Reading and Walking

Walking, Reading, and Reading about Walking

Tag: Walking Women

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

87. Henry David Thoreau, Walking


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,

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.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The first two walks, she continues, are 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cracknell gives this journey a strong conclusion: 

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

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

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

The notion of rewalking becomes personal here: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Work Cited

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rousseau concludes, 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For Rousseau, botany has become an aid to memory:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Accepting his situation, he contends, 

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

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

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

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

His living situation makes that solitude difficult to achieve:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walking and climbing are completely different activities, Cracknell realizes: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

64. Deirdre Heddon and Cathy Turner, “Walking Women: Interviews with Artists on the Move”

heddon and turner walking women interviews

I’ve already read (and blogged about) Deirdre Heddon’s and Cathy Turner’s later essay, “Walking Women: Shifting the Tales and Scales of Mobility,”  which summarizes the research that’s presented in this paper. But I found that essay to be so important that I wanted to see what was said in “Walking Women: Interviews with Artists on the Move.” I’m glad I did: there is some overlap, but at the same time, there’s enough new stuff here to make reading this earlier essay worthwhile.

Heddon and Turner begin with Rebecca Solnit and her book Wanderlust: A History of Walking. They note that “the history of walking art woven through” that book “is inevitably dominated by the better-known names of male artists,” suggesting that, with exceptions, the ability of women to walk has been limited (14). That is something Heddon experienced as well, when she was writing her 2008 book, Autobiography and Performance. Then, she struggled to find women who included walking practices in their work (15). For Heddon, that struggle raised important questions:

Were there, in fact, many women artists, or did women avoid making walking art for various reasons? Why, if they did exist, was their work seemingly overshadowed by that of male artists? Might an examination of such work prove revealing, pointing towards aspects of walking and walking art that have been unexplored, or suggesting new perspectives on prevalent assumptions about such walking? (15)

One of the few women walking artists Heddon could initially identify was Cathy Turner, a member (with Stephen Hodge, Simon Persighetti, and Phil Smith) of Wrights & Sites; in fact, Turner had invited Heddon to participate in a “gender drift” in Exeter in 2003 (15). Together, Heddon and Turner decided to explore “the gendering of space and walking,” by interviewing women walking artists while accompanying them on walks (15). “We could have simply interviewed these women, inviting them to offer a narrative of their walking,” they write, but such narratives cannot convey the experience of walking (15). For that reason, they continue,

We chose to allow our interviews to be informed by this improvisatory and embodied experience, so that the walk might prompt diversions, tangents, circuits and uncertainties missed in the linear authority of the merely spoken account. Our fieldwork approach also allows us to attend to information from the sites walked through, things that drew our attention, that our walkers pointed out, surprising connections, disjunctions and juxtapositions. Each of the walks taken prompted a particular ‘toponarrative’—a collaborative, partial story of place constructed by at least two walkers. (15)

All of the interviews collected in this article were conducted during walking at various locations throughout the UK.

Heddon’s and Turner’s first task was determining whether “the absence of prominent women in the field (literal and metaphorical) of walking art was due to the absence of women working in this way” (15). They discovered that a lot of women were walking, in the UK and elsewhere (15). They decided to interview 10 artists as a starting point: Elspeth Owen; two members of the trio walkwalkwalk, Clare Qualmann and Gail Burton; Misha Myers; Tamara Ashley; Simone Kenyon; Ana Laura Lopez de la Torre; Emma Bush; Sorrel Muggridge; and Rachel Gomme (15). They write,

a large part of our concern was simply to make this walking more visible. Thus, although we tentatively begin to draw conclusions here, this essay focuses on the walking interviews themselves, the work of the artists and their discussion of their own work (the last a deliberate attempt to vary the voices heard in this field). (15)

The conclusions are explored more fully in their 2012 essay on this subject. This paper is the beginning of their research–and to be honest, I should have read this one first. In any case, both are worthwhile.

In the first walk, Heddon interviews Turner on a walking route that Turner chose, one that runs “along the undercliff between Branscombe and Beer, in Devon” (16). Turner noted that “the ‘leisure walk,’ chosen for aesthetic pleasure and convenience, is easily regarded as the antithesis of the psychogeographic ramble—too easy, too naive, too ‘managed,’ too mapped. Need it be, however? Is it entirely without difficulty, complexity, risk or mystery?” (16). She also raised questions “about the ways in which our experiences shape our assumptions about place, citing, for example, the highly managed forest environment where she enjoys taking her small daughter for walks, despite the doubts cast on this ‘taming’ of the forest space by artist colleagues” (16). She recalled her attempt to “drift,” with her baby, in a domestic space, as part of a video project made for Wrights & Sites: “It was hard,” she said (16). She remembered “the struggle of attempting to experience the house differently, dressed for hiking, wheeling the buggy upstairs, erecting a tent in the bathroom,” and the resulting video can only be read ambiguously, “suggesting entrapment” (16). That experience led Heddon and Turner to consider domestic walking:

We do not want to assume that women’s experience can automatically be mapped onto a concern with the domestic, or to make similarly essentialist assumptions about men’s epic walking. However, Cathy’s observations clearly reflect the ways in which personal experience (here, that of early motherhood) can inform perceptions of space and of its attendant degree of difficulty, complexity, risk and mystery. (16)

I doubt very much that a male walking artist would be concerned with the domestic, however, although I feel the need to point out that not all men are engaged in “epic walking,” either. At least, I don’t think they are. Maybe I’m wrong about that.

In the second interview, Heddon drifted in London with Rachel Gomme, “a dancer trained in the technique of Body Weather, a butoh inspired practice which raises awareness of and attends to the body’s intersections with its environment” (16). Having worked with artists Christine Quoiraud and Simon Whitehead, “and sensing in their practice a deep engagement with the rural landscape,” Gomme “seeks strategies for a similarly embodied response to the urban fabric of London: a way to feel at home” (16). Gomme’s practice “tends to focus on details”: throughout 2007, for instance, she would stop to pick up flowers that had dropped to the ground, and the resulting Found Flower Journal “captures seasons and microclimates, each flower attached to a strip of paper that roughly matches the colour of the sky when she plucked it from the pavement” (16). She’s more interested in “the organic matter of the city” than its architecture” (17). Her 2008 work Undergrowth was

a sort of natural history walk around her local area, literally marked out, in washable green paint, the things that grew where they weren’t supposed to be, or where you didn’t expect them, or where you simply tended not to see them—plants in the road, roots of trees breaking through the pavement, ‘weeds’ in the cracks of walls. (17)

Gomme learned the names of those plants, exchanged knowledge with people from the area who showed up to walk with her (17). Gomme’s walking is often convivial in that way, and Heddon notes that her walking practice 

borrows from her Body Weather technique, a sense of stillness in motion. The hypnotic rhythm of foot falling is threaded through Ravel (2008), where she knitted up a line of yarn as she walked through Camberwell, incorporating bits of found objects or things that people gave her. Six hours of walking, covering a distance of just over two miles, created a knit of 4 1/2 feet x 6 inches. She collected not only objects but people, mostly women, mostly talking about knitting—their grans’ knitting, their mums’ knitting. (17)

The use of methodologies related to relational or social aesthetics—in this case, the conversations Gomme engaged in with passersby—is a recurring theme in this essay.

Turner walked and talked with Emma Bush in Harbertonford, the village in Devon where the lives; they walked a route that is part of Bush’s 2008 Village Walk, and Bush pointed out the field where she researched her 2007 performance lecture, Fields (17). It’s a walk Bush has repeated many times: “Repetition is something she finds interesting. Not striding out into the unknown but focusing in on the detail of the known” (17). Every evening, Bush photographs the same line of houses, “taking time to notice weather, wind direction, owls and buzzards. Nothing is too small or too familiar: she even considered a project where she would contemplate her garden wall” (17). During the interview, Bush stressed “her timidity in talking to people, or walking strange routes. The research process for Village Walk was slow, extended over months and involved repeatedly walking the route with elders from the village and alone. The final walk links a series of the elders’ autobiographical stories along the route” (17). For Turner, “[t]his project’s integrity, its careful methodology, its deliberation, its pushing of small boundaries,” suggested that it was “a metaphor for the hidden steeliness that lies behind the fragility of this walking” (17).

In the fourth interview, Heddon walked with Gail Burton and Clare Qualmann around East London, “following the everyday routes that now form the trio’s Nightwalks” (18). The trio walkwalkwalk “practice what they call ‘an archaeology of the familiar and the forgotten,’ organizing public walks through their familiar places, places deemed marginal or overlooked” (18). Such places in East London at that time were dirty and somewhat abandoned, but they provided “space for the imagination” and were “more receptive to possibilities” (18). Walkwalkwalk’s practice is a “sharp retort to Guy Debord’s dismissal of a student whose routines made a rigid triangle in Paris. . . . Debord was incredulous that the (female) student did not move outside of those three points. Staging a sort of anti-dérive, walkwalkwalk plotted their daily routes to define their own triangle,” and decided to invite others to join them in exploring the relationships within that space (18). Some 20 to 50 people turn up for their nightly walks, which are organized a couple of times a year (18). “Collective walking enables access to places that become ‘off limits’ at certain times (most particularly for women),” Qualmann and Burton suggested. “But the broader politics of freedom are writ large here”: they wanted to do something that didn’t require permissions or money (18). “Their collection of different night walk route maps testifies to the redrawing of margins” in the area, which is beginning to experience regeneration and redevelopment (18). I wonder what those walks are like now, a decade later, or if they are still happening.

Heddon took Elspeth Owen on a walk in Glasgow, on one of Heddon’s own daily walking routes (18). That’s because “Owen is a long distance, long duration walker, her work often providing a structure for the forging of new connections” (18). For example, in 2005’s Looselink Owen “hand-delivered messages in a chain sequence, following directions from one person to another. At no point did she know, in advance, where she would be walking to next” (18). (That would be a dangerous project to attempt in this country: what if someone in Vancouver gave you a message for someone in St. John’s?) In another project, 2009’s Grandmother’s Footsteps, Owen used a similar methodology, “delivering messages from grandparents to other first-time grandparents, crossing fifteen counties in the process” (18). “While the direction and duration of these projects are determined by the people participating in them . . . other projects are dictated by the calendar”: Owen has performed two “blue moon” works, remaining outside for the entire moon cycle, in all weathers, undertaking nightly walks and issuing an open invitation for people to join her (18). 

Owen is 71, and she only started walking in her 40s (18). Her first long walk was a 120-mile trek from Cardiff to Greenham Common, marking the founding of the Peace Camp that was set up to protest the presence of American nuclear weapons (18). Even though she was an adult, her father was furious with her, and that reaction encouraged Owen to develop a walking art practice (18). “Another motivator,” Owen noted, “is her acute sense of fear when walking in unknown places—a fear that she acknowledges, confronts and overcomes with every walk completed. As she explains, all the bad things that she imagined might happen, but didn’t, are placed beside all the good things that did” (18-19). For example, the first night she slept out on her own (a nerve-wracking experience) she woke up to see a white stag (19). I wonder how many similar moments Owen has experienced.

Turner interviewed Misha Myers during a walk around Exeter, following the city wall (19).“Myers is a performance artist and academic, who formerly studied anthropology and practised dance,” and Exeter’s old walls “designated the route of her work Yodel Rodeo in 2007” (19). According to Myers, walking as an art practice “came out of her interest in ‘how people orient,’ an interest, she suggests, rooted in her own experience of displacement”—she moved from the US to the UK—and her work with refugees and asylum seekers (19). For instance, her 2002 project Way from Home “began with refugees in Plymouth and that has since extended to other places. With this project, Myers offers a set of instructions for mapping a place that someone remembers as home, then walking it in another place, remembering it with a co-walker” (19). Myers had thought that everyone who participated would have a clear idea of what “home” was, but that turned out not to be the case: “She recalls a homeless refugee, awaiting deportation, who could not identify home, who walked the shape of a question mark in the public library” (19). Myers encourages people to interpret her instructions and make them their own, to use them to create a journey (19). Her own Yodel Rodeo was an attempt “to walk Mississippi around central Exeter. Initially, she envisaged walking alone through the night but grew interested in inviting others into that imagined space. She therefore involved a group of line-dancers who accompanied her in a route around the walls that ring the city like a corral” (19). Myers’s works “have tended to focus on triggering other people’s creativity and involvement,” in a way that makes the artist herself tend to disappear (19).

Heddon walked with Sorrel Muggridge in Glasgow (19). Muggridge “has been devising walking projects with Laura Nanni for the past five years”; the pair walk together “in shared time rather than in shared space since she has been most often in Nottingham while Nanni is in Toronto” (19). “Spinning the idea of the long-distance walk, their projects utilize the space between them as if ‘mashing up’ geographies, engaging the streets of one city as the streets of another” (19). For instance, their 2009 project Further Afield invited people to walk with someone else across the ocean; participants were connected by telephone with someone walking in Montreal, “exchanging details of one place to re-imagine and navigate the terrain of another. Separated by thousands of miles, the experience nevertheless provided the co-ordinates for collaboration, exchange and connection” (19-20). In another piece, The Climb, Muggridge and Nanni “attempt to climb the height that would allow them to see each other across the horizon,” measuring that height “using an everyday scale—the step” (20):

Though durational (and perhaps never ending), the intention, Muggridge explains, is neither to endure nor conquer space, but to make tangible the impossibility of the scale at which they are working, “emphasizing the scale of space versus the scale of us and letting it be, letting yourself feel liberated rather than challenged by it.” (20)

I’ve seen calls for similar walks on the Walking Artists Network, but I had not understood the point before reading Muggridge’s account of her walks with Nanni.

Turner and Ana Lopez de la Torre walked together in London. Lopez de la Torre explained “that her walking grew out of an interest in public space,” and that rather than being connected to leisure or “a romantic connection with nature,” it is “connected with poverty” (20). Her grandmother, who lived in north-west Spain, told stories about walking from one village to another, “stories that are sometimes about convivial walking, but sometimes about sorrow and hardship” (20). Lopez de la Torre “is interested in an equal valuation of the mythical alongside more factual, historical or scientific material,” but by mythical she seems to refer to communal knowledge (20). She seems to be the closest to a psychogeographer in this group of walkers: she looks for “the incongruities in the city spaces, the oddities, the ways in which the street is controlled and organized, or where control has disintegrated”—such as the impromptu allotment garden they see on the edge of a housing estate: “This is what makes my day,” Torre told Turner (20).

Heddon walked with and interviewed dancers Tamara Ashley and Simone Kenyon in a town in Wales: “They climb the hill behind Kenyon’s house, a route she sometimes runs” (20). In 2007, the pair walked the Pennine Way together: “they were interested in ‘how to locate dance through walking,” and over the 270-mile walk “they tried to pay attention to how their (dancers’) bodies engaged with and responded to the terrain” (21). Even the weight of their backpacks played a role, making them aware of their centre of gravity and connecting them to the earth with their weight (21). “Walking as a duo, they ‘partnered’ the land too,” considering the texture and density of the ground they walked on—peat versus limestone, for example (21). They focused on improvisation during that walk:

Improvising off the land and each other, they remained sensitive to the possibilities of exchange, to shifts in atmosphere and mood (both of the landscape and their relationship). Notably, the largest tensions between the pair were experienced during the most difficult sections. The Pennine Way functioned “like a score” though, with the path providing what Kenyon describes as a “base line” that “pulls you” and “holds you in place.” No matter how bad things seemed to be, they realized (and appreciated) that they simply had to get up each day and get back on the trail. (21)

The pair also curated “six artistic interventions along the route,” inviting other artists to come and change what was happening and give them feedback (21): “In the context of the long-distance and long-duration, these meetings became ‘magnified’ and served to extend the duet, the dialogue and exchange; as did the encounters the pair had with other walkers completing the Way, a lot of whom shared their stories of the path. One walker even left signs on the ground for them” (21). Heddon recognized in their walking that “‘contact improvisation’” was “an appropriately generative description through which to consider this responsive, open practice” (21).

In their conclusion, Heddon and Turner note that they walked with only a small number of the women walkers who contacted them, but that

the richness of this field is already evident. These ten women worked as solo artists, duos and groups; they ranged in ages from 20s to 70s; some were mothers and some weren’t; they were from Britain or had emigrated here; they lived in the city and in the country; they walked alone and they solicited company. Some loved walking as children, some hated it. While all had heard of flâneurs and the Situationists, and many cited Richard Long, Hamish Fulton and Janet Cardiff, few seemed overly concerned with or committed to staying within the well-tramped fields. Each had her own agenda and different motivation. The diversity of the practice and the women who make it usefully prevents us from falling into easy essentialisms of “gender.” Nevertheless, each of these women did recognize that she walked as a woman: though what that means is as variable as the women walking. (21)

Given the variety in the walking practices they learned about, they don’t “propose a singular conceptualization of women walking” (21). “However,” they continue, “by walking and talking to these women we aim to rethink—or add—to the theories that relate to aesthetic walking practices” (21). The interviews were a starting point and they intended to continue their analysis (21). Nevertheless, they write,

Our small sample has already prompted us to consider questions of scale, of the monumental and the miniature, and the cultural values attached to one rather than the other. But this work also invites us to problematize such binaries, for in the detailed work of many of these walkers—their dogged attention to their locale(s)—the seemingly miniature becomes gigantic. (21-22)

The local and the global intertwine in these walks, as do the local and the epic: “We reconsider, too, the local and epic, since our long-distance walkers work with both scales simultaneously; Owen travels vast distances to hand deliver personal messages” (22). They are also interested in the way that the walking they discussed “prompts us to consider walking as a convivial or communal activity, over-writing the still powerful historical figure of the solo walker” (22). For instance, Owen’s walking puts connection at its centre; Muggridge and Nanni connect people who are thousands of miles apart; Gomme “knits together people and place, gathering them both as she walks her local streets”; Myers and Lopez de la Torre “both see their work as being that of someone facilitating on behalf of various communities, where the artist does not necessarily ‘lead’ or inscribe the work with their presence” (22). The work also encourages them to think about “the concept of ‘adventure’”: adventure does exist in the walks they’ve discussed, and it’s important to acknowledge that and make it visible, but “as with notions of ‘scale,’ adventure can be rescaled too, depending on your perspective. To work in one’s back yard is to take huge risks, while to walk the Pennine Way, as Simone Kenyon reminds us, is simply to take one step after another” (22).

When I first became interested in walking as an art practice, I was only aware of epic walking by men: Richard Long and Hamish Fulton were the primary examples I knew about. I’m not willing to abandon the notion of epic walking, but it would be interesting, I think, to engage in other forms of walking as well—perhaps forms that are more convivial, perhaps forms that are more local in scale. I would not have come to that realization without reading Heddon’s and Turner’s articles on women walking, and I am curious to learn about other kinds of walking as well. Perhaps there are men (aside from Phil Smith) whose walking falls into the category of social or relational aesthetics; perhaps not all men who walk are engaged in epic walking. One of the things I’m learning as I read through all of this material is just how much I don’t know. It’s rather humbling. I suppose that’s a good thing: better to know what you don’t know than wander around with a false impression of one’s knowledge and competence. Still, if I were asked to put together a syllabus for a course on walking as an art practice, almost all of the examples I’d be able to furnish would be of women walking artists, given the lists provided by Heddon and Turner, and also by Phil Smith—maybe that’s not the worst thing, but it does indicate the lack of balance in my knowledge of the field. In fact, I might find myself being asked to create such a syllabus as part of my comprehensive examinations: I’d better start making lists of walkers I might want to include.

Works Cited

Heddon, Deirdre, and Cathy Turner. “Walking Women: Interviews with Artists on the Move.” Performance Research, vol. 15, no. 4, 2010, pp. 14-22.

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

59. Deirdre Heddon and Cathy Turner, “Walking Women: Shifting the Tales and Scales of Mobility”

walking women

As I’ve been working on this project, I’ve occasionally read things that made me stop and wonder how I’ve managed to do anything without having already read that text. One example of a text with that kind of power is Phil Smith’s book, Walking’s New Movement: Opportunities, Decelerations and Beautiful Obstacles in the Performances, Politics, Philosophies and Spaces of Contemporary Radical Walking. Another is this relatively short article by Deirdre Heddon and Cathy Turner. I don’t know how I would have written the conference paper that I must write in the next week without reading this essay. In fact, I don’t know how I could carry on with this project without reading this essay. If Smith’s book, as I wrote in my summary, should have been the first thing I read, this article should have been the second. And honestly, it leaves me thinking that what I know about walking art couldn’t fill a sweat-stained Tilley hat.

According Heddon and Turner, “earlier theories and interpretations of walking continue to exert influence on cultural understandings of aestheticized walking, informing and shaping current knowledge”; the reiteration of a particular genealogy—“or fraternity”—that includes such figures as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Henry David Thoreau, André Breton, and Guy Debord, “generates an orthodoxy of walking, tending towards an implicitly masculinist ideology” (224). In that ideology, walking is framed and valued as “individualist, heroic, epic and transgressive,” and these qualities “are understood predominantly in relation to a historically masculinist set of norms” (224). “It is our proposition that a persistent iteration of these features marginalizes other types of walking practices and the insights they might prompt, a marginalization that this essay seeks to address,” Heddon and Turner write (224). Because women are conspicuously invisible in the canon of walking, they began their research project, “Walking Women”: “Having established, with relative ease, that many contemporary women artists use walking as an integral material to their art, in 2009 we walked with and talked to thirteen artists based in the UK, discussing in some detail their practices, motivations, and experiences, including their sense of walking as a woman” (225). They didn’t set out to identify a particular way of walking specific to women: “given that there is no singular ‘woman,’ there can be no such practice” (225). Nevertheless, they recognize that the body that walks can make a difference to the experience of walking (225). Moreover, they write, “setting the work we have encountered thus far beside persistent narratives of walking prompts a necessary and renewed attention to the relative and contextual—mobile—nature of concepts of freedom, heroism and scale, on the one hand, and to the relational politics that make up the spatial on the other” (225). 

First, though, they set out to summarize “the predominant and influential narratives attached to walking,” which are framed by “two enduring historical discourses: the Romantics and Naturalists, tramping through rural locations; and the avant-gardists, drifting through the spectacular urban streets of capitalism” (225-26). Two related sets of imperatives recur in both discourses: “seek out adventure, danger and the new; and release oneself from the relations of everyday life” (226). Both discourses tend to presume a universal walker, but “explicitly and implicitly the walker is typically male” (226). That walker is also completely free of any kind of relationship with others. Rousseau could only engage in contemplation while walking, and he needed to erase anything that reminded him of being dependent (226); Thoreau saw walking as a form of detachment from family and friends, a solo excursion into “the fields and woods” (226). “This might be dismissed as belonging to nineteenth-century chauvinism,” they write, “yet contemporary artists acknowledge a debt to past walkers”—Wrights & Sites, for instance, cite Thoreau’s words approvingly, for example, even though they are a mixed-gender group that often walks with family and friends (226). “This construction of walking as an act of heroic resistance to norms reappears in the postmodern figure of the rhizomatic nomad, pitted against the State and stasis,” they suggest (226). It is also close to Nicholas Bourriaud’s notion of the “radicant” artist, whose art is characterized by “‘wandering practices’ and journey-structures, refusing stable identity or location” (226).

A parallel legacy can be seen in psychogeography: the Situationists shared with the Romantics concepts of “adventure,” “newness,” and “freedom” (227): “The artist, set apart from the crowd, aims to shock us out of our commonplace perceptions into a revaluation of the everyday, reality itself” (227). Given their awareness of subjective experience, one might expect the Situationists to be aware of embodied experiences of space, but their “renderings of space, though complex, seem to fix it, as if space exists separate to its occupations”—that there is a possibility of accessing some form of “pure space” (227). Other psychogeographers, or walkers associated with psychogeography or cited by its practitioners as influences, repeat these ideas. Iain Sinclair, for instance, echoes the need for detachment and “proposes the possibility of being able to read the city as a text . . . without much concern for the specificity of one’s own body and cultural position” (227). Michel de Certeau also suggests that the city is a language that can be spoken by the walker—an idea that is resonant with Sinclair’s claims (227). However, geographer Doreen Massey rejects this notion of space, understanding it instead as “a ‘sphere of relations’” and calling for “a ‘relational politics of the spatial’” that is concerned with the construction of spatial relationships” (228). “Following Massey,” Heddon and Turner write, “we might suggest that the detachment implicit in Romanticism, Naturalism and avant-garde practices (and after them, contemporary psychogeography) refuses to recognize or take any responsibility for its implication in the construction of asymmetrical spatial power relations” (228). Once again, I am reminded that I need to reread Massey’s For Space; somehow, reading it in the context of Yi-Fu Tuan’s ideas about space and place, I missed its importance. (Plus, it’s a difficult book that undoubtedly will require more than one attempt.)

Situationist International member (and spouse of Guy Debord) Michèle Bernstein’s fictionalized account of walking in Nice and attracting unwanted male attention suggests that she was “acutely aware of the constitution of space as a constant, ongoing activity in which bodies are active and implicated” (228). In other words, Bernstein “locates her gendered self within the landscape—her experience as a woman standing in stark contrast to the masculinist presumptions so often iterated within the historical and contemporary explications of walking art” (228). In the remainder of their article, Heddon and Turner introduce various ways in which walking by women “offers possibilities for—and suggests the necessity of—revising and widening the discourses attached to walking, challenging critical orthodoxies” (228). Indeed, the frame of reference of aesthetic walking “might be productively unsettled” by this research (228)—and I would argue that this claim is borne out by their analysis.

First, they discuss questions related to so-called “epic” or “heroic” walking—terms I resisted when I read them in Smith’s book, because I understood them as critical evaluations rather than neutral descriptions. For example, two women artists they interviewed, Simone Kenyon and Tamara Ashley, walked the Pennine Way in 2007 as a durational art project, attempting “to stay attuned to the way the changing landscape made their (trained, dancers’) bodies feel,” and to the fact that they were walking as a duo (229). They had intended “to walk the path as dancers, noting relationships between space and movement and each other,” but male walkers often saw them as lesbians (intended as an insult), and they were exposed to “the persistence of certain ideological assumptions about appropriate places for women to walk, alongside appropriate types of walking for women” (229). “For this reason, we would propose that women’s ‘heroic walking’—walking that takes place on long-durational and geographical scale—is performative, claiming equal right for women to traverse the ‘wild,’ the open spaces,” Heddon and Turner write. “However, the ‘heroic’ attributes might also resonate doubly here, since the perceived risks of the ‘wild’ are gendered; part of the assumed threat for women is generated by the still-dominant cultural perceptions of the implicit threat of men” (229). “Ashley and Kenyon’s work prompts us to ask the difficult question whether women who walk in the ‘wild’ are considered especially heroic,” they continue; such questions are difficult, “because an affirmative answer reiterates cultural presuppositions about gender,” that women are vulnerable and victimized (229).

Another example of a woman engaged in epic walking is Linda Cracknell, who in 2007 undertook a dozen walks to gather material for a writing project, including a 200-mile walk on a Scottish drover’s road and a seven-day walk on the Camino Mozarabe in Spain. Cracknell recalls a phrase she heard repeatedly during the project: “God, you must be so brave” (229). “Rather than suggesting a greater scale of heroism for the female walker, it may well be more useful politically to draw attention to the many women who do undertake walking on this scale and emerge unscathed,” Heddon and Turner comment. “This might generate reassurance that the wild is neither more nor less dangerous to women than it is to men, which in turn may serve to rewrite the inscriptions of space and gender, as well as presumed walking competencies” (229). At the same time, however, they want to go beyond “adding women to a landscape from which they have been absented,” to problematize the values of scale and expose “the mobility and relationality of scales” (230). “For example,” they continue,

though Ashley and Kenyon have walked the Pennine Way, they also point out that on the long durational journey, walking becomes underscored as a repetitive and familiar action—simply one foot after another. The next move is defined. As they state, the long-distance path provided them with a long-term purpose and focus, a choreographic or action-score that guided them and pulled them along each day. In this way, Ashley and Kenyon represent the epic and heroic as in-step and co-incidental with the habitual and the known. (230)

Similarly, Cracknell walked everyday paths in a Kenyan village and made a short walk behind her home: “Contrasting with the narratives of discovery that are attached to the new and unfamiliar,” she suggests that such walking is like revision, that “[i]t is through rewalking, like rewriting, that original stories emerge” (230). All of Cracknell’s walks generated valuable stories, regardless of “their scale of distance covered,” and wherever she walked, she attended to “the details of the micro-landscape,” which “makes the smallest landscape gigantic”: “Attending to detail in this way equalizes walking practices and the focus is on the nearby—not the distant horizon (an open space to be conquered). Wherever one is walking, one is right here, on this foot of land” (230). Cracknell’s experience resonates with my own thinking on walking and place—that one needs to repeatedly encounter a place before one can truly come to know it. And I can confirm that Ashley and Kenyon’s experience of an epic walk as propelled forward by the repeated action of putting down one foot after another—a repetition that sometimes makes the attention Cracknell pays to her surroundings impossible—is absolutely correct. Sometimes, in fact, my walks are experiences of small gestures and tiny distances, in which I tell myself “you can stop at the next haybale,” or “one more kilometre,” or even “just a few more steps.” Focusing on the epic quality of a long walk misses the smallness of the steps which constitute it.

Artist Elspeth Owen is another walker engaged in long-distance, long-duration projects. However, her walks are structurally unpredictable—in other words, she doesn’t know where she is going when she begins. For example, in Looselink (2005), she invited 10 people—all but the first strangers to her—to give her messages to be hand-delivered to another person, who would give her another message, and so on: “In this way, Owen criss-crossed Britain, walking from her home in Cambridgeshire to Newcastle, to South Wales, to Norfolk, and finishing some three months later in Cornwall. Her walking served to create a network of eleven people” (230). Turner and Heddon write,

Whilst Owen is undeniably engaging with the epic, she simultaneously challenges notions of the heroic, solitary walker by inserting a gesture of intimacy into her work, becoming a “link” between people. Her inordinately personal touch reduces the epic to the local scale—one human to one human: one sender, one messenger, on recipient. This simple gesture serves to remind us that, irrespective of distances between, we are connected to each other. (230-31)

The paradox of Looselink, however, is that it’s the long distances between the people, the effort required to cross them, that gives her work its impact, “making the gesture of delivery profoundly committed rather than banal. The small scale gesture (the detail) depends on, is entangled with, the large scale action (the monumental)” (231). Adding to the heroic quality of the project is the fact that at the time Owen was in her seventies (231). However, Owen resists any notions of heroism:

she is adamant that her walking is not in any way related to endurance or suffering. She willingly accepts the kindness of strangers when offered (spare rooms and hospitality) and admits to carrying a large golfing umbrella in her rucksack (useful for shelter, to scare cattle, and as a walking stick). There seems an everyday pragmatism to Owen’s practice that deflates overblown concepts of the heroic—the single walker pitched against the enormity of the open lands—rescaling it in the process. (231)

“Owen, they conclude, “is simply going for a walk.” (231).

Other artists locate their practice in their local vicinity, problematizing the notion of “local,” which is often “tainted with notions  of the parochial” and “marked by the same cultural conceptions that enabled Thoreau to frame his ‘wilderness’ walks as more valuable than walks around a landscaped garden” (231). Notions of wild (or epic) and local are related to scale (and duration) (231). I was surprised to read that Debord’s “Theory of the Dérive” devalues the local (231-32)—I really will have to dig into the writings of the Situationists, won’t I? “The limits of Debord’s own perspective are apparent within the work of many contemporary artists who value the local and habitual,” Heddon and Turner continue, “while other work makes evident the ways in which specific roles and bodies shape the geographies of our lives” (232). For example, Dan Belasco Rogers and Sophia New of plan b, a duo based in Berlin, have recorded every journey they’ve made using GPS since 2007, and the resulting project, You, Me and Everywhere We Go, a visual exhibition of those recordings, “offers unique data concerning not only their habitual, everyday walking practices . . . but the differences between their movements while collaborating as artists, partners and parents” (232). Another example is Wrights & Sites split-screen video presentation that accompanied their performance-lecture Simultaneous Drift: 4 walks, 4 routes, 4 screens. In the video, the three male members of the group are walking in Exeter, Bristol and London, “walks characterized by spaces of sterility and frustration, as sites in the process of redevelopment are frequently barred, blocked or monitored,” while Cathy Turner attempts a dérive inside her house with her baby daughter (232). Turner had imagined that as a celebration of the domestic, but realizes that the results are sad and ambivalent, generating a sense of entrapment (232-33). “In these examples,” Turner and Heddon continue, “plan b and Wrights & Sites deliberately set the local/domestic and wide-ranging/public side by side” (233).

Another example is furnished by walkwalkwalk, a group of three women (Clare Qualmann, Gail Burton and Serena Korda) who map their own daily routes to define a triangle, hosting night walks on those routes twice a year (233). According to Turner and Heddon, walkwalkwalk “recognize the value of their local, habitual and everyday practice, seeing it as filled with immanent potential” (233). Their vision of walking as a web, rather than a single trajectory, “suits a walking philosophy that values the familiar, local, temporal and socio-cultural, as well as the unknown, immediate, solitary, wild—and indeed, finds them entangled with one another” (233). In a similar way, Emma Bush’s Village Walk (2008), based on her village in Devon, “was notable for the way it opened up unexpected spaces and connections within this village environment” (233). Bush’s research process took months and involved repeatedly walking a route with elders from the village, and alone (233). The final route linked the walking to the elders’ autobiographical stories (233-34). Indeed, relational aesthetics seem to be characteristic of work that is focused on the local, and when a critic or artist values relational aesthetics (as Smith does), then “epic” walking will tend to be dismissed. For instance, Misha Myers’s project Way From Home (2002), which was created for refugees living in Plymouth, 

reminds us of the always contextual nature of risk. Myers constructed a framework for walking, with the work actually being made by a collaboration between a single refugee and a single Plymouth resident. Refugees were invited to map a route from the place they considered home to a special place they often visited. They used these maps to then walk the city of Plymouth (their new “home”), accompanied by a city resident, transposing one set of landmarks onto another. (234)

The mismapping of space is a standard psychogeographical tactic, but that is not the purpose of this project: it is intended to bring refugees and residents together. However, Myers came to realize that this “seemingly simple formulation is not empty of risk, adventure or hazard to everybody”; women refugees were frequently unable or unwilling to participate in a walking partnership, preferring to participate in group walks among women of their own cultural group (234). According to Heddon and Turner, Myers’s and Bush’s work suggests that “rather than presuming a safety in the ‘local,’ we might usefully acknowledge and consider the value of risk attached to differently embodied experiences of place, to intimacy, to working in one’s own back yard, to finding oneself in someone else’s everyday” (234).

In fact, Heddon and Turner note that these examples, both the epic and the local, are about establishing relations, rather than escaping them (234). That realization “might lead us to conclude that women’s walking is predicated on relationships to a significantly greater degree than that of their male colleagues, and yet such an idea must be treated with caution, given the danger of essentializing and the complexity and range of contemporary practice” (235). After all, walking as “a convivial practice” (their lovely term to describe Myers’s project) can also be found in the work of Graeme Miller, PLATFORM (John Jordan and James Marriot), and Tim Brennan; it’s not necessarily “a gendered propensity” (235). They note,

While it may be easier to place men within histories and conventions of epic walking, discovery, and colonization and to place women within conventions of the companion, the domestic, the vulnerable and socially dependent traveller, both men and women are engaged in both sites and actions. And yet, if these convivial walks indicate a wider cultural shift towards relational or dialogical aesthetics, by no means exclusive to women, their preponderance draws attention to a need to consider what we mean by “relationship” and “dialogue,” rather than using these terms generically. (235)

“In contrast to Thoreau’s appeal to the ‘ideal walker,’” they continue,

in the work of these women artists we repeatedly encountered an embracing of “obligations” rather than their abandonment. This suggests, at the very least, the necessity of rethinking the relation of walking to relationships. Further, a willingness to acknowledge and exploit entanglement in community and coalition often locates the artist as mediator for communication between people and places, begging the question of whether this role is one reason these walkers are less visible? It is visible that in setting up convivial events, these artists are not the flâneurs, nor yet the Situationists, within, yet separate from, the ambulating crowd. They consider the crowd as their fellow walkers and companions. Some also recognized freedom in companionship—walking in a group, as walkwalkwalk does, opens up night time spaces that may otherwise be considered off-limits (certainly to many individual walkers). (235-36)

Many of the women walkers they interviewed are aware of the ways that “walking itself is framed, compromised and directed by what Rebecca Schneider refers to as ‘monumentality,’ the fixity of a patriarchal culture” (236). Walking, in that sense, 

might be a way of taking issue with constraints—with cultural assumptions about who can walk where, in what way, and with what value—but such constraints are never entirely absent. However uncompromising the walker, she is aware of the ways in which her body is complicit in maintaining the monumental, whether through an internalized fear of transgressing boundaries, whether through domestic constraints that keep her “local,” whether through the coding that makes her own body attract unwelcome attention or whether through cultural norms that constrain or alienate her geography. (236)

I need to read Schneider’s essay, I think; luckily (and for a change, to be frank), the book in which it is found is actually in the library here. 

Turner’s and Heddon’s interviewees acknowledge that anxiety infiltrates their practices (236). Indeed, “[d]espite the political optimism of these women, theirs tends towards a practice that does not offer wholesale alternatives or absolute freedoms (not even from representation and recuperation), since it observes the tensions within spatial practice and within subjectivity—our simultaneous resistance to and entanglement within macro structures” (236). So, Turner and Heddon propose that because problematizing binary scales (local/epic) and the values attached to them, or using walking as a “practice of relations, of social making,” recur within the practices they’ve researched, and because these themes “are not recurrent or even much in evidence in the existing critical evaluation of walking art” (236), new frames of reference are needed, ones “that allow for different engagements with walking art, and for different types of walks to be critically approached” (236). In fact, they argue that their research into the practices of women walking artists “draws attention to a set of possibilities that have not been sufficiently analysed or acknowledged, wherever they occur”:

the political potential of a walking that mobilizes social relationships, without aspiring to an idealized notion of the free man, or free-footed nomad, without the abstract freedom of the epic task, and without prioritizing or opposing distance and dislocation over locality and rootedness. Such walking troubles the values we continue to attach to singularity and to spatio-temporal scale, confirming that the former is illusory and the latter entirely relative. (236)

In other words, looking at the practices of women walkers could lead to a reconfiguration of the way aesthetic walking is theorized and understood.

There is so much to think about in this essay, and it is going to be at the centre of the paper I am about to write. I have a sense that I need to explain the ways that my walk last August was not a solitary experience, that I did engage with people during the walk, that relationships (however fleeting) were created. At least, that’s one of the things this essay leaves me thinking about immediately after having read it. Another reading will leave me thinking about other issues. That’s how this process works. In any case, I won’t be tossing this essay into the pile of things I’ve already read when I leave my studio tonight; no, I’ll be taking it home to reread tomorrow.

Works Cited

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

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