes of participation that are situated and relational. (4)

I’ve written about this notion of walking as place-making, and although I may not have read everything Springgay and Truman have on the subject, I think it’s very complicated, and that space and place end up being folded together (in a Deleuzian sense) through walking. Second, walking is an important way of conducting sensory inquiry, they write:

If, as walking researchers contend, walking is a way of being in place, then walking enables researchers and research participants to tune into their sensory experiences. Walking researchers interested in sensory inquiry sometimes isolate a sense on a walk—for example, a soundwalk—or they consider the ways that the walking body is immersed in a sensory experience of place, such as the texture of feet touching the ground, air brushing against the cheeks, or the smells of city streets. (4)

I think this is true, although it’s possible as well that other ways of experiencing an environment might generate similar sensory experiences, including, potentially, just sitting in a place. Third, “[w]alking methodologies privilege an embodied way of knowing where movement connects mind, body, and environment,” they continue:

Walking scholars typically describe embodiment as relational, social, and convivial. Embodiment is conventionally understood through phenomenology, where researchers and participants examine the lived experiences of what it means to move in a particular place. This experiential understanding either focuses on an individual account of a walking, or is conceptualized through community-based or group walking practices that highlight the social aspects of walking. (4-5)

I’m glad that Springgay and Truman note that individual practices are embodied as well, since not all walking is “relational, social, and convivial.” Finally, they note that “[t]he pace and tempo of walking is another theme that emerges in walking research”:

Here, researchers are interested in the flows of everyday life, pedestrian movements in a city, or the topological features of walking in a landscape. Rhythm is described through embodied accounts of moving and sensory expressions of feet, limbs, and breath. In other instances, rhythm pertains to the pulse of the city, such as traffic, crowds, music, and other environmental phenomena that press on a walker. (5)

As I read these summaries, I found myself wishing that Springgay and Truman had referred to specific examples of texts that explore these four research themes. However, that’s what happens in the actual chapters where these themes are discussed.

Next, the authors suggest that this book extends these themes “through more-than-human theories that are accountable to critical race, feminist, Indigenous, trans, queer, and critical disability theories” (5). They propose four additional concepts: Land and geos, affect, transmaterial, and movement (5). “We use these concepts to think frictionally with WalkingLab research-creation events,” they write, noting that friction “is a force that acts in the opposite direction to movement,” slowing it and introducing resistance to it (5). “Friction exists every time bodies come into contact with each other,” they suggest, citing Jasbir Puar’s argument that when two theoretical frameworks (in his case, assemblage theory and intersectionality) converge, that coming together “is neither reconcilable nor oppositional, but frictional” and that the concepts are held together in tension (5).

By Land and geos (the capitalization of Land is not explained, but it might come from the late Greg Young-Ing’s Indigenous style guide, a book that’s gone missing since I had to move out of my office this past summer and which I’m going to have to replace, so I can’t check to make sure), Springgay and Truman suggest that “[m]ore-than-human walking methodologies must take account of the ways that place-based research is entrenched in ongoing settler colonization” (5). For that reason, “place in walking research needs to attend to Indigenous theories that centre Land, and posthuman understands of the geologic that insist on a different ethical relationship to geology, where human and nonhuman are imbricated and entwined” (5). I understand the first suggestion, but not the second; perhaps all will be revealed as I continue reading. Both of these concepts “disrupt humancentrism,” they continue (5).

Second, affect theory, “attends to the intensities and forces of an affecting and affected body,” needs to be considered along with more-than-human methodologies (5). There’s a caveat, however: “because there is a tendency to ascribe affect to pre-personal sensations, some uses and theorizing of affect can consequently erase identity. In contrast, ‘affecting subjectivities’ brings intersectional theories to bear on affect theories, emphasizing the ways that subjectivity is produced as intensive flows and assemblages between bodies” (5-6). Several papers at Walking’s New Movements focused on affect theory, but I have yet to discover (or put together) a coherent list of readings on this subject. Perhaps this book will help with that task.

Third, transmateriality, or “trans theories, which rupture heteronormative teleological understandings of movement and reproduction, disrupt the notion of an embodied, coherent self” (6). I thought that notion had been disrupted many times, going back to the Greeks and their notion of a division between reason and passion, or Freud’s three-part conception of the psyche—even though our lived experience of ourselves tends to suggest we are coherent to some extent (in my experience, anyway). “Trans theories emphasize viral, tentacular, and transversal conceptualizations of different,” Springgay and Truman continue (6). (Why “different” instead of “difference”?) Again, references here would have been useful, although they do emerge later in the book.

Finally, “[m]ovement, as it is conventionally understood in relation to walking, suggests directionality” (6). However, the movement theories used in this book “understand movement as inherent in all matter, endlessly differentiating. Movement as force and vibration resist capture” (6). Such an understanding of movement “is determinate, dynamic, and immanent and intimately entangled with transmaterial theories and practices” (6). Once again, references to these movement theories would have been useful, although they may appear later on. 

“In addition, there are particular inheritances that proliferate in walking research,” such as the notion that walking is “inherently radical, and a tactic to subvert urban space,” an idea which “often ignores race, gender, and disability” (6). “Figures like the flâneur and the practices of the dérive become common tropes, often assuming that all bodies move through space equally,” they continue (6). These ideas will be analyzed in detail later on—but of course, they have been analyzed before, particularly by Phil Smith (who is not included in the book’s list of references) and by Deidre Heddon and Cathy Turner (who are included). As it turns out, the analysis Springgay and Truman present is significantly different from those of Smith or Heddon and Turner, and it may be blind to parts of their own walking practice, as they describe it.

Next, in “Accountability and more-than-human ethics: walking queerly,” Springgay and Truman situate the book “within new materialist and posthumanist methodological approaches to qualitative research” (6). Those theoretical frameworks are used to “enact” their “four concepts of Land and geos, affect, transmaterial, and movement” (6). They begin with the phrase “walking queerly” (6). “A key concept that has gained momentum in qualitative methodologies is Karen Barad’s ‘intra-action,’” they write, an idea that suggests that the world “is composed of intra-acting phenomena which ‘are the ontological inseparability of agentially intra-acting components,’ meaning that they become determinant, material, and meaningful through relations,” although I’m not clear why the word Barad uses is “intra-action,” which suggests an interior relationship, rather than “interaction,” which suggests external relationships; I suppose I will have to read Barad’s text to understand (6). “Objects do not exist as discrete entities that come together through interactions but are produced through entanglement,” Springgay and Truman suggest (6). However, “such an ontological view privileges relations,” and so “a materialist ontology recognizes the interconnections of all phenomena where matter is indeterminate, constantly forming and reforming” (6-7). They cite a later text by Barad which suggests that “ethics then is not concerned with how we interact with the world as separate entities,” but rather “‘about taking account of the entangled materializations of which we are a part, including new configurations, new subjectivities, new possibilities’” (Barad, qtd. 7). “The consequences of this ethico-onto-epistemology for qualitative methodologies and walking research are significant, as it challenges individualism and humanist notions of intentionality, destabilizes conventional notions of space as a void, and directs our attention to the highly distributed nature of collectivity and relationality,” Springgay and Truman write (7). I’m not sure what “the highly distributed nature of collectivity and relationality” means, though; perhaps I would have to read Barad to get the point? Probably.

“If ontology and ethics, or being and acting, are always relational,” they continue, “then ethics shifts from a responsibility to act on the world in a particular moral way ‘to on-going precariously located practices, in which “we” are never categorically separate entities, but differentially implicated in the matters “we” engage with’” (Katrin Thiele, qtd. 7). Moreover, “if ‘we’ are intra-actively entangled in worlding, then there will never be a final solution or outcome, rather new matterings will emerge for our entangled intra-actions,” and accountability “shifts from being responsible for, to a response-ability-with” (7). Such an ethics consists of entanglements, “‘enfolded traces’ and an indebtedness of an irreducible other,’” they write, quoting Karen Barad again (7). Barad was mentioned in several of the papers presented at Walking’s New Movements, and Phil Smith mentions her in his writing, so her work seems to be part of the current discourse on walking and therefore important to read. At the same time, I saw a joke about the word “entanglement” on Facebook the other day, which might suggest that Barad’s ideas have become dominant in certain sectors of the academy, or even that people are tired of hearing about them.

According to Springgay and Truman, “[p]art of this accountability is in the use of queer theory to rupture the normalizing inheritances of walking research” (7). They suggest that while “self-identification as ‘queer’ has a place in queer theory,” “thinking beyond subject identification and with a queer relationality opens up new possibilities for understanding space and time” (7). Sara Ahmed’s work on queer phenomenology uses “queer” in a similar way, which I’m tempted to think of as a metaphor, although not to rethink space and time, as I recall. Springgay and Truman cite Jack Halberstam’s contention that “queer time” is “time outside normative temporal frames of inheritance and reproduction,” and that “queer space” involves “new understandings of space enabled by the ‘production of queer counter-publics’” (7). But those ideas speak to an notion of queer framed by sexuality, rather than one “beyond subject identification.” Springgay and Truman also refer to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s notion of “queer performativity”; Donna Haraway’s suggestion that “queering” can undo the distinction between human and nonhuman; and the suggestion by Dana Luciano and Mel Chen that the queer or trans body generates other possibilities for living, including “‘multiple, cyborgian, spectral, transcorporeal, transmaterial’” possibilities (7-8). I’m a pretty down-to-earth person, though, and I’m not sure that spectral or transcorporeal or transmaterial possibilities for living actually exist—not without examples or evidence—and I’m uncomfortable, as a straight, cisgendered man, in simply adopting “queer” without actually being queer. Springgay and Truman discuss that second issue: “while many qualitative researchers in the social sciences and humanities often take up the word queer to describe letting go of traditional research boundaries . . . and utilize ‘queer’ as methodology, we need to account for the subjectivities that don’t enjoy the benefit of sliding in and out of being conveniently queer” (8). I’m not sure how to account for those subjectivities in my work or what doing so might look like, and there are no suggestions on offer here. Nor is it clear to me what it would mean, in practice, to “walk queerly,” as the section’s title suggests. Perhaps, again, this will become clear as the book continues.

In the introduction’s next section, “Unsettling the ‘ontological turn,’” Springgay and Truman suggest that the concept of the more-than-human “emerges at time in scholarly debates that seek to challenge and and de-centre human exceptionalism, taxonomies of intelligence and animacy, and the distinctions between humans and nonhumans, nature and culture” (8). They cite a number of authors on the political effects of the distinction between the human and the nonhuman, including Luciano and Chen (oh, how I hate the APA’s predilection for ignoring the given names of authors), who “posit the inhuman as a method of thinking otherwise,” and Jeffrey Cohen’s suggestion that, as a concept, the inhuman “emphasizes both difference and intimacy” (9). Karen Barad contends that “terms like human and nonhuman can’t be established as polar ends and as givens,” but rather the point ought to be “‘to understand the materializing effects of particular ways of drawing boundaries between “humans” and “non humans”’” (qtd. 9). Jin Haritaworn suggests that “the question of the inhuman is risky and requires anti-colonial methodologies that would in turn be aligned with Indigenous sovereignty” (9)—indeed, I’m finding myself wondering why, in these discussions of animacy, the grammar of Algonquian languages like Plains Cree doesn’t get mentioned. Haritaworn’s argument, Springgay and Truman continue, leads to Zoe Todd’s suggestion that the “ontological turn” is a form of colonization. According to Todd, “non-Indigenous scholars’ realization that [nonhuman] entities ‘are sentient and possess agency, that “nature” and “culture,” “human” and “animal” may not be so separate after all—is itself perpetuating the exploitation of Indigenous peoples’” (qtd. 9). I don’t quite understand this idea, and I suppose I would have to read Todd’s article to understand her point. Apparently, though, Todd is arguing that Indigenous epistemologies and ontologies are “‘legal orders through which Indigenous peoples throughout the world are fighting for self-determination, sovereignty’” (qtd. 9), and that, as Springgay and Truman suggest, “ontological discussions of matter must take into consideration not only Indigenous world-views but material legal struggles over matter and sovereignty” (9). 

Springgay and Truman summarize other critiques of notions of “posthuman” theorizing and suggest that 

[a]s more-than-human methodologies gain momentum in re-conceptualizing qualitative methodologies in the social sciences and humanities its fault lies in broad definitions. While consideration is given to all forms of matter and the intra-relatedness of entangled ethics, its politics is often consumed in a rhetoric of undoing dualisms where “everything matters” and thus becomes flattened. (10)

They also suggest that “[q]uestions about the politics of new materialism are typically elided” as well because “there is a tendency to think that arguments about matter as dynamic, self-organizing, and intensive are political in and of themselves,” and thinking that “politics is everywhere” ends up meaning that politics disappears (10). They cite feminist geographer Juanita Sundberg, who argues that “posthumanist scholarship in its attempt to critique dualisms actually works to ‘uphold Eurocentric knowledge’” because those attempts are silent about their own locations (qtd. 11). All of them? Really? Again, I’ll have to read Sundberg to understand.

Interestingly, though, Sundberg apparently “offers walking as a strategy for decolonizing research,” although her examples are Indigenous rather than Settler walking (11). In fact, it’s Sundberg who apparently came up with the term “walking-with,” borrowing it from the Zapatista movement (11). “Walking-with,” Sundberg states, “entails ‘serious engagement with Indigenous epistemologies, ontologies, and methodologies’” (11). Walking-with should not be misunderstood as “conviviality and sociality, or the idea that one needs to walk with a group of people. You could walk-with alone” (11). Springgay and Truman write that their “conceptualization and practice of walking-with” is situated alongside Sundberg and “the walkers she works with,” and also that they are “indebted to the rich feminist work on citational practices” (I’m not sure what “citational practices” means in this context) and Alecia Jackson’s and Lisa Mazzei’s “thinking-with theory” (11). They write:

Walking-with is explicit about political positions and situated knowledges, which reveal our entanglements with settler colonization and neoliberalism. Walking-with is accountable. Walking-with is a form of solidarity, unlearning, and critical engagement with situated knowledges. Walking-with demands that we forgo universal claims about how humans and nonhumans experience walking, and consider more-than-human ethics and politics of the material intra-actions of walking research. (11)

In other words, despite the various caveats and critiques they have offered about their theoretical perspectives, their practice of walking-with is nonetheless rooted in those perspectives, and in order to seriously engage with their notion of “walking-with,” one would have to read that body of theoretical material. The work of reading and learning, it seems, is endless.

The introduction concludes with summaries of the chapters to come, which I’m including here in hopes of understanding what’s coming. “In Chapter 1 we walk-with Indigenous theories of Land and critical place inquire; posthuman theories of the geological that disrupt taxonomies of what is lively and what is inert; and a posthuman critique of landscape urbanism,” they write, noting that their central example is the “WalkingLab research-creation event Stone Walks on the Bruce Trail: Queering the Trail (12). The second chapter “examines a number of WalkingLab walking projects through sensory, haptic, or affect theories,” using Stefano Harney’s and Fred Moten’s “use of hapticality to think about how walking constitutes a politics-in-movement” (12). The second chapter also discusses affect theory in relation to the politics of walking. The third chapter “examine a sonic walk called Walking to the Laundromat by Bek Conroy, in order to develop a theory of transmateriality” (12). That sonic walk “probes bodily, affective, and gendered labour including domestic labour, money laundering, and the proliferation of new age self-help audio books to question how some bodies are perceived as disposable in order for other bodies to thrive” (12). They critique the notion of the flâneur, and “introduce Stacy Alaimo’s important concept ‘transcorporeality,’ which takes into consideration the material and discursive entanglements between human and nonhuman entities,” along with “a number of trans theories,” including work by Karen Barad, which “complicate walking as embodied and emplaced in order to disassemble and disturb taxonomies, and confound the notion of an embodied, coherent self” (12). 

The fourth chapter looks at notions of walking as participatory or inclusionary and therefore convivial by critiquing “how participation has been framed through inclusionary logics and as rehabilitation,” looking at two walking projects to do so: Ring of Fire, a “mass procession for the opening of the Parapan Am games by Trinidadian artist Marlon Griffin and the Art Gallery of York University,” and “The Warren Run, a group orienteering event by Matt Prest commissioned by WalkingLab” (13). “Following these crucial critiques of participation as inclusion, we ask questions about how we might think differently about participation drawing on theories of movement,” particularly those of Erin Manning, “to argue that participation begins before the invitation of inclusion commences” (13). They also look at Carmen Papalia’s project White Cane Amplified in that chapter as well. Chapter 5, they write, 

responds to agitations that are occurring in qualitative research, particularly issues related to: the incompatibility between new empiricist methodologies and phenomenological uses of methods; the preponderance of methodocentrism; the pre-supposition of methods; a reliance of data modeled on knowability and visibility; the ongoing emplacement of settler futurity; and the dilemma of representation. (13)

“These agitations have provoked some scholars to suggest that we can do away with method,” they note, but their position is “that methods need to be generated speculatively and in the middle of research, and further that particular (in)tensions need to be immanent to whatever method is used” (13). They use a variety of WalkingLab projects as examples in that chapter. 

The sixth chapter examines walking and mapping and the fact that “the prevailing history of mapping is entrenched in imperial and colonial powers who use and create maps to exploit natural resources, claim land, and to legitimize borders” (13), reasons I will be avoiding mapping in my current walking project. However, in this chapter Springgay and Truman look at forms of “counter-cartography” in WalkingLab projects in which “re-mapping offers possibilities of conceptualizing space that is regional and relational, as opposed to state sanctioned and static,” and how “walking can re-map archives and disrupt linear conceptualizations of time” by paying attention to how “walking as ‘anarchiving’ attends to the undocumented, affective, and fragmented compositions that tell stories about a past that is not past but is the present and imagined future” (14). “As counter cartographies and anarchiving practices the walking projects disrupt dominant narratives of place and futurity, re-mapping Land ‘returning it to the landless,’” they write (14), although that return is probably metaphorical, I would imagine, rather than literal. I don’t understand the word “futurity,” particularly in this context, unless the reference is to settler futurity, but perhaps that becomes clear in that chapter. 

Chapter 7 moves away from standard conceptions of walking in education to present “two examples of walking-with research in school contexts” (14). Those examples “offer the potential for students to critically interrogate humanist assumptions regarding landscape and literacy” (14). In that chapter, Springgay and Truman “examine the complex ways that students can engage in walking-with as a method of inquiry into their world-making” (14). The eighth chapter “functions as a speculative conclusion or summary” and “is enacted in a series of walking-writing propositions that respond to questions concerning the relationship between walking and writing, and our collaborative process” (14). “Propositions,” they continue, “are different from methods in that they are speculative and event oriented”; they are “not intended as a set of directions, or rules that contain and control movement, but as prompts for further experimentation and thought” (14). The chapter “unfolds through a series of walks that we invite the reader to take: differentiation walks, surface walks, activation devices, ‘with,’ touch, and contours,” and they once again cite Karen Barad’s contention that ethics “is ‘about responsibility for the lively relationalities of becoming of which we are a part” (qtd. 14). “As a research methodology walking has a diverse and extensive history in the social sciences and humanities, underscoring its value for conducting research that is situational, relational, and material,” they conclude:

Yet, as we argue throughout the book, walking is never neutral. In a time of global crisis—emboldened White supremacy—it is crucial that we cease celebrating the White male flâneur, who strolls leisurely through the city, as the quintessence of what it means to walk. Instead, we must queer walking, destabilizing humanism’s structuring of human and nonhuman, nature and culture. (14)

Again, I find myself wondering what such “queer walking” would look like in practice, and whether it would be open to those who do not identify as “queer.” Finally, Springgay and Truman suggest that walking is a slow methodology: “Slowness is a process of unlearning and unsettling what has come before,” they write. “In approaching walking methodologies from the perspective of slow, we intend to critically interrogate the many inheritances of walking, to agitate, and to arouse different ethical and political concerns” (15). I’ve been told that Settlers walking is inevitably colonial because walking is slow, so I’m interested to read about slow methodologies. It’s always frustrating when a summary is longer than the original text, as is the case here, but Springgay and Truman introduce a tremendous amount of theoretical material in their introduction, and I have struggled to follow along; the length of this summary (so far) is a sign of that struggle.

The first chapter begins with a description of the geology and history of the Niagara Escarpment in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, the site of Stone Walks on the Bruce Trail: Queering the Trail, the WalkingLab event through which this chapter “is activated” (16). That event “sought ways to disrupt the typical uses of the trails in order to think about walking-with place through geologic forces and animacies, and in relation to Indigenous Land-centred knowledges,” they write. “As White settlers, we write about place informed by our conversations and readings-with Indigenous scholars and artists” (16). (Springgay and Truman use hyphens to attach the suffix “with” to many different words: “walking-with,” “thinking-with,” and now “readings-with.”) They note how place is central to walking research but point out that Eve Tuck and Marcia McKenzie “argue place-based learning and research is entrenched in settler colonial histories and ongoing practices and have not sufficiently attended to Indigenous understandings of Land” (17). I have Tuck’s and McKenzie’s book and it’s on my reading list; it’s time to turn to it, I think. Stone Walks on the Bruce Trail: Queering the Trail “sought to unsettler settler logics of place by thinking-with i) geo-theories; ii) Indigenous theories of Land; and iii) posthuman critiques of landscape urbanism” (17). These theoretical orientations are not analogous, but rather “we frictionally rub them together to think a different ethics-of-place” (17). Stone Walks on the Bruce Trail: Queering the Trail was nothing if not ambitious, and I’m always suspicious that such ambitions are difficult to realize.

Springgay and Truman reject “[d]ominant sustainability discourses” which “assume that knowledge of, and preservation through, technological fixes will control the ecological crises” (17). Instead, citing Stacy Alaimo, who argues that “‘the epistemological stance of sustainability, as it is linked to systems management and technological fixes, presents rather a comforting, conventional sense that the problem is out there, distinct from oneself’” (qtd. 17), they suggest that those dominant sustainability discourses turn walkers into spectators who “are external to wider transcorporeal relations including an entanglement with the geosocial and Indigenous Land” (17). (I’m not sure what the neologism “geosocial” means.) “Our research-creation event, Stone Walks on the Bruce Trail: Queering the Trail aimed to queer and rupture walking-with place,” they write (17).

Next, Springgay and Truman look at conventional distinctions between space and place, using Tim Ingold (the specific text they refer to is one I haven’t read) and Doreen Massey to critique those distinctions. However, they note that “[p]lace, much like embodiment, figures in almost all walking research regardless of the discipline and is a fundamental part of walking research” (18). Place is understood (not exclusively) through five threads: “the go-along or walking interview,” “pedestrianism,” “walking tours and ethnographic research,” “mapping practices,” and “landscape and nature” (18). Walking interviews, they suggest, citing Evans and Jones (again, I shudder at the way that APA format turns individual writers expressing ideas into oracular authorities), “‘produce more spontaneous data as elements of the surrounding environment prompt discussion of place’” (qtd 19). I’m planning to incorporate walking interviews into my work as a way of moving beyond a solo walking practice, and so I ought to read Evans and Jones along with the other writers Springgay and Truman cite on this subject. (The amount of reading I have yet to do feels overwhelming; sometimes, despite all the work I’ve done preparing for my comprehensive examinations, I feel that I have hardly begun.) 

What Springgay and Truman are actually talking about here, I think, in their discussion of these “threads” are forms of qualitative social science research that involve walking. For instance, pedestrianism includes “walking as a means of questioning and examining everyday practices and places,” they write (20). Walking tours and ethnographies have been used by many researchers (20-21). One form of “walking in relation to pedagogy and place” that has become “ubiquitous” is the dérive or drift through urban space; its “aimlessness disrupts the habitual methods people typically move from one place to another, and instead directs the walkers’ attention to the sights, sounds, smells and other psychogeographic details of a place” (21). I’m surprised to learn that the dérive has been used by social scientists, given contemporary psychogeography’s resistance (through its interest in the occult and other nonrational ways of “knowing”) to being absorbed by the academy. Mapping is also a way of “materializ[ing]” place, typically by using GPS but through analogue technologies (pencil and paper) as well (22). 

Nature and trail walks are ways “of doing nature, as if nature is separate and distinct from humans,” but understood in that way, nature “is exclusionary” because certain bodies—“queer, disabled, racialized”—are “marked out of place in nature,” since “nature reserves and hiking trails are shaped around a compulsory neurotypicality, able-bodiedness, and normativity” (22-23). In Australia, the practice of “bushwalking” “is a place-making practice that is ‘invested in settler futurity’” because it typically ignores the land’s traditional owners (Tuck & Gaztambide-Fernández, qtd. 23). Some scholars, including Sarah Pink, use the term “emplacement” to suggest the interrelationship between body, mind, and environment, but Tuck and McKenzie argue that emplacement “‘is the discursive and literal replacement of the Native by the settler,’” evident in things like property rights and broken treaties (qtd. 23-24). (I’m not sure how emplacement could be considered the sole paradigm that is entangled in settler colonialism; clearly I don’t understand how Tuck and McKenzie are using that word.) “[P]lace-based research needs to be put into conversation with Indigenous knowledges, practices that ‘unsettle’ white settlers, and critical environmental studies to move place from the periphery of social science research,” Springgay and Truman suggest, citing Tuck and McKenzie; Tuck, McKenzie, and McCoy; Delores Calderon; and many others (24). 

With this critical and theoretical framework in mind, Stone Walks on the Bruce Trail: Queering the Trail, Springgay and Truman write, “ruptured and queered the trail, challenging the nature-culture binary, demanding that we think otherwise about human and more-than-human entanglements” (25). They cite Margaret Somerville’s use of the term “queer in relation to place as a strategy or method for research and writing” that “disrupts and decenters the human, and emphasizes a new theory of representation” (25). Thus “Queering the Trail refuses and understanding of geology and Land from a human linear time-scale that can be reduced to heteronormative reproductivity” (25). (I don’t understand the relationship being posited here, through critique, between geology and Land, on the one hand, and “heteronormative reproductivity” on the other. What are they talking about?)

Springgay and Truman now describe Stone Walks on the Bruce Trail: Queering the Trail: the participants (a group of artists and academics) and the event itself, which included performances, “pop-up lectures” (26) on the history of walking, the word “queer,” the area’s geology, and the way that the word for “Haudenosaunee clans, which Euro-Western scholars have assumed is a human designation for groups of people, in fact is a Mohawk word that refers to Land, clay, or earth” (26-28). “Queering the Trail deliberately engaged with a relational politics that does not flatten all entities into equitable vitalism, but accounts for the ways that different phenomena come to matter as matter,” they write (29). The event, they continue, “enacted what Tuck and McKenzie invoke in their understanding of critical place inquiry”: 

They ask social science researchers to do more than simply collect data “on and in place, [but] to examin[e] place itself in its social and material manifestations.” After each pop-up lecture we asked walkers to continue walking the trail and to use that time for questions and discussions with the guest lecturers, artists, and WalkingLab. As we left the Iroquoia Heights side trail after the final walk . . . we invited the group of walkers to walk in silence for an extended period of time. Unlike sound walks that might ask participants to tune into their sensory surround, the silence was intended as a form of Place-Thought, where the confluence of the days’ events could come together. As a walking methodology, Stone Walks enacts a conjunction between thinking-making-doing. Walking-with place insists on a relational, intimate, and tangible entanglement with the lithic eco-materiality of which we are all a part. (33)

I wasn’t present at Stone Walks on the Bruce Trail: Queering the Trail, but it seems to me that while it would have been a provocative experience, it’s hard to imagine that such an event could carry all of the theoretical freight articulated in this account. How is one event’s walking in silence merely sensory, for example, while Stone Walks on the Bruce Trail: Queering the Trail’s silent walking was “a form of Place-Thought,” a term which comes from Anishinaabe academic Vanessa Watts and suggests that the earth has “aliveness and agency” (29)? How can one be certain that the event’s intentions were realized for its participants? How could a period of silent walking undo hundreds of years of settler colonial, religious, and philosophical baggage? Is that remotely possible? Are lectures along a trail really able to enact the radical programme this account claims they enacted? Could any event do all of the things that this event is described as being able to do? It’s hard for me to imagine. I would never make such claims about my walking; in fact, I’m always wondering whether my intentions are realized or whether I’ve failed to do what I set out to do. I don’t see any similar self-reflectivity or self-questioning here. 

The second chapter, “Sensory inquiry and affective intensities in walking research,” begins with this statement:

Walking methodologies invariably invoke sensory and affective investigations. Despite the fact that sensory studies and affect studies emerge from different conceptualizations of sensation, both, we maintain, prioritize corporeal and material practices. Sensory studies and the various approaches to affect share an interest in non-conscious, non-cognitive, transmaterial, and more-than representational processes. (34)

Springgay and Truman cite a long list of sensory studies and note that the senses have been considered to be important for qualitative research, while affect studies focus on “pre-, post-, and trans-individual bodily forces and the capacities of bodies to act or be acted upon by other bodies” (34-35). “This chapter examines a number of WalkingLab projects and categorizes them as either sensory, haptic, or affective,” they continue. “This pedagogical exercise is arguably problematic and arbitrary, as many of the walks intersect sensory inquiry and affective understandings of corporeality,” but by conducting this exercise, they “are able to demonstrate the degree of complexity and the many variations by which sensory knowing and affective tonalities shape walking methodologies” (35). The first section of the chapter focuses on walks “that isolate a particular sense,” followed by a section that looks at walks “that use synaesthesia to defamiliarize the ordinary, paying attention to visceral and immanent encounters of walking in urban space” (35). That synaesthesia must be metaphorical or otherwise constructed, because true synaesthesia is rare and wouldn’t necessarily take forms that would be activated by walking. Then they discuss hapticality—“a sense of touch felt as force, intensity, and vibration”—and the discussion of hapticality in Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s articulation of “a politics of the feel” (35). That leads to affect theories and intersectionality. Finally, they argue that “‘feelings futurity’ in walking methodologies requires that sensory inquiry, haptic modulations, and affective tonalities ask questions about ‘what matters’” (35). 

To illustrate these ideas, Springgay and Truman discuss “experiments with multi-sensory and multi-species ethnography with early childhood teachers and students” in the WalkingLab project “Thinking-with Bark” (35), a project called StoryWalks (also with young children as participants) (36), several sound walks (36-38), and “a smellscape walk” in Toronto’s Kensington Market (38). “The interest in the proximinal senses in walking research is significant for the ways that it has unsettled occularcentrism,” they write, noting that “sensory inquiry ephasizes the body and corporeal ways of knowing,” although “such sensory turns need to account for the social, cultural, racial, sexual, gendered, and classed constructions of the senses. The senses are not neutral, but already exist as ethical and political demarcations of difference” (39). They cite Sarah Pink’s suggestion that the identification of five senses is a Western cultural construct (39). Next, Springgay and Truman turn to synaesthetic walks. “In walking research, synaesthesia can be deployed intentionally to defamiliarize a sensory experience of place and as a non-representational strategy,” they suggest, citing a project in which participants were encouraged to map smells “using words from another sensory register” (40): not true synaesthesia, then, but a textually constructed or metaphorical synasthesia. 

They then explore haptic walks: “Hapticality relates to the sense of touch,” they write, and “[i]n walking research, hapticality attends to tactile qualities such as pressure, weight, temperature, and texture,” sometimes organized “around kinaesthetic experience such as muscles, joints, and tendons that give a sense of weight, stretching, and angles as one walks” (40). They cite Laura Marks’s work on haptic visuality, which draws on Deleuze and Guattari’s discussion of the haptic (40-41), and discuss a variety of walking projects which think about tactile knowledge and corporeality, including Deirdre Heddon’s and Misha Myers’s Walking Library project, John Wylie’s description of “the rhythm of walking as a corporeal event,” and Tim Ingold’s suggestion that “walkers ‘hear through their feet’ emphasizing the proprioception of movement,” although they suggest that Ingold’s “embodied hapticality . . . foregrounds an individual’s experience and understanding of surfaces and textures, privileging the human,” which is a problem they will address later in “discussions of human embodiment through trans theories” (41). “Hapticality emphasizes transcorporeal touching encounters,” Springgay and Truman continue (42). They discuss the use of the term “hapticality as a political mode of touching and being touched” in the work of Stefano Harney and Fred Moten (42). “Hapticality or a politics of the feel,, lies below cognitive perception,” they suggest (42). This exploration ends with Métis artist Dylan Miner’s WalkingLab event To the Landless “as a politics of the feel” which “might also be understood through theories of affect, where affect is force and intensity” (42-43).

“Affect has inflected qualitative research methodologies with an attention to matter as dynamic, energetic, and emergent,” Springgay and Truman write (43). They acknowledge that “affect surfaces in the previous sensory experiments and walks, as affect circulates constantly” (43). However, they continue, “the focus in the previous experiments was on the ways in which walking shaped a sensory understanding of embodiment and place,” and affect, “although not synonymous with sensory experience, extends and complicates the ethical-political work of walking methodologies” (43). For instance, in the WalkingLab project Evaporation Walks, participants “carry broad dinner plates filled with pigmented water” until the water evaporates, “leaving a trace or silt residue on the bottom of the plate” (43). “The project speaks to pain and grief, and the weight of carrying a dying body both literally (in the form of evaporation) and metaphorically (loss of a child),” they contend. “If affect demands that sensation be understood as intensities, vibrations, and forces that are transcorporeal, as opposed to located in a particular body, then pain and grief are palpable in the circulation of affects between bodies. . . . Affect signals a capacity for the body to be open to the next affective event, an opening to an elsewhere” (43). “Affect is about surfaces,” the continue, “[q]uivering, vibrating surfaces that affect bodies, sticking to them” (44). In Evaporation Walks, they write, citing Deleuze’s claim that affects are “created through encounters, which force us to thought,” “there is a difference between the walkers feeling emotions that are already recognizable—for example, grief—and pre-, post- and trans-personal affects that unsettle and force us to resist identification. The affects that circulate might be anguish, but they could also be joyful” (44). What confuses me here, though, is why the evaporation of water necessarily literally or metaphorically speaks of pain or grief at all. What am I missing? I don’t understand how Evaporation Walks has become such a totemic example of walking and affect. It’s as if the theory and practice are not cohering, or at least not cohering in a way that is intelligible for me.

“The political potential of affect lies in intensities—which can be either deliberate or incidental—and in the ways that intensities instantiate feelings,” Springgay and Truman write. “These feelings, while immediate and in the present, arrive with a past that is never in the past , and engender an indeterminate future” (45). They cite Sara Ahmed’s suggestion that distinguishing between affect and emotion comes with particular dangers, along with other critiques that “emerge in affect studies suggesting that there can be a tendency to avoid the messiness of identity politics and a refusal to engage with issues of oppression,” a situation that “neglects the way that affect and feeling participates in the formation of subjects” (45). Nevertheless, “many affect theorists have turned to affect precisely because affect enables a form of thinking about politics as ‘processes of circulation, engagement, and assemblage rather than as originating from the position of a sovereign subject,” citing the work of Lara, Lui, Ashley, Nishida, Liebert, and Billies (45). “Numerous scholars have attended to the entanglements between affect and politics, including the ways that power and control circulates and flows and the formation of animacy hierarchies that condition corporeal threats,” they continue (45-46). “What affect theory helps us do is re-think the assumption that agency and politics begins with the human subject, and that the human is the only animate agent,” they write:

Affecting subjectivity offers possibilities for exploring material and visceral processes of subjectivity, re-thinks categories previously associated with identity, and considers the emergence of subjectivity as an assemblage of conscious and non-conscious matterings. Affectivity becomes a practice and process of defamiliarization, where subjectivities are not flattened or erased but neither are they fixed, known, or assumed. (46)

They then discuss two water walks, one in Toronto and the other in Hamilton, and “the ways that affecting subjectivities contributes to the scholarship on the intersections between affect and politics” (46-48).

In the chapter’s conclusion, Springgay and Truman write, “There is no denying that sensory experiences, haptic feelings, and affective intensities course through walking research. What matters, we contend, is how we tune into sensation, hapticality and affect” (48). They suggest that what is important is “the politics of the feel” (48). “It is our contention however, that feelings futurity in walking methodologies not only lies in these meaningful and vital contributions to qualitative research, but in the politicality of sensation and affect,” they continue. “This means that walking methodologies need to account for the ways that more-than-human sensations and affects circulate, accumulate, and stick to different bodies and spaces in different ways” (48). I find myself confused by the term “feelings futurity,” but Springgay and Truman discuss it further:

Feelings futurity arises as forces that act through and upon us. The future of walking methodologies requires not only innovative techniques to experiment with and account for sensory and haptic understandings, but must also attune to affecting subjectivities and the ways that affect flows and sticks to different bodies and spaces. Feelings futurity insists that we turn our attention to how matter comes to matter. (49)

Unfortunately, that elaboration doesn’t help. Why use the term “futurity” here? What does “futurity” actually mean in contemporary theoretical discourse? It’s as if there’s a code I’m not able to break, and it’s frustrating. Perhaps as I continue reading, this terminology will become clear. I can only hope.

Chapter 3, “Transmaterial walking methodologies: Affective labour and a sonic walk,” begins with embodiment. “As we walk we are ‘in’ the world, integrating body and space co-extensively,” Springgay and Truman write, citing Sarah Pink and Tim Ingold (50). But, they continue, “the linkage between walking and embodiment is contentious because particular ways of walking might not be embodied, such as mindless daily commutes to work” (50). What’s the connection between mindfulness and embodiment? Is there one? My “mindless” commute to work, particularly these days, when the temperature dips to minus 20, are embodied, not least because they can be uncomfortable, and that discomfort brings me back to my body as I walk.  This morning, for instance, although I was thinking about this summary as I walked through the park, I was also aware of the rhythm of my footsteps and of the cold air entering my lungs, and since I was slightly overdressed for the temperature, of the patch of sweat forming on my back. Is that awareness not embodiment? What about flow states? Are they not embodiment? When I used to run, I would occasionally find myself in a flow state in which the running was effortless. Is that not embodiment? How did mindfulness sneak into notions of embodiment? I don’t understand.

“Likewise,” they write, “when walking is described as embodied, it is typically assumed to be productive, lively, convivial, and therefore positive. However, mass refugee flights experienced globally enact vulnerable, exposed, and brutalized embodiment.” Of course, the walking that is called “lively” and “convivial” is made by choice, not out of necessity, and from a place of relative privilege and safety; comparing it to the walking experienced by refugees misses that point. “Normative understandings of embodiment are framed as affirmative, but do not take into consideration antagonism or power,” Springgay and Truman state (50). Plus, I’m not convinced that accounts of embodied walking require conviviality; I think examples of that argument would have to be provided.

Springgay and Truman turn to the work of Stacy Alaimo, who argues that embodiment “does little to account for ‘networks of risk, harm, culpability and responsibility’ within which humans find themselves entangled; to Lindsay Stephens, Susan Ruddick and Patricia McKeever, who reject “a model of embodiment based on individual experience” and “argue that embodiment theories need to account for more politically emplaced and spatially distributed understandings of bodies and space”; and to Eve Tuck and Marcia McKenzie, who also argue that most understandings of embodiment ignore power and perpetuate “ongoing settler colonial practices” (50). Alaimo’s notion of transcorporeality, which describes “more-than-human embodiment that includes ‘material interchanges between human bodies, geographical places, and vast networks of power’” (qtd. 50) is, for Springgay and Truman, a more satisfactory way of understanding embodiment. “Transcorporeality posits humans and nonhumans as enmeshed with each other in a messy, shifting ontology,” they write. “Transcorporeality cleaves the nature-culture divide and asserts that bodies do not pre-exist their comings together but are materialized in and through intra-action” (50). For example, Astrida Neimanis suggests that water is transcorporeal because it exists inside and outside of our bodies in “leaky entanglements” (50). 

In this chapter, Springgay and Truman argue that walking methodologies are “transmaterial,” although it’s not clear to me that transmateriality and transcorporeality are necessarily the same things (51). There’s a slippage from one term to the other. Their primary example is a sonic walk by Rebecca Conroy called Walking to the Laundromat; that is what they “think-with” in this chapter (51). “Commencing with Alaimo’s transcorporeality we draw on different trans theories to disassemble and disturb taxonomies, and confound the notion of an embodied, coherent self,” they write (51). This chapter also critiques the flâneur (everybody does) and introduces “transspecies and viral theories to further complicate humanist conceptualizations of environment,” before discussing how sounds “render some bodies as inhuman” (51). “Transmateriality,” they argue, “enlarges understandings of corporeality and takes into account more-than-human movements and entanglements that are immanent, viral, and intensive” (51).

Walking to the Laundromat is a 106-minute work of sound art “that participants listen to while doing their laundry at a public laundromat, interspersed with walks around the neighbourhood in between cycles” (51). (I’m guessing that the work instructs listeners to go to a laundromat with their laundry; the sound file is online, but I don’t have time to listen, unfortunately.) Springgay and Truman argue that this chapter uses excerpts from the work “to transduce and shape the writing with rather than about the sonic walk” (51). “In thinking trans, we invoke a transversal writing practice that attempts to rupture a reliance on lived description of artistic and bodily work,” they continue. “A challenge of writing and thinking-with more-than-human methodologies, and their experimental, material practices, is how to attend to their fleeting, viral, multiple, and affective intensities without reducing walking and art projects to mere background. There is a tendency to ‘interpret’ contemporary art practices, privileging the researcher’s voice over the artists’” (51-52). So, rather than interpretation, what? The “sonic walk” is “an instantiation of theory,” they write (52). Perhaps, but does that approach not continue to privilege their voices over Conroy’s? What’s the differentiation between interpretation and theorization in relation to a work of art? How can one talk about art without ending up privileging one’s own voice?

“In using the prefix trans, we understand that trans and non-trans people have different stakes in the field of trans studies,” they continue (52). That’s obvious; I have almost personal no stake at all in trans studies, as a cisgendered man. They note objections to the use of the term that erase “the material and social conditions of transgendered people’s lives,” but also cite those who, like Susan Stryker, Paisley Currah, and Lisa Jean Moore invoke the prefix “to consider the interrelatedness of all trans phenomena” (52). They cite Rosi Braidotti, “who describes transpositions as ‘intertextual, cross-boundary or transversal transfer’” which weave “different strands together” (qtd. 52). “Transpositions are non-linear and nomadic, and as such accountable and committed to a particular ethics,” they write (52). What links non-linearity and nomadism to ethics? I don’t understand. Does that mean that linearity and sedentarism are not linked to ethics? “Trans is a prefix that denotes across, through, or beyond,” Springgay and Truman write. “Transversing from embodiment to trans theories of walking requires us to move beyond questions that position particular kinds of human experience at the centre” (52). “[T]rans shifts the focus from a being or a thing to intensities and movement” (53). But linear understandings of trans are incorrect; rather, they suggest, quoting Eva Hayward and Che Gossett, trans “‘repurposes, displaces, renames, replicates, and intensifies terms, adding yet more texture and the possibility of nearby-ness’” (qtd. 53). “Trans refutes the nature-culture divide proliferating in nonhuman forms,” Springgay and Truman write, and it “includes the interventions of critical race studies and postcoloniality in posthuman or more-than-human conceptualizations of difference, where difference is not between entities, but constituted through movement and affect: a trans touching materiality” (53). Trans undoes “animacy categories” and “foregrounds Black and Indigenous Studies” because, as Abraham Weill suggests, it is about “entangled linkages, or transversality. Trans for Weil becomes a process of pollination and murmuration,” what Springgay and Truman will call “viral” (53).

Conroy’s sonic walk addresses labour “through the intersections of reproductive labour, capitalism, and affective labour,” because it’s about doing laundry (53). “One of the ways that labour gets circumnavigated in walking research is the reliance on two specific tropes: the flâneur and the dérive,” they continue, since the flâneur is a man, and a man of leisure (54); “[i]nstead of the flâneur, we need different conceptualizations of walking that deterritorialize what it means to move,” such as critical disability research (55). The dérive, for its part, is part of a “‘fraternity’” of walking because it is detached, although “[t]here are a number of feminist psychogeographers and collectives that use the practices of the dérive to critique and subvert the myth of urban detachment” (55-56). Walking to the Laundromat “resists the tropes of the visually privileged flâneur and queers the dérive, underscoring the labour, violence, and structures that enable some bodies to walk more freely,” Springgay and Truman contend. “The audio track emphasizes the violence of labour and transnational mobility, and the performance, of washing clothes, walking, and returning respectively to the laundromat, further positions the performance itself as a form of labour,” and unlike a dérive, the walking involved is restricted by the need to return to the washing machines periodically (56). Instead of casting off “usual relations,” the work, “through the labour of walking and washing, embodied affective labour” (56).

“We insist that walking researchers need to stop returning to the flâneur to contextualize their work, and instead consider transmaterial walking practices,” Springgay and Truman, well, insist. “Researchers must recognize that walking is not always a leisure activity, and that particular bodies already labour over walking as work” (56). Those who do draw on the dérive must “remain critical and not assume that it is automatically radical. Some bodies literally walk on foot for miles carrying laundry, water, or other commodities” (56). Conroy’s sonic walk “thinks about urban space, access, and labour associated with walking, borders, and mobility,” and it “disrupts the occularcentrism of the flâneur, focussing instead on sounds, bodies, and transmigratory spaces” (57). (Is a laundromat a transmigratory space?) “Walking to the Laundromat interrogates the ways that capitalism and neoliberalism render some lives disposable, and asserts the violence and Whiteness of colonial sovereignty,” they continue, and the laundromat itself becomes “both a space of care and cruelty” (57). “Conroy describes her project through three threads: mindfulness and penetration; invisible leaking bodies; and viral strategies,” and the audio walk also “takes up the issue of necropolitics, where queer, trans, and racialized populations are subject to occupation, conquest, and elimination” (57). How it does all of this is not clear.

Next, Springgay and Truman turn to Julie Livingston and Jasbir Puar and their term “interspecies,” which refers “to ‘relationships between different forms of biosocial life and their political effects’” (qtd. 59). “Interspecies theories and research insists that the human can no longer be the dominant subject of analysis,” and that interspecies “‘offers a broader geopolitical understanding of how the human/animal/plant triad is unstable and varies across time and place,’” (qtd. 59), a provocative statement that requires reading Livingston’s and Puar’s work to understand. “Interspecies also departs from privileged sites in posthuman work—the human and the animal—or what Donna Haraway calls companion species, to include “‘“incompanionate” pests, microscopic viruses, and commodified plants—in other words, forms of life with which interspecies life may not be so obvious or comfortable’” (Livingston and Puar, qtd. 59). Eliza Steinbock, Marianna Szczygielska, and Anthony Wagner write “that trans ‘enmeshes . . . transgender, animal, a[n]imacy, intimacy,’” and that “[t]he frictional intimacies of trans undoes the animacy hierarchies” (59). (I am finding the subject/verb agreement problems in this text very distracting.) This undoing is featured in Walking to the Laundromat as well, Springgay and Truman contend, through the use of “discordant sounds,” whose “viral penetration undoes” the soundtrack’s use of “tidy, human-centric narratives” (59-60). “‘Being open’ becomes transspecially linked to exploitation and environmental degradation,” they suggest (60).

Springgay and Truman then turn to Claire Colebrook’s “trans concept—transitivity—which emphasizes the linkages and intra-actions between entities that are non-linear. For Colebrook ‘transitive indifference’ undoes the notion of difference ‘from.’ When things are set against one another, and are different from each other, one entity remains in the centre, and is the basis for comparison and measurement,” the way the human is the standard of measurement for taxonomies of difference (60). “Indifference for Colebrook stresses the self-differentiating singularities of becoming,” they argue (60). Conroy’s sonic walk,” they claim, creates “various flowing assemblages” that have “vectors, speeds, rests, modes of expression and desiring tonalities” to construct “an instantiation of transitive indifference” (60). Carla Freccero “uses the term transpecies to invoke a form of becoming that breaks down species taxonomies questioning origins and materializations of classification hierarchies,” they continue, suggesting that “[t]rans is less ‘place bound,’ and more like the concept of ecology often invoked in posthuman discourse, and as such interrogates the logic of human exceptionalism and heteronormative reproduction” (60). How it does so, though, and what the link between “human exceptionalism” and “heteronormative reproduction” is, remains unclear; I would find the argument here more satisfying if it proceeded more slowly. Karen Barad “forms another reading of trans as a process of self-touching animacy, regeneration, and recreation” by deconstructing “the reductionist ontology of classical physics” and describing “instead how [indeterminacy] is entangled through all being” (60). For Barad, trans is about a radical undoing of the self (60). “Trans, as we’re building in this chapter emphasizes movement as flows, vectors, and affective tonalities,” Springgay and Truman write. “Trans shifts the focus from a being or a thing, to intensities and movement” (60). In doing so, might it not be radically disembodying the bodies with which this book began? Where do those intensities and flows and movements exist? Where are they located? I’m growing increasingly confused.

Another trans idea is “the viral,” which Puar uses “to untether sexuality from identity and hetero reproduction, in order to think about sexuality ‘as assemblages of sensations, affects and forces’” (qtd. 62). Hayward’s term “tranimal” “similarly reconfigures heteronormative sexuality and reproduction” by perverting “an understanding of embodiment that relies on  bounded and distinct identities,” and by considering “reproduction as ‘excess, profusion, surplus’” (62). For Hayward, trans “is about a kind of viral movement,” not from one point to another, but rather “it replicates as difference. In the viral, difference is affective and affecting modulation. It is speculative, activating potentiality and futurity through mutant replication” (62). Conroy’s various laundromat projects become, Springgay and Truman contend, “a mutant, virally reproducing, affective site that has the potential to re-imagine labour in different terms. While viruses operate parasitically and they penetrate a host, they are not adjacent to or simply touching a host, but alter and stretch the host,” as Conroy’s soundtrack apparently does (62). “In shifting from embodied theories that perpetuate a coherent sense of subjectivity, trans theories insist on an ethical-politics of walking,” Springgay and Truman continue (63). So having “a coherent sense of subjectivity” disallows ethics or politics? How so? “Thinking alongside transspeciation, Myra Hird argues that trans interrogates the idea that there is ever a natural body—the one we are born with—which must also parallel particular normative behaviours and desires,” they write (63). What if one’s desires and behaviours are normative, though? Where does this line of thought lead?

“Trans theories are invested in thinking about assemblages and viral replication rather than heteronormative future-oriented reproduction,” Springgay and Truman write. “Trans insists that the transitive state is not that some bodies matter while others continue to perish. . . . Trans emphasizes movement and vectors” (64). Walking to the Laundromat “as a transmaterial practice emphasizes the underpaid, repetitive, and bodily labour of service work,” they continue. “The project intervenes into the comfortable ways that walking is described as relational and convivial, recognizing that not all bodies move freely and that walking itself is a form of labour” (64). But when I think back to the book’s introduction, the “queer feminist Bush Salon in which texts were read, photographs taken, “perambulatory writing techniques” experimented with, and cherries eaten (1), I wonder where the labour was during that event, and how it might have addressed walking as labour, which the flâneur and the dérive fail to do. Again, I find myself looking for some degree of self-awareness in the argument. Conroy’s art work demonstrates “that embodiment, as a form of mind-body awareness and mediation, has been co-opted by liberalism,” they continue (64), although is that what embodiment is? A definition of embodiment would be useful here. “In bringing trans theories to bear on walking research we open up and re-configure different corporeal imaginaries, both human and nonhuman that are radically immanent and intensive, as an assemblage of forces and flows that open bodies to helices and transconnections,” they conclude:

Trans activates a thinking-in-movement. By conceptualizing walking methodologies as trans, we shift from thinking of movement as transition (from one place to another) or as transgression (that somehow walking is an alternative and thereby empowering methodology), towards trans as transcorporeal, transitive, transspecies, and viral in order to activate the ethical-political indifferentiation of movement. Trans activates new ways to talk about, write about, and do walking methodologies that take account of viral, mutant replication, and recognize the intra-active becomings of which we are a part. (65)

That is a huge task to lay at the feet of walking, and I find myself stumbling over almost every word. What, for instance, is meant by “the ethical-political indifferentiation of movement”? My dictionary tells me that “indifferentiation” refers to a lack of differentiation—but is that what is meant here? I can’t tell. Is it a term taken from Deleuze and Guattari? Or does it come from Brian Massumi? And what is flowing? I remember that, years ago, Deleuzians used the metaphor of “circuits”; not the language is the more organic flows. But what is actually flowing? Perhaps I really shouldn’t be reading this book without the appropriate philosophical background, and in a way I’m reading it in order to find out what I would need to read in order to understand the argument. This is extremely difficult stuff, and the argument structure, which rushes through texts and summarizes by repeating key terms, is more than a little confusing.

Chapter 4, “An immanent account of movement in walking methodologies: Re-thinking participation beyond a logic of inclusion,” suggests that it will engage with “mass forms of walking” to “consider participation from a vital and materialist perspective,” one that does not frame participation “as democratic interaction where individuals come together by choice, and as a convivial mode of collectivity” that is “emancipatory, liberatory, and transformative” (66). “The problem with this understanding of participation is that while it seems to promote diversity and equity, it operates as a symbolic gesture that fails to undo the structural logical of racism, ableism, homophobia, and settler colonialism,” Springgay and Truman write. “Furthermore, participation in contemporary art practices assumes audiences become active in the work versus passive spectators. This produces a false binary between active participation and passive viewing” (66). Nevertheless, they argue that participation “is important in walking research and as such we need different ways to think about participation’s potential” (66). So this chapter asks, “How might vital, material, and immanent theories ask different questions about the how of coming together and taking part?” (66). “The main thesis of this chapter is a critique of participation as inclusion,” they write (66). they use Ring of Fire, “a contemporary art event that resulted in a procession for the opening of the Parapan American Games” in Toronto in 2015, The Warren Run, “a running-orienteering race executed in an urban neighbourhood in Sydney, Australia,” and White Cane Amplified, “a performance in which a cane used by a walker who is visually impaired is replaced by a megaphone,” as ways of thinking about participation beyond inclusion (66)—although these examples seem to be negative ones. “[I]nclusion in events like Ring of Fire and the Parapan Am Games produces and maintains settler colonialism and White ableist homonationalism,” they argue, while The Warren Run “and the ways in which participation framed as inclusion in public art projects diffuses conflict, dissension, and difference through convivial notions of rationality” (67). “Our critiques aim to demonstrate the failure of thinking about participation as inclusion, rather than the limits of these particular projects,” they continue. “Following the crucial critiques of inclusion, we draw on theories of immanent movement, to ask questions about how we might think differently about participation,” “beyond a rhetoric of inclusion” (67). They argue that “participation begins before the invitation of inclusion commences,” and they suggest that they will conclude with “an analysis of participation that is composed from within, is immanent, vital, and of difference” (67).

The first example, Ring of Fire, brought together a wide range of communities in a procession for the Parapan Am Games. Springgay and Truman describe such “mega-events” as “corporate, neoliberal sites of homonationalism, crip nationalism, and settler colonialism” (68), which seems to be a critique of the project’s intention. They use Sykes’s (oh, that APA) distinction between “taking part” and “taking place”: “‘Taking part’ celebrates queer, disabled, and Indigenous participation in mega events”; it is “a form of inclusion” (69), while “‘taking place’ . . . perpetuates the displacement of Indigenous peoples from their traditional territories” (69). “Taking part” is “a practice of managing dissent” (69), while “mega events ‘take place’ from Indigenous peoples” (70). They cite Puar’s contention that “[r]acism, lack of medical care, settler colonialism, occupation, and incarceration are all tactical practices deployed by the State to create and maintain precarious populations through debilitation,” which, they conclude, means that “inclusion functions to produce and sustain debility” (70). “Rather than a ‘taking part,’ which continues to pathologize the differently abled body, critical disability and crip scholars . . . insist that the body-technology-environment be understood not as a supportive device that helps an individual overcome limitations, but as a moving assemblage that has different configurations and rhythms,” they continue, noting that people using a variety of assistive devices were encouraged to participate in Ring of Fire (71). “If participation as inclusion continues to normalize and pathologize different bodies, maintaining White, ableist, heteronormative, settler colonialism then what other ways can we think-with participatory projects like Ring of Fire?” they ask (71). One possibility is the notion of affirmation as a form of participation that, quoting Erin Manning, “‘keeps things unsettled, a push that ungrounds, unmoors, even as it propels’” (qtd. 71). Okay, but what would that look like in practice? Is there an example the authors can point towards? The section ends without any.

The chapter’s next section, “Conviviality and conflict-free participation,” looks at The Warren Run, an orienteering-inspired race through a neighbourhood in Sydney, Australia. “Walking art projects like The Warren Run that include communities and groups of people in the work, are often described using an assortment of terms including socially engaged art, social practice, relational, and participatory,” Springgay and Truman note (73). The same could be said of Ring of Fire. They review various critiques of this art form, including the idea “that there is a unified, pre-existing, and self-determining subject who participates, which obscures the complex ways that humans and nonhumans act” (73). They cite Brian Massumi’s claim “that participation occurs prior to cognition, before the act of thinking about taking part” (74), which might sometimes be true, but also might sometimes not be true. This idea leads into the next section, in which Springgay and Truman “tease out an immanent conceptualization of participation, arguing that such an ontology of participation might propose a more ethical-political understanding of taking part and coming together” (74). That section, “Relative and absolute movement,” begins with a discussion of rhythm, particularly as Deleuze and Guattari use the term (75). That leads to a distinction between absolute and relative movement in the work of Erin Manning. Relative movement is about the body moving while other objects in space remain stationary; absolute movement “is a form of movement that proliferates endlessly” (75). “In absolute movement, motility does not pass between points” (76); like a yoga pose, it involves “a composition of ceaselessly moving micro-movements” (76). Walking involves both absolute and relative movement (76). Manning suggests that movement becomes a vibrational force, and so rhythm “is composed of vibratory micro-movements that are constantly in flux and change. These vibrations of micro-movement are imperceptible and molecular” (76). If they are imperceptible, though, how does one know they are actually happening? “A vibrational account of rhythm provides a means to interrogate how encounters that are imperceptible produce affects across different entities,” they continue. “Thus, vibratory accounts of rhythm enable different kinds of analysis that attend to the immanent and affective dimensions of participation” (76). How so? Springgay and Truman provide no examples to support this idea.

Instead, in the next section, “Volitional and decisional movement,” they discuss Manning’s distinction between volitional, or conscious movement, and decisional, or unconscious movement (76-77). “In decisional movement, a body reacts and moves, in relation to other decisional movements,” the way a trained baseball player can respond to a ball without thinking through that response (77). Manning seems to think that decisional movement is more important, that volitional movement gets in its way, and that decisional movement “leaves room for mutation” (77). I don’t understand the hierarchy that is being asserted here. “The problem with volitional movement is that it conceives of participation through inclusionary rationalities and, as we have demonstrated, these continue to support White, ableist, settler, and heteronormative logics,” Springgay and Truman write. “Volitional movement as ‘taking part,’ while inviting different subjects and different bodies to participate, supports and reinforces norms. Furthermore, this rhetoric of inclusion is in fact exclusionary, where certain bodies are always marked as different and only included by conforming” (77). On the other hand, 

if participation is composed of absolute and decisional movement, where bodies—human and nonhuman—are rhythmically moving in variation and difference—then we can begin to think of participation beyond the rhetoric of inclusion. This is crucial. We need different ways to conceive of and understand participation, and think about participation’s political potential. This is where absolute and decisional movement become important. (78)

“If participation isn’t reduced to the volitional act of an individual, but is rendered in rhythmic terms of assemblage and composition, participation engenders a politics of potentiality,” they continue. “Instead of ‘taking part,’ which privileges inclusion, and evaluates the kind of interaction inclusion creates, we ask: how to tend to the proliferation of difference, the immanence of participation?” (78). 

Their answer lies in the importance of decisional and absolute movements. Because inclusionary participation “implies volitional movement, a form of free will or choice,” it is “linked to individual agency, rationality, and mastery” and “continues to render some bodies outside of an event, or outside of what it means to be human. Inclusionary logics reinforce and inside and an outside” (78). However, decisional movement “engenders variation and difference”; decisional movements “are rhythmic relations that are produced in and of the event. They are immanent to the event itself” (78). As a result, “[p]articipation becomes intensive, it is internal to itself, and constituted through movement and affect. In other words, participation is produced without knowing what the production will look like. It is creative and experimental” (78). How would one be able to tell that this participation was taking place, though, if it was only made up of decisional and absolute movements? What would that kind of participation look like? Is it the only “creative and experimental” form of movement? Is volitional movement really that bad? Am I not choosing to type these notes, for instance (a form of volitional movement) while reading this book (another form of volitional movement) that Springgay and Truman researched and wrote (a third form of volitional movement)? Writing can’t be a decisional form of movement—at least, it isn’t all the time; one makes a conscious choice to write. The same goes for research. Without a tangible example of the kind of participation Springgay and Truman approve of, one based in decisional and absolute movements, I really have no idea what the thing they are advocating might look like.

“‘Taking part’ in an event assumes that any negative limitations have been removed and that by being included the subject is now transformed, empowered, and liberated,” Springgay and Truman write. (They’ve never seen me grudgingly agree to participate in an office softball match; my limitations remain, and I am neither empowered by striking out nor liberated by missing a fly ball.) “However, inclusion continues to render an outside and an inside,” and it “implies a degree of choice” (78). They cite Elizabeth Grosz’s notion of “free acts,” which do not involve “rational choice and individual agency,” but are “indebted to decisional movement, to cleaving, cuts, intra-actions and transcorporeal entanglements between all bodies” (78). Their example is Carmen Papalia’s White Cane Amplified project, which “replaces the white cane with a megaphone,” allowing Papalia, who is a “non-visual learner,” Papalia’s term for blindness, which doesn’t reduce his sightlessness to a disability, “to instruct other pedestrians and vehicles about his presence and to request help from participants in crossing streets and navigating urban spaces” (79). Papalia, “in contrast to heteronormative notions of a self-reliant male strolling through the city, requires participation from others to navigate safely” (79). (Why “heteronormative”? Are there no gay flâneurs?) Papalia does not ask people to participate in guiding him “as an act of community building or empowerment,” Springgay and Truman contend. “Rather, the participants—much like the megaphone, the sidewalk, and other obstacles he encounters—are decisional in that they become inflexions that alter his movements discretely” (79-80). But aren’t those participants making a conscious decision to participate? Aren’t their movements thereby volitional? I honestly don’t understand how the theoretical paradigm they have outlined has any practical significance. I’m missing something important and I don’t know what it might be.

“Walking methodologies are commonly understood as participatory,” Springgay and Truman conclude; it is “social and interactive, whether you walk with others, or commune with your senses on a solo walk” (81). “But the inclusionary logics of participation, as we have outlined, normalize, commodify, and stratify particular bodies,” they write (I don’t recall the words “commodify” or “stratify,” but maybe I missed them), and also “establish an inside and an outside are distinct. To participate means to move from the outside into the inside. In this regard, participation would appear to be a concept that stifles a work” (81). How does it stifle a work? Were Ring of Fire or The Warren Run stifled? How so? “But if participation is immanent to life, to walking, to events, and as such to research, different questions can be asked about what participation does, or how it operates,” they continue. “Participation as immanent proliferates and multiplies endlessly. Participation as relational, always taking part, emphasizes movement and rhythm as difference” (81). But how could one tell if that kind of participation were to be taking place? What, in practical terms, would participation as an immanent proliferation that multiplies endlessly look like? 

The fifth chapter, “On the need for methods beyond proceduralism: Speculative middles, (in)tensions, and response-ability in research), begins with the “agitations that are occurring in qualitative research”: a host of conflicts that suggest that qualitative research is “stuck . . . between new empiricist theories as methodologies and traditional phenomenologically informed methods” (82). I don’t know what those new empiricist theories might be, and I’m not a qualitative social scientist, so I’m not that concerned about my lack of knowledge. This chapter responds to the suggestion that method can be done away with. “First, there is an assumption that methods are particular things, such as interviews, participant observation, or video ethnography,” but methods already “resist representation” (83). “Second, although we agree with a radical empiricist understanding that posits thought as a form of inquiry,” they feel that “methods are significant and very much present in a research event” (83). “Thus, rather than a refusal of methods, the remaining sections of this chapter propose that particular (in)tensions need to be immanent to whatever method is used,” they write. “If they intention of inquiry is to create a different world, to ask what kinds of futures are imaginable, then (in)tensions attend to the immersion, tension, friction, anxiety, strain, and quivering unease of doing research differently” (83). (I’m not convinced that the neologism “(in)tension” is communicating very much—what is the crossover between “tension” and “intention” supposed to produce?) I would like my walking practice to imagine different futures, but I’m not sure that any of this speaks to the kind of work I do and intend to do.

“We approach methods propositionally, speculatively, and experimentally and maintain that it is the logic of procedure and extraction that needs undoing,” they continue (83). Yes, extraction is something I hope my walking practice can avoid: relatively easy in a solo practice, but perhaps harder when one is walking and talking with others. “We attend to the how of research by thinking-with various walking projects from WalkingLab and beyond,” they continue. “We use the idea of the walk score as a catalyst for movement” (83). Such walk scores are propositions, “different from research methods or a research design in that they are speculative and event oriented,” and “not intended as a set of directions or rules that contain and control movement” (83). Rather, walk scores “emphasize chance and improvisation” (83). “We need to shift from thinking about methods as processes of gathering data towards methods as becoming entangled in relations,” a perspective which “requires a commitment to methods in which experience gives way to experimentation” (83-84). Since I’m not engaged in qualitative social science, though, I’m not sure this discussion is relevant to my work—although Springgay and Truman do cite Elizabeth Adams St. Pierre’s argument that one can’t simply employ new empiricist methodologies (informed by Deleuze and Guattari) or the new materialisms along with phenomenological methods, because these methodologies are situated in different “‘ontological arrangements’” (84-85). That’s worth thinking about, and St. Pierre is always worth reading. Springgay and Truman suggest that they agree with St. Pierre’s contention “that reflexiity (humanist) and radical empiricism (more-than-human) are incommensurate,” because reflexivity, “even as an entangled practice, presupposes a subject and is founded on interpretive practices” (86). 

“In instrumentalizing walking as a method there is the presumption that walking is going to do something specific before the event occurs, and that walking is uniquely situated to discover and gather data,” they write. The problem with this notion “is that instead of attending to the ecologies of research, or what we prefer to call the thinking-making-doing of research, researchers fall into the trap of believing that creating new methods will offer different solutions” (86). “We posit that methods are not the issue,” they continue. “Methods must be engaged with in the speculative middle and (in)tensions must be brought to bear on them” (87). That’s because research begins in that speculative middle, the place where Deleuze and Guattari claim “things grow, expand, and pick up speed” (87). “In the middle, immanent modes of thinking-making-doing come from within the processes themselves, rather from outside them,” they write. “In the middle, the speculative ‘what if’ emerges as a catalyst for the event. The middle is a difficult place to be,” a place where it’s hard to see clearly (87). “That is the point. The middle can’t be known in advance of research. You have to be ‘in it,’ situated and responsive. You are not there to report on what you find or what you seek, but to activate thought. To agitate it” (87). Of course, that would be hard to put on a Research Ethics Board application. 

“A speculative middle does not stop a researcher,” they write. “It’s a thrust, a future provocation for thinking-making-doing. . . . Speculative middles, through processes such as walking, reading, and writing, emerge as agitations and as affective force” (89). The “speculative middle” is “an event” in which “(in)tensions, concerns, and gnawings continually emerge. As the agitations take shape, it is the (in)tensions that incite further action,” changing “the how of methods the research event” (89-90). I wish the word “(in)tensions” had been defined here. “Deleuze’s thought compels researchers to experiment with problems rather than seek solutions,” they continue, citing Elizabeth Grosz’s argument that political activism should be about dreams of the future which are unattainable, rather than solutions (91). Springgay and Truman describe their use of pinhole photography as a method that is “entangled with an (in)tension of problematizing what matters” and that “demands we reimagine ‘land care’” (92). “Our methods of walking-with insists that the Land, the sediment of the escarpment that consist of rocks and Indigenous peoples, stays with us in unrestrained fullness” (92-93). (I’m not sure how the sediments of the Niagara Escarpment, which were formed by oceans that predate the existence of our species, consist of Indigenous peoples.) Another technique Truman used in her PhD research was the dérive, which was problematized in the “speculative middle” by a number of techniques, “including mapping using literary devices, writing poems that examined the spatial politics of their walks to and from school, and writing exercises that activated rhythm in conjunction with movement” (94). “What these minor gestures opened up for the dérive was a place for different (in)tensions to matter,” they continue. “But a dérive inflected with minor gestures is infused with intimacy where knowledge of place is not something grasped from a distance but emerges through proximity; where proximity is not a voyage of discovery, but where one bears the consequences for the things that are not even known yet” (94). I’m wondering, once again, if the theoretical conclusions that the authors place on their practical examples aren’t too strong, too certain. I would certainly be more tentative in evaluating the results of my work. Maybe that’s one of my problems.

Chapter 6, “‘To the landless’: Walking as counter-cartographies and anarchiving practices,” begins with a recognition of the way walkers have experimented with a variety of mapping techniques, although it remains “entrenched in imperial and colonial powers who use and create maps to exploit natural resources, claim land, and to legitimize borders” (99). For that reason, many artists and social scientists “deploy counter-cartographical approaches to map against dominant power structures, question the assumptions that conventional maps produce, and recognize different spatial knowledge systems” (99). Three WalkingLab projects, they suggest, “re-map—as a form of counter-cartography—erased and neglected histories” (99). They “consider the ways that re-mapping offers possibilities for conceptualizing space that is regional and relational, as opposed to state-sanctioned and static. As White settler artist-academics, we problematize the ways that new materialisms and posthumanisms have failed to account for a deeper understanding of the Anthropocene as racialized” (99-100). Walking “can re-map archives and disrupt linear conceptualizations of time,” they state. “Walking as ‘anarchiving’ attends to the undocumented, affected, and fragmented compositions that tell stories about ‘a past that is not past but is the present and an imagined future.’ As counter cartographies and anarchiving practices, the walking projects disrupt dominant narratives of place and futurity, re-mapping Land and ‘returning it to the landless’” (100). The three WalkingLab projects they discuss are Dylan Miner’s To the Landless, Walis Johnson’s The Red Line Archive and Labyrinth, and Camille Turner’s Miss Canadiana’s Heritage and Cultural Walking Tour: The Grange. 

Next, Springgay and Truman discuss borders as “social and physical constructions that paradoxically connect and divide” (101). They note that Miner (among others) argues “that settler colonial borders have impacted and limited ancestral Indigenous practices and fail to recognize Indigenous spatial knowledges” (102). They describe in detail his To the Landless project in Toronto, describing it as “a counter cartography” that “re-mapped anarchism onto the Toronto landscape” (104). The Red Line project is another example of counter-cartography that “re-claims the community spaces within the red line” that excluded African-Americans from certain neighbourhoods in New York City (105). “Walking the red line becomes a transcorporeal materialization revealing the connections between race and place on and through the lived body,” they write (106-07). These counter-mapping practices are “‘anarchival’” because they “rely on fragments of memories, oral stories, songs, marginal ephemera, and affects and emotions” (107). They also rely on archival research, I think, despite the critique Springgay and Truman make that archives are “technologies that served the production of imperialism and settler colonialism” (107); indeed, Brian Massumi states that “the archive . . . becomes the departure point for the anarchive” (108). Anarchives, though, “resist mere documentation and interpretation in favour of affective and material processes of production. . . . approaching matter from new perspectives that may be incongruent with conventional archiving practices, in order to activate erased, neglected, and hidden histories” (107). Camille Turner’s walking tours “re-map” the “erased and forgotten history” of racial intolerance in Canada “onto the Canadian landscape” while questioning “the mechanisms that enable this ongoing erasure” (109). Because there is very little documentation of African-Canadian communities in Toronto, Turner uses “alternative methods, including creating composite fictions” (110). Turner also “materialize[s]” Afrofuturism in her anarchive: “the narratives, songs, sounds, and places encountered on the walk. This is a time that is looped and haunting, rupturing teleological and linear understandings of time. Afrofuturism as a walking methodology could be described as both a method of recovering histories and futures and as an anarchiving of aesthetic productions that enact such a method” (112). Afrofuturism, they write, “is not only literary-based but can be a theoretical, material, sonic, performative, mapping, and anarchival practice” (112).

“The WalkingLab projects that we have assembled in this chapter take up walking methodologies in relation to space and time, acknowledging the possibilities and tensions that such work might produce,” Springgay and Truman conclude. “Counter-cartographies and anarchiving practices might in face reproduce the very geographies they seek to undo. However, in attending strategically to re-mapping the past that is not past, these projects offer avenues for imagining a different future. Re-mapping space and time are significant components to a counter-cartographical approach to walking methodologies” (112-13). Futurity, they continue, “refers to the ways that the future is projected and re-imagined” (113). (I’m very happy to read that definition!) “It also considers how the future is implicated in the past and the present, through different conceptualizations of time. Here time shifts from heteronormative colonial chronos”—why, again, “heteronormative”?—“to vectors, hauntings, spectres, regions, and relations. It also speaks to the ways that any reference to the future makes some futures possible while disavowing others” (113). As a counter-cartographical and anarchiving practice, walking can “enact these understandings of futurity, where the future is not a romanticized ideal, but in constant re-figurations” (113).

The seventh chapter, “Reflective inversions and narrative cartographies: Disrupting outcomes based models of walking in schools,” examines two research-creation projects that WalkingLab conducted in schools in Toronto and Cardiff. Regarding the project in Toronto, they write: “Working against the history of Canadian landscape, which is temporal, spatial, and racial, the walking-with events contest the imagined images of citizenship and identity. The work contributes to critical discourses and contemporary art practices on race, ethnicity, colonialism and land” (121). The organizers and the students “resisted the racialized dispossessions of belonging, creating new spacetimes and landscapes” (121). Again, the claim that the project created “new spacetimes and landscapes” seems hyperbolic to me. The project in Cardiff, which involved students participating in dérives, produced “narrative cartographies” that “mapped students’ understandings of how language functions to control and dehumanize students. Walking-with became a method for exploring inside and outside of school place collectively, to consider the ways that language is already pre-supposed and pre-determined in advance” (126). The maps created by the students “enabled new connections and different ontologies to become possible” (126). That seems like a lot: new ontologies? “Walking-with can be a significant and important method for working with students in educational contexts, if it does not become instrumentalized as an anti-technology and as an uncritical mode of being in place,” they conclude. “Walking-with is an ethical and political response-ability that intimately understands that any step towards a different world is always imbricated in a particular conceptualization of the human, one that continues to re-inscribe a separation between nature and culture, human and nonhuman, landscape and Other” (128). “[W]alking-with materializes horizontal and sideways ontologies where spacetimes reflect, invert, and bend,” they write, in another example of hyperbole, or perhaps metaphor (128).

Finally, Chapter 8, “A walking-writing practice: Queering the trail” is a set of propositions. “We use the propositional form for this chapter because propositions are not directions or procedures for writing,” Springgay and Truman state. “Propositions act as hybrids between potentiality and actuality: they propose what could be” (130). “In the first walk queering, we introduce walks by women, Indigenous walkers, people of colour walkers, and queer and trans walking artists, whose methods of walking defamiliarize the historical tropes of the lone walker drawing inspiration from the landscape,” they continue. “Some of these artists’ projects link walking and writing, while others illustrate a thinking-in-movement” (131). The following five walks “are walking-writing propositions that shape our collaborative practice. These are: differentiation; surfacing; activation devices; with; and touch. The seventh walk, contours, re-visits key concepts in the book and reflects on the implications of walking methodologies in a more than human world” (131).

“Walking-writing is a practice of invention, where the movement of thought is more-than a moment of walking, thinking, or inscribing,” Springgay and Truman contend (131). I’m not sure quite what that means, but they offer further description:

Walking-writing is a thinking-in-movement. Walking-writing is a practice of concept formation. We do not conceptualize walking in one register and writing in another, any more than we understand our research-creation walking events as pre-writing. Walking activates the creation of concepts. To walk is to move-with thought. In addition, we understand writing as something more-than what exists on a page or in a book. Walking-writing is experimental and speculative. Walking-writing surfaces. It is viscous and intense. Walking-writing is collaborative. (131)

I’m not sure that paragraph clarifies much for me. On one hand, to claim that walking “activates the creation of concepts” suggests an almost Wordsworthian claim that walking encourages creativity or thought, which I’m sure is not what is meant at all here. And the claim that writing is more than what gets recorded “on a page or in a book” baffles me. Is writing a metaphor, then? For what? What does it mean to say that walking-writing “is viscous and intense”? Does it have to be collaborative? What if one is alone? Are one’s collaborators then more-than-human? Would they be more-than-human even if one were with other walkers? 

The first provocation, written in the imperative, states: “Read this section and then go on a walk. Queer the trail. Defamiliarize Euro-Western traditions and other heteronormative, solo peramulations that link walking with unfettered inspiration” (131). Again, heteronormative? What about, to take one example, Virginia Woolf? And I’m not entirely sure what, in this context “queer the trail” necessarily means. In any case, as promised, the section describes the work of a variety of artists and writers: “African American poet Harryette Mullen” and her 2014 book Urban Tumbleweed; Anishinaabe artist Lisa Myers’s Blueprints for a Long Walk project; “[t]rans Black artist and activist Syrus Ware’s practice,” which “takes on many different forms”; Latai Taumoepeau’s performances; and “queer Black writer Rahawa Haile,” who walked the Appalachian Trail (132-33). “In academic scholarship and popular literature, walking is extolled and prized because: it benefits health; inspires creativity; attunes the walker with the landscape; and is a tactic for re-writing the city,” Springgay and Truman state. “While these fraught inheritances nudge at our practice, WalkingLab has intentionally sought out collaborations with women walkers, Indigenous walkers, queer and trans walkers, differently abled walkers, and people of colour to Queer the Trail. This is the ethical-political thrust of our walking-writing practice” (133). That’s commendable, but what if one doesn’t fit those categories? What if one is a straight, White, cisgendered man in his mid-fifties? What then? I suppose that kind of person is excluded. That seems ironic, given the radically inclusive practice being advocated here—and yes, I know that the authors have already argued that inclusivity is the wrong way to frame the issue, but I’m pretty sure that going for a walk is volitional, rather than decisional, so I’m not convinced that the theoretical justification for those terms works in actual practice. And Springgay and Truman can collaborate with whomever they choose; I’m not really complaining. It’s time to let people from a variety of identities into the walking game. However, I’m still not quite sure what the command to “queer the trail” might mean for that hypothetical middle-aged man: to make walking strange and different and new, I suppose, perhaps through one of the prompts that follows.

“Walk two: differentiation” begins with a command to walk to a destination, but to walk “a different path than you might normally walk” and to “[w]alk slowly” (133). The text then describes the collaborative practice Springgay and Truman have developed. which involves periodic walking. “Walk three: surfaces” suggests that a long walk “surfaces” (134), drawing on the work of Kathleen Stewart, who “describes place through terms like atmosphere, surface, and event” (134). “Surfaces are ambient and effective,” they write. “Surfaces do not refer to a specific location or form but the tonality, the expressiveness, and undulation of body-space. Surfaces vibrate, flow, and move. Surfaces are not without duration” (134). A walk that surfaces is “visceral, bodied, and shimmer” (134). “Surfacing is writing,” they continue. “Surfacing writes the body” (134). “Surface walks foreground bodily intensity,” but they also “disorient and defamiliarize” (134-35). “Walk four: activation device” demands that the reader go for a walk with an activation device, which could be anything that enables a documentary or creative response to the walk. However, the prompt demands that the device not be used for documentary purposes, “but to alter the function of the walk” (135). “The activation device experiments with the walk and enables new ways of thinking-making-doing,” they explain. It “pushes walking-writing to an edge. It forces something new to occur. The activation device is not intended to extract or collect information, but to insert itself within the walking-writing practice as a thinking-making-doing” (135). One might carry helium balloons or a bucket of water or fill one’s pockets with rocks; it doesn’t matter, as long as one is able to “modify habits of walking through various modalities” (135). Those modifications, those activation devices, “rupture and queer the walk, they slow us down and change our gat, they problematize what it means to walk, they agitate and provoke,” they write (136). Activation devices “propel us into a speculative middle and churn our thinking. They surface. They function propositionally because we don’t have a clear procedure of how they will activate the walk beforehand. They are prompts for further walking-writing, as opposed to a representation of the walk” (136).

“Walk five: ‘with’” is a group activity (the group can be composed of humans or nonhumans), but the group “composes only one aspect of ‘with.’ ‘With’ is about co-composition rather than inclusive collaboration” (136). The purpose of the activity is to find a place where the group can write together (probably that will be more difficult for the nonhumans). WalkingLab organizes Itinerant Reading Salons, in which participants walk and read out loud (237). “Walk six: touch” calls upon readers to “[f]eel the haptic; the corporeal” while walking, preferably in a graveyard (because they evoke chronological time) (138). “Walking-writing invokes the intimacy and rhythm of touch,” they write. It evokes what Karen Barad calls “a queer self-touching” in which we “encounter an uncanny sense of the stranger or otherness within the self” which “is a queer perversion of being and time” (138). “Touch queers and perverts individual identity,” they continue, generating an ethics “that queers and undoes the limits of what counts as human or otherwise in the first place. Self-touching means thinking about alterity—our touching indifference—within ourselves. It requires an ethics response-able to the inhuman within us” (139). Walking-writing, they suggest, “recognizes the radical alterity and openness, the ongoing inventive intra-actions of difference that make up the world” (139). “Walk seven: contours” demands that the walker follow edges (141). “Walking-writing contours thinking-in-movement,” they write. “As a practice of edging, contours are thresholds—an in-between space. Thresholds are full of potentiality. They seed things” (141). Part of their own contouring “has been to hold in tension the history and inheritances of walking and walking methods. Who walks, how they walk, and where requires constant queering” (141). The book concludes with a sort of manifesto about their work:

Shifting the focus from walking as a method to move from one point to another, towards an emphasis on walking as an entangled, transmaterial, affective practice of experimentation, our research considers the ethical and political dimensions of ambulatory research. Frictionally theorizing walking scholarship with feminist new materialisms, posthumanisms, queer and trans theories, critical race theory, Indigenous scholarship, and critical disability studies offers vital interventions into walking’s potential as a research methodology. Our queer orientation to walking methodologies is significant because it emphasizes the speculative and experimental potential of walking as research, while simultaneously attending to the complexities of subjectivities, mobilities, and situatedness. Queering the Trail, as [a] concept for critical walking methodologies disrupts the all too common tropes of walkers drifting through the city or rambling along a country path, and the normative narratives that inscribe walking as inherently healthy and meditative. (142)

“Walking can be overlooked in qualitative research because of its able[i]st Euro-Western history or because it is assumed to be uncritical,” they continue (142). Other assumptions are that it is too quotidian in nature, or that it is romanticized “as a method to counter technology,” or that it is naively embodied (142). “The theories and experimentations that compose this book attest to walking’s capacity to interrupt these assumptions,” they write. “Walking-with becomes a practice of thinking-making-doing that attends to the transmaterial knottings between all matter” (142).

If I had the appropriate theoretical or philosophical background, or if the book’s form welcomed those without such a background into its argument, then I might be in a position to determine whether that concluding manifesto—or the rest of the book’s argument—holds up to scrutiny. But since I don’t, and it doesn’t, I can’t. However, the good news is that the references and citations, if pursued, ought to provide readers with a crash course in the theoretical background required to assess the book’s merits. After my comprehensive examinations are finished, I’ll start doing the work of acquiring that theoretical background. Springgay and Truman aren’t the only walking researchers or artists who begin with Deleuze and Guattari, assemblage theory, or affect theory. So I will need to catch up to my peers. Then perhaps the points in this text where I was left confused will become clear. Or perhaps they won’t: in either case, I’ll be returning to this frustrating text in the future.

Works Cited

Ahmed, Sara. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Duke University Press, 2006.

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

Smith, Phil. Making Site-Specific Theatre and Performance: A Handbook, Red Globe Press/Macmillan International, 2019.

Springgay, Stephanie, and Sarah E. Truman. Walking Methodologies in a More-than-Human World: WalkingLab, Routledge, 2018.

Young-Ing, Gregory. Elements of Indigenous Style: A Guide for Writing By and About Indigenous Peoples, Brush, 2018.

108. Phil Smith, Making Site-Specific Theatre and Performance: A Handbook

smith making site-specific theatre and performance

One of the reasons I decided to read this book—aside from the fact that it discusses The Weyburn Project, which I saw almost 20 years ago—is that I thought it might be useful if I ever get to teach a course on site-specific theatre and performance. (Hey, it could happen.) Smith has taught courses (“modules,” in UK academic lingo) in site-specific performance for the past 20 years, at Dartington College of Arts, the University of Exeter, and the University of Plymouth, and my guess is that much of what’s in this book comes out of those  experiences, as well as his decades of involvement in creating and experiencing site-specific performance work. 

Smith begins with a prologue about the role of sites in site-specific performance, which includes a story about an event that took place in an “enormous medieval barn”:

As I tentatively entered the almost pitch darkness of this barn, I could hear something. I thought at first that it was the sound of water dripping; then maybe of a clock softly ticking. I stood stock-still. Perhaps it was breathing, and I was interrupting a theatrical action? In the deep gloom I thought I detected a very gentle, rhythmic movement. I stared hard into the shadows. The giant roof beams and the grey lines of the cavernous space of the barn gradually emerged from the murk. After that, i sensed nothing additional to these initial impressions. The clock continued to drip and the spectral, almost abstract movement in the shades of darkness, possibly an effect inside my eyes rather than anything in the barn, continued to shift. I left after 20 minutes, still unsure whether I had experienced some very subtle theatrical scene or accidentally trespassed alone into an off-limits part of the heritage complex. Whichever it was, I exited the barn with an impression that has never left me: that with or without human performers a site will always have an agency of its own that can hold a spectator rapt by its performance. (xii)

This idea is central to this book: sites can overwhelm the performances that take place in them, or those performances can use the power of the site. Site-specific work, in other words, is not just about taking something outside of a theatre and sticking it somewhere else; the relationship between performance and site has to be carefully considered, because sites are worthy of care and attention. 

The book proper begins with a section entitled “Finding a Site,” but the first chapter in that section asks an important question: “Why Make Site-Specific Performance?” (3). That’s the right place to begin, I would think. “There is good cause to challenge any use of the word ‘site,’” Smith begins:

The word implies far more than, say, “space” or “place.” It suggests that a human choice has already defined its boundaries, meaning and identity. A site is always the site of something; with the implication that it is a kind of container for what is really important, for the valuable property that is in it but is different from the space itself. It says that space accrues its meaning through its use by humans; which, in an overwhelmingly unhuman cosmos, is an odd way of describing things. . . . (3)

Along with questioning the word “site,” Smith questions the need for site-specific theatre, “if only to dispel the idea that sites are neutral, natural places, blank pages upon which you can write with impunity” (3). Site-specific theatre is “a choice with its own traditions and legacies,” and practitioners need to be aware of them (3). 

Smith’s genealogy of site-specific work begins with Dadaism and the “excursions” that Dadaists organized in Paris, “most famously a 1921 foray to the repeatedly adapted and repurposed Church of Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre in Paris where the Dadists yelled gnomic slogan-poems at passers-by” (4). “The ‘moment’ of Dada has become something of an event horizon for radical art, a phenomenon from which little information is allowed to radiate,” Smith continues. “Dada’s principles of rupture, rootlessness, fragmentation, nihilistic repetition, anti-art, irony and parody have often prevailed both in subsequent cultural practice and in critical theory, and they continue to inform an important seam of site-specific performance which is often closer to live art than theatre” (4). But there are other stories to tell about the origins of site-specific performance, including “the fusions of land art as practised by the likes of Kazuo Shiraga and the Gutai group, Robert Smithson or Ana Mendieta,” all of which have informed site-specific performance (5). “These artists, given their prioritising of sensitivity to and enthusiasm for materials . . . and their preference for immersion in and communion with terrains, over rupture and separation from them, showed that site-specific works could be just as critical and political as those based on modernist fragmentation and disruption,” Smith continues (5). Other “strands of influence” come from “building-based theatre,” which involves “varying degrees of adaptation of the play to their new ‘grounds,’ and varying degrees of adaptation of the spaces themselves” (5). Many theatre companies in the UK and elsewhere specialize in making such work, and “[w]hile it is possible to question quite what it is about many of these performances that is ‘specific’ to their sites, a significant proportion of what is described as site-specific theatre . . . looks much like this” (5-6). 

However, Smith continues, “building-based theatre” has had another influence on site-specific performance: Symbolist Theatre “set out to dissolve and transcend the same conventions and frames that the Dada would smash, disrupt and escape (6). Symbolist productions questioned “the physical frame of appearance and representation itself. They point theatre out beyond the container of the theatre building” (6). The work of Robert Wilson is “[a]n example of the continuing resonance of this Symbolist theatre for site-specific theatre,” Smith suggests (6). His 2008 Walking, for instance, “required its audience/participants to walk around for three hours at half pace, one by one, at intervals, along a designated path through dunes and bushes, encountering various portals, installations and soundscapes, both natural and artificial” (6-7). “Wilson and his collaborators were careful to leave literal space and symbolic ambiguity through which their ambulatory audience could explore their own associations with the augmented landscape by way of an altered moving and seeing,” Smith continues. “These theatrical strands of influence share some things in common with older lineages of performance that were, or are, sited outside of designated or conventional performance spaces,” from high modernism to theme parks and religious festivals (7-8).

“Developments in technical, artistic and productive practices and a renewed attention to terrains have all been crucial to repeated ‘turns’ to site-specificity,” Smith writes, “but theoretical ideas have also been influential,” including “the idealisation of fluidity and the privileging of rhizomic dispersal over and against fixed, vertical rooting in the work of critical theorists such as Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari”; “the popularization of neo-vitalism”; Lucy Lippard’s ideas of the “lure of the local” and the dematerialization of the art object; “the ideas of the vibrant energy of non-human things in the work of Jane Bennett and the Object-Oriented Ontologists”; “the study of the performance of everyday life developed from the pioneering work of Erving Goffman”; the “spatial turn” in geography; the “mobilities paradigm” advanced by geographer John Urry; “and the increasing seriousness with which disciplines outside the arts, like human geography and anthropology, have come to regard performance as a tool of research” (9-10). 

Smith offers a “cautionary note” regarding the “temptation to assume that a common idealism, generous politics and thoughtful ethics inform all these works” (10). That’s not in fact the case: “some artists have been accused of an indifference to the impact and sustainability of their interventions in the terrain involved in making spectacular land art”; an attention to localism “can turn into petty nationalism and chauvinism”; and “opportunistic commercialism and neo-liberal individualism” have been identified in “some of the more immersive examples of site-specific theatre” (10). “There is nothing easy here,” Smith argues (10). Taking over a site, however temporarily, is a way of taking ownership that is comparable to other forms of private property (11). Such arguments, while perhaps reductive, are correctives to performances where the ecologies of sites are ignored (11). “Instead, site-specific performance making is an eclectic, conflicted and ambivalent business; and requires a matching set of inspirations, motivations and justifications,” he suggests (11).

There is also a paradox at work in site-specific performance that might cause makers to stop and think: “because site-specific performance is now communicated as a ‘thing,’ a discipline . . . a recognisable and significant cultural activity, each specificity that a performance maker now approaches, whether that be a new site or a performance idea, is likely to be interpreted by others . . . through conventions shared with others engaged with making site-specific performances” (17). In other words, site-specific work is always at risk of “succumbing to a site-specific homogenisation” (17). However, “[b]y acknowledging these conventions . . . it may become possible to do more than discuss the problem as a recognisable one, and either skirt the conventions or transform them” (17). Therefore, “in order to realise a genuine and rigorous specificity to your site not only will it be necessary to surrender some of your accustomed power and autonomy . . . it will also help (or be necessary) to know what the tics, habits and etiquettes of similar work might be, in order, if appropriate, to strip them away and get to what is special about your site” (17). On the other hand, using those existing conventions might be necessary “in order to create work that plays between what you bring to the site and what you find there” (17). 

One of those conventions, Smith writes, “probably best avoided,” is the notion “that an essential identity for a site can be discovered in the documentation of its past; that the everyday and living transformations of the contemporary site are but an ephemeral distraction from the essence that can be established by historical (or some other absolute) veracity” (18). This danger applies to any performance that seeks “to find and expressed the fixed essence of a site,” particularly those that approach such sites “in a rigid, doctrinal and monocular account” (18). Instead, there needs to be an interaction between the site and the performance, not unlike the “partnership between performance maker Mike Pearson and archaeologist Michael Shanks,” in which both found “a mutual illumination of their own disciplines in the workings of that of the other” (18). In fact, “they also found traces of each other’s disciplines in their own” (18). The work of Victoria Hunter and of Pearson and Shanks together constitutes 

a general ‘why?’ for site-specificity that is not about its veracity to a fixed idea of the site, either to its past history or to its present-day norms, or even about fixing the meaning of the site in the moment, but—by acknowledging a performance’s implication in the production of the space in materials and meanings; a process that is never completed, even in the fluidity of performance—it takes responsibility for the next iteration of the place, for its part in its production as a new space and the transformation of its contexts from one set of frames to a whole new other. (19)

Site-specific performance practitioners “emphasise the reciprocity that was not always acknowledged: that the ‘why?’ of site-specificity is equally, maybe primarily, about how its attention revives the site” (19). In other words, Smith asks, “Is the primary emerging ‘why?’ of site specificity the making of new sites?” (19).

“If a theatre maker approaches their site with the assumption that they are not entering a fixed state or exploiting a backdrop, but addressing themselves to living systems, then, by understanding what those systems are and how they work, those makers can amplify, prolong and entangle their interventions,” Smith continues. “Spending sustained periods of time in a site can reveal all sorts of unexpected dynamics,” such as the sounds of a space in an office after hours, or bats in a suburban garden (20). “The question, then, for the observant and site-engaged performance maker is how to ‘recruit’ these reliable rhythmic systems; dancing to the creaks of the building may be all it takes,” he writes (20). “The ‘why’ of performance shifts the grounds—and is the bridge—from a moment when you are most interested in how a site affects you, to one where you are more interested in finding out how—by using its own resources—you can affect it,” he concludes. “This is the moment when neither the site’s agency nor yours need be dominant; when site-specificity becomes a kind of reciprocity” (21).

The second chapter, “Drifting and Quest: In Search of Sites,” is about finding and choosing a site, something that “is more than an instrumental matter”—“[p]articularly now, when the performative qualities of ambulatory exploring are emerging as part of the continuum of site-specific performance itself” (25). (I was expecting a chapter on the intersection between site-specifity and mobility, and here it is.) Walking artists “and other nomadic thinkers have been exploding the notional fixedness or any sense of the ‘at rest’ of the site of site-specific art,” Smith continues, noting that “[e]xponentially increasing numbers of artists, performers, dancers, geographers and others are now using performative journeys as part of their production process, or as the product itself” (25). Walking art is no longer “the preserve of a few high-profile individuals” or made up of “one-off, often spectacular actions”; instead, “performative journeys, even when epic, are likely to have a convivial or social quality,” such as The Walking Library by Deidre Heddon and Misha Myers, which “gathers together groups of walkers who carry, and read from, a selected library that evolves along the way” (25). “Among other factors speeding this shift from ‘sites’ to ‘routes,’” Smith writes,

are the superior versatility of many human bodies over exploratory machines. The multi- and anti-located properties of Wi-Fi that allow a walker connections to elsewhere through area networks, the attractiveness of walking’s sustainability, the rising popularity of (often now secularised) pilgrimage and the influence of relational aesthetics have also been factors. Given its minimum cost and lack of the need for mediation, a prepared, disrupted and improvisatory walking is often seen as an egalitarian and nonspecialist performance without an audience. (26)

Yes, “without an audience”—some site-specific walking performances are private and don’t involve an audience, although sometimes they do involve other participants (if the distinction I’m making between audience and participant holds water, that is).

Smith notes the importance of psychogeography as an influence on these mobile walking performance practices: 

the “dérive” is a walk for gathering information—“psychogeography”—to be used in creating “situations.” These “situations” are temporary manifestations, including performances, constructed against a manipulated life that has become mediated by images. Hyper-sensitivity to ambiance on a “dérive” enables a radical walker to intuit and ap anomalous areas that are resistant to the brutal homogenisation of planned cities and the image-soaking of space by the mass media and social media through handheld devices. These are places where it might be possible to live outside the dominant ideology, places where everyday life might be “taken back,” experienced fully and transformed. (27)

Other influences include the 19th-century flâneur and flâneuse, early 20th-century “trampers,” and “literary walkers from Thomas de Quincey to Virginia Woolf” (27). “The tactics and techniques of the dérivistes, flâneuses, occult psychogeographers, space-activists, urban explorers and literary wanders are a resource for a maker of site-specific theatre and performance, particularly at the start of their producing process,” Smith continues; “the emphasis on sensing the atmosphere of a place, and on how a place’s shaping, symbols and texture might invite particular actions, or contain certain histories, are deployable in the search for sites for performance” (27-28).

The third chapter, “Journey Performances,” is about the “entangled performance journey, capable of engaging with and transforming its route” (37). “There are many different modes of journey-based performance,” Smith writes:

Sometimes these modes involve . . . the ‘carrying’ of a performance on a journey, stretching a narrative over terrain. At other times, however, the journey itself can be the performance. The exploratory and improvised “drift” often has performance-like qualities (spontaneous or planned); however, there is a more formal journey performance in which the route (the geographical line of a journey) is set and mapped, the score refined, the action rehearsed and then an audience is invited. At other times only a concept of a journey is set, the destination is uncertain, the route unplanned and the audience consists of strangers encountered at random. (37)

“If the performance is porous enough these accidental encounters may be full of chances for understanding,” Smith continues, although “the mingling of rigorously instructed audiences with passers-by at a disadvantage can lead to an uncomfortable privileging of those ‘in the know’ or an unhelpful misreading by the chance witness” (37). “The multiplicities of the street are such that too strict an address to them, or too simple and formal a dynamic, can generate complex and unintended meaning-making, though the resulting performance may achieve considerable success in terms of popular attendance or media reach and acclaim,” he notes (38). 

Smith gives one example of a walking performance that isn’t entirely foreign to my own walking: just after 9/11, Donna Shilling walked from Devon, UK, where she was a student at Dartington College of Arts, to her home in London, asking people along the way what was important to them. “While a journey like this might serve to gather materials for a presentation, book or blog, it was also already performance enough,” Smith writes; “the questions and answers became sufficient dialogue, the encounters constituted a score that did not require repetition or representation” (38). However, he continues, “such resonant acts are often porous ones, with more resilience than their apparent ephemerality might suggest”: in 2008, when it was announced that Dartington would close, Shilling recreated her walk, but in reverse, accompanied by a fellow alumnus and others as a way of saying goodbye (39). Another example is Bram Thomas Arnold’s 2009 Walking Home (Again), a walking journey from his home in London to the village in Switzerland where he was born. “Rather than an end in itself, Arnold used the findings of his walk as the material for an exhibition, embedded within which was a two-hour performance,” Smith writes (39). These journey performances, Smith suggests, “are characterised by a gentle political engagement; an argument with borders and property that arises from the restrictions of a route, a dialogue with conviviality and strangerhood that emerges from the walk’s encounters, and an enquiry about the nature of identity and transformation that comes with the pilgrimage-like experiences of many ambulatory performers” (39). However, these qualities are chosen rather than inevitable. For instance, in 2006 the Chinese performance artist He Yun Chang carried a rock around the coastline of Britain before returning it to the beach where he found it. That performance, Rock Touring Around Great Britain, “developed very little real dialogue with its route; it was a performance of an ordeal originally scheduled for the island of Manhattan” (39). 

“Despite their linear quality, and perhaps because of their association with such repeatable transits as pilgrimages, journey-performances lend themselves to re-enactment,” Smith notes. For instance, Esther Pilkington walked half of Richard Long’s Crossing Stones walk, “turning Long’s documentation of his walk into an instructive score, and adding an autobiographical warmth . . . to Long’s simple, dour text” (42). Han Bing’s series Walking a Cabbage in Beijing “is a comment on the upturning of traditional values in contemporary Chinese society; cabbage, formerly prized as a sign of affluence and sustenance in winter, is increasingly snubbed, while trophy dogs are paraded by many of the newly wealthy. So Bing walks a cabbage” (42). This performance was repeated in Srinagar by the anonymous “Kashmiri Cabbage Walker” in a more provocative way, addressing issues of militarization and occupation in that region. “In both cases, the walkers are challenging passers-by to question their (often extreme) responses to their performances’ minor absurdities,” Smith notes, “while all around them, unremarked, what passes for normalcy is skewed by consumerism and military oppression” (42-43).

“Ecstatic or numinous, the street and the road need not be blunt instruments,” Smith writes:

The exigencies of journeying offer a range and volatility that push beyond the limits of buskers’ “spots” or showpeoples’ “pitches.” The route may be too extensive and detailed to research for any intense specificity; there has to be a flexibility, some imposition perhaps, and certainly improvisation. . . . The specificity is to the unfolding of the path, route or vector, not the path, route or vector itself. (45)

The “flexibility and autonomy” of journey-performance can bring to it “a range of specialisms and everydayness; it shifts back and forth between acts that emphasise the rough materiality of terrains and those that embrace the airy ambiguity of the spaces of non-representational performance” (45). So the Walking Interconnections project led by Sue Porter and Deidre Heddon “used an expanded and de-normalised walking (including numerous journeys made by wheelchair users) to challenge the absence of disabled people’s voices from debates around sustainability,” and Bill Aitcheson’s The Tour of All Tours “collapses the many tours in a city into one tour,” a variation on the “‘mis-guided’ tours that challenge the dominant discourses of the heritage and tourism industries” (45-46). William Pope.L’s The Great White Way, 22 Miles, 9 Years, 1 Street “is a protest about and through degradation; an agitation around the spaces of race, power, dignity and fantasy” (46). Other journey performances us automobiles, trains, boats, or air travel, as documented by Fiona Wilkie in her 2015 book Performance, Transport and Mobility (47). 

Chapter 4, “What is a Site?,” begins by stating, “[s]pace is not a container; it is not an empty carton just waiting for us to fill it” (53). The idea of space as a container of action is one from which “geographers and philosophers have increasingly moved” (53). This chapter (which Smith invites his readers to skip over) discusses “theories of space, key strategies for activating sites (archaeological, chorastic, mobility and Deluezo-Guattarian) and challenges to the very ideas of site and specificity” (53). “While these subjects may not immediately appear to offer very much for performances makers,” Smith writes, “abstractions and a powerful personal vision may at times be all that stands between you and the demands of commerce, repetition and what Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing calls ‘scalability’: the making of products that are indifferent to the scale or texture of contexts and encounters” (53). 

Smith begins this theoretical discussion with Doreen Massey’s 2005 book For Space, and its “three-fold replacement of ‘empty space’”: “firstly, space is ‘the product of interrelations, it is made by the meetings and assemblages and exchanges of people and things; secondly, space is a combination of unlikes, a multiplicity, and without that unevenness there is ‘no space’; and, thirdly, space is ‘always under construction’ . . . it is never completed and never virgin” (54). “If we take these propositions seriously, then, there is never a neutral zone or blank slate for a perofrmance artist to write magisterially upon,” Smith writes. “There is, instead, a seething and volatile set of changing layers to shift with and respond to in order to write anything legible at all” (54). Space gives us “difficult entanglements across borders,” “spills, evaporations, tides and gusts that defy and defile whatever limits we choose for them” (54). “A maker of site-based performance, then, may need to be a multivalent one, capable of engaging with multiple partners, human and unhuman, including the active presence of space itself,” he suggests (54). “Given this mutability in the quality of space, you might be sympathetic to Claire Doherty’s suggestion to challenge ‘site’ rather than ‘specificity,’ proposing an alternative category of ‘situation-specific,’” Smith continues (55). I’ll have to read Doherty’s text, because I’m not convinced that changing the word one uses would have much of an impact on the complexity and changeability of space.

“Choosing any one place over another to be the site of a performance implies some concession to limits and a narrowing identification,” Smith writes, “even if it does not exclude ‘multiplicity’ and ‘heterogenous relations’” (56). But acknowledging the uniqueness of a site “is not necessarily an elitist or exceptionalist articulation of the place” (56). Places have a “conditional uniqueness,” which can be embraced by “acknowledging that an ethical ‘attending to’ and ‘tending’” (Smith is quoting Melanie Kloetzel and Carolyn Pavlik here) “is at least partly obliged by the violence of site-making itself,” and such an embrace “may help a performance maker avoid undermining their otherwise vivid work, at least for the more attentive among their audience, by a crass spatial illiteracy” (57). For instance, Smith recalls a conference where one presenter noted that their use of the performance space “had sealed off a shortcut used by homeless people,” a statement that “did not seem to arise from a callous disregard for other users of ‘their site,’ but rather by the panicky pragmatism that can kick in if one approaches a place as needing to be controlled rather than cooperatively engaged with” (57). Some site-specific performances fail because the artists make “[a]ssumptions about the passivity and benignity of space, and its subservience before the authority of the performing presence” which “coalesce into the belief that territory will, and should, fit itself to the art. This is an attitude that will, almost always, come back to bite a performance maker” (57).

Smith warns his readers that writing on space “slithers between spatial metaphors that stand in for ideas and ideas that seem to be more about real places than abstract concepts” (59). “Just as the places we encounter are not ‘pre-given’ and are always ‘open to change,’ similarly our ideas about place and space have also been on journeys; they carry some of the dust of those journeys with them, but they are also missing parts of themselves,” Smith suggests (59-60). In fact, “rather than providing clear or neutral analyses of, and strategies for, uncomfortable and contested sites,” theories of place and space “actually themselves constitute other sites of discomfort and contest” (60).

Next, Smith offers some useful (if not necessarily compatible) examples of theory and/or practice “with which to approach sites in general terms” (60). First is archaeology, drawn from Theatre/Archaeology, the 2001 book by Pearson and Shanks, which draws attention “to different ways that site performance and archaeology interleave each other, from the documentation of performance’s remains to the more subtle overlapping of processes” (60). In a later work, Pearson “proposes that the most intense connection of the two might be in relation to what is sometimes called the ‘contemporary past,’ the present that is already passing” (60). In response to this passing, “people are making their everyday spaces archaeological,” curating past and present together (60). By looking obliquely, by paying attention to texture and detail, Pearson suggests “that we can recognise how, even in apparently mundane places, there are traces of the immediate and ordinary that constitute ‘an archaeology of us,’” and from those marks “we have access to an existing score of how place is being, and very recently was being created and performed” (61). A performance that attends to the “apparently mundane and its juxtapositions” can take the form of a curation or assemblage, “made up from the assembling, arranging and rearranging of ordinary spaces and objects,” creating a multitemporal present (61). 

The second example is the idea of chora or “‘chorastic space’”: spaces which “are regularly seized upon by performance makers as having a certain magical affordance for generating experientially intense or immersive performances” (62). Such spaces “might wear the marks of aging or nostalgia, or display traces of history, wear and tear and abandonment,” but at the same time “there is something dynamic and utopian there” (62). The term chora (described by Stephen Wearing, Deborah Stevenson, and Tamara Young) comes from Plato through Elizabeth Grosz; it refers to “a space where multiple possibilities are not yet closed down in resolution or synthesis,” “a space that resists exchange, commerce and the oppressive obligations of gifting and reciprocity” (62). A chora “works by an evasion (rather than a violent dissolution) of identities and hierarchy, suggesting that what is being found by performance makers in these places is a temporary space where things are in suspense and meanings can be performed before they are understood or recognised” (62). But chora isn’t just about space: “[i]t also applies to the participants’ self-conscious reconstitution of their site-making selves” (62). Chora “is an energy that presages things, perhaps because chorastic spaces are often in some form of disruption or dis-assemblage through redundancy or closure or repurposing” (62). That energy, Smith suggests, “develops new kinds of what Raymond Williams called ‘structures of feeling’: common values or experiences that have not yet reached expression in the form of works of art or institutions, but have enough in the way of structure to be experienced and repeated” (62-63). This description is very suggestive, but I would have to turn to Wearing, Stevenson and Young (if not Plato and Grosz) to really get a handle on what it means.

Next, mobility and the “‘mobilities paradigm,’” which “re-addressed site as a bundle of trajectories and changes, not as stasis, fixed things, boundaries or hierarchy” (63). The mobilities paradigm “challenges specificity as a conservative anchoring of meaning to fixed and located things” and unseats “sedentary thinking” (63). “It is an invitation to make work that frees specificity from site, and vice versa; instead, affirming performance as an expression of transition and velocity, of the ideal of nomadism in ‘smooth space’ advocated by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari,” Smith writes (63). “Expressed in those terms, the mobilities paradigm sounds a little like the Futurists’ glorification of speed and transport in the 1920s,” he continues, noting that “there are concerns that it advocates a reactionary perspective in progressive terms in a way comparable to the Futurists” (64). Some scholars have pointed to the various restrictions and obligations and responsibilities involved in global travel to challenge the reality of the mobilities paradigm (64). “The paradigm’s subversive, disruptive, liberating and multiplicitous qualities are susceptible to reactionary and frozen ideas that commandeer the same qualities that ‘mobilities’ proposes to set free,” Smith suggests, and the mobilities paradigm is a cautionary case “that suggests that smooth space, acceleration and travel are not always reliable contexts for efficacious disruptions of fixed sites, but practices that may themselves require disruption” (64).

Finally, Smith comes to the notions of smooth, striated, and holey space, derived form Deleuze and Guattari. The terms “smooth” and “striated” were borrowed from the composer Pierre Boulez, Smith points out: “Striated space is marked by stress and pressure”; “it fixes place as an immobile point, and it fixes people to that immobility, enforcing dwelling against wandering” (65). However, life “is a wandering force; smooth space does not so much facilitate that movement as enable life to sustain it in multiple and discrete (even contradictory) motions without collapsing all its differences into anything that would bring it all to a halt or conclusion” (65). For Deleuze and Guattari, a third form of space—holey space—is the counter to striated space; holey space “includes mines, sewers, caves, bunkers—places where those who oppose restrictions have often hidden out and organised” (66). Some have extended this idea to cyberspace (the Dark Web?) and forests (66). “There is a considerable overlap here wiht the kinds of spaces that are attractive to site-specific performers, and to related activists such as urban explorers,” Smith writes. “As well as identifying holey-ness in virtual space, there is also a connection to the use of public space as a kind of hiding in plain sight; mapping the invisible and overground tunnel systems and blind spots that exist in everyday public spaces” (66). 

There are other theories about space and place that might be useful (or not): structuralist synchrony; Kenneth White’s “geopolitics”; Manuel Castells’s “space of flows”; Tim Ingold’s “meshwork”; Michel de Certeau’s tactics, “tiny and everyday acts of resistance at street-level that compromise the blank space of power”; or Smith’s own mythogeography (66-67). “Or you might want to shake any complacent ease you have detected in these pages, any sense that little is at stake except for careers and egos, and make performances in spaces where ‘stability of geography and the continuity of land . . . have disappeared . . . [where] identity is confined to frightened little islands in an inhospitable environment,” Smith writes, quoting Edward Said’s Orientalism (67). Said’s words “could apply to many for whom any performance on any ground might require an act of decolonialisation,” Smith suggests (67).

Next Smith takes on Miwon Kwon’s criticism of the notion of site-specificity as a weak category that shifted from a place to a discursive vector, leading to a nomadism that generated a greater commodification (69). Kwon, Smith argues, “makes a categorical assumption about site that establishes a dichotomy between location and mobility and limits her thesis to a set of art practices that mostly do not include performance” (69). The journey performances Smith has described “are as obdurately unmarketable, uncommodifiable and tied to their particular routes and the ‘physical attributes’ of them as any of the early site-specific artworks that Kwon describes” (69-70). Nevertheless, “Kwon’s criticism of how repeating the same processes for different sites leads to diminishing returns” and rote and generic art “has force and significance; not only for some of the ‘headlining’ companies and individuals in receipt of invitations from large global capitals, but also for artists who operate across limited local or regional terrains” (70). Both the extremes of localism and placelessness “are at odds with Massey’s idea of space as a multiplicity; one a vapid ideal, the other a frozen identity,” Smith writes (70). “Instead Massey argues for the validity of the unique features of particular places,” while resisting any notion of place that is too rooted and “‘too little open to the externally relational,”” he continues, quoting Massey (70). I am going to have to reread Massey’s book; it is clearly a tremendous source of ideas, and my once-over was not sufficient.

These theories generate important questions for performance makers, particularly in relation to what a site actually is:

Are you choosing sites that are conducive to, even protective of, human performance? Is the escape from the theatre building or gallery a step sideways to spaces outdoors that offer something comparable to the facilities of theatre buildings, or an escape to wider horizons that avoid a sedentary audience’s closer attention to script and theme? do these choices, when taken together, imply a proprietorial understanding of the world as benign, inhabitable, consistent and welcoming of the performers’ presence; or of a terrifying world at odds with human presence? Is your site trying to kill you? (72)

Should performance makers “be preparing for a site-practice that addresses what Don[n]a Haraway calls the Chthulucene, in which, partly but not exclusively by our own actions, humans face, and not for the first time, the monstrous on and in and of this planet?” (72).

The book’s second part, “Generating Performance,” begins with a chapter entitled “Visiting Your Site.” The chapter was initially entitled “Exploring Your Site,” but the colonial implications gave Smith pause; the notion of visiting “suggests something closer to the relationship of a guest to a host than that of an invader to an unwary local” (77). “So, what happens if you consider yourself a guest rather than an explorer?” Smith asks:

What if you consider yourself not as a privileged arrival, but as a compromised visitor with something to prove or redeem? Someone with an obligation to respect another’s hospitality? What charge or price might you pay? What gift might you bring? What kinds of exchange should you prepare for? Are there conventions of greeting and welcome that you would extend to a human host to which you can find an equivalent for a geographical host? How will you announce your arrival; it might be a knock on a door or a ring on a bell at the home of a human host, but how might you address your site before you enter? Or will you wait for the site to invite you in? Perhaps, rather than dashing to its centre, you might work your way around its edges, slowly. Or is that too furtive? Maybe you need to allow the site to “see” you, allow it time to move to include you.

Who has the most power in the exchanges between you and the site? (77-78)

But, Smith continues, if the site is not a blank slate, neither is the performance maker: “we all carry our own baggage of associations, accumulated skills and past experiences” (78). Finding the relationships between sites and artists, he suggests, “may be usefully thought of a a search for the best arrangement of voids, in order that things (objects, ideas, information, emotions, connections) flow back and forth between site and artist” (78). He cites Cathy Turner’s term “deep dramaturgy” in this regard: a sense of porosity or permeability between artist and site (79). Because of this porosity, embodied research might be a good way to approach site-specific performance, along with practices associated with ethnography, such as participant observations, field notes, and case studies (79). Such research practices acknowledge that knowledge is incomplete and uncertain, an idea that might help performance makers avoid a futile search for the “truth” of a site (80).

However, considering embodied research to be the only research method “seems unnecessarily puritanical,” Smith suggests. “If we think of sites as meshworks of connections then to understand any particular one it may be necessary to track and trace movements to and from it that cross its horizons and borders” (82). That might mean looking for written documentation about a site. “It is rare that lack of information about a site is a problem; more often, it is a case of how to deal with the incoherent avalanche of disparate forms and contents,” Smith notes, a problem exacerbated by the limited amount of time usually available to prepare for a performance (82). For that reason, one might end up relying on “[r]apid searches, intuitive leaps, shortcuts and sideways connections” (83). One “may trace the same narrative (up and down) through a multitude of layers,” or “find that different kinds of information spiral outwards from a single narrative to gather multiple thematic or associational threads” (83). 

According to Smith, site specificity “is not a reductive process of authentication based on the latest stage of academic learning” (86). Instead, at best, it 

knowingly and openly . . . embraces the inauthentic, fabricated, wilful, nonsensical, paradoxical and criminal where it is particular to a place. In that sense there is nothing that is necessarily, in any other terms, efficacious in a genuine site-specificity except the care and integrity . . . with which it addresses what is present there, in the site, whether convenient or inconvenient, consistent or inconsistent. (86)

“No ‘site’ has an original, permanent base or real identity to authenticate and be authenticated (that is the work of popular historians and nationalist poets),” he continues:

the site-artist has the more complex, if less heinous, task of making a meshwork-sense of the multiple eddies of materialities, sufferings, dreams and memories, documentations, diaries and monuments, fauna and flora past and present, architectural revenants and planning applications, pub chat, local ‘urban legend’ (how local is that, ever?), administrative structures, trash, informal markers, dignities and indignities . . . and so on. (86)

Like science, “a site-specific piece of work moves forward by a fascination with what it does not know or what it can barely even imagine a meaning for, but that begs the investigation: What is this place? What is happening here? What does all this mean? How could this be?” (86-87). Site-specificity’s paradox, Smith argues, “is that, if genuinely pursued, it brings us to an uncontainable and promiscuous multiplicity of possible ‘heres’ . . . and it is the judicious combining of those possibilities that constitutes the litmus test of the art” (87). These are important ideas for me to remember; it would be too easy to identify (or misidentify) a “truth” of rural Saskatchewan and ignore its contradictory layering.

Chapter 6, “Site Aesthetics,” begins with the words, “There is no right or wrong way to make performance in any site. Or to put it another way—there are only relative and contextualised right ways that will not apply to everywhere” (97). The purpose of this chapter is to “address how for a rigorous site-specific approach, the aesthetics of each performance intervention are forged in a tension between the qualities of the site and the predilections of the performance makers,” with the performance makers involved always, to some extent, “threatening to lose touch with their raison d’être and obscure the object of their desire: the site” (98). Smith offers “three overarching aesthetic approaches to site-based performance in the knowledge that they are necessarily generalised, not necessarily discrete and open to whatever adaptation and traducing the specificity of any use will subject them to: transparency, camouflage and symbolist” (99).

The first approach, transparency, is about “light, self-effacing and non-invasive performances through which a site can be performed and witnessed” (99). This approach will suit quieter sites where the performance is less likely to be drowned out by surrounding activity (99). Transparent performances call upon spectators to be “active witnesses . . . to the effecting of things (including people) by other things (including people) (100). The audience of a transparent performance is obliged to be attentive: “in this ‘transparency’ the focus has moved away from the human ‘act-er,’ whether artist or audience, and is displaced to the material consequences of things, and to the ‘other’ human experiences, an ‘other’ that has to be imagined, a challenge that can only be properly met by empathy” (100). 

Camouflage, however, “means creating performance that is as variegated and demonstrative as its site, integrated by its theatricality and noisiness rather than its unveiling and illuminating by restraint. By excess and showiness a camouflaged performance flattens itself into the unevenness of its space” (102). This approach is best for places that are “rich in detail,” which threaten “to overwhelm any human presence no matter how histrionic,” which are “packed with existing ‘performance’ and narrative, florid in materials and design” (102). “After choosing such a site, making a performance with exaggerated and baroque qualities can be an entanglement with, and (paradoxically) a disappearance into the space that changes its nature,” Smith writes: “it can make ‘new space’” (102-03). 

In the Symbolist approach, the way of describing a place is “drawn from some larger corpus of symbolism”: psychological, philosophical, biological, geological, “or other organisations of categories” (106). “In relation to a particular site, this ordering can be explicit and an integral part of the space’s design—as with, say, a Freemason’s temple or with the interweaving of liturgical script with the histrionic platform of a medieval cathedral’s layout—but it can also be imposed,” Smith writes, as in the case of Slavoj Žižek’s use of Freudian symbolism in his description of the Bates’s house in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (106). “Any one space is always both reminiscent and symbolic of another,” Smith suggests, citing Gaston Bachelard’s account of how a deep-sea diver lost in the desert imagined that he was walking through water (106-07). “To create work in symbolic space is a process that blends the subjective with the real, the personal with the historical, in order to firm up its abstract meanings with precise, local materials and effects,” Smith writes (107). 

Like the previous chapter, Chapter 7, “Personae, Presences, Characters” begins with a statement against prescriptiveness: “There is no generic right or wrong performance mode, style or discipline for a participant in a site-specific performance” (117). However, Smith continues, “there is also some sense, stronger perhaps outside of performance-designated buildings than within them, that a performer (no matter how masked or scripted) is always performing their personal presence, even their ‘inner self,’ as much as any fiction, script or bare list of tasks” (117). In a less-controlled performance environment, in other words, “the dislocation from an authorised performance space, somehow more pointedly exposes the performer’s performance of themselves” (117). Smith refers to Erving Goffman’s 1959 book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life and Judith Butler’s notion of performativity to suggest that our identities are created, not just represented, by our performances of them (117). “Just as a place has a history, no human presence (no matter how deep within) is neutral, but is always unfolding as part of, and with, the space around it,” Smith writes. “The performer is also a landscape, or more correctly is threaded throughout, but not wholly coterminous with, one” (117-18). This idea suggests that, if you “attempt to adopt too rigid a portrayal of character and identity, as if these were fixed or given by forces independent of your site, there is a danger that you may light up a set of ideological dominances to delight an audience hungry to have its assumptions affirmed” (118). “Paradoxically, then, there is, as yet, no specific acting or performance method, particular to site-specific performance,” Smith continues. “Instead, there are many practices upon which to draw, in different combinations and with different levels of intensity” (119). 

These include autobiographical and autoethnographic presences, in which performers “choose a site that constitutes a landscape of your own life story” (119). However, the actual spaces of one’s life can be “simultaneously too close and too distant; too unmediated in terms of their location and yet too distant in terms of the events there being now in a past that is not now there and therefore no longer present,” Smith suggests. “Performers, by choice or instinct, seem to mostly avoid this tearing of space from time” (120). This avoidance “suggests that performers exploring site-based work for the first time should exercise a certain wariness about the rawness or nakedness of their performance and its place. Space is never neutral, but the spatial host of autobiographical performance may be particularly loaded” (120). The places of one’s past, he continues, “may shelter revenants that will remain dormant until stirred by the intensities of performance” (120). He cites Deidre Heddon’s notion of “autotopography,” “the landscape of autobiography,” as a way of thinking about such places (120). “In an auto-ethnographic context, failures, malfunctions, cowardice or avoidance are differently significant from other more conventional disciplinary contexts,” Smith contends. “Because the auto-ethnographer must slide between their context, their research itself and their self, when things fail they still reveal, they still count as findings of significance rather than unproductive non-events or dead ends. Indeed, at times, they constitute findings that less reflexive disciplines find difficult to identity or collect” (131). In site-specific performance “mistakes and accidents can be as expressive and precisely communicative as a smoothly run show” (131). 

Another performance practice is “ablative presences”: a non-mimetic form of “‘non-matrixed performance’” that eschews “tapping directly into the energy of a site, either by representing, reproducing or amplifying it” (132). According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “ablative” is an adjective that can mean, in languages where nouns have cases, an expression of “direction from a place . . . which is expressed in English by ‘by’, ‘with’, or ‘from’” (OED), or the destruction or subtraction of a thing from something else, particularly a diseased organ (in medicine) or processes of melting (in physical geography or astronautics). For Smith, who is drawing from Mike Pearson here, an ablative presence is a kind of “sidestepping” that suggests performance “‘in the presence of,’ ‘together with,’ ‘adjacent to’ the site” (Pearson, qtd. 132). Smith includes Allan Kaprow’s “happenings” as examples of performances that step aside from realism or mimetic representation (132-33); the separate sections of the happenings “were played out mostly alongside each other, in tune with Pearson’s suggestions . . . rather than in consequential sequences, thematic unfolding or an overlapping entanglement” (135). Stage hands doing their work in view of the audience are, according to theatre scholar Michael Kirby, another example of an ablative presence, Smith suggests (133). “Such a ‘non-performer’ is aware that they are being watched, but they are not trying to convey any message or motivation (other than completion of their task), and they certainly do not want to ‘star’” Smith writes; “they are organised, they have certain actions to carry out and they do these as efficiently as they can” (133-34). “This approach affects more than just performance presence, serving as a means to developing a relationship with a particular site,” Smith continues (134). Such subversions of naturalistic representation are related to Bertolt Brecht’s epic theatre, which “disrupts any seamless weave of occurrences and psychology in order to uncover their contexts and represent their conditions” through a process of making those events strange and interrupting their continuity (135). Given that theories of space and place, such as Doreen Massey’s emphasize that sites are unfinished and in process, “the disruption of epic acting can be an equivalence to the incompleteness of space” (137). “In such a performance, the actor betrays and outrages their site; their narrative or projection of character or persona exposes the same contingency in which the apparent material solidity of the location as in their own actions (which might partly explain the attraction of sites in ruin or of those in transition between different uses),” Smith writes (137). 

A third performance practice involves performing character is a site. Smith notes that realist acting methods, “when removed from the platform of the illuminated stage, can come over as overly contrived or, contrastingly, overwhelmed by the ‘flat,’ immense or baroque and distracting qualities of a site” (141). “Yet there is no special reason why psychological, naturalistic or expressionist techniques cannot be adapted for use in site-specific performances,” Smith writes. “The key to adaptation seems to be in finding space (and a role) for the site in the technique and, complementarily, finding the spatial aspect of the technique itself” (142). Understanding the motivation of an action, he continues, “is hugely valuable to the site-specific performance maker” (142). Stanislavskian psychological acting techniques can be used, but the challenge they present “is the entangling of psychological and geographical objectives” (142). Another way of performing character is Simon Persighetti’s “actor as signpost” concept, which “points performer and audience directly to the immediate site and its material specificies; it starts as a localist gesture, a grounding of the performing body in its immediate environment, its senses as active feelers-out of information, not from a passive environment, but from an environment ‘ready’ to feel out for the sensory-feelers of its visitors” (144). This notion “gives equal priority to site and performer, the latter of which is most valued at the sensorial edge of their being; pointing away from themselves and the internal mystery narrative of the labyrinthine subconscious” (144). “Motion is one of the signpost’s key elements: the encouragement to the spectator/participant to find their own trajectory,” Smith continues (144). “Where the focus on mobility and the here and now provokes a necessary disruption, there is also a complementary ‘healing’; resisting the privileging of some sites over others” (145). In other words, the signpost technique “is a democratising activity, enacting a social as well as an organic interdependency” through acts of collaboration that are “both social and physical” (145). “This social interweaving is a ‘connection’ of the sort that Delueze makes key to any strategy for change,” he suggests (145). 

Part 3, “Shaping a Production,” begins with chapter 8, “Dramaturgy.” “There is a temptation in site-specific art—given its usually recognised origins in modernism—to automatically embrace the fragmentary, the obscure, the conceptual and the reflexive,” Smith writes (159). However, while there is no obligation to write a play that tells a story in site-specific performance, neither is there an “absolute obligation to conform to postmodernism’s urgent abandonment of an overriding, over-determining grand narrative and its replacement by a timeless and depthless immediacy that admits no unfolding of narratives at all” (159). There are “multiple alternatives,” Smith suggests, “that need not conform to a linear structure,” although the best alternative might be to think about the site’s own dramaturgy, its “physical ‘logics’ and institutional policing,” which “may dictate the limits of what is possible dramaturgically to what the material dimensions or the security forces of the sites will allow; but they may also provide a dramaturgical structure or trajectory” (159-60). “Or you own up to the importing of patterns that you, maybe inevitably, will engage with,” Smith continues. “Embracing what a totality has to offer to a site-specific performance; the creation of an ‘alternative world’ . . . which either accumulates layers until there is a qualitative change of site-identity, or uses fictions or other asymmetrical devices to change the totality of the site’s identity” (160). This isn’t just using the site as a backdrop; rather, “it is about transforming a landscape by the sinking of an aesthetic work into it; a ‘camouflage’” (160). “Alternatively, rather than accumulate the layers in some kind of consistency, you can emphasise the quality of the layering, so that the different elements of the site, in performance, retain their discreteness,” Smith suggests (160)

“With fragmentation, in any of these dramaturgies, and any consequent loss of narrative legibility—where narrative is relevant—there can be a temptation to anchor an audience in a single, fixed space in order to provide a substitute for the formal structure that is refused in, or failed by, the dramaturgy,” Smith contends. “Sometimes a formally innovative work can end up, becalmed, in conservative space. Equally, a mobile, agentive and inquisitive audience can quickly become an anxious and dissatisfied one if it feels that it is unable to find any meaningful structure, totalised or formally fragmented; or maybe just not find the action at all” (162). The point is to align performances with the sites they are made for. “Despite any talk of high political aesthetics,” he continues, “there is nothing to be ashamed about in seeking answers to the questions around dramaturgy in technical solutions” (162). 

One strategy (following Doreen Massey) is to protest what is absent from the site. For instance, a performance in “an English ‘stately home’” might call attention to “those whose enslaved labour generated the wealth to build it, not as the exposure of a historical crime, but as an indictment of the site’s ongoing and living driver for continuing the exclusion of the Other (in this case the descendents of those colonised and enslaved) from spaces free from exploitation” (169). (Are there any spaces free from exploitation?) “Without the agency of people of that Other, a performance would struggle to escape from the force of ‘consistency’ implied in the time, text and building materials of the layers and palimpsest,” he continues (169). What if, then, “the agents of a site are constituted by its Other; is coevalness then possible for its performance?” Smith asks (169). He uses the example of Misha Myers relational walking performance Way from Home which, “by overlaying one place on another by inviting refugees and asylum seekers living in the UK to map a journey from ‘home’ to a ‘special place and then to walk that route, performing that journey, but in the place they are not, and in the company of walking partners,” “created a different kind of connection to a site” (169). “Through coevalness, site specific performance can look from the centre to the edges of its site, from the vertical, the digging down, to its horizon; looking for the arrival of the Other of the site from the margins,” Smith writes. “What that Other might be, and it is by definition a potential, always described within a future to which it does not have access yet, will still be specific to its site” (169). That Other will not guarantee any narrative or other kind of consistency or coherency, though: “to expect so it to de-Other it” (169): “Coevalness does not solve the technical issues, but adds one extra challenge to them” (169).

Chapter 9, “Scenographies and Enchanged Objects,” begins by suggesting that whether to introduce “recognisable scenic elements and props into a site” is “an existential issue” for site-specific scenography, because doing so “implies that the site is, by that intervention, subjected to the same aesthetics as a building-based theatre production; that the privileging of the site has been replaced by the ‘self-fascination’ of the theatre” (179). One response to that issue is scenographer Kathleen Irwin’s generation of “a sensibility that crosses between conventional stage space and what she calls ‘found space’; the site is not necessarily primary, but provides ‘a text among other texts, such as the script or musical score’” (qtd. 181-82). In Irwin’s 2002 The Weyburn Project, located in a former mental hospital in Weyburn, Saskatchewan, “Irwin worked to recruit what she calls the ‘social energies’ hidden in the materials of the site as prompts to recover the memories and stories of those who had lived and worked there” (182). Irwin’s general approach, Smith continues, is to release the site into fragments which reveal “‘the interpenetration of people, place, culture, and history’” so that the performance’s site shifts from a geographical space to “‘the space of the glance between artist and spectator’” (Irwin qtd. 182). “Rather than agents in their own right,” Smith suggests, the site becomes an ambassador, or mediator, “between human agents or between human agents and themselves” (182).

Smith advocates phenomenology as a theoretical approach to site-specific performance (a reason to read Merleau-Ponty, finally, as if I needed one), although he cautions that it, “like any kind of philosophy, is always in dancer in becoming the subject of itself; the idea of experience standing in for experiences themselves” (185). “Site-specificity is equally vulnerable to performing an idea of itself, generating, demonstrating and commodifying the thrill of immersion rather than inviting others into the immersion itself,” he continues (185). Object-Oriented Ontology, a recent development in phenomenology, “challenges the idea of a human-centred cosmos, denying that things are ever drained of their presence or significance just because humans have stopped thinking about them,” an idea which is significant for site-specific work. Object-Oriented Ontology “asserts the independence of things from human perception and from each other,” granting “some discreteness to objects,” so that part of their “thingness” is their “resistance to being swept up and immersed in human-centred ideas about ‘full sensorium,’ about the flows and currents of all things or, indeed, any advocacy for a taxonomy of spaces” (185). “There does seem to be some object-oriented autonomy at work in the regularity in which certain objects, or categories of objects, appear in site-specific performance,” Smith writes. “Just as certain categories of site have repeatedly attracted performance makers, so there is also a taxonomy of objects that are similarly attractive: flags, water, salt, boats, and even the sun” (186). Object-Oriented Ontology isn’t restricted to things in a site, but “embraces sites themselves,” and “[i]ts emergence has coincided with several new publications proposing a similar agency of objects,” which Smith lists, including Jane Bennett’s 2010 book Vibrant Matter: The Political Ecology of Things (186). One of the things I find valuable about this book, in fact, is the way it encourages further reading over a wide range of topics, including books I’ve intended to read for some time but haven’t gotten to. 

In chapter 10, “Communities, Audiences and Immersion,” Smith argues that “[a] dramaturgy is only ever likely to make sense if it is informed by an approximate idea or intuition of how it will be received by its audience; an attitude that is sure to establish some tension (creative or otherwise) with an art form that prioritises the existing site rather than a forthcoming reception” (193). This question is less important for site-specific walking performance, which tend to be private or rely on audiences that simply happen along, but it still arises, as Smith suggests: “the audience may not be arriving, but have been present for a very long time,” since “many, maybe most, sites of performance are places of belonging, home or neighbourhood” (193). Smith draws on the work of Josephine Machon, particularly her analogy that “a ‘full-sensorium’ immersion in the performance experience . . . can be like a bodily immersion in water” (203)—yet another book to read.

I skipped over chapter 11, “Technology,” because my work is deliberately low-tech, and skimmed chapter 12, “Site Etiquette,” which addresses “some of [the] disparate issues that may arise for you in making site-based performance” (223), from access to the lack of a backstage, to health and safety, duration, scale, and weather—all of which are important considerations. Clearing up after the performance is important: “[w]hat you leave behind in your site may be the most profound result of your performance,” Smith warns (226). He discusses whether performances can be adequately documented: performance theorist Peggy Phelan suggests they can’t, but Smith contends that there are forms of documentation, such as mapping, which are “something more than a residue and more like an ongoing ‘site’” (227). This chapter ought to be handed out to anyone thinking about making a site-specific performance.

Smith’s conclusion returns to the notion of mobility in site-specific performance, suggesting that “while mobility suggested that there might be some relativistic bridge between the immediacy . . . of the human cultural occasion of performance and the inhuman aeons of matter,” there is still a discrepancy that dancer and theorist Melanie Kloetzel “has discovered within the process of site-adaptation with significance for site-based performance in general” (232). “What might seem like a mutual resilience shared between its sites and a performance moving between them and adapting itself to them, obscures a ‘more disturbing’ rationale of ‘expendability,’” Smith suggests, quoting Kloetzel, who “describes how resilience often comes at the expense of the less privileged parts of a site: adaptation is applied to the site as much as to the performance,” and the “[l]ess convenient parts” of a site “are regularly dispensed with, excluded or ignored,” reducing the site to an object (232-33). For Kloetzel, this kind of “site-adaptive performance . . . re-establishes (and spreads) the conventions of the building-based institution, the ‘empty space’ of the blank theatre-designated building that returns to ‘zero’ at the end of each production’s run” beyond the theatre’s walls (233). 

“There are at least two ways for a performance maker to respond to Melanie Kloetzel’s radical critique of the practices that I have spent this book advocating,” Smith continues:

one is to accept that it brings to a stasis and sad conclusion a series of bold experiments and disastrous compromises; another is that it represents an opportunity, an edifice just waiting to be hauled down, a poisoned playing field to be navigated, a stable reading to be cleaned out with performance fire. To me, Kloetzel’s critique changes the game. I have often felt out of kilter with those predominating tendencies to take a more laissez-faire or tolerant approach to categories and practices. Now, I want to ask again: What if the qualities that have been described as the reactionary limitations of place specificity, as giving oppressive location-meaning to a site, as nailing it to its past, obsessing on its materials, disrupting its everyday life by too aggressively addressing it, are what continue to be useful about performance? While, on the other hand, theorists who sought to mobilise and accelerate the categories around “place” and “site” and thus escape specificity’s limitations have risked thinning their meanings as they expand them and adding unintentionally to a broader ideological belief that technology and globalisation have transcended borders and expunged any meaningful remnants of colonialism and genocidal nation-building, consistent with site-adaptation’s illusion that it “allows us to . . . make the changes necessary with little real alteration of the status quo.” (233-34)

That’s a rather surprising statement, given where the book begins, and it suggests how powerful Kloetzel’s critique must be, and also that I’m going to have to read it. Smith suggests “that performers and researchers need to attend to the developments in vital materialism,” Object-Oriented Ontology, “in the more cosmic reaches of geophilosophy and eco-criticism as a torque upon the impetus to dissolving specificity in technologically enhanced acceleration and the commodification of thrills and ‘experiences’” (235). Location is important, even essential, and that assertion, “with all the layers of the palimpsest, is one of the torques by which a recontextualisation, a change in the limits and orders of a space, can begin—another being the arrival in the site of those historically made absent from it, the Other of the site, coming as new agents arriving from what, for much site-specific performance, has been the margins” (235). Such “torques” “can shift the focus back to the site, in the context of thinking about the matter of the  cosmos, and add some modesty to strategic thinking about how such sites are changed by being expertly performed” (235). 

“Given the difficulties, would it be more creative if ‘specificity’—even in its ‘purist’ form—was understood more as the rigour of its attention, of its ‘attending to’ and ‘tending of’?” Smith asks. “In other words, that while the meaning of ‘site’ can speak mostly for itself (if, hopefully, in more tongues that it did when you started this book), ‘specificity’ needs to be re-thought, re-defined and re-spoken; this time much less a geographical-research term and more as an ethical one” (236). An “ethical site-specificity,” Smith continues, “would reject site-adaptive’s expending of site and embrace an obligation to add to its multiplicity,” to what Pearson calls “‘its scene of plenitude,’” “extending the way it imagines its relationship in time with a site” (236). For Smith, this ethical site-specificity 

means a more careful consideration of the choice of sites, not simply as the best containers for performance, but as actors-in-themselves (sites that are making their own demands for attention such as re-wilding spaces or spaces of abuse), with a more careful intention in leaving; not simply discarding the site after a performance is over. (236)

Kathleen Irwin gets the last word: the space of performance is left in the charge of “‘locally based spectators,’ who were always already ahead of the performance makers with ‘an enhanced kind of creative energy in . . . their knowledge of the place and its history . . . continu[ing] to frequent the place’” (qtd. 236).

Readers expecting a primer to site-specific performance—or even, as the book’s subtitle suggests, a handbook—are perhaps likely to be disappointed and/or confused by Smith’s Making Site-Specific Theatre and Performance, because it is much more than either a primer or a handbook, as the complexity of his conclusion suggests. It’s not, in other words, just a book for undergraduate students taking courses on site-specific performance. I found the chapters on mobile performance particularly useful, and the range of texts to which Smith refers—the ones I haven’t read, at least—could easily form the basis of a reading list for a comprehensive examination on the subject of site-specific theatre and performance. So this book is useful, and it encourages me to move on to read other texts about site-specific performance, from Melanie Kloetzel to Mike Pearson to Kathleen Irwin. Perhaps my earlier reading of general texts on performance was frustrating because they weren’t focused on what I’m actually interested in for my current work, which is mobile, site-specific performance. I’m not sure; that’s something to think about as I turn, inevitably, to the next book.

Work Cited

Smith, Phil. Making Site-Specific Theatre and Performance: A Handbook, Red Globe Press/Macmillan International, 2019.

90. W.G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn

rings of saturn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The first two walks, she continues, are 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cracknell gives this journey a strong conclusion: 

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

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

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

The notion of rewalking becomes personal here: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Work Cited

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

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

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

66. Linda Cracknell, Following our Fathers: Two Journeys among Mountains

I ran across Linda Cracknell’s name in Deirdre Heddon’s and Cathy Turner’s essay, “Walking Women: Shifting the Tales and Scales of Mobility.” They described her as a woman doing epic walking—as well as smaller, more localized walks—and writing about them. In fact, she took more than a dozen walks while preparing for a writing project about walking that resulted in three or four books (229-30). Oh, I thought, I want to read those. Unfortunately, they were published by small presses in Scotland and now out-of-print. However, Abebooks found them for me, and this one, Following our Fathers: Two Journeys among Mountains, was the first one to arrive. I thought I would save it for my flight to Calgary, or else my flight to Dublin, but it’s not a long read, and so I decided to take it on this afternoon while the cats drowsed with me in the sunporch.

I need to make clear, at the outset, that I am not a mountain climber—I’d be pretty unhappy, living in Saskatchewan, if I were—and so I can’t tell from this book about walking in and climbing up mountains whether Cracknell’s practice might be a model for my own. I’m hopeful, though. In the book’s “Pre-amble” (get it?), she remembers the family walks she experienced in childhood (ix). They led to decades of climbing, mostly in Scotland:

My twenties and thirties were punctuated by mountaineering trips and some fairly cowardly rock-climbing, but I particularly started to enjoy long-distance walking in parts of north-west Scotland most remote from roads—Knoydart, and Fisherfield—wild-camping for five or six days with a sense of journey. I enjoyed the landscape unrolling, the rhythm and motion, the growing fitness, even the slight sense of hardship and rationed food. Only taking what you can carry generates the ultimate sense of independence. (ix-x)

(Note: what the English call “wild camping,” Canadians have to call “stealth camping,” because it’s not actually legal here.) “For me,” she continues, “those journeys were about climbing out of the trivia and pressure of everyday life, escaping the largely human world for a shift of scale” (x). In her 40s, though, she found herself walking less, and this book is a record, in part, of reversing that situation. 

Surprisingly, these two walks changed Cracknell’s view of walking. “The first walk I’ve written about here, following a friend’s father on a journey of life or death through Norwegian mountains, set my feet off in a new direction,” she notes. “I became less intent on ‘getting away from it all,’ and more interested in walking paths which beat with a human resonance” (x-xi). In fact, the two stories in this book “are part of an exploration, on foot and in writing, of this new preoccupation—following people, stories, ancient ways, human structures in the land. I now walk as a way of celebrating both landscape and humanity” (xi). That Norwegian journey made her realize the need for the second walk she talks about in this book, one that connects walking and memory—her memory of her father, who died of cancer when she was a baby (xi). “I found that the time had come to explore his mountains,” she writes (xi).

The first story, or narrative essay, in the book is “Losing my footing, finding my feet again” (1). She accompanies five friends to Norway to follow the path their father, who had been active in the Norwegian Resistance, took in 1944 after he escaped from the Germans and walked across the mountains to Sweden. As with her second story, this one begins in medias res: Cracknell is concerned that the focus of their trip so far has been “meeting people rather than the practical details of the journey. I have little idea of the daily distances planned, or the amount of food we need to carry before reaching the next shop. I try to bury my frustration, wait for the moment when I can breathe the mountain air and get my arms and legs swinging. I want to put my boots back on” (3-4). She recalls meeting her friend Yuli in 1982, in Devon; Yuli’s father, Sven, died when she was young; 60 years later, his family decided to trace his footsteps (4). They had the maps that Sven had drawn after his escape (4-5)—and the account he published after the war—as guides. Cracknell’s account of her journey is layered with Sven’s account of his escape; she shifts from one story to the other, as she does in the second story as well.

But they also had the testimony of people they met who had been involved with Sven’s escape, and they heard stories about Sven’s activity in the wartime resistance (6-7). He was arrested taking photographs of a torpedo station and on a ship ready to be taken for a summary trial when he slipped away from his guard (9). His plan was to escape through the mountains to Sweden; a young man, André, gave him his hiking boots to replace Sven’s worn shoes (9). That was quite an offer, given wartime leather rationing (12). André also helped guide Sven in the mountains, with two other climbers: “they “were the initial link in a generous chain that ushered Sven Sømme 200 kilometres through wild and isolated mountain country still snow-covered in 1944” (12). Sven travelled at night, without a map, adequate clothing, or food, sleeping out in the open or in deserted summer farms, hiding frequently for extended periods of time before it was safe to continue (12). “Valley and mountain, valley and mountain; helping hand to helping hand,” Cracknell writes. “This was the rhythm of his journey” (12).

For the first two days, the party has a volunteer guide, Oddmund Unhjem; he is 73 but the fittest of the group (14). As they walk, Sven’s story comes alive; “we take delight in finally using our bodies to retell it” (15). They cross a high plateau and head into the Eikesdal valley, where they meet Kristian Finset, who, as a boy, had kept quiet about the strange man hiding in the spare bedroom (20). Finset invites them to stay in his house: “The next morning we are tourists—showering under the tallest waterfall in Europe, swimming in the lake, discovering potatokake. Our biggest worry is how to keep the chocolate from melting”—then they walk to Finset’s son’s farm, where they stay the night and see the room where Finset’s father had hidden Sven (20-21). She thinks about Sven’s family, and her own; she has no memory of her own father, who died of cancer in 1961, as Sven did. She has been told that her father was a keen mountaineer but knows nothing about his adventures (22-23). 

Finset’s father gave Sven supplies and accompanied him to a narrow canyon, carrying three heavy planks which he used to make a temporary bridge for Sven; once Sven was across the canyon, the planks were taken away, and Sven was “alone with no retreat” (23). Two days later, Sven learns that the Germans are in the area looking for him (23); after that, he walks at night (26). He tries to swim across a swollen river but fails; he finds a bridge upstream and crosses there (26). He carries as little as possible in his borrowed rucksack; Cracknell, by comparison, has a new rucksack for the trip and she’s carrying too much, and her friends help her choose things that she doesn’t need and that can be sent back (26-27). The group looks for the point where Sven crossed the canyon; Cracknell writes, “I enjoy the sense of walking a storyline” (27).

They find themselves walking across a high moor; their guides have returned home and they are left to continue on their own (28). The party reads Sven’s book around their fire (29). They compare their experience to his: “Because in some senses we are walking for pleasure, it’s easy to forget how it would feel to be alone, and in danger. We have good boots and equipment, no Nazis in pursuit, no need to travel in the night” (30). They realize they have shared experiences with him already, though: “red squirrels trapezing through branches, golden plovers making their plaintive call, ‘tleee,’ and running fitfully towards us. Like him we’ve grazed on blueberries and wood sorrel in the forests. In marshy areas, we’ve picked cloudberries whose taste Sven characterised as ‘sunshine.’” (32). 

They walk all day; the next morning, food is running low, and they begin fantasizing about their favourite meals (32-33). They’re tired and dispirited; a couple in a camper offer them apples, and then a ride to Dombås, which they accept (33). One of their party, Oliver, decides he’s had enough and goes home; the others take a rest day and look at maps, planning their route (34). They take a taxi out of Dombås to pick up Sven’s route again, climbing onto a plateau that reminds Cracknell of the Cairngorms (38). Then, Cracknell falls on a hill and hits her head; she seems to have broken her nose, and her friends urge her to stop walking and find a doctor (39-40). She takes a taxi back to the nearest village to search for a doctor; she’s not sure she will return (40-41). The doctor sends her to a hospital in a larger town, where she is told that her nose is too swollen to treat and that she should go home (41-44). 

“Sven did better than I did,” Cracknell writes (45). He met friends at Nesset, and they helped him hide out for several weeks in a tent above Lake Atnsjøen while he waited for a safe moment to cross into Sweden (45). There, he made contact with his wife, saw his brother Knud, was provided with a false passport and ration cards and a message from his home town; people were overjoyed at his escape (45). Eventually he continued east, where he met a stranger who turned out to be the man charged with helping him to the river, where he crossed into Sweden (46). “He became one of over 48,000 Norwegians who walked or sailed to safety,” and travelled to Britain where he joined the Norwegian Ministry of Agriculture before returning to liberated Norway in 1945 (46).

Cracknell’s friends carry on, following their father’s journey, and arrive at the Swedish border (48-49). “Sven’s story remains marked with its own memory-stones; a white-pebbled path visible in the dark,” Cracknell writes. “Like the best folk tale or legend it has been passed on, and then on again. Sven may have avoided leaving prints in the snow for his trackers to find, but he left lasting markers in people’s minds and in their concept of the landscape” (49-50). Cracknell realizes that although walk was intended as a holiday, it had become something more: “I discovered a richly peopled landscape. Even the strangeness of the days following my accident, with generous strangers playing their part, contributed to a sense of a living, resonant pathway” (50). She returns home thinking about this insight: “I wanted to follow more whispering ways; to seek out stories that still echo underfoot. And I began to wonder if that could include a faint path with a strong personal connection” (50). She starts asking questions about her father and a trip he made to the Swiss Alps, hoping to identify one of his journeys, or a route he had wanted to take, and walk a memorial to him (50). “But I had doubts,” she writes. “It might mean a climbing expedition in the Alps—something formidable that I had never done—and I no longer trusted my own feet” (50).

That’s where the second story, “Outlasting our Tracks,” begins (51). As with the first story, Cracknell starts in medias res: she is in a hut in the Alps; it is summer but it has snowed (53). Now, though, the sky is clear and the wind has dropped: “There’s a sense of a charmed day emerging” (53). As the sun rises, Cracknell and her climbing friends Colin and Rick put on their crampons and attach themselves to the rope (54-55): 

A line of shared responsibility now snakes between us, demanding to be watched so that our distances can be adjusted for different conditions—slack or taut, depending. The rope makes a team of us, pulling us out of individual reveries and slow waking with the need to communicate. Like riding a tandem, pauses will need negotiation. (56)

The snow that fell the day before, however, is a problem: 

By covering the footprints of climbers in the days before us, the new snow has made pioneers of us, erasing the accepted route, forcing us to be slow. It disguises crevasses and snow bridges, laying itself in soft piles that our first laborious steps sink into and compress. Those behind us will harden it into an easier-going trail. (56-57)

“We would prefer not to be leading,” she notes (57).

After her walk in Norway, Cracknell had asked questions about her father’s mountaineering: “I wanted to colour in the shaded outline in his photograph, to have some stories to walk or tell” (57). The only mountain anyone could name was the Finsteraarhorn, the one she is climbing now (57). “At half my age, in 1952, my father led his own expedition here,” she writes (58). Her friends Rick and Colin agreed to absorb her into their own trip to the Finsteraarhorn—“bravely, considering my inexperience in the Alps” (58-59). When she was getting ready for the climb, she would look at the map, imagining her father’s route (59). But maps aren’t the same as the actual thing, of course. Their path takes them onto a glacier, which was concealed in dense fog: “Disorientated, I felt I was walking on a sea that had been struck still and silent at a moment of monumental swell” (62). 

Walking and climbing are completely different activities, Cracknell realizes: 

This wasn’t a walk of rhythm and thought, but a strict regime of care and concentration—watching for the route; avoiding the catch of a crampon on an opposite gaiter. My head was bedevilled by the squint, gargoyled grins of stalactite teeth leering out of crevasses; by the image of Frankenstein and his monster wandering fog-drunk on the ice. I was in a faded black and white movie. (64)

Her inexperience is clear, and the fog a constant source of anxiety:

The surface was tamed in time under my crampon claws. I gained confidence, but I longed to see the dark rock-rise of the hills that defined our corridor on either side. How would we know, I wondered, in this labyrinth of fog and crevasse, wandering at the whim of the glacier’s faults and blockades, when we were level with the gothic high notch of rock to our right which held the Konkordia Hut where we would sleep that night? Might we not walk right past it? (65)

She thinks of a photo her father had taken in the Alps: three people, Jim Parry, Effie Pendleton, and David Lawton, “blurred in black and white, paused with backs to the camera”; they are standing on a glacier, heading towards the same alpine hut she and her friends are searching for (65). 

“The trail after my father has been slow,” Cracknell admits. “As a child, I remember searching for photographs, trying to find proof of his existence to fill the gap of memory. In the stiff second drawer of the dining room desk I stole glimpses framed and pasted into albums” (66). Before this trip, she wrote The Alpine Club in the belief that her father was a member; she talked to her mother, her uncle, an old girlfriend of her father’s; she looked at photographs; slowly she learned more (66). It turns out that, in the Alps, her father was with a party from the Oxford University Mountaineering Club (OUMC); she looks at photographs, reads a postcard her father sent home (68). The OUMC was able to provide some details of her father’s journey (68). “As I read the joyous words of joint adventure recorded in the OUMC Journal, Richard Cracknell, the summit-hunter, began to materialise,” she writes (69). Cracknell is able to trace their journey, at least part of the way (69-70).

“I imagined my father, in this three weeks or so of adventure before his ‘grown-up’ life began, feeling viscerally alive as he breathed in fine Alpine air,” she notes (70). He had just finished his chemistry degree at Oxford and had a job with a chemical firm (70). Her pride in her father comes through clearly: “He was an accomplished enough mountaineer to be leading his own party, and had been involved in the equipment tests for the first successful Everest expedition, which he and my mother would hear news of from the Lake District the following year” (70). She thinks about the differences between his equipment and that available to her (70-71). The job he was about to take involved working with epoxy resins, which probably brought him into contact with carcinogens that led to his terminal cancer (71).

Cracknell and her friends cross a dangerous snow bridge (72); the slopes of Finsteraarhorn are dangerous after a snowfall, and she is worried (73). She asks herself why she had “imposed this ordeal upon myself” (75). “I’m not sure I’m up to it,” she tells her friends (75). But, as the climb continues, hope comes to overwhelm her fear; “height beckons,” and she continues “the trudge” upwards (75). She’s still concerned she’s not fit enough, however (77). Climbing is a slow process: “I plant the ice axe; lift my left foot through; lift my right leg through. Plant ice axe, and repeat; and repeat. Every motion is deliberate, and moon-walk slow” (77). She’s surprised, again, that she’s climbing the Finsteraarhorn (78). At the Finsteraarhorn Hut, she learns that Gertrude Bell, “famous as an Arabist, had made the first attempt on the north-east ridge of Finsteraarhorn in 1902. She rarely makes an appearance amongst the lists of men in Alpine climbing histories but her account of the ordeal in a letter to her father is terrifying in its detail” (79). Bell’s party had failed to reach the top of the mountain because of weather, and they encountered a thunderstorm on their descent (79). Storm-stayed, they had to sleep outside, and when they arrived at Meiringen, Bell discovered that her toes were frostbitten, ending her climbing career (80). 

Like Heddon and Turner, perhaps, Cracknell is “puzzled by the lack of women participating in such adventures today”; only 1 in 10 of the people at the alpine huts are women (80). “Maybe it’s that women look for more meditative experiences in the mountains; suffer less summit fixation,” she suggests (80). She wonders if she doesn’t prefer the lower parts of the mountain, the meadows “effervescing with flowers,” the “passes where lives still linger, where green things grow; not these heights which above 3,000 metres seem equally to belong to any goretex-armoured warrior who gets there first” (81). Her self-doubt comes flooding back: “If this is Alpinism, am I really equipped to deal with its fearful implications? I began to think that the pull to the summits must be a young person’s thing, that my father never had the chance to outgrow” (81-82). Cracknell also wonders why Effie Pendleton accompanied her fiancé, David Lawton, and Cracknell’s father on their climb, and she recalls Pendleton’s image in the photograph she has seen: “She looks comfortable in this environment, ready for adventure” (82).

The next day Cracknell’s party continues upwards. The climb is difficult: “Each step is hard-earned” (84). “It’s steep and slow, but I can breathe, my moves feel strong, and we are undoubtedly heading for the summit,” Cracknell states (85). Then they reach the crest of the mountain: “a sudden shocking gulf of sky beyond it. Each step on the crest spreads a revelation of new geography: steep slopes rising in range after range below and beyond, should one dare look. We are walking in the air. Each further step is a bonus. I have no sense of time” (86). It’s late, though, and they are worried about the condition of the snow as the day warms up, and they decide to turn back without reaching the summit (87). The descent is difficult: 

Our feet touch down on the safe-seeming, smooth snow of the Hugisatell. When we look at watches, we see that the ridge has gripped our minds and bodies for four hours. This is what Rick calls “mental fasting,” the absolute focus of mountaineering that clears all else. Now it releases us to a group hug and photos. Words flow again. (88-89)

Despite not reaching the summit, they are happy: “We revel in a sense of achievement, but mostly just in the joy of being up here” (89). 

As with her walk in Norway, Cracknell realizes that sociability and conviviality is the point of this activity:

Colin and Rick name the peaks that years of familiarity with geography, shape, and distance have made theirs. In most areas of Scotland I can do this—know hills from different angles by their relation to each other and to lochs and valleys, despite their shape-shifting. Here I’m still lost, although the characteristic shapes of the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc have followed us around enough now to be landmarks. (89)

“I’ve walked so much alone that it strikes me suddenly this sharing is what mountaineering is about,” she writes. “I feel incredibly lucky to have walked the last days fastened in trust to these two men, while following my father’s footsteps” (92).

Now, however, she reveals that the postcard her father sent his parents from Grindelwald “carries a wretched rather than a triumphant message” (93): Effie Pendleton was killed by a falling stone near the top of Finsteraarhorn (93-95). It was his last adventure; when the family took a trip to the Austrian Alps in 1959, his children kept him in the valleys (95-96). She imagines Effie’s death and its aftermath: 

I think of the slow digging of a platform in the snow, the necessary anchoring of the body, and the marking of the spot. A distraught fiancé to bring to safety. How quickly my father must have had to grow up. The youthful alpine-aired faces in the photos from Arolla just two weeks before, turn away from the camera towards serious responsibilities, jobs and death. (96-97)

And yet, her own descent must continue: “We descend the long, slushy slope to the hut, playfully when it allows—a glissading, rope-tugged bum slide—and seriously when sun-softened snow bridges have to be negotiated over crevasses” (97). Cracknell is starting to get sunburned “where the insistent running of my nose has allowed the sun to pierce Factor 40 cream” (97). Despite the sliding, Cracknell is tired and the work is hard: “I am unstable and lurching, rhythm-less, tugging taught the rope. Massive snow balls form on the base of my crampons and I jig along to my newly learnt tap dance with the ice axe dislodging them at each alternate step” (97). They finally reach solid rock, remove their crampons, and continue down the mountain (97-98). At the alpine hut, people in t-shirts are relaxing, drinking beer (98). “None of the three of us seems to feel that we failed to climb the mountain,” she states (98). Cracknell and her friends continue the descent to Konkordiaplatz the following day (99). She thinks about the glacier and its movement: “A little removed by the creep of the glacier lies my father’s way across here. I wonder how far downstream the imprints of his feet have drifted in 56 years, try to imagine their changed patina, perhaps transformed into something resembling a fossilized leaf” (99). “I know this experience will echo on,” she concludes.” A spell has been untied; a story retraced and given words out of silence” (100).

In the postscript, Cracknell returns to Pendleton’s death, and her father’s climb, and she reaches a new conclusion: “My father clearly admired Finsteraarhorn, but didn’t climb it. He chose instead a pleasing south-west to north-east traverse that probably took four or five days across the entire dramatic sweep of the Bernese Oberland, denying the enigmatic tug of its highest peak except as a sight along the way” (104). It’s a surprising discovery:

I’d been distracted by the spear of mountain and overlooked its lower foothills; saw my father as forever-youthful, striving for the highest summits. In this way, his memory beguiled me into a climb far more challenging than I would have chosen myself. After my initial dismay at ‘doing the wrong mountain,’ I’ve come to see it as his joke on me. 

I also see how unreliable memory is, and how buried it becomes. My detective trails were slow and mazed, but it makes sense now that it was on Konkordiaplatz, rather than on the high mountain, that I felt the deep pull of our affinity; our common journeys. Somewhere on the slow glacier the plates of ice we’ve each trodden ground against each other, and our paths coincided. (104)

I wonder, though, given climate change, whether her father’s footprints have melted out of the glacier. That’s churlish, of course; Cracknell’s belief that somewhere, her path coincided with her father’s is quite lovely and a fitting end to her story.

I liked Following Our Fathers: Two Journeys Across Mountains, and I’m happy Heddon and Turner wrote about her so that I was able to discover her work. It’s possible that Cracknell’s layering might provide me with a model for writing about my own walking (although I’m not going to be climbing anything, thank you very much). I also like her recognition that connecting with others while walking is important–even central–to what she is doing. That’s something I want to incorporate into my own walking, although because it’s so difficult and often unpleasant walking in Saskatchewan, I’m not sure how to go about it. I recall that Phil Smith doesn’t think much of Cracknell’s writing; he suggests that by interpreting her journey, “the mobility solidifies into a commodity that is reassuringly unique and recognisable” (Walking’s New Movement 54). I’m not sure that comment doesn’t apply to Smith’s own account of walking in the footsteps of W.G.Sebald, but in any case, a text is solidified; I know some texts are more open than others, and that Smith works hard to keep his own writing open, but at the same time, a text is a commodity, isn’t it? In any case, I do want to write about my walking, and I’m looking forward to Cracknell’s other books arriving in our mailbox, so I can determine whether her practice might be a model for my own. So be prepared to see more blog posts about Linda Cracknell’s walking and writing.


I was thinking last night that I really like Cracknell’s idea of walking a story. That’s what happens on the group walks my friend Hugh Henry curates: we walk the story of the Battleford Trail, or the Frenchman Trail, or, coming up this summer, the Carlton Trail. That’s what I did in the Haldimand Tract three years ago: I walked the story of how settlers stole the Tract from the Haudenosaunee. That’s what I tried to do last summer; I set out to walk the story of Andrew Suknaski’s poems. That idea might be the most powerful thing I can take away from Cracknell’s book.

Works Cited

Cracknell, Linda. Following our Fathers: Two Journeys among Mountains, Best Foot Books, 2012.

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

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

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

65. Carl Lavery, “Teaching Performance Studies: 25 Instructions for Performance in Cities”

In Walking’s New Movement: Opportunities, Decelerations and Beautiful Obstacles in the Performances, Politics, Philosophies and Spaces of Contemporary Radical Walking, Phil Smith includes Carl Lavery’s article, “Teaching Performance Studies: 25 Instructions for Performance in Cities,” in a list of exemplary publications about walking. Why not take a look, I thought? Lavery is a walking artist—his account of walking to mark the ninth anniversary of his father’s death is included in Roberta Mock’s anthology Walking, Writing & Performance: Autobiographical Texts by Deirdre Heddon, Carl Lavery and Phil Smith—and so I thought his 25 instructions might have some relevance to my project.

Lavery begins by pointing out that he trained in a traditional drama department, but when he arrived at De Montfort University in Leicester in 2003 to teach performance, he didn’t know what to do: “You couldn’t rely on a text: there was no transcendental author to refer back to; and no history of criticism on which to base your teaching. The whole thing felt more like art school than drama school—the emphasis was on ‘making’ and ‘devising’ work from scratch, not on staging plays with ready-made scripts” (229). After six months of teaching, however, he came to 

regard the lack of method as the birth of method. I’ve become addicted. . . . Unlike teaching theatre or drama which always led me back to the safety net of the text . . . or books that prescribed well-known methods and exercises for acting . . . teaching performance is like being in free-fall. There is no script, no manual to rely on. This, for me, is where the productive and, ultimately, democratic nature of performance resides. (229-30)

Instead of authoritative texts, in teaching performance studies there is “a productive conversation with, and borrowing from, the relatively new history of the discipline” (230). “So,” Lavery continues, 

in keeping with the spirit of dialogue or bricolage that teaching Performance Studies demands, my dispatches from the rehearsal room will not be in the form of a conventional essay; rather they will take the form of what I have called instructions for performance. My objective here is to stimulate the creative imagination, to get you to execute or accomplish actions. (230)

However, the instructions are intended to be a stimulus, “not a strait-jacket,” and should be approached (and appropriated) with that caution in mind (230).

Lavery makes a pretty big claim about performance:

I realized that instructions for performance could easily be called instructions for living. Why? Because performance does not locate the aesthetic in some difficult realm or privileged zone (the gallery, the text, the mind of the author); rather it locates the aesthetic in where you would least expect to find it—in the material conditions of what the Marxian philosopher Henri Lefebvre calls “everyday life,” in what is closest to you, in what seems disposable and lacking in aesthetic substance. (230-31)

“[P]erformance, learning to live creatively with your environment,” he continues, “resists the direction of a world order that is becoming increasingly depressed, rationalized, and bureaucratized. Confronted with such a world, performance . . . is a mode of resistance, a strategy of playful subversion” (231). 

In more practical terms, Lavery notes that he uses the instructions described in this paper to teach a module called “Performance in the City”—that module explores cities through discourses taken from sociology, geography, ethnography, art, and theatre (231). In their work, he wants students to shift their perception of spaces they might visit or traverse regularly. That kind of shift in perception can be provoked by asking students to do a number of things:

  • List ten things you saw, heard and smelt on your way to class over a period of a week.
  • Return to the same spot every day for a week and witness what happens there.
  • Deliberately get lost in the city.
  • Ask a friend to guide you through the city via instructions given on a mobile phone.
  • Negotiate the city by bus, car, bike and on foot and document your impressions.
  • Collect lost or abandoned objects in the city streets and try to imagine narratives about them.
  • Visit what the French anthropologist Marc Augé in his book Non-Places: Introduction to the Anthropology of Supermodernity calls “non-places”: retail parks, car parks, airports, slip roads, roundabouts, garages and service stations. Experience how they make you feel. Think about what they were.
  • Navigate the city with a walkman playing a narrative about urban journeys that someone else has sampled.
  • Walk the city at night, paying attention to the everyday performances you see on the street.
  • Taken photographs of ten buildings in the city that fill you with inconsolable sadness.
  • Describe how buildings in the rain make you feel.
  • Allow the city to penetrate your senses, your skin.
  • Memorize where you walked during the day and use this to personalize a map of the city. (233)

Many of these suggestions could also be what Smith calls “catapults” for a dérive or drift, it seems to me, and they testify to the connection between what Lavery teaches and psychogeography. In some ways, I find them more useful for walking than the actual 25 instructions that are the purpose of Lavery’s paper. After students complete these exercises, he asks them to reflect on and share their experiences in a number of different ways, including “performative lectures, monologues about place, or simply by taking the class on a guided tour of the sites mentioned,” and the information they share

will then be used as a source for making work in a hybrid manner, combining sound recordings, digital images, film, movement, story-telling, text, dance and peripatetic performance. In this way, the students learn to see performance as something that resists categorization, something that is not-theatre, not-art, not-dance, not-film. Something, in other words, that allows you to do what you want. (233-34)

The notion of students taking the rest of the class on a guided tour of specific sites in the city is interesting, but probably not possible at the university where I teach, given the amount of paperwork involved in taking students off campus, and given the lack of a course budget to take students anywhere. Those barriers, and others, would also apply to his 25 instructions.

According to Lavery, his 25 instructions are of two kinds: general and specific (234). “In both cases, however, there is sufficient space left for the student practitioner to appropriate the instruction for her own ends,” he writes. “The instructions are not designed to be a recipe. It is up to the performer to write the text, find the site, and decide on the medium of expression” (234). The instructions themselves would, as I’ve suggested, generate loads of paperwork and permissions—as well as a need to run everything past the university’s Research Ethics Board, which is not an experience anyone wants to have. Maybe I’m lucky I teach English composition to first-year students, rather than a course on performance in the city. 

Some of Lavery’s instructions are things that students could accomplish while working with other students. Take, for instance, his first instruction:

1. Read everything you can about Sophie Calle’s Dangerous Game (1988), Fiona Templeton’s You—The City (1988), and Mugger Music (1997) by Nick Crowe, Graham Parker and Ian Rawlinson. Meditate on what you read. Try to imagine what the work would be like and how it could be staged in your city. Then proceed to (a) plan your own version of the work; (b) find sites in your city or town that could accommodate the work; (c) rehearse and perform your version with a team of performers. . . . (234)

I’m assuming that “team of performers” would consist of other students, although I could be wrong about that. His third and fourth instructions would also involve students working with their colleagues:

3. Choose a play that is set in a city. Rehearse one scene from the play so that the cast are familiar with it. As the scene is being performed, project (on one of the adjacent walls) silent video footage in real time of cars travelling through the city. Each time the cars stop at a set of traffic lights allow the actors to speak. (235)

4. Point a camera at a location in the city (say for two hours) so that it simply records what comes into view. Edit the footage. Screen the footage in a theatre or at a designated site. On microphones ask live performers stationed to the side of the screen to improvise stories about the people caught on the camera. (235)

The instructions that ask students to confine themselves to a theatre or rehearsal space would be relatively easy to accomplish; others, which demand an engagement with the world off-campus, would be much more difficult. Take, for instance, instruction number nine:

9. Make the private public. Perform what you normally do indoors outdoors. This should include: cooking, eating, reading, washing, brushing your teeth, watching television and sleeping. Do this over a period of twenty-four hours. Stage it in a city square, theatre or shop window. (235)

How would students in Regina be able to live outside for 24 hours during the school year? Where would they find a landlord with vacant retail space (there’s no shortage of that) willing to allow them to rent that space for a short period of time? I can’t imagine. Nor can I imagine putting students at risk by asking them to do these things over 24 hours in the city’s downtown. No, I’m afraid number 9 is a non-starter.

Other instructions, which involve the general public, would definitely require approval from the Research Ethics Board. Take number two, for instance:

2. Place an advertisement in a local newspaper asking for volunteer-participants to meet at a central location in your city at any time after dark. Make it clear that there is a limited number of places for the performance. Choose a master of ceremonies who will greet the participants when they arrive and provide them with a list of instructions. Three participants are then selected to get in a car and warned not to talk to each other or to the performer/chauffeur. A narrative or series of narratives about the city you have created out of newspapers or lies is then played on the car stereo. After ten minutes of travel, the car stops at a garage, ideally positioned on the outer ring-road of the city you live in. The participants are asked via a text message to change cars. After cruising on the outer ring-road for forty minutes the participants are let out at a service station and instructed to carry out a series of tasks. They are then ferried back to the central location in the city and asked to share their experience of the city on a tape recorder, which may or, may not, provide the soundtrack to another performance. (234-35)

Or number five: “Create an installation of the city out of lost objects and the recorded testimonies of local people” (235). Or number 23:

23. Set up a series of booths in the city advertising palmistry, tasseography and tarot readings. Deliberately lie to your customers—predict futures of great happiness, collective joy and ecstatic being. (236)

Lying to participants, deliberately? The REB would freak out at the thought of lying to participants. I don’t know how Lavery is (or was) able to get away with asking his students to do these things: I don’t know how it would be possible where I teach.

There are instructions that would be useful for a walking art practice, though, and which show the influence of psychogeography on Lavery’s teaching. Instructions number six, for example—“6. Perform a series of urban rituals in the city, paying particular attention to liminal sites and sacred spaces that are found in cities” (235)—and number 20— “20. Take your audience on a series of mythical journeys or quests in the city. Try to find kingfishers, sacred groves, fabled wells, underground streams, haunted houses, sites of healing, etc.” (236)—with their attention to myth and ritual, definitely show the influence of British psychogeography. Some of the instructions are things I would consider doing, if only as a way to shake up my walking practice (and to find some value in the city I live in):

7. Explore different types of walking practices in the city: flânerie, drifting, wandering, fuguerie, nomadism and pilgrimage. Use these practices to create performance texts about the city, combining sound, image and text. (235)

12. Read Robert Smithson’s essays on sites and non-sites in Robert Smithson: The Collected Writing (1996). Produce a series of site-specific works according to Smithson’s dialectical methodology. (236)

14. Produce a series of soundscapes of shopping malls, car parks, supermarkets, ring-roads, alleyways, churches and playgrounds. (236)

18. Sketch out smell maps, taste maps, audio maps, affective maps and geological maps of the city. (236)

19. Take a video camera into the city and follow a dog or a cat for as long as you can. Make a film out of this. (236)

24. Draw a straight line through the city from north-south or east-west. Follow the line and produce a performance from what you encounter on the way. (236)

And number 22 is standard advice for writers: “Sit in a park, café or bar and listen to the stories spoken around you. Use this as the basis for a performance text” (236).

If I were ever to be asked to teach a course like the one Lavery teaches—not that likely, I know—his article would be an excellent resource. I might even figure out how to put some of his less practical instructions—at least, the ones that involve the most paperwork—into practice. (Who knows? Maybe getting some of these ideas past the REB wouldn’t be that difficult.) But some of his instructions are things I would consider doing myself, and his suggestions about shifting one’s perceptions of the urban environment are excellent as teaching aids and as ways to see the city with fresh eyes. And all of that makes this article valuable.

Works Cited

Lavery, Carl. “Teaching Performance Studies: 25 Instructions for Performance in Cities.” Studies in Theatre and Performance, vol 25, no. 3, 2005, pp. 229-38.

Mock, Roberta, ed.. Walking, Writing and Performance : Autobiographical Texts by Deirdre Heddon, Carl Lavery and Phil Smith, Intellect, 2009.

62. Nick Papadimitriou, Scarp: In Search of London’s Outer Limits


I keep seeing references (in Phil Smith’s work, but elsewhere, too) to Nick Papadimitriou’s “deep topography.” What does deep topography mean? Why do other walkers see it as an important model? There was only one way to find out: to read Papadimitriou’s book, Scarp: In Search of London’s Outer Limits. 

Like other psychogeographical texts, Scarp consists of multiple layers: accounts of the walks Papadimitriou took while researching the book, and earlier walks as well; autobiography or memoir; and accounts of the lives of imagined—Smith refers to them as “mythic” in his discussion of deep topography in On Walking . . . And Stalking Sebald (86)—characters who inhabit the landscape Papadimitriou studies. I’m going to undo the layering in this summary (as I did in my summary of Smith’s book about walking the route W.G. Sebald took in his book The Rings of Saturn) and think about his walking, his memoir, and his mythic characters in turn. I realize that separation pulls apart the mesh (to use one of Smith’s favourite words) that is created in the text, but I’m not sure it’s possible to summarize Scarp without thinking about each of those layers in turn.

But first, to what does the word “Scarp” refer? The first paragraph of the introduction describes Scarp:

A vast yet seemingly invisible presence hovers over the northern suburbs of London. Screened from the consciousness of the city dweller by the pressures of the day-to-day, by self-concern and an inward-looking and anthropocentric culture, the North Middlesex/South Hertfordshire escarpment—or Scarp as I prefer to call it—broods and waits. (1)

Note the personification of that landform: it is alive, capable of brooding and waiting—for what is one of the questions that comes to mind. It is almost one of the mythic characters Papadimitriou imagines (or encounters) in his narrative. Papadimitriou identifies with this escarpment: 

Winter brings the sound of water gushing below low points in the suburban streets and shopping parades as the streams that rise on Scarp swell and are channelled beneath Edgware, Pinner or Ruislip and flow towards their confluence with two broader rivers which embrace London’s northern margins, the Lea and the Colne. . . . I, too, flow downhill through time and distance from some as yet undiscovered point of origin on Scarp, and the growing awareness of this builds in me a desire to return. . . . I realise yet again that my destiny is bound up with Scarp. (1)

Papadimitriou is somehow linked to Scarp: he needs to return to it; his life parallels the flow of the water that springs from it; and his “destiny” is tied up with it. And, as you will see, he is often fused with it.

As Papadimitriou walks in the fields and woods on Scarp, he thinks about the human lives connected to it: “A sense of lives real and imagined rises from the steel streams of cars passing endlessly along motorway cuttings, and gazes from the trains that curve through Scarp’s lower levels at Edgwarebury or Carpender’s Park” (2). He also thinks of the lives of birds, mammals, and insects, “those sentient beings whose undervalued and endangered domain of coppice and spinney, burnt-out car and fly-tipped mound interpenetrates the human world” (2). All of these are inhabitants of a landscape that is ignored, perhaps because it is part of London’s northern suburbs: 

Despite being some seventeen miles from east to west and attaining in excess of 400 feet above sea level in places, Scarp is seldom commented upon by either topographers or psychogeographers, and seemingly possesses no cultural currency. Sliced by railways and motorways, topped by old roads running its length, repeatedly scarred in the name of civic utility, yet never acknowledged openly as possessing a coherent identity, Scarp nevertheless persists in the infrastructural unconscious of the northern reaches of the city. (3-4)

The notion of an “infrastructural unconscious” is interesting and perhaps productive, although one does wonder where such an unconscious would be situated.

“Scarp has been a presence in the back of my mind from my earliest days,” Papadimitrious writes. He remembers looking at it in the distance when he was a child (4-5). As a young man, he went for a walk there, and forgot his immediate concerns (romantic rejection and an expanding bald spot): these were transcended, he writes, “as my senses were drawn beyond the distant downs into clouds, sunlight and a sense of cold grey oceans. It was my first direct encounter with Scarp as an agent of consciousness expansion, my first intimate exposure to its perception-altering power” (6-7). Surprisingly—because psychogeographers don’t seem to like their practice being described as Romantic—Papadimitriou’s connection to Scarp seems (to me at least) to be quite Wordsworthian:

As I began to learn the basic outline of these topographical details and hold them in my mind, my internal balance would oscillate between the ego’s surrender in the face of a larger entity—the land that contained me—and a desire to gain ownership and mastery of that same entity through cultural production. The idea grew that there was a new form of prose or poetry waiting to be invented, a form of writing sufficient for the purpose of capturing the essence of the broader framework to which I had surrendered, a form that would allow me to re-create the voices and experiences of those Scarp dwellers who came before me as a counterpoint to my own. (8)

I find this to be very Romantic; it reminds me of  Wordsworth looking up at the thunderstorm after stealing the boat, experiencing the sublime and then writing about it later on, trying to capture that experience in words. 

Sometimes Papadimitriou goes beyond thinking about the lives linked to Scarp and begins to hear their voices. “Voices other than the merely historic surfaced on my walks,” he writes (8). These include gangsters buried in concrete bridges, “women long dead glimpsed with the inner eye when I stared through windows into warm-lit rooms passed on freezing afternoons,” “garish tales told by beings that confounded accepted notions of time,” and “the outrage of mossy elementals lingering in relic woodlands”; and another presence, one that spoke with his own voice, “whispering endlessly of a journey I’d made into another unacknowledged aspect of the region several years earlier, and seeking to make sense of that voyage of the damned in the light of what I—or rather, we—now knew” (8-9). It’s not clear to me whether Papadimitriou actually hears these voices—they are the mythic creatures Smith describes—or whether he imagines them; in other words, I’m not sure whether he’s mad or (at times) writing fiction. Of course, real psychogeographers would refuse to acknowledge the binary that structures my response to the voices Papadimitriou hears (or imagines), but I’m not a real psychogeographer. One of the things I’ve learned while reading about psychogeography is that my own impulse is documentary, not fantastical, and that I am happy to confine my thinking to what is, rather than expand into what (really) isn’t. That’s the difference (one of them) between what I want to do and what psychogeographers or, for that matter, mythogeographers do. That doesn’t mean that I can’t learn from their work, or that the suggestions Smith makes about types of walking that can help one relate to the spaces one journeys through aren’t of value; but it does mean that I won’t be imagining voices.

An epiphany (again, this is quite Romantic) led to the writing of this book. In August 2009, after 20 years of walking, Papadimitriou was walking on Scarp near a small forest named Spoilbank Wood: when something happened:

In my mind I linked the wood with points further west such as Dancer’s Hill and Welham Green, places walked through repeatedly over the past few years in wildly varying weather conditions. And reaching out from these places in turn, my thoughts extended to further cardinal points in the broader landscape until a large section of its component features was laid out in my mind like a map. (9)

“However,” he continues, “the details didn’t matter so much as the overall vision, the sense of otherwise disparate elements being bound together in one larger presence” (10). That “overall vision” leads to a sense of fusion with Scarp:

As I approached the stream at the bottom of the valley I could feel the breadth of knowledge I’d gained over the years of walking burst through the strictures placed on me by the daily requirements of living. It was as if the landscape myself was flooding into the front of my mind. I was in a state of ecstatic union with the Middlesex-Hertfordshire borderlands. (10)

Papadimitriou experiences that sense of union repeatedly during the book; moreover, his mythic characters experience it as well.

Papadimitriou is clear about the purpose of this book: it is “an inquiry undertaken in order to systematically ‘feel out’ the presence of my subject matter as it brushes against the consciousness” (11). “Throughout,” he writes, explaining his connection to the voices he hears while walking,

I will reconstruct the ghostly voices I hear while walking on Scarp in an attempt to relate my own story to theirs, to locate my own voice and sensations in the ones that came before me—whether those of a murderer, an animal, a deceived young woman, a master botanist, or any of the other myriad layers of experience that distil over the centuries to create regional memory. The deeper implication is that the world that confronts us through our immediate surroundings is alive and intrinsically valuable in ways not amenable to instrumental reason or economic reductionism. (11)

I empathize with his claim that the land is alive and intrinsically valuable, but I also think that one can come to those conclusions without hearing (or creating) voices. I think one can take that value for granted, as a starting point; one needn’t imagine the voices of a “regional memory”—I’m not sure the land remembers, or if it does, that we are likely to become privy to its memories. In other words, I think documentation is enough, and fiction isn’t necessary. At the same time, sometimes I do talk about hearing the voices of the land, but I think I’m using that expression figuratively, metaphorically, and I’m not sure that Papadimitriou isn’t using it literally. Maybe he is actually hearing voices. I don’t know.

In preparation for writing Scarp, Papadimitriou took 30 walks during the summer of 2011, varying between three and 12 miles. These “served to sharpen my focus on the subject covered here. I wanted to understand the overall structure of Scarp, the transition between its component parts, where and how it begins. As I trudged across fields, through hostile-seeming suburbs and beneath A roads I came to understand that in some respects Scarp was a fiction” (11). That’s a surprising conclusion, and yet Papadimitriou doesn’t return to it, leaving me to wonder what he means.

I intended to separate Papadimitriou’s walking from his memoir and his mythic imaginings, but that’s hard to do. The book’s first chapter, for instance, begins with a fictional story about fatal highway accidents at a place called “Suicide Corner” in the 1950s, but then it returns to the present, a time when the landscape has changed, when the busy roads drown out “a rumour of Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni, supposedly buried on Stanmore Common just to the west, behind the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital,” where the victims of those highway collisions were taken (21). That hospital is abandoned, filled with rubbish: 

The sense of something precious—a soft vulnerable humanity interwoven with businesslike yet compassionate expertise—hovers in the silences, sweeping across the dusty cobwebbed surfaces of the medical implements and through the dormitories with their drained radiators and scratched linoleum floors. There is a brushing of dead spikes of buddleia against steel-framed windows. Pigeons scratch and momentarily flutter as they shift on the perches on the roof. These are the whispers of deep time. (22-23)

Deep time is what interests Papadimitriou, I think. Note also the reference to buddleia here. I asked Smith, on Facebook, why that plant is important; he told me that it grows anywhere, that is colonizes waste ground and abandoned buildings, and that it is one of the few plants that does so. It is the return of life, then, to those abandoned spaces, a sign of the vitality of living things. Botanists might decry it as an invasive species, but psychogeographers celebrate the life force it represents.

It is possible, sort of, to separate Papadimitriou’s accounts of his walks from the other layers in his text. His first walk as research for the book was an attempt to find Scarp’s western beginnings: when he does, he writes, “the impact was less dramatic than I had hoped it would be. Scarp first appears—at least in summer—as a swathe of distant full-leafed trees billowing some distance beyond the rooftops of an emergent new suburb” (37). He continues up a canal: 

My excitement grew as my eyes followed a hawthorn hedge on its half-mile journey uphill between two fields before it terminated in a clump of oaks. Suddenly I was overwhelmed by a sense of standing on the edge of something improbably grand, of staring up at the emergence of a solid and tangible presence. The next step was to get up there. (38)

He recognizes layers of occupation, of land use: trees that “were clearly residues of a sizable estate that the suburb had been built over,” a grand home that had been a hospital but was not a corporate headquarters: “I was a bit put out finding something as banal as a corporate head office on what felt like a holy pilgrimage” (40). He ends up on a busy road, fully occupied by avoiding traffic: “A small roadside shrine consisting of scattered flowers and a rude wooden cross inscribed with the name Michael did nothing to reassure me” (41). (Busy roads in the UK, as I learned while walking back to Oxford from Blenheim Palace, often have no sidewalks.) Then he walks across a farm where “there is a tall mound of smashed concrete that a farmhand told me was part of the remains of the old Wembley Stadium”: he climbs the pile and sees the cardinal points of the surrounding country (42). Next, he follows a line of electrical pylons along a stream; they add, he writes,

a peculiar intensity to the landscape: this is definitely a place of history and power, one of those Celtic “thin places,” where a sense of something other lurks just beyond the visible. . . . I love to sit by the track crossing below the high-tension cables and imagine that I’m somewhere in the Ukraine, circa 1952, staring up at these triumphant monuments to the electrification of my region. (43)

That leads to a vivid fantasy about being a veterinary surgeon on a collective farm, a fantasy that turns out to be an important part of Papadimitriou’s methodology (and therefore of the as-yet unnamed deep topography): 

Proximity flight: that’s what I call this using of environment to trigger mental journeys to another place and time in which the same stimuli can be found. I find it lifts my sense of the environment out of its codified framework and into fresh possibilities of interpretation, my eyes wiped clean by the resultant defamiliarisation. (43-44)

I’m not sure that proximity flight is really necessary, but who am I to say? If it helps Papadimitriou, fine. I do know, though, that I wouldn’t engage in such a practice on my walks. Perhaps they suffer as a result. I have to acknowledge that possibility.

On another walk, Papadimitriou begins on the north bank of the Colne; he walks “through to a bewildering tangle of canal, river, hatch and ditch,” past “derelict industries hidden in arborial swamp,” “and always, just beyond the trees, a sense of rising land, of Scarp’s face staring down at me” (45). “The whole of the Colne Valley is a naturalist’s heaven and remains curiously overlooked by the London crowd,” he writes: it is home to unofficial bird sanctuaries and rare plants (45). “As evening closed in, orange street lights began to flicker far off on the hills opposite,” he recalls. “A blackbird chuckled somewhere close by and I felt myself merge with the deep peacefulness of the mauve woodlands and the mumbling of the distant M25” (48). That merging is an example of the fusion he seeks with Scarp, and as he relives the day’s walk, he writes, “I passed from sweating exhaustion into relaxation and then surrender, [and] Harefield became a limpid globe of light as Scarp absorbed me into its first station” (48). This sense of absorption or fusion leads to a fantasy of an apocalypse in which the M25 highway ends up “crocheted by read leaves of herb Robert, stars of cow thistle”; he becomes one with the landscape, moving through space and time, through life and death and rebirth until he has become one of his own mythical creatures, perhaps, before he finally returns to himself and unrolls his sleeping bag in “a derelict rutting shed” (48-52). That sense of union with Scarp is the goal of Papadimitriou’s walks, I think, and when it doesn’t happen, he is frustrated and disappointed.

Papadimitrious is a naturalist as well as a psychogeographer (a term he doesn’t apply to himself, but which fits his practice). On another walk, he crosses a ditch where, in 1999, he found a rare freshwater shrimp and then fell into the water (54). (He likes the comedy of his mistakes and accidents.) Then he remembers wandering onto a golf course that “represented everything I resented about privilege and wealth,” all the signs that “signified to me the presence of The Enemy” (56-57). He imagines the life of a wealthy golfer (58-61), and then imagines the history of the golf course, going back to the days when it was Cardinal Wolsey’s palace (61). Again he becomes one with the territory: “all of Moor Park resides inside me” (63). He imagines that he is part of all of the sexual encounters in the neighbourhood (63)—there is a deep sexual loneliness in this text—and that he is in all the attics, inhaling the scent of old newspapers, imagining that “the entire suburb is a groove sensation, a humming colony lit deep in ancient woodland (63-64). After he has has coffee with a friend, he continues walking, noticing details (smells, sights, sounds) and thinking about the area’s past (64-65). What’s interesting about this walk is the way that the past—both his own past and that of the terrain through which he is walking—are layered together, and the way that he uses his imagination as a way of exploring the locale. That fusion he seeks is present here as well; as I noted before, it happens on all of his successful walks.

Papadimitriou describes his apartment, which is chock full of old documents and books, glass jars “packed with artefacts gleaned from walks,” and maps (74). All of that material is essential to his walking (and the as-yet unnamed deep topography). In fact, it was a book that made him begin to take his walking more seriously:

It was a first edition of Walter W. Druett’s The Stanmores and Harrow Weald Through the Ages (1938), bought from a charity shop in Edgware in 1999, that alerted me to the possibility that the supposedly dull, annoyingly smug areas of suburbia I wandered through two or three times a week on my walks actually had their own resonant histories. Gradually the arch-sneer I carried with me whenever I walked was replaced by a deeper contemplation. A sense of stewardship rose in me where before there had been mere cynicism or even jealousy. (75)

Papadimitriou comes to regard Druett as 

an all-seeing tutelary spirit hanging over this whole belt of Metroland strung along Scarp’s southern edge. Eventually I decided that my true role in life—aside from whatever menial job I could obtain given my somewhat chequered past—was to repeatedly visit these ostensibly indistinguished pockets of human life and act as an unofficial recorder, a crow-man picking over the ruins, pulling free the anguished missals, black-bordered death notices and final demands of human life. (75)

He assembles a library of material on Middlesex and Hertfordshire (75). He also learns about and comes to love the flora of the area:

I grew to care enormously for surviving pockets of plant life threatened by development: micro-colonies of woodland species hanging on desperately in the corners of parks or gardens and providing a direct link back to records made in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I spent a season photographing exotic and rare species of tree and bush planted by urban and rural district councils in honour of the coronation of King George VI. (76)

“Why I did this,” he concludes, “I don’t know” (76). I think his readers have an idea, though: it’s part of his desire to care for, and to learn about, Scarp’s flora.

Papadimitriou also collects discarded personal documents, taken from abandoned buildings or dumpsters (76). His own “collection of forlorn love letters dating from a failed relationship in the 1990s” is part of that collection: “were I to die suddenly and be found months or years later,” he writes, “the officials bearing the responsibility of informing my next of kin would be hard-put to identify me. And this is as it should be: I’m not Nick Papadimitriou; I am Middlesex” (77). Again, we see that desire for fusion with Scarp:

I pull my region closer, dragging its leaf-fall, scrap-iron, blotting-paper substance home with me after every walk. I spread my finds out on the trestle table and spend long evenings in examination. I hear voices hovering around these tiny fragments of other times, other people’s lives, though what is said and who’s had who I can’t often tell. The thought that anything, any event, should be overlooked horrifies me. The spot where a blackbird died, its neck snapped by a wayward football 1968 is a hallowed place; the ants’ nest you exterminated down by the rose bush 1966 is the scene of a war crime. (77)

The shift to direct address here is interesting: who exterminated the ants? For that matter, who threw that football? Is he remembering events from his childhood? It’s hard to tell. In any case, those emotions are part of his union with Scarp:

At such times my thoughts stretch out beyond my localised identity and enter the broader field of the environment in all its complexity and arbitrariness. Though I have sympathy with Green issues and the Deep Ecology movement, the cherishing I feel is not to be reduced to these political and philosophical viewpoints. (77)

In fact, he prefers “the hard-science papers on ecology I read in the British Library: these well-measured and calibrated records of changes in specific plant communities dating back to the era of A.G. Tansley in the 1920s seem closer to my concerns, fine-detailed witness statements regarding what once was” (77).

Papadimitriou states that his apartment also contains the notebooks where he records his thoughts during his walks (78). It must be quite a collection of stuff jammed into a council flat. What, he asks, is the point of 

all this litter, these spiderweb cardboard suitcases and biscuit tins packed with junk? I always approach my chosen subject from a position of near total ignorance. Examining an Edwardian suburb, a complex network of manorial boundaries or an industrial corridor on the margins of a market town, I’m faced with and threatened by an awful blankness. I hardly know what it is I’m looking at and in spite of all the effort expended on getting to know and understand the deep topography of my region I never seem to gain the accretion of knowledge that would enable me to declare myself an expert. However often I swan in like some dishevelled, smoke-infested Richard Mabey of the buddleia set, I forget the names of plants and have to relearn them every year. I squint short-sightedly at small brown birds flapping in hedges, my lips gibbering as I attempt to name them. Rivers and parish boundaries slide around in my mind and become a squirled nightmare of shifting lines and borders. Names of historic figures slip down through the sluice gate into the main drainage scheme of my mind. It’s a bastard. (78)

Note the sudden appearance of the term “deep topography” here: the methodology is not described until the book’s appendix, and then the description appears in a notebook written by one of Papadimitriou’s fictional characters. In any case, his various failures to remember names of plants or birds or historical figures don’t really matter:

while knowledge of structure or nomenclature can foreground discreet aspects of a place, it can also occlude. Sensory properties of locations encountered while visiting or passed through—a particular moist wind that flaps about the face like a flannel, a singular quality of light remembered but seldom encountered—are screened out all too easily if the primary focus is on the type of cornicing found on a building passed or the names of the building companies that transmuted field parcels into batches of housing back in the 1930s. Which aspect of the experiential field serves as the sine qua non for understanding a place? For me this question has never been adequately answered. (78-79)

There are different kinds of knowledge—factual and sensory (or perhaps embodied)—and the latter might be more important than the former, although Papadimitriou isn’t quite sure. I would agree that both are important, but for me, knowing the names of things is an essential part of seeing them, of allowing them to stand forth from their backgrounds. It helps to know what one is looking at, or hearing, or smelling. The names are important–even if sometimes they escape our memory.

On another walk, Papadimitriou, walking west, sees the ends of two separate eastern sections of Scarp, but feels nothing: “Perhaps its the summer heat or the large lunch I had before setting off but there’s no blood in my brain, no near-frenzied pleasure. I’m left with flat fact and nothing else” (81). The union has failed him this time. His sense of being left “with flat fact and nothing else” seems very significant, given his desire to generate myths and fictions about the places he travels to and through on Scarp. That experience of union or fusion is powerful:

I imagine sometimes that I’m on a powerful and as yet undiscovered hallucinogen, one that dissolves the ego-boundaries that subject and object fuse, so that, were I to ingest this substance while visiting Northwood, I would in some way pass into and become the suburb’s main thoroughfare. It would be a multiplex, transtemporal experience, my usual self reduced to a residual monad blabbering in a conflagration of women, men and the billions of objects large and small that surround them and which define their business” (82)

He would pass through time and space; he would become part of the lives of everyone and everything, living and dead, connected to Scarp. This isn’t just a fantasy, even if the need for drugs for it to happen is imagined. “I call this experience prakrti-laya, a yogic term derived from the ancient Indian Samkhya philosophy,” Papadimitriou writes. It is an “absorption into nature,” even if that absorption is only “pseudo-liberation,” a problem that doesn’t bother him at all:

Being a topographer I’m fatally attached to this earth and when I die I will be bound here, destined to burn-out with the planet at the end of its lifespan. To repeat, I don’t care. Do you? Rather this thin enlightenment than a rationalist state of grace born of a conclusive map of the soul or some other arrogant construct. You can take your concern for “spirituality” and “appropriacy” and shove it, mister! I’m on my way out; I’m on my way in. (82-83)

I’m not sure what he means by “appropriacy”—is it a concern for what is appropriate? for limits?—and I think I’d be one of those he would tell to “shove it,” given my skepticism about this process. Nevertheless, none of this is imaginary for Papadimitriou; he seems to have this kind of experience: the details of the lives of those he sees, now and in the past, he writes, “come to me now both as mass and in individual detail in my prakrti-laya, breaking me so thoroughly that beads of sweat appear on my brow despite the cold. I am a weirdo unwelcome in culturally inclusive public libraries; I sit alone, sopping and slobbering, and read local authority handbooks published circa 1962 on shitty rainy day playing fields” (83). He is willing to risk being socially ostracized in his pursuit of prakrti-laya.

At the same time, Papadimitriou experiences self-doubt, or doubt about his project, quite frequently in the book. On one walk, those doubts become overwhelming:

In the final analysis, what can be said about these endless-seeming streets, most of which I have never visited and where I know no one? Yes, there are cars parked everywhere; perhaps the locals are venal by and large; who cares? And why would I want to come on like some two-bit psychogeographer, a myopic and beaked monstrosity eager to impress with my architectural knowledge, my eye for the telling detail? So often something is delivered up on walks, but not today. (84)

He puts his notebook and his camera away. “There is really nothing to say,” he writes, “so I turn away, my head hung in defeat, and start for home” (84). On the way he encounters a hedgehog with its head stuck inside a plastic yogurt tub: “Leaning forward, I pull the suffocating mask free from the tiny animal’s head. Hi, I’m the region and I love you, I want to say. Is there any recognition, any thanks?” No: the animal curls up into a defensive ball (84), which seems to anger Papadimitriou: “The experience has made my day but there is no thanks at the end of it, no appreciation of my perceptiveness or concern. Such is the way” (85). I found this surprising: why expect gratitude from a wild animal? Isn’t the fact that this encounter made your day enough? Later, he suggests he will never know the territory he walks through any better than his cats, which are “doomed by my caring to spend their whole lives living in the gaps between these slabs of pebble-dashed high-density housing” (102). “We can never truly pin down where our place of dwelling lies,” he writes; “each newly discovered overview of what we call home effectively places it within a new topography, forcing us to redefine what it is we mean when we say ‘I live there.’” (102).

Those doubts aren’t really characteristic of Papadimitriou’s walking, though. When he walks, he sometimes pokes an eighteen-inch Boron rod that he carries into the ground and travels back in time, becoming other people (or so he claims) (99). At Harrow Weald, on the grounds of Bentley Priory, which served as the headquarters for Fighter Command during the Second World War, he imagines—or is “swamped with”—“mental images of wartime Britain that seem bound to this landscape, though perhaps they really originate from films seen as a child” (101). Other voices and images surface as he sneaks through a recently completed luxury estate: “the clicks, whistles, and rattles of flocks of starlings,” “the liquid twitter of finches in the hedgerows,” and “another feathered presence that comes to mind whenever I pass this way. I hear his laughter now as he stares down from his roost upon my momentary pleasures, my thinly disguised conceits” (103)—this is the immortal crow, Merops, one of the mythical creatures he imagines or senses. He thinks about the ringnecked parakeets that escaped from a depot at Heathrow and have become naturalized in London: 

now their numerous offspring have taken over much of the land to Scarp’s south including Perivale Wood. All day the parakeets swoop in and out of the trees with a vulgar whee-whee and other manners alien to the natives but one must be tolerant, I suppose. Viewed from the perspective of planetary time we are all immigrants. (116)

That quotation, in the voice of Merops, Papadimitriou’s immortal crow, might raise the ire of ornithologists worried about the loss of habitat indigenous birds must be experiencing as a result of the parakeet invasion, but psychogeographers aren’t interested in such issues: Papadimitriou (or Merops) reads the arrival of parakeets as an image of immigration.

Like any psychogeographer, Papadimitriou is conscious of his emotional responses to the terrain through which he walks. Walking north through Edgware Way Rough, for example, he reports that “[l]oneliness always descends as I enter this land of severed or simply uncompleted routes, of weeds, pylons and oxidised tin cans” (124). On that walk, he climbs “Scarp’s southern face, passing a snagged tree and near-bald pastures scattered with purple and green docks,” seeing hills and the “blue gasometer at Southall Junction” in the distance. The sight makes him think about all of the people who live there, and how small that population is compared to the natural world that sustains them:

packed between these and Scarp are human multitudes, their dynastic interweavings to complex to map. Our privileged modernity is as nothing in the face of the onslaught of clouds and air, the globules of sunlight sliding across the land’s surface and eating whole postcodes at will. Time moils and folds in on itself under this dancing light. (126)

Once again he imagines or remembers the region’s past (126). But he also remembers things he saw on previous walks as well:

Once, just up by Bury Farm, I found the shrunken dried-out husk of a fox wedged high in a hedge of blackthorn. One of its hind legs had become trapped in a crux of blackthorn and the animal had died there. The fox’s skin was a parchment wrapped loosely about a bleached bundle of bones on which was inscribed a life’s journey from heathery spring through dry-ditch summer to hen-house autumn and motorway winter. I looked closely at its teeth, pointed and yellow beneath the curled-over upper lip, and imagined its slow agony under the sun. (127)

That’s a kind of imagining I can get behind—an imagining based in empathy, in trying to understand the life of another being. It reminded me of the body of an orange cat I found under our old garage. I was trying to fix the floor to extend the building’s life (the operation wasn’t much of a success), and I uncovered the cat, which had somehow gotten stuck under one of the beams and died. I imagined its hunger and its terror and wondered why no one had heard its cries. That imagination is, to me, quite different from the one that claims a fusion with the land or that creates mythical creatures. In any case, that dead fox reminds Papadimitriou of another he saw in an abandoned factory: “There was the same snarling challenge to my skin-wrapped reality bubble. The dead fox lifted me out of the sunlit day and the concerns of the human world into an open field of possibilities” (127). I’m not sure what he means by “open field of possibilities,” but I wonder if he’s not suggesting something beyond the kind of imagining I did when I found that cat’s body. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was; that would be his usual procedure. Again, that’s fine for him, but not something I would do. At the end of that walk, Papadimitriou takes a bus towards home and looks at the other passengers: “I had a feeling of having returned from some transtemporal substratum of the manifest world, as if I had visited the Underlands, those deep, throbbing hive-centres where the energies that underpin the disparate phenomena of the stockbroker belt are generated” (130). The Underlands, as Smith points out in one of his books (the idea is so silly that I didn’t write it down and now I can’t find the reference—a failure of my research methods), refers to the notion, held by some psychogeographers, that there is a world underneath the world we inhabit (at least in the UK). Underland is also the title of Robert Macfarlane’s new book, which appears to be about actual caves instead of imaginary ones. But I digress. My point is, some kinds of imagining can help us understand what we find; others, I think, might stand in our way, or distract us.

When Papadimitriou fails to achieve fusion with Scarp, he feels rejected and hated. On one walk, when that happens, he writes,

The land is beginning to hate me; I can sense it trying to stare me out. I expect sooner or later to be driven from farmyards with stones, dogs snapping at my heels. I know I will be blanked in convenience stores in villages seldom visited by anybody who could reasonably be described as sane. Not that I’ll succumb without a fight. I plan to puncture tractor tyres, kick the foul-breathed farm dogs, and burn down barns in revenge. I will march across this land like a one-man infantry division, my course marked by columns of smoke rising above the treeline as the police choppers chup-chup overhead and snipers conceal themselves in the furze or behind decrepit caravans. (187)

This is, obviously, another fantasy, but those columns of smoke remind me of his imprisonment for arson when he was a youth—hang on, I’m getting to that—and it might connect that experience to his anger at being rejected. Papadimitriou then remembers an earlier, more successful walk, and describes the differences between then and now: 

But that was so long ago and now my world was larger, my knowledge greatly increased. Now I carried whole swathes of the region with me, wherever I walked. I was able to work through complex sequences of places in my mind as I lay in bed at night, linking up the different walks I’d made over the years. The towns visited on my journeys and the tracks and roads running between them stayed fixed, each in its mind-mapped place. There were low chalky corners of fields that seemed charged with an indefinable magnetism that drew me to them again and again. Other places seemingly possessed their own gloomy darkness or, for no apparent reason, felt fetid and miasmic but nevertheless attracted me precisely because of their power to induce such a sensation in me. I knew where badgers had died or caravans rotted away until mere stains of rust were all that remained. (191)

That quotation suggests that knowledge is no guarantee of the experience of union that he seeks; it also suggests that some parts of Scarp have different emotional effects on him. Some parts, in fact, such as the stretch between the Great North Road and the A10 to the east, are impossible to know: that area “remains a stranger however often I walk it. I try to fix in my mind the complex configuration of hills that make up this broad largely unpopulated eastern-central segment of Scarp but always come away from the effort no closer to the truth” (191). 

Despite the failure of that walk, Papadimitriou often experiences his desired fusion with the region:

I felt growing in me a pulsating county consciousness. I could sense sun-heated scraps of corrugated iron beneath which adders sheltered, bin-liners of rags strewn in wastes by remorseless A roads, scentless mayweed on gravel mounds nodding in the breeze by wretched abandoned orchards, languid afternoons spent sitting and sipping white wine in the gardens of big houses on the edge of the Hertfordshire atom towns, generations of owls and cats ruthlessly terminated by strychnine. I became a squirming energy spewing forth rats and roaches, disused fire extinguishers rusting in derelict office blocks in Hemel Hampstead or Stevenage. I roared, a fiery demiurge, below the pantiled bungalows, the pubs decked out in brewer’s Tudor, throwing all this multiplicity into the world in my fury before subsiding back into the humming darkness of the undifferentiated planetary mass. (230)

What is surprising about this experience is that it happens while he is looking at a map of Hertfordshire, not while he was actually walking, actually out on Scarp somewhere.

One aspect of the book, and of deep topography as a method, too, I suppose, is Papadimitriou’s interest in and knowledge of botany. On one walk, he describes the flora he sees:

To the left there was a plantation of young sessile oaks, and to the right, hornbeams. Fresh shoots of fool’s parsley grew by the edge of the track and there were domes of comfrey amidst the rotting logs that lined the route. Colonies of the russet-coloured mushroom Clitocybe infundibuliformis, looking like wind-wrecked umbrellas, grew from tree stumps and at one point I passed a decrepit old farm gate along the top of which sprang the brittle antler-like grey sporophores of Xylosphaera hypoxylon. (232)

Despite his claims to forget the names of plants, he clearly remembers them, at least on that walk. It is one of his last walks on Scarp before writing the book, an expedition to find its eastern endpoint:

Excitement grew in me at the prospect of discovering a precise location that I could declare to be Scarp’s terminus. I set off along a road that dropped down towards the land below. I could see long chains of car lights at the bottom of the hill. Large flocks of crows gathered overhead before flying off to roost for the night. Ahead somewhere lay the town of Ware and the complex intertwining of the Lea Valley and the New River. This narrowing convex tongue of land subsiding down into the river valley felt like a finale. (234)

And yet, this walk ends in failure. He sees a church, and it means nothing to him: “Staring blankly at the plastered interior walls, the artfully patterned brickwork I realised I had no grasp whatsoever of church architecture. In fact, I felt as if I’d learned next to nothing about anything I’d seen over all the years I’d been walking” (236). “It grew colder and I felt defeated by Scarp,” he continues:

Looking back on the way I’d just come I had no sense of the pristine and pure diminuendo I had experienced the previous day. All I could see was a confusing mass of mounds and pinnacles visible beyond the semi-detacheds at the town’s edge. Somewhere in my dulled mind I knew that this was as it should be: Scarp should remain an evasive entity that twisted out of my understanding, slipping free of any notion I had of gaining mastery over it. (237)

His emotional reactiveness to geography is obvious here: on that afternoon, “Hertford seemed particularly cheerless” (237). On the train home, he looks out of the window: “As I stared upwards, both horrified and exhilarated, Scarp raised its bony fingers to claw the blank winter sky and gazed back down on me and through me into deeper time” (238).

On his last walk, on a cold November day, he wakes up in a barn after taking a nap, and prepares to leave. This time, his experience, and his emotions, are quite different:

The darkness descends and map reading becomes impossible. Still, it has its compensations. There is poetry in the lit windows of the town that is my destination, a sense of movement and life in people heading for warm homes. As the walk levels out and I hit a small municipal park, I sit down to eat my hummus and spinach sandwiches and jot down my observations in a notebook. I smoke as I write; the scent of tobacco mingling with the smell of mould drifting from the leaves swept up and piled in the gutter” (245)

However, after accidentally killing a fly, his sense of satisfaction disappears: “Blackness descends on the land and, as Scarp shadows me, a burden draped heavily around my shoulders, I pack away my maps and notebook, rise, and walk on” (246). The sense of Scarp as a burden is fascinating. It is both the area he wants to explore, and the area he is obligated to explore. It is an opportunity for the dissolution of his ego and a source of rejection. It is the place he loves and a burden.

Those walks constitute one layer of Scarp. Another is the story Papadimitriou tells about his life. He begins with an account of his childhood in the 1950s and 1960s: the echoes of the war, and the ongoing fear of another war, which were eventually replaced by television, flared trousers, and more and more cars: 

Now we lived—or so I was assured by my parents and Blue Peter—in an age of decency and safety. However, I never quite believed this and sensed that the dignified rows of houses in my road, with their colourful and welcoming front doors and gaily patterned window sashes, were conspiring to create an illusion of permanence. Their apparent fixity seemed to me to be a lie, the momentary dream of a nameless and ultimately vindictive earth god. (24)

That “earth god” seemed to have taken physical form underneath a metal plate in the alley behind their street: “When I bent down and placed my ear to it I heard indecipherable groans and shrieks rising from some sinister place located deep beneath our front gardens, our ornate wrought-iron gates and tarpaulined Morris Minors” (25). The electrical substation at the end of the alley also “seemed to be a place of unheeded urgency and danger” (25). In fact, the terrain of the neighbourhood told of a different world than the one his parents talked about:

The manhole covers, stern-faced backs of houses and lank weeds spoke of a different language from the one used by the adults who surrounded me in my daily life: they challenged the self-assuming certainty of the events played out in the sitting room at home or on the screen of the TV set that had recently arrived. They were doorways through to something larger, older and darker that lurked behind the narratives of our home lives—something that in my imagination took the form of a gnarled and ancient man made of moss, mud and wood who visited us at night, staring fiercely through the windows as we watched Criss-Cross Quiz. (25)

This seems to have been the first time that Papadimitriou had a powerful emotional response to the land around him, and it also seems to have been the first time he imagines a mythic creature to give shape to that emotional response.

Papadimitriou was bullied at school and took refuge “in a patch of wasteland” near the North Circular Road, where he started fired for warmth (26-27). In fact, he rarely attended school and kept watch for police and truant officers. He played at being an archaeologist, but when he dug in the backyard, he encountered only a concrete pipe: 

Had I been a little clearer in my thinking I would’ve spotted the connection between the concrete pipe at the bottom of my garden and the one in the acre of land where I safely bunked school. Years later I worked out that my garden pipe carried a small watercourse downhill to where it joined the stronger stream that fed through “the sewer.” Our back garden rested in a river gully. (30-31)

Buried watercourses are one of the themes of Scarp, which isn’t surprising, since they are a feature of urban and suburban life. Later, in the early 1970s, he revisits a brook he had visited in happier times, before his mother left his father: “Gone were the sunlit vales of my childhood, replaced by dread: dread in the face of the bullying and poverty; dread in the face of the dismal world with its black arterial roads, damp houses, demands of education and gymnasium” (32). As a result, he resolves to follow that brook as far south as possible. He ends up at a major road: “As I gazed into the sun-starved riverbed beneath the road bridge,” he writes, “I knew I had reached the far end of any world I had ever imagined. The undulating silt, filamentous waterweed and rusted detritus resting on the streambed spoke of endings. This place of dumped paint-cans, hubcaps and bike frames uttered one word only: Terminus” (32-33).

As a youth, Papadimitriou sneered at the suburbs, trying to write poems about “the stultifying tedium of suburban life” (79); but all the while, he admits, 

something else nagged at me. The more folkloric aspects of suburban house design; the way the much derided stockbroker belt was interpenetrated by relics of earlier land use; the glimpses of fields or woods visible through gaps in the semi-detacheds: all these suggested to me an organic interface between the human world and processes of longer and deeper aspiration. (79-80)

He was divided between his desire to ridicule the suburbs and to live there (80). That desire to live there was, I think, a desire to belong, to fit in, to have money (always a crucial social lubricant). He tells a story about hanging around outside the home of a girl he liked when he was at school, taking in the architectural details of the neighbourhood, which, he realized,  symbolized the world that girl inhabited, “with its leather-seated cars and professional self-confidence. Yet beneath all this there ran a mysterious counter-current, as if the older world upon which all this wealth had been lacquered continued to exert its influence” (89). And yet, at the same time, those architectural details “were portals that spanned deep-time, cobwebbed doorways, built into the very fabric of the place, which opened onto ethereal fields and woods, mythological and fabled gods and beasts; the noble and timeless tattoo of plant lore” (89). The desire to fit in was not, it seems, as powerful as the desire to invent mythic beings and understand botany—not as powerful as the pull of what would become deep topography.

When he was 15, Papadimitriou set fire to his neighbour’s house. That’s not surprising, given his interest in fire while he was skipping school, and given the anger he must have felt after being constantly bullied. In any case, that fire led to his arrest, conviction for arson, and incarceration. He was, not surprisingly, afraid of going to jail, and tried to imagine it as a positive experience: 

I was definitely on some strange kind of adventure, a journey to lands barely imaginable. Who knew, the experience might imbue me with certain characteristics I felt were lacking in myself, a degree of hardened masculinity, or a flinty philosophical dogmatism, a geezer’s stolid knowledge of what was what in this world. It might make me attractive to women or provide material for a seventeen-page modernist poem I was already composing. I might emerge from prison a saturnine and moody character, someone driven by a deep-rooted impulse to walk alone over the hills and tramp through the edges of satellite towns leaving nary a trace. (148)

In fact, he imagined it might lead to some kind of fame—but that fame would come from walking over hills and through suburbs and writing, the activity in which he is engaged while making Scarp a reality. Surprisingly, despite the details of his experience in court and while on remand, he says little about his incarceration, only that his jail experience led to “the joy of books, O levels attained in education blocks, a sort of knowledge sometimes useful since” (227). Perhaps his fantasy was accurate, then: perhaps going to jail made him into a writer.

The third layer of the text is Papadimitriou’s interest in imagining mythical beings. Even as a child, as I’ve suggested, he was engaging in such fantasies. Before his arrest, for instance, he has this fantasy:

I’ll sleep in ditches or potting sheds. I’ll claw mangle-wurzels from the obdurate earth and suck on sugar beets behind aluminium silos. I’ll grow hairy and mythic in the stockbroker belt. I imagine the waiting fields, the fine houses throwing their shaded light on tangled woos. I yearn for love in the cool darkness of ancient barns. (156)

But most of his mythic creatures are apart from himself: Merops, the immortal crow; John Osborne, an immortal tramp; and Gloria Geddes, a psychedelic hippie queen. All of these characters carry with them parts of their author. Merops, for instance, expresses the same apocalyptic ideas Papadimitriou imagines: “I don’t know why but I think we all sense something deathly about you these days, something you refuse to acknowledge, an unexamined aspect of yourselves which lingers around you and is beginning to rot and stink” (117). There are similar parallels between Gloria and Papadimitriou. When she’s high, Gloria feels herself at one with her surroundings—animal and vegetable, natural and architectural—and she imagines an apocalyptic future where the skyscrapers collapse (171). On another trip, she presses “a fist-sized piece of Hertfordshire puddingstone” to her forehead and travels “up the latticework of light into the groaning, grinding heart of a glacier as it retreated slowly north over aeons, depositing its boulders and gravels onto mounds of dead sea creatures and thick belts of clay as it did so” (174). Then she imagines the aftermath of the glaciation—trees growing and hominids hunting rabbits—which is followed by the sudden appearance of a railway and bungalows and commuters using jet-packs to travel to work (a different, anti-apocalyptic version of the future): “I felt I was a conglomerate of different times bound by some biological cement into the identity called ‘Me,’” she tells Papadimitriou. “It was very profound” (174-75).

When Gloria is high, she always has the kind of experience of fusion, of egolessness, that Papadimitriou seeks when he’s walking (or looking at maps): 

I would take a soul journey through many states. . . . I became woodlands and river valleys. I flowed, an iron-rusted streamlet, into broad alluvial marshlands. I was plant successions and the spoor of animals, sour green berries and clicking insects in late summer grass. Time hung over the murmuring land as I moved on to endings at oceans, at salt spray and feather-clad wildness. (179)

Gloria’s hippie companions find her stories about these experiences incomprehensible (179). On her final trip with them, she becomes a hornet: 

I remember well the poise and pulsing power of my body, the red warmth of the visual continuum, the flowers glowing like other-worldly beacons, the itch of mites slowly dissolving the chitin of my long deadly abdomen. I wound through tapering purple ribbons of pheromone, bound for something ineffable that was hanging suspended like the sun in its power. It was hornet-life itself. (180)

When she comes down, her companions are angry: she’s been abusive, her “ranting” has ruined their own trips, and they reject her (181). After that, however, she experiences fusions with the environment without drugs, just by walking (182-83). In the end, she tells Papadimitriou, she decides to commit suicide by putting her neck on a railway track in front of a train; that will enable her to return to her “living and creating Mother,” Hertfordshire: “We must now dream alive the past and future, and we must return to the Mother if we want to truly live” (184-85).

I’m not sure what to make of the incorporation of this fictional material in the book. Smith argues that fiction is one of the “non-respectable” forms of knowledge that mythogeographers, or psychogeographers, use (59). That may be—although I wouldn’t want to follow them on that particular path—but at the same time, incorporating fiction into a non-fiction book tends to destabilize the truth claims the book makes, I think. I found myself, for instance, wondering whether Papadimitriou’s account of his arrest actually happened, or if it was a fantasy. (I think it happened, but some small doubt lingers.) On the other hand, Cree writer Harold Johnson’s recent book about the life of his brother, Clifford, brings fiction and memoir together and has received incredibly positive reviews. (I haven’t read it yet, but I want to.) And in Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut mixes memoir (the book’s first chapter, an account of how it came to be written, and his own wartime experiences) with fiction and, indeed, fantasy (Billy Pilgrim’s experiences on the planet Tralfmadore). Perhaps I’m wrong about the effect of mixing fact and fiction together, but there is something about the way Papadimitriou does it that I find disquieting.

For instance, the book’s appendix, “Perry Kurland’s Journal,” which purports to be a notebook written by one of his fictional characters, and found by Papadimitriou in a dumpster, is where “deep topography” is defined. Isn’t it odd to have a fictional character define one’s methodology—the methodology others see as defining one’s practice? Like Papadimitriou’s other imagined characters, there are parallels between himself and Kurland: both are interested in botany, for instance. And Kurland’s description of deep topography (or, since he capitalizes the words, “Deep Topography”) matches Papadimitriou’s practice, as it is described in the rest of the book:

Deep Topography is concerned primarily with the experience of place, not its description. However, it is recognised that a complex and mutually reinforcing relationship exists between these two categories.

Deep Topography: a duty to explore.

Deep Topography is not a problem-solving approach to the world, if that concept is defined purely in terms of increasing or improving degree of instrumentality.

Deep Topography places an emphasis on found items—lists dropped on pavements; letters found in attics of condemned houses; personal papers discarded in skips.

It is difficult to place parameters on what constitutes Deep Topographic inquiry: any formula generated for the purposes of cultural elucidation—even the one expressed in this sentence—interferes with the procedure.

Deep Topography: pieces of rusted machinery stumbled upon in dry grasses by Grim’s Dyke, 1967; a box of telephone components found on Enfield Chase during an undated summer about twenty-three years ago: spread the parts out on the table and try to work out the relations between them.

Deep Topography is a dip down into the valley of the unacknowledged: Suicide Corner, June 1958.

Deep Topography is a transmission across time, confounding the thought that all has been swept away: the Allenstein bird table, 1961-1972.

The accusation of nostalgia cold reasonably be levelled at Deep Topography. However, that sentiment is attained not through absence from one’s home but via passing through the land’s eye.

Deep Topography: a return to home at day’s end and, after the exhaustion, a rising into something that is more than personal recollection: rather, it is the land’s very structure and memory unfurling in the mind. (253-55)

Kurland suggests that Donald S. Maxwell’s 1926 book The Fringe of London is one of his “local gods” (261)—a suggestion that others have attributed to Papadimitriou—and he makes a distinction between “place-known” and “place-unknown” (263). Finding strange places is important, Kurland argues: “It is at these times that the conditioned decades evaporate and a new, an urgent depth is attained” (263). Moreover, on one of his walks Kurland experiences a fusion with the land and a unfixing in time, just like Papadimitriou: 

I tumble down into a culvert lined with hart’s tongue and moss and am knee-deep in the current as it flows back behind me. I walk forward and exit the 1970s. I melt into mods, pass into beards and trad-jazz. I become Saxon and Jute, Roman and Briton. Eddies deepen into swirlings. Cables catch my tired feet and my spectacles slip from my nose. As I fall against the channel carrying the Tramway Ditch into the Silkstream, I end. (269)

I’m sure that psychogeographers or mythogeographers would argue that Kurland is simply an alias; Smith uses many aliases in his writing—I almost missed one of his books because it was published under a different name—and he suggests that playing a role is an essential aspect of mythogeography (152). But I come at this text from a different direction, from my training as a literary scholar, and I can’t help finding it strange that Papadimitriou distances the definition of his practice from his own voice; even though that voice is similar to his own, and has similar experiences, it’s still (ostensibly) another character. This, I think, is an aspect of psychogeography or mythogeography or deep topography that I’m just going to have to accept, as strange as it seems to me. 

So, what do I make of Scarp and deep topography? I like Papadimitriou’s repeated encounters with the same landform; it reminds me of Nan Shepherd’s repeated walking in the Cairngorms. I like the detail of his descriptions of the spaces through which he walks. I like his botanical knowledge—mostly because I’ve learned the names of grasses and forbs indigenous to Saskatchewan myself, I suppose, and yet I’d never thought about incorporating that knowledge into my accounts of my walks. (I’m not as strong on the introduced weeds that constitute almost all of the flora one encounters while walking here, but I could improve my knowledge of them—there are field guides available.) I don’t understand the need for mythic creatures, which probably means I’m missing the point of an essential aspect of deep topography, as well as mythogeography and psychogeography. For me, the real world is fascinating enough, without having to introduce fictional characters. Nor do I expect to experience a fusion with any landscape—that seems to me to be another fiction (although that might testify to my own narrowness). What I ought to do now is return to the article on Scarp in Tina Richardson’s anthology—an article I skipped over because I hadn’t yet read Papadimitriou’s work. Sometimes seeing what someone else has to say about a text can help one clarify one’s own ideas. And I also think that it’s okay if my walking practice departs from the models provided by psychogeography, mythogeography, and deep topography. We all must find our own ways forward, our own methodologies, and if mine are different from those of others, I think that’s probably fine. I walk in a different context, a different space, and in a different way. What could be wrong with such multiplicity?

Works Cited

Papadimitriou, Nick. Scarp: In Search of London’s Outer Limits, Sceptre, 2013.

Richardson, Tina, ed. Walking Inside Out: Contemporary British Psychogeography, Rowman & Littlechild, 2015.

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

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

smith on walking

As is appropriate for mythogeography, On Walking . . . and Stalking Sebald: A Guide to Going Beyond Wandering Around Looking At Stuff, Phil Smith’s book about following in the footsteps of the late novelist W.G. Sebald’s walk in East Anglia, is made up of different layers—theoretical and tactical discussions of mythogeography, and an account of the walk Smith made—juxtaposed against each other. I found the theoretical and tactical layer to be more important for my purposes than the story of the walk, although that did have surprising resonances with some of my own walking; however, both are important, and while I will be separating the layers in this summary, the way they mesh (to use one of Smith’s favourite words) together is the point of the book.

Before I knew what this book was about, I suggested to a friend that I might like to walk Sebald’s route at some point, because I am a fan of his writing: I find his long sentences fascinating, and I like the juxtaposition of the text with the strange, enigmatic photographs Sebald always includes. I like The Rings of Saturn, the book about walking in  Suffolk, although it’s clear that Sebald’s primary concern in the book isn’t the territory through which he was walking, but the things he was thinking about as he walked. For that reason, I would think that as the “catapult” for a mythogeographical or psychogeographical walk, it might not be the best choice—not if one hoped to measure one’s own experiences against Sebald’s. Not surprisingly, that’s the conclusion Smith reaches as well. That wouldn’t bother me—I would be curious to see if there is any trace linking Sebald’s internal monologue to the terrain—but I think it does bother Smith, and eventually he abandons his walk. An unfinished walk is an interesting thing: there is an endless deferral involved in not reaching one’s destination, and several of the books about walking that I’ve read over the past few years, including Simon Armitage’s book about walking the Pennine Way and Bill Bryson’s story about walking the Appalachian Trail end that way. So does Smith’s On Walking . . . And Stalking Sebald. I make the suggestion cautiously, because I’m pretty sure that Smith can’t stand Armitage’s book–as I recall, he finds it too solid and literary and insufficiently performative–and I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t like Bryson’s book either. But the comparison–at least on that one perhaps superficial level–is there nonetheless.

Smith begins with a short memoir about his life and his relation to walking. “It may seem odd . . . that I see walking not as a retirement from political struggle or from the sensual pleasures of entertainment, but as a further intensifying of both,” he writes (12). That intensification involves an attention to the ways that power shapes cities and the land, and the way that resistances to that power can be created:

When I walk I draw upon layers of understanding that I have had to gather together in order to shape performances or to make political arguments; I am sensitive to the ways that the land and the cities are managed, owned, controlled and exploited. I am sensitive to the flows of power: information, energy, deference. I am also aware of contradictions in these places; I look out for those pressures that can, unplanned, open up temporarily free spaces, holey spaces, hubs where uncontained overlaps or the torque of bearing down in one place tears open a useful hold in another: these are places where, until we can at last all be free, we might for a while find space to act as we wish. (12)

It’s often easy to see the signs of power, but it’s harder to create or recognize those “temporarily free spaces,” at least for me, and much of Smith’s mythogeographical practice involves opening up such spaces.

Smith is interested primarily in what he calls “non-functional” walking. “I would not want to pretend that there is any one right way to walk,” he writes, and the walking he proposes in this book “strides along beside” other, functional forms of walking (12). In part, this book provides a set of ideas and tactics that can be used for non-functional walking:

You are free to use the ideas and experiences here and turn them into whatever kind of walking you wish: romantic, subversive, nosey, convivial, meditational, whatever. I like multiplicity and I think there may be some good in it—so, as long as your walking does not exclude the walking of others, I will be chuffed to think you are using any tactics or ideas here. (12)

“At the same time,” he continues, “I am giving myself the same privilege in the pages that follow: to walk the walk I want to walk and to evangelise about its qualities” (12). So we are invited to take what we can use and leave what we can’t, to borrow from his own practice if we want, or to refrain, if we don’t.

Smith is interested in “emblems and symbols,” their origins and “codes and secret languages,” their historical meanings (12-13). Those symbols are an important part of the terrain of the walk, which is more important than the walker: 

By walking I have not denied myself the physical pleasures of performance. However, there is a more humbling aspect to walking; for it is not the walker, but the terrain, natural and built, that mostly makes the walk. The walker takes a far more powerful and experienced lover than any audience. Sun, tropical storms, traffic, snow, mists; the terrain is not your backdrop, but seizes the action as its author and agonist. (13)

Thinking of the terrain as the author of the walk, as something that provokes a reaction in the walker, is an essential part of his practice. He finds “a joy in the textures of things,” for instance: he touches a sandstone sculpture of a horse and feels he is touching “a 300-million-year-old desert,” runs his hand over a rusting name plate and suddenly feels “the industry it once advertised” missing (13). That attention to detail is a critical part of his mythogeographical walking. 

Such walking, Smith argues, is not escapist. Quite the contrary, in fact: it is a complex form of resistance:

It feels like a fight inside the fabrics of society for access to all those things that overdeveloped economies circulate at speeds just beyond our grasp: inner life, the wild absurdities of our unique and subjective feelings, beautiful common treasures, uncostable pleasures, conviviality, an ethics of strangerhood and nomadic thinking. Walking is pedestrian. Its pace disrupts things and makes them strange. . . . Whatever flashes by, becomes readable, touchable, loveable, available. However, The Spectacle is not stupid; it has long been ready for such old-fashioned radicalisms, laying down huge and sugary sloughs of wholesomeness and holiness for us to founder in. (14)

The Spectacle, as I’ve noted before in relation to Smith’s work, is a term that comes from the writing of Guy Debord. Here Smith provides his own definition: the Spectacle is “the enemy of the sensitised walker,” “the growing Nothing in the lifeblood of society,” “the dominance of representations over what they represent” (14). It is, he continues, 

the dominance of the ideas of freedom, democracy, happiness over people actually being free, happy and democratically active; enforced by the global deregulation of finance, the giant algorithms of the surveillance states, a media that has gone beyond mass to be more pervasive than gods were ever imagined to be, anti-collectivity laws and the war machines with their enemy-pals in the AK47 theocracies. (15)

For Smith, “[e]mbodied and hypersensitised walking—with senses reaching inwards and outwards—is the antithesis of the Spectacle. The feeling body, alive with thoughts, is a resistance; theatre and insurgency combined. And what better and more unlikely cover than ‘pedestrian’?” (15). The important words here are “embodied” and “hypersensitised”: those are key parts of Smith’s walking practice.

That practice, of course, draws on what Smith calls “mythogeography.” The key principles of mythogeography, he writes, are

multiplicity and trajectory. Applied to walking that means resisting routines and boundaries and treasuring the many selves you may pass through or encounter on your journey. I would always try to protect the freedom of walkers to use guises and camouflage in acts of transformation. In this cause, I sometimes find it necessary to adapt or détourn ideas and rituals taken from sacred spaces. There is always a place for an abstract or inner walk. (16)

Such walking does not exclude what he calls “material interventions,” such as the “ambulant architectures” of Wrights & Sites, “which seeks to equip walkers not only with concepts and tactics, but also with plain damned things for subtle and extravagant transformations of actually existing postmodernity” (16). I’m not sure what the ambulant architecture project was, even though Smith describes one aspect of it in this book; that is an area for further research.

Later, Smith adds more to his definition of mythogeography. It is, he writes, 

an experimental approach to places as if they were sites for performances, crime scenes or amateur excavations (let’s say, grave robbing) of multiple layers of treasure. To get at these different aspects of place and space, mythogeography draws on all kinds of “low theory”; amateur and poetic assembling into manifestos of things I have learned (mostly from others) while out on the road. (59)

Mythogeography, he continues, “is a hybrid of ideas, tactics and strategies. It embraces both respectable (academic, scientific, culturally validated) and non-respectable (Fortean, antiquarian, mystical, fictional) knowledges. It judges these first against their own criteria and then sets the different knowledges in orbit about each other, seeking to intuit their gravitational pulls upon each other” (59). Fortean, Wikipedia tells me, refers to the work of the American writer Charles Fort, who was interested in something called “anomalous phenomena,” a category that includes ufology, cryptozoology, and parapsychology. This must be the “damned data” that Smith often refers to—data that doesn’t make sense according to current scientific knowledge. This is a direction in which I cannot follow Smith—I just can’t believe in UFOs or Bigfoot or ghosts, or feign an interest in such things. But it seems to be part of the way that mythogeography sets out to make the mundane magical. The interest in occult or esoteric phenomena is common to psychogeographers and mythogeographers, it seems. “Mythogeography,” Smith continues, “explores atmospheres and the effects of psychogeography,” and it “regards explorers, performers, activists and passers-by as sites; all as multiplicitous, unfinished and undefinable as the terrains they inhabit” (59). It is not a finished model; rather, it is “a general approach which emphasises hybridity and multiplicity, but does not attempt to limit this to any single combination of elements or homogenous model of diversity” (60). The origins of mythogeography are in the work of Wrights & Sites, which drew from the work of Fluxus, Mike Pearson, Tacita Dean, and Fiona Templeton (60). I know a little about Fluxus, and a little about Mike Pearson and Fiona Templeton, but I need to investigate them further, along with the work of Tacita Dean.

Embodiment is an essential aspect of Smith’s walking:

A functionless walk is about as embodied as you can get. Easing, waiting, responding, jerking, rolling, smoothing, tip-toeing the body across the environment. It would be a shame if, after all the erotic energy expended by people “getting in touch with nature,” no one really touched it. So handle the weft and weave, the detail, the spiny thorn and the nettle hair. Leave a little of your blood on things. Take stones home in bruises. Test clay between your fingertips. Put your head in rivers. Let tadpoles and tiny crabs scuttle across the back of your arm. 

Stand still to feel the different kinds of wind; let them push you, walk against them. 

Tread (with the right boots) on bottle fragments and tin cans. And then spend a few minutes enjoying the textures after the crunch. You don’t always have to be precious. (26-27)

He suggests that walkers experiment with shifting their focus into their ankles, wrists, knees, or hips: 

become a thing of joints and hinges and allow your thoughts and feelings to model them. Thinking with your feet is not about “groundedness,” but rather about rediscovering legs as feelers, tentacles, bio-instruments that complement the meshwork of senses that bathe and caress the surfaces about us with exploratory seeing and touching and smelling and hearing and tasting, all the time swinging the whole body of instruments through the hips. Conduct your senses like an orchestra, reconnecting the two parts of your body in a swaying walk, use your stride to disperse longings to the landscape. (27)

Smith’s comment about “groundedness” is a sign of his unease with notions of connection or rootedness, which would suggest that he would be less interested in Yi-Fu Tuan’s notion of place as the product of experience and stasis than in Doreen Massey’s notion of space as a simultaneity of stories and flows of power. Such connection cannot come, he continues, 

at the expense of disruption, of tripping up and over, stumbling and righting, of calling, of refusal, or risking the crossing, of not looking, of disrupting the flow, of not going to the destination . . . that it is also in these disconnections that the enigmatic meanings of the city and the landscape can be floated free from their immobile sites and engaged in a movement that may eventually lead them back to connections, but not to begin with, not quite yet. Don’t rush it. (27)

I wonder if the open spaces of freedom he suggests can be created or (perhaps) discovered by walking are connected to those moments of disruption and disconnection.

Along with embodiment goes being sensitized to the terrain, and Smith makes a number of suggestions for tactics that can lead to a greater sensitization. These are “mostly subtle devices, games and refrains for peeling away a layer of armour, extending a sympathetic organ or opening the eyes a little deeper” (29). Walkers can, for instance, “[c]arry, touch, inhale, sip, rub and lick things as you find them” (29). They can use repetition by walking the same route over and over again (29). They can “walk the street or the hill path or the beach into yourself. . . . a psycho-geographical act, raising and reforming memories, feelings, self-images and setting them at the mercies of far vistas, of the straightness of the path, of the massing of the flocks above” (29-30). I’m not sure, in practical terms, how to walk the terrain into myself, but it’s important to Smith: he later describes deep autotopographical walking, in which 

autobiography or psychological transformation and crisis are key strands in the weaves around the route. There is no therapeutic guarantee here; what a walk tends to do is to set things in motion, but their eventual trajectory will be determined by your own choices and interventions, by others, by terrains and by accidents. (137)

Walkers can think about how they look at the world and the people in it (30). They might wash or polish “a pavement slab, an empty plinth, or a doorstep for which there is no longer a house” regularly (30). They could experiment with where they place their attention, without limiting their responses to their experiences to the literal: “your feelings are as ambiguous and allusive a set of materials as imagist poetry, to interpret them appropriately,” he suggests (30). Walkers can also occasionally stand still and listen carefully, identifying as many different sounds as possible” (30-31). Later, he suggests that one might walk in disguise (152)—that strikes me as a way to get arrested, but I could be wrong. Perhaps that fear is related to Smith’s next point: walkers need to remember that most threats are not real, and that they shouldn’t allow their fear—of ridicule, for instance—to stand in their way (31). They might pretend to be someone else as they walk (31-32). They might walk the landscape as if it were a body (32) (again, I’m not sure how to do that in practice). They can consciously sensitize themselves to the presence of others in the busy spaces of cities, “making complex steps” and incorporate others “into your choreography” (32). “[S]ensitising yourself to the flows of the city will not redeem you from or inure you to its violent commerce,” Smith writes. “The very opposite: experience and subjectivity are exactly what are most fiercely traded now. Rather than releasing you from the clutches of overdevelopment, sensitising tactics are intended to bring you right into the belly of the Spectacle” (32-33).

Smith inverts Occam’s Razor, the heuristic that suggests that the simplest solutions to a problem are probably the best. Instead, he advises walkers to “adopt, no matter how fragmentary and partial your evidence, the most complex, sinister and portentous explanations possible until disproved by further evidence” (36). This is a psychogeographer’s credo, which helps to explain their baroque interpretations of phenomena. (I’m not sure I can follow Smith down this road; Occam’s Razor is too deeply imprinted on my way of looking at the world. All the more reason, I imagine him saying, to give it a try.) Don’t take your own food, he advises; instead, rely on what you discover along the road (37)—a practice that would lead to hunger in rural Saskatchewan. He advocates relying as well on chance in relation to destinations: “Coming unexpectedly upon an abandoned fairground or the skeleton of an industrial unit will always have far more thrill than a planned and guided trip around a stately home” (37). Later, he expands on this idea:

One of the great things about not knowing where you are going is that relatively unimpressive landscapes, structures or artefacts take on a new aura and wonder when stumbled across or encountered as part of a walking narrative. What, if planned, might be found with some minor self-satisfaction, can instead by encountered as a staggering discovery, a bone-stopping association, a punch in the heart accusation from the past, a precious mis-design; some rotted shed, some parts of a shattered wing mirror like self-fracturing selves, some stream in a suburban valley, a sodium lamplit beauty . . . these unfold one after the other, space unravelling rather than delivering. (116)

“Delivering” suggests something pre-planned, something expected, whereas “unravelling” suggests chance, accident, and a revelation.

Many of these ideas—and the term “psychogeography” itself—come from the Situationist International. Smith first encountered the Situationists in the 1970s, in Richard Gombin’s The Origins of Modern Leftism: “The idea that ours is a society of spectacle struck a powerful chord that is still ringing with me: a society in which the circulation and distribution of images defines social relationships subjugated to economic imperatives still seems to describe the one I ‘operate’ on” (49). For Smith, the Situationist dérives were not only a tactic for understanding the psychological or emotional effects of terrain on individuals; they were also a way to disrupt the spectacle: dérives, he writes, 

were un-planned drifts, in which the criteria for choosing a route were: which promised the most abundant ambience? which had the greatest resonance, the greatest capacity to be détourned, re-deployed for the purposes of disrupting everyone else’s economic trajectories? Most treasured were those places that seemed to manifest a meeting place of different ambiences. These were called “hubs.” (50)

Smith emphasizes that the dérives were not ends in themselves:

They were acts of research; experiences on the street were experimental materials for the creation of “situations”; combinations of site, performance and demonstration out of which might eventually spring new ways of living to transform cities. So, this is a walking that is not an end in itself, that does not test its own qualities in terms of how little its participants bother the public health service, but rather according to its coruscating engagements with the social relationships expressed in the images and ideas that circulate about sites and places. It is a walking of disruption, a walking of refusal, a walking of research and redeployment of old arts in smithereens. (50-51)

According to Smith, “[t]he conditions of these times are more restricted than those when the Situationists drifted Paris” (51)—a claim that might be true of the white dérivistes, but not of, for instance, Abdelhafid Khatib, the Algerian-born Situationist whose 1958 attempts at a drift in the soon-to-be demolished Les Halles market kept ending in his arrest for violating the curfew that was imposed on North Africans in Paris (Khatib). But that’s not Smith’s point, of course. Rather, he is talking about the changes in the Spectacle—its increased reach and power:

The Spectacle is now integrated, concentrated and diffuse: where once it operated through either dictatorship, free mobility, or the penetration of everything, now it deliriously switches, with alacrity, between all three states. In the overdeveloped world any resistance to the Spectacle has switched from the political realm to running battles across the plane of interiority. We are caught in a rearguard action to win back control of our own subjective multiplicities from identity-retailing and an avatar culture that proposes the arts as a tribute band and the streets as a lookalike condition. (51)

“Under these conditions, and in this game of war for interiority and subjectivity,” Smith continues, “the tactics and, more importantly, the strategy of the Situationists have never been more resonant” (51).

Smith provides a list of five steps towards the beginning of a great walk. First, know why you are walking: “disrupt yourself, set yourself going and apart,” and “shake things up for yourself” (53). Second, know where you are walking: head towards somewhere unfamiliar and go to places you would usually avoid. Third, walk with others but keep the focus on the spaces you are passing through. Fourth, free yourself from your everyday, your usual habits: “Find a way to get you off your beaten tracks, and then off your off-your-beaten-tracks” (54). Finally, know what to take—sensible shoes, a notebook and pen, a camera, water (54). Perhaps the most important tip Smith gives is to walk slowly: “An important quality of this walking is its anachronistic pace, decelerated even for walking. . . . Only in such slo-mo walking can she easily and regularly stop to stare obsessively at details, lichen, ironies” (58). That’s great advice, but hard for some of us to adopt, since everyone has their own comfortable stride length and speed. Nevertheless, he wonders what “marathon walkers,” who travel at more than four miles per hour, can see or engage with (103). Nothing, is the presumed response.

The important thing, Smith suggests about walking, is to be ready for what comes: 

Once walking, there is a mythical-ethical aspect: hold yourself in preparedness for whatever arises. A glove dropped or a toy thrown from a buggy. A stumbling fellow pedestrian. An assault. . . . Choose your role. Depending on the character you choose for yourself, and to what layers of mastery and compassion and anger you have ascended, hold yourself always in readiness to accept whatever affordances are given to you. (152)

The term “affordances” is one many psychogeographers use; again, using Wikipedia as a source (a very bad idea, I know, and I apologize), it refers to what the environment offers to the individual. It comes from the work of James Gibson—and if I’m serious about understanding what it means, I’m going to have to read Gibson’s The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Otherwise, I’m going to avoid the term entirely—except when I’m quoting someone who uses it.

Walking can bring about new connections, Smith argues,

through its aches, blisters, shivering and sweating, dehydration in intense heat, dizziness, pain, exhaustion, alienation, involuntary joy, inappropriate arousal, hearing what is usually unheard, bristling with fear, being desperate to piss and having nowhere to go, longing for a hiding place . . . there is little pleasure for most people in such discomforts in themselves (unless you are cultivating them as the status symbols of extreme walking; but what about:

The pain arrived at by pleasure?

The aching from the sheer enjoyment of the walk?

Soreness from the fierce rawness of the experiences?

Walking through the blister pain and out the other side into ease?

The rush when the fear subsides and relief floods in environmentally? (62)

Smith’s emphasis on pain, on blisters, might suggest that he’s thinking about epic walking—walking over long distances and periods of time. That would categorize his walk in Sebald’s footsteps, but it’s also a kind of walking that he tends to eschew in favour of walks that incorporate an approach derived from relational aesthetics.

In one chapter, Smith discusses walking pilgrimages—and that’s of interest to me, since I’ll be giving a paper at a conference on pilgrimage in a couple of weeks. (Would that I had read this chapter before I wrote the paper!) Smith doesn’t care for the notion of pilgrimage as changing oneself self-discovery and the downplaying destinations; that approach devalues the terrain of the walk and its destination: “Reducing sites and shrines to vague and mushy approximations; servicing a fluid commodity-thinking that passes for spirituality (65). Instead, he suggests that what he describes as “postmodern pilgrimage” might be a search for the possibility of sacred points:

Maybe postmodern pilgrimage has no end-point, but rather is a search, or a re-search, for the possibility of such points (or their manifestation in other geometrical forms—perhaps as planes, perhaps as patterns). The pilgrimage, without an end-point, has no space for belief in the efficacy of completion; rather the pilgrim steps into the hyper-flows of the world without map, staff, route, scallop . . . having to reconstruct “pilgrimage” while in the motion of it, consciously and openly going as a “pilgrim” partly to discover how the world, how people, how oneself (selves), how the landscape, how the divine might respond to that. 

I am left curious and attracted to this “pilgrimage” and wondering about its possibilities, where it might lead in terms of unexpected contacts and meetings, in a different kind of understanding of the relationship between place and meanings (everyday and metaphysical), of material space (symbol) and its relationship to “what cannot be represented.” I wonder if the “ghosts” of earlier pilgrim practices would rise up on such a walk. Would anachronisms be renewed, emptinesses filled? (65)

These are interesting questions, and I wonder if the kind of walking Robert Macfarlane describes as “improvised pilgrimages” (235) might be a way of beginning to answer them. In any case, Smith concludes, “[t]here is very little real ‘wrong walking’; there is some element of pilgrimage in it all” (65).

The kind of walking Smith is interested in is, he writes, “all about being flexible and ready”:

The walker can draw upon what among contemporary dancers and movement artists are almost banalities now: the prioritising, above technique, of flexibility and preparedness to accept affordances, to respond, to be open and raw to the moment. All the tactics and ideas here do not mean much without such readiness, such pre-expressivity, necessary for spontaneous reaction to what the road throws at you, which is mostly offers. 

There is a paradox here: preparing to be spontaneous. Unsurprisingly, this is mostly a via negativa; the removal of blocks and inhibitions. It is also creative in a negative way; those blocks and inhibitions sometimes produce useful delays and deferrals. So, simplistic readiness is not enough; what a chosen walking requires is a sophisticated readiness that is strategic, able to translate the immediacy and specificity of the offer from the road to a moving space on a sliding plane of generality: in other words, little things connecting to big things, every brush with the road part of a big picture; a body in flux in co-creation with spaces that are always under construction. (74)

Again, the terrain—the road—is the determining factor: the walker must respond to the road rather than to some predetermined notion or destination or idea. That, of course, is easier said than done, and the outcome may not always be serendipitous: my decision during Wood Mountain Walk to stay on Highway 2 instead of heading towards Willow Bunch may have been the biggest mistake I made on that walk, and it was a response to what I took to be the terrain.

Smith advocates walking with others, which he describes as “convivial drifting”: “the shifting space of disrupted walking is one through which we can negotiate with each other all sorts of differences, helped by that quality in drifting which seems to favour the margins. The best things always seem to come from those on the fringes of a walking group, rather than from its head.” (77). During a drift or dérive, “the group composes the drift together, sharing, assembling, collaging and collaging it” (78). During a drift, he suggests, walkers can try switching their attention between different foci, 

oscillating from a collective gaze upon one another to a romantic gaze to the horizon. Falling for nothing, then for everything. While there is a mental aspect to this rhythmical looking, it is also a de- and re-composition of landscape. As the drift progresses, the rhythm of these switches can begin to take a compositional form: patterns emerge that then operate across the different scales. (134)

As with some of Smith’s comments regarding drifting, it would be easier to experience this being put into practice than to try to do it after reading about it.

But despite his interest in drifting, Smith notes that there are other ways to walk as well. He suggests a number of tactics that involve objects: carrying ephemera in one’s pockets, or like the performance artist He Yun Chang carrying a rock all around the periphery of the UK and returning it, or like Simon Whitehead carrying a table, or like Lonnie van Brummelen dragging a sculpture of Hermes for three months along the sides of roads. In 1998, the duo known as Lone Twin, in a performance called Totem, carried a telephone pole in a straight line through the centre of Colchester, through shops, workplaces, homes, busy streets; the principle of the performance was “activating social events through personal trials” (132). “Choose something to drag,” Smith suggests: “something that will leave a mark, something that transfigures as it is pulled” (82-83). That suggestion reminds me of Leo Baskatawang’s epic walk across Canada, dragging a copy of the Indian Act chained to his leg (Benjoe). Such walking is an intentional ordeal: Smith recalls carrying a wooden plinth at the Sideways Walking Festival in Belgium, a performance that was part of Wrights & Sites “ambulant architecture” project. He carried the heavy plinth for 23 miles, walking too fast and exhausting himself; the experience became a form of  “walking in the architecture of a horror film” (155). Despite his lack of interest in epic walking, Smith clearly is a practitioner—although that’s not the only form of walking he does.

Smith is deeply concerned about walking and gender. He writes,

The question of women and their relation to public space—to the streets and squares, to the public spaces of power—sacred spaces, protest spaces, educational spaces, working spaces, dance floor spaces, political spaces—and their rights of access and agency in the overlapping spaces of public and private life, public and relationship space, personal and family space. . . . without a politics of walking of these, there is no hope at all in walking. (160)

Fears of assault (particularly sexual assault) are not irrational, he notes, even though the world is generous (he argues that’s what women discover when they “take up an offer to walk”), but “the reality of the threats and the reality of the fears they generate are part of the same oppression” (160). He provides a long list of women who walk—a list that is gold for anyone looking to begin studying walking and gender (163). “[W]e need to address the rights of the stranger on the street,” he writes: 

to allow meaningless encounters and trivial situations to multiply, to allow a lack of significance back into the everyday and to wrestle meaningless and trivial space from those who would flood it with theological, cultural and familial restrictions and mono-meanings, to make it free for all those groups who might suffer—or fear they might suffer—assault, violation or intimidation on the road. (164)

Such freedom is an important, even essential goal, although I’m not sure how that goal can be reached—except by more women walking.

Smith ends his book with an appendix entitled “Walking for a change: A manifesto for a new nomad.” In it, he suggests that “[a] walk is nothing until it is over and then it is too late; which may explain the rarity of really good books about walking” (190). There are so many modes of walking, he continues, “that it defies even its own capacities to express other things; trips up on its own multiplicity. Not armfuls of diversity, but sprawling, tumbling or spilling splashes, splinters and streams that evade anyone or anything trying to sweep them up” (191). He suggests that, for him, the most tedious modes are walking are the ones “most practised,” but even those “can be disrupted for a few moments by the myriad of other, non-functional modes: lyrical walking, art crawling, pilgrimage, and so on” (191). “Rather than seeking the mitigation of contradictions,” he continues, the walking he advocates “wants and needs gaps and fractures to make its way, tensions to serve as its capital and catapults, waste and ruins for its building materials” (192). It is in those gaps and fractures, I think, that moments of freedom and openness can be discovered.

As I suggested earlier, all of this theoretical material, and the practical suggestions Smith makes, are interleaved with his account of walking Sebald’s route through East Anglia. What strikes me the most about Smith’s account of his walk is the amount of detail he provides. He obviously stops constantly to take notes and/or photographs—something I didn’t do that much on last summer’s walk to Wood Mountain, but which I should try harder to do in future. When Smith announced his plans to follow Sebald’s path on Facebook, he received negative responses from psychogeographers who hate the book:

I perversely welcomed these adverse comments; though they stung at my purpose. So many of the commentators I had read, without comprehension, were reverential towards Sebald’s work. I had come to feel that I was misusing a sacred tome as pretext for a walk; now the book seemed more abject, ruined, something for me to salvage as I read it along my way. 

I was deluded in every respect. (21)

The Rings of Saturn was an absurd map to take,” he writes, and he “deployed it absurdly” (15). At the walk’s outset, he realized that he had misremembered the sequence of events in The Rings of Saturn: Sebald wasn’t walking to convalesce from “a state of almost total immobility,” but he walked himself into that state, something Smith experienced in his adolescence; so the walk would be “towards immobility,” not away from it (23). Moreover, Smith, writes, he was “painfully aware that what I am doing is a copy of a copy of a copy” (23-24). That’s not entirely a bad thing, he notes later on: while repeated walks “are not equivalent to their originals,” they can be seen as “interrogations of them and stepping off points for new walks. Like Heraclitus’s river (rather more mutable than it is generally understood) the path is never walked the same way twice, is never the same way twice” (71). Later he recommends enacting “in local, accessible forms” some of the “classic” walks (166). I wonder what that might be like—it might be an example of the psychogeographical tactic of walking somewhere with a map of somewhere completely different.

Sometimes, as he walks, Smith completely disagrees with Sebald’s description of a place. Take the seaside town of Lowestoft, for instance: “It is not the wasteland described by Sebald, the wasteland in which it would have been simpler to ‘spontaneously’ discover my provisional narrative of dread to liberation. Instead, that counts for nothing in a vibrant, working-class seaside town” (68). That difference in experience leads Smith to wonder if Sebald is blind to class: 

Is Sebald’s problem when confronting catastrophe—nuclear war, ecological devastation, depredation of species, Nazism—that he sees everything but the catastrophe of class? He is unaware of, or opposed to, the idea that there operates a system that always tends toward, and thrives upon, crisis. . . . Instead, Sebald is super-sensitised to the surprise of tragedy. (70)

I wonder if this is true; I would have to re-read The Rings of Saturn with this suggestion in mind. Clearly, for Smith, tragedy is not the appropriate response to a systemic crisis; tragedy suggests that the crisis was unique, individual, and local, rather than (as Smith contends) the truth: that the crisis is the outcome of a system, the Spectacle.

As he walks, Smith becomes “increasingly suspicious of Sebald’s exploration”: his assumption had been that The Rings of Saturn was supposed to be “a deep engagement with its landscape,” but it isn’t, or else there is “a mismatch between Sebald’s complex intellectualism and his idea of what an embodied engagement with a landscape is. He does not match up to Nick Papadimitriou’s ‘deep topography’”—Papadimitriou’s Scarp is the next book I’ll be blogging about—and, in fact ,he thinks The Rings of Saturn is based on “cursory desk-based research” (85).  Smith discusses Papadimitriou’s notion of deep topography: it is, he writes, is a “wandering and watching and logging and obsessing”; it is “the repeated walking of the same stretch of terrain, observing and re-observing, reading and researching, deep in information and feeling, the terrain and the body seeping into each other, the map into the mind, the mind into the map” (86). “Curling inside his looping journeys,” Smith contends, “Papadimitriou de-romanticises ruins and tweaks the erogenous zones of golf courses. Other narratives bend like tiny dimensions inside the bigger shell, while mythic figures step sure-footedly around his wanders”—mythic figures Papadimitriou invents (86).

At times Smith walks in the country, and at other times he finds himself in suburbs. There, he writes, 

the voids are tiny ones, but as I explore one the whole tin peels open and I find, sunk beneath the modern surface, a mesh of hollow ways and green lanes hidden behind the house backs, a murder narrative, badgers’ sets and kids’ dens, a surprise eighteenth-century mansion among bungalows and odd unofficial handwritten posters. (100)

The multiplicity he finds in suburban neighbourhoods reflects the key principle of mythography:

Multiplicity is the key mythogeographical principle, the principle of multiplicitous narratives and many histories, disrupting the established narratives not only to introduce subaltern ones, but to question the legitimacy of dreamed, felt, feared ones and to invent our own; but where to we go with all this multiplicity? Does it have to pass through a period of loss like this? That the assemblage of multiplicitous narratives, layers, trajectories and so on will almost inevitably lead to some kind of hiatus, a stasis as the mind responds to the multiplicity and its uncapturableness by attempting to reduce it all to some common trait, a universal bon mot, organic ambience. Does it need a shock to shake the multiple elements back to life? Or a sharp intake of breath and a step back, to make some space for the multiplicitous elements themselves? (102)

If he were to make space for the multiplicitous elements of his Sebald walk, he asks himself, what would he see?

The palimpsest of churches, hallucinatory and police-like, the marks and portals (and tones) of the ruling folk, the tiny space of the reading room. The broad friendliness of the popular founded on the remains of a welfare state (and its self-help hybrid), the mutability of buildings, mutation in general, the ghost of US power in the form of hallucinatory livery and absent airfields, a landscape in which things float, things have gone missing (herring are very slowly returning) like the sailors from the Sailors Reading Room, labour and resistance fixed by a pin to a card in a museum. (102)

At times, though, he finds such multiplicity difficult to discover, and in a description that is uncannily like a depiction of the Saskatchewan landscape, he explains why:

Now wandering the farm land beyond Harleston, I am beginning to wonder if this is a non-mythogeographical or even anti-mythogeographical territory. I seem to be at war with it. Yes, of course, each cabbage in each cabbage field is different. Each of the few people I meet has a unique life. But there has been homogenising here, large-scale industrialised agriculture on a predominantly flat landscape. There are very few hedges, very few insects, nothing of the multiplicity of detail from which to easily construct a weave; yet it would still be easy to mistake it for countryside. (159)

Like the Saskatchewan landscape, what he sees near Harleston is dominated by power and authority:

But what there also is here is a plane, a reminder of how what is striated and controlled runs through every feature of itself, not externally controlled but patterned form within its own texture and grain. Authority is unusually exposed out here; it runs through everything, right to the surfaces, a vivid anonymity, moving to the beat of a spectacular humdrum that until now I could not hear. (159)

The key to a mythographical approach to walking would be to find the resistance to that “spectacular humdrum,” or to create it, to invent it. But it is difficult in such a landscape: “This is a melancholy road,” he writes; “I am not concerned that it will immobilise me now, but that it itself is beginning to silt up and grind towards a halt” (159).

One way of creating that resistance is to look for coincidences, which Smith calls “wormholes” (suggesting that they are more than coincidences). For instance, on this walk, the he discovers a real-estate firm called “Jackson Stops”; on an earlier walk, he passed a pub named “Jackson Stops,” which had that name because the estate agents’ “for sale” sign had hung over it for so long (107). Another example: he stops in a bookshop and picks up a book by Charles Hurst, who was the impetus for his 2009 walk (described in Smith’s book Mythogeography) following the line of oak trees Hurst planted (113). Another way of creating that resistance is by (as he suggests elsewhere in the book) looking for complicated explanations of phenomena:

Although I was only dimly aware of its significance, a vein of colour symbolism had begun to run through my walk: firstly, the white of the deer I first heard about in Snape, and subsequently symbols of black, red and finally gold. 

Given the region of fire that my walk was soon to pass through, an area something akin to a crucible, it is hard not to see the parallels with a jumbled alchemy: the purification in the white albedo, the decomposition of the black nigredo, the burning in the yellow light and solar fire of citrinitras, and the end of it all in red rubedo. (119)

Only Smith, I think, would discover alchemical colour symbolism during a walk. It’s something that would never occur to me.

Another source of resistance is parody and irony. When he visits Sutton Hoo, a historic site with Anglo-Saxon burial mounds, he imagines the kind of heritage site he would create:

I wander around the burial mounds enjoying being the first visitor there. I am impressed by the extent of the framing of these humps. Chain fence. Spot lighting. Hand cleanser. Viewing platform. Information board. Finger posts. And I begin to plan a heritage site consisting only of chain fences, spot lighting, hand cleanser, viewing platforms, information boards and finger posts. (126)

Another source of resistance is through references to the occult or to esoteric knowledge (echoing Smith’s interest in Charles Fort). In a taxi to the edge of Rendelsham Forest, he discovers an example of the “disreputable knowledge” he is interested in: the driver talks about “fairy bridges” where one has to call out to the fairies while crossing; she also tells him that the white deer in the forest “signifies the coming of a new charismatic leader,” that it is magical (126). “She is my angel,” Smith writes: “I realise that everything up till new has been prelude. The great walk is about to begin”—and his walk shifts to one about UFOs (126-27).

Smith reports his grief at seeing roadkill, a grief that is connected to the recent death of his mother: “Death is not a mist, not a plane, but a dirty weave of bits, a broken thing requiring more and more broken things to make its gothic swirls. It is nothing in itself, and it is this nothing that is awful” (165). Those reflections remind him of his mother’s death, and her life, but that is territory he cannot write about yet, and that becomes one of the ways in which he has “not succeeded in re-enacting Sebald’s trajectory” (165). In the end, Smith abandons his project: “Now has come the moment to abandon the Sebald route. It has led me as far as it can. The road has melted and inundated the whole terrain. I must do the next part of the work alone; but not immobilised” (171). He catches a bus to Halesworth, and then takes the train home.

On Walking . . . And Stalking Sebald is an unusual book, with its layers of different kinds of text, but its structure gives readers both the theory of mythogeography and an example of its practice. After reading it, I’m getting the sense that I’m finally coming to an understanding of what mythogeography is and how borrowing from it might inform (or even improve) my own walking. And that’s what’s important about this whole project—learning what is useful to me and what isn’t, what I want to do and what I don’t. And there’s no way to discover those things except by reading widely, by learning what’s out there, what others are up to and how their practices relate (or don’t) to my own.

Works Cited

Benjoe, Kerry. “Marching for a Cause,” Leader-Post [Regina], 14 June 2012, p. A3.

Khatib, Abdelhafid. “Attempt at a Psychogeographical Description of Les Halles.” Translated by Paul Hammond. Situationist International Online.

Macfarlane, Robert. The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot. London: Penguin, 2012.

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