Reading and Walking

Walking, Reading, and Reading about Walking

Tag: walking

23. Tim Ingold and Jo Lee Vergunst, editors, Ways of Walking: Ethnography and Practice on Foot

ways of walking

You might be surprised to read this—at least as surprised as I am writing it—but while I was reading Ways of Walking: Ethnography and Practice on Foot, an interdisciplinary collection of essays on walking edited by Tim Ingold and Jo Lee Vergunst, I realized for the first time just how rich the subject of walking actually is. Walking goes in all directions (pardon the pun), according to these essays, from the way that hunting and gathering people walk, to walking as an aesthetic practice, to the so-called “Munro-baggers,” who aim to climb as many mountains in Scotland as they possibly can. Walking by itself—even without the other aspects of my research—is an important field of inquiry, and even though I’ve been thinking about the subject for over a year, it was only this week, with this book, that I came to realize the scope of what I’m doing. I’m both relieved and terrified by that realization.

The first chapter of Ways of Walking is essentially an introduction by the volume’s editors that includes a short essay on walking as well as remarks on the importance of the essays they have chosen. Walking, like talking, is a quintessential feature of “what we take to be a human form of life,” Ingold and Vergunst write at the outset. “Our principal contention is that walking is a profoundly social activity: that in their timings, rhythms and inflections, the feet respond as much as does the voice to the presence and activity of others,” they continue. “Social relations, we maintain, are not enacted in situ but are paced out along the ground” (1). This statement, they contend, follows in the footsteps (the walking puns are unavoidable) of Marcel Mauss, whose 1934 essay “Techniques of the Body” made him the first to suggest walking as a serious topic for ethnographic study (1). Like the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, Mauss was interested in the social formation of body techniques (1), but unlike his predecessor, Bourdieu put his notion of habitus “firmly in the space of the body’s active engagement in its surroundings, in the ‘practical mastery’ of everyday tasks involving characteristic postures and gestures, or a particular bodily hexis” (2). A way of walking, for Bourdieu, doesn’t just express thoughts and feelings imparted “through an education in cultural precepts and proprieties,” Ingold and Vergunst write; a way of walking is “itself a way of thinking and of feeling through which, in the practice of pedestrian movement, these cultural forms are continually generated” (2). Oh dear, I thought when I read these words. I’m going to have to add Bourdieu’s discussion of habitus, found in his book Outline of a Theory of Practice, to my reading list. (I really need to put together a revised reading list that leaves out some things and adds others.)

According to Ingold and Vergunst, “to think and feel is not to set up a relation of external contact or correspondence between subjective states of mind and objectively given conditions of the material world, but rather to make one’s way through a world-in-formation, in a movement that is both rhythmically resonant with the movements of others around us—whose journeys we share or whose paths we cross—and open-ended, having neither a point of origin nor any final destination” (2). We not only walk because we are social beings, they continue, but we are social beings because we walk:

That walking is social may seem obvious, although it is all the more remarkable, in this light, that social scientists have devoted so little attention to it. However, to hold—as we do—that social life is walked is to make a far stronger claim, namely for the rooting of the social in the actual ground of lived experience, where the earth we tread interfaces with the air we breathe. It is along this ground, and not in some ethereal realm of discursively constructed significance, over and above the material world, that lives are paced out in their mutual relations. Thus careful, ethnographic analysis of walking, we suggest, can help us rethink what being social actually means. (2)

Ingold and Vergunst are making a gigantic claim here, and if you know anything about French theory and philosophy of the past 50 years, you will have picked up on the way they are arguing against the suggestion that social life is constructed in discourse, and instead arguing that it is corporeal or even phenomenological. “Walking is not just what a body does,” they write; “it is what a body is” (2). Their aim, they continue, is “to embed our ideas of the social and the symbolic within the immediate day-to-day activities that bind practice and representation, doing, thinking and talking, and to show that everything takes place, in one way or another, on the move” (3). The contributors to this book “share an ambition to pay attention to the experiences of tactile, feet-first, engagement with the world” (3). So, for Ingold and Vergunst, the key themes of this book are movement, tactile engagement, rootedness, and the everyday—and those themes are explored through a variety of perspectives on the relatively commonplace activity of walking as conducted by a variety of different individuals and groups, in many different contexts, and drawing upon a surprising number of walking techniques.

As is always the case in collections of essays, I found some more useful or relevant than others, so I’m not going to discuss every single one in this summary. The collection begins with discussions of walking among traditional groups of hunter-gatherers, which suggest just how different both the styles of walking of those groups are from the styles of walking that are characteristic of Western (post)modernity, and how different their relationships to land are as well. In “Before a Step Too Far: Walking with Batek Hunter-Gatherers in the Forests of Pahang, Malaysia,” Lye Tuck-Po explores an apparent paradox in the walking practices of the Batek people: 

On the one hand, the Batek are confident and even proud of their ability to make their way around the forest. . . . On the other hand, listening to Batek talk about their emotions, what is most commonly voiced is fear . . . of specific dangers in the forests, and of particular kinds of walking experiences—giving the impression that fear is everywhere around and even inside them as well. How, then, can we reconcile these expressions of fear and confidence? (21)

“Walking is one of the primary means for interacting with the forest, but it also engenders an awareness of its dangers,” Lye continues. “Where walking takes the body forward, fear draws it back, and it is this tug between opposing directions of movement that characterizes the practices of hunting and gathering” (21)—at least among the Batek, that is. This analysis “implies a disjunction between body and mind, knowing and fearing, self and environment, and coming and going,” Lye writes, but she notes that such a disjunction may be false (21-22).

To determine whether that disjunction is true or not, Lye explores what walking in a tropical rainforest actually entails. First of all, one needs to follow a path or a route (23). But that path or route, for the Batek people, is typically improvised: the desired harvest of fruit or nuts may not materialize, or other opportunities to harvest may appear (24). Nevertheless, forest expeditions among the Batek follow a pattern. First, they walk to the farthest point in the forest using a series of shortcuts. Then they begin to search for and harvest food, which necessitates many detours, while slowly moving back in the direction of their camp. During such walks, “a complex suite of bodily performances is involved,” Lye writes:

Along the way, we were . . . observing, monitoring, remembering, listening, touching, crouching, and climbing. . . . in addition to stepping on the ground, wading across rivers, pushing vegetation aside, cutting fruit-laden boughs, eating the fruits, navigating the way, orienting ourselves to the camp, the Tahan River, and the stands of fruit trees, and, of course, talking and discussing the fruit harvest. We might have looked ahead most of the time . . . but we were also scanning the tree-tops . . . and looking sideways and backwards . . . for signs of fruits and the fauna associated with them. (25)

In the thick forest, the trails are not always easy to remember, and members of the group stop to discuss their path—among other subjects—continually. “Talking and walking are inseparable,” Lye suggests; “[i]f walking creates the path and if walking itself is an act of sociality, then can the path have any meaning without the stories of the people using it?” (26). In other words, paths are social phenomena and remembered in relation to social events (26). Moreover, walking is rarely a linear movement. Instead, it is cyclical—a process of going out and returning, even if the group is relocating its camp. “Moving forward in time and space is also about moving back—to old camps and pathways, the past, and history,” Lye suggests (26).

Paths in the forest are unstable, muddy, and marked by pits and dips concealed in the vegetation. “Stepping on Batek paths means dealing with the ecology of these paths, such as the slopes and the profusion of roots and vines that grew over and across them,” Lye writes (28). There are also visual constraints on the forest walkers, because one can rarely see more than 10 metres in any direction. In addition, the environment changes constantly, with new plant growth and new obstructions (such as fallen trees). The frequent rain also makes for muddy and slippery paths, adding a layer of difficulty. “Batek and other forest dwellers adapt by being hyper-alert to sound shifts and changes,” Lye writes (28). They also regard walking as a commonplace activity and laugh at outsiders, like Lye, who have difficulty (28). Indeed, Lye discusses the difficulty of walking in the forest at length, comparing her travails with the competence of the Batek, who made her walk with the children, at the front of the line, so they could keep their eyes on her progress.

In the stories the Batek tell, they reveal their few, deeply embedded, fears, Lye writes: fears of tigers, strangers, violence, floods, and falling trees. “What is the effect of fear on walking practices?” Lye asks. The answer is that the opposition between fear and confidence illusory:

Confidence means having trust in the ability to get a job done. It is the result of knowledge and improvisation: trying out variations, experimenting, informed by knowledge of what worked last time. Fear comes from having a realistic appreciation of what doesn’t work and is therefore also born of knowledge. Having confidence does not negate fearfulness; a confident person is one who is sufficiently fearful to be cognizant of potential danger and what to do should it arise. (32)

This question is, for me, far less interesting than Lye’s discussion of walking techniques among the Batek, the variety of ways they move through the forest, and I think Ingold and Vergunst would agree with me: they suggest that it is through the variety of “bodily performances” that constitute walking for the Batek, “along the way, that their knowledge is forged” (5). 

Knowledge and movement is central to the next essay: Allice Legat’s “Walking Stories: Leaving Footprints,” which explores walking among the Tłı̨chǫ people of Canada’s Northwest Territories. Legat describes her essay’s purpose at the outset:

I will consider walking as the experience that binds narrative to the acquisition of personal knowledge. Walking, then, validates the reality of the past in the present and in so doing, continually re-establishes the relation between place, story, and all the beings who use the locale. When walking a person can become intimate with a locale, creating situations in which one can grow intellectually while travelling trails under the guidance of predecessors who have both followed and left footprints. (35)

For the Tłı̨chǫ, there are clear relations between oral narratives and place: for them, to be knowledgeable involves gaining experience by working and listening to those who have more skill, including by walking with such people. But there are other ways to learn for the Tłı̨chǫ, including through dreams and visions (35-36). For the most part, though, one learns “during activities with, and in the presence of, others” (36). “For the Tłı̨chǫ,” Legat writes,

significant components include human as well as non-human beings, implying that learning is always situated and guided, even if there are no humans around. What I call “guided learning,” for the Tłı̨chǫ, entails a combination of receiving information—through hearing stories and travelling trails while carrying out tasks at particular locales. Information, then, is not to be extracted as the content of the story, but is the story itself, namely the happenings and occurrences that are related and fit together. The stories tell of places as they are associated with political and social endeavours. (36)

Stories are knowledge, then, and they are also related to specific places to which the Tłı̨chǫ have relations—relations which begin when children first hear stories about them:

Most stories have been heard many times before travelling to the sites named and experiencing them directly. Through visiting, walking and performing tasks at a locale individuals both take something of the place with them and leave a bit of themselves. In so doing, individuals add their narrative to that of others while refining the deeper levels of their perception. (36)

Stories reside in places along trails, and the names of those places serve as mneumonic devices for the stories that convey knowledge. According to Legat, though, “the period between listening to stories and walking them marks an in-between phase of learning during which people who have heard ‘talk’ do not yet know the ‘truth’ or reality of a narrative” (36-37). Walking, then, is a guarantor of narrative truth. It is also rarely linear; Tłı̨chǫ walks tend to be circular, a movement to a place and then a return from that place.

For the Tłı̨chǫ, the land is a living entity with powers, and it needs to be shown respect. One way to show that respect is by “paying the land,” leaving a useful item behind, particularly at places known to have supernatural power. “I have never known any Tłı̨chǫ travellers to pass these places without stopping and showing respect,” Legat writes (37), and to show respect to a place is connected to telling stories about it:

This often entails walking around the location to determine if all is as it was, and tidying burials if there are any in the vicinity. Individuals who have visited the place before tell the stories that dwell in the location to those who are travelling with them, and a “picnic”—which usually includes feeding predecessors by putting favoured foot in the fire—is enjoyed before continuing the journey. The process allows everyone to know the place and the story a little better. These actions validate the story in the present while maintaining relations with predecessors who continue to be attached to Tłı̨chǫ places. (37)

When travellers return from such places, they share their experience with others through stories. “Elders often respond by telling stories that clarify, enhance or add to them,” Legat writes. “Listeners grow and change as they are drawn to the places, walking through the footprints of others through their minds as they are drawn down the trails once again” (37). Moreover, she continues, “[f]or the Tłı̨chǫ, predecessors’ footprints are embedded in places and trails that continue to be used and travelled. Thus the stories they think with are steeped with detailed and accurate accounts of trails and locales. These stories form the basis for building one’s perception of reality” (37). Adults constantly tell stories, especially to children, so that “they can grow from the place they call home, eventually travelling trails and walking locales where they can experience the stories for themselves” (37):

Tłı̨chǫ individuals, then, are forever listening to stories whose truth is subsequently validated through experience. Retelling the story in light of this experience, the teller builds on the original by incorporating her or his own occurrences and happenings. Once one has gained personal knowledge, one tells one’s own stories and eventually leaves one’s own footprints for the future. (37-38)

Tłı̨chǫ elders encourage people to learn from places and to use “stories to think with” when they face new situations: “They use stories to structure the contexts within which their juniors perceive new experiences” (38). 

Footprints and knowledge are interchangeable for the Tłı̨chǫ. Listening to stories is important for the future, not only as a way to recognize the knowledge of one’s ancestors, but also to validate the truth of that knowledge and then perform a task (38). Moreover, stories are connected to the phenomenological experience of walking and of the land itself:

Listening to stories and following the footprints of those who are more knowledgeable allows one to think by drawing on philosophical understanding and practical knowledge that originated in the past. This is a perspective that encourages everyone to acknowledge that there is much to learn. It also provides people with an understanding of the importance of walking and observing—watching for the unexpected—while thinking about all that dwells within the land. Children are taught to watch as they grow to adulthood. As they walk, they are to think about what they smell, see, feel, always looking behind them to see how the trail will look on their return trip. (39)

The Tłı̨chǫ walk slowly, not hurrying, which leads to being disconnected from their surroundings.  Attention is of paramount importance, and attention requires slow forms of movement. Indeed, one of the stories Legat hears during her fieldwork is about how children were taught to hurry when they were in residential school—an alien form of movement for the Tłı̨chǫ children.

The Tłı̨chǫ people Legat lived and worked with frequently discussed the importance of the relationship between stories, walking the land, experiencing places, and knowledge, and they spent a lot of time and energy finding opportunities to share stories with those who were younger or less aware than themselves (40):

Adults are constantly telling ‘old time stories’ as well as stories of what they have seen and experienced. They also tell of when, where and how they experienced the stories that came from ancient times, or ‘when the world was new.’ Adults continually encourage those younger or less experienced than themselves to walk the land, to experience the truth of the stories for themselves, and to share what they experience—including what they saw, heard and felt, and with whom (including non-human beings) they shared the experience. Telling a series of stories is, inevitably, the most appropriate way to proceed. (40)

But stories need to be confirmed through walking, preferably walking with someone who has walked that path before and knows about the events and the place. That walking is part of becoming more knowledgeable:

Tłı̨chǫ individuals are encouraged to “walk the land” so that they can experience and validate information in the stories that reside in and grow from places. Through listening to narratives and walking with one’s predecessors, the process of guided learning is continuous. It provides individuals with the information and knowledge necessary to keep life going, and to maintain harmonious relations by showing respect to all entities that dwell within the land. Furthermore, the Tłı̨chǫ understand that one always has more to learn, more stories to experience and, therefore, more places to walk. Individuals learn that the world is in constant change and that they must remain flexible and willing to think about new and unexpected situations. (46-47)

Following the footprints of one’s predecessors is not necessarily meant in a literal sense. Rather, it means that 

the wayfarer’s movement should be at once knowledgeable, task-oriented and attentive to relations with other beings in the environment through which it passes. . . . [F]ollowing footprints is about gaining knowledge through action and the ability to use that knowledge. Individuals who walk the land are respected because they have experience, the interpretation of which is based on continual social interaction. (47)

According to Legat, personal knowledge is produced when the story and one’s experience converge in a narration. While the focus of the story remains the same, the story itself can change, depending on whom it is being shared with. “In the telling, the stories reach out to other individuals, drawing them back down the trail, back to the places where individuals can experience the stories for themselves,” Legat writes. “Thus, individuals grow outward at the same time as they become rooted within the several locales of Tłı̨chǫ country” (47). All Tłı̨chǫ people are encourage to grow through the knowledge they have been offered by their parents, grandparents, and others. “In other words,” Legat continues, “being knowledgeable is the culmination of listening to stories and following footprints. This provides the foundation for leaving one’s own footprints for future generations” (47). 

In “The Dilemmas of Walking: A Comparative View,” Thomas Widlok examines two very different walking (or travelling) practices: those of the so-called “confluencers,” who aim to visit confluences, points where latitude and longitude meet; and the Akhoe Hai//om people of northern Namibia. Widlok engaged in “itinerant participant observation” with the confluencers (52), but I’m more interested in the Akhoe Hai//om people and what their experiences have to say about the place where I live. “Like other ‘San’ groups,” Widlok writes, the Akhoe Hai//om people “move more or less regularly within a land that they consider to be theirs but which has been appropriated by other groups” (54). Today, most Akhoe Hai//om have a semi-permanent residence from which they make visits to other places, although sometimes they will also move their home base as well (54). Widlok makes two points about this movement: first, “visits and moves are not only intended to get to a certain place, with a certain resource or a relative living there, but also and at least as often, are a means to get away. Social disruption and conflict of any kind, including the attempt to avoid conflict, are common motives for trying to leave” (54). Like the Batek and the Tłı̨chǫ, Akhoe Hai//om movements are rarely linear, and they often underline the circularity of their movements by leaving a hut or some possessions behind when they leave a place as material place-holders which promise their return (58). Moreover, their frequent movements back and forth testify to a commitment to more than one place, sometimes stretching out their movements in time to the point where they appear to be co-present in two places and moving in two directions (58). Moreover, the Akhoe Hai//om stress their autonomy when moving from one place to another (58).

The confluencers, in contrast, are not unlike explorers; they share some of the colonial or imperial ambitions to get to a place before others, occupy it, and make it “tame” (54). Moreover, the grid of latitude and longitude that interests the confluencers is not abstract or innocent. Rather, that grid “has informed how colonial forces organized space, delimited the land and divided,” Widlok writes. “Local boundaries were either not known or understood, or were deliberately disregarded in the colonial ordering of space” (58). That imposition of a grid was manifest in Saskatchewan as well, and just like this place, in Namibia the grid is marked on the land in the form of roads and fences which separate “private” from “communal” land, or national parks from farms. “Once markers such as roads and fences are constructed on the mapped ground they gain a force of their own,” Widlok continues, “spawning new divisions oriented with regard to these ‘given’ features” (58-59). The South African government constructed roads to both open up land (for the deployment of soldiers) and to close it off (by restricting the movements of others) during the struggle against apartheid, and today in Namibia people are expected to use roads instead of crossing farms by using footpaths: “Anyone found crossing a privately owned farm is suspected of slaughtering or stealing livestock, of introducing diseases and of making unlawful use of the land,” and such trespassers are frequently shot (59). 

“Road makers,” Widlok writes, “not only want to keep people from their land, they also want to control access to places more generally”:

If a road leads to a place—a farm homestead for instance—anyone using that road had better be invited or welcome by the owner of the place. Being the first to make a road is not necessarily tantamount to opening up space, it may also be a means to close it. (59)

The Akhoe Hai//om, in contrast, have neither the opportunity nor the power to restrict the movements of others:

Their main concerns are potential conflicts and dilemmas arising from the restrictive behaviour of farmers. Often they have to ask themselves whether they should take the road or a short cut with the possible danger of being shot at. (59)

Widlock notes the importance of paths to the Akhoe Hai//om, and the complexity of their use of paths:

Foraging nearly always entails some degree of trail blazing in that, since food sources are quickly depleted next to a path, it usually pays to venture a little further. . . . On the other hand established paths not only make walking easier and save the trouble of constantly having to orient oneself, they also lead to resources with seasonal reliability such as water sources, termite mounds or groves of trees. These paths are not deliberately cut but rather emerge as a consequence of regular use. Moreover, at least in some cases, the regular movement also generates the reason for using these paths, through a process that involves the unwitting cooperation of humans, animals and plants. (59-60)

On the other hand, Widlok continues, “[r]oads follow the intention to regulate movement, to open up access for those following the road, and at the same time to close it to others and to bar other areas next to the road from trespass” (60). However, in an environment where so many people are pedestrians, “there is a limit to the degree of control that road-makers can exert over people’s movements” (60).

The differences between the way the Akhoe Hai//om and the farmers think about the land is related to their very different uses of it—both their ways of living and their ways of looking at the world:

For the Akhoe Hai//om at least part of the answer is to be found in foraging as their erstwhile dominant mode of subsistence. With no livestock to steal and no fields that could be destroyed, Akhoe Hai//om have been fairly relaxed about anyone crossing their land or leaving a path. In hunting animals that move, gathering plants that provide edible roots and collecting nuts and berries, it pays both to roam widely and to leave well-trodden paths. . . . Unlike farmers who guard their enclosed fields and herds against outsiders, among hunter-gatherers everyone is free to go whatever way they will, whether this means following in the footsteps of others or striking out in unorthodox directions. So long as population densities remained fairly low, forager groups were open to seasonal or other visits by neighbouring groups who wanted or needed to make use of local resources and who might also bring other resources and trade items from neighbouring regions. In sum, with a fairly abundant resource base and social relations based on mutual assistance and equal rights of access, the path-dilemma of walking lost its relevance in practice, except perhaps in times of severe food shortage. (60-61)

When powerful colonizing groups arrived seeking exclusive access to the land, however, things changed dramatically. During colonial times, the Akhoe Hai//om and other “San” groups were hunted and killed; today there are frequent clashes between “San” and landowners and accusations of cattle theft, and “various degrees of force are being used to compel ‘San’ to use official roads and resettlement sites” (61). All of this echoes the history of Saskatchewan, as well as its present: the imposition of a grid on the land, the enclosure of that land, the threat of trespassing charges (or violence) to maintain control of that land. Those parallels interested me much more than Widlok’s discussion of the confluencers, as odd as their activities are.

Pernille Gooch discusses the walking practices of the Van Gujjars, a pastoral group in the Himalayas of India, in “Feet Following Hooves.” The Van Gujjars are just one of the pastoral communities who have historically walked “the altitudes of the Himalayas with their herds in accordance with the changing seasons,” and they continue to do so: men, women, and children walk in the forests with their herds of milk buffaloes (67). “The walk goes through a terrain intimately known and consisting of movements and places apprehended through an embodied knowledge possessed by people as well as animals,” Gooch writes. “It is a use of the body brought into being through a common history where movement has always been undertaken on foot at the rear of the herd as part of the great pastoral migrations through the region” (67). Today, however, those movements are hindered by “physical and discursive” barriers in the landscape, demonstrating the politicization of that landscape, “where the power over movement and the apprehension of space in the landscape is, to a great extent, dictated by policies originating in other places” (67). As a result, the seasonal migrations of the Van Gujjars are under threat.

According to Gooch, the buffalo cows of the Van Gujjars know the routes taken by the community: they walk at the front, and the people follow. “The Van Gujjars thus see their buffaloes as agents in the walk and not as objects to be moved,” Gooch writes, comparing the buffaloes to goats she herded in Sweden, who follow their herder (70). Because of the size of the buffaloes, the Van Gujjars often have to follow main routes, which have become busy highways in recent decades, which is dangerous for both people and animals. That danger is one restriction on their freedom of movement. Another restriction is the attempt by authorities, since the colonial period, to control buffalo nomadism. “The result was that the forest areas, both in the summer and winter pastures, were divided up between individual heads of households as permits to keep a specified number of animals within a delimited area,” Gooch writes. “After independence the Indian forest department continued with this policy. Van Gujjar movements are thus now restricted to particular migration routes during specified periods and their winter and summer grazing is tied to delimited areas of the forest” (72). Despite these restrictions, the Van Gujjars still make use of the freedom of movement they have left (72).

Gooch argues that the Van Gujjars’ nomadic way of life involves more skill than sedentary farmers require, because the Van Gujjars need to control their animals when they are on the move. “[S]uch mastery is situated within a life-world,” Gooch writes. “Successful pastoralism demands a strong feeling of understanding between herders and the animals they herd, tantamount to a shared world-view, whereby the world can be perceived through the senses of the animals in question” (73). This shared world-view is reflected in the Van Gujjars’ style or technique of walking: they make long but very slow strides, and take frequent pauses (73). It is also reflected in their habit of travel. The buffalo herders begin their walking early in the morning, while the children and (usually) women follow with pack animals and possessions later in the day, moving more quickly, so that everyone arrives at the same place at the same time (75).This way of life is now under threat:

The Indian administration has put up more and more hindrances to pastoral nomadism, both as actual barriers on the routes of transhumance and as laws and regulations, the latter often physically manifested in the former. The traditional campsites in state forest[s] are now encroached upon by other people, making it difficult to find fodder. Often the Van Gujjars have to buy it from local farmers at exorbitant prices. Tents made from a sheet of black plastic give little shelter from the rain or during nights of freezing cold. The walk goes through what the Van Gujjars often perceive as a hostile landscape. (75)

For the Van Gujjars, the landscape becomes ambiguous; they are caught between theirn own narratives, “ingrained in the practical use of the landscape,” and “the discourses of power that come to regulate that usage,” Gooch writes. Their pastoral walking practices are “everywhere hampered by barriers set up by the discourses of power” (78). “There is thus a political dimension to the continuance of the walk, a resistance by moving feet and hooves,” Gooch contends. “But being forced to live in a constant state of revolt against the norm of sedentism is exhausting for people whose understanding of the world is grounded in moving through forests and hills on the yearly rounds of transhumance” (79). 

I know that anthropology and ethnography have a bad reputation these days, but the ethnographies of the Batek, Tłı̨chǫ, Akhoe Hai//om, and Van Gujjars collected in Ways of Walking suggest two important issues related to my research. First, different groups of people have different relations to land, which is an obvious point, but one worth making. Certainly tribal or traditional peoples, whether they are hunters and gatherers or pastoralists, have markedly different ways of thinking about land than those of us in (post)modern, Western societies. But more importantly for my research is the way that these groups also have different styles or techniques of walking. This idea came up in the essay by Tim Ingold that I read last weekend, but it is reaffirmed by the ethnographies included in this book, and it’s something I hadn’t thought about before.

Kenneth R. Olwig’s “Performing on the Landscape versus Doing Landscape: Perambulatory Practice, Sight and the Sense of Belonging” considers landscape in two senses. The first, he writes, “is concerned with the landscape of earth, fields, pastures, country and ground,” involving “binocular vision, movement, and knowledge gained from a coordinated use of the senses in carrying out various tasks” and “engenders a sense of belonging that generates landscape as the place of dwelling and doing in the body politic of a community” (81). The second, “the landscape of space,” “derives primarily from a monocular perspective that is fixed and distant from the body” and “constructs a feeling of possession and staged performance in a hierarchical social space” (81). I would have called that first sense “land” rather than “landscape,” because the latter term suggests to me a visual or aesthetic response to the land as scenery—something suggested in a quotation from Yi-Fu Tuan’s Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes, and Values, a text to which Olwig refers: 

The meaning of scene or scenery has suffered the least change. The scene is the stage, originally of the Greek or Roman theater. A second meaning, now the most widely accepted, is that of a landscape or view, a picturesque scene, or the pictorial representation of a landscape. . . . Scenery and landscape are now nearly synonymous. . . . The difference is that landscape, in its original sense, referred to the real world, not to the world of art and make-believe. (Tuan 133)

The scenic landscape, or the land perceived pictorially, is related to maps. According to Olwig, “The techniques of perspective drawing were derived, in large measure, from the techniques of cartography, and hence also from the techniques of the cadastral property map” (83). The difference between pictorial representations of landscape, and cartographic representations of landscape, is that “maps tend to have a perpendicular projection, focusing directly downward,” while pictorial representations have a different “angle of projection,” typically from the side (83). Olwig takes the relationship between the word “scene” and the theatre seriously, suggesting that for the landowner, gardens and agricultural fields, or recreation and labour, “are performed, as in a theatre” (83). 

In the first sense of landscape, the land “is shaped in large measure by doing, and apprehended through the use of two eyes”:

Nowhere is this mode of apprehension more evident than in the practice of walking. The walker experiences the material depth of the proximate environment through binocular vision and through the effect of motion parallax created by the blurring of near objects in contrast to those further away. The touched, smelled and heard proximate material world is thereby woven into the walker’s sensory field, leading him or her to experience the landscape as a topological realm of contiguous places. (84)

In the second sense of landscape, however, the land is viewed from a stationary perspective that emanates from a central point; for the painter, “the walker is an object occupying a fixed location frozen in abstract Newtonian space” (84). In this second sense of the term, Olwig writes,

the viewer is positioned at a given location and uses only the singular perspective of one eye. . . . The eye, moreover, is fixed in space and time. . . . When painting with one eye closed, squinting over your thumb, you flatten out the world so that you can better block it onto your canvas, while simultaneously distancing yourself form the proximate environment in which depth perception depends upon binocular vision. Once the landscape has been thus flattened and distanced, it can be disaggregated into objects located within the geometries of a one-eyed perspectival framework, thereby recreating an illusion of the depth that was lost when you closed one of your eyes. (84)

The second sense of landscape is the dominant one today, although the older one still lurks in dictionaries, if not in our lived experiences (85). Historically, Olwig continues, “the feeling of belonging to the land through movement is as old as the activity of hunters and gatherers in tracking game and finding edible materials along habitual paths woven by the inhabitants of a familiar habitat, or in the exploration of a new one,” activities that are very close to those of pastoralists like the Van Gujjars as well. “[I]t is through this activity,” Olwig writes, “that many of our earliest senses of belonging in relation to landscape have their origin” (85). For me, though, the question is whether walking in our contemporary moment can begin a process of recovering landscape in the first sense Olwig discusses, and whether it is possible to move away from a mere visual or pictorial understanding of the land. I think, or perhaps hope, that it’s possible—Olwig’s reference to the 1932 mass trespass on Kinder Scout in Derbyshire suggests as much (89)—but I would need to do more research into this topic before I would be comfortable making such an argument. (Yes, I’m adding researching that topic to my swollen to-do list.)

In “Taking a Trip and Taking Care in Everyday Life,” Jo Lee Vergunst begins by listing the three purposes of the essay: first, to add “grounded” experiences to the Romantic guide-book representations of walks, “and in so doing to explore ethnographically the ways that walking happens in the city and the countryside in north-east Scotland” (106); second, “to conceptualize the environmental relations of the walker in a way that brings out the mobile and mutually-embedding relations of walking” (106); and third, to think about “the idea of ‘everydayness’ as a way of sensing and knowing the environment” as well as “the emotionality of the everyday” (106). Vergunst sets out to explore these themes through a detailed look “at how everyday walking takes place, paying particular attention to some of the slips, trips and mistakes that can happen” (108). Those errors and accidents, Vergunst continues, “involve a rather different kind of knowledge, a ‘becoming-aware,’” which “is characteristic of everyday walking” (108). In practical terms, Vergunst goes hill-walking with people near Aberdeen, watches how they walk, and talks to them about their experience of walking.

First, though, Vergunst discusses what the word “everyday” means (108-09), drawing on anthropologist Michael Taussig’s explanation of this term. “[W]hat sort of sense is constitutive of this everydayness?” Taussig asks:

Surely this sense includes much that is not sense so much as sensuousness, an embodied and somewhat automatic “knowledge” that functions like peripheral vision, not studied contemplation, a knowledge that is imageric and sensate rather than ideational; as such it not only challenges practically all critical practice, across the board, of academic disciplines but is a knowledge that lies as much in the objects and spaces of observation as in the body and mind of the observer. What’s more, this sense has an activist, constructivist bent; not so much contemplative as it is caught in medias res working on, making anew, amalgamating, acting and reacting. (141-42)

There is a lot going on in this quotation, which Vergunst doesn’t reproduce in full, but the notion of distinguishing the sensual from the studied is important to Vergunst’s desire to separate idealized Romantic walking from what actually happens when people walk—including their slips, trips, and falls. “While environments produce surprises and mishaps, I argue that these can be at the very heart of walking in a way that actually constitutes ‘the everyday,’” Vergunst writes.

Vergunst’s discussion of what happens when walkers slip and trip leads to a consideration of the actual environment in which walking occurs—particularly in the Scottish highlands—and a distinction between “surfaces,” which are relatively flat and smooth, and “textures,” which are not:

The qualities I have emphasized so far are those of protrusion or flatness, stickiness, roughness or smoothness, felt according to the conditions of the feet and the judgement of the eyes. They are textures. Unlike surfaces, textures do not clearly separate what is above from what is below as the person moves along. They are rather experienced relationally, through the degree and kind of friction caused by contact in movement between two substances. (114)

Walking is an interaction between the walker and this textured environment, an interaction which “affords or hinters various kinds of movement” (114). Moreover, texture implies a tactility that “can engender specifically everyday or non-contemplative forms of environmental knowledge” (114). In other words, we learn about the specific aspects of our environment as we walk through it and experience its various textures. Walking on (and off) paths in Scotland with other people engenders social relationships, even if only the warning to others to “take care” (114-15, 117), although the physical effort (especially when walking uphill) and need to concentrate on the task of walking often leads to silence among walkers (116). “The way to walk through a textural environment is carefully: one must take care,” Vergunst writes (115):

Footsteps are the primary means by which walkers take care. . . . [E]ach footstep produces a distinctive relationship through which the walker comes to know something of his or her textural environment. In the reactions of the feet and the body to what is found, we see how taking care happens physically: the adjustments and readjustments of balance, of walking technique and of apparel such as clothing. (115)

More than just the individual footstep is involved, however; the walker performs a “generalized attentiveness that relates to the rhythm of walking” (115). That rhythm, however, is not necessarily regular or evenly timed. Rather, “the rhythm of walking took its lead and its tempo from the environment of which it was part,” Vergunst notes. “In a path of contrasts and unevenness, the rhythm of the body in its movement was precisely attuned to the continuation of movement up the path” (116). From the French philosopher Henri Lefebvre, Vergunst derives the idea that rhythm is not mere repetition, but rather that it allows for the possibility of variety, that it is “continually answerable to perturbations in the conditions of the task as it unfolds” (116). No two steps in a textured, variegated environment, in other words, are exactly the same (116).

Vergunst also asks how finding or losing the way might be a sensuous activity, and what they might reveal about the skills involved in moving around (117). Losing the way is not the same as getting lost, because it suggests that there is a route to follow (117). Vergunst distinguishes between walking in three different environments. Urban walking is often unscripted and improvisational, for instance, and there is a long tradition of dérives and other forms of improvisational walking in cities (117-18). Walkers in rural parts of the Scottish lowlands, on the other hand, have more limited possibilities for taking alternative routes than either urban or hill walkers, partly because of the prevalence of marked paths in those areas and the multiplicity of possible routes one could take. In the lowlands, “the problem lies more in finding a way in the first place than in choosing between options or taking care not to get lost” (118). Hill walkers can choose routes partly according to the physical terrain, but also partly according to the paths that already exist, themselves produced by previous walkers, and alongside the freedom to choose or create routes in the hills comes a much greater possibility of getting lost, which suggests the importance of way-finding and map-reading skills for hill walkers (118). Losing the way, Vergunst suggests, may not be that much different from tripping or slipping: all three are experiences of “a disconnection or a disjunction from one’s surroundings” (119).

Emotions, particularly fear, can in retrospect form part of the joy walkers experience, “in the pleasure of hardship overcome or learnt from” (120). “To inquire into the emotionality of the everyday,” Vergunst writes,

is to ask how these forms of sensuousness engender feeling. If walking is understood to be a relational and textural activity, then where, in experiential terms, is the emotion? To confine it to the body is, after all to fall back on the very distancing of body from environment that is antithetical to everyday living. (120-21)

Here, Vergunst is following Taussig’s suggestion that everyday knowledge—and emotion could be one of those forms of everyday knowledge—“lies as much in the objects and spaces of observation as in the body and mind of the observer” (142). How, though, is it possible for spaces or objects which are inanimate to experience emotion? Isn’t emotion an experience that’s restricted to certain animate beings? Certainly one’s environment can be conducive to emotional experiences, but does that mean it participates in those experiences? And are emotions experienced only by the body, or is the mind involved? 

I don’t want to leave Vergunst’s discussion on such a negative note, however. What I appreciate about that essay is is detailed–granular, to use the term that’s currently in vogue–discussion of walking and the various textures through which one walks. That detail reminds me of my own walks and the different kinds of surfaces and textures I have encountered. I would like to pay such close attention to walking–something I could learn from ethnographers who themselves have studied the method of “thick description” that anthropologist Clifford Geertz famously advocates.

Cultural geographer Tim Edensor considers his experience of walking through derelict industrial sites in “Walking Through Ruins.” “While such sites are frequently vilified as despondent realms, spaces of waste and blights on the landscape,” Edensor writes,

they support a range of human activities and a plethora of non-human life forms, as well as offering aesthetic, somatic and historical experiences at variance to the often over-coded, themed spaces of urban renewal. They are thus able to talk back to these apparently seamless processes of regeneration and provide spaces within which counter-aesthetics and alternative memories might emerge. Different encounters with objects and materiality, peculiar sensations and ineffable impressions may be experienced. Accordingly, I will highlight how travelling by foot through an industrial ruin or derelict site opens up walking to critical speculation and offers a diversity of distinct experiences which defamiliarize the encounter between feet and world. (123)

First, Edensor examines “the possibilities for improvisational walking offered by the industrial ruin, and the ways in which impediments to linear passage and the presence of danger simultaneously defamiliarize space and enervate the walking body” (123). Indeed, as Ingold and Vergunst point out in the book’s introduction, walking in an industrial ruin is not unlike walking in a rainforest: “it would not be far-fetched to regard the ruin as the rainforest’s urban equivalent” (10). Second, Edensor explores “the sensual characteristics engendered by strolling through ruins, drawing attention to the encounter with the ruin’s peculiar affordances and unusual materialities, productive of a range of sensory experiences that coerce the walking body into unfamiliar states” (123). Third, he thinks about “how walking through a ruin involves a particular way of looking at the environment passed through and how this invites speculation about the characteristics of walking and vision” (123). Finally, he interrogates “the much-mooted metaphorical relationship between walking and narration, suggesting that such parallels are overdrawn. The illegible, fragmented experience of passage through a ruin suggests that walking is not usually amenable to authoritative representation” (123).

Before discussing these topics, however, Edensor thinks about the ways in which walking is typically constrained in urban environments—by CCTV surveillance, which identifies things that are considered to be out of place in such spaces, but more importantly by “an internalization of performative conventions among pedestrians themselves,” conventions that govern where and how we may walk, “including preferred techniques, styles of comportment and bearing, and disposition to the surroundings” (125). Other walkers punish deviations from normative modes of walking with disapproving glares and comments, but pedestrians also monitor themselves, “through an embodied self-awareness which delimits the range of potential manoeuvres, gestures and styles” (125). Silly walking is one thing in Monty Python, but quite another on an urban sidewalk. Moreover, in Western cities, pedestrians often follow signposted routes, which is yet another way one’s movements are restricted (125). I think such routes are more common in Europe, though, than in North America, and Edensor might want to be more specific about them. In sum,

In accordance with such assumptions and conventions, outsiders are identified, barriers maintained, notions of property upheld and single-purpose spaces produced. However, irrespective of the prevalence of walking norms, certain alternative realms emerge. (125-26)

Those alternative realms include interstitial and indeterminate spaces outside of the productive structures of the city—particularly industrial ruins (126).

“In contrast to the deliberate channelling of movement in the regulated city,” Edensor writes, 

the physical structure of ruins invites and constrains walking in a distinctive fashion. Under conditions of continuous decay, material structures and routeways are not distributed according to an ordering scheme but emerge according to happenstance. This means that instead of moving towards objects and objectives, those present in ruins tend to walk contingently and improvisationally, their multiple manoeuvres, moods, gestures and rhythms belying any sense of walking as a singular practice. This contingent improvisation is particularly evident because the historical organization of any industrial site required the very opposite, namely the hierarchical, sequential arrangement of space in accordance with the demands of production lines—an intense regulation that scrutinized the movement of bodies, subjecting them to strict regulation and confining their movements across space and time. (127)

Routes are erased or blocked in ruins, and other paths are open because of the collapse of walls or doors, so these sites “often resemble labyrinths in which path-making is arbitrary and open to multiple options” (127). Walkers can follow their own “curiosities, potential channels of movement, tempting surfaces and gradients, and peculiar impulses’ (127). Moreover, rather than limiting the types of available movements, the disarrayed affordances of the ruin prompt the body to stoop, crouch, climb, slither, leap, swerve and pick its way to avoid lurking hazards. Walking cannot follow a regular rhythmic gait because of the variability of the surface underfoot and the uneven textures that force high and either small or extended steps. It is often impossible to progress in an uninterrupted, purposive fashion towards a predetermined destination. (127)

“The constantly evolving anti-structure of the ruin contrasts with the supervised linearity which determines much movement through the city,” Edensor suggests, and despite signs warning of penalties for trespassing, he has encountered little surveillance of any kind in the ruins. Instead, in his experience,

the proprietary codes of walking performance that constrain expression and dramatic improvisation are irrelevant in a space largely devoid of human presence. There are no social impediments to movement, no temporal limits on the appropriate time to be spent there, and no need to adhere to the self-conscious monitoring of one’s own body in a city of surveillant onlookers. All these elements allow visitors to ruins to walk without being regulated by others. We can stop for long periods, dawdle or run, with no objective at all. (128)

Ruins are thus conducive to expressive or playful movement; they are “unsupervised playgrounds” in which visitors can perform feats of balance, agility and bravery (128). Unlike officially designated playgrounds, “which limit the range of permissible practices to ‘appropriate’ and largely risk-free activities,” ruins, however dangerous they may be, “allow a return to a less self-conscious engagement with space and materials without purposive planning or a view to utility” (129).

“Besides liberating bodily movements, ruins can offer strange and disruptive spaces in which to walk,” Edensor contends. Ruins violate “the usual, common-sense boundaries that inform us about the nature of a place—between inside and outside, past and present, rural and urban, natural and cultural” (129). An industrial ruin is therefore

a defamiliarized space in which modes of passage are improvisatory, uninformed by conventions, continually disrupted and expressive. Instead of a self-contained bodily comportment, with fixed stride, steady gait and minimal gestures which limit interaction with the environment, objects and other people, the body is inadvertently coaxed into a more flamboyant and expressive style, awakening performative possibilities beyond those to which it has become habituated. Both the material characteristics of the ruin and the absence of forms of surveillance and social pressures permit ways of walking that foster an extension of bodily experience and expression by contrast to the largely constrained disposition of the urban pedestrian. This defamiliarization is further brought out by the strange sensualities of the ruin. (129-30)

The sensual properties of industrial ruins tend to “counterbalance an emphasis in the literature on the narration of walking as an experience through which the world is looked at and represented” (130). Such accounts “present a curiously disembodied view of what is an intensely somatic experience” and “neglect the fuller sensual experience that walking affords” (130). That claim might be true, but the argument would be much stronger with examples of such disembodied descriptions of walking.

According to Edensor, place impresses itself upon the body, particularly the pedestrian body: “its affordances are inevitably created out of the relationship between its physical and material qualities on the one hand and the social and subjective experience of walking on the other, along with the cultural precepts through which the practice is interpreted” (131). Compared to the controlled places of the city, in a ruined space 

the body is enlivened and challenged by a wealth of multi-sensual effects—including smells, sounds and tactilities—which thwart any distancing manoeuvres that prioritize the visual. I suggest that the affective experiences and expressive activities that centre upon ruins are made possible and pleasurable because they take place in a space replete with rich and unfamiliar affordances. (132)

Such affordances include textures, form, weight, consistency, states of decay, and redistributed material and matter (132). Ruins, however, are not the only places where walkers can experience the effect of place. After a few days of long-distance walking in Scotland, Edensor reports, “a deeper, non-cognitive, sensual form of appreciation developed for the terrain traversed, experienced through the feet and legs, promoting and adaptation to the environment through a heightened sense of corporeal balance” (132). 

Walking in ordinary (that is, regulated) urban spaces leads to the sense of vision becoming dominant, and other forms of sensory experience becoming marginalized (134). Ruins, however,

violate disciplinary aesthetic schemes in which objects are carefully situated, difference is domesticated and contained, ‘clutter’ which might complicate sight-lines and passage is continuously removed, and the bright and the smooth are maintained. . . . The scene is one of disorder, disarray and the mingling of usually unlike categories of things. (134)

This “material excess” is “initially disturbing to habituated aesthetic sensibilities,” but it becomes an encounter with “an alternative aesthetics, one which rebukes the seamlessness of much urban design and opens out heterodox possibilities for appreciating beauty and form” (134). Moreover, this encounter leads to a blending of vision with other senses, and a recognition that there is no reason for vision to be our dominant sense (135). “Looking, in such an environment, is particularly multi-sensual, inextricably embedded in the work of all the other senses in the body’s interaction with its surroundings,” Edensor contends (135). I haven’t walked around the kind of industrial ruin Edensor has experienced—they are relatively uncommon in Saskatchewan—so I can’t comment on the multiple senses that such walking engages, but I am curious about whether the long-distance walking he has done in Scotland led to a similar sensory experience. Perhaps Edensor has written about other forms of walking and their effect on the senses; I will have to look. It’s certainly been my experience that walking engages multiple senses and tends to make vision less important, but I would be curious to learn whether my experience is representative.

Finally, Edensor addresses the assumption that walking is like a narrative. In such narratives, he contends, “walkers in the city are held heroically to inscribe their presence and meanings on space. . . . But by foregrounding the metaphor of walking as narrative inscription, the affective, sensual dimensions of walking are apt to disappear” (136). This claim makes me wonder what Edensor makes of accounts of rural walking, but perhaps he is addressing the genealogy of urban walking from the Dadaists and Surrealists to the Situationists and psychogeographers. In any case, he claims that walking narratives are colonizing manoeuvres: they

assert an authoritative understanding of the land. Through walking, the expert confidently discerns cultural traces in the landscape, and charts its ‘natural history’ along with other ‘key features’ which mark the space traversed, so that otherness—whether natural, cultural, or historical—may be ‘known.’ These walking narratives not only identify preferred ways of understanding space in the realm of the other; they also map numerous routes through which walkers may orient themselves to their surroundings. (136)

Such authoritative assurances, however, are not necessarily part of narratives about walking; again, this argument would be stronger with specific examples instead of sweeping generalizations. Walking can constitute “a narrative technique to defamiliarize the spectacular, regulated, commodified space of the city,” Edensor acknowledges, but surrealist or psychogeographic accounts of walking, such as Iain Sinclair’s Lights Out for the Territory, “curiously decentre corporeal, sensual interaction with the material world” (136). 

Moreover, narrative accounts of walking “typically create the illusion of linear progress through sequential time: this or that feature is passed, discussed, and then the next, and so on until the end of the walk” (136). “Yet while there may be a clear beginning and end,” Edensor continues, “the temporal experience of walking is usually far from a flow of successive, episodic events” (136). Rather, “[w]alking is suffused with a kaleidoscope of intermingling thoughts, experiences and sensations, so that the character of a walk is continually shifting” (136). “In its quest for an orderly account, narrative cannot effectively capture the momentary impressions confronted, the peculiar evanescent atmospheres, the rhythms, immanent sensations and physical effects of walking,” Edensor writes (137). My reaction to this claim was that Edensor hasn’t been reading the right narratives about walking. There are many narratives about walking that do not attempt to present orderly, linear accounts of experiences, including modern or postmodern texts like Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, James Joyce’s Ulysses, William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, or W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. In fact, I would suggest that Edensor is constructing a straw argument here rather than actually confronting the richness of writing about walking—and not just walking in ruins, either. Eventually, he admits as much: “Stories that are fragmented, non-linear, impressionistic and contingent are better suited than traditional linear narratives to the experience of walking in ruins” (137). Such fragmented narratives are better suited to representing any experience of walking than a traditional linear narrative, whether ruins are involved or not.

In any case, that’s not Edensor’s only objection to narratives of walking. Privileging narration, he contends, consigns 

its immanent, embodied sensual characteristics to secondary importance, for the story effaces the physical interaction with space and its sense-making techniques are usually mobilized only in post-hoc, reflexive conceptualization. Words can but feebly allude to sensations and the selective content of an account can refer to no more than a tiny proportion of what is experienced. Tell stories we may do—although their impact typically depends upon the skill of the teller—but we should be aware of their partiality and their peculiar tendency to underestimate temporal, spatial, and somatic experience. (138)

Well, of course a story’s impact depends on the skill of the teller, and of course stories are partial—which either means incomplete, here, or limited to the experience of the walker (or narrator). I don’t think that’s news. It would be interesting to know how walkers ought to communicate their experience to others, if not through narrative. Are other forms of writing appropriate? Is poetry perhaps better suited to temporal and somatic experience? Or ought one turn to other art forms? Edensor’s essay is illustrated with photographs of ruins—does that mean photography is the appropriate medium? Doesn’t that unavoidably end up privileging vision? Isn’t any medium or literary form unlikely to be able to capture all aspects of a walk—or, to be honest, of any experience? Does that mean we ought to forget about trying to make art about experience, however partial or incomplete such art might be? I would say no—in fact, I would suggest that nobody expects any representation of an experience to convey all of the sensory, temporal, or spatial aspects of that experience, including representations about walking. To think that such total representations are possible is to delude oneself.

There are still more essays in this anthology, but I have touched on the ones that spoke to me and that seemed most central to my research concerns. What I learned from reading this anthology, as I suggested at the beginning of this summary, is the breadth and complexity of walking as an interdisciplinary field of inquiry. After all, the authors represented here include anthropologists, landscape architects, geographers, educators and artists. There are many directions my research could take, and many writers whose work I could read. I feel like I am at the beginning of a long journey by foot, a journey which will be mostly uphill. I know from experience, though, that the hills will get easier to climb as I keep walking. That’s a lesson walking has taught me, and one that’s surprisingly applicable to graduate school. 

Works Cited

Geertz, Clifford. The Interpretation of Cultures. Basic, 1973.

Ingold, Tim, and Jo Lee Vergunst, eds. Ways of Walking: Ethnography and Practice on Foot. 2008. Routledge, 2016.

Taussig, Michael. “Tactility and Distraction.” The Nervous System, Routledge, 1992, pp. 141-48.

Tuan, Yi-Fu. Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes, and Values. Prentice-Hall, 1974.

22. Tim Ingold, “Culture on the Ground: The World Perceived Through the Feet”

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Yesterday I started reading a collection of essays edited by Tim Ingold and Jo Lee Vergunst on walking, but I got sidetracked by a reference to this essay in that book’s introduction. Why not turn to that essay, I asked myself, before carrying on with the book? And so here I am, quickly writing a summary of another article before going to meet friends and watch the Super Bowl.

Ingold begins with an epigraph from Balzac’s essay on walking—an essay which apparently has yet to be translated into English: 

Is it not truly extraordinary to realise that ever since men have walked, no-one has ever asked why they walk, how they walk, whether they walk, whether they might walk better, what they achieve by walking, whether they might not have the means to regulate, change or analyse their walk: questions that bear on all the systems of philosophy, psychology and politics with which the world is so preoccupied? (315)

These are very much the questions that preoccupy Ingold in this essay, although he acknowledges that he has more questions than answers (330). That’s fine; my sense is that many of the questions Ingold asks are likely to be extraordinarily difficult to answer—if they can be answered at all.

“Culture on the Ground: The World Perceived Through the Feet” is divided into sections. The first section discusses the way we have come to see our heads and hands as more important than our feet. Ingold begins with nineteenth-century evolutionary biologists and anthropologists—Darwin, Huxley, and Tylor—and their theories about how humans came to walk upright, and how that movement accounts for the differences between our feet and those of other primates. For Darwin, walking upright liberated our hands to use tools—an idea that Ingold traces back to the ancient Greeks. Standing on our feet, our arms and hands “become answerable to the call of reason” (318), and this understanding of the human body leads to its physical division into upper and lower parts: “Whereas the feet, impelled by biomechanical necessity, undergird and propel the body within the natural world, the hands are free to deliver the intelligent designs or conceptions of the mind upon it” (318). T.H. Huxley, however, noted that in cultures where people do not wear shoes, people use their feet in extraordinary ways, and he suggested that shoes and boots imprisoned our feet, constricting their freedom of movement, and blunting their sense of touch (319). Edward Tylor agreed; he suggested that shoes and boots shaped our feet by restricting them (319). These observations lead to the main questions Ingold wants to ask: 

Is the conventional division of labour between the hands and feet, then, as ‘natural’ as Darwin and his contemporaries made it out to be? Could it not be, at least in some measure, a result of the mapping, onto the human body, of a peculiarly modern discourse about the triumph of intelligence over instinct, and about the human domination of nature? And could not the technology of footwear be understood, again in some measure, as an effort to convert the imagined superiority of hands over feet, corresponding respectively to intelligence and instinct, or to reason and nature, into an experienced reality? (321)

“In what follows,” Ingold continues,

I shall argue that the mechanization of footwork was part and parcel of a wider suite of changes that accompanied the onset of modernity—in modalities of travel and transport, in the education of posture and gesture, in the evaluation of the senses, and in the architecture of the built environment—all of which conspired to lend practical and experiential weight to an imagined separation between the activities of a mind at rest and a body in transit, between the space of social and cultural life and the ground upon which that life is materially engaged. (321)

So those are the questions Ingold intends to explore, and that is a brief summary of the argument he will make in addressing them.

Next, Ingold thinks about the history of travel in Europe. Beginning in the eighteenth century, travel became distinguished from walking: walkers did not travel, at least not very far, and travellers did not walk, or at least they walked as little as possible, preferring horses or carriages, even though neither was much faster nor more comfortable than walking. “”Travel was an activity of the well-to-do, who could afford such things,” Ingold writes. “They considered walking to be tedious and commonplace, a view that lingers in the residual connotations of the word ‘pedestrian.’ If they had to walk, they would do their best to blot the experience from their memories, and to erase it from their accounts” (321)—that is, the accounts they wrote of their journeys. The difficulty of travel had to be endured for the sole purpose of reaching a destination: “What mattered was the knowledge to be gained on arriving there” (321-22). So Samuel Johnson, in his journal of travelling to the Hebrides in Scotland, describes the views from specific places, rather than explaining how he got to those places:

For men like Johnson, a trip or tour would consist of a series of such destinations. Were the experience of place-to-place movement to intrude over much into conscious awareness, they warned, observations could be biased, memories distorted, and above all, we might be distracted from noticing salient features of the landscape around us. . . . Only when the mind is at rest, no longer jolted and jarred by the physical displacements of its bodily housing, can it operate properly. As long as it is in between one point of observation and another, it is effectively disabled. (322)

These remarks remind me of the distinctions Yi-Fu Tuan draws between space and place; places are what tends to be considered important, while space is simply what one moves through between places. 

In the eighteenth century, Ingold continues, “[t]he embodied experience of pedestrian movement was, as it were, pushed into the wings, in order to make way for a more detached and speculative contemplation. Walking was for the poor, the criminal, the young and above all, the ignorant” (322). It was only in the nineteenth century when, following the examples of the poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, people of leisure began to be interested in walking as an end in itself, outside of the landscaped garden or gallery (322). Yet such walking tours depended on the development of public transportation, which carried people to the scenery in which they wanted to walk. The alternative of sitting down was therefore always available, and “the most enthusiastic of peripatetics, even while extolling the physical and intellectual benefits of walking, did so from the comfortable vantage point of a society thoroughly accustomed to the chair” (323). The same phenomenon occurs today: who in their right mind would walk to Grasslands National Park, for example, to hike across the native prairie, when it’s possible to drive there in just a few hours? 

Chairs and boots, together, “establish a technological foundation for the separation of thought from action and of mind from body—that is for the fundamental groundlessness so characteristic of modern metropolitan dwelling,” Ingold writes (323). Most people in the world squat to rest, but in the West, we sit in chairs. “It seems that the chair has blocked the development of the normal capacity of the human being to squat,” Ingold continues, “just as the boot has blocked the development of the prehensile functions of the foot” (324). Moreover, the way of walking that is typical in Western cultures—an upright posture and a gait with long, measured strides and straight legs—originates with the ancient Greeks (324). Ingold compares this modes of walking in Europe and in traditional Japanese culture: Europeans walk from the hips while keeping the legs as straight as possible, while Japanese people walked form the knees while minimizing the movement of the hips, resulting in a kind of shuffle that is effective on rough or hilly terrain, and which produces a lowered centre of gravity that reduces the risk of tripping or falling (325). That shuffling gait is also ergonomically consistent with the traditional Japanese technique of carrying heavy loads suspended from a long pole resting athwart the shoulder. Japanese anthropologist Junzo Kawada traces these differences, Ingold notes, and relates them to traditional styles of dancing, ways of working, and practices of child rearing (325). “All in all, Japanese posture and gesture seem to be strongly and positively oriented towards the ground, in striking contrast to European efforts to rise above it,” Ingold suggests (325).

The introduction of paved streets in eighteenth-century Europe also changed the way Europeans walked. Pedestrians no longer had to pick their way along potholed, cobbled, or rutted streets, littered with filth and excrement. Instead, paved streets “offered pedestrians a street surface that was smooth and uniform, regularly cleaned, free from clutter and properly lit,” as well as “open and straight, creating a fitting environment for what was considered the proper exercise of the higher faculty of vision—to see and be seen” (326). From here, Ingold shifts to a discussion of sociologist Erving Goffman’s work on walking in the late twentieth century. “What Goffman shows us, through his study, is that walking down a city street is an intrinsically social activity,” Ingold writes. “Its sociality does not hover above the practice itself, in some ethereal realm of ideas and discourse, but is rather immanent in the way a person’s movements—his or her step, gait, direction and pace—are continually responsive to the movements of others in the immediate environment” (328). We look ahead, but we also look down to check for obstructions—especially women, perhaps because they wear (or tended to wear in the 1970s, when Goffman was studying walking) high-heeled shoes, and children (328). Children, in fact, are the real walkers in contemporary society; most of those who walk are under 15 years of age (329). At this moment in the text, Ingold summarizes his argument, which has gotten somewhat diffuse:

the reduction of pedestrian experience that has perhaps reached its peak in the present era of the car, is the culmination of a trend that was already established with the boot’s mechanization of the foot, the proliferation of the chair, and the advent of destination-oriented travel. (329)

Moreover, boots leave no tracks on a paved surface, which speaks volumes about the way people in contemporary Western societies occupy space:

People, as they walk the streets, leave no trace of their movements, no record of their having passed by. It is as if they had never been. There is, then, the same detachment, of persons from the ground, that runs as I have shown like a leitmotif through the recent history of western societies. It appears that people, in their daily lives, merely skim the surface of a world that has been previously mapped out and constructed for them to occupy, rather than contributing through their movements to its ongoing formation. To inhabit the modern city is to dwell in an environment that is already built. But whereas the builder is a manual labourer, the dweller is a foot-slogger. And the environment, built by human hands, should ideally remain unscathed by the footwork of dwelling. To the extent that the feet do leave a mark—as when pedestrians take short cuts across the grass verges of roads, in cities designed for motorists—they are said to deface the environment, not to enhance it, much as a modern topographic map is said to be defaced by the itineraries of travel drawn upon it. This kind of thing is typically regarded by urban planners and municipal authorities as a threat to established order and a subversion of authority. Green spaces are for looking at, not for walking on; reserved for visual contemplation rather than for exploration on foot. The surfaces you can walk on are those that remain untouched and unmarked by your presence. (329)

According to Ingold, “the corresponding elevation of head over heels as the locus of creative intelligence” that is suggested by our society’s groundlessness is “deeply embedded in the structures of public life in western societies,” as well as having spilled over into the “mainstream thinking in the disciplines of anthropology, psychology, and biology” (330). Here Ingold reviews the three thematic areas into which this overspill has occurred. The first concerns the perception of the environment, the second the history of technology, and the third the formation of the landscape. Ingold asks what the effect of overturning prevailing assumptions and of adopting a fundamental orientation toward the ground might be. “What new terrain would be opened up?” (330). 

First, regarding the perception of the environment, Ingold notes that the Western tradition “has consistently ranked the senses of vision and hearing over the contact sense of touch” (330). “[A] more literally grounded approach to perception should help to restore touch to its proper place in the balance of the senses,” he continues. “For it is surely through our feet, in contact with the ground (albeit mediated by footwear), that we are most fundamentally and continually ‘in touch’ with our surroundings” (330). Studies of haptic perception, he notes, have focused on how we touch with our hands: 

The challenge is to discover special properties of pedestrian touch that might distinguish it from the manual modality. Is it really the case for example, as intuition suggests, that what we feel with our hands, and through the soles of our feet, are necessarily related as figure and ground? In other words, is the ground we walk on also, and inevitably, a ground against which things “stand out” as foci of attention, or can it be a focus in itself? What difference does it make that pedestrian touch carries the weight of the body rather than the weight of the object? And how does the feel of a surface differ, depending on whether the organ of touch is brought down at successive spots, as in walking, or allowed to wrap around or slide over it, as can be done with the fingers and palm of the hand? (330)

These are interesting questions, and my experience as a walker might suggest at least one preliminary answer. Different surfaces register very differently during a long walk: the hardness of pavement, while its smoothness is initially beguiling, soon becomes painful to walk on, compared to the softness of a dirt track or trail. In other words, we definitely do touch the ground with our feet, even feet that are encased in hiking boots. Ingold is suggesting, however, that more work needs to be done to explore these questions fully, rather than relying on such anecdotal responses.

“The bias of head over heels influences the psychology of environmental perception in one other way,” Ingold continues:

We have already seen how the practices of destination-oriented travel encouraged the belief that knowledge is built up not along paths of pedestrian movement but through the accumulation of observations taken from successive points of rest. Thus we tend to imagine that things are perceived from a stationary platform, as if we were sitting on a chair with our legs and feet out of action. To perceive a thing from different angles, it is supposed that we might turn it around in our hands, or perform an equivalent computational operation in our minds. But in real life, for the most part, we do not perceive things from a single vantage point, but rather by walking around them. (331)

Here Ingold refers to the work of ecological psychologist James Gibson, who noted that our visual perception always takes place along a continuous itinerary of movement (331). (Gibson is also one of the fathers of embodied cognition, according to my reading on that subject.) “But if perception is thus a function of movement,” Ingold continues, 

then what we perceive must, at least in part, depend on how we move. Locomotion, not cognition, must be the starting point for the study of perceptual activity. Or more strictly, cognition should not be set off from locomotion, along the lines of a division between head and heels, since walking is itself a form of circumambulatory knowing. (331)

This recognition, Ingold continues, opens up a new area of inquiry, one concerned with “the ways in which our knowledge of the environment is altered by techniques of footwork and by the many and varied devices that we attach to the feet in order to enhance their effectiveness in specific tasks and conditions” (331).

Ingold’s second theme is the history of technology. Here he returns to the notion that our hands are superior to our feet; in the classic, dualistic view of humanity, we are in nature from the waist down, while our hands and arms “impress the mind’s intelligent designs upon the surface of nature form above” (332). From this point of view, the foot is itself a force of nature rather than of human agency:

Men have made history with their hands; they have mastered nature and brought it under control. And the nature thus controlled includes the foot, increasingly regulated and disciplined in the course of history by the hand-made technology of boots and shoes. (332)

For Ingold, overturning this bias of head over heels also means getting rid of the dualism that underpins that bias (332):

Rather than supposing that the hand operates on nature while the feet move in it, I would prefer to say that both hands and feet, augmented by tools, gloves and footwear, mediate a historical engagement of the human organism, in its entirety, with the world around it. For surely we walk, just as we talk, write and use tools, with the whole body. Moreover, in walking, the foot—even the boot-clad foot of western civilization—does not really describe a mechanical oscillation like the tip of a pendulum. Thus its movements, continually and fluently responsive to an ongoing perceptual monitoring of the ground ahead, are never quite the same from one step to the next. Rhythmic rather than metronomic, what they beat out is not a metric of constant intervals but a pattern of lived time and space. It is in the very ‘tuning’ of movement in response to the ever-changing conditions of an unfolding task that the skill of walking, as that of any other bodily technique, ultimately resides. (332)

Walking is a highly intelligent activity, Ingold continues, but its intelligence “is distributed throughout the entire field of relations comprised by the presence of the human being in the inhabited world” (332).

That discussion leads to Ingold’s third them: the formation of the landscape. For Ingold, “the forms of the landscape—like the identities and capacities of its human inhabitants—are not imposed upon a material substrate,” as in conventional accounts of the historical transformation of nature, in which the land is “supposed to present itself as a palimpsest for the inscription of cultural form” (333). Instead, he argues, the forms of the landscape “emerge as condensations or crystallizations of activity within a relational field”:

As people, in the course of their everyday lives, make their way by foot around a familiar terrain, so its paths, textures and contours, variable through the seasons, are incorporated into their own embodied capacities of movement, awareness and response—or into what Gaston Bachelard calls their “muscular consciousness.” But conversely, these pedestrian movements thread a tangled network of personalized trails through the landscape itself. Through walking, in short, landscapes are woven into life, and lives are woven into the landscape, in a process that is continuous and never-ending. (333)

Bachelard’s book The Poetics of Space is on my reading list, and the reference from it here might suggest I should read it sooner rather than later.

What does Ingold mean by suggesting that landscapes are woven into life, and lives into the landscape? His example is footprints:

pedestrian activities can mark the landscape. When the same paths are repeatedly trodden, especially by heavy boots, the consequences can be quite dramatic, amounting in places to severe erosion. Surfaces are indeed transformed. But these are surfaces in the world, not the surface of the world. Indeed strictly speaking, the world has no surface. Human beings live in the world, not on it, and as beings in the world the historical transformations they effect are part and parcel of the world’s transformation of itself. (333)

Ingold lives in Aberdeen, Scotland, and given the importance of footpaths in the U.K., he would likely have direct experience of the ways that the land is transformed by our feet. Footpaths need to be used—the must be walked on—or they will disappear. And footpaths that are overused often become rutted and muddy, or even braided, as walkers look for ways to keep their feet dry. Moreover, the use of the metaphor of weaving suggests his discussion of textiles in his later book Lines, which I read last week.

In his conclusion, Ingold returns to Darwin, Huxley, and Tylor. Is the wearing of footwear the reason for the variance of human feet in different cultures? Scientific evidence suggests that the feet of people who do not wear shoes or boots are formed differently from the feet of those who do (334). Even the simplest footwear rearranges the bones of our feet (334). So European, or Western, feet are peculiar, because we wear shoes. However, our gait is also peculiar—even though that upright, striding gait has been universalized by anthropologists (335). In fact, “with their oddly formed feet and eccentric gait,” Westernized men and women are exceptions, rather than the rule (335):

It is not just that people around the world walk in all sorts of ways, depending on the surface and contours of the ground, the shoes they are wearing (if any), the weather, and a host of other factors including culturally specific expectations concerning the postures considered proper for people of different age, gender and rank. They also use their feet for sundry other purposes such as climbing, running, leaping, holding things down, picking them up, and even going about on all fours. (335)

There is no such thing as a natural way of walking, in other words, and the Western ideal of posture and walking are both practically unattainable outside of a laboratory—even though that’s where most systematic studies of bipedal locomotion have been conducted (335). Those studies attempt to reveal an essence of human walking, but in truth there is no essence: “For the experimental subjects of gait analysis already bring with them, incorporated into their very bodies, the experience of architecture, dress, footwear and baggage drawn from life outside the laboratory” (335). We cannot, Ingold continues,

attribute bipedality to human nature, or to culture, or to some combination of the two. Rather, human capacities to walk, and to use their feet in countless other ways, emerge through processes of development, as properties of the systems of relations set up through the placement of the growing human organism within a richly textured environmental context. (336)

For Ingold, this means that there is no standard form of the human foot, apart from the forms it actually takes as we walk in different ways. “Two points of capital importance follow,” he writes:

First, an explanation of the evolution of bipedality has to be an account of the ways in which the developmental systems through which it emerges are reproduced and transformed over time. And second, by way of their activities, their disciplines and their histories, people throughout history have played—and continue to play—an active role in this evolutionary process, by shaping the conditions under which their successors learn the arts of footwork. Thus the evolution of bipedality continues, even as we go about our business on two feet. We have been drawn, in sum, to an entirely new view of evolution, a view that grounds human beings within the continuum of life, and that situates the history of their embodied skills within the unfolding of that continuum. (336)

The only way to study the techniques of the body when the technology of footwear is already implicated in our ideas of the body and its evolution, Ingold concludes, would be to imagine a world without footwear: “For our earliest ancestors did not stride out upon the land with heavy boots, but made their way within it lightly, dextrously, and mostly barefoot” (337).

Ingold’s essay suggests just how complex and rich the study of walking can be. I’m not particularly interested in gait analysis, or the differences between the feet of humans and those of other primates, but the range of topics Ingold discusses here indicates the many different directions my research could take. I’m particularly interested in the notion that different cultures walk in different ways. In this part of the world, when the sidewalks are covered in winter ice, we are advised not to walk with our usual upright stride, but to instead imitate penguins, putting our centre of gravity over each foot and not bringing our feet heels-first down on the ground. Walking the way we normally do leads to slipping and falling. I wonder how other cultures, aside from the traditional Japanese culture Ingold discusses, walk, and whether European or Western styles of walking have become another example of colonialism—if they have destroyed other modes of walking. I’m also interested in the notion that our feet make the landscape, even though that’s hard to imagine in this place, where walkers are confined to roads, at least outside of the city. When I think about the footsteps I leave behind when I’m walking, I’m almost always speaking of imaginary footsteps, since the surfaces on which I walk are typically paved or covered with gravel. In fact, I’m usually surprised when my feet leave a mark. In the introduction to Ways of Walking, the book I was reading yesterday, Ingold and Vergunst suggest that roads tend to be associated with the form of living on the land they refer to as occupation, while the paths made by one’s feet are part of the way of living they call habitation (12-14). Occupation is characteristic of colonial powers, and habitation is characteristic of the traditional societies that are colonized. That might suggest that walking on roads is, as I’ve been told, a form of colonialism. However, I wonder if the opposite argument could be made: is appropriating a road intended for vehicles and walking on it not perhaps a way of reacting against the forces of occupation and colonization? I hope so. At least, that’s the response I would make to such a critique—at least, that’s the response I would make at this point in my research. The more I read, the better that response is likely to become. And now, it’s time to drive—not walk, because I’ve injured a tendon in my foot and have been told that walking is out of the question until it heals—to meet my friends and watch the Super Bowl.

Works Cited

Ingold, Tim. “Culture on the Ground: The World Perceived Through the Feet.” Journal of Material Culture, vol. 9, no. 3, 2004, pp. 315-40. DOI: 10.1177/1359183504046896.

Ingold, Tim, and Jo Lee Vergunst. Ways of Walking: Ethnography and Practice on Foot. 2008. Routledge, 2016.

21. Sharanya, “A Manifesto to Decolonize Walking: Approximate Steps

sharanya.jpg

 

I was having trouble deciding what to begin reading this afternoon. I know what I ought to start to read—something difficult and philosophical and theoretical—but I’m not really in the mood for another book. There was one article left in the “general theory and methodology” section of my reading list, and I decided to take a look at it. That article turned out to be of little use, but in the same journal I ran across Sharanya’s manifesto, and from the title, decided that it was something I should read.

Sharanya, or Sharanya M, as her blog states, is a teacher and researcher with a PhD in drama from the University of Exeter. She is also a walking artist based in Delhi, India. Her article begins with an assertion of the necessity to acknowledge “the genealogies and cultural practices that have been influential in shaping contemporary walking practices”:

The very endeavour of a grand narrative of history of walking that does not explicitly site itself—whether in Europe or elsewhere—indicates and reproduces the familiar reliance upon the non-specificity of site as referring to the hegemony of the “West,” across academic and popular literature. (85)

Among the texts that she suggests reproduce that hegemony are Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust, Martin Coverley’s The Art of Wandering, and Frédéric Gros’s A Philosophy of Walking—all texts I’ve read and written about on this blog. “Walking as a form of performance ethnography, however, demands an attention to the rituals of the particular,” Sharanya continues. “Walking is influenced not just by where one walks, and who one is, but also by what factors one chooses to situate in the matrix of influence” (85). Moreover, Sharanya argues, “working through the baggage of heritage—architectural, social and cultural—calls for an examination of more local forms of pedestrianism” (85). In her description of her attempts to make psychogeographic dérives in Delhi, she notes that those attempts at following the examples of Situationist walks through Paris didn’t work out, and that apparent failure led to this manifesto.  

“Social identities are partly created and named through signifiers, many of which are architectural, in the realm of the urban public,” Sharanya continues, “and are accessed through pedestrian encounters with them” (85). This approach to walking is somewhat limited—it only applies to urban walks and it is only concerned with the social identities that are created through place—but any approach to any specific practice is going to be limited by its practitioner’s interests, which might be Sharanya’s point. “A call to decolonize walking involves the recognition of, and response to, dominant forms of modernity in the urban everyday, such as architectural heritage”—she seems to be particularly interested in colonial British architecture in Indian cities—“the invisibility/hypervisibility of minority bodies in the street and the dominance of walking narratives from European and American cities” (85-86). Above all, decolonizing walking practices means naming the “hegemonic modes of knowledge-production” in particular spaces, which will necessitate rereading the juxtaposition between modernity and coloniality from a consciousness of race, gender, and sexuality, and to examine the emergence and development of those categories as well. Here Sharanya refers to an article by Gurminder K. Bhambra that discusses an essay on the connection between modernity and colonialism by Anibal Quijano—something I’ll take a look at. For Sharanya, decolonizing walking is an attempt to recast the politics of walking practices through a consciousness of race, gender, and sexuality as categories (86). There’s no question that one needs to think about walking in terms of those categories; I am quite aware that my ability to walk is different from the ability of others whose identities are different from mine.

Sharanya also argues that attention needs to be paid to specific urban forms. The limitations involved in reinscribing new forms of walking within older forms, such as Baudelaire’s (and Benjamin’s) flâneur, “are revealed quickly when one encounters the postcolonial body/city dialectic, which is itself new epistemological ground for walking discourse to be engaged with” (86). That dialectic—the place of the body, and the body in its place—Sharanya calls “locus of enunciation,” following an article by Walter D. Mignolo on epistemology and colonial difference. That article is another discovery I’ll read some other time. “Our walks are created by our loci of enunciation: the you/as, and the you/in,” Sharanya continues. “Find your focus as you articulate it” (86). I’m not sure what that command means, but it seems to be a call for an awareness of both who one is, in all of the complexity of one’s identity, and of where one walks. In addition, one needs to attend to the “temporal details of walking”: “the type of walk the rhythm and pace of the walk; the walk as an exploration; the walk as an experiment; the walk as an accumulation of chance-happenings; the walk as affective discourse. These are just elements of the walk, and must be gathered alongside urban politics—not just over ‘there’ in a strange land, but also ‘here,’ in a place that is familiar” (86). Sharanya praises Cathy Turner’s account of walking in Bangalore both for its richness of detail and for its approximation and incompleteness, qualities she believes are central both to the documentation of walking and to walks themselves (88). What Turner’s notes regarding her walks suggest, Sharanya writes, is “that which cannot be assimilated into text, yet remains a crucial part of the performance (text). Making visible the process of narrativizing the walk in retrospect is crucial to decolonial practices, as it reveals the construction of the locus of enunciation” (88). The short article ends with a description of the page of photographs it contains. Those photos of signs in Delhi are, Sharanya suggests, “a partially legible map of my walks, and an approximate imprint of an attempt to decolonize the form of the walk” (88).

I’ve been told that my walks in Saskatchewan are inevitably colonial. That’s because I am a white settler walking on the land, and therefore I will be understood as being a colonist inspecting the property. That’s why Sharanya’s title grabbed my attention: I want my walking practice to be decolonial, not colonial, and so I am interested in anything that might suggest ways to do that. Sharanya’s manifesto might suggest that, by paying attention to my own locus of enunciation, by being aware of both who I am and where I am, I might be able to address such critiques directly. Her praise of Turner’s poetic notes suggests that it is not impossible, at least from her perspective, for a white person’s walk to be understood as decolonial, although it must be emphasized that while India is a postcolonial country, Canada is not, and the land where I walk in this province is subject to a treaty that has been deliberately misunderstood, as Sheldon Krasowski argues in his recent book. I know my research is fraught with difficulty, and it may be completely misunderstood, but I still believe it it worth carrying on with it. Sharanya’s reminder regarding the locus of enunciation is important, and it’s one I will heed.

Works Cited

Bhambra, Gurminder K. “Postcolonial and Decolonial Dialogues.” Postcolonial Studies, vol. 17, no. 2, 2014, pp. 115-21. DOI: 10.1080/13688790.2014.966414.

Krasowski, Sheldon. No Surrender: The Land Remains Indigenous. U of Regina P, 2019.

Mignolo, Walter D. “I Am Where I Think: Epistemology and the Colonial Difference.” Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies, vol. 8, no. 2, 1999, pp. 235-45. DOI: 10.1080/13569329909361962.

Quijano, Anibal. “Coloniality and Modernity/Rationality.” Cultural Studies vol. 21, no. 2-3, 2007, pp. 168-78. DOI: 10.1080/09502380601164353.

Sharanya. “A Manifesto to Decolonize Walking: Approximate Steps.” Performance Research: A Journal of the Performing Arts, vol. 22, no. 3, 2017, pp. 85-88. DOI:10.1080/13528165.2017.1348596.

16. Lee Crust, Richard Keegan, David Piggott, and Christian Swann, “Walking the Walk: A Phenomenological Study of Long Distance Walking”

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So, it’s clear that cognitive science isn’t the place to find a language that will help me write about the experience of walking. What else can I try? What about phenomenology? Yesterday, I started reading Sara Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology, and it seems promising, but a quick Google search turned up a phenomenological study of long distance walking (available here, outside of the journal’s paywall). Could it be useful? There’s only one way to find out, and that’s to read it.

The authors of this study are more interested in positive psychology than they are in phenomenology; for them, phenomenology provides a methodological context, whereas positive psychology (particularly the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and his various research collaborators) is their primary theoretical context. According to the authors of this study, there are three important concepts in positive psychology. First, there is the life of enjoyment: “savoring positive emotions and feelings” (244). Second, there is the life of engagement, which is an “immersion and absorption in what one is doing,” an absorption that is characteristic of flow experiences, which typically occur “when high levels of skill are matched with high levels of challenge” and are “characterized by feelings of effortlessness and absorption in a task” and tend “to be associated with optimal experiences” (244). Finally, there is the life of affiliation: deriving a sense of well-being, belonging, meaning and purpose through positive relationships (244). Because it seems unlikely to the authors of this study that long-distance walkers would walk only for reasons related to health and fitness, they believe that positive psychology could help us understand their walking experiences (244). The other theoretical context of the study is green exercise, or exercise that takes place in the presence of nature, which other studies have shown to have psychological benefits (244).

Apparently only one psychological study of long-distance walkers had been made prior to this one, a quantitative study involving questionnaires that produced some interesting results. However, the authors of this study believe that quantitative approach “only allowed a somewhat limited understanding of what is likely to be a complex subjective experience,” so qualitative methods that “focus upon the lived experiences of walkers are necessary” (245). They believe that a phenomenological approach to studying walking might also prove useful. Their definition of phenomenology is derived from an article on embodiment in sport by Jacquelyn Allen-Collinson: phenomenology is “an attitude to research rather than specific methods and can promote a contextual re/consideration of physical activity experience and a deeper understanding of how it actually feels to be an exercising body” (245). The theoretical engagement with phenomenology provided here is rather thin, but a quick glance at Allen-Collinson’s list of references demonstrates that she has engaged in the theoretical literature on phenomenology—including books by Sara Ahmed and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, both of whom are on my reading list—and that gives me hope that phenomenology might provide the kind of language or approach I have been looking for. Besides, this study is empirical, not theoretical, and it’s important to focus on what a text set out to do, rather than what it did not.

The purpose of the study described in this article is “to provide rich, descriptive accounts of the experience of long distance walkers,” experiences, the authors write, about which very little is known (245). Their method was straightforward: they conducted retrospective interviews with four long-distance walkers (four men and two women) in the U.K. They had recently completed one of that country’s long-distance footpaths, walks that lasted between six and 11 days and involved walking between 12 and 18 miles (20 to 30 kilometres) per day (245). “The present study employs a phenomenological method,” the authors write, “with the two essential criteria being that the participants have experienced the phenomena being studied and were willing and able to describe their experiences” (245). Their use of phenomenology is “an attempt to provide a completely empirical method that focuses on what an individual experiences,” they continue, noting that the phenomenological method is solely concerned with describing an event, object, or experience (246). “With few previous studies attempting to understand the psychology of long distance walking,” they write, “phenomenology would seem to be an appropriate method in enabling the collection of descriptive information  that could lead to a clearer understanding of the walkers’ lived world” (246). In practical terms, these researchers conducted unstructured interviews in which the participants were considered the experts, a method that generated “rich, descriptive accounts of the walkers’ experiences” (246). The data collected in those interviews was coded and analyzed according to standard qualitative social science procedures.

What were the results of this study? Before the walk, the research participants reported mixed emotions: their planning and preparations demonstrated their investment in the experience of the walk, but they also tended to be apprehensive about logistical issues, their fitness, the distance, and the chances of bad weather. That nervousness was accompanied by anticipation and excitement about the challenge. During the walk, they reported positive feelings, describing the walk as “an immensely enjoyable and rewarding experience,” with that enjoyment derived from many different aspects of the walk: the physical nature of the challenge and the way it tested their resolve (248); the scenic beauty of their route and being close to nature, which generated a sense of connection and reflects the life of affiliation (248, 251); and a sense of meaning derived from being part of something bigger and more permanent than oneself (251). “Participants clearly articulated that some feelings changed as the walk progressed,” the authors report, “and while enjoyment tended to characterize the whole walk, confidence and determination increased the further participants walked” (251). There was a general consensus that the concerns participants had before their walks dissipated and “were replaced by a determination to achieve the goal of finishing as the participants became more aware of how their own capabilities matched the challenge” (251, 253). Participants also reported feeling detached from the complex problems that exist in other areas of life; they “tended to contrast the experience of walking with work to describe a much reduced level of cognitive effort, and a release from responsibilities” (253). The also noted that they were able to reflect upon and solve complex issues by having the time to think through problems, while at the same time they enjoyed the simple tasks related to walking, such as finding their way (254). Reflection, then, was combined with “a focus and engagement with a pleasurable activity,” which “appears to have yielded a fulfilling and meaningful experience” (254). At the same time, the walkers reported that they enjoyed meeting other walkers and becoming part of a walking community (255).

Participants also described being completely absorbed by walking; their exertion often seemed effortless, and they sometimes lost track of time. This response suggests that they experienced what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls flow while they were walking. While they reported numerous challenges—getting lost, bad weather, sore feet, aching muscles and joints—“such issues were regarded as an integral and important part of the whole experience that paradoxically provided greater meaning and a sense of personal achievement at the end of the walk” (255). Overcoming those challenges required the use of a variety of strategies and techniques: some participants relied on personal characteristics, such as resilience, stubbornness, and self-confidence; others visualized the end of the walk; some used humour; some took inspiration from the scenery; and others thought about their walk in terms of “more manageable chunks” rather than thinking of it’s entirety (256). They described bittersweet feelings at the end of the walk: they experienced senses of achievement, pride, satisfaction, and joy, but they also felt sadness and loss because the walk was over (256). “This withdrawal response appeared to reflect a change in focus as the goal of completing the walk was achieved and the reality of returning to more common routines and responsibilities became more central,” the authors note (256). In some cases, though, the positive effects of the experience of walking lasted for many months afterwards, and all of the participants reported “a subjective sense of well-being” at their walk’s conclusion, including having a feelings of psychological well-being (having a clear and relaxed mind, positive attitude, and a sense of mental refreshment), physical well-being (experiencing increased feelings of fitness), and social well-being (having new and enhanced personal relationships) (257). 

“What the participants gained from the experience might best be termed personal growth,” the authors of the study state. “Participants reported a variety of enhanced self-perceptions, which included self-esteem, self-efficacy, and more global self-confidence” (257). Many of the participants in the study reported that they were able to reappraise aspects of their lives and gain new perspectives and new meanings (257). In addition, “[t]he experience of completing the walk, which was challenging and difficult for all, has since been used as a baseline from which to judge other life challenges. The result is that day-to-day problems were often down-graded in perceived difficulty due to more positive evaluations of individual capabilities to overcome challenges” (257). The walkers described their experiences as journeys of self-discovery, and noted that those experiences took place within a “bubble” that was “suitably detached from the stresses of modern life,” and which lasted for the walk’s entire duration and was both “immensely enjoyable and “mentally rejuvenating” (259). 

The study’s authors believe that it provides “a more comprehensive understanding of the potential benefits of long distance walking” (259), which they enumerate in detail. One interesting finding is that the participants reported that walking for a single day did not generate any of these feelings or experiences; it seems that multi-day, long-distance walking appears to have a cumulative effect that’s not possible in the course of a single day, a finding that contrasts with the evidence reporting large benefits from short engagements with green exercise (259). However, they also note that their methodology has limitations, in particular their use of retrospective interviews, which could lead to selective recall, and the small group of walkers who were studied. These findings, they caution, should not be generalized to a wider population of walkers (260).

I doubt that any of the findings of this study would be a surprise to anyone who has made a multi-day walking trip; they seem obvious, although perhaps it’s useful to have one’s own experiences confirmed by such a study. In fact, these responses to long-distance walking are so common that I often wonder why more people don’t engage in this activity. Even a long, challenging walk along highways and grid roads, like my walk to Wood Mountain, produced similar feelings and experiences for me, despite my blisters and exhaustion. More importantly, I have a sense from reading this article that, even though the theoretical perspective offered here is a little thin, the language of phenomenology might be useful for writing about the experience of walking, and so I will take on the phenomenological texts on my reading list with a sense of excitement and anticipation. I think I’ll take on Allen-Collinson’s article next, before returning to Sara Ahmed’s book, though, just to confirm that suspicion.

Works Cited

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

Allen-Collinson, Jacquelyn. “Sporting Embodiment: Sports Studies and the (Continuing) Promise of Phenomenology.” Qualitative Research in Sport and Exercise, vol. 1, no. 3, 2009, pp. 279-96. DOI: 10.1080/19398440903192340.

Crust, Lee, Richard Keegan, David Piggott, and Christian Swann. “Walking the Walk: A Phenomenological Study of Long Distance Walking.” Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, vol. 23, no. 3, 2011, pp. 243-62. DOI: 10.1080/10413200.2010.548848.

13. Celeste Snowber, Embodied Inquiry: Writing, Living, and Being through the Body

embodied inquiry

One of the things I’m interested in exploring is embodied knowledge—that is, knowledge that is produced by the senses and held by the body. Maybe the embodied quality of that knowledge is only metaphorical; maybe that knowledge is actually in the brain and not in the body. I don’t know. That’s one of my questions. Anyone who has learned to ride a bicycle, though, has had an experience of embodied knowledge. Otherwise, the hard-won combination of motor skills and balance and forward movement involved in cycling wouldn’t come together, and that ability would be forgotten—something that never happens, we’re told: “It’s just like riding a bike!” is a cliché, perhaps, but it’s also true. 

I’ve had what I think are experiences of embodied knowledge through walking, although I don’t know much about the process of embodiment and don’t have a language with which to speak of it. That’s why I added Celeste Snowber’s Embodied Inquiry: Writing, Living, and Being through the Body to my reading list. I had hoped that Snowber, a professor of arts education at the University of British Columbia, might offer a systematic approach to thinking about embodied knowledge. I’m planning to read some phenomenology as a way of approaching this topic, but I thought that this short book might be a better place to start. However, I was disappointed: the book is idiosyncratic, poetic, autobiographical, and meditative—more of a New Age self-help guide than a cogent theorization of embodied inquiry or embodied knowledge. That’s fine, if that’s what you’re looking for; unfortunately, it’s not what I need right now. 

“In this book, I invite you to see the body as a place of inquiry, a place of learning, understanding and perceiving,” Snowber writes in the book’s preface (xiii). Her approach, she suggests, has been developed by reading broadly in a variety of fields, “including poetics, curriculum studies, phenomenology, arts-based research, deep ecology, feminist studies, and of course, from the experience of daily life,” and this book is intended to be a companion “to the vast scholarly work done in embodied ways of knowing and inquiry” (xiv). I was hoping that this book would make more references to that “vast scholarly work,” but it doesn’t. Instead, Snowber describes her book as inspirational, as “[a] map to your own pilgrimage back to befriending your body” (xvi). I don’t need inspiration or to befriend my body, however; I need a theoretical language I can use to think about the relationship between embodiment and knowledge.

The first chapter is written from the perspective of the reader’s body. “My sentences are formed with the grammar of the gut,” Snowber writes. “This is a grammar that is often left at the doors when policies are being made or enacted. Though this is perhaps where I am most needed” (4). Unfortunately, the phrase “the grammar of the gut” reminds me of the current occupant of the White House, who relies on his faulty intuition, his “gut,” on important issues, like climate change, rather than conferring with people who know what they are talking about and making policy decisions based on evidence. The body needs to move, to play, to connect “to the magic of the life force through the magic of the body” (6), to be befriended. “[T]he deeper truth is that you were all born with the knowledge that you are bodies, not just have bodies,” Snowber writes, but “you soon learned from your culture and teachers that bodily knowledge was not valued as much as head knowledge” (7). That might be true, but claims like “the mind ceases productivity in response to the body being cramped” (7) are offered without evidence here, as aphorisms or self-evident truths, and that kind of writing isn’t helpful for me in this project.

Snowber argues that solitude is an important aspect of embodied inquiry. Her example of solitude is her daily practice of walking alone near the Pacific Ocean. On those walks, she attends to the land—the hills she climbs or descends, the native flora (19)—but I found myself wondering whether she might not be able to give similar attention to the land by walking with others. She takes her students out on silent group walks, for example (20-21). Snowber suggests that solitary physical activity spurs one’s creativity, and offers her daily walks as an example of “a practice where physicality and mindfulness meet” (17). However, she is not only interested in making time to be alone, “but the way in which one inhabits time” (20). That’s an interesting turn of phrase, but I don’t understand what it means, and it isn’t explained. However, someone looking for such explanations—someone like me, that is—is looking for the wrong thing in the wrong place: Snowber writes, “This book is not a fancy methodology, but an invocation to bring aspects to our lives which will infuse our vocation, creativity, research, skills that can bring restoration and inspiration” (22). In other words, don’t look for anything as clear-cut as a methodology here. When I got to that sentence, I should’ve stopped reading, because a methodology is pretty close to what I was hoping to find here.

The word “invocation” suggests Snowber’s interest in the connections between spirituality, sensuality, and the sacred. “Embodied ways of inquiry are an invitation to dwell more richly in the territory of the sensual life, where all of life is both sensual and sacred,” she writes (27). “Feeling the wind on the face, the blood of life running through our cells, the ecstasy of a bending tree, the freshness of water on flesh, the colour of an apricot, or the joy of jumping are all forms of sensuous knowledge,” she continues (27). All of us have experienced those things—at least, I hope we have; on my most recent long walk, I had similar sensual experiences. How do those experiences generate knowledge, however, and where is that knowledge kept? This book cannot answer those questions; that’s not its purpose.

In her chapter on writing, Snowber thinks about breathing and writing, walking and writing, grief and writing, and movement and writing (44-48). She considers writing from places of fragility or vulnerability (50-51). “Writing from the body gives you the opportunity to honour each subtle and bold sensation of life; to respond to the world and ourselves,” she writes. “Therefore everything is material for writing and listening to our lives and the grammar of our own lived experience” (51). I’m not sure those musings are helpful for me. What is helpful, however, is her reference to Mihaly Csikszentmihályi’s book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Of course, I thought when I saw his name—I should be reading that book, not this one. Of course, I could add Csikszentmihályi’s work to my reading list, couldn’t I?

Snowber writes about listening, but in a metaphorical way: “The entire body hears,” she claims (55). “This listening isn’t just between ourselves and our bodies, but it is body to body, earth to earth, earth to body, and to what is beyond” (58). Clearly she isn’t talking about a literal form of listening, but rather listening as connection between ourselves, our environment, and something beyond the physical. In her chapter on the body and paradox, she suggests that our limitations—injuries, for example—are places of generativity, of creativity (65). “Instead of being perplexed by the paradox of the body, perhaps it is time to praise it,” she suggests (71). However, I really don’t know what to make of statements like this one: “Our bodies are the earth. The earth is our body. In my practice of walking, dancing and writing in connection to the landscape and seascape I keep living these words” (77). Yes, we are not separate from the natural world, although our culture and economy do their best to assert such a separation. But how do creative or embodied practices help us to live that truth? Isn’t there a difference between being and knowing, between ontology and epistemology, that is being elided here?

Asking such questions about this book, though, is like breaking a butterfly on a wheel: Embodied Inquiry isn’t intended to answer those kinds of questions—in fact, I would argue that it deliberately refuses to engage with them. It is a personal and eccentric book, and although I’m sure many people have gotten a great deal out of it, it’s not what I need right now. Clearly I need to do more research into embodied knowledge, or whatever term the library’s databases use to categorize that field of inquiry. After all, Snowber says that the scholarship in this area is vast; I need to dig into it, but in a much more careful way. Going by the use of the word “embodied” in a book’s title isn’t good enough. That much I’ve learned.

Work Cited

Snowber, Celeste. Embodied Inquiry: Writing, Living and Being through the Body. Sense, 2016.

2. Dylan A.T. Miner, Creating Aztlán: Chicano Art, Indigenous Sovereignty, and Lowriding Across Turtle Island

creating aztlan

This past semester, I took a graduate-level visual arts course called Group Studio. That course ended last week with a critique by the faculty in the Department of Visual Arts of my photographs of and text work about my walk to Wood Mountain. One faculty member suggested that when a settler walks, he or she is inevitably claiming territory that is rightly Indigenous. The argument, as I understand it, is that because walking is a way of moving slowly across the land, it is therefore equivalent to lowriding—either with lowrider cars or bicycles—which is, according to Dylan Miner, a way for Indigenous people to claim (or possibly reclaim) territory. For that reason, I decided I would take a look at Miner’s 2014 book Creating Aztlán: Chicano Art, Indigenous Sovereignty, and Lowriding Across Turtle Island to make sense of that critique and possibly formulate a response.

I must admit, I didn’t read Miner’s book carefully. Instead, I did what my PhD supervisors have suggested, and I “gutted” it: I read the introduction and conclusion, took a look at a review, skimmed the chapters, and looked up every mention of the word “lowriding” in the index. Nevertheless, I got a clear sense of how Miner uses that term. He equates migration, lowriding, and moving slowly across the landscape, and he argues that all of these are inherently Indigenous and central to his own methodology in the account of Chicano art as Indigenous sovereignty:

For many participants in lowrider culture, the process of lowriding engages traditional migration patterns, yet employs late-capitalist machinery to traverse colonized landscapes. While our ancestors moved slowly from one place to another, establishing deep roots along the way, contemporaneity and coloniality presuppose that we must hurriedly rush from place to place. Instead of hastening from one place to another, lowriding, as an Indigenous ontology, actively engages the process of slow-movement. Through this intentional slowness, lowriding seamlessly repositions us between various temporalities, moving among multiple spaces in and out of disparate social structures. Lowriding becomes methodology and framework as we investigate Aztlán and Chicano art, as well as migrate across Turtle Island or the Americas. (3)

Miner’s interest is primarily in his socially engaged art practice of building lowrider bicycles with Indigenous youth (the MacKenzie Art Gallery brought Miner to Regina for one of these projects in 2016). Those projects, he writes, constitute a collective confrontation with colonial power structures: by building lower bicycles with Indigenous youth, “we upheld Indigenous sovereignty in a profound way: we worked collectively and, in turn, built community” (5). These bikes, he continues, “materialized Indigenous knowledge in the present,” by combining “ancestral knowledge with contemporary technologies, concretizing Indigenous culture in the guise of lowrider bicycles” (6). 

Miner mentions lowrider cars only a couple of times in the book. But lowriding functions metaphorically in Creating Aztlán, I think, through the creation of the nexus of lowriding/migration/slowness as an Indigenous ontology and methodology. “Although created sometime in the late twentieth century, decades after lowrider cars,” Miner writes,

lowrider bicycles are the epitome of contemporary Indigenous movement. They are simple machines with two wheels. The wheels must be kept moving if the bike is to remain upright. Constant rotations of the wheels keep the rider in a stable and mobile position. When the wheels stop rotating, the bike becomes static and the rider will eventually fall to the ground. This could be read as an Indigenous story about the need to maintain equilibrium in the world. Unlike the desire of a traditional cyclist, whose hope it is to move as quickly as possible, the lowrider’s only goal is to move as slowly and as intentionally as viable. Lowriding is about moving through space, while being cognizant of the journey and migration itself. (23-24)

I’m not sure how his description of how a lowrider bicycle remains upright differs fundamentally from the way an ordinary bicycle works, except that the goal with a lowrider bicycle is apparently “to move as slowly and as intentionally” as possible—an intentionality that is apparently self-reflexive and that conflates the specific journey with the broader experience of migration. Such journeys or migrations are apparently circular, in both time and space, and related to story as a way for Indigenous peoples to “slowly and intimately relate to one another” (88). Later, Miner writes, “lowriding is about slow movement, in which the lowriders themselves get to know the space and move through it in intentional ways” (115); here, slowness is an essential part of coming to know the space through which the rider is moving. 

Lowriding, as Miner defines it, and walking clearly share a similar velocity: both are ways of moving through a space (whether urban or rural) slowly. However, I don’t see anywhere in Miner’s book where moving through territory is defined as claiming or reclaiming territory. Maybe I missed it. If I didn’t, then I’m not sure a critique of my walk to Wood Mountain as a colonial claiming of territory works if it is based in Miner’s literal or metaphorical discussions of lowriding, since that idea doesn’t appear to be in Miner’s book. It might appear in something else he’s written, but if it does, I can’t find it.

Lowriding (on bicycles or in cars) obviously shares a certain slowness with walking, but there are significant differences between those practices. Although Miner says he first encountered lowrider bicycles in rural Michigan when he was a child (5), I would think that as a mode of transportation lowrider bikes are primarily an urban phenomenon—at least in this province. Can one move through space slowly if one is travelling the kinds of distances between communities that exist in a place like Saskatchewan? Are the youth who built lowrider bicycles with Miner here in Regina really riding them outside of the city? Maybe they are. Nevertheless, on my walk to Wood Mountain I encountered only one cyclist, and he was riding a mountain bike (which is a practical way of dealing with the drifts of gravel one finds on grid roads).

Moreover, the bikes Miner built at with his participants in this city were meant to be looked at; they were colourful and incorporated Indigenous design elements, patterns, and references (photographs of those bicycles are available here). They are both a mode of transportation, a form of display, and an assertion of Indigeneity on multiple levels. Is that true of walking? It could be, if the walker, like the runner Brad “Caribou Legs” Firth, wore traditional regalia, but I would never do such a thing (it would be an obvious act of cultural appropriation). In fact, I cannot imagine anyone wanting to look at the dull-coloured, dirty walking clothes and Tilley hat I wear when I am walking. Everything about the walks I make is pragmatic and functional (the clothes I wear, the pack I carry); walking long distances in this place is impractical enough. In other words, when I walk there is no attempt at becoming visual spectacle, even though my presence surprises passing motorists. Besides, walking and cycling—even cycling on a lowrider bike—are distinctly different activities. Cycling—even on a lowrider bike—involves a degree of technological intervention that isn’t present in walking. (After all, people walked long before bicycles were invented.) 

It is true that part of the reason I choose to walk is as a way of getting to know the land, the space through which I am moving, but is that necessarily an assertion of sovereignty over that land? I don’t think so. I happened to have lunch with an Elder last week and I talked a little bit about walking to Wood Mountain and the notion that by walking I’m claiming ownership of the land. “No,” she replied, “the land is teaching you when you walk.” Besides, she continued, nobody ought to be claiming territory: the earth owns us, and we don’t own it. I do learn from the land when I walk: it teaches me about scale, about flat plains and hills, about wind and rain, about heat and cold and thirst. I met Dylan Miner when he was here, and I told him about the project I was then getting ready for: my walk in the Haldimand Tract. He thought it was a good idea, something that I should do. He didn’t accuse me of trying to claim that territory. I’m grateful for that response, which demonstrated an understanding of what I was trying to do in that project. I was deliberately not claiming territory: I was acknowledging the thefts of land that my settler predecessors had committed in that place. My PhD research has a similar motivation.

Miner’s use of lowriding as a conceptual framework in his book is interesting as a metaphor, and the equation he makes between slowness, migration, and coming to know the land is thought-provoking; although not all forms of slow movement are necessarily migration, slow movement is definitely one way of coming to understand the land. But I’m not sure one can use his writing as a way to critique walking. Walking and lowriding share a similar velocity, but there are significant differences between those practices, and ignoring those differences is, in my opinion, a mistake. And it leads to a larger question: is any engagement with land by a settler descendant—landscape painting or photography, sculptures about forests, writing about grasslands—necessarily a way to claim territory? If not, what is it about walking in particular that generates this political critique? That question remains unanswered; all I can say is, that critique isn’t articulated in Miner’s book.

Work Cited

Miner, Dylan A.T. Creating Aztlán: Chicano Art, Indigenous Sovereignty, and Lowriding Across Turtle Island, U of Arizona P, 2014.