Reading and Walking

Walking, Reading, and Reading about Walking

Tag: Yi-Fu Tuan

87. Henry David Thoreau, Walking


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

Anderson, Matthew Robert. “Why Canadians Need the ‘Right to Roam.’” The Conversation, 29 July 2018,

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

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

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

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

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

smith on walking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Embodiment is an essential aspect of Smith’s walking:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Smith emphasizes that the dérives were not ends in themselves:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walking can bring about new connections, Smith argues,

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

The pain arrived at by pleasure?

The aching from the sheer enjoyment of the walk?

Soreness from the fierce rawness of the experiences?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was deluded in every respect. (21)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

54. John Schott and Phil Smith, Rethinking Mythogeography in Northfield, Minnesota

rethinking mythogeography

Rethinking Mythogeography in Northfield, Minnesota, a collaboration between John Schott and Phil Smith, helps to explain what mythogeography (Smith’s walking practice) is, and suggests the ways that practice is still developing and changing. In that way, it’s a companion to his earlier book on mythogeography, perhaps as an example of practice to accompany that text’s theory. In his introduction, Schott explains the book’s context: in 2016, Smith spent two weeks at Carleton College as artist-in-residence at WALK!: A Festival of Walking, Art & Ideas, a ten-week celebration of walking as an artistic practice (4). The festival’s high point, for Schott, Smith’s mythogeographic exploration of Northfield, “The Blazing Worlds Walk,” the focus of this publication (4). During that walk, 15 people walked for three hours, stopping at locations Smith selected; at each location, he spoke about “a wide range of ideas provoked by our discoveries” (4). “His technique—and this walk was both a demonstration of mythogeographic procedure and an invitation for participants to devise their own walks in future—was a bravura enactment of personal place-making,” Schott writes:

At each stopping point Phil undertook an archaeology of the devalued and ‘invisible’ that blended post-modern theory and a well-studied command of local history—Phil did his homework!—in an ebullient, spontaneous performance. With its mix of theoretical playfulness and improvisatory poetic association, Phil’s mythogeography of Northfield modeled for participants ways to excavate their own invisible cities. (4-5)

This book consists of  two independent but parallel texts: Schott’s photographic documentation of the walk, with brief explanations of essential ideas presented at each location with which the participants engaged; and Smith’s essay reflecting on mythogeography and his Northfield experience (5). My response is going to focus on Smith’s essay. Schott’s photo documentation and descriptions, however, are an important part of the book, because they help me to understand what a mythogeographical guided walk might look like.

In the second introduction, Smith writes, “In Northfield I realised just how serious the magic of the ordinary is” (6). On his first morning in the city, a small college community in eastern Minnesota, he met a maintenance man repairing signals in the Union Pacific yard—“a man mending signals! How much more symbolic could it get?”—and gave him a map of Northfield, UK: 

I knew that such poetic moments were not exceptional in themselves, Not even in their accumulation were they special. It was their resolute meaningfulness in the face of all odds that was remarkable; they come to us in bits and pieces, in the blur of a chance moment or in the miasma of sleep, but somehow we still “get” them. (6-7)

Such moments, he continues, give access to “a sur-reality”—“a space where things make their own connections and we must wait our turn for the trucks to pass” (7). The reference to “trucks” here might be part of this passages use of trains as an extended metaphor:

The magic of the ordinary may at first strike you in flashes or by the sudden falling of a shadow across a scene; but if you can hold onto those moments for a while, stay calm and not grab for the first wonder, then—like the passing freight train—the magic will begin to stream around you in unfolding loops. (7)

In Walking’s New Movement, Smith eschews an emphasis on the magic in the everyday in favour of political engagement, but in this book, he returns to what seems to be the primary purpose of mythogeography: discovering a sense of wonder in the quotidian.

Smith’s essay. “Rethinking Mythogeography in Northfield, Minnesota,” begins with another story about his first morning there. He bluffed his way into a prayer room and the congregants laid hands upon him for a prayer; in the words of that prayer, he was “re-imagined in ways that were fantastical for their ordinariness; so far from my intentions I felt wholly unharmed. Being turned into something like an erudite and caring octopus with a fan of praying tentacles, I was lifted up in the arms of a community within a community” (9). “Such encounters,” he writes,

when entered into mythogeographically, as part of one’s questing journey to understand and intervene in places that are strange or deeply unfamiliar, leave one touched, sometimes deeply, yet unobliged. There is no surrender of one’s nomadic slipperiness, no surrender to the grand narratives that are all around. Even in places where belief and worldview are strictly codified, the mythogeographical pilgrim presents such a benign ambiguity that even the language of faith struggles to get any grip on the edge of the abyss we all hang onto. (9)

Such “unbalanced but efficacious connections” are ambivalent, even when they are intense:  “They rely on the mythogeographer paying close, polite and respectful attention to everything and yet being ‘not quite there’; and so able to make a deft, intuitive connection to the big picture beyond (or beneath and within) the big pictures” (9). When he left Northfield, he continues, he was “more determined than ever to be an evangelist for this mythogeography; to encourage more people to take its path—its pilgrimage, even—beyond the big things, through the small things, to the even bigger picture, the picture before decisions” (9). That residency in Northfield changed Smith and his thinking about mythogeography—hence the essay’s title. You really have to admire someone who, 20 years into an art practice, is still rethinking its fundamental characteristics.

For example, Smith mentions pilgrimage (one of my interests) for the first time (that I know of) in this essay:

The walking I practice (some call it “walking art,” some “psychogeography”) is a kind of pilgrimage, though not in a usual sense. It is less of the “special” thing that is usually understood by pilgrimage. I am not on pilgrimage all the time, but I switch in and out from everyday life more regularly than a traditional pilgrim. This is a pilgrimage that anyone can take, that anyone can weave in and out of their daily lives dependent on the pressures and limits that bear upon you. It is a sporadic journey in which you, the pilgrim, seek two things: firstly, to appreciate the sacredness (in the sense not of any religion, but of its need and right to be venerated) of the road itself; secondly, to find in oneself the edge of the hidden and unrepresentable part and to learn how to protect its borders from algorithms and other attractive invasions. (11)

Such a pilgrimage has no set destination (11); the road the pilgrim takes is more important:

The route of a spiritual, alchemical or psychogeographical pilgrimage—the actual road with its signposts and potholes, hedgerows and roadkill—is sacred in itself, but is only discovered as sacred by the pilgrim’s own transcendence (or just plain thinking) that might occur at any point in a quest. (11)

Smith’s walking practice, which he calls “disrupted walking, walking that breaks from an everyday and functional walk,” adopts the idea of the road as sacred, but drops the singularity of a unique sacred destination “in favour of a multiplicity, a quantum dance with super-positioned elements” (11). “The mythogeographical pilgrim,” he writes, “is much less about arriving at a shrine or a mystical state and more about entangling, physically and psychically, with a (not ‘the’) bigger picture” (11). Such pilgrimages aren’t special or rarefied events: “On any walk, a stroll or a walk to the shops, there is some engagement with those bigger pictures,” such as a view that resembles a particular period of oil painting, or anticipating the taste of “a particular processed food” (11). 

How is Smith’s version of pilgrimage different from ordinary pilgrimage—or, for that matter, ordinary walking? “The difference in what I am proposing is that the walker acknowledges and works in the big pictures they walk with: critiquing, enthusing, embracing, wrecking . . . whatever it is you need to do to achieve your two primary aims of veneration and wary self-discovery,” he writes (11). That means every disrupted walk is reflexive, “messing with its own pretensions, setting out for things never done or never experienced or not even entertained, all in a wobbly dance across volatile fields” (11). Such reflexivity is joined up with “a serious desire to understand what the hell is going on in the world,” and the result is the beginning “of a journey walked in relation to distant particles, in relation to the adopted, rejected or assimilated personal of your role as ‘pilgrim-knight’”—Smith’s example of pilgrimage is a quest for the Holy Grail—“on a quest without an object, yet packed with objects” (11)—objects, I think, that the pilgrim discovers along the way, because he emphasizes the need to attend to “the resilient weirdness of bland things,” to know how “to tap the magic in the ordinary” (11). He also stresses “stillness, enigma and quietly reflecting, and reflecting upon, things” (13). There is a tremendous value, he continues, in 

[k]nowing and loving the darkness in ourselves, mapping the spaces the Spectacle cannot see and re-encoding its codes in our own symbolist doings in the streets. If that seems self-absorbed or indulgent, then see it as the fuel you need to hold yourself in that “not quite there” that gives you a deftness and intuition necessary for connections to the big picture beyond, beneath and within the big pictures. (13)

The reference to “the Spectacle” is yet another suggestion that Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle is, along with A Thousand Plateaus by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, essential theoretical background to understanding Smith’s work. 

Understanding the big picture in Northfield begins with realizing that there are no stories in the town about anything prior to 1855: “Even about the survey of 1851 or the Dakota Treaty of the same year which removed the Siouan-speaking people from the region, yet along any kind of narrative of geological time. Yet almost every garden in some suburbs sported a glacial boulder” (13). The bigger picture can connect disparate things, “while attending to the effects of the parts of an object (like those parts of ourselves) that are, and should be, entirely hidden and inaccessible” (15). According to Smith, 

in mythogeography the “bigger picture” skirts the obsessive narrowness of the “local historian” (and other anti-interdisciplinary expertises) and the reductionism of those religions, materialisms, and so on that boil everything down to the unitary of a great 1 (or Great One). A mythogeographical pilgrim, instead, attends to the multiplicity of the bigger picture (which may, of course, include local history and “Great Ones,” but only as parts, layers or substrates of its swirling orrery of events). (15)

“Such connections and meanings, relations and scales can be directly intuited from the realm perceivable by a body’s senses,” he continues (15). Smith sensed that, in Northfield, the city’s genesis story was the source of the blank void in its self-representations before 1855: 

a genesis story generates an excessive idealism and energy as a result of the denial of things destroyed in order to begin from “nothing,” from “empty space.” In Northfield the origin story has an ideal nature, and John North’s grid plan for the town is certainly utopian in flavour, settling onto the land as if descending from the sky, only to be kinked at its centre by the river. (17)

In such ideal spaces—and the suggestion that the imposition of a grid on the landscape is a utopian gesture surprised me, used as I am to thinking of a similar imposition onto the entire southern part of this province as an affront—“the silencing of what was there before their creation is the generator for their troubled mythogeographies” (17). In other words,

It is the zero that determines their complex set of ones; the sum left after extraction and destruction, concealed and silenced by tales of a Great One or a single idealistic and magic form. This zero, this revenant of the obliteration prior to a place’s genesis, if reclaimed and repaired, is also a machine of future change. (17)

Deletions of prior histories “are often shadow silences; they obscure the overspeaking of even older narratives of geological action” (19):

Mythogeography’s generalisation motor, its big picture making, is powered by these absences and difficulties in historical and geological time. We are back at the zero, or the hidden part of any matter; that seems to be at work in stories of genesis and in overarching general descriptions. So here is a mythogeographical principle that I learned for the first time in Northfield: as you assemble all the multiplicity of informations about a place, look for the zeroing and silencing, large and small, originary and incidental, that these chunks of narrative and idea have been produced (at least partly) in order to obscure. Just as you have precious hidden parts, so does a place. (19)

All of this is pertinent to thinking about Saskatchewan, a place marked my many examples of zeroing and silencing, many gestures towards a blank slate upon which the settler apparatus is built. It might be pertinent to any place that where the ground zero was the genocide and displacement of other peoples. It would be very interesting to bring Smith to Regina to walk in spaces where that genocide and displacement are tangible.

The excess one senses in places, “a blurting out of things generated by the suppression of something else,” is “one of the languages of mythogeography; one that you can intuit in the streets and then back up with a little desk-based research or other kinds of nosey-ing around” (21). That excess, he continues,

is the reason why, on a mythogeographical mis-guided tour of such places, it is always necessary to under-tell the narrative, to dampen it down a little, to mimic the grander narrative of sinking into silence in order to draw the audience into its extreme taciturnity, to which much has already been lost and because of which much may still be at stake. (21)

Smith’s discussion of this excess heads in an existential direction:

In general terms, this silence is the historical manifestation of the mythic abyss, the void around the rim of which we all hang existentially. Hence the personal importance and the social necessity for good faith, fidelity and witness in respect of the accidental poetries, the eroded signs and the textural ironies to be found in every place (and I have found them in every place I have ever visited) which are generated by the silencing of colonialism and other place-making forces; it is not enough to fasten on just any cipher going or to use these things for effect. Hence the need for dampening down; fidelity means connecting to a bigger picture, not always through complexity, but always by a sinking beneath the event horizon of the surface Spectacle, by putting oneself, at least a little, at the mercy of the hidden zero. (21)

I’m not entirely sure how one might put oneself “at the mercy of the hidden zero,” or what that might mean in practical terms, or the connection between those “accidental poetries” and the underground narratives that exist in places like Northfield—or Regina; that’s something I’m going to consider.

Smith moves to a discussion of space that is clearly derived from Deleuze (and possibly Guattari): “There are no borders in space; a border is the antithesis of space. There is small and there are margins in places; but in space there is only folding and unfolding” (21). The same theoretical background informs his discussion of space versus power:

Power is necessarily concentrated and bounded, otherwise it would not be power, it would be free energy vulnerable to democratic uses. Space is dispersive and subject to democratic abstraction. Space can be grasped imaginatively and imagination requires no armies. A refugee in a Jordanian camp can invade England if they have access to a translation of H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds. (21)

I wouldn’t downplay the power of the imagination, but isn’t it important to realize that, in reality, Smith’s refugee remains in a camp, whatever he or she is reading? People who read Tolkien don’t actually—and this might surprise some of them—end up in the Shire. In any case, Smith’s discussion of space is definitely indebted to Deleuze and Guattari:  “space is finely interconnected; it is both material and imagined,” he writes (21). “The margin folds back to the centre. Those of us who feel left out are doubly tricked—first geographically, then subjectively—any marginalization is only partly real and partly a belief enforced upon us. We have been recruited into a conspiracy against ourselves” (21). Mythogeographers, he continues,

do not escape from one place to the other, but find and explore them curled up inside each other. Openness is not in one place and narrowness in another; they are different characteristics of the same places. This is part of the ‘and and and’ characteristic of mythogeography; of speaking of one’s own place as if it were space, never completed, always in motion, floated free from the binding and restraining power of identity and the binding and restraining identity of power. What is usually narrated as a doubleness or an opposition, in the space of mythogeography returns as a series of folds and loops, writhing and connecting and embracing the open within the narrow and the narrow within the open. The array of reflective surfaces created by this interweaving illuminates the narrow self-interests at work in the open space of grand narratives; the churning of their curved edges excavates the grandeur in the common symbols painted on the sidewalk by maintenance workers. If only we were to start pulling on the connections, the whole thing might swing around. (23)

Perhaps, then, rather than an opposition between space, as Yi-Fu Tuan proposes, one might assert an enfolding of them together? What would that look like? Would I have to return to the Deleuze’s The Fold or read A Thousand Plateaus to figure that out?

Smith argues that the dérive is always the motor of mythogeography, “the sociable, leaderless and destinationless wander with shifting themes and pilgrimage-like symbolisms” (25):

This derive is a simple way to take back some of the missing pleasure-surplus that has been subtracted from us—and from our public spaces—by various means including rent, exploitative labour and a Spectacle that turns its consumers into unpaid producers. In the “drift” this recovered surplus reappears like the nervous emergence of things the Spectacle has never “seen” before, spectres and unexchangeable artefacts, and an “under-selling” (a restrained telling) of the route. (25)

A dérive in Northfield took place entirely in a parking lot (25); the route can be anywhere. That dérive left behind an ad-hoc site-specific sculpture made with materials found on the edges of the parking lot; I wonder whether that is common in dérives. In any case, what Smith wants from being a walking artist, he discovered in Northfield, is for people “to walk mythogeographically, but under their own steam; not led, not guided by anyone, least of all by me” (27). He wants to be a part of walking groups but not as a leader; instead he wants “a place among the irresponsibilities and sociabilities of the mob” (27).

In fact, in Northfield, Smith found himself having to reconfigure ideas he had thought of as fixed and fundamental to what he does: 

I became aware of the need to work through pleasure more, to evangelise more and to reconstruct mythogeography as something sociable and convivial, as something people do together. I learned (and continue to learn since) to attend more, not less, to my own body as a site of inadequacy and illness that provides its own route for itself as a vehicle and agent of pleasure. (31)

He suggests as a goal he suggests for leading group walks (I think), a form of “talented” walking, with “talented” meaning a suspendedness or structural capability: 

by repeatedly walking, the walker learns to become ‘transparent,’ practising a calm and extreme openness to the experiences and capabilities of the route, so the walks increasingly take on the quality of narratives without walkers. 

The route becomes the walker. 

The prepared walker, by becoming transparent, passes through places as if he or she were the ignored ghost of it. The prepared walker becomes a haunting but not a frightening or interesting presence. The prepared walker’s transparency allows others to see the place through the walker; not by their leading or narrating, but by emptying themselves of leadership and narrative. . . . So, by their preparedness and transparency, a “talented” walker illuminates their route; and their deferral of action allows those they are with to imagine their own fading into “talented” agency. (31-33)

I’m not sure how a walker in this part of the world—or in Northfield—could become “transparent,” given the fact that so few people walk in these places, but if he is talking about a way of leading walks, this might make sense.

Indeed, Smith notes what while walking in Northfield he was often alone; few others out walking (35)—so he “mostly had meetings with things” (35). He thinks of Margaret Cavendish’s 1666 book The Blazing-World, in which the main character is marooned after a shipwreck on an island of bear-men, bird-men, fly-men, all physicists and philosophers; she is made empress and asks for a spirit amanuensis, the spirt of her own author, Margaret Cavendish (37). “Here was the model for me as a lone walker, washed up in alien suburbs and subject to a storm of my own reveries and unfamiliar resident objects,” he writes. “Be the spirit-amanuensis of your own earthbound ventures. Walking alone is a fine way of learning how to blend hard things with soft imaginings in the same journey” (37).

Here Smith returns to the notion of pilgrimage. He notes that medieval nuns engaged in virtual pilgrimages (they were not allowed to leave their convents to go on actual ones); he imagines that this could be a provocation for his walking (37). Since medieval guidebooks for pilgrims ignore the road and focus on the shrines along the way, that might suggest the road was “a profane obstacle to be overcome” (37). He sees a different extreme in what he calls “neo-romantic and contemporary pilgrimage: “its walk is privileged and democratised . . . and arrival is no longer realised by the transformation of space at the opening of the shrine, but by the transformation of the self along the way” (37). The pilgrim’s arrival at the shrine, he continues, 

is little more than an opportunity to celebrate the apotheosis that has already happened. What this removes is the “otherness”—weirdness, numinous and alien divine—from the heart of pilgrimage; relegating it to a consumable, if uncomfortable, exotic surplus. Ordinariness and the route remain burdens to be endured; this means that all neo-romantic pilgrimages are partly virtual, whether they are walked in a cell or across a continent. For the shrine of the neo-romantic pilgrimage—the transformable self—is always present and might be reached at any time. Pilgrimage becomes, then, a smooth and mobile space. The soul is not saved, but relocated to the ego. (39)

The reference to “smooth” space suggests Deleuze and Guattari again, but more importantly, I’m not convinced that Smith’s description fits my experience on the Camino—a walk that, not surprisingly, radical or art walkers who talk about democratizing walking sneer at. 

Mythogeography, Smith continues, sets out to push romanticism “to be itself but more extremely so,” so why not “privilege the way of the pilgrim not primarily as a metaphorical or psychological way,” but rather focus on tangible things? “Only by walking with and through such stinking things and squeezy organisms can a sacred way open up for this pilgrim,” he writes (39). Such a pilgrimage, “along the road of things,” would reorient one’s focus 

to the ugly matter of work and production, to medieval clumsiness and striation, to the hierarchy as well as the dispersal of space. On such a rough journey the pilgrim is no longer obliged to progressively dematerialise (emptying her rucksack as she goes), but instead to take on a new thickness, becoming increasingly loaded in the sustenance and resilience of things of the way, an ecological pilgrim wading through, and held up by, sloughs of responsive things. (39)

The drift, like the pilgrimage, is “a colonial revenant, appropriating the surplus of pleasure not from giant corporations but from passers-by, which survives inside even the most radical of walkings” (39). When I saw the word “colonial,” I perked up, but Smith is using is as a metaphor, not a literal term.

“The next step for everyday pilgrimage, if it is to escape neo-romantic, new-age opportunism, is towards ambulant architecture,” Smith writes, giving examples of disrupting the path, or creating new ones (39-41). That’s where he notes that a discussion on the Walking Artists Network focused on ways to disrupt the Camino. I’m not sure that impulse isn’t anti-democratic, given the number of people who walk that pilgrimage route every year. Why can’t they do that if they want to? Others can make more adventurous or philosophical walks if they want to, find different routes, or disrupt their own path by leaving objects behind, as Smith suggests (although where one would get those objects is an open question). There is a sociability and conviviality on the Camino—and sometimes a competitiveness—that might be worth exploring; sneering at it is not engaging with it.

“‘New menhirs’ are accidental versions of the ambulatory architecture that once combined as waymarking signs and ritual objects for prehistoric people in Europe,” Smith notes, suggesting that they “were probably the first architecture” (43)—if you ignore the shelters they lived in, perhaps that might be true. He describes the strange, typically discarded or unnoticed things he discovers when he is walking as “new menhirs” (43):

The pole of attraction of a new menhir swings things back towards junctions and magic squares, towards connectivity. It is a facilitating symbol of the human octopus and the social web; a mark that—despite its apparent isolation and its relation to journeying—connects and reconciles. While the general motor of the void is driven by loss and trauma, the new menhir is all about reparation and the reconciliation of opposites. (43)

Honestly, I’m not convinced that those objects, however strange, can actually generate connectivity—unless a group of walkers stop to examine them, perhaps. But Smith makes larger claims for these objects: 

A new menhir marks the spot where ideology touches the ground and becomes substantial. It marks the spot where deregulated images put down a footprint and can be caught. They are there to be touched, leaned against and held as connectors to something or somewhere else, channels to thinking and wands for moving things by something other than broadband. (45)

The reference to “broadband” suggests that he is talking about the Spectacle again; he is putting a great deal of weight on these “new menhirs,” but his poetic prose isn’t quite explaining—to me, anyway—their importance. Perhaps I’m too dull to pick up on it.

Smith’s experiences in Northfield “illuminated the process by which a mythogeography connects texture and detail to the big picture and how, as a common practice it can change situations and not just comment on them” (51). The essay ends with a call for readers to do “this stuff” in their own ways; one final section, “How Can We Do This Stuff In Our Own Ways?” consists of one sentence: “It wouldn’t be your way if there was anything under this heading, would it?” (51). That’s a good question. What I take, immediately, from my reading of this essay is that I ought to pay more attention to the objects and places I encounter on my walks—I am thinking right now of a hay bale at the side of the highway with a water bottle embedded in the centre—as well as to the people. And, again, I realize that my solo walking practice is probably not Smith’s cup of tea, although perhaps, after walking in Minnesota, he realizes how focused North America is on automobiles, how much it has turned its back on self-propelled motion. I am also more convinced than ever that I need to read Deleuze and Guattari—particularly if the relationship between space and place can be expressed as an enfolding rather than an opposition. I sense that such an idea has possibilities, but I would need a better grasp on the fold, and an understanding of the different kinds of space Deleuze and Guattari explore. 

Work Cited

Schott , John, and Phil Smith, Rethinking Mythogeography in Northfield, Minnesota, Triarchy Press, 2018.

48. Tim Ingold, “The Temporality of the Landscape”

ingold temporality of the landscape

I decided to read Tim Ingold’s essay “The Temporality of the Landscape” for two reasons. First, Doreen Massey mentioned it as an example of thinking about space and temporality, and second, in my experience, I’ve always found that Ingold has interesting things to say. It’s an odd essay, though, and while I don’t agree with everything in it, I think it’s a valuable example of phenomenological thinking about space and place.

Ingold begins by stressing what he sees as two central themes in both archaeology and anthropology:

First, human life is a process that involves the passage of time. Second, this life-process is also the process of formation of the landscapes in which people have lived. Time and landscape, then, are to my mind the essential points of topical contact between archaeology and anthropology. (152)

That contact between archaeology and anthropology is really the thing Ingold is interested in exploring. He states that his purpose in writing this essay is

to bring the perspectives of archaeology and anthropology into unison through a focus on the temporality of the landscape. . . . such a focus might enable us to move beyond the sterile opposition between the naturalistic view of the landscape as a neutral, external backdrop to human activities, and the culturalistic view that every landscape is a particular cognitive or symbolic ordering of space. (152)

Rather than those oppositions, Ingold argues that we need to adopt what he calls “a ‘dwelling perspective,’ according to which the landscape is constituted as an enduring record of—and testimony to—the lives and works of past generations who have dwelt within it, and in so doing, have left something of themselves” (152). That perspective is what connects archaeology and anthropology together; anthropology, he suggests, is about “knowledge born of immediate experience,” but archaeology isn’t knowledge about people who are now dead; “the practice of archaeology is itself a form of dwelling” (152). The use of the word “dwelling” suggests that Ingold’s argument is based in Martin Heidegger’s essay “Building Dwelling Thinking,” which he cites halfway through this essay (162). I really would have to re-read “Building Dwelling Thinking” if I wanted to get the most out of Ingold’s essay. 

According to Ingold, for both anthropology (knowledge provided by “the native dweller”) and archaeology,

the landscape tells—or rather is—a story. It enfolds the lives and times of predecessors who, over the generations, have moved around on it and played their part in its formation. To perceive the landscape is therefore to carry out an act of remembrance, and remembering is not so much a matter of calling up an internal image, stored in the mind, as of engaging perceptually with an environment that is itself pregnant with the past. (152-53)

The methods used by archaeologists and anthropologists are different, as are the stories they tell, but “they are engaged in projects of fundamentally the same kind” (153). He gives, as an example, an imagined experienced hunter, who knows about the land and has learned about it through experience and being taught. If asked to communicate this knowledge (by an anthropologist), that hunter may do so in the form of stories. Such stories would be different from the anthropologist’s site report, Ingold notes, but

we should resist the temptation to assume that since stories are stories they are, in some sense, unreal or untrue, for this is to suppose that the only real reality, or true truth, is on in which we, as living, experiencing beings, can have no part at all. Telling a story is not like weaving a tapestry to cover up the world, it is rather a way of guiding the attention of listeners or readers into it. A person who can “tell” is one who is perceptually attuned to picking up information in the environment that others, less skilled in the tasks of perception, might miss, and the teller, in rendering his knowledge explicit, conducts the attention of his audience along the same paths as his own. (153)

I might not be interested in the relationship between archaeology and anthropology, but I am interested in stories as the result of being perceptually attuned to an environment, and so, despite the disciplinary framework of Ingold’s essay, I decided to keep reading.

Ingold notes that his essay is divided into four parts. The first is a defence of his use of the term “landscape.” Landscape, he suggests, is not “land,” or “nature,” or “space” (153). The term “land,” he argues, “is a kind of lowest common denominator of the phenomenal world, inherent in every portion of the earth’s surface yet directly visible in none” (153). We can ask how much land there is, he contends, but not what that land is like (153-54). “But where land is thus quantitative and homogenous,” he continues, “the landscape is qualitative and heterogenous” (154). Landscape is what we see all around us; it is “a contoured and textured surface replete with diverse objects—living and non-living, natural and artificial” (154). “Thus,” he writes, “at any particular moment, you can ask of a landscape what it is like, but not how much of it there is” (154). 

Nor is landscape “nature.” For Ingold, “nature” is a concept “whose ontological foundation is an imagined separation between the human perceiver and the world, such that the perceiver has to reconstruct the world, in consciousness, prior to any meaningful engagement with it” (154). That separation between humans and the natural world suggests that it is “out there,” while we are “in here,” “in the intersubjective space marked out by our mental representations” (154). That dualism, he contends, leads to a conception of nature as a cultural image, a pictorial way of representing one’s surroundings—a division between inner and outer worlds that Ingold rejects: “The landscape, I hold, is not a picture in the imagination, surveyed by the mind’s eye; nor, however, is it an alien and formless substrate awaiting the imposition of human order” (154). Landscape, he continues, is not identical to nature; nor is it “on the side of humanity against nature” (154). “As the familiar domain of our dwelling,” Ingold writes, landscape “is with us, not against us, but it is no less real for that. And through living in it, the landscape becomes a part of us, just as we are a part of it. Moreover, what goes for its human component goes for other components as well”—in a landscape, that is, “each component enfolds within its essence the totality of its relations with each and every other” (154). 

Landscape isn’t space, either:  “To appreciate the contrast, we could compare the everyday project of dwelling in the world with the rather peculiar and specialized project of the surveyor or cartographer whose objective is to represent it” (154). Space, then, for Ingold, is the result of the surveyor’s measurements, which “produce a single picture which is independent of any point of observation” (154-55). In other words, space is a particular form of representation. However, Ingold shifts from a discussion of space to one of place over the course of a complicated analogy between what geographers and anthropologists mean by space, and Ferdinand de Saussure’s claim that there is a homologous relation between thought and sound (155). “Just as the word, for Saussure, is the union of a concept with a delimited ‘chunk’ of sound,” Ingold writes, “so the place is the union of a symbolic meaning with a delimited block of the earth’s surface” (155). Place is associated with landscape in this argument, rather than with space. In its relation to place, landscape is different from space:

For a place in the landscape is not “cut out” from the whole, either on the plane of ideas or on that of material substance. Rather, each place embodies the whole at a particular nexus within it, and in this respect is different from every other. A place owes its character to the experiences it affords to those who spend time there—to the sights, sounds and indeed smells that constitute its particular ambience. And these, in turn, depend on the kinds of activities in which its inhabitants engage. It is from this relational context of people’s engagement with the world, in the business of dwelling, that each place draws its unique significance. Thus whereas with space, meanings are attached to the world, with the landscape they are gathered from it. (155)

In addition, “while places have centres—indeed it would be more appropriate to say that they are centres—they have no boundaries” (155-56), a suggestion that seems to contradict Ingold’s earlier assertion that places are delimited. No feature of the landscape is, of itself, a boundary: “It can only become a boundary, or the indicator of a boundary, in relation to the activities of the people (or animals) for whom it is recognized or experienced as such” (156). “In short,” he continues, “the landscape is the world as it is known to those who dwell therein, who inhabit is places and journey along the paths connecting them” (156).

Ingold’s suggestion that a place is a nexus reminds me of Massey’s suggestion that places are “the foci of the meeting and the nonmeeting of the previously unrelated” (71), but I think his sense of place is much closer to Yi-Fu Tuan’s than Massey’s, since he is suggesting that place is the product of a phenomenological or sensory engagement with the world, and that it is also the result of the activities of its inhabitants. Place, for Ingold, is what is known and experienced, I think, rather than, as for Massey, a location of coherence in identity formation (71). It is difficult to bring together writers working from such variant intellectual starting points, and should I try to bring Tuan and Massey together, I think I’ll discover that such a rapprochement is nearly impossible. I’m still convinced that Tuan and Massey, or for that matter Ingold and Massey, do have points of connection regarding place, but making that argument is going to be hard.

Landscape isn’t environment, either, according to Ingold. An environment is an organized system of dynamic functioning (156)—like an ecosystem—while landscape, in contrast,

puts the emphasis on form, in just the same way that the concept of the body emphasizes the form rather than the function of a living creature. Like organism and environment, body and landscape are complementary terms: each implies the other, alternately as figure and ground. The forms of the landscape are not, however, prepared in advance for creatures to occupy, nor are the bodily forms of those creatures independently sustained in and through the processual unfolding of a total field of relations that cuts across the emergent interface between organism and environment. (156)

The notion of a “processual unfolding of a total field of relations” suggests the ways that the inhabitants of a landscape, both human and nonhuman, play a role in constructing the forms of a given landscape. Landscape is about processes and relations which shape that landscape.

It doesn’t really matter to me that Ingold prefers the term “landscape” over nature or environment or land or space, but I would rather avoid it, for several reasons. I recall that, years ago, reading about landscape in course I was taking on the sublime at York University, I read an essay that argued that landscape is a visual and aesthetic term, typically modified by adjectives like “sublime” or “picturesque.” Ingold’s ekphrastic recourse to Pieter Brughel the Elder’s 1565 painting The Harvesters in the fourth section of his essay suggests, ironically, the connection between the term “landscape” and aesthetic representation. I prefer to use the term “land,” partly because that’s the term I’ve heard Indigenous people use to describe their relation to the territory where they live and work. I don’t accept Ingold’s argument that the word “land” is necessarily “quantitative and homogenous” (154); there’s no reason to assume that it cannot be “qualitative and heterogenous,” terms he applies to “landscape” (154). I understand why he avoids “nature,” a term that is a cultural category, an imagined space free of human activity—a definition that has led to Indigenous people being forced off their land to make way for national parks in this country. 

The term “environment” leads Ingold to think about life-cycles, and he wonders whether it might not be possible “to identify a corresponding cycle, or rather a series of interlocking cycles, which build themselves into the forms of the landscape, and of which the landscape may accordingly be regarded as an environment” (157). Before he can answer that question, he suggests, it’s necessary to define temporality (157). I suppose that’s because the existence of such “interlocking cycles” suggests things happening in the landscape over time. Temporality is not chronology or history; it is not “a regular system of dated time intervals, in which events are said to have taken place” (chronology), nor “any series of events which may be dated in time according to their occurrence in one or another chronological interval” (history) (157). Rather, according to Ingold, “temporality entails a perspective that contrasts radically with the one . . . that sets up history and chronology in a relation of complementary opposition” (157). Temporality is about “time immanent in the passage of events,” events which encompass patterns of “retensions from the past and protentions for the future” (157). I remember a course I took at the University of Ottawa about the connection between temporality and literary texts, and the idea that the present involves both memories of the past and anticipations of the future, an idea derived from Heidegger, has stayed with me. History and chronology, unlike temporality, treat events “as isolated happenings, succeeding one another frame by frame,” events which are “strung out in time like beads on a thread” (157). However, “temporality and historicity are not opposed but rather merge in the experience of those who, in their activities, carry forward the process of social life,” Ingold contends. “Taken together, these activities make up what I shall call the ‘taskscape’” (157). 

The taskscape is inherently temporal, and Ingold sets out to distinguish task from labour as a way of clarifying what he means by taskscape. The distinction is not unlike the one he drew between land and landscape; “labour is quantitative and homogenous, human work shorn of its particularities,” whereas tasks are “the practices of work in their concrete particulars” (158). Tasks are, he continues, “any practical operation, carried out by a skilled agent in an environment, as part of his or her normal business of life. In other words, tasks are the constitutive acts of dwelling” (158). Tasks are not, however, individualized, or suspended in a vacuum, any more than features in a landscape are: “Every task takes its meaning from its position within an ensemble of tasks, performed in series or in parallel, and usually by many people working together” (158). The taskscape, then, is inherently “qualitative and heterogenous,” as well as social (158-59). Participants in the taskscape perceive its temporality as they perform their tasks, Ingold argues. “The notion that we can stand aside and observe the passage of time is founded upon an illusion of disembodiment” (159). The taskscape, then, must be embodied, but that embodiment involves both past and present—in other words, it is temporal:

Reaching out into the taskscape, I perceive, at this moment, a particular vista of past and future; but it is a vista that is available from this moment and no other. As such, it constitutes my present, conferring upon it a unique character. Thus the present is not marked off from a past that it has replaced or a future that will, in turn, replace it; it rather gathers the past and future into itself, like refractions in a crystal ball. (159)  

“The temporality of the taskscape is social, then,” Ingold continues, “not because society provides an external frame against which particular tasks find independent measure, but because people, in the performance of their tasks, also attend to one another” (159-60).

For Ingold, “music mirrors the temporal form of the taskscape”: orchestral musicians play their instruments, attend to the conductor, and listen to the other players, all at the same time. These activities are inseparable parts of the same action (160). And music, he continues, is simpler than social life, in which “there is not just one rhythmic cycle, but a complex interweaving of very many concurrent cycles” (160). Therefore, “the forms of the taskscape, like those of music, come into being through movement” (160). Just like music, which only exists as it is being performed, the taskscape only exists “so long as people are actually engaged in the activities of dwelling” (160). But if landscape and taskscape are not to be opposed, the way nature is to culture, how are they related? How can we distinguish between them?

To answer these questions, Ingold turns to another art form: painting. Painting, he claims, is the “most natural medium for representing the forms of the landscape” (161). The work of creating a painting is subordinated to the final product, the painting itself, because (at least in Western cultures) painting is not performed; therefore, the painting itself becomes the only object of contemplation, with the labour of creating the painting hidden (161). For Ingold, a painting, like a landscape, is not given to us, “ready-made”: the landscape, he argues, is a living process, making and being made by human activity:

the landscape takes on its forms through a process of incorporation, not of inscription. That is to say, the process is not one whereby cultural design is imposed upon a naturally given substrate, as though the movement issued from the form and was completed in its concrete realization in the material. For the forms of the landscape arise alongside those of the taskscape, within the same current of activity. If we recognize a man’s gait in the pattern of his footprints, it is not because the gait preceded the footprints and was “inscribed” in them, but because both the gait and the prints arose within the movement of the man’s walking. (162)

Because “the activities that comprise the taskscape are unending, the landscape is never complete: neither ‘built’ nor ‘unbuilt,’ it is perpetually under construction” (162). This notion of the landscape as a work-in-progress is the reason why the “conventional dichotomy between natural and artificial (or ‘man-made’) components of the landscape is so problematic”:

Virtually by definition, an artefact is an object shaped to a pre-conceived image that motivated its construction, and it is “finished” at the point when it is brought into conformity with this image. . . . But the forms of the landscape are not pre-prepared for people to live in—not by nature nor by human hands—for it is in the very process of dwelling that these forms are constituted. (162)

This claim is interesting, but surely we can distinguish between, say, biological components of a landscape (in this province, the presence of a grassland or a forest) or geological components of a landscape (hills, valleys, glacial erratics, different soil types) and components that are clearly the result of human activity (from tipi rings and medicine wheels to fences and buildings and pumpjacks and cell towers). That doesn’t mean I’m not aware of the way that biological components of a landscape are shaped by human activity—by the use of fire by Indigenous people, for example, to clear undergrowth in a forest or to renew a grassland—but it seems to me, particularly as human activity (suggested by the word Anthropocene) is destroying the biological components of the landscape, such as birds or grasslands, that we live alongside, we need to see the difference between our activity and the activity (or even work) of the nonhuman world.

The taskscape, Ingold continues, “exists not just as activity but as interactivity,” because it “must be populated with beings who are themselves agents, and who reciprocally ‘act back’ in the process of their own dwelling” (163). This interactivity involves both humans and animals (163). It also involves what we might consider inanimate forces, because we resonate to cycles of tides, of light and dark, of vegetative growth and decay, and of seasons, resonances which are embodied, “in the sense that they are not only historically incorporated into the enduring features of the landscape but also developmentally incorporated into our very constitution as biological organisms” (163). “It would seem, then,” Ingold writes, “that the pattern of resonances that comprises the temporality of the taskscape must be expanded to embrace the totality of rhythmic phenomena, whether animate or inanimate” (163-64). If we think of the world “as a total movement of becoming which builds itself into the forms we see, and in which each form takes shape in continuous relation to those around it,” he continues, “then the distinction between the animate and the inanimate seems to dissolve,” and the world takes on the characteristics of an organism itself (164). “This means that in dwelling in the world, we do not act upon it, or do things to it,” Ingold contends; “rather we move along with it. Our actions do not transform the world, they are part and parcel of the world’s transforming itself. And that is just another way of saying that they belong in time” (164). Again, I’m not sure how, in a context where human activity is reshaping the planet—by, among other things, driving at least a million other species to extinction—that anyone could argue we aren’t doing things to the world. We are changing its climate, for instance. Okay, I can see how Ingold is arguing that our activity is not separate from the activity of other species, but really, our effect on the planet is so outsized, compared to other species, that it is different—if not in kind, then in impact. I mean, isn’t there a big difference between a tipi ring and a tar sands tailings pond?

“[I]n the final analysis,” Ingold writes, “everything is suspended in movement”: “What appear to use as the fixed forms of the landscape, passive and unchanging unless acted upon from outside, are themselves in motion, albeit on a scale immeasurably slower and more majestic than that on which our own activities are constructed” (164). This is a point of contact between Ingold and Massey; both emphasize the importance of geological time, glacial activity, continental drift, and erosion. “[T]he rhythmic pattern of human activities nests within the wider pattern of activity for all animal life,” Ingold continues, “which in turn nests within the pattern of activity for all so-called living things, which nests within the life-processes of the world” (164). If we place “the tasks of human dwelling in their proper context within the process of becoming of the world as a whole,” he suggests, “we can do away with the dichotomy between taskscape and landscape—only, however, by recognizing the fundamental temporality of the landscape itself” (164). This statement may be the reason Massey cited this article, given her insistence on the temporality of space. It would be interesting, though, to see how she would respond to Ingold’s choice of “landscape” over “space.” 

Having defined landscape and taskspace, and having used the notion of temporality to construct a relation between them, Ingold now moves on to his conclusion, an ekphrastic discussion of Brueghel’s The Harvesters. He invites his readers to imagine themselves in the landscape depicted in the painting, watching and listening to the scene unfolding (164-66). This section of the essay is odd, but there are parts that I find useful. For instance, Ingold argues that the division between hill and valley is “not spatial or altitudinal but kinaesthetic”:

It is the movements of falling away from, and rising up towards, that specify the form of the hill; and the movements of falling away towards, and rising up from, that specify the form of the valley. Through the exercises of descending and climbing, and their different muscular entailments, the contours of the landscape are not so much measured as felt—they are directly incorporated into our bodily experience. (166)

This is one of the arguments I would make about walking as a way of perceiving the land: it is a kinaesthetic perception, through the activity of our muscles and joints as we climb and descend, as we experience “the contours of the landscape” with our bodies. But even standing still, the same principle applies: our eyes move, or we tilt our heads in accord with our attention, as we follow its course through the landscape (166). He notes that we move through the landscape (typically) on paths and tracks, which are “the accumulated imprint of countless journeys that people have made . . . as they have gone about their everyday business,” imprints that reflect their “muscular consciousness,” as Gaston Bachelard would have it (there’s another book to read: The Poetics of Space). “In this network is sedimented the activity of an entire community, over many generations,” Ingold writes. “It is the taskscape made visible” (167). I wonder if my friend Matthew Anderson, who is so interested in historical paths in Saskatchewan, has read this article; he might find the notion that paths and trails are “the taskscape made visible” very suggestive. Ingold discusses the tree in the painting, and the field of wheat the harvesters are reaping, and the church in the background. Both the church and the tree are what Mikhail Bakhtin would call “chronotopes,” he suggests: places charged with temporality, where temporality “takes on palpable form” (169). Both the tree and the church are also subject to temporality through change: the tree grows, while the church is subject to processes of weathering and decomposition, of maintenance and repair (169-70). That is an example, I suppose, of the similarities (if not the lack of a distinction between) the natural and artificial in the landscape.

For Ingold, the landscape “is not a totality that you or anyone else can look at, it is rather the world in which we stand in taking up a point of view on our surroundings. And it is within the context of this attentive involvement in the landscape that the human imagination gets to work in fashioning ideas about it” (171). “Meaning,” he concludes,

is there to be discovered in the landscape, if only we know how to attend to it. Every feature, then, is a potential clue, a key to meaning rather than a vehicle for carrying it. This discovery procedure, wherein objects in the landscape become clues to meaning, is what distinguishes the perspective of dwelling. (172)

Since dwelling “is fundamentally temporal, the apprehension of the landscape in the dwelling perspective must begin from a recognition of its temporality,” he continues: 

Only through such recognition, by temporalizing the landscape, can we move beyond the division that has afflicted most inquiries up to now, between the ‘scientific’ study of an atemporalized nature, and the ‘humanistic’ study of a dematerialized history.  (172)

“And no discipline is better placed to take this step than archaeology,” which is, he concludes, the study of “the temporality of the landscape” (172).

As I said at the outset, I’m not interested in creating connections between archaeology and anthropology, and I wonder if archaeologists would accept Ingold’s definition of their field of inquiry as “the temporality of the landscape.” Nevertheless, “The Temporality of the Landscape” was worth reading, even though I disagree with aspects of its argument. I particularly like the phenomenological emphasis on attending to the land, and to one’s embodied experience of land by walking in it. I also like the way that Ingold arrives at the notion that the land is spatial and temporal, although he gets there through a very different intellectual trajectory than Massey. Who knows? I might end up returning to this essay in future writing about walking and about attending to the land. 

Works Cited

Heidegger, Martin. “Building Dwelling Thinking.” Poetry, Language, Thought.  Translated by Albert Hofstader, Harper, 2013, pp. 141-60.

Ingold, Tim. “The Temporality of the Landscape.” World Archaeology, vol. 25, no. 2, 1993, pp. 152-74.

Massey, Doreen. For Space. Sage, 2005.

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

47. Doreen Massey, For Space

for space

I’ve meant to read Doreen Massey’s 2005 book For Space for quite some time now. My friend Rachelle Viader Knowles, who teaches at Coventry University, has told me that For Space was very influential on her PhD work. Also, while I’m very interested in the distinction Yi-Fu Tuan makes between space and place, I’m also aware that any such binary opposition is begging to be deconstructed, and from the title of Massey’s book, I thought that might be part of her project. If I’m going to think about space and place, I thought, I’m going to need to be aware of critiques of that opposition, and if that’s what Massey’s up to, then I would have to read her book.

Massey isn’t primarily interested in distinctions between space and place, but that doesn’t mean that her book isn’t important for my research. (Also, I had better point out at the very beginning that For Space is a complex book, and because I’m trying to follow the turns of Massey’s argument in detail, this post is going to be rather long.) Massey begins by saying that she’s been thinking about space for a long time, but in an indirect way, “through some other kind of engagement,” including “the politics of space” and “[t]he battles over globalisation,” “the engagements with ‘nature’ as I walk the hills,” and “the complexities of cities” (1)—all themes she returns to later in For Space. “It is through these persistent ruminations—that sometimes don’t seem to go anywhere and then sometimes do—that I have become convinced both that the implicit assumptions we make about space are important and that, maybe, it could be productive to think about space differen[t]ly” (1). That is precisely what For Space does: it takes on our “implicit assumptions” about space and thinks about space in a different way.

One of Massey’s primary concerns is the way we imagine space, the way we think about it. She begins with the story of the encounter between Hernán Cortés and Moctezuma, when the Spanish met the Aztecs at their capital, Tenochtitlán, a story that stands in, metonymically, for the history of European exploration and colonization of the globe, a story that depended on a particular conception of space as a surface, “continuous and given,” a way of thinking about space that “differentiates”: “Hernán, active, a maker of history, journeys across this surface and finds Tenochtitlán upon it” (4). This “unthought cosmology,” Massey writes, “carries with it social and political effects” (4):

So easily this way of imagining space can lead us to conceive of other places, peoples, cultures simply as phenomena “on” this surface. It is not an innocent manoeuvre, for by this means they are deprived of histories. Immobilised, they await Cortés’ (or our, or global capital’s) arrival. They lie there, on space, without their own trajectories. Such a space makes it more difficult to see in our mind’s eye the histories the Aztecs too have been living and producing. What might it mean to reorientate this imagination, to question that habit of thinking of space as a surface? If, instead, we conceive of a meeting-up of histories, what happens to our implicit imaginations of time and space? (4)

A related phenomenon is “the story of the inevitability of globalisation,” by which its proponents mean “the inevitability of that particular form of neoliberal capitalist globalisation that we are experiencing at the moment—that duplicitous combination of the glorification of the (unequally) free movement of capital on the one hand with the firm control over the movement of labour on the other,” which leads to the claim that other countries are “behind” wealthy nations and will eventually follow on the same path (4-5). This “proposition,” Massey argues, “turns geography into history, space into time,” a shift that, again, has political and social effects: other countries are imagined as if they do not have “their own trajectories, their own particular histories, and the potential for their own, perhaps different, futures. They are not recognised as coeval others. They are merely at an earlier stage in the one and only narrative it is possible to tell” (5). That “cosmology of ‘only one narrative,’” Massey writes, “obliterates the multiplicities, the contemporaneous heterogeneities of space. It reduces simultaneous existence to place in the historical queue” (5). “What if,” she asks, “we refuse to convene space into time? What if we open up the imagination of the single narrative to give space (literally) for a multiplicity of trajectories? What kinds of conceptualisation of time and space, and of their relation, might that give on to?” (5)

Then Massey turns to place. “In the context of a world which is, indeed, increasingly interconnected the notion of place (usually evoked as ‘local place’) has come to have totemic resonances,” she writes:

Its symbolic value is endlessly mobilised in political argument. For some it is the sphere of the everyday, of real and valued practices, the geographical source of meaning, vital to hold on to as “the global” spins its ever more powerful and alienating webs. For others, a “retreat to place” represents a protective pulling-up of drawbridges and a building of walls against the new invasions. Place, on this reading, is the locus of denial, of attempted withdrawal from invasion/difference. It is a politically conservative haven, an essentialising (and in the end unviable) basis for a response; one that fails to address the real forces at work. (5-6)

Place is, or at least it can be, about “nationalisms and territorial parochialisms characterised by claims to local specificity and by a hostility to at least some designated others” (6). Place, in contemporary terms, is the motivating force for Brexit, or for Trump’s desired border wall. And yet, is it always “a politically conservative haven”? “[W]hat of the defence of place by working-class communities in the teeth of globalisation,” she asks, “or by aboriginal groups clinging to a last bit of land?” (6). Place is ambiguous: “Horror at local exclusivities sits uneasily against support for the vulnerable struggling to defend their patch” (6). Nevertheless, there are “often shared undergirding assumptions” of place:

as closed, coherent, integrated as authentic, as “home,” a secure retreat; of space as somehow originarily regionalised, as always-already divided up. And more than that again, they institute, implicitly but held within the very discourses that they mobilise, a counterposition, sometimes even a hostility, certainly an implicit imagination of different theoretical “levels” (of the abstract versus the everyday, and so forth) between space on the one hand and place on the other. (6)

Again, Massey offers a number of questions in response to these distinctions between space and place:

What if we refuse this imagination? What then not only of the nationalisms and parochialisms which we might gladly see thereby undermined, but also of the notion of local struggles or of the defence of place more generally? And what if we refuse that distinction, all too appealing it seems, between place (as meaningful, lived and everyday) and space (as what? the outside? the abstract? the meaningless)? (6)

What, indeed, would happen if we abandoned the distinction between place as meaningful and space as abstract? That is Tuan’s distinction: how else could one assert the difference between locations one knows and that have meaning, and locations one does not know or understand? 

“The imagination of space as a surface on which we are placed, the turning of space into time, the sharp separation of local place from the space out there; these are all ways of taming the challenge that the inherent spatiality of the world presents,” Massey writes (7). But, she continues, these ways of thinking about space are typically unthought or implicit (7). “One of the recurring motifs in what follows is just how little, actually, space is thought about explicitly,” she suggests (7). Nevertheless, “these implicit engagements of space feed back into and sustain wider understandings of the world”:

The trajectories of others can be immobilised while we proceed with our own; the real challenge of the contemporaneity of others can be deflected by their relegation to a past (backward, old-fashioned, archaic); the defensive enclosures of an essentialised place seem to enable a wider disengagement, and to provide a secure foundation. (8)

All of these, for Massey, are examples of failures, intentional or otherwise, of “spatial imagination” (8). They are “inadequate to the challenges of space,” incapable of understanding “its coeval multiplicities,” accepting “its radical contemporaneity,” or dealing with “its constitutive complexity” (8). This statement leads to Massey’s big question, which ends her introduction: “What happens if we try to let go of those, by now almost intuitive, understandings?” (8)

Massey’s next chapter lists three propositions regarding space, all of which follow from the questions she asks in her introduction. First, she suggests “that we recognise space as the product of interrelations: as constituted through interactions, from the immensity of the global to the intimately tiny” (9). Second, we need to understand space 

as the sphere of the possibility of the existence of multiplicity in the sense of contemporaneous plurality; as the sphere in which distinct trajectories coexist; as the sphere therefore of coexisting heterogeneity. Without space, no multiplicity; without multiplicity, no space. If space is indeed the product of interrelations, then it must be predicated upon the existence of plurality. (9)

Third, she suggests “that we recognise space as always under construction”:

Precisely because space on this reading is a product of relations-between, relations which are necessarily embedded material practices which have to be carried out, it is always in the process of being made. It is never finished; never closed. Perhaps we could imagine space as a simultaneity of stories-so-far. (9)

For Massey, these propositions regarding space are important: 

thinking the spatial in a particular way can shake up the manner in which certain political questions are formulated, can contribute to political arguments already under way and—most deeply—can be an essential element in the imaginative structure which enables in the first place an opening up to the very sphere of the political. (9)

The “imagination of the spatial and the imagination of the political” are therefore directly connected (9-10). 

Politics, Massey writes, is “the (ever-contested) question of our being-together” (142). The claim that the spatial and the political are interrelated is an important part of Massey’s argument, and it is therefore worth unpacking. First, she argues that “understanding space as a product of interrelations chimes well with the emergence over recent years of a politics which attempts a commitment to anti-essentialism,” a politics which “takes the constitution of identities themselves and the relations through which they are constructed to be one of the central stakes of the political” (10). “Rather than accepting and working with already-constituted entities/identities,” Massey continues,

this politics lays its stress upon the relational constructedness of things (including things called political subjectivities and political constituencies). It is wary therefore about claims to authenticity based on notions of unchanging identity. Instead, it proposes a relational understanding of the world, and a politics which responds to that. (10)

Such a “politics of interrelations” mirrors Massey’s first proposition, the claim that space “is a product of interrelations”: “Space does not exist prior to identities/entities and their relations”—in fact, “identities/entities, the relations ‘between’ them, and the spatiality which is part of them, are all co-constitutive” (10). There is no simple cause and effect; all three of these things helps to create the others. However, for Massey space is the privileged term: “spatiality may also be from the beginning integral to the constitution of those identities themselves, including political subjectivities,” she contends, and “specifically spatial identities (places, nations) can equally be reconceptualised in relational terms” (10). Questions of these relations, and the ways they are negotiated, are returned to throughout For Space.

Second, Massey argues that “imagining space as the sphere of the possibility of the existence of multiplicity resonates with the greater emphasis which has over recent years in political discourses of the left been laid on ‘difference’ and heterogeneity” (10). This point is related to her second proposition about space: “the very possibility of any serious recognition of multiplicity and heterogeneity itself depends on a recognition of spatiality,” she suggests. “The political corollary is that a genuine, thorough, spatialisation of social theory and political thinking can force into the imagination a fuller recognition of the simultaneous coexistence of others with their own trajectories and their own stories to tell” (11). As with her first argument, this one recurs throughout For Space as well, and it is one of her primary concerns.

Third, Massey contends that “imagining space as always in process, as never a closed system, resonates with an increasingly vocal insistence within political discourses on the genuine openness of the future. It is an insistence founded in an attempt to escape the inexorability which so frequently characterises the grand narratives related by modernity” (11). Indeed, for Massey the existence of future possibilities is the basis of political activity: “only if we conceive of the future as open can we seriously accept or engage in any genuine notion of politics. Only if the future is open is there any ground for a politics which can make a difference” (11). Once again, she sees a parallel between this point and the way she conceives of space: “Not only history but also space is open” (11). Space, she writes, “is neither a container for always-already constituted identities nor a completed closure of holism. This is a space of loose ends and missing links. For the future to be open, space must be open too” (12).

Massey then pauses to register a concern about the connotations of her words; she in effect stops to define her particular use of vocabulary in the book. Her use of the terms “trajectory” and “story,” for instance, is intended to emphasize the process of change—both temporal and spatial—in a phenomenon (12). The terms “difference,” “heterogeneity,” “multiplicity,” and “plurality” are all meant to suggest “the contemporaneous existence of a plurality of trajectories; a simultaneity of stories-so-far” (12). The fact of such heterogeneities is “intrinsic to space,” Massey argues. “Romances of coherent nationhood . . . may operate on precisely such principles of constituting identity/difference,” and “such attempts at the purification of space. . . . are precisely one way of coping with its heterogeneities—its actual complexity and openness” (12). But Massey is interested in positive heterogeneity rather than negative difference, in heterogeneity as a positive alternative to essentialist arguments. That positive heterogeneity will enable one to grasp the “liveliness, the complexity and openness of the configurational itself, the positive multiplicity, which is important for an appreciation of the spatial” (12-13).

“What I’m interested in,” Massey writes, “is how we might imagine spaces for these times; how we might pursue an alternative imagination”:

What is needed, I think, is to uproot “space” from that constellation of concepts in which it has so unquestioningly so often been embedded (stasis; closure; representation) and to settle it among another set of ideas (heterogeneity; relationality; coevalness . . . liveliness indeed) where it released a more challenging political landscape. (13)

“This is a book about ordinary space,” she continues:

the space and places through which, in the negotiation of relations within multiplicities, the social is constructed. It is in that sense a modest proposal, and yet the very persistence, the apparent obviousness, of other mobilisations of “space,” point to its continuing necessity. (13)

Space, she writes, is just as lively and challenging as time, which has tended to occupy the imaginations of philosophers; space is neither dead nor fixed, and “the very enormity of its challenges has meant that the strategies for taming it have been many, varied and persistent” (14). Note Massey’s inclusion of place in this statement of her interests; she wants to consider “the real problems of thinking about, and still more of appreciating, place” (14).

The next section of For Space engages with the way our definition of space is derived from philosophy; in particular, the work of Henri Bergson; the structuralists; and the deconstructionists (primarily Jacques Derrida). Throughout this section, Massey argues that “time and space must be thought together”: “the imagination of one will have repercussions (not always followed through) for the imagination of the other,” and since “space and time are implicated in each other,” thinking them together “opens up some problems which have heretofore seemed (logically, intractably) insoluble” (18). Thinking space and time together also “has reverberations for thinking about politics and the spatial” (18). Although time and space are typically considered in opposition to each other, Massey continues, “[t]he counterpositional labelling of phenomena as temporal or spatial, and entailing all the baggage of the reduction of space to the a-political sphere of causal closure or the reactionary redoubts of established power, continues to this day” (18). Thinking about space will have effects on the way other things are thought about in philosophy:

the excavation of these problematical conceptualisations of space (as static, closed, immobile, as the opposite of time) brings to light other sets of connections, to science, writing and representation, to issues of subjectivity and its conception, in all of which implicit imaginations of space have played an important role. And these entwinings are in turn related to the fact that space has so often been excluded from, or inadequately conceptualised in relation to, and has thereby debilitated our conceptions of, politics and the political. (18-19)

Her goal, she writes, is “to liberate ‘space’ from some chains of meaning (which embed it with closure and stasis, or with science, writing and representation) and which have all but choked it to death, in order to set it into other chains (in this chapter alongside openness, and heterogeneity, and liveliness) where it can have a new and more productive life” (19).

Massey then turns to the idea that there is an association, in philosophy, between “the spatial and the fixation of meaning,” or between spatiality and representation” (20). She is interested in philosophers who imply “another understanding of what space might be,” although “none of them pause very long either explicitly to develop this alternative or to explore the curious fact that this other (and more mobile, flexible, open, lively) view of space stands in such flat opposition to their equally certain association of representation with space” (20). One of those philosophers is Henri Bergson, whose concern was with temporality and duration, the experience of time and ways to resist “the evisceration of its internal continuity, flow and movement” (20). Bergson makes a distinction—as does Gilles Deleuze—“between discrete difference/multiplicity (which refers to extended magnitudes and distinct entities, the realm of diversity) and continuous difference/multiplicity (which refers to intensities, and to evolution rather than succession” (21). These terms are important, because they inform much of Massey’s argument, and she returns to them again and again. Discrete difference/multiplicity, she continues, “is divided up, a dimension of separation,” whereas continuous difference/multiplicity “is a continuum, a multiplicity of fusion” (21). Bergson and Deleuze, she writes, are trying “to instate the significance, indeed the philosophical primacy, of the second (continuous) form of difference over the first (the discrete) form” (21). At stake is “the genuine openness of history, of the future,” which is also central to Massey’s argument.

However, Bergson was interested in time rather than space; in fact, he devalued and subordinated space, in part by associating it with representation, which deprived space of dynamism and counterposed it radically to time (21). In his argument, space comes to be associated negatively against time, as a lack of movement and duration (22). But Massey asks why space must lack duration: “A dynamic simultaneity would be a conception quite different from a frozen instant” (23). Eventually, she continues, Bergson came to recognize “duration in external things,” and “thus the interpenetration, though not the equivalence, of space and time” (24). That notion is, she writes, “what I am calling space as the dimension of multiple trajectories, a simultaneity of stories-so-far. Space is the dimension of a multiplicity of durations” (24). The problem, however, is that “the old chain of meaning—space-representation-stasis—continues to wield its power” (24). Ernesto Laclau and Michel de Certeau both see space in this way, as representation and therefore stasis and ideological closure (24-25). “It is a remarkably pervasive and unquestioned assumption, and it does indeed have an intuitive obviousness,” Massey writes. “But as already indicated perhaps this equation of representation and spatialisation is not something which should be taken for granted” (26). Indeed, her purpose in this book is “to build an argument which will come to a very different conclusion” (26).

There are two propositions in this claim about space, Massey suggests: “first, the argument that representation necessarily fixes, and therefore deadens and detracts from, the flow of life; and second, that the product of this process of deadening is space” (26). She doesn’t entirely disagree with the first proposition, but believes that the equivalence the second makes between space and representation is baseless” (26-27). Representation, she argues, does fix and stabilize, but what it fixes and stabilizes is both history and geography, or “space-time” (27). “It would be better to recognise that ‘society’ is both temporal and spatial, and to drop entirely that definition of representation as space,” she writes, because representation is both spatial and temporal (27). Moreover, while “it is easy to see how representation can be understood as a form of spatialisation”—her example is a map—that map, as a representation of space, is not the territory itself, because “a territory is integrally spatio-temporal” (27-28). Here I found myself recalling Jorge Luis Borges’s story, “On Exactitude in Science,” about an empire whose cartographers made a life-sized map of the empire’s territory, which was, of course, useless: its “Tattered Ruins” are now “inhabited by Animals and Beggars,” and “in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography” (Borges).

The argument that space is representation has two consequences, according to Massey. First, there is a crisis of representation, since representation is constitutive rather than mimetic; and second, “that space itself, the space of the world, far from being equivalent to representation, must be unrepresentable in that latter, mimetic sense” (28). She notes that in the work of Deleuze and Felix Guattari, there is no “tripartite division between reality, representation and subjectivity”:

Here what we might have called representation is no longer a process of fixing, but an element in a continuous production; a part of it all, and itself constantly becoming. This is a position which rejects a strict separation between world and text and which understands scientific activity as being just that—an activity, a practice, an embedded engagement in the world of which it is a part. Not representation but experimentation. (28)

“As the text has been destabilised in literary theory so space might be destabilised in geography (and indeed in wider social theory),” Massey suggests (28-29). However, the issue is complex:

if scientific/intellectual activity is indeed to be understood as an active and productive engagement in/of the world it is none the less a particular kind of practice, a specific form of engagement/production in which it is hard to deny (to absolve ourselves from the responsibility for?) any element of representation . . . even if it is, quite certainly, productive and experimental rather than simply mimetic, and an embodied knowledge rather than a mediation. It does not, however, have to be conceived of as producing a space, nor its characteristics carried over to inflect our implicit imaginations of space. For to do so is to rob space of those characteristics of freedom (Bergson), dislocation (Laclau), and surprise (de Certeau) which are essential to open it up to the political.” (29)

The problem is that space is in general perceived as “somehow a lesser dimension than time: one with less gravitas and magnificence, it is the material/phenomenal rather than the abstract; it is being rather than becoming and so forth; and it is feminine rather than masculine” (29). Space, in other words, is the “subordinated category,” defined by its lack of temporality and therefore of secondary importance (29).

That is the binary opposition that Massey’s critique of philosophy sets out to deconstruct: space versus time. She points out that space is often seen as conquering time:

the supposedly weaker term of a dualism obliterates the positive characteristics of the stronger one, the privileged signifier. And it does this through the conflation of the spatial with representation. Space conquers time by being set up as the representation of history/life/the real world. On this reading space is an order imposed upon the inherent life of the real. (Spatial) order obliterates (temporal) dislocation. Spatial immobility quietens temporal becoming. (30)

The result, Massey writes, is “the most dismal of pyrrhic victories. For in the very moment of its conquering triumph ‘space’ is reduced to stasis. The very life, and certainly the politics, are taken out of it (30). Her ambition is to return the life and the politics to the concept of space.

Next, Massey takes a look at the way the structuralists imagined space. “Through many twentieth-century debates in philosophy and social theory runs the idea that spatial framing is a way of containing the temporal,” she writes. “For a moment, you hold the world still. And in this moment you can analyse the structure” (36):

You hold the world still in order to look at it in cross-section. It seems a small, and perhaps even an intuitively obvious, gesture, yet it has a multitude of resonances and implications. It connects with ideas of structure and system, of distance and the all-seeing eye, of totality and completeness, of the relation between synchrony and space. And . . . the assumptions which may lie within it and the logics to which it can give rise run off in a whole range of problematical directions. (36)

Structuralism, which aimed to analyze structures, seemed to focus on space, rather than time, because it was in a struggle against historical narratives; it was “in part an attempt to escape precisely that convening of geography and history” (36). To effect that escape, structuralism “turned to the concepts of structure, space and synchrony. Instead of narrative, structure; instead of diachrony, synchrony; instead of time, space” (37). Nevertheless, structuralism “left a legacy of . . . taken-for-granted assumptions” about space, Massey contends, “which have continued to this day to bedevil debate” (37).

Once again, concepts were mistranslated into notions of time and space, according to Massey. The structuralists equated their atemporal assumptions with space; if those structures weren’t temporal, they had to be spatial. Structure and process were thus understood as space and time, and space became the “absolute negation” of time (37). Chains of meaning were thereby established “between narrative/temporality/diachrony on the one hand and structure/spatiality/synchrony on the other” (37). But, Massey asks, are synchronic structures actually spatial?

The argument in some ways parallels that about representation. The “synchronic structures” of the structuralists were analytical schema devised for understanding a society, myth, or language. Structuralism goes further, then, than simply “holding the world still.” . . . Moreover, the (implicit) reason that these analytical structures were dubbed spatial is precisely that they are established as a-temporal, as the opposite of temporality, and therefore without time, and therefore without space. It is, primarily, a negative definition. In the logic of this reasoning space is assumed to be both the opposite of time and without temporality. Once again . . . space is rendered as the sphere of stasis and fixity. It is a conceptualisation of space which, once again, is really a residualisation and derives from an assumption: that space is opposed to time and lacking in temporality. Thought of like this, “space” really would be the realm of closure and that in turn would render it the realm of the impossibility of the new and therefore of the political. (37-38)

Space becomes synonymous with “synchronic closure,” Massey continues, and “such structures rob the objects to which they refer of their inherent dynamism,” eliminating the possibility of real change (38). In addition,

the conceptual synchronies of structuralism are relations imagined in a highly particular way. Above all, they are characterised by relations between their constituent elements such that they for a completely interlocked system. They are closed systems. It is this aspect of the conceptualisation—in combination with a-temporality—which does the most damage. For the stasis of closed systems robs “relational construction” of the anti-essentialism to which it is often claimed to lead. And the closure itself robs “the spatial” . . . of one of its potentially disruptive characteristics: precisely its juxtaposition, its happenstance arrangement-in-relation-to-each-other, of previously unconnected narratives/temporalities; its openness and its condition of always being made. It is this crucial characteristic of “the spatial” which constitutes it as one of the vital moments in the production of those dislocations which are necessary to the existence of the political (and indeed the temporal). (39)

Many of structuralism’s “framing conceptualisations” continue to influence intellectual arguments today, Massey notes, although poststructuralism, she contends, has the potential to imbue those structures with temporality and crack them open “to reveal the existence of other voices” (42). Her examples are the writings of Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, and de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life. However, the work of these philosophers does not fully grasp the potential of a temporalized spatiality: “The broad conceptual thrust is to open up the structures of our imagination to temporality. . . . Yet in the midst of this invigorating concern with time neither author engages in any fundamental critique of the associated terminologies, and concepts, of space” (47). 

Nevertheless, the writing of Laclau and Mouffe, and de Certeau, does point towards “the interconnectedness of conceptualisations of space and conceptualisations of time,” Massey writes. “Imagining one in a particular way should, at least ‘logically,’ imply a particular way of thinking about the other,” because although they are not identical, “they are integral to each other” (47). “At a minimum,” Massey continues, “for time to be open, space must be in some sense open too. The non-recognition of the simultaneity of openended multiplicities that is the spatial can vitiate the project of opening up temporality” (48). “Levering space out of this immobilising chain of connotations both potentially contributes to the dislocations necessary for the existence of the political,” Massey concludes, “and opens space itself to more adequate political address” (48).

Not all poststructuralist writing suggests that the spatial is also the immobilized, but much of it does suggest that time is more valuable, rich, and dialectical than space (49). Nevertheless, Massey argues, space is temporalized in deconstruction, in theory if not always in practice, and poststructuralism “could very easily be spatial” (49-50). Nevertheless, there is “a residual but persistent ‘horizontality’” about deconstruction “which makes it difficult for it to handle . . . a spatiality which is fully integral within space-time” (50). That “emphasis on horizontality can be interpreted as . . . a turn towards spatiality and a spatiality, what’s more, which is open and differentiated” (50-51). However, Massey sees in deconstruction “too much emphasis on the purely horizontal and too little recognition of the multiple trajectories of which that ‘horizontality’ is the momentary, passing, result” (51). In addition, Derrida’s way of conceiving heterogeneity suggests “internal disruption and incoherence rather than . . . positive multiplicity,” which is both politically disabling and a problem for a rethinking of the spatial” (51). For Massey, deconstruction “is not enough to achieve that necessary transcribing of space from the chain stasis/representation/closure into an association with openness/unrepresentability/external multiplicity” (54). 

The purpose of this review of various philosophical definitions of space, Massey writes, is “to point to the problematic repercussions of some associations and to emphasise the potential of alternative views. The hope is to contribute to a process of liberating space from its old chain of meaning and to associate it with a different one in which it might have, in particular, more political potential” (55). I haven’t read Bergson, and its been years since I tackled either the structuralists or Derrida, so I can’t speak to the accuracy of Massey’s discussions of their work. I find myself having to take her response to these philosophers on faith. When she moves to her own arguments about space, however, I find myself on somewhat firmer ground; at least, I can follow her argument without wondering if I should stop and go and read Bergson or Derrida instead. According to Massey, her argument is that space is “an open ongoing production”:

As well as injecting temporality into the spatial this also reinvigorates its aspect of discrete multiplicity; for while the closed system is the foundation for the singular universal, opening that up makes room for a genuine multiplicity of trajectories, and thus potentially of voices. It also posits a positive discrete multiplicity against an imagination of space as the product of negative spacing, through the abjection of the other. (55)

“[N]either time nor space is reducible to the other; they are distinct,” she continues. “They are, however, co-implicated. On the side of space, there is the integral temporality of a dynamic simultaneity. On the side of time, there is the necessary production of change through practices of interrelation” (55). This co-implication is no doubt the reason she sometimes refers to “space-time.” “Conceptualising space as open, multiple and relational, unfinished and always becoming, is a prerequisite for history to be open and thus a prerequisite, too, for the possibility of politics,” she contends. (Yes, her argument, at least they way I am presenting it, is repetitive; but I would argue that it becomes more clear through repetition, or at least that was my experience of it.) “If time unfolds as change then space unfolds as interaction,” Massey argues. For that reason, she describes space as “the social dimension,” as well as “the sphere of the continuous production and reconfiguration of heterogeneity in all its forms—diversity, subordination, conflicting interests” (61). Massey’s goal, she continues, is to develop “a relational politics for a relational space” (61).

Next, Massey turns to the current interest in “the spatialisation of social theory,” using “the postcolonial concern to rework the sociological debates over the nature of modernity and its relation to globalisation” as an example (62). “The implications of spatialising/globalising the story of modernity are profound,” she writes. “The most obvious effect, which has been the main intent, is to rework modernity away from being the unfolding, internal story of Europe alone. The aim has been precisely to decentre Europe” (62-63). Along with the decentring of Europe’s trajectory, it needs to be recognized as only one of the histories being made at that time (63):

Once understood as more than the history of Europe’s own adventures, it is possible to appreciate how the previous way of telling the story (with Europe at its centre) was powered by the way in which the process was experienced within Europe; told through the experience of exploration outward from Europe; told from the point of view of Europe as the protagonist. Spatialising that story enables an understanding of its positionality, its geographical embeddedness; an understanding of the spatiality of the production of knowledge itself. (63)

Indeed, “retelling the story of modernity through spatialisation/globalisation exposed modernity’s preconditions in and effects of violence, racism and oppression” (63). Modernity established “a particular power/knowledge relation which was mirrored in a geography that was also a geography of power,” Massey continues. Postcolonial critique has exposed that geography and therefore has undermined that power/knowledge relation (64). Spatializing the story of modernity has not left its story the same (64). 

One of the outcomes of modernity was “a particular hegemonic understanding of the nature of space itself, and of the relation between space and society,” Massey writes. One characteristic of that understanding was a particular conception of place, in which cultures and nations and local communities were “all imagined as having an integral relation to bounded spaces, internally coherent and differentiated from each other by separation” (64). Those bounded spaces became identified as places, and place came to be defined as bounded space, with its own “internally generated authenticities” which were “defined by their difference form other places which lay outside, beyond their borders” (64). “It was,” Massey continues,

a way of imagining space—a geographical imagination—integral to what was to become a project for organising global space. It was through that imagination of space as (necessarily, by its very nature) divided/regionalised that the . . . project of the generalisation across the globe of the nation-state form could be legitimated as progress, as “natural.” And it continues to reverberate today. (64-65)

Today, this sense of place operates as an imaginary past, a nostalgia for something that never existed, and as a response to globalization “which consists of retreating into its supposed opposite: nationalisms and parochialisms and localisms of all sorts” (65).

The story about space that is told by this particular notion of place is “a way of taming the spatial,” Massey suggests, “a representation of space, a particular form of ordering and organising space which refused (refuses) to acknowledge its multiplicities, its fractures and its dynamism” (65). “It is a stabilisation of the inherent instabilities and creativities of space; a way of coming to terms with the great ‘out there.’ It is this concept of space which provides the basis for the supposed coherence, stability and authenticity to which there is such frequent appeal in discourses of parochialism and nationalism” (65). It is also the starting point for the conceptualization of space in the social sciences: “an imagination of space as already divided-up, of places which are already separated and bounded” (65). And that, Massey contends, is a big problem:

The modern, territorial, conceptualisation of space understands geographical difference as being constituted primarily through isolation and separation. Geographical variation is preconstituted. First the differences between places exist, and then those different places come into contact. (68)

This essentialist version of space

runs clearly against the injunction that space be thought of as an emergent product of relations, including those relations which establish boundaries, and where “place” in consequence is necessarily meeting place, where the “difference” of a place must be conceptualised more in the ineffable sense of the constant emergence of uniqueness out of (and within) the specific constellations of interrelations within which that place is set . . . and of what is made of that constellation. (68)

That latter version of place “as process, as the constant production of the new,” as “neither an essentialised emergence from an origin nor the product of a spacing in the sense of expulsion or attempted purifiation,” “indicates the dubiousness of that duality—so popular and so persistent—between space and place” (68). Here we see one aspect of Massey’s critique of the distinction between space and place; although I’m not sure that it is completely accurate, I am going to have to take it into account when I write about place.

There is, however, a version of place that Massey finds useful, one that recognizes spatiality’s inherent multiplicity and heterogeneity and coevalness:

“Recognising spatiality” involves (could involve) recognising coevalness, the existence of trajectories which have at least some degree of autonomy from each other (which are not simply alignable into one linear story). . . . On this reading, the spatial, crucially, is the realm of the configuration of potentially dissonant (or concordant) narratives. Places, rather than being locations of coherence, become the foci of the meeting and the nonmeeting of the previously unrelated and thus integral to the generation of novelty. The spatial in its role of bringing distinct temporalities into new configurations sets off new social processes. And in turn, this emphasises the nature of narratives, of time itself, as being not about the folding of some internalised story (some already-established identities)—the self-producing story of Europe—but about interaction and the process of the constitution of identities—the reformulated notion of (the multiplicities of) colonisation. (71)

There is a place for place in Massey’s theory, then: it could function as a meeting point for “previously unrelated” trajectories and narratives. 

However, Massey isn’t just disagreeing with human geographers who privilege place over space; she is also disagreeing with those who claim that we live in a world “which is purely spatial,” “a depthless horizontality of immediate connections” (76). That depthlessness is atemporal, which means that, in this way of thinking, history is unthinkable (76). “Just as time cannot adequately be conceptualised without a recognition of the (spatial) multiplicities through which it is generated,” Massey writes,

so space cannot adequately be imagined as the stasis of a depthless, totally interconnected, instantaneity. Any assumption of a closed instantaneity not only denies space this essential character of itself constantly becoming, it also denies time its own possibility of complexity/multiplicity. (76-77)

That assumption would also leave no opening for politics, because it posits a closed system composed, ironically, of apparently open connections (77). 

That idea of “depthless horizontality” is, for Massey, related to the notion of globalization as “a world of flows” (81)—at least, I think it is the theoretical enabling of globalization’s more concrete activities. Like modernity’s notion of progress, globalization presents itself as inevitable, another “grand narrative” with enormous implications, including the idea that everyone will eventually become the same (82). This “aspatial view of globalisation” occludes the potential differences in the trajectories of different spaces” (82). It tells “a tale with a single trajectory,” and the “openness of the future which is in part a consequence of the multiplicities of the spatial is reined in,” so that different spaces have no space in which to tell different stories or to follow another path (82). “The convening of contemporaneous geographical differences into temporal sequence, this turning it into a story of ‘catching up,’” Massey argues, “occludes present-day relations and practices and their relentless production, within current rounds of capitalist globalisation, of increasing inequality” (82). These tales of inevitability, she continues,

require dynamics which are beyond intervention. They need an external agent, a deus ex machina. The unquestioned motors of “globalisation’s” historicising of the world’s geographical inequalities are, in various mixtures, the economy and technology. By this means, a further political result is achieved: the removal of the economic and the technological from political consideration. The only political questions become ones concerning our subsequent adaptation to their inevitability. (82-83)

Neoliberal, capitalist globalization, led by transnational corporations, is taken to be the only possible form of globalization:

Objections to this particular globalisation are persistently met with the derisive riposte that “the world will inevitably become more interconnected.” Capitalist globalisation is equated with globalisation tout court, a discursive manoeuvre which at a stroke obscures the possibility of seeing alternative forms. (83)

This particular form of globalization is taken as inevitable—but Massey’s argument suggests that other forms are possible, if we were only free to imagine them (83).

This way of thinking enables the imposition of structural adjustment programs on the global South and the enforcement of export orientations on countries over local consumption; in the global North, it “becomes the basis for decisions precisely to implement it” because it is “represented as ineluctable—a force in the face of which we must adapt or be cast into oblivion” (83-84). Meanwhile, however, “some of the most powerful agencies in the world are utterly intent on its production” (84). “This vision of global space,” Massey writes,

is not so much a description of how the world is, as an image in which the world is being made. Just as in the case of modernity, here we have a powerful imaginative geography. It is a very different imagination: instead of space divided-up and bounded here is a vision of space as barrier-less and open. But both of them function as images in which the world is made. Both of them are imaginative geographies which legitimise their own production. (84)

“[T]he very fact that some are striving so hard” to make the world globalized “is evidence of the project’s incompletion,” Massey continues (84). But more than that:

There are multiple trajectories/temporalities here. Once again, as in the case of modernity, this is a geographical imagination which ignores the structured divides, the necessary ruptures and inequalities, the exclusions, on which the successful prosecution of the project itself depends A further effect of the temporal convening of spatial difference here again becomes evident. So long as inequality is read in terms of stages of advance and backwardness not only are alternative stories disallowed but also the fact of the production of poverty and polarisation within and through “globalisation” itself can be erased from view. (84)

Once again, Massey suggests, we see “a geographical imagination which ignores its own real spatiality” (84).

With its emphasis on free trade of goods and the mobility of capital, on the one hand, and on strict controls on immigration, on the other, globalization offers us “two apparently self-evident truths, a geography of borderlessness and mobility, and a geography of border discipline,” Massey suggests (86):

No matter that they contradict each other; because it works. And it “works” for a whole set of reasons. First, because each self-evident truth is presented separately. But second, because while neither imagination in its pure form is possible (neither a space hermetically closed into territories nor a space composed solely of flows) what is really needed politically is for this tension to be negotiated explicitly and in each specific situation. . . . Each “pure” imagination on its own tames the spatial. It is their negotiation which brings the question (rights of movement/rights of containment) into politics. The appeal to an imagination of pure boundedness or pure flow as self-evident foundation is neither possible in principle nor open to political debate. (86)

It is, she continues, a “double imaginary, in the very fact of its doubleness, of the freedom of space on the one hand and the ‘right to one’s own place’ on the other,” and it “works in favour of the already-powerful,” who can move anywhere they please while protecting their own homes, while “the poor and the unskilled from the so-called margins of this world are both instructed to open up their borders and welcome the West’s invasion in whatever form it comes, and told to stay where they are” (86-87).

None of this is news, of course. Nor is the argument, which is borne out in news stories about populism every day, that

the discourse of globalisation as free movement is fuelling the “archaic” (but not) sentiments of parochialism, nationalism and the exclusion of those who are different. 

Today’s hegemonic story of globalisation, then, relates a globalisation of a very particular form. And integral to its achievement is the mobilisation of powerful (inconsistent, falsely self-evident, never universalisable—but powerful) imaginations of space. (87)

What is new, however, is the suggestion that “powerful . . . imaginations of space” are behind globalization’s ideological hegemony. Globalization, Massey argues, “convenes spatial difference into temporal sequence, and thereby denies the possibility of multiple trajectories; the future is not held open” (87). Instead of openness,

[i]t installs an understanding of space, the “space of flows,” which, just like the space of places in modernity, is deployed (when needed) as a legitimation for its own production and which pretends to a universality which anyway in practice it systematically denies. For, in fact, in the context of and as part of this “globalisation” new enclosures are right now being erected. (87)

[T]his imagination of globalisation is resolutely unaware of its own speaking position: neoliberal to be sure, but also more generally Western in its locatedness” (87-88). It is also not spatialized (88):

really “spatialising globalisation” means recognising crucial characteristics of the spatial: its multiplicity, its openness, the fact that it is not reducible to “a surface,” its integral relation with temporality. The a-spatial view of globalisation, like the old story of modernity, obliterates the spatial into the temporal and in that very move also impoverishes the temporal (there is only one story to tell). The multiplicity of the spatial is a precondition for the temporal: and the multiplicities of the two together can be a condition for the openness of the future. (88-89)

“If space is genuinely the sphere of multiplicity, if it is the realm of multiple trajectories,” Massey continues,

then there will be multiplicities too of imaginations, theorisations, understandings, meanings. Any “simultaneity” of stories-so-far will be a distinct simultaneity from a particular vantage point. If the repression of the spatial under modernity was bound up with the establishment of foundational universals, so the recognition of the multiplicities of the spatial both challenges that and understands universals as spatio-temporally specific positions. An adequate recognition of coevalness demands acceptance that one is being observed/theorised/evaluated in return and potentially in different terms. . . . Recognition of radical contemporaneity has to include recognition of the existence of those limits too. (89)

Globalization, in its neoliberal form, then, represses the spatial, because it refuses multiplicity and heterogeneity. It is singular and it recognizes no limits—certainly not those demanded by an “adequate recognition of coevalness.” 

“The confusions that exist within current imaginations of the time-spaces of globalisation,” Massey writes, “are, perhaps, at their most acute (and, ironically, least noticed) in the easy coexistence of the view that this is the age of the spatial with the contradictory, but equally accepted, notion that this is the age in which space will finally . . . be annihilated by time” (90). These propositions are obviously at odds with one another, but nonetheless they are related:

On the one hand, more and more “spatial” connections, and over longer distances, are involved in the construction and understanding and impact of any place or economy or culture and of everyday life and actions. There is more “space” in our lives, and it takes less time. On the other hand, this very speed with which “we” can now cross space (by air, on screen, though cultural flows) would seem to imply that space doesn’t matter any more; that speed-up has conquered distance. Precisely the same phenomenon seems to be leading to the conclusion both that space has now won out to the detriment of any ability to appreciate temporality (the complaint of depthlessness) and that time has annihilated space. Neither view is tenable as it stands. (90)

Massey suggests that rather than annihilating space, the increase in speed is simply reducing time, and that, more importantly, “space is not anyway reducible to distance” (90-91). Time and space are mutually implicated, she argues, so how could one annihilate the other? In any case, “[a]s long as there is multiplicity there will be space,” because space “is the sphere of openended configurations within multiplicities” (91). “Given that,” she continues,

the really serious question which is raised by speed-up, by “the communications revolution” and by cyberspace, is not whether space will be annihilated but what kinds of multiplicities (patternings of uniqueness) and relations will be co-constructed with these new kinds of spatial configurations. (91)

Moreover, cyberspace will never take over from physical space. For one thing, mobility and fixity, she writes, “presuppose each other” (95). For another, “[t]he impetus to motion and mobility, for a space of flows, can only be achieved through the construction of (temporary, provisional) stabilisations” that are the result of negotiations “between conflicting tendencies” (95). Besides, cyberspace has material necessities which root it in physical space (96-97).

Next, Massey turns to potential theoretical underpinnings for the struggle against globalization. Valuing the local over the global is not going to work, in her view:

Different places occupy distinct positions within the wider power-geometries of the global. In consequence, both the possibilities of intervention (the degree of purchase upon), and the nature of the potential political relationship to (including the degree and nature of responsibility for) will also vary. It is no accident that much of the literature concerning the defence of place has come from, or been about, either the South or, for instance, deindustrialising places in the North. From such a perspective, capitalist globalisation does indeed seem to arrive as a threatening external force. But in other places it may well be that a particular construction of place is not politically defensible as part of a politics against neoliberal globalisation—and this is not because of the impracticality of such a strategy but because the construction of that place, the webs of power-relations through which it is constructed, and the way its resources are mobilised, are precisely what must be challenged. (102)

What is needed is “a local politics that took seriously the relational construction of space and place,” which would “be highly differentiated through the vastly unequal articulation of those relations,” she writes. “The local relation to the global will vary and in consequence so will the coordinates of any local politics of challenging globalisation” (102).

Massey then returns to maps as representations of space. Maps suggest, she writes, that space is a surface, “the sphere of a completed horizontality” (106-07), which is impossible, since space is “the sphere of a dynamic simultaneity, constantly disconnected by new arrivals, constantly waiting to be determined (and therefore always undetermined) by the construction of new relations” (107). “Loose ends and ongoing stories are real challenges to cartography,” she writes (107). However, there are attempts at representing space that seek to rupture the map’s contention that space is a completed whole, a surface. “Situationist cartographies, while still attempting to picture the universe, map that universe as one which is not a single order,” she notes (109). Such cartographies set out “to disorient, to defamiliarise, to provoke a view from an unaccustomed angle” (109). Other art projects have tried to puncture the apparently smooth surface of space, such as Clive van den Berg’s art events, which “aim to disrupt the complacent surface of white South Africa with reminders of the history on which it is based”; Iain Sinclair’s “dérives through eastern London,” which “evoke, through the surface, pasts (and presents) not usually noticed; and Anne McClintock’s “provocative notion of ‘anachronistic space’—a permanently anterior time within the space of the modern” (117). I know Sinclair’s work, but not van den Berg’s or McClintock’s; I am going to have to learn more about them.

Travel, Massey suggests, is another way of altering space. When you take the train somewhere, “[y]ou are part of the constant process of the making and breaking of links which is an element in the constitution of you yourself,” as well as the locations where your journey begins and ends: “You are not just travelling through space or across it, you are altering it a little. Space and place emerge through active material practices” (118). Massey acknowledges that it is impossible to recognize all of the stories existing at the same time as your journey, but she suggests that recognizing the possibility of simultaneous stories, “the imaginative opening up of space,” can enable one “to retain at least some sense of contemporaneous multiple becomings” (120). 

Such a recognition would be useful in a recognition of the fatuousness and futility of nostalgia or any desire to return to a point of origin:

the truth is that you can never simply “go back,” to home or to anywhere else. When you get “there” the place will have moved on just as you yourself have changed. And this of course is the point. For to open up “space” to this kind of imagination means thinking time and space as mutually imbricated and thinking both of them as the product of interrelations. You can’t go back in space-time. To think that you can is to deprive others of their ongoing independent stories. . . . You can’t hold places still. What you can do is meet up with others, catch up with where another’s history has got to “now,” but where that “now” . . . is itself constituted by nothing more than—precisely—that meeting-up (again). (124-25)

The one-way directionality of space-time is the reason Massey likes to use the word “trajectory,” with its connotations of movement in one direction only. More importantly, we see here Massey’s insistence that spaces are in motion even as we are in motion. I find myself wondering about how this discussion of travel might illuminate my ideas about walking, even my ideas about place itself.

In the next chapter, Massey returns to her discussion of place, and the way that abandoning a notion of space as a surface will affect one’s view of place as well:

If space is rather a simultaneity of stories-so-far, then places are collections of those stories, articulations within the wider power-geometries of space. Their character will be a product of these intersections within that wider setting, and of what is made of them. And, too, of the non-meetings-up, the disconnection and the relations not established, the exclusions. All this contributes to the specificity of place. (130)

Places are not points or areas on maps; rather, they are “integrations of space and time” (130). They are, in other words, “spatio-temporal events” (130). “This is an understanding of space—as open (‘a global sense of place’), as woven together out of ongoing stories, as a moment within power-geometries, as a particular constellation within the wider topographies of space, as in process, as unfinished business” (131). Massey’s example of place as a spatio-temporal event is Skiddaw, a mountain in the Lakes District of northern England. Because of continental drift, the mountain’s geological history,

the rocks of Skiddaw are immigrant rocks, just passing through here, like my sister and me only rather more slowly, and changing all the while. Places as heterogenous associations. If we can’t go “back” home, in the sense that it will have moved on from where we left it, then more more, and in the same sense, can we, on a weekend in the country, go back to nature. It too is moving on. (137)

Geological time is of a different scale than human time, of course, but Massey insists, “quite passionately,” on the idea that

what is special about place is not some romance of a pre-given collective identity or of the eternity of the hills. Rather, what is special about place is precisely that throwntogetherness, the unavoidable challenge of negotiating a here-and-now (itself drawing on a history and a geography of thens and theres); and a negotiation which must take place within and between both human and nonhuman. This in no way denies a sense of wonder: what could be more stirring than walking the high fells in the knowledge of the history and the geography that has made them here today. 

This is the event of place. (140)

Place is constantly changing (140-41): it is an event, it is “the simple sense of the coming together of the previously unrelated, a constellation of processes rather than a thing. This is place as open and as internally multiple. Not capturable as a slice through time in the sense of an essential action. Not intrinsically coherent” (141). In fact, she continues, place “is simply a coming together of trajectories”:

But it is a uniqueness, and a locus of the generation of new trajectories and new configurations. Attempts to write about the uniqueness of place have sometimes been castigated for depoliticisation. Uniqueness meant that one could not reach for the eternal rules. But “politics” in part precisely lies in not being able to reach for that kind of rule; a world which demands the ethics and the responsibility of facing up to the event; where the situation is unprecedented and the future is open. Place is an event in that sense too. (141)

For Massey, reconceptualizing place in this way generates “a different set of political questions”:

There can be no assumption of pre-given coherence, or of community or collective identity. Rather, the throwntogetherness of place demands negotiation. In sharp contrast to the view of place as settled and pre-given, with a coherence only to be disturbed by “external” forces, places as presented here in a sense necessitate invention; they pose a challenge. They implicate us, perforce, in the lives of human others, and in our relations with nonhumans they ask how we shall respond to our temporary meeting-up with these particular rocks and stones and trees. They require that, in one way or another, we confront the challenge of the negotiation of multiplicity. The sheer fact of having to get on together; the fact that you cannot (even should you want to, and this itself should in no way be presumed) “purify” spaces/places. In this throwntogetherness what are at issue are the terms of engagement of those trajectories (both “social” and “natural”), those stories-so-far, within (and not only within) that conjuncturality. (142)

I could be completely wrong, but I’m not convinced that Massey’s version of place can’t be reconciled with Tuan’s. After all, there is a sense of process in his notion of place, a sense that one comes to understand place over time. I am going to have to think about this question very carefully over the coming days.

Massey’s notion of place is not dissimilar to her notion of politics; both are about the negotiation of relations. She wants to argue, she writes, 

for a politics, perhaps better an angle of vision on politics, which can open itself up in this way to an appreciation of the spatial and the engagements it challenges us to. That is to say, less a politics dominated by a framing imagination of linear progression (and certainly not singular linear progression), and more a politics of the negotiation of relations, configurations; one which lays an emphasis on . . . practices of relationality, a recognition of implication, and a modesty of judgement in the fact of the inevitability of specificity. (147)

What is at issue in politics, she continues,

is the constant and conflictual process of the constitution of the social, both human and nonhuman. Such a view does not eliminate an impetus to forward movement, but it does enrich it with a recognition that movement be itself produced through attention to configurations; it is out of them that new heterogeneities, and new configurations, will be conjured. This is a temporality which is not linear, nor singular, nor pregiven; but it is integral to the spatial. It is a politics which pays attention to the fact that entities and identities (be they places, or political constituencies, or mountains) are collectively produced through practices which form relations; and it is on those practices and relations that politics must be focused. But this also means insisting on space as the sphere of relations, of contemporaneous multiplicity, and as always under construction. It means not falling back into those strategies of evasion which fail to face up full on to the challenge of space. (147-48)

She tells a story about a large glacial erratic found in the Elbe River in Hamburg, Germany, and the way that this rock became an icon of openness to the world outside the city, because it was, itself, from somewhere else (149-51). The point of this story is, as with the story about Skiddaw, that even the rocks are moving; no place, no space, is stable or fixed if the rocks and the ground beneath our feet are mobile.

Like the meaning of the Hamburg erratic, the meanings of places, and spaces, must be negotiated. Public spaces are one example: “The very fact that they are necessarily negotiated, sometimes riven with antagonism, always contoured through the playing out of unequal social relations, is what renders them genuinely public” (153). More ordinary places, “temporary constellations of trajectories,” or “events which are places,” also “require negotiation” (153):

The daily negotiation and contestation of a place does not require . . . the conscious collective contestation of its identity (however temporarily established) nor are there the mechanisms for it. But insofar as they “work” at all places are still not-inconsiderable collective achievements. They are formed through a myriad of practices of quotidian negotiation and contestations; practices, moreover, through which the constituent “identities” are also themselves moulded. Place, in other words does—as many argue—change us, not through some visceral belonging (some barely changing rootedness, as so many would have it) but through the practising of place, the negotiation of intersecting trajectories; place as an arena where negotiation is forced upon us. (154)

This is true of both urban and rural places; the countryside is just as prone to change and disturbance as the city, although “reimagining countryside/Nature is more challenging still than responding to the changing spatiality (customarily figured as predominantly human) of the urban” (160). She notes the “biotic impact” of colonization—something that is inscribed on the land here in Saskatchewan, where an ecosystem has been almost entirely destroyed since the 1880s—a destruction that is ongoing—in order to establish a modern economy based on agriculture, at first, and then resource extraction (mining and oil production). But “negotiation” might be the wrong word to use to describe the effect of colonization on Indigenous peoples here; although treaties were negotiated, essential aspects of those treaties were, Sheldon Krasowski argues, kept hidden by the government negotiators. The land remains Indigenous, Krasowski contends, and so “contestation,” rather than negotiation, might be a more appropriate term to use in this part of the world. (Several months ago, I blogged about Krasowski’s book on treaties in western Canada here.)

“A relational politics of place,” Massey writes, “involves both the inevitable negotiations presented by throwntogetherness” (181). At the same time, “a global sense of places evokes another geography of politics too: that which looks outwards to address the wider spatialities of the relations of their construction. It raises the question of a politics of connectivity” (181). The local is in a relation to the global, and therefore “each local struggle is already a relational achievement, drawing from both within and beyond ‘the local,’ and is internally multiple” (182). The potential is “for the movement beyond the local to be rather one of extension and meeting along lines of constructed equivalence with elements of the internal multiplicities of other local struggles,” Massey continues:

The building of such equivalences is itself a process, a negotiation, an engagement of political practices and imaginations in which ground is sought through which the local struggles can construct common cause against a (now differently constructed) antagonist. And the ground will itself be new; politics will change in the process. Moreover, within that process—precisely through the negotiation of a connection and the constitution of a common antagonist—the identities of the constituent local struggles are themselves subject to further change. (182)

“[R]ather than providing a template of answers,” Massey argues, this notion of local struggles “forces the posing of questions about each specific situation” (182). The politics that would result from this sense of the relation between local and global struggles would be integrally and significantly spatial:

The differential placing of local struggles within the complex power-geometry of spatial relations is a key element in the formation of their political identities and politics. In turn, political activity reshapes both identities and spatial relations. Space, as relational and as the sphere of multiplicity, is both an essential part of the character of, and perpetually reconfigured through, political engagement. And the way in which that spatiality is imagined by the participants is also crucial. The closure of identity in a territorialised space of bounded places provides little in the way of avenues for a developing radical politics. (183)

Nevertheless, the “prevailing attitude towards place” works against that kind of political engagement, Massey claims:

Spatial imaginaries both in hegemonic and counter-hegemonic political discourses, and in academic writing, hold it back. Of prime importance here is the persistent counterposition of space and place, and it is bound up with a parallel counterposition between global and local. . . . Over and over again, the counterposition of local and global resonates with an equation of the local with realness, with local place as earthly and meaningful, standing in opposition to a presumed abstraction of global space. It is a political imaginary which, in a range of formulations, has a powerful counterpart in reams of academic literature. (183)

Included among the “reams of academic literature” is Tuan, whose claim that space is more abstract than space, and that place is more meaningful than space, is held up by Massey as an example of the wrong way to approach definitions of these terms (183). Such a division, she writes, “rests upon a problematical geographical imagination”:

To begin with, it is to confound categories. The couplets local/global and place/space do not map on to that of concrete/abstract. The global is just as concrete as is the local place. If space is really to be thought relationally then it is no more than the sum of our relations and interconnections, and the lack of them; it too is utterly “concrete.” (184)

Such a division is also bound up with “that dualism between Emotion (place/local) and Reason (space/global)” (184). For Massey,

[a]n understanding of the world in terms of relationality, a world in which the local and the global really are “mutually constituted,” renders untenable these kinds of separation. The “lived reality of our daily lives” is utterly dispersed, unlocalised, in its sources and in its repercussions. The degree of dispersion, the stretching, may vary dramatically between social groups, but the point is that the geography will not be simply territorial. . . . In such approaches words such as “real,” “everyday,” “lived,” “grounded” are constantly deployed and bound together; they intend to invoke security, and implicitly—as a structural necessity of the discourse—they counterpose themselves to a wider “space” which must be abstract, ungrounded, universal, even threatening. Once again the similarity between the conception of information as disembodied and of globalisation as some kind of other realm, always somewhere else, is potent. . . . It is a dangerous basis for a politics. One cannot seriously posit space as the outside of place as lived, or simply equate “the everyday” with the local. If we really think space relationally, then it is the sum of all our connections, and in that sense utterly grounded, and those connections may go round the world. (184-85)

“My argument is not that place is not concrete, grounded, real, lived, etc.,” Massey writes. “It is that space is too” (185). So Massey would vehemently disagree with my sense that her argument and Tuan’s are not so far apart. However, I wonder if a careful reading of Tuan’s book on space and place might not find points of connection. It might be worth at least attempting to see if there is any possible rapprochement between these two versions of space and place—and if there isn’t, then I will have to take note of Massey’s arguments here.

One related concern Massey has is our tendency to connect our ethical imaginations to the local rather than the global. Does ethical concern have to be connected to place? she asks. “Does it have to be territorial at all? Perhaps it is not ‘place’ that is missing, but grounded, practised, connectedness” (187). “A full recognition of the characteristics of space also entails the positive interconnectivity, the nature of the constitutive relationality, of this approach,” she argues:

this is a relational ontology which avoids the pitfalls both of classical individualism and of communitarian organicism; just so a full recognition of space involves the rejection both of any notion of authentic self-constituting territories/places and of the closed connectivities of structuralism as spatial (and thus evokes space as always relational and always open, being made) and implies the same structure of the possibility of politics. (189)

Such an approach to understanding the social, the individual, and the political, Massey continues,

itself implies and requires both a strong dimension of spatiality and the conceptualisation of that spatiality in a particular way. At one level this is to rehearse again the fact that any notion of sociability, in its sparest form simply multiplicity, is to imply a dimension of spatiality. This is obvious, but since it usually remains implicit (if even that), its implications are rarely drawn out. The very acknowledgement of our constitutive interrelatedness implies a spatiality; and that in turn implies that the nature of that spatiality should be a crucial avenue of enquiry and political engagement. Further, this kind of interconnectedness which stresses the imaginative awareness of others, evokes the outwardlookingness of a spatial imagination. . . . In other words, to push the point further, the full recognition of contemporaneity implies a spatiality which is a multiplicity of stories-so-far. Space as coeval becomings. Or again, an understanding of the social and the political which avoids both classical individualism and communitarian organicism absolutely requires its constitution through a spatio-temporality which is open, through an open-ended temporality which itself necessarily requires a spatiality that is both multiple and not closed, one which is always in the process of construction. Any politics which acknowledges the openness of the future (otherwise there could be no realm of the political) entails a radically open time-space, a space which is always being made. (189)

To be honest, I’m not sure this version of an ethics of connection is likely to outweigh the draw of the local and parochial. Maybe it should, but it seems too abstract, as compared to the call of communities close to home, however imagined those communities might be.

Massey’s concluding paragraph brings together space, place, and time in a way that relates all three to her argument about ethics and connection:

Space is as much a challenge as is time. Neither space nor place can provide a haven from the world. If time presents us with the opportunities of change and (as some would see it) the terror of death, then space presents us with the social in the widest sense: the challenge of our constitutive interrelatedness—and thus our collective implication in the outcomes of that interrelatedness; the radical contemporaneity of an ongoing multiplicity of others, human and nonhuman; and the ongoing and ever-specific project of the practices through which that sociability is to be configured. (195)

This argument describes what ought to be, but it does not describe what is: we might be interrelated with a “radical contemporaneity of an ongoing multiplicity of others, human and nonhuman,” but it seems that selfishness and selfcentredness and parochialisms of all kinds have the upper hand at the moment, and I see nothing in Massey’s argument that would help us to turn that situation around. It is simply too abstract to appeal to most people, I am afraid.

Nevertheless, For Space is an important book, and I am happy to have another definition of place, aside from Tuan’s, to draw upon. If nothing else, I know one of the main arguments against Tuan’s conceptions of space and place, and knowing those arguments, I can build a defence of my use of Tuan—because, despite Massey’s objections, I do think there is something useful in his argument. I like Massey’s definition of politics, and her commitment to openendedness and her abhorrence of closure, and I like the way she brings the spatial and the temporal together. Her discussion of postcolonialism and multiple narratives is also important for my work. I have to say, though, that because For Space is a challenging book, I will probably have to reread it to truly understand Massey’s arguments. That’s fine; reading is (always) rereading. This (lengthy) summary is only my first attempt at understanding her ideas; at some point in the not-too-distant future, I’m going to have to try again.

Works Cited

Borges, Jorge Luis. “On Exactitude in Science.” Collected Fictions, translated by Andrew Hurley.

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

Massey, Doreen. For Space. Sage, 2005.

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

45. Nancy Louise Frey, Pilgrim Stories: On and Off the Road to Santiago

pilgrim stories

I’ve been surprised to learn, over the course of my reading in the last couple of weeks, that the Camino de Santiago is not considered a typical pilgrimage. Peter Jan Margry, for instance, argues that the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela “is not representative of mainstream pilgrimage culture,” and  “[i]t is therefore questionable whether, on the basis of this specific case, motion can be assumed to be the primary constitutive element of the pilgrimage as a universal phenomenon,” he suggests (26). For Margry, the point of pilgrimage is to be present at a sacred site, rather than in the movement (walking, usually, in the case of the pilgrimage to Santiago) towards that site, which would seem to exclude the Camino from his definition of pilgrimage (35-36). Not everyone would agree with Margry; Simon Coleman, for example, suggests that

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

Ian Reader, for his part, acknowledges that in some pilgrimages, the focus is on the journey to the sacred site, rather than the sacred site itself (23-24), although he also notes that the way that many pilgrims no longer have religious motivations has led to accusations that it is turning into “a hiking route as much as a path of pilgrimage” (48). The question of the relationship between the Camino de Santiago and pilgrimage is an important one for me, because the pilgrimage to Santiago is the only one in which I have participated in a serious manner, and it it is outside the mainstream of pilgrimage, then clearly I have based my understanding of what pilgrimage is on a misunderstanding.

In hopes of resolving the question of how the Camino de Santiago is connected to the notion of pilgrimage, I turned to Nancy Louise Frey’s ethnographic account of pilgrims walking to Santiago, Pilgrim Stories: On and Off the Road to Santiago. Frey is clear at the beginning of her book that the pilgrimage to Santiago is complex, in terms of the motivations of its participants, and unusual in its emphasis on movement rather than being present at a sacred site. Frey writes,

When faced with the complexity of the contemporary Camino, the categories ‘pilgrimage’ and ‘pilgrim’ seem to lose meaning. Usually the words, especially in English, are associated with a religious journey, faith, or devout seekers. . . . Although the Santiago pilgrimage has a religious foundation based in Catholic doctrine regarding sin, its remission and salvation, in its contemporary permutation these religious elements endure, but they also share the same stage with transcendent spirituality, tourism, physical adventure, nostalgia, a place to grieve, and esoteric initiation. The Camino can be (among many other things) a union with nature, a vacation, an escape from the drudgery of the everyday, a spiritual path to the self and humankind, a social reunion, or a personal testing ground. It is “done” and “made” as a pilgrimage, but what does that mean now? The glue that holds these disparate elements together seems to be the shared journey, the Camino de Santiago. (4-5)

The emphasis on that “shared journey” is what separates the Camino from Marian pilgrimage centres in Europe, where the emphasis is on being at the sacred shrine:

The emphasis placed on the journey and how one reaches the shrine at Santiago struck me as marking an important difference between other popular western European pilgrimage centers such as Fátima in Portugal or Lourdes in France. With those other centers, whose devotion is centered on the Virgin Mary by a Catholic majority, the pilgrims’ essential ritual acts occur within the bounded sacred space of the shrine. The pilgrims’ mode of transport, or way of arriving, at the shrine is usually secondary or irrelevant. It surprised me that unlike the pilgrims at Fátima or Lourdes, these white, urban, European, middle-class men and women made the pilgrimage—from a week to a month—on foot, bicycle, and horse. Rather than a healing shrine of short-term visits, the contemporary Santiago pilgrimage is not confined to the city itself but consists of a long, physical and often internal (spiritual, personal, religious) journey. In many cases making the pilgrimage becomes for participants one of the most important experiences of their lives. Pilgrims want to feel and live the road step by step (or pedal after pedal). Non-Catholics, agnostics, atheists, and even seekers of esoteric knowledge go side by side with Catholics and Protestants.” (7)

Walking and cycling pilgrims, Frey notes, make up a minority of those who visit the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, and many of those who travel by bus or plane or automobile are motivated by their religious faith and a desire to be near the relics of St. James (18). For example, during the 1993 Holy Year, only 100,000 out of the six to eight million visitors to Santiago de Compostela walked or cycled the required distances (100 kilometres for walkers, 200 kilometres for cyclists) to receive a Compostela on arrival (22). (Those distances were established arbitrarily by the Church in the 1980s, and they “represent an idea of pilgrimage based on suffering and sacrifice” [22].) The fact that most of those who visit the shrine to St. James in Santiago de Compostela do not walk or cycle would seem to suggest a similarity between the cathedral in Santiago and other Christian pilgrimage centres in Europe, but Frey points out further differences:

The majority of the Marian-centered shrines (Lourdes in France, Fátima in Portugal, and Medjugorje in Bosnia) are based on miracles or apparitions (Church-confirmed earthly visitations of the Virgin Mary to a seer or seers) that occurred after 1850. The pilgrimage to Santiago is based on a tradition said to reach back to the foundation of Christianity. (7-8)

The historical roots of the Santiago pilgrimage, Frey argues, are very important; those who walk or cycle to Santiago become “part of an informal society whose membership goes back a thousand years and includes such notables as Charlemagne, Saint Francis of Assisi, and King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain” (7). In any case, the Camino de Santiago has become known as a walking or cycling journey since the 1980s, rather than a straightforward visit to a shrine, despite the fact that most of those who visit the shrine use motorized travel of some kind.

Unlike Margry, Frey accepts the idea of secular and even metaphorical pilgrimages (15), and what interests her in the Camino de Santiago is the variety of motivations, opinions, and experiences of those who walk or cycle to Santiago to Compostela. “Walkers and cyclists see a world of difference between pilgrims who travel under their own power and those who use some other form of transport to get to Santiago,” she writes (18), noting that walkers and cyclists typically consider those who go by bus, for example, to be tourists rather than pilgrims because they “do not understand what it means to be connected to the road and . . . to go the ‘human speed’” (18). “Pilgrims use their bodies and the ways they move to make a statement about themselves and their society,” Frey contends. “One’s movements and ways of traveling the Camino contribute to its consecration or desecration as a sacred space. Cars and buses (in the walkers’ view) tarnish the essence of the road” (18). The “sacred space” of the Camino, for walkers and cyclists, is the path they take, rather than or along with the shrine to St. James represented by the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela.

There are subdivisions among pilgrims. Aside from the division between those who walk and those who cycle (which Frey discusses at length), there are also full-time, part-time, and weekend pilgrims (20). Full-time pilgrims, the majority, begin at one point on the route and travel to Santiago de Compostela without stopping (20). Part-time pilgrims make short-term trips, typically lasting one or two weeks, and it may therefore take them a number of years to get to Santiago. Usually part-time pilgrims are prevented by time constraints from making the continuous journey, although “some, believing that pilgrimage is a process that requires the passage of time to bear the fruit of insight, choose to make the journey in stages” (20). Weekend pilgrims—and this is a group I had never heard of before—“are usually members of associations dedicated to the pilgrimage and its routes which organize walking excursions on various Jacobean paths. A portion of the Camino is selected, and the participants drive or are bused to the starting point and then walk the section” (20). Arriving in Santiago de Compostela would not be an important motivation for weekend pilgrims.

Those who walk or cycle, and those who drive or are bused, rarely understand each others’ motivations, Frey writes:

Pilgrimage, like all human movement, is patterned according to societal norms, lifestyles, class values, fashion, and cultural ideals. The questions become how and why certain modes of transport are used, what they mean to those who use them, and who the people are who use them. 

Foot and cycle pilgrims tend to call those who go by bus and car tourists, and themselves, pilgrims. To be labeled a tourist is pejorative and to be avoided. . . . The term “pilgrimage” signifies a religious journey made out of faith or devotion. Bus and foot or bicycle pilgrims also make the journey for a wide assortment of religious, cultural, sport, and personal reasons. Among both groups there are individuals who go to Santiago for strictly religious reasons, but the vast majority have multiple reasons for getting to Santiago. Therefore, when bus pilgrims are labeled ‘tourists’ by foot or bicycle pilgrims it is not a pejorative statement about their motives but about their movement choices. Tourists, understood to be frivolous, superficial people, travel en masse by bus, car, or plane. Pilgrims, understood to be genuine, authentic, serious people, walk and cycle. (26-27)

The distinction between pilgrim and tourist, as Simon Coleman has pointed out, is complex (“Accidental Pilgrims” 72), but Frey is interested in the distinctions that foot and cycle pilgrims make, and they (as I did on the Camino) overwhelmingly reject out-of-hand any notion that pilgrims can take a bus all the way to Santiago de Compostela and still be considered peregrinos.  (The Spanish word for pilgrim is universally adopted, in my experence, by those who walk or cycle to Santiago de Compostela, and since it’s a lot less awkward than the circumlocutions I have been using, I’ll refer to walkers and cyclists as peregrinos from now on.) 

As Frey notes, the motivations of peregrinos are bound up in their choice of mode of transportation:

It is not just devotion (an instrumental purpose) that drives pilgrims to walk and cycle to Santiago, but in choosing to go in a nonmodern way pilgrims make statements (expressive and communicative purposes) about their society and their values. Broadly speaking, these values include an appreciation of nature and physical effort, a rejection of materialism, an interest in or a nostalgia for the past (especially the medieval), a search for inner meaning, an attraction to meaningful human relationships, and solitude. (27)

Unlike Margry, Frey acknowledges that the pilgrimage peregrinos make is not necessarily religious or sacred in nature:

Becoming a pilgrim to Santiago does not necessarily mean making a religious journey, but it does often signify for cyclists and walkers an inner and an outer journey, a means of finding transformation. Some pilgrims with to give their leisure time meaning, to take a much-needed break from the rat race, and they are attracted to the possibility of adventure, of finding a link to the past and a way to connect meaningfully with themselves, others, and the land, to feel their bodies, and to use all of their senses, to see every blade of grass rather than pass rapidly through a meaningless countryside, to live with less, to relax for a while. They want a space to pray, think, or meditate. From the perspective of the road these things seem impossible to attain from behind the window in the air-conditioned bus. (27-28)

Here, Frey touches on the aspect of walking long distances—whether those walks are considered pilgrimages or not doesn’t matter: such walks offer an opportunity, at least in theory, to have an intimate experience with the land that is not possible with motorized transportation. Whether that theoretical intimacy is borne out in practice is the purpose of the conference paper I will be writing next week.

Frey notes—correctly, I think—that for peregrinos the goal is the road, rather than the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, and that many peregrinos lack religious motivations:

The underlying assumption among most people who know nothing about the modern pilgrimage is that the goal is Santiago and that religious devotion motivates the journey. The goal, however, is often the road itself, not the city. Unlike many pilgrims to Marian shrines, those who walk and cycle to Santiago often are not motivated by the pains of the suffering body but the pains of the suffering soul. (45)

I’m not sure the distinction Frey is making here, between pilgrims to Marian shrines and pilgrims walking the Camino, can be supported with evidence; after all, her ethnographic work was with peregrinos rather than those who visit Marian shrines, some of whom might be hoping to find some relief from “the pains of the suffering soul.” Nevertheless, Frey contends that the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela typically has internal, emotional or spiritual motivations, rather than physical ones:

The pilgrimage does not begin with the first step or ride down the trail. Pilgrims begin to shape their journeys well before they leave the front door. The physical movement of arriving at the Camino is anticipated by some kind of internal movement—a decision, an impulse, an unexpected prompting, a long-held desire finally realized, a promise seeking fulfillment, a hope for change. The internal space is in some way already in flux before the journey begins—anticipatory, eager, confused, exhausted, open. (47)

That was certainly my experience before I walked from Saint Jean Pied de Port to Santiago de Compostela: I felt strangely called to make that journey (I know that language is religious and I am not, but that’s the only way I can describe the feeling I had). I was hoping for some kind of change, and thought that a month of walking might give me the time to figure out what form that change might take. In that way, I was very much like the peregrinos Frey interviews for this book.

The meanings of the pilgrimage, Frey suggests, “emerge through interaction with others, the road, and reflection” (64), and “the majority of the participants make the pilgrimage because it is the process, not the arrival at the goal, that is most significant in the experience” (64). Each peregrino experiences the journey in an individual way. One woman told Frey about her encounters with the land: the skies, plants, flowers, trees, colours, and birds filled her with joy (71). Other peregrinos report have a different sense of time compared to their normal lives: “Some describe beginning of the journey at a rapid pace and then slowing down, realizing that there is no rush to get to any particular place” (73). Peregrinos “become aware of their bodies, and in becoming attuned to different rhythms, some begin to guide their movements by them” (73). Some “report experiencing a strong sense of the ‘here and now,’” an “‘out of time’ quality” which “exists in sharp contrast to normal life, which is programmed by work, societal norms, and the daily planner” (73). That is true, to an extent, but in my experience the tendency of peregrinos to rely on guidebooks to the Camino—particularly, for English speakers, John Brierley’s A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago—often means peregrinos feel obliged to reach specific destinations each day, and the fear of not having a bed often compels peregrinos to hurry, particularly in the afternoon. In addition, as Frey points out, many pilgrims have a fixed amount of time in which to complete the journey, and they may also feel pressure to get to Santiago de Compostela by a certain date (73).

Moving slowly and getting into the rhythm of a different form of travel “can also affect one’s sense of place and experience of the natural landscapes,” Frey suggests (74). One pilgrim, for example, told Frey that being in place, rather than passing through what seemed to be meaningless space (note the echoes of Yi-Fu Tuan’s argument here; he is cited in Frey’s footnotes) was 

directly linked to a growing awareness of his senses. It is his “being” in the world that is different too: he feels each step, is aware of himself in the new places and how he affects and is affected by those steps. The discovery of this sensation of place is in part based on how he moves, what he perceives, and what he touches. The roads are not just flat or bumpy, the hills green, or the birds singing. While walking it is possible to see individual blades of grass, feel every stone in the road (maybe painfully), and note how the senses are heightened. (75)

“Landscape, then, is not just a neutral backdrop but a multidimensional concept related to the understanding of space and movement and the creation of stories meaningful to the pilgrim,” Frey continues (75). One form taken by such stories—or perhaps one mnemonic device that assists with their recall—is the credencial, or credential, in which peregrinos collect stamps that will prove to the authorities in Santiago de Compostela that they made the journey under their own power:

As the pilgrim journeys over the vaguely conceptualized Camino the steps and encounters are like the stamps in the credential: at first there is a blank, structural frame, which is then filled slowly, day by day. A pause, a thought, a stamp, a cup of coffee becomes part of a memory, and the vaguely conceived-of whole—the Camino—takes on a new set of meanings. At journey’s end the spaces have been filled and marked with personal experiences. (75)

“The Camino, which begins as an abstract space, comes to be an accumulation of internalized places made up of stories, sensations, and changes in perception,” Frey writes (87). What had been undifferentiated space, then, becomes a series of places defined by the peregrinos’ experience rather than, as Tuan suggests, places where they stopped, however briefly. Place, then, is linked to mobility through walking, in a way that works against Tuan’s distinction between space (seen as mobility) and place (seen as stasis).

Those who repeat the pilgrimage experience often “express concern about losing the novelty of the unknown spaces, creating routine,” through that repetition; however, many of those repeat peregrinos discover “that the landscape is not the only knowable space or variable; each time the encounters with people, the self, seasons, refuges, and companions are different” (75). This point is significant; I’ve been thinking that the only way to understand space as place is through repeated engagements with the same location, but I hadn’t thought about the way that, for some pilgrims, “the novelty of unknown spaces” is part of the Camino’s draw—and that’s surprising, because that novelty is one of the things I have enjoyed, on the Camino de Santiago and during other walks I have made since then. 

Frey quotes Thomas Merton’s suggestion that people make two journeys, an inner one and an outer one, and she notes that many peregrinos experience some form of inner journey on the Camino (79). Some report feelings of a loss of self or the creation of a greater self in the environment, or of losing a sense of where one’s own body ends and the other begins (79). “Time appears to stop,” she writes, “the world becomes whole, and you know that you are connected to something much greater and inchoate” (79). Often such experiences or feelings are interpreted by peregrinos in religious terms (79). Some pilgrims sense the presence of those who walked the Camino before them: “The common human experience of walking gives one the sense of a shared journey” (82). Others report “that long-forgotten memories surface”:

memories of family members and friends, childhood places, secrets or painful circumstances. These new perceptions often take people to internal places not before visited. The days consist of many hours of walking and cycling. In these long moments, which may be experienced alone or in the companionship of other pilgrims, people are confronted with empty time, a concept distant from the lives of most of these urban dwellers. Into these quiet moments may spill unexplained tears. (83)

Such “outpourings,” Frey continues, are often described as “cathartic,” and “the catalyst that sets them in motion often mysterious to the pilgrim” (83). That catalyst “may be spatial (having distance, perspective, and free time), personal (another pilgrim), or experiential (walking in the meseta)” (83). (The meseta is the high, arid, flat plain that constitutes the middle third of the territory through which the Camino Francés runs.) Pilgrims report having strange dreams and becoming more aware of their own mortality (83). They may discover “hitherto unknown personal potential, experience a reorientation of values, have new visions of the self and others, and develop road maps for present and future actions,” Frey writes (87). Even though there are experiences of levity and play, those times do not detract “from what can be a profound spiritual experience or a reflective time” (92). They become “just another aspect of the journey” (92).

Frey notes that peregrinos experience both communitas and contestation on their journeys. “Through knowing one another in adverse circumstances and relying on others to help get through the fatigue of the day or the confusion of limited language,” she writes, “feelings of communitas (community) and a heightened sense of generosity emerge” (92). Many pilgrims also value the connections they make with people from different cultures, nations, classes, or age groups (93). Frustrations do occur, however, and friendships can be strained:

Sometimes the friction is caused by the different rhythms or a physical problem, which causes one of the companions to make a choice: continue his or her own way or wait with the friend. Existing friendships may suffer from the expanding sense of self, different rhythms, renovation, and experimentation that are common on the way. Paths begin to diverge, leading to a temporary rupture or misunderstanding. (94)

Walking pilgrims often resent the cyclists who speed past them, and for all I know cyclists may resent the pedestrians who block the path; no one likes those who get up early and make noise or shine lights around thoughtlessly in the dormitorio; and those who snore are sometimes reviled. “Nonetheless, through sharing a communal dinner and the day’s stories, curing blisters, or giving massages,” Frey writes, “there is generally a high level of congeniality among pilgrims, even under difficult circumstances” (96). Because “the Camino exists outside of normal time in neutral and inspiring places, where stress is reduced to a minimum,” she continues, “pilgrims open up internally and externally to those around them” (101).

How different is the Camino from other long-distance walking journeys, however? According to Frey, such journeys provide opportunities for “similar types of personal discoveries and triumphs and the use of the road as a metaphor for life” (102). But, she continues, there are important differences:

The Camino is unique, however, for its religious and historical traditions, the presence of nonpilgrims who encourage the journey, the pilgrim’s passport and the collection of stamps, its one-way nature, and its network of refuges and hospitaleros. One is not just a walker but a pilgrim to Santiago. (102)

“Pilgrims experience a powerful feeling of being guided toward a goal, of having a sense of direction, and of knowing where one is going that is not so clear in daily life,” Frey writes. “Each day is an act of accomplishment toward a stated goal in which everything seems to be going the pilgrim’s way” (103). I’m not sure that walkers on other long-distance paths, such as the Appalachian Trail in the eastern United States, don’t have the same sense of a goal, or that everything goes the pilgrim’s way; I’m sure that some days, some peregrinos think that nothing is going their way at all. I would argue, in fact, that the relative ease of the Camino is one of the main differences between it and the Appalachian Trail (or similar hiking routes). After all, there’s no need to carry a tent or much food (beyond snacks or a lunch). Packs are therefore lighter—perhaps 10 kilograms rather than 20, which is a big difference—and days usually end with a shower and a change of clothes and a meal that typically includes a cheap bottle of vino tinto. I’m not saying that the Camino is easy, but it might not be as difficult as other long-distance walks. That comparative lack of difficulty might enable more people to participate.

There are challenges on the Camino, of course—blisters, injuries, getting lost—and overcoming them often gives pilgrims the sense that they are capable of dealing with the unexpected. As a result, they “acquire greater self-confidence, and have the sense of being more compassionate, generous, open-minded, and accepting of hardship,” Frey points out. “These experiences are part of how pilgrims explain how the Camino works on them to produce meaning and transformation” (105). Pilgrims interpret the pain and fatigue of their journeys differently: for some these are vestiges of the medieval Camino; for others, especially practicing Catholics, they are opportunities for penitence or sacrifice; for still others, pain and fatigue are gifts that bring greater insight (109). “For nonreligious pilgrims, the pain and fatigue are part of the challenge that must be overcome,” Frey suggests. “Testing one’s limits to feel one’s body is sufficient for many pilgrims. . . . Overcoming pain when it seems impossible to continue leads to a great feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction, a better knowledge of and respect for one’s body, and a way of feeling alive” (110-11). Peregrinos often report greater body confidence and feelings of empowerment through physical struggle, along with losing weight and feeling stronger, which can boost their morale (112). They don’t just notice their increasing fitness, however; as norms of cleanliness or appearance become less important compared to normal life, they often joke about smelling bad (112). “The body and the sensations it opens the pilgrim up to become new unexplored territory,” Frey writes (112). Some peregrinos are not able to overcome pain or injury; Frey estimates that 20 per cent of those who begin the Camino in Roncesvalles do not complete the journey for a variety of reasons (114). 

For many peregrinos, the Camino becomes an opportunity for solitude and independence (117). “Overcoming a fear of being alone can lead one to personal understanding and change the Camino from an uncertain adventure to a more broadly conceived journey of self-exploration,” Frey suggests (117). “During the long stretches of continuous movement, which may be painful, boring, or exhilarating, the pilgrim also fills the time in novel or infrequently practices ways—thinking, praying, meditating, singing” (118). For some, the walk is a ludic or playful experience; others find themselves lost in the rhythm of walking; some experience existential questions (118). At the same time, Frey writes,

In this environment, in which new doors to the self are opened on personal, spiritual, and social levels and the pilgrims experiment with emerging parts of their identities, a sense of danger or guilt may also surface. These reactions frequently occur when one’s image of what a pilgrim’s behavior “ought to be” while making the Camino conflicts with the reality of the experience. (124)

Questions of authenticity, which on the Camino often mean the genuine nature of the experience, are one aspect of the pilgrimage, as John Eade and Michael Sallnow argue, a space of competing discourses (126). Conflicts “over what is an is not ‘pilgrimlike’” are frequently rooted in struggles for power, personal debates about the pilgrimage’s meaning, and claims to authority—particularly over questions of authenticity (126). In other words, “[a]lthough there is communitas, rifts exist” (129). “Without realizing it,” Frey continues,

pilgrims make sweeping judgments about others and at the same time put themselves into a category that claims to hold a “truth” about the Camino. The authentic says “We are all pilgrims,” but at the same time it is clear that “some are better pilgrims than others.” For some, being an authentic pilgrim raises one’s status instead of serving as an equalizer. (129)

“Distance from modern technology plays a crucial role in determining authenticity,” she continues. “Walkers reign supreme for their independence, physical effort, and slow pace” (131). In addition, I would, that sometimes those who have left cameras or smartphones behind sometimes consider themselves more authentic than those who take photographs or ask for the wifi password when they stop at a bar for coffee.

Questions of authenticity are important as vehicles of interpreting experience, Frey suggests:

Although authenticity is believed to reside in the past, pilgrims find their own meanings through identification, questioning, and reflecting on the image of the authentic pilgrim. The Camino has become a space in which meanings emerge for the individual who can play with identity, search the soul, find the past, create friendships, engage in serious religious or personal reflection, or simply have a good time. Pilgrims often find something essential (authentic) within themselves or others. The point is not that there is no authentic pilgrim but that there are many authenticities. Each person creates his or her personally meaningful experience. (136)

I wonder if this focus on authenticity isn’t another way in which the Camino differs from other long-distance hiking trails. Do hikers ask whether they are authentic hikers? I don’t really know the answer to that question—it’s another issue that requires research—but I would bet they don’t. I could be wrong, though.

As a form of transportation in modern, middle-class European or American life, Frey notes, walking is “essentially obsolete”:

It is the rare individual who commutes to work on foot. Walking is usually linked with leisure. What pilgrims often do not realize is that their venturing out to discover something true about themselves and the world has a long history in Christian and Western philosophy centered on the debate over whether the locus of change is found in stasis or mobility. (131-32)

I ought to familiarize myself with that debate, but Frey’s footnote here is uncharacteristically vague—perhaps because she is an anthropologist and not a philosopher. Still, she suggests, peregrinos who are uninterested in questions of authenticity tend to be those who are experienced travellers or long-distance walkers. “In other journeys they have experienced the pains and disorientation of solitude, the joys of stunning natural beauty, and the experience of living with little,” she writes. “The Camino is just one more such path” (135-36). Some of those experienced walkers are unmoved by the Camino; for them, it’s just another long walk (136). 

Although the peregrino’s focus might be on the journey, at some point he or she is likely to arrive in Santiago de Compostela:

While Santiago is an obvious geographic goal, it is not necessarily the end of the interior journey. Journey’s end and the pilgrim’s goal should not be conflated. The multitextured quality of endings is visible in the closure of the physical journey and the turn toward home. The pilgrimage does not simply end with the pilgrim’s arrival in Santiago but is a process that often begins well before the pilgrim reaches the city’s gates and is prolonged indefinitely as the pilgrim continues to interpret in daily life the experiences he or she lived while making the way. (138)

Often peregrinos feel a sense of arrival long before they reach Santiago de Compostela; their sense of time changes, becoming a countdown of the days left in the journey, and as they enter Galicia, the geography and weather changes (139). “A common sensation that pilgrims experience in the last portion of their journey is ambivalence,” Frey contends:

The end of the long physical, personal, and often spiritual journey is tangible. Each pilgrim’s journey has a different rhythm. One may arrive strong and powerful on a physical level—feeling new muscles, trust in knowing one’s limits, wearing the pack like a second skin—yet feel totally unprepared on a spiritual or personal level to reach Santiago. Awareness of this process often presents itself only in the return home. (144)

“Reaching Santiago often comes as an unpleasant surprise as the joy of discovery comes to a sudden halt,” she continues (146). Others who have been “seeking yet not discovering” may experience a sense of crisis “because the Camino has not opened them to what they hoped to receive” (146). “As a goal,” Frey writes,

Santiago is both a physical place and an abstract idea; an imagined vessel into which pilgrims may have poured hopes and dreams. As a place and an abstraction it can be attained by movement away form the starting point and mediated by pauses or rests. Reaching the physical goal does not necessarily entail a parallel arrival of other goals—spiritual enlightenment, a decision made—as is clear from pilgrims’ stories of arrival in the city. For some, the end in Santiago marks the beginning of a new journey. For others, it is a great letdown or simply a stopover point. Several of the salient issues at play in the end of the pilgrimage are reassessment of the journey’s meaning, search for closure, dialogue with the past, contemplation of the future, symbolic death of the self, and preparation for the return home. Just as pilgrims must draw the physical portion to a close at some point, the arrival in Santiago marks a geographic end, even if it is not the ultimate goal in an abstract way. (254-55)

The pilgrim, she concludes, still needs to find his or her way home, the journey that completes the experience (255).

Most pilgrims arrive at the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, where the rites they perform “rarely occur in solitude” because “[t]he cathedral is an important attraction for nonpilgrims, who also attend the Pilgrim’s Mass and engage in the same ritual actions as the pilgrims themselves” (158). For many peregrinos, both religious and nonreligious, 

the Pilgrim’s Mass serves as an essential rite of closure, a moment to contemplate what has come before and what lies ahead, to celebrate the Eucharist at the feet of the apostle, to rest at the long-awaited goal, and to languish in the joy of arrival. The Mass also serves a crucial social function: it is a common point of reunion and departure for groups of pilgrims that may have formed along the way. The Mass is personal yet communal. It is one more time to share together, an often cathartic experience and moment of closure. (159)

Receiving the Compostela is another rite of closure, although pilgrims report that it is often ambivalent or anticlimactic as well (159-62). Frey emphasizes the idea that the arrival in Santiago de Compostela can be disappointing, although not everyone is going to have that experience. My arrival was emotionally powerful, although after resting for a couple of days I was eager to begin walking again, partly because I wasn’t comfortable with the transition from peregrino to tourist, an experience that is not uncommon, as Frey points out (162-63). “By taking off the backpack and putting down the staff, walking into the streets of Santiago one is no longer a pilgrim as on the road,” Frey writes, and pilgrims often find themselves “engaging in activities involving consumption,” purchasing souvenirs, visiting monuments, and eating and drinking (perhaps to excess) (165-66).

In Santiago de Compostela, peregrinos go through a range of emotions, from joy to sadness (163). They often report experiencing a flood of memories about the journey (164). Part of the challenge lies in the shock the body experiences on arriving in Santiago de Compostela: “After growing accustomed to walking or cycling for five to eight hours a day,” Frey notes, “the sudden change produces a shock to the body now inhibited from maintaining its daily rhythm” (164). “The city is a point of supersaturation,” Frey writes. “Pilgrims begin to shed their months of experience, leaving a wake of uncertainty, joy, pain, and discovery. Eventually the break is made and the pilgrim puts away the scallop shell, packs the bag and staff, and makes the turn that ends the physical journey and returns home” (169).

Frey suggests that some peregrinos may have trouble letting go of the experience (164), as I suppose I did, although I had planned all along to continue walking to Finisterre, a fishing village on the Atlantic coast that is another ending to the pilgrimage, and after that, to Muxia, another village some 30 kilometres north of Finisterre. These journeys are discouraged by the church, Frey points out, although the Galician government encourages them (171). “The internal journey that did not find its end in Santiago may be resolved at Finisterre,” she writes:

It may give pilgrims additional time to reflect on the pilgrimage’s conclusion and the return home. It may also be a way to keep walking, a way to keep searching and possibly avoid resolution, a way to smooth a potentially difficult transition, a way to end a pilgrimage of initiation through confrontation with the natural elements. (176)

I got sick in Finisterre—a 24-hour virus of some kind—and as a result I found the walk to Muxia very difficult. I remember feeling that I had walked far enough, and that it was now time to stop. Being exhausted from both the walk and the illness contributed to that sense of conclusion. They helped me realize that the experience had come to an end.

Going home is another difficult transition. It raises important questions about “how the pilgrimage endures, if it does, and how the experiences are interwoven into daily life, influencing future actions and ways of being” (179). On what level does the peregrino change, if at all? Is the change personal, spiritual, creative, or physical? “What has been acquired through the pilgrimage needs to be renegotiated into daily life,” Frey writes:

Sometimes the experience of the pilgrimage results in changes in occupational or marital status, the pursuit of creative personal projects, the discovery of prayer, an emphasis on maintaining friendships or an identity developed in the way, or an enduring memory such as a lovely walk taken in Spain. (179)

Pilgrims are sometimes encouraged to talk about their experiences when they return home, but what they share, Frey suggests, “is selective and interpretive”:

In the retellings meanings of the journey continue to emerge and the adventure grows as the pilgrim edits and elaborates on the journey’s stories. The returnee may realize only in the retelling that she is or was a pilgrim and the secular journey a pilgrimage. Retelling plays an important part in the return, whereby one is able to reinterpret, process the experiences, and create oneself as pilgrim at the same time. In this way the reactions of family and friends often help the pilgrim put the Camino into context through the acts of narration and fielding questions. (186)

Some former peregrinos report losing their sense of direction or purpose when they get home (188-89). Sometimes feelings of stagnation or disorientation are “influenced by the inability to translate the Camino’s experiences into everyday life,” or the fact that “[v]alues garnered or clarified while in the Camino may not be compatible with a work or personal environment” (190). “The sharp contrast between the easy flow, purposefulness, healthy lifestyle, and directionality found and often lived on the Camino can in the long-term postexperience give way to feelings of failure when it seems that it is difficult to maintain these ‘lessons’ or ways of living in one’s own life,” Frey points out (192). On the other hand, “another outcome of the pilgrims’ interactions with the Camino that continues to work in their daily lives is a sense of personal empowerment acquired through the way” (192). “Perhaps even more profound is the sense of the ‘potential me’ the Camino reveals on the return home” (193). The experience of overcoming pain and fear and testing one’s limits often leads to feelings of groundedness and strength in daily life (193). “For most,” Frey writes, “the reality is that the Camino helps to open doors but that the individual must choose to walk through them to be transformed in some way. Pilgrimage does not ‘make one’ a better person. Personal change is often a long-term process of trial and error” (198).

“As a memory the Camino exists on at least two levels,” Frey contends: “that which is shared and re-created for an audience and that which exists privately for the pilgrim, the place that is revisited and remembered, bringing back the journey’s discoveries” (199). The Camino may not only consist of memories, however, According to Frey,

 Finding silence and peace in solitude, living and appreciating the moment, and making life less complicated are all ways that participants try to bring the Camino as pilgrimage home. Feeling oneself a pilgrim through personal and social encounters during the journey also marks the experience in the memory of the postpilgrim as more than a holiday adventure. It is described as an internal experience rather than an external one. (203)

“Postpilgrims,” Frey writes, “want to continue journeying, believing that a vital part of their identities is as pilgrims on the Camino” (203). I wonder if that belief leads some to repeat the experience. I haven’t been able to return to Spain to walk—I haven’t had the time or the money to do so—but I’d like to. I suppose I’m a repeat pilgrim who has yet to make the journey again.

Frey also touches on something Tuan writes about: the notion that the longest journeys lead to the most powerful experiences:

within the culture of the Camino there exists the commonly held idea that the longer the journey, the greater its impact on the individual’s life. It is generally those who make the longest journeys who support the idea of time/distance relationships, an idea that is further strengthened by the current ideal of authenticity. (214)

Frey’s research, however, suggests that “what appears to be more important is what the pilgrim brings to the Camino (state of mind, motivation) and how the Camino is remembered and acted on in the postexperience” (214). She refers to Tuan’s suggestion that while sometimes an intimate encounter with place is the result of a lengthy experience with that location, sometimes (Tuan’s metaphor is love at first sight) that intimacy can develop immediately (214). “A week on the Camino may immediately and radically shake some pilgrims’ sense of reality on the road and at home,” Frey writes. “For others, a journey of four months may produce infinite opportunity for meditation and reflection yet confusion and aimlessness back home” (214).

Frey’s conclusion summarizes her arguments. She notes that throughout the book, she has argued “that through movement pilgrims make statements about themselves and society” (218). One such statement is a belief in the power of contact, and that belief is one point of difference between the Camino de Santiago and European Marian pilgrimages:

In the implicit, and often explicit, critique of modern society there is a concomitant valorization of “contact,” felt to be either lost or hard to achieve in a fast-paced world characterized by mass communication and an apparently increased callousness toward human life on political and social levels. These types of contact are varied: with people, with the road, with the past, with nature, with the self, with silence and solitude, with less, with the spiritual and the religious. At the heart of this desire for contact is often an unspoken lack that pushes the person out of home and on to the road. On some level a wish for transformation—perhaps of both the self and society—or at least clarity and insight exists. For these reasons I call the modern pilgrimage a journey of the suffering soul rather than a journey of the suffering body, as journeys to popular Catholic shrines associated with miraculous cures, such as Lourdes, might be characterized. (219)

Another point of difference is the way that these contacts and transformations are “made fundamentally through the body and its movement through time and space”:

the truth of the way is felt on the road. The pilgrim’s body is not only a conduit of knowledge but also a medium of communication, a means to connect and make contact with others, the self, the past and the future, nature. The body can also be used as an agent of social change (“cause pilgrims”), as a way to protest the fast-paced, disheartening aspects of modern society, and as a way to peacefully ask for change. Pilgrims are noticed, and on some level may want to be noticed: perhaps they are making a cry for help, a show of grief, a testament of faith, a plea against resignation and personal and social stagnation, a statement about an alternative way of living, or a public protest. In this way pilgrims not only pray with their feet but also speak with or through their feet or their bicycles. (219-20)

The body’s movement also constructs the meaning of the peregrinos’ journeys:

Throughout the journey pilgrims are confronted with personal, physical, and mental challenges as well as unexpected acts of kindness and patience. Pilgrims encounter new sights, sounds, and ways of feeling and perceiving the world and often develop surprising friendships. Each day’s journey becomes filled with anecdotes and stories that become models for future action. Pain and the limitless horizon may lead one to a greater sense of humility. Being invited into someone’s home may serve as a lesson in generosity and lead to a greater faith in humanity. Receiving unexpected gifts can lead to one’s own desire to give. Being unable to sleep because of thirty snoring people reminds another of the ludic. Feeling God’s presence in the sunset over the sea brings another closer to his religion. Surviving a difficult day lost can bring greater self-reliance or the knowledge that there are not accidents. Singing at the top of one’s lungs in the middle of the meseta may give another a sense of freedom and wild abandon. Sleeping on the floor reminds another of how easy it is to live with less. Making new friends gives another a feeling of sociability and belonging. Each story becomes part of the pilgrim’s journey which can later simply be recalled or applied to another life situation. (220)

“Feelings of one’s potential and a sense of renewal can also emerge during the pilgrimage and at the same time reveal more clearly the everyday lacks that pilgrims suffer,” Frey writes. The interpretation of such experiences as meaningful “sometimes leads to feelings of physical, spiritual, personal, and social renewal—which is why some pilgrims call it the therapy route” (221).

As a result of these feelings and experiences on the pilgrimage, “these new visions of the self and others,” 

pilgrims often express the desire to make a decision, to take action, or to be less materialist, to be more generous with others, to bring decisions—to quit a job, to change careers, to move, or to alter a relationship. The confidence and strength that come while walking and cycling lead many to bring these feelings back to daily life. (221)

“Others experience disappointment,” Frey acknowledges, “but few feel unmoved:

Instead of transformation and clarity, more questions than answers arise. For some, the Camino simply provides good memories and a sense of accomplishment, which can be sufficient. Others are haunted by the inability to make it to Santiago or to find solutions, for examples, to personal crises, social failure, or unexplained pain. Some come to the Camino believing that the ‘therapy route’ will give them the quick fix or the spiritual insight they crave yet feel frustrated when it seems that only others end up with the solutions. Some accept the lack of discovery as ‘not being their time’ and repeat to find what is missing, or they may reject the Camino itself. (221)

For many, she continues,

the pilgrimage appears to be a continuous process, at least on the level of memory, if not of action. The arrival in Santiago marks the beginning of the next phase: the pilgrim’s translation of the stories to home life, which may seem as difficult or as unlikely as the legend of the apostle’s own translation. How does one bring together two distinct realities, life on and life off the road? The challenge is complicated by how the inner journey appears actually to be a series of inner journeys. Pilgrims may feel exhilarated on a physical level yet not feel that their spiritual questions have been resolved. Or perhaps the journey was meant to be a time of personal reflection on a love relationship, and instead of greater clarification the pilgrim felt distracted by body pains, a resurgence of unpleasant childhood memories, or an unanticipated spiritual awakening. (224)

“The simple pairing of an inner and an outer journey,” Frey continues, “is too narrow a metaphor to understand contemporary pilgrims’ experiences” (224).

“The modern pilgrimage to Santiago is ecumenical, even though its symbols and infrastructure have a distinct religious history and meaning,” Frey writes (228). “In what appears to be a desacralization of pilgrimage by alternative and competing interpretations,” she writes, 

many, especially the religiously devout, fear the loss of its essence: faith, belief, community, communion, and religious and spiritual sentiment. In general the proliferation of individualized spiritualities is interpreted as the rejection of religion and, by analogy, the loss of community and a sign of further social fracture. Yet is appears to be more accurate to say that for participants faith and belief actively life and grow in the contemporary pilgrimage. (228-29)

Like Coleman, Frey accepts the idea that pilgrimage—at least, this particular example of pilgrimage—is complex and multivalent, best approached as “a case-study rather than focussing on the institution itself as a firmly bounded category of action” (“Do You Believe in Pilgrimage” 363), unlike Margry, who sets out to establish clearly defined boundaries for this phenomenon. But, more importantly, Frey is interested in the Camino’s potential to effect personal transformations in its participants:

Many, at least temporarily, taste something different but are unable or unwilling to integrate the Camino reality as a deep, personal, structural change. The simple act of making the decision to go and follow through with a dream may be sufficient and the greatest achievement. Most pilgrims, however, find that deep personal transformation occurs over time through action and reflection, that the Camino may have provided the catalyst, but they work to integrate the Camino and daily reality. In a sense one chooses to be changed. (230-31)

As a case-study, and one involving a phenomenon I have experienced, I found Frey’s book useful, even illuminating. I was particularly interested in her suggestion that walking can be a way to experience the land. She contends, several times, that it is a way to “see individual blades of grass” (75), and while I think the relationship between mobility and place is more complex, I think there is some truth to this claim. At the same time, her emphasis on the importance of constructing stories about the experience of the Camino is important, particularly as a way to engage with the territory through which one walks as place. I am also convinced by the argument that long-distance walks can lead to personal change. I was changed by my experience on the Camino, and the walking projects I’ve engaged with since then, particularly Muscle and Bone, my walk through the Haldimand Tract in southwestern Ontario, have led to further changes. I’ve been warned about the subjective nature of such feelings of transformation, but I think they are true, and I think they are powerful. In any case, I’m glad I read Frey’s book—particularly since it’s the first time in quite a while that I tackled something that was actually on my reading list! In other news, it’s time I revised that list. Perhaps I’ll spend some time on that after I write my conference paper.

Works Cited

Brierley, John. A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago. 16th edition, Camino Guides, 2019.

Coleman, Simon. “Accidental Pilgrims: Passions and Ambiguities of Travel to Christian Shrines in Europe.” Brown Journal of World Affairs, vol. 22, no. 1, 2015, pp. 71-81.

——.Coleman, Simon. “Do You Believe in Pilgrimage?: Communitas, Contestation and Beyond.” Anthropological Theory, vol. 2, no. 3, 2002, pp. 355-68. DOI: 10.1177/1463499602003805.

——. “From England’s Nazareth to Sweden’s Jerusalem: Movement, (Virtual) Landscapes and Pilgrimage.” Reframing Pilgrimage: Cultures in Motion. Edited by Simon Coleman and John Eade, Routledge, 2004, pp. 45-68.

Frey, Nancy Louise. Pilgrim Stories: On and Off the Road to Santiago, U of California P, 1998.

Margry, Peter Jan. “Secular Pilgrimage: A Contradiction in Terms?” Shrines and Pilgrimage in the Modern World: New Itineraries into the Sacred. Edited by Peter Jan Margry, Amsterdam UP, 2008, pp. 13-46. JSTOR. Accessed 14 September 2018.

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

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

41. Michael Agnew, “‘Spiritually, I’m Always in Lourdes’: Perceptions of Home and Away among Serial Pilgrims”

agnew lourdes cover

Michael Agnew’s article is one of the essays on pilgrimage my friend Matthew Anderson sent me last week. As I read these essays, I am gaining a sense of the contours of the field of the anthropology of pilgrimage, and that’s the purpose of this research: to come to some definition of pilgrimage that satisfies me, for the time being, and to determine how my own walks are similar to and different from pilgrimages. Since I walked the Camino Francés in Spain in 2013, I’ve thought about other walks I’ve made as pilgrimages, but that may or may not be the best way to think about them. Gaining a clearer sense of what counts as a pilgrimage in the academic literature is important if I’m going to be able to sort this question out.

Agnew begins by referencing work by James Clifford on mobility as “constitutive of cultural meanings in and of themselves, and not merely a supplement, a transfer or an extension of these cultural meanings” (517). Travel or mobility, he continues, is not secondary to dwelling, for Clifford, and dwelling itself is not merely the ground from which travel occurs (517). The opposition between mobility and dwelling that concerns Clifford is clearly related to Yi-Fu Tuan’s opposition between space and place, and so it would probably be a good idea to track down the texts Agnew cites here: Clifford’s essay “Travelling Cultures,” which is in an anthology on cultural studies I think I have at home, and his 1997 book, Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century. I found this starting point interesting, because Agnew is actually interested in two places: the pilgrims’ homes in the UK, and Lourdes. The actual process of moving from one place to another is ignored, perhaps because it is less interesting than the pilgrims’ experiences in either place.

After that theoretical introduction, Agnew explains that his interest is in “the process of conceptual ‘home-making’ that is initiated by repeat visitors to religious shrines” (517)–particularly by repeat visitors to Lourdes in France. “I suggest that in the experience of serial pilgrims to Lourdes, that is, pilgrims who return to Lourdes each summer and in some cases several times a year as a habitual element of their lived faith,”

an existential state or physical site of dwelling is not only no longer the fixed, bounded space from which one departs and returns. It is also carried with the traveller to their destination, the destination is carried physically and cognitively back to their typical place of residence, and the destination itself may also be a secondary if not primary idealized site of dwelling in the truest sense. (517)

According to Agnew, “individual pilgrims can and do perceive and interact with them”–that is, the shrines that are their destinations–“as a ‘home away from home,’ a ‘second home,’ or in some instances their one true home, the one place in the world where they are at peace with themselves, where they belong” (517-18). “[T]he boundaries once erected between the home of the pilgrim and the away of the religious shrine are disrupted by the often habitual and indeed addictive nature of pilgrimage, ritual cross-currents continuously flowing and binding together ‘home’ and ‘away'” (518). I know people who have made multiple pilgrimages (in Spain, France, Portugal, and Japan), and although I wouldn’t describe their experiences as reflecting an addiction or a habit, I would acknowledge that there is something about a walking pilgrimage, its relative balance between exertion and comfort, and between new experiences and repeated ones, and even its potential for spiritual experiences, however those experiences are defined or understood, that makes it the kind of activity many people would like to repeat. I’d like to return to Spain to walk someday, not necessarily on the Camino Francés, but perhaps on one of the other routes to Santiago de Compostela. First, though, I need to finish this degree.

Next, Agnew refers to Nigel Rapport and Andrew Dawson, who write about “perceptions of home in a world of movement, a concept that is increasingly subject to a great deal of flux and yet nevertheless still holds a significant store of nostalgic resonance in an otherwise dispersed and fragmented world” (518). Therefore, Rapport and Dawson argue, we need to shift our thinking from places to spaces (518). A sense of home as a community in microcosm is, they argue, “anachronistic” and “not reflecting a world of contemporary movement”; for that reason, they contend that we need a mobile conception of home (518). Home, they continue, is a resilient concept, and people don’t necessarily fix their identities to places (518). I’m more interested in place, myself, but I probably should take a look at their 1998 book, Migrants of Identity: Perceptions of Home in a World of Movement, if only as an example of the kind of argument that values a postmodern consideration of fragmentation and movement.

Agnew notes that home and movement are important concepts in the study of tourism as well. John Urry, for instance, writes that the appeal of leisure travel rests in a desire to leave home and “revel in an unfamiliar locale’ (518). The differences between the familiar and the faraway produce liminal zones, according to Urry, and the places visited by tourists need to be distinguished in some way from their regular homes (518). “Holidays for Urry are less about reinforcing collective memories and experiences and instead find their basis in the pleasure that comes from out-of-the-ordinary experiences,” Agnew writes (518-19). However, Agnew also notes that Edward Bruner problematizes “this binary between the ordinary and extraordinary/home and away that Urry sees as the hallmark of the appeal of tourism” (519). Bruner’s examples include package tours, in which hotels or resorts become temporary homes for groups of tourists, and he suggests that tourists typically experience a sense of home created by the tourism industry. Tourists expect to experience some things that are familiar to them; they want the comforts of home and to interact with people like themselves (519). Despite Bruner’s deconstruction of Urry’s distinction between familiar home and unfamiliar destination, Urry’s argument still has some merit; I remember reading an early edition of the book Agnew refers to when I was studying the travel writing of James De Mille at York University.

From there, Agnew turns (as most writers on pilgrimage seem to do) to Victor and Edith Turner and their writing on pilgrimage. The point of pilgrimage, as Agnew summarizes their argument, is to go to a far away holy place which is approved by others (the church hierarchy, for example). It’s a collective goal, then, rather than an individualistic or idiosyncratic one (520). However, Agnew argues, the Turners’ perspective “does not capture the full range of pilgrim experience, particularly that of serial pilgrims” (520). For Agnew, the more important writings on pilgrimage are to be found in John Eade and Michael Sallnow’s anthology Contesting the Sacred, which scrutinizes the Turners’ conceptualizations of pilgrimage, particularly the notion that pilgrimage fosters communitas (520).

Another critic of the Turners is Erik Cohen, who contends that they were too focused on Christian pilgrimages, and ignored examples from other religions where religious and political centres were fused, and where the pilgrimage centre is not a centre “out there” somewhere, but the centre of the world itself (520). I don’t understand Cohen’s argument, but then again, I haven’t read it. Another text to add to my “maybe” list!

Agnew cites Simon Coleman’s understanding of Walsingham in the UK as “a sort of second home for habitual pilgrims” which derives its meaning from its exceptional quality as well as its familiarity (521). He suggests that other studies of pilgrimage, such as Thomas Tweed’s Our Lady in Exile, an ethnography of Cuban-American Catholics and their relation to the shrine of Our Lady of Charity in Miami, and Zlatko Skrbis’s research on Croatian immigrants in Australia and their connections to the Marian apparition shrine at Medjugorje in Bosnia-Herzegovina, bear out Coleman’s argument in different ways (521-22).

After this literature review, Agnew turns to his own ethnographic study of UK pilgrims who make repeated visits to Lourdes. People go to Lourdes for different reasons. The sick, elderly, and disabled hope for a dramatic cure; others volunteer as caregivers for pilgrims who need assistance (523). Returning pilgrims conceive of Lourdes “as a place set apart from quotidian life as the ideal, while still remaining intimately familiar and safe” (523). They value the sense of community they find there, which they see as an experience of “the Christian love command, fully realized in a unique and highly charged environment” (524). Lourdes also provides them with an opportunity to enact their faith in an embodied manner (524).

The emphasis here on community recalls the Turners’ term, communitas, which Agnew defines as “the dissolution of social structures and boundaries and the formation of spontaneous and immediate personal relations,” an experience evoked by many pilgrims to Lourdes (525). Perhaps it’s because of communitas that so many Lourdes pilgrims describe their pilgrimages as addictive experiences, and Lourdes itself as a place they feel compelled to return to (525). Nancy Frey, in her writing on pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago, and Ian Reader, in his writing on walking pilgrims on the Japanese island of Shikoku, both recognize that for some pilgrims, the state of being transient becomes, ironically, a permanent state, a new way of being at home in the world (526-27). I met people like that on the Camino Francés: they simply didn’t want to lose the intensity of their Camino experience, and so they scratched out a living working in hostels or albergues and walking here and there along the pilgrimage route.

Lourdes pilgrims feel at home there, particularly in the grotto where the Virgin Mary is believed to have appeared (527). Touching the rock in the grotto is a tactile, grounded experience, premised on the shrine’s fixity, Agnew suggests. “[T]he appeal of a fixed, grounded place clearly still holds,” he admits, despite his argument that “travel and movement inform processes of home-making for Lourdes pilgrims” (528-29). “Indeed,” he writes, “it is the conception of these spaces as established and rigid that likely inspires movement to them in the first place” (529).

Lourdes home-making, Agnew continues, is a “reciprocal, back-and-forth loop” (529). It’s not enough to remain in Lourdes; rather, “some element of the experience, some reminder, some touchstone had to be brought back home with them”–the pilgrims–“to England” (529). They build replicas of the Lourdes grotto, or put statues of Our Lady of Lourdes in their homes (529-30). Some take water from Lourdes home and use it “both as a sort of morning cleanser and as a spiritual aid” (532). Many pilgrims value the sense of community at Lourdes, and describe the UK as cold and unfamiliar by comparison, and as a way of maintaining a connection to Lourdes, they participate in reunion masses for pilgrims in the UK (532).

“The centre may still indeed be out there on the geographical and cognitive margins, as Turner posits, but particularly for serial pilgrims returning to Lourdes, it is also intimately familiar, a storehouse for memories of pilgrimages past, and a site for continued spiritual refreshment,” Agnew concludes (533). I can’t speak to the experience of Lourdes, but I would suggest that repeated experiences of any space–at least, any space of any complexity or richness–are likely to turn it into place, as it becomes a known and familiar quantity, something of which the individual develops a deep and intimate knowledge. So it’s not surprising that serial pilgrims to Lourdes develop a sense of the shrine as “intimately familiar.” How could it be otherwise?

I’m not sure that Agnew’s essay has much bearing on my own research, but it adds to my understanding of pilgrimage, and as I suggested at the beginning of this post, I need to know about pilgrimage if I’m to understand how (or even whether) my walking practice is related to that phenomenon. So, for that reason, Agnew’s essay was a worthwhile read.

Work Cited

Agnew, Michael. “‘Spiritually, I’m Always in Lourdes’: Perceptions of Home and Away among Serial Pilgrims.” Studies in Religion vol. 44, no. 4, 2015, pp. 516-35. DOI: 10.1177/0008429815596001.

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

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

london orbital

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

35. Thelma Poirier, Rock Creek

rock creek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

Poirier, Thelma. Rock Creek. Coteau, 1998.

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

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

32. Eudora Welty, “A Worn Path”

eudora welty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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