Reading and Walking

Walking, Reading, and Reading about Walking

Tag: romanticism

George Macaulay Trevelyan, “Walking”

GM_Trevelyan_by_Beresford

(George Macaulay Trevelyan as photographed by George Charles Beresford in 1926)

British historian George Macaulay Trevelyan’s long essay “Walking” was published in the collection Clio, A Muse and Other Essays Literary and Pedestrian in 1913. Clio, A Muse must have been a popular book; it was in its third impression within the year. I’ve heard about Trevelyan’s essay before, but it took comments on this blog, and the selections included in Duncan Minshull’s anthology The Vintage Book of Walking, to motivate me to find a copy online and dig into it. 

“Walking” begins with two quotations: one from Rousseau’s Confessions, and the other from—surprise!—Leslie Stephen’s “In Praise of Walking.” They situate Trevelyan’s thinking on this subject within the Romantic tradition, I think, but Trevelyan’s first words are less about the experience of sublime landscapes than the psychological benefits of walking:

I have two doctors, my left leg and my right. When body and mind are out of gear (and those twin parts of me live at such close quarters that the one always catches melancholy from the other) I know that I have only to call in my doctors and I shall be well again. (56)

Walking helps Trevelyan when “[t]hat combination of mind and body which I call my soul is often so choked up with bad thoughts or useless worries,” and it is at those times that he calls on his “two doctors” to carry him “off for the day” (57). Often mental exercises, such as those recommended by Arnold Bennett in his book The Human Machine, are insufficient to shift Trevelyan’s thoughts away from “general misery”:

On these occasions my recipe is to go for a long walk. My thoughts start out with me like bloodstained mutineers debauching themselves on board the ship they have captured, but I bring them home at nightfall, larking and tumbling over each other like happy little boy-scouts at play, yet obedient to every order to “concentrate” for any purpose Mr. Bennett or I may wish. (57-58)

Trevelyan’s repetition in these first pages isn’t simply garrulousness, I think; rather, it’s his way of emphasizing the psychological benefits he finds in walking.

However, those walks, if they are to have any “medicinal use,” need to be rural walks. Trevelyan describes the benefits he has found in walking: 

a Sunday spent with both legs swinging all day over ground where grass or heather grows. I have often known the righteous forsaken and his seed begging their bread, but I never knew a man to go for an honest day’s walk, for whatever distance, great or small, his pair of compasses could measure out in the time, and not have his reward in the repossession of his own soul. (58)

These need not be solo walks—“companionship is good, and the more friends who join us on the tramp the merrier” (58)—and their effect on the self will be limited to resetting the walker’s mood:

For there is not time, as there is on the longer holiday or walking tour, for body and mind to attain that point of training when the higher ecstasies of Walking are felt through the whole being, those joys that crave silence and solitude. And indeed, on these humbler occasions, the first half of the day’s walk, before the Human Machine has recovered its tone, may be dreary enough without the laughter of good company, ringing round the interchange of genial and irresponsible verdicts on the topics of the day. For this reason informal Walking societies should be formed among friends in towns, for week-end or Sabbath walks in the neighbouring country. I never get better talk than in these moving Parliaments, and good talk is itself something. (58-59)

Here is the Romanticism that Trevelyan’s epigraphs led me to expect: “the higher ecstasies of Walking,” “those joys that crave silence and solitude.” He is focused on a different kind of walking: a practice that is essential to mental health.

However, there are criticisms to be made of such a practice, Trevelyan admits, presenting a long quotation from Arthur Sidgwick’s Walking Essays complaining about the insensitivity of such walkers and the starvation of “their immortal being” between “the blind swing of the legs below and the fruitless flickering of the mind above” (qtd. 59). Sidgwick sounds like an impossible snob, but Trevelyan suggests that these remarks demonstrate a thorough understanding of “the high, ultimate end of Walking, which is indeed something other than to promote talk” (60). For Trevelyan, though, a day’s walk every couple of weeks can only refresh the body and exercise the mind. The kind of walking Sidgwick describes, he suggests, “requires longer time, more perfect training, and, for some of us at least, a different kind of scenery. Meanwhile let us have a good talk as we tramp the lanes” (60). Trevelyan is defending a rather unromantic, even prosaic, kind of walking against the nearly impossible demands of Sidgwick’s romanticism. He quotes Thomas Carlyle’s claim that walking and talking is “one of the highest of human functions” (60), but he also sees a connection between convivial and conversational walking and a more solo and Romantic approach in Carlyle’s walking practice:

because he talked well when he walked with others, he felt and thought all the more when he walked alone, “given up to his bits of reflections in the silence of the moors and hills.” He was along when he walked his fifty-four miles in the day, from Muirkirk to Dumfries, “the longest walk I ever made,” he tells us. Carlyle is in every sense a patron saint of Walking, and his vote is emphatically given not for the “gospel of silence”! (60-61)

Because Carlyle was good at conversational walking, he was good at reflective walking, and he might not be the only exemplar of that connection; surely the Wordsworths and Coleridge conversed while they made their walks together, and yet those walks led to a particular form of Romantic poetry.

Nevertheless, Trevelyan continues, his idea of “the perfect walk” involves both silence and solitude:

When you are really walking the presence of a companion, involving such irksome considerations as whether the pace suits him, whether he wishes to go up by the rocks or down by the burn, still more the haunting fear that he may begin to talk, disturbs the harmony of body, mind, and soul when they stride along no longer conscious of their separate, jarring entities, made one together in the mystic union with the earth, with the hills that still beckon, with that sunset that still shows the tufted moor under foot, with old darkness and its stars that take you to their breast with rapture when the hard ringing of heels proclaims that you have struck the final road. (61)

However, even at such times “a companion may be good, if you like him well, if you know that he likes you and the pace, and that he shares your ecstasy of body and mind” (61-62). Proclaiming that solitary walks are “perfect” makes him feel disloyal to such companions. He recalls walks in Italy with an unnamed friend in which they shared “the goodness and harmony of things, our bodies an animated part of the earth we trod” (62). 

“Central Italy is a paradise for the walker,” Trevelyan writes (62). He praises the “hills and mountains, unenclosed, open in all directions to the wanderer at will, unlike some British mountain game preserves” (63). It’s not just the scenery, then, but the way that walkers are not considered to be trespassers that is important: “even in the plains, the peasant, unlike some south-English farmers, never orders you off his ground, not even out of his olive grove or vineyard” (64). He likes the fact that it’s possible to find lodgings in Italian towns even if you arrive at midnight, and the way that the locals will guide strangers “without bargain or demur” (64). From here, he shifts to practical concerns: the need to carry water, the importance of a siesta during the heat of midday. However, he never loses sight of the sensuous pleasures of walking in Italy: walking at night, or the chorus of frogs, which he describes as “one of the grandest tunes to walk by” (65), or the song of nightingales.

However, walking is also a way for a person—especially a young person—to learn “that the world was not created to make him happy”:

In such cases, as in that of Teufelsdröckh, grim Walking’s the rule. Every man must once at least in life have the great vision of Earth as Hell. Then, while his soul within him is molten lava that will take some lifelong shape of good or bad when it cools, let him set out and walk, whatever the weather, wherever he is, be it in the depths of London, and let him walk grimly, well if it is by night, to avoid the vulgar sights and faces of men, appearing to him, in his then daemonic mood, as base beyond all endurance. Let him walk until his flesh curse his spirit for driving it on, and his spirit spend its rage on his flesh in forcing it still pitilessly to sway the legs. Then the fire within him will not turn to soot and choke him, as it chokes those who linger at home with their grief, motionless, between four mean, lifeless walls. (65-66)

At first I thought Trevelyan was writing about those physically arduous walks (because of length or difficulty) that test one’s resolve, but then I realized he’s actually writing about walking as a way of addressing psychological or even existential depression:

The stricken one who has, more wisely, taken to road and field, as he plies his solitary pilgrimage day after day, finds that he has with him a companion with whom he is not ashamed to share his grief, even the Earth he treads, his mother who bore him. At the close of a well-trodden day grief can have strange visions and find mysterious comforts. Hastening at droop of dusk through some remote byway never to be found again, a man has known a row of ancient trees nodding over a high stone wall over a bank of wet earth, bending down their sighing branches to him as he hastened past forever, to whisper that the place knew it all centuries ago and had always been waiting for him to come by, even thus, for one minute in the night. (66)

What is this grief that propels Trevelyan forward? It must be related to that feeling that leads him to call his legs his doctors, but I know little about his life or whether he did suffer from depression or not.

That grief is not Trevelyan’s sole walking companion, however:

Be grief or joy the companion, in youth and in middle age, it is only at the end of a long and solitary day’s walk that I have had strange casual moments of mere sight and feeling more vivid and less forgotten than the human events of life, moments like those that Wordsworth has described as his common companions in boyhood, like that night when he was rowing on Esthwaite, and that day when he was nutting in the woods. (66-67)

Those moments only come to Trevelyan after 25 miles of walking, but he notes that they came more easily to Wordsworth, “together with the power of expressing them in words!” (67). Those moments are the goal of one form of walking—a Romantic form of walking—which is separate from but linked to the more practical form of walking Trevelyan sees as essential to mental health.

But those aren’t the only two ways to walk: “There are many schools of Walking and none of them orthodox” (67). Some walk on roads, “the Puritans of the religion” (67). They have learned that “[t]he road is invaluable for pace and swing, and the ideal walk permits or even requires a smooth surface for some considerable portion of the way” (68-69). However, for Trevelyan, “twenty-five or thirty miles of moor and mountain, of wood and field-path, is better in every way than five-and-thirty or even forty hammered out on the road” (69). “The secret beauties of Nature are unveiled only to the cross-country walker,” he argues (69):

On the road we never meet the “moving accidents by flood and field”: the sudden glory of a woodland glade; the open back-door of the old farmhouse sequestered deep in rural solitude; the cow routed up from meditation behind the stone wall as we scale it suddenly; the deep, slow, south-country stream that we must jump, or wander along to find the bridge; the northern torrent of molten peat-hag that we must ford up to the waist, to scramble, glowing warm-cold, up the farther foxglove bank; the autumnal dew on the bracken and the blue straight smoke of the cottage in the still glen at dawn; the rush down the mountain side, hair flying, stones and grouse rising at our feet; and at the bottom the plunge in the pool below the waterfall, in. place so fair that kings should come from far to bathe therein—yet it is left, year in year out, unvisited save by us and “troops of stars.” These, and a thousand other blessed chances of the day, are the heart of Walking, and these are not of the road. (69-70)

The experience of those “secret beauties of Nature” are, to a great extent, the purpose of walking, according to Trevelyan. He doesn’t deny the role of “the hard road” in getting walkers to and from those “secret” spaces, and he praises what he calls “the ‘soft’ road”:

The broad grass lanes of the low country, relics of mediaeval wayfaring; the green, unfenced moorland road; the derelict road already half gone back to pasture; the common farm track—these and all their kind are a blessing to the walker, to be diligently sought out by help of map and used as long as may be. For they unite the speed and smooth surface of the harder road with much at least of the softness to the foot, the romance and the beauty of cross-country routes. (70-71)

Where I walk, it’s rare to find “the ‘soft’ road,” never mind those “cross-country routes” Trevelyan prefers. Pavement and gravel are the surfaces I walk on. And, in my most recent experience walking in the UK, farm tracks have mostly been paved as well. 

Along with his preferences regarding road surfaces, Trevelyan advises searching for “as much variety as is possible in twelve hours”—the time span of the walking he seems to recommend: “Road and track, field and wood, mountain, hill, and plain should follow each other in shifting vision” (71). He praises George Meredith’s poem “The Orchard and the Heath” for its depiction of “the effect of variation in the day’s walk” (71). Some districts naturally possess such variation, but variety can also “be obtained by losing the way—a half-conscious process, which in a sense can no more be done of deliberate purpose than falling in love. And yet a man can sometimes very wisely let himself drift, either into love, or into the wrong path out walking” (71-72). I am reminded here, strangely, of the psychogeographical trick of walking somewhere with the wrong map as a way of experiencing space differently. For Trevelyan,

there is a joyous mystery in roaming on, reckless where you are, into what valley, road or farm chance and the hour is guiding you. If the place is lonely and beautiful, and if you have lost all count of it upon the map, it may seem a fairy glen, a lost piece of old England that no surveyor would find though he searched for it a year. I scarcely know whether most to value this quality of aloofness, and magic in country I have never seen before and may never see again, or the familiar joys of Walking-grounds where every tree and rock are rooted in the memories that make up my life. (72)

But certain places provide better walking territory than others: the western part of England is better than the eastern; Wales is good; the coasts of Devon and Cornwall meet with his approval. 

Scrambling up hills “is an integral part of Walking, when the high ground is kept all day in a mountain region” (74). Indeed, “[i]t may be argues that scrambling and its elder brother climbing are the essence of Walking made perfect,” although Trevelyan acknowledges that, since he’s not a mountain climber, he cannot judge (74). However, climbers have no reason to envy walkers. “On the other hand,” he continues, “those stalwart Britons who, for their country’s good, shut themselves up in one flat field all day and play there, surrounded by ropes and a crowd, may keep themselves well and happy, but they are divorced from nature” (74-75). Hunting “does well when it draws out into the heart of nature those who could not otherwise be induced to go there,” but hunters should instruct their gamekeepers to allow walkers onto the land “when they themselves are not shooting” (75). “The closing of moors is a bad habit that is spreading in some places, though I hope it is disappearing in others,” he writes, suggesting that closing off land because of the presence of grouse and deer means that it has “ceased to belong to Britain” (75). “One would have thought that mountains as well as seas were a common pleasure ground,” Trevelyan continues. “But let us register our thanks to the many who do not close their moors” (76). In turn, walkers have responsibilities “not to leave gates open, not to break fences, not to walk through hay or crops, and not to be rude to farmers,” as well as to burn or bury their garbage, since “all nature is sacred, and in England there is none too much of it” (76). In addition, when walkers trespass on private property, they should do it “only so as to temper law with equity. Private gardens and the immediate neighbourhood of inhabited houses must be avoided or only crossed when there is no fear of being seen” (76). The guiding principle, he continues, is “‘Give no man, woman, or child just reason to complain of your passage’” (76). 

Tea is an essential addition to walking, and as British, by adoption, as wine is Italian. When he is tired and hungry, he states, he hopes that “a lane-side inn” will be able to provide him with three boiled eggs and a pot of tea (77). “Then, for an hour’s perfect rest and recovery, while I draw from my pocked some small, well-thumbed volume, discoloured by many rains and rivers, so that some familiar, immortal spirit may sit beside me at the board,” he writes. “There is true luxury of mind and body! Then on again into the night if it be winter, or into the dusk falling or still but threatened—joyful, a man remade” (77-78). For Trevelyan, walking at night is the best part of walking: “Indeed the only reason, other than weakness of the flesh, for not always walking until late at night, is the joy of making a leisurely occupation of the hamlet that chance or whim has selected for the night’s rest” (78). He praises the after-dinner walk at sunset—I’m surprised that after walking 12 hours anyone would want to walk some more—and suggests that “[a]fter a day’s walk everything has twice its usual value,” including food, drink, and books (79). He also advises taking a day off during a lengthy walking tour: “All day long, as we lie perdu in wood or field, we have perfect laziness and perfect health. . . . Our modern life requires such days of ‘anti-worry,’ and they are only to be obtained in perfection when the body has been walked to a standstill” (79-80). Even longer walking tours, it seems, are motivated by the need for psychological and physical health, at least as much as for their less prosaic effects.

Variety in weather is as welcome as variety in scenery, according to Trevelyan:

I love the stillness of dawn, and of noon, and of evening, but I love no less the “winds austere and pure.” The fight against fiercer wind and snowstorm is among the higher joys of Walking, and produces in shortest time the state of ecstasy. . . . Still more in mist upon the mountains, to keep the way, or to lose and find it, is one of the great primaeval games, though now we play it with map and compass. (80)

He recalls a week of walking in the Pyrenees, when he saw the sun for only half a day: “Yet I enjoyed that week in the mist, for I was kept hard at work finding the unseen way through pine forest and gurgling Alp, every bit of instinct and hill-knowledge on the stretch. And that one half-day of sunlight, how I treasured it!” (80-81). “So let us ‘love all changes of weather,’” he continues (81).

Trevelyan’s conclusion is perhaps rather abrupt. “I have no set down my own experiences and likings,” he writes. “Let no one be alarmed or angry because his ideas of Walking are different. There is no orthodoxy in Walking. It is a land of many paths and no-paths, where every one goes his own way and is right” (81). That lack of dogmatism—or at least that professed lack of dogmatism—is perhaps the thing I like best about this essay. Despite Trevelyan’s deep Romanticism, he acknowledges that there are other kinds of walking, and other reasons to walk. That openness is welcome. I’m also fascinated by the way that Trevelyan seems to be addressing a fairly large walking public. Was walking that popular in England at the turn of the twentieth century? Were people really going out to walk 25 or 30 miles on a Sunday? Were the concerns about access and exclusion that Trevelyan writes about widely shared? I can’t say. Answering those questions would take more research. 

Works Cited

Minshull, Duncan, ed. The Vintage Book of Walking, Vintage, 2000.

Trevelyan, George Macaulay. “Walking.” Clio, a Muse and Other Essays Literary and Pedestrian, third printing, Longman, Greens and Co., 1914, pp. 56-81. http://www.tbm100.org/Lib/Tre14.pdf.

Leslie Stephen, “In Praise of Walking”

NPG L238; Sir Leslie Stephen by George Frederic Watts

Portrait of Sir Leslie Stephen by George Frederic Watts, 1878

Sir Leslie Stephen’s essay “In Praise of Walking” was published in his four-volume collection of essays, Studies of a Biographer, which first appeared between 1898 and 1902. I found it on the Internet; I would rather have read a print edition, but the university library is closed because of the ongoing pandemic. This essay is the work of an elderly man looking back on his life and, more specifically, his pedestrian adventures; it begins with the idea that, as we grow older, we “may find consolation for increasing infirmities in looking back upon a well-spent life.” For Stephens, walking is one of the innocent pleasures he can look back on:

Walking is among recreations what ploughing and fishing are among industrial labours: it is primitive and simple; it brings us into contact with mother earth and unsophisticated nature; it requires no elaborate apparatus and no extraneous excitement. It is fit even for poets and philosophers, and he who can thoroughly enjoy it must have at least some capacity for worshipping the “cherub Contemplation.”

Walking isn’t about athletic excellence, although Stephens notes that he retains his youthful admiration for rowers and cricketers, and he acknowledges the abilities of cyclists and golfers. Even though there are professional pedestrians “making records and seeking the applause of the mob,” he writes, 

The true walker is one to whom the pursuit is in itself delightful; who is not indeed priggish enough to be above a certain complacency in the physical prowess required for his pursuit, but to whom the muscular effort of the legs is subsidiary to the “celebration” stimulated by the effort; to the quiet musings and imaginings which arise most spontaneously as he walks, and generate the intellectual harmony which is the natural accompaniment to the monotonous tramp of his feet.

The “celebration” generated by walking consists of “the quiet musings and imaginings” which “arise most spontaneously” as we walk, and for Stephen, there is an ironic harmony between the monotony of walking and the variety of those musings and imaginings.

Those “quiet musings and imaginings” produced by walking are perhaps the reason Stephen is so drawn to it. “[T]he true pedestrian loves walking because, so far from distracting his mind, it is favourable to the equable and abundant flow of tranquil and half-conscious meditation,” he writes. He compares memories of walking to other memories of “‘well-spent’ moments”: most memories “coalesce into wholes,” and become general impressions (of friends or experiences); however, he continues,

The memories of walks . . . are all localised and dated; they are hitched on to particular times and places; they spontaneously form a kind of calendar or connecting thread upon which other memories may be strung. As I look back, a long series of little vignettes presents itself, each representing a definite stage of my earthly pilgrimage summed up and embodied in a walk.

Writing books is one form of memory which tends to “coalesce into wholes”: “The labour of scribbling books happily leaves no distinct impression, and I would forget that it had ever been undergone; but the picture of some delightful ramble includes incidentally a reference to the nightmare of literary toil from which it relieved me.” For Stephen, walking is a relief from writing, rather than (or perhaps in addition to) being a source of inspiration.

Indeed, Stephen suggests that his “pedestrian enthusiasm” ties his days together. “The day on which I was fully initiated into the mysteries is marked by a white stone,” he writes, describing a hike Heidelberg through the Odenwald:

Then I first knew the delightful sensation of independence and detachment enjoyed during a walking tour. Free from all bothers of railway time-tables and extraneous machinery, you trust to your own legs, stop when you please, diverge into any track that takes your fancy, and drop in upon some quaint variety of human life at every inn where you put up for the night. . . . You have no dignity to support, and the dress-coat of conventional life has dropped into oblivion.

He recalls George Borrows’s walks with Roma people in England as a model of the kind of social freedom he found in his walks, and that social freedom must have been revolutionary for a Victorian English gentleman. Stephen remembers all of the details of such journeys: “I kept no journal, but I could still give the narrative day by day—the sights which I dutifully admired and the very stage of my bootlaces. Walking tours thus rescue a bit of one’s life from oblivion.” “The walks are the unobtrusive connecting thread of other memories,” he continues, “and yet each walk is a little drama in itself, with a definite plot with episodes and catastrophes, according to the requirements of Aristotle; and it is naturally interwoven with all the thoughts, the friendships, and the interests that form the staple of ordinary life.”

“Walking is the natural recreation for a man who desires not absolutely to suppress his intellect but to turn it out to play for a season,” Stephen contends. He claims that “[a]ll great men of letters” have “been enthusiastic walkers,” including Shakespeare, Jonson, Coryate, Bishop Hooker, Swift, John Wesley, Fielding, Samuel Johnson, De Quincey, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Scott, Byron, Hobbes, Bentham, James Mill, John Stuart Mill, Carlyle, Ruskin. “The great men, it is true, have not always acknowledged their debt to the genius, whoever he may be, who presides over pedestrian exercise,” he continues. “Indeed, they have inclined to ignore the true source of their impulse. Even when they speak of the beauties of nature, they would give us to understand that they might have been disembodied spirits, taking aerial flights among mountain solitudes, and independent of the physical machinery of legs and stomachs.” Walking, not nature, is the true source of writerly inspiration, Stephen suggests, and I like his emphasis on the grounded nature of walking. For example, he fell in love with the Alps because of Ruskin’s Modern Painters. “I hoped to share Ruskin’s ecstasies in a reverent worship of Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn,” he writes, but instead “[i]t stimulated a passion for climbing which absorbed my energies and distracted me from the prophet’s loftier teaching.” Stephen’s “passion for the mountains had something earthly in its composition”:

It is associated with memories of eating and drinking. It meant delightful comradeship with some of the best of friends; but our end, I admit, was not always of the most exalted or aesthetic strain. A certain difficulty results. I feel an uncomfortable diffidence. I hold that Alpine walks are the poetry of the pursuit; I could try to justify the opinion by relating some of the emotions suggested by the great scenic effects: the sunrise on the snow fields; the storm-clouds gathering under the great peaks; the high pasturages knee-deep in flowers; the torrents plunging through the “cloven ravines,” and so forth. But the thing has been done before, better than I could hope to do it; and when I look back at those old passages in Modern Painters, and think of the enthusiasm which prompted to exuberant sentences of three or four hundred words, I am not only abashed by the thought of their unapproachable eloquence, but feel as though they conveyed a tacit reproach. You, they seem to say, are, after all, a poor prosaic creature, affecting a love of sublime scenery as a cloak for more grovelling motives. I could protest against this judgment, but it is better at present to omit the topic, even though it would give the strongest groundwork for my argument.

The conflict between sublime spaces and grounded walking leads Stephen to suggest that it may be better “to trust the case for walking to where the external stimulus of splendours and sublimities is not so overpowering.” He refers to the division in aesthetics between the sublime and the beautiful—“A philosophic historian divides the world into the regions where man is stronger than nature and the regions where nature is stronger than man”—and suggests that “[t]he true charm of walking is most unequivocally shown when it is obviously dependent upon the walker himself.”

For that reason, he turns away from his memories of hiking in the Alps to walks in England:

Walking gives a charm to the most commonplace British scenery. A love of walking not only makes any English country tolerable but seems to make the charm inexhaustible. I know only two or three districts minutely, but the more familiar I have become with any one of them the more I have wished to return, to invent some new combination of old strolls or to inspect some hitherto unexplored nook.

He tells us that likes walking in the Fens as much as he likes walking in the Lake District: “In a steady march along one of the great dykes by the monotonous canal with the exuberant vegetation dozing in its stagnant waters, we were imbibing the spirit of the scenery.” He also enjoys walking by the sea, but not because the sea suggests, to him, sublimity:

Another set of walks may, perhaps, appeal to more general sympathy. The voice of the sea, we know, is as powerful as the voice of the mountains; and, to my taste, it is difficult to say whether the Land’s End is not in itself a more impressive station than the top of Mont Blanc. The solitude of the frozen peaks suggests tombstones and death. The sea is always alive and at work. The hovering gulls and plunging gannets and the rollicking porpoises are animating symbols of a gallant struggle with wind and wave.

The scenery of various places on the English coast is always delightful, but walking makes it moreso: 

When you have made an early start, followed the coast-guard track on the slopes above the cliffs, struggled through the gold and purple carpeting of gorse and heather on the moors, dipped down into quaint little coves with a primitive fishing village, followed the blinding whiteness of the sands round a lonely bay, and at last emerged upon a headland where you can settle into a nook of the rocks, look down upon the glorious blue of the Atlantic waves breaking into foam on the granite, and see the distant sea-levels glimmering away till they blend imperceptibly into cloudland; then you can consume your modest sandwiches, light you pipe, and feel more virtuous and thoroughly at peace with the universe than it is easy even to conceive yourself elsewhere. I have fancied myself on such occasions to be a felicitous blend of poet and saint—which is an agreeable sensation. 

Note that Stephen isn’t suggesting that he became either a poet or a saint by walking; rather, he imagined himself to be a blend of both. That “agreeable sensation,” however imaginary, is one of the benefits of walking for Stephen.

That “agreeable sensation” is produced by walking on paths or through fields, rather than by walking on roads, and it is “confined to the walker”:

I respect the cyclist, as I have said; but he is enslaved by his machine: he has to follow the highroad, and can only come upon  what points of view open to the commonplace tourist. He can see nothing of the retired scenery which may be close to him, and cannot have his mind brought into due harmony by the solitude and by the long succession of lovely bits of scenery which stand so coyly aside from public notice.

In sentences that echo my friend Matthew Anderson’s work on walking trespassing laws, Stephen boasts that he pays no attention to laws against trespassing: 

To me it was a reminder of the many delicious bits of walking which, even in the neighbourhood of London, await the man who has no superstitious reverence for legal rights. It is indeed surprising how many charming walks can be contrived by a judicious combination of a little trespassing with the rights of way happily preserved over so many commons and footpaths.

Of course, without a tradition of commons or footpaths, and with punitive trespassing legislation, walkers in this province are unfortunately confined to roads.

Stephen provides an account of a recent walk with a companion near London. He is surprised to find rural spaces so close to the metropolis, but he also finds that walking with others stimulates conversation: “Nowhere, at least, have I found talk flow so freely and pleasantly as in a march through pleasant country. And yet there is also a peculiar charm in the solitary expedition when your interlocutor must be yourself.” From here, he shifts to thinking about walking in the city itself, and the effect of the noise and activity of the city on a walker’s thinking. For Stephen, the city’s distractions “become so multitudinous that they neutralise each other. The whirl of conflicting impulses becomes a continuous current because it is so chaotic and determines a mood of sentiment if not a particular vein of reflection.” “[W]hat I please to call my ‘mind’ seems to work more continuously and coherently in a street walk than elsewhere,” he writes. “I do not defend my insensibility nor argue that London walks are the best. I only maintain that even in London, walking has a peculiar fascination.” Perhaps because he is so influenced by Victorian Romanticism, Stephen feels it necessary to apologize for his interest in urban walking:

I can often find occasions in the heart of London for recalling old memories, without any definable pretext; little pictures of scenery, sometimes assignable to no definable place, start up invested with a faint aroma of old friendly walks and solitary meditations and strenuous exercise, and I feel convinced that, if I am not a thorough scoundrel, I owe that relative excellence to the harmless monomania which so often took me, to appropriate Bunyan’s phrase, from the amusements of Vanity Fair to the Delectable Mountains of pedestrianism.

That is where Stephen’s essay ends, with the apparent moral improvement that walking, including urban walking, has had on his character. The word “monomania” suggests an unhealthy obsession with walking, even though he suggests that obsession is “harmless.” I think we would have to know something about Victorian cities—the dirt and smoke and noise of them—and the degree to which Stephen’s intellectual world was suffused by Romanticism (represented, perhaps, by Ruskin’s Modern Painters) in order to understand how odd Stephen’s defence of urban walking actually was. I find myself wondering what Stephen would make of walking along grid roads in Saskatchewan. Would he see parallels between rural Saskatchewan and Victorian London? Rural Saskatchewan is quiet and anything but chaotic, but it is thoroughly shaped by industrial activity in a way that would have been hidden by the beauty of the rural English spaces in which he walked. And yet, the scale of the open landscape, the size of the fields of wheat and canola, the immense sky overhead—all these suggest a form of the sublime. These comparisons point towards the disconnection between English writing on walking, and attempting to walk in this space: the experiences are very different, because of the scale, the colours, the flatness, the lack of footpaths. And yet, I find Stephen’s defence of walking in ordinary places reassuring. He’s a Romantic, but he’s in the process of becoming something else. That something else might be connected to the spaces in which I walk. That’s not to claim Stephen as a precursor to contemporary practices of psychogeography or mythogeography—that would be silly—but at the same time, I don’t think we can simply reject Stephen’s walking as mere Romanticism.

Works Cited

Stephen, Sir Leslie. “In Praise of Walking. Studies of a Biographer, vol. 3, Duckworth, 1902. https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Studies_of_a_Biographer/In_Praise_of_Walking.

 

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

wilkie

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.

87. Henry David Thoreau, Walking

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There are many passages from Henry David Thoreau’s lecture Walking, published after his death in 1862, that show up in any survey of writing about walking. But there is a lot more going in in Thoreau’s text than those frequently quoted statements. Rather than being focused on walking, most of the text addresses another topic entirely: wildness. For Thoreau, the two go together: walking is a vehicle for experiencing wildness, by which he means, the natural world, or life beyond human society. In fact, the lecture begins with a short paragraph in which Thoreau states, “I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil,—to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society” (35). The “extreme statement” (35) he intends to make begins with the idea that humans are natural rather than social or cultural. It doesn’t matter that such an idea is impossible; what’s important is Thoreau’s intention and, I think, the way it reflects his own love of the natural world and of solitude.

From that point Thoreau moves to one of those often-quoted passages, an attempt at an etymology of the word “sauntering.” He makes two suggestions. One is that “saunter” comes from medieval pilgrimages (pretended, according to Thoreau) to the Holy Land, from the idea that children would exclaim “There goes a Sainte-Terrer” when such people walked past. Strangely, Thoreau shifts to the present tense when he evaluates these pilgrimages: “They who never go to the Holy Land in their walks, as they pretend, are indeed mere idlers and vagabonds; but they who do go there are saunterers in the good sense, such as I mean” (35-36). I find the syntax of that sentence very strange, and I have a suspicion that Thoreau might prefer the “idlers and vagabonds” to those who would actually be walking to the Holy Land—or that he’s less interested in the notion of a religious pilgrimage than in one that leads into the woods, which is the site Thoreau really finds to be sacred. That’s the derivation he prefers, because “every walk is a sort of crusade, preached by some Peter the Hermit in us, to go forth and reconquer this Holy Land from the hands of the Infidels” (36). By “this Holy Land” Thoreau means Massachusetts, or Concord: the place he called home. And by “Infidels,” I am assuming he means those who do not or cannot appreciate the natural world of that place; that, in any case, is an opposition he develops through the lecture.

However, Thoreau also acknowledges that some people derive “saunter” from “sans terre, without land or a home, which, therefore, in the good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere” (36). This, he claims, “is the secret of successful sauntering”: “He who sits still in a house all the time may be the greatest vagrant of all; but the saunterer, in the good sense, is no more vagrant than the meandering river, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea” (36). This derivation, although Thoreau prefers the first, has the benefits of lending itself to a metaphor taken from nature, and of distinguishing those who walk, or saunter, from those who stay at home, and who, despite their stationary quality, “may be the biggest vagrant of all.”

The first derivation, though, allows Thoreau to make this apparent self-criticism, although I think it’s actually an ironic critique of his audience, and his culture:

It is true, we are but faint-hearted crusaders, even the walkers, nowadays, who undertake no persevering, never-ending enterprises. Our expeditions are but tours, and come round again at evening to the old hearth-side from which we set out. Half the walk is but retracing our steps. We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return,—prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only as relics to our desolate kingdoms. (36)

Thoreau wants to raise the stakes, as dramaturges say; he wants walkers to take risks and walks to mean something. But at the same time, the exaggeration here (“embalmed hearts”?) might suggest he’s not entirely serious. Such hyperbole continues through the first pages of the lecture, including this passage, which Deirdre Heddon and Cathy Turner describe as an example of “nineteenth-century chauvinism” (226): “If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again,—if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man, then you are ready for a walk” (36). The joke is on the reader, of course; Thoreau never married, lived alone, and had few if any domestic entanglements. He is asking his audience to do something he wouldn’t have to do and likely wouldn’t be able to imagine. As Ralph Waldo Emerson says in his biographical sketch of Thoreau, he was “the bachelor of thought and Nature” (9).

The self-conscious drama of the notion that one must treat any walk as a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, an experience likely to lead to one’s death, is (to me) sheer hyperbole, and the language in the following paragraphs supports that claim. Thoreau describes the pleasure he and his walking companion take 

in fancying ourselves knights of a new, or rather an old, order,—not Equestrians or Chevaliers, not Ritters or riders, but Walkers, a still more ancient and honorable class, I trust. The chivalric and heroic spirit which once belonged to the Rider seems now to reside in, or perchance to have subsided into, the Walker,—not the Knight, but the Walker Errant. He is a sort of fourth estate, outside of Church and State and People. (37)

Is Thoreau serious here? I don’t think so, although I could be wrong. Elsewhere in the essay he criticizes any interest in what are, for him, outmoded or inappropriate European ideas and idioms, and so his use of them here might suggest exaggeration. I keep thinking that he’s giving a lecture, that he has to engage his audience and interest them not only in what he wants to say, but in himself as a speaker. What better way to accomplish those goals than to begin by making oneself something of a figure of fun who is in on the joke?

At the same time, there is a serious side to the distinction he has been making, subtly, between those who walk and those who stay home:

We have felt that we almost alone hereabouts practised this noble art; though, to tell the truth, at least, if their own assertions are to be received, mo[s]t of my townsmen would fain walk sometimes, as I do, but they cannot. No wealth can buy the requisite leisure, freedom, and independence, which are the capital in this profession. It comes only by the grace of God. It requires a direct dispensation from Heaven to become a walker. You must be born into the family of Walkers. (37)

Again there is deliberate exaggeration here, but I think Thoreau is making a point. After all, his lack of domestic obligations; his self-imposed poverty; his friends and family, who supported his life and work (by paying his tax bills, for example); all of the factors of his life allowed him to spend hours every day going for long walks. Others, who had to work long hours as farmers or clerks, did not have that freedom.

Still, in this paragraph the butt of the Thoreau’s humour shifts from Thoreau himself to those who lack the leisure or disposition to walk:

Some of my townsmen, it is true, can remember and have described to me some walks which they took ten years ago, in which they were so blessed as to lose themselves for half an hour in the woods; but I know very well that they have confined themselves to the highway ever since, whatever pretensions they may make to belong to this select class. No doubt they were elevated for a moment as by the reminiscence of a previous state of existence, when even they were foresters and outlaws. (37)

The short period of the remembered walk (just half an hour), and the decision to “confine themselves to the highway” afterwards, and the allusion to Robin Hood, all suggest (to me) that Thoreau is having a bit of a laugh at his audience’s expense. After all, they are likely to be the kind of people who have to work and lack the leisure to wander around. They bought tickets to the lecture, after all.

Thoreau, in fact, acknowledges that he is both unusual and lucky in his need to walk and in his ability to do it:

I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least,—and it is commonly more than that,—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements. You may safely say, A penny for your thoughts, or a thousand pounds. When sometimes I am reminded that the mechanics and shopkeepers stay in their shops not only all the forenoon, but all the afternoon too, sitting with crossed legs, so many of them,—as if the legs were made to sit upon, and not to stand or walk upon,—I think that they deserve some credit for not having all committed suicide long ago. (38)

Thoreau’s freedom to walk is also a necessity, and although it has led to poverty (for him there’s no difference between a penny and a thousand pounds, because he has neither), it has also helped him to preserve his “health and spirits.” In fact, he cannot understand how others, with jobs and obligations, manage to survive. He wonders why “there is not a general explosion heard up and down the street” every afternoon between four and five o’clock, a blast that would scatter “a legion of antiquated and house-bred notions and whims to the four winds for an airing,” and thus cure the evil of being confined “to shops and offices the whole day for weeks and months, ay, and years almost together” (39). Thoreau’s wonder is not confined to men working outside of the home: “How womankind, who are confined to the house still more than men, stand it I do not know,” he writes, but he suspects “that most of them do not stand it at all” (39). He remembers walking past houses on summer afternoons, houses whose occupants appear to be sleeping (39). He seems to be suggesting that they aren’t sleeping at all; perhaps they have gone out for a walk. It’s hard to say, though, what Thoreau means here, because he ends that paragraph with a paean to the architecture that doesn’t go to sleep itself, but which stands guard over the slumberers (40). The notion seems strange. What is more likely: sleeping or walking? Shouldn’t those women be walking? If they are sleeping, what does that say about Thoreau’s views on women?

Thoreau suggests that the walking he is describing has nothing to do with “taking exercise,” but “is itself the enterprise and adventure of the day. If you would get exercise, go in search of the springs of life” (40). Moreover, when one walks, one must think—ruminate—as Wordsworth, who famously wrote while walking, did (40). Being outside so much “will no doubt produce a certain roughness of character,” he admits, but the “natural remedy” for that roughness “is to be found in the proportion which the night bears to the day, the winter to the summer, thought to experience”:

There will be so much the more air and sunshine in our thoughts. The callous palms of the laborer are conversant with finer tissues of self-respect and heroism, whose touch thrills the heart, than the languid fingers of idleness. That is mere sentimentality that lies abed by day and thinks itself white, far from the tan and callus of experience. (41)

In other words, that “certain roughness of character,” far from being a vice, is a virtue. Given the choice between that roughness and “mere sentimentality,” Thoreau will choose roughness. I wonder if the figure who lies in bed during the day is a return to the female inhabitants of those silent houses whose occupants seem to be asleep; perhaps those women are actually sleeping, rather than walking, a suggestion which would support accusations of chauvinism.

As Heddon and Turner point out, Thoreau critiques domestic walking: “When we walk, we naturally go to the fields and woods: what would become of us, if we walked only in a garden or a mall?” (41). I don’t think it’s the domestic that Thoreau is rejecting as much as it is the notion of wild nature that he is advocating (although they necessarily go together). It’s not enough to walk in the woods, either; one must want to walk there, and one must be focused on the experience rather than thinking of other things:

I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit. In my afternoon walk I would fain forget all my morning occupations and my obligations to society. But it sometimes happens that I cannot easily shake off the village. The thought of some work will run in my head, and I am not where my body is,—I am out of my senses. In my walks I would fain return to my senses. What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods? I suspect myself, and cannot help a shudder, when I find myself so implicated even in what are called good works,—for this may sometimes happen. (42)

For Thoreau, walking is an experience of attention and flow—of being, in two ways, returned to his senses: to the sensory experience of the world, and to his right mind. The reason he rejects society and its obligations, here and elsewhere in the lecture, is that he seems to require that specific kind of walking experience, and even when he is thinking about “good works,” he is not present in his surroundings.

“My vicinity affords many good walks,” Thoreau continues, “and though for so many years I have walked almost every day, and sometimes for several days together, I have not exhausted them” (42). One might expect that Thoreau is interested in walking as an experience of place, in Yi-Fu Tuan’s sense of place as a location that one knows through experience, and he does, but he’s also interested in walking as an experience of space, of novelty and freshness:

An absolutely new prospect is a great happiness, and I can still get this on any afternoon. Two or three hours’ walking will carry me to as strange a country as I expect ever to see. A single farmhouse which I had not seen before is sometimes as good as the dominions of the King of Dahomey. There is in fact a sort of harmony discoverable between the capabilities of the landscape within a circle of ten miles’ radius, or the limits of an afternoon walk, and the threescore years and ten of a human life. It will never become quite familiar to you. (42)

That experience of space, as Thoreau’s Dahomey simile suggests, is related to processes of colonialism and empire, and yet, there is also something strangely local and perhaps almost domestic in the suggestion that seeing a previously unnoticed farmhouse is “as good as” African exploration. There is a sense here that Thoreau’s neighbourhood is so rich that he will never finish discovering new things in it—although, as Emerson suggests in his biographical sketch, those new things are more likely to be plants or birds than farmhouses (22-25). 

Indeed, Thoreau suggests his movements during a walk are like those of “the fox and the mink”: he moves “first along by the river, and then the brook, and then the meadow and the wood-side,” through a territory without human inhabitants. The animal imagery in this paragraph is applied to other aspects of “civilization and the abodes of man” as a way of minimizing their impact on the land: 

The farmers and their works are scarcely more obvious than woodchucks and their burrows. Man and his affairs, church and state and school, trade and commerce, and manufactures and agriculture, even politics, the most alarming of them all,—I am pleased to see how little space they occupy in the landscape. (43)

That what must have been a densely populated part of the United States could afford so much space without signs of human activity is a wonder, and perhaps Thoreau is exaggerating his experience. 

Or perhaps Thoreau sees few signs of human activity because he avoids travelling on roads:

Some do not walk at all; others walk in the highways; a few walk across lots. Roads are made for horses and men of business. I do not travel in them much, comparatively, because I am not in a hurry to get to any tavern or grocery or livery-stable or depot to which they lead. I am a good horse to travel, but not from choice a roadster. (44)

He is clearly one of those who “walk across lots,” and of no use to the “landscape-painter” who “uses the figures of men to mark a road”; that artist would not be able to use Thoreau’s figure because he is elsewhere (44). Walking “across lots” is a way to “walk out into a Nature such as the old prophets and poets, Menu, Moses, Homer, Chaucer, walked in” (44). That territory is not America, nor was it discovered by Columbus: “There is a truer account of it in mythology than in any history of America, so called, that I have seen” (45). The only roads Thoreau likes are those that “are nearly discontinued,” and he includes a poem about one of those, “The Old Marlborough Road,” in his text. 

Thoreau notes that most of the land in his vicinity is not private property, and so “the walker enjoys comparative freedom” (47). However, he imagines a very different future:

possibly the day will come when it will be partitioned off into so-called pleasure-grounds, in which a few will take a narrow and exclusive pleasure only,—when fences shall be multiplied, and man-traps and other engines invented to confine men to the public road, and walking over the surface of God’s earth shall be construed to mean trespassing on some gentleman’s grounds. To enjoy a thing exclusively is commonly to exclude yourself from the true enjoyment of it. Let us improve our opportunities, then, before the evil days come. (47-48)

Those days, as Ken Ilgunas and Matthew Anderson have pointed out, have arrived all over North America.

At this point, Thoreau begins shifting away from thinking about walking to thinking about nature, which for him primarily exists in the west—an expression of an American frontier thesis, I think, although he also makes arguments rooted in mythology (the importance of the setting sun) to defend his preference for that direction. The west is the direction of “the wilderness,” and he suggests that when he leaves the city, he is “withdrawing into the wilderness” (50). That is the American tendency, he suggests: “I must walk toward Oregon, and not toward Europe. And that way the nation is moving, and I may say that mankind progress[es] from east to west” (50). Here he rejects history and “the old World and its institutions” (51) in preference to the west, the territory of the sun, “the Great Western Pioneer whom the nations follow” (52). Others who “felt the westward tendency” include Columbus and the “man of the Old World” who travelled from Asia into Europe, with “[e]ach of his steps . . . marked by a new civilization superior to the preceding, by a greater power of development,” until he crosses the Atlantic Ocean and resumes his westward movement (52-53). He suggests that the climate in the United States may enable “man [to] grow to greater perfection intellectually as well as physically” under its influences—that, in fact, the North American landscape will create a new kind of human:

I trust that we shall be more imaginative, that our thoughts will be clearer, fresher, and more ethereal, as our sky,—our understanding more comprehensive and broader, like our plains,—our intellect generally on a grander scale, like our thunder and lightning, our rivers and mountains and forests,—and our hearts shall even correspond in breadth and depth and grandeur to our inland seas. (55-56)

I was surprised to read such an evocation to American exceptionalism in Thoreau, given that he refused to pay taxes in part because they supported a state that allowed human slavery, but he was of his time, as we all are, and he had a lecture audience to please.

There’s another reason for this apotheosis of the west in Thoreau’s discourse: “The West of which I speak is but another name for the Wild; and what I have been preparing to say is, that in Wildness is the preservation of the World” (57). “Give me a wildness whose glance no civilization can endure,” he writes (58). He notes that according to “[t]he African hunter Cummings” the skin of the eland “emits the most delicious perfume of trees and grass,” and he would like “every man” to be “so much a part and parcel of Nature, that his very person should thus sweetly advertise our senses of his presence, and remind us of those parts of Nature which he most haunts” (58-59). That odour would be preferable to “that which commonly exhales from the merchant’s or the scholar’s garments,” which is a smell “of dusty merchant’s exchanges and libraries” (59). “Life consists with wildness,” he contends. “The most alive is the wildest. Not yet subdued to man, its presence refreshes him. . . . Hope and the future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps”—the wildest place, it seems, that Thoreau can imagine (60). “Give me the ocean, the desert or the wilderness!” he exclaims (61)—places, like the swamp, that are dreary (because they are frightening to civilized humans, or because they don’t conform to codes of visual beauty). And yet, the American economy depends on agriculture, which requires draining swamps (63-64). “The weapons with which he have gained our most important victories, which should be handed down as heirlooms from father to son, are not the sword and the lance,” he argues, “but the bushwhack, the turf-cutter, the spade, and the bog-hoe, rusted with the blood of many a meadow, and begrimed with the dust of many a hard-fought field” (64). 

“In Literature it is only the wild that attracts us,” Thoreau continues, suggesting that “it is the uncivilized free and wild thinking in ‘Hamlet’ and the “Iliad,’ in all the Scriptures and Mythologies, not learned in the schools, that delights us,” in the way that a wild duck “is more swift and beautiful than the tame” (64). He wonders where “the literature which gives expression to Nature” is (65):

He would be a poet who could impress the winds and streams into his service, to speak for him; who nailed words to their primitive senses, as farmers drive down stakes in the spring, which the frost has heaved; who derived his words as often as he used them,—transplanted them to his page with earth adhering to their roots; whose words were so true and fresh and natural that they would appear to expand like the buds at the approach of spring, though they lay half-smothered between two musty leaves in a library,—ay, to bloom and bear fruit there, after their kind, annually, for the faithful reader, in sympathy with surrounding Nature. (65-66)

Strangely, though, this evocation of “the literature which gives expression to Nature” is premised on figures of human domination of nature, particularly through agriculture. Would that literature necessarily be a hybrid between the human and the natural? In any case, it doesn’t exist: 

I do not know of any poetry to quote which adequately expresses this yearning for the Wild. Approached from this side, the best poetry is tame. I do not know where to find in any literature, ancient or modern, any account which contents me of that Nature with which even I am acquainted. (66)

The literature that comes closest seems to be Greek mythology, “the crop which the Old World bore before its soil was exhausted, before the fancy and imagination were affected with blight; and which it still bears, wherever its pristine vigor is unabated” (66).

“In short,” Thoreau continues, “all good things are wild and free”:

There is something in a strain of music, whether produced by an instrument or by the human voice,—take the sound of a bugle in a summer night, for instance,—which by its wildness, to speak without satire, reminds me of the cries emitted by wild beasts in their native forests. It is so much of their wildness as I can understand. Give me for my friends and neighbors wild men, not tame ones. The wildness of the savage is but a faint symbol of the awful ferity with which good men and lovers meet. (67-68)

The influence of Rousseau on Thoreau is obvious here. “Undoubtedly, all men are not equally fit subjects for civilization,” he writes, and just because some can be tamed, “this is no reason why the others should have their natures broken that they may be reduced to the same level” (69). Nature, he writes, is “this vast, savage, howling mother of ours,” and she possesses “such affection for her children, as the leopard; and yet we are so early weaned from her breast to society, to that culture which is exclusively an interaction of man on man” (71). It would be better, he continues, that “every man nor every part of a man” should be “cultivated, any more than I would have every acre of earth cultivated”: the greater part of the earth should remain “meadow and forest, not only serving an immediate use, but preparing a mould against a distant future, by the annual decay of the vegetation which it supports” (72). 

Thoreau then critiques the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, suggesting that a Society for the Diffusion of Useful Ignorance or “what we will call Beautiful Ignorance” would be more useful “in a higher sense,” because what is called knowledge is “often our positive ignorance, ignorance in our negative knowledge” (73). “A man’s ignorance sometimes is not only useful, but beautiful,—while his knowledge, so called, is oftentimes worse than useless, besides being ugly,” he argues. “Which is the best man to deal with,—he who knows nothing about a subject, and, what is extremely rare, knows that he knows nothing, or he who really knows something about it, but thinks that he knows all?” (74). That question suggests that Thoreau was a pioneer in the study of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

“My desire for knowledge is intermittent; but my desire to bathe my head in atmospheres unknown to my feet is perennial and constant,” Thoreau continues—a strange thing for someone interested in walking to say, it seems to me. “The highest that we can attain to is not Knowledge, but Sympathy with Intelligence,” he writes:

I do not know that this higher knowledge amounts to anything more definite than a novel and grand surprise on a sudden revelation of the insufficiency of all that we called Knowledge before,—a discovery that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in our philosophy. It is the lighting up of the mist by the sun. (74)

The insistence on “sudden revelation” and on something beyond knowledge suggests something about Thoreau’s Romantic predisposition, I think.

Thoreau suggests that “almost all men feel an attraction drawing them to society,” but “few are attracted strongly to Nature” (76). For that reason, he considers most men “lower than the animals,” because they are incapable of appreciating “the beauty of the landscape” (76). “For my part,” he continues,

I feel that with regard to Nature I live a sort of border life, on the confines of a world into which I make occasional and transional and transient forays only, and my patriotism and allegiance to the State into whose territories I seem to retreat are those of a moss-trooper. Unto a life which I call natural I would gladly follow even a will-o’-the-wisp through bogs and sloughs unimaginable, but no moon nor fire-fly has shown me the causeway to it. Nature is a personality so vast and universal that we have never seen one of her features. (76)

At this point, he suddenly returns, in the middle of the paragraph, to walking:

The walker in the familiar fields which stretch around my native town sometimes finds himself in another land than is described in their owners’ deeds, as if it were in some far-away field on the confines of the actual Concord, where her jurisdiction ceases, and the idea which the word Concord suggests ceases to be suggested. (77)

What is that other land? Where did the reality described in the property deeds he refers to go? He gives an example:

I took a walk on Spaulding’s Farm the other afternoon. I saw the setting sun lighting up the opposite side of a stately pine wood. Its golden rays straggled into the aisles of the wood as into some noble hall. I was impressed as if some ancient and altogether admirable and shining family had settled there in that part of the land called Concord, unknown to me,—to whom the sun was servant,—who had not gone into society in the village,—who had not been called on. I saw their park, their pleasure-ground, beyond through the wood, in Spaulding’s cranberry-meadow. The pines furnished them with gables as they grew. Their house was not obvious, to vision; the trees grew through it. I do not know whether I heard the sounds of a suppressed hilarity or not. They seemed to recline on the sunbeams. They have sons and daughters. They are quite well. The farmer’s cart-path, which leads directly through their hall, does not in the least put them out,—as the muddy bottom of a pool is sometimes seen through the reflected skies. They never heard of Spaulding, and do not know that he is their neighbor,—notwithstanding that I heard him whistle as he drove his team through the house. Nothing can equal the serenity of their lives. Their coat of arms is simply a lichen. I saw it painted on the pines and oaks. Their attics were in the tops of the trees. They are of no politics. There was no noise of labor. I did not perceive that they were weaving or spinning. Yet I did detect, when the wind lulled and hearing was done away, the finest imaginable sweet musical hum,—as of a distant hive in May, which perchance was the sound of their thinking. They had no idle thoughts, and no one without could see their work, for their industry was not as in knots and excrescences embayed. (78)

Why does Thoreau imagine that the forest is the home of this family? Is that family a metaphor for the ecosystem of Spaulding’s farm? Or is he recording some mystical vision experienced while walking there? I don’t know. He states that he finds it hard to remember that family: “They fade irrevocably out of my mind even now while I speak and endeavor to recall them, and recollect myself” (78). Regardless, he concludes that “[i]f it were not for such families as this, I think I should move out of Concord” (78). Perhaps that family is a way of giving shape to the thoughts he has while walking. He suggests that “few and fewer thoughts visit each growing man from year to year, for the grove in our minds is laid waste,—sold to feed unnecessary fires of ambition, or sent to mill, and there is scarcely a twig left for them to breed on” (79).

“We hug the earth,—how rarely we mount! Methinks we might elevate ourselves a little more” (79). Those words lead into a literal description of climbing a tall white pine, which leads Thoreau to “discover new mountains on the horizon” which he had never seen before (79). At the top of the tree, he saw “the fertile flower of the white pine looking heavenward,” which he picked and took to show the villagers (80). “[N]ot one had ever seen the like before,” he writes, “but they wondered as at a star dropped down” (80). The moral of this fable seems to be the importance of attending to the natural world, but even more, the importance of allowing ourselves, or our imaginations, to soar.

“Above all, we cannot afford not to live in the present,” Thoreau writes. The past is without interest. “Unless our philosophy hears the cock crow in every barn-yard within our horizon, it is belated,” he continues, suggesting again the importance of attending to what is around us. That rooster’s philosophy, Thoreau states, “comes down to a more recent time than ours,” because he rises early and is “in the foremost rank of time” (80-81). The rooster’s crow “is an expression of the health and soundness of Nature, a brag for all the world,—healthiness as of a spring burst forth, a new fountain of the Muses, to celebrate this last instant of time. Where he lives no fugitive slave laws are past. Who has not betrayed his master many times since last he heard that note?” (81). So many things are combined in this description—Peter’s betrayal of Christ, the controversy over fugitive slave laws (with which Thoreau was concerned), “a new fountain of the Muses,” and I find it hard to understand how paying attention to the present moment brings all of them together. But “[t]he merit of this bird’s strain”—and, remember, he is still talking about attending to the present—“is in its freedom from plaintiveness,” its “pure morning joy” (81). When Thoreau hears a rooster crow, he states, “I think to myself, ‘There is one of us well, at any rate,’—and with a sudden gush return to my senses” (81). 

The next paragraph provides an example of attending to the senses while walking, and that example becomes what can only be described as an epiphany:

We had a remarkable sunset one day last November. I was walking in a meadow, the source of a small brook, when the sun at last, just before setting, after a cold gray day, reached a clear stratum in the horizon, and the softest, brightest morning sunlight fell on the dry grass and on the stems of the trees in the opposite horizon, and on the leaves of the shrub-oaks on the hill-side, while our shadows stretched long over the meadow eastward, as if we were the only motes in its beams. It was such a light as we could not have imagined a moment before, and the air also was so warm and serene that nothing was wanting to make a paradise of that meadow. (81-82)

This is an experience of paradoxes: warm air on a cold day, a sunrise at sunset, a slumbering meadow (it’s November, after all, and winter is quickly approaching) becoming “a paradise.” More importantly, Thoreau continues, “[w]hen we reflected that this was not a solitary phenomenon, never to happen again, but that it would happen forever and ever on an infinite number of evenings, and cheer and reassure the latest child that walked there, it was more glorious still” (82). How can that be? How can such a singular event be infinite? It seems impossible, but Thoreau is certain that it’s the case, even though it is, for him, clearly a special and unique experience: 

We walked in so pure and bright a light, gilding the withered grass and leaves, so softly and serenely bright, I thought I had never bathed in such a golden flood, without a ripple or a murmur to it. The west side of every wood and rising ground gleamed like the boundary of Elysium, and the sun on our backs seemed like a gentle herdsman driving us home at evening. (82)

This is the approach to the Holy Land, he suggests, returning to the place where he began:

So we saunter toward the Holy Land, till one day the sun shall shine more brightly than ever he has done, shall perchance shine into our minds and and light up our whole lives with a great awakening light, as warm and serene and golden as on a bank-side in autumn. (82)

Enlightenment is possible, it seems, if we walk long enough, and far enough, and it will take the form of the “great awakening light” of the sun.

Thoreau’s optimism at the end of the lecture is something of a surprise, given the discouragement he sometimes expresses, but it’s clear that for him walking is more than a way to experience nature—it is a path towards some kind of enlightenment. I was also surprised by the lecture’s circularity, but the way it circles back to the etymologies with which it began. In a way, I think the key to Walking is Thoreau’s brief introduction, where he suggests that he’s not interested in humans as social creatures, but as “part and parcel of Nature” (35). If that’s his starting point, then it’s not surprising that our enlightenment will be natural, experienced by walking in the sunshine. And if that’s his starting point, criticizing him for (jokingly, I suspect) suggesting that walkers need to abandon their friends and families misses the point. For Thoreau, those social and familial ties are unimportant; what is important is one’s experience of nature. He might well be wrong about that—and I think he is—but that suggestion is consistent with the rest of his argument. In the end, Thoreau was what he was–a nineteenth-century Romantic–and we can only take what we can from this odd text.

Works Cited

Anderson, Matthew Robert. “Why Canadians Need the ‘Right to Roam.’” The Conversation, 29 July 2018, https://theconversation.com/why-canadians-need-the-right-to-roam-100497.

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.

Ilgunas, Ken. This Land Is Our Land: How We Lost the Right to Roam and How to Get It Back, Plume, 2018.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walking, 1863, Watchmaker 2010.

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

67. Sam Cooper, “The Peculiar Romanticism of the English Situationists”

I don’t remember where I ran across a reference to Sam Cooper’s essay, “The Peculiar Romanticism of the English Situationists”—probably in Phil Smith’s book Walking’s New Movement. What I had hoped this essay would discuss would be the connection between contemporary British psychogeographers and Romanticism—a connection I keep seeing, and one which would make me unpopular among contemporary British psychogeographers if I were to meet any. But Cooper is after something else: by “English Situationists,” he is referring to the English Section of the Situationist International (SI), which existed briefly in the mid-1960s before it was expelled by the SI. So Cooper is much more specific in his investigation; nevertheless, I think this essay might be of some use. At least, it confirms my hunch that there is some Romanticism lurking in the background of English evocations of the Situationists.

Cooper begins with George Robertson’s claim that the British got the Situationists wrong. Robertson argues that the British are too suspicious of intellectualism, and he “regards the Romantic inheritance of ‘the British left avant-garde’ as self-evidently conservative,” incongruous with the Situationists’ avant-gardism (20-21). However, Cooper argues “that, actually, the earliest English Situationist groups were actively involved in a radicalised reworking of what it might mean to reproduce English Romanticism, whose politics may not be so far from those of the SI, nor so distant even now” (21). He is very clear about his plan for this essay:

The first half of this essay will investigate how the earliest English Situationists used Romanticism as the archive and medium through which to anglicise the late modernist programme of the SI, with a focus on the historical reasons for doing so. The second half, through reading the Situationist Guy Debord alongside William Wordsworth, will argue that the English Situationists’ decision serves also to illuminate a latent Romanticism in Situationist aesthetic practice even in its ‘proper’ francophone articulations. (21-22)

He immediately explains who he is talking about: in the 1960s, the Situationist International maintained an English Section, “but when that group began to anglicise Situationist practice, it was deemed to have the SI and was expelled” (22). That group imagined the Gordon Rioters, the Swing Rioters, and the Luddites as their precursors (23); they saw themselves as “part of an ongoing current of vernacular English dissent” (23). They also associated the Situationists with Romantic poetry (23). Their aesthetic, “which is principally a literary aesthetic,” with “its own subterranean legacy, most obviously by way of punk culture,” was “an attempt to reconstruct an English Romanticism that deployed something of its original radicality in the present” (23). 

The English Situationists only produced two publications. In their first, a long essay from 1967 entitled “The Revolution of Modern Art and the Modern Art of Revolution,” the English Section argued that juvenile delinquents were the true inheritors of Dadaism (23-24). In doing so, they also alluded to Wordsworth’s famous statement that “poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” (qtd. 24). According to Cooper, that allusion is a détournement used on both Wordsworth and the Situationists’ own work; that it “conflates violence and poetry, to recall a long avant-gardist tradition of violent provocation as (anti-)art gesture”; and that “the ease with which the two analyses are brought together serves to align the SI’s project with something of Wordsworth’s early politico-aesthetic sensibility” (24).

In the second of the English Section’s texts, the English Situationists alluded to William Blake’s “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” in a translation of the penultimate sentence of a French Situationist text (24-25). “Such irreverent treatment of the group’s decrees, and such disrespect shown to the SI’s paranoid proprietorship of its genealogical identity, led to the English Section’s expulsion,” Cooper writes (25). After their expulsion, one member formed a group called King Mob; Cooper treats King Mob and the English Section together, as the English Situationists (25). “King Mob’s programme was confrontational, aggressive, and black-humoured, and involved playing the role of the juvenile delinquents who, it maintained, were spectacular capitalism’s agents of negation,” Cooper argues (25). However, he also claims that their actions were “very likely informed by the group’s reading of Wordsworth” (26)—and other English Romantic poets: King Mob used quotations from Coleridge and Blake in graffiti (26). “King Mob’s reproduction of these lines running as paint down tenement walls literally inscribes their everyday environment with the spectral presences of Blake and Coleridge,” Cooper writes (26).

However Cooper is quick to point out that the English Situationists weren’t alone in turning to the Romantics in the 1960s, and that they weren’t interested in Romanticism’s more conservative and rural forms (27). But he sees the influence of the Romantics elsewhere: he suggests that Guy Debord’s Situationist statement Society of the Spectacle is an “estranged descendant” of Wordsworth’s 1800 preface to Lyrical Ballads (28): “As the former has come to serve as the most comprehensive account of Situationist theory, so the latter has come to serve as a de facto manifesto of early English Romantic poetry” (28). Both texts offer “an aesthetic theory and a reflexive explication of how that aesthetic theory has been applied to its own articulation” (28). “It may seem overdetermined or historiographically abrupt to read these two writers together, but my interest here is to be a little more specific about the version of Romanticism that the English Situationists emphasised in their anglicisation of the SI,” Cooper argues (28).

Cooper’s reading of both writers generates some surprises. For instance, he suggests that 

the English Situationists recognised that Wordsworth’s early project responded to large-scale political changes and their effects on everyday life—which I will discuss in terms of capitalist accumulation and the possibility of ‘authentic’ experience—and sought aesthetic responses whose very form might be antagonistic or even incommensurable with the new social order being imposed. (28)

“The dichotomy that Wordsworth establishes between a rustic life that is experienced in all its richness and a more sophisticated life that has lost its immediate connection with nature is echoed by a distinction made by Debord in the first thesis of Society of the Spectacle” (30), he continues, noting that Debord’s first thesis claims that life is presented as an accumulation of spectacles, and that “[e]verything that was directly lived has receded into a representation” (qtd. 30). “Like Wordsworth, Debord associates authenticity with that which is experienced directly, without mediation,” Cooper continues (30). In addition, 

both Wordsworth’s and Debord’s aesthetic formulations (both of which rely on idyllic, even prelapsarian, conceptions of authenticity) were issued as responses to socio-economic changes in late eighteenth-century England and in post-war France respectively. More specifically, Wordsworth and Debord both held that authentic experience, or at least its possibility, was being obscured and sequestered by successive phases of capitalist accumulation (30)–

primitive accumulation for Wordsworth, and spectacular accumulation for Debord (30). Cooper also notes that Jacques Rancière recognizes that the SI’s critique of the spectacle is based in Romanticism (32)—a moment in The Emancipated Spectator that I missed. However, after these similarities, Debord’s and Wordsworth’s paths diverge: “Wordsworth believed that there were poetic subjects appropriate for the representation of authenticity; Debord believed that any affirmative art would ultimately collude with the spectacle” (32). 

The English Situationists, however, 

recognised that Wordsworth’s commemoration of soon-to-be eradicated, pre-capitalist ways of life was not simply nostalgic, but a tactic of resistance and assault. When they anglicised the work of the SI, the English Situationists replicated Wordsworth’s tactic: they privileged the SI’s discussion of juvenile delinquency over its many other discussions, and even attempted to locate that delinquency structurally as evidence of a ‘new lumpen’ class which was the repository of revolutionary potential. (33)

As a result, they ended up reproducing “Wordsworth’s faith that authenticity can be identified and represented, that positive representation is not necessarily spectacular or alienating,” a position with which the Situationist International disagreed (36). The English Situationists 

attempted to transpose the core political content of the SI’s critique of spectacle into a distinctly English literary tradition, but in severing the SI’s political analysis from its aesthetic one, in articulating the former by way of a Romantic, affirmative, and positivistic mode of exposition, the English Situationist aesthetic practice became diametrically opposed to that of the SI. (36-37)

This put them into conflict with the SI: “In direct contravention of the SI’s aesthetic austerity, the English Situationists went directly to the three Ss—the subjective, the superficial, and the spectacular—which remain the bêtes noires of Situationist discourse, to ask whether they could yet be sabotaged into becoming sites of contestation” (37). However, Cooper concludes that, “in their attempt to reclaim for the present something of the project of early English Romanticism, the English Situationists remained in full accordance with Debord’s account of the function of détournement” (37), which reradicalizes “previous critical conclusions” that have become “respectable truths” and therefore lies (qtd. 37). In other words, the English Situationists’ borrowing from the English Romantics wasn’t just a borrowing, it was a détournement.

All of this is interesting, but it doesn’t give me anything I can refer to in a discussion of the Romanticism I see in contemporary British psychogeography, or in its source texts, like Arthur Machen’s The London Adventure, or the Art of Wandering. I’m certain that what I’m seeing is there, however unpopular such a claim might be, and I’ll keep my eyes open for a critical discussion that is more on target. In some ways, the relationship between psychogeography and Romanticism doesn’t matter, because I’m not interested in claiming to be a psychogeographer, but at the same time, I don’t want to get sidetracked and find myself rereading the Romantics in order to make the connection myself. I’d much rather find a text in which someone else argues that connection is there. Perhaps there’s something in the secondary literature on Iain Sinclair; if I run out of things to read (and that’s not likely to happen), I’ll take a look.

Works Cited

Sam Cooper, “The Peculiar Romanticism of the English Situationists,” The Cambridge Quarterly, vol. 42, no. 1, 2013, pp. 20-37.

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

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

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

pujol

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Work Cited

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

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

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

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