Reading and Walking

Walking, Reading, and Reading about Walking

Tag: Yi-Fu Tuan

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

ways of walking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

20. Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience

yi-fu tuan space and place

 

Long before I started working on this degree, I knew I was going to need to read Yi-Fu Tuan’s 1977 book Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience as part of my work. Everyone interested in movement and embodiment in places and/or spaces cites this book. A former colleague here used Space and Place as a big part of the theoretical basis of her PhD dissertation. After reading Tim Ingold’s book on lines, this book seemed like a logical place to continue thinking about the human relationship to localities of different kinds. 

Tuan describes this book as an essay—although with 14 chapters, it’s actually more like 14 separate essays—and I think he means essay in its original sense, as an exploration of questions rather than a presentation of answers. His approach is descriptive, aiming to suggest rather than conclude, and to ask questions rather than give questions—an exploratory work, in other words (7). There are three themes in the book, he writes. The first is biology: “The human body lies prone, or it is upright. Upright it has top and bottom, front and back, right and left. How are these bodily postures, divisions, and values extrapolated onto circumambient space?” (6). This concern with embodiment dovetails with the phenomenology I’ve been reading (and will continue to read). The second theme concerns the relations of space and place. “‘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)

I’m very interested in the distinction between space and place, and in the ways that space is transformed into place. Can the act of walking through space, for example, enable such a transformation? Can place be defined as a line, to borrow Tim Ingold’s terminology, rather than a dot? The last theme of Tuan’s book is the range of experience or knowledge: “Experience can be direct or intimate, or it can be indirect and conceptual, mediated by symbols,” he writes (6). Intimate experiences are difficult to express, and therefore it can be dismissed as private and idiosyncratic, and therefore unimportant. “In the large literature on environmental quality, relatively few works attempt to understand how people feel about space and place, to take into account the different modes of experience (sensorimotor, tactile, visual, conceptual), and to interpret space and place as images of complex—often ambivalent—feelings” (6-7). Artists, particularly writers, have tended to be more successful than social scientists in representing intimate experiences, although humanistic psychologists, philosophers, anthropologists and geographers have also recorded “intricate worlds of human experience” (7). According to Tuan, this book “attempts to systematize humanistic insights, to display them in conceptual frames (here organized as chapters) so that their importance is evident to us not only as thoughtful people curious to know more about our own nature—our potential for experiencing—but also as tenants of the earth practically concerned with the design of a more human habitat” (7).

Finally, Tuan is interested in “shared traits that transcend cultural particularities and may therefore reflect the general human condition,” rather than exploring explanations based on cultural differences (5). “The purpose of this essay is not to produce a handbook of how cultures affect human attitudes to space and place,” Tuan argues. “The essay is, rather, a prologue to human culture in its countless variety; it focuses on general dispositions of human dispositions, capacities, and needs, and how culture emphasizes or distorts them” (5-6). Tuan uses a lot of examples from anthropology to show how different cultures have different ideas about space, place, time, and other topics discussed in this book, but I’m not convinced that he identifies the universal attitudes about them that he is seeking. Perhaps after I’ve finished writing this summary I’ll have a different response to his book. That, for me, is the value of these immanent readings of texts: I figure out what is happening in a particular text by reviewing my notes and condensing them. “How will I know what I think until I see what I say?” the woman in an anecdote told by the British novelist E.M. Forster reportedly asked (Forster 108). Like her, I don’t know what the authors I’ve read actually think until I see what I’ve written about them.

Tuan’s second chapter discusses what he means by experience, and that discussion involves a particular conception of epistemology. That word, he writes, “is a cover-all term for the various modes through which a person knows and constructs a reality. These modes range from the more direct and passive senses of smell, taste, and touch, to active visual perception and the indirect modes of symbolization” (8). “To experience,” he continues, “is to learn; it means acting on the given and creating out of the given. The given cannot be known in itself. What can be known is a reality that is a construct of experience, a creation of feeling and thought” (9). Feeling, he contends, is not a series of “discrete sensations” (10). Instead, “memory and anticipation”—which are modes of thinking, of cognition—“are able to wield sensory impacts into a shifting stream of experience so that we may speak of a life of feeling as we do of a life of thought” (10). Feeling and thought are not opposed, with the one registering subjective states, and the other reporting objective reality; instead, for Tuan, “they lie near two ends of an experiential continuum, and both are ways of knowing” (10).

We experience the world through our senses, and our experiences of space and spatial qualities relies primarily on kinesthesia, sight, and touch (12). Kinesthesia, or movement, is an essential part of our experience of space; by shifting from one place to another, we acquire a sense of direction. “Forward, backward, and sideways are experientially differentiated,” Tuan suggests, “that is, known subconsciously in the act of motion. Space assumes a rough coordinate frame centered on the mobile and purposive self” (12). “Purposive movement and perception, both visual and haptic”—that is, related to the senses of touch and proprioception—”give human beings their familiar world of disparate objects in space,” he continues. “Place is a special kind of object. It is a concretion of value, though not a valued thing that can be handled or carried about easily; it is an object in which one can dwell” (12). Space, on the other hand, “can be variously experienced as the relative location of objects or places, as the distances and expanses that separate or link places, and—more abstractly—as the area defined by a network of places” (12). Can the space through which I walk become place? Does the act of walking lead to a concretion of value? These are questions I will need to consider.

The distinction between place and space is important for Tuan. “Place is a type of object,” he contends. “Places and objects define space, giving it a geometric personality” (17). We come to know specific spaces as places through experience (17-18). “An object of place achieves concrete reality when our experience of it is total, that is, through all the senses as well as with the active and reflective mind,” Tuan continues (18). Take, for example, a neighbourhood: it only becomes a place as we come to know it, as we become familiar with it, and as we think about and remember it. And yet, people can become attached to places of an enormous size, such as a nation-state, of which they can only have had limited direct experience, because such places are experienced symbolically—through language and other abstract forms of communication (18). 

In his fourth chapter, Tuan returns to the twin themes of space and place. “‘Space’ is an abstract term for a complex set of ideas,” he writes, noting that people of different cultures have different ways of dividing up their world, assigning values to the various segments they identify, and measuring those parts (34). However, there are cross-cultural similarities, and these rest ultimately on taking the human being as the measure of all things. “This is to say,” he continues, “if we look for fundamental principles of spatial organization we find them in two kinds of facts: the posture and structure of the human body, and the relations (whether close or distant) between human beings” (34). We impose a schema—an interpretive framework—on space merely be being present in it, although most of the time we are not aware of doing so. We note the absence of that schema when we are lost, and we mark its presence on ritual occasions that make us aware of our values, including those that are manifest in space (36-37). Our vocabularies for spatial organization and value have common terms, which are ultimately derived from the human body (37). Our senses of front and back, right and left, vertical and horizontal, and high and low, Tuan argues, are derived from the posture and shape of the human body and the way it occupies space (40). Cultures tend to be biased toward the right side of the body, versus the left, and towards the front, rather than what is behind (42-44). “Man is the measure,” Tuan writes. “In a literal sense, the human body is the measure of direction, location, and distance” (44). Not surprisingly, Tuan cites Maurice Merleau-Ponty regarding the anthropocentric nature of spatial prepositions (45). Our bodies, for Tuan, are the source of our understanding of space.

In his fifth chapter, Tuan thinks about spaciousness. Space is related to our sense of spaciousness, as population density is also related to crowding, but ample space is not always experienced as spaciousness, and a high density of population does not necessarily mean feeling crowded (51). It’s the feeling of spaciousness or crowding that interests Tuan, rather than the way they can be measured. What is associated with those feelings? A sense of spaciousness, he suggests, is correlated with feelings of freedom, whereas immobility is related to feelings of confinement and construction (51). Tools—by which Tuan means vehicles, primarily—can enlarge our senses of space and spaciousness as well:

A bicycle enlarges the human sense of space, and likewise the sports car. They are machines at man’s command. A perky sports car responds to the driver’s slightest wish. It opens up a world of speed, air, and movement. Accelerating over a straight road or swerving over a curve, momentum and gravity—these dry terms out of a physics book—become the felt qualities of motion. Small aircrafts of the kind in use during the 1920s are capable of extending man’s freedom, his space, as well as putting the human being into a more intimate relationship with the vastness of nature. (53)

Vehicles allow for gains in speed, overcoming greater distances, and conquering space, although they do not nullify its sensible size: “on the contrary, space continues to open out for him,” meaning the driver or cyclist or pilot. On the other hand, when transportation becomes a passive experience,

conquest of space can mean its diminishment. The speed that gives freedom to man causes him to lose a sense of spaciousness. Think of the jetliner. It crosses the continent in a few hours, yet its passengers’ experience of speed and space is probably less vivid than that of a motorcyclist roaring down a freeway. Passengers have no control over the machine and cannot feel it as an extension of their organic power. Passengers are luxury crates—safely belted in their seats—being transported passively from point to point. (53-54)

I agree with the second part of this argument, but I wonder about the first. Speed may lead to a sense of spaciousness by allowing for a sense of power and control, but I’m not convinced that motorized transportation of any kind is conducive to experiencing space in a sensory or sensorimotor fashion. Moving slowly through a landscape is much more likely to impart a sense of its size, and therefore of its spaciousness. The experience of tearing down a highway in a speeding vehicle is an experience of momentum and gravity and centrifugal force, but not necessarily an experience of spaciousness.

The exploration of spaciousness leads to another discussion of the distinction between space and place:

To be open and free is to be exposed and vulnerable. Open space has no trodden paths and signposts. It has no fixed pattern of established human meaning; it is like a blank sheet on which meaning may be imposed. Enclosed and humanized space is place. Compared to space, place is a calm center of established values. Human beings require both space and place. Human lives are a dialectical movement between shelter and venture, attachment and freedom. In open space one can become intensely aware of place; and in the solitude of a sheltered place the vastness of space beyond acquires a haunting presence. (54)

I doubt that there is any open space without trodden paths or landmarks that function as signposts—not for any culture or civilization. That description of space is a fictional one: it doesn’t exist, and Tuan acknowledges that later in the book. Nevertheless, he points out that different cultures experience open spaces differently: “Americans have learned to accept the open plains of the West as a symbol of opportunity and freedom, but to the Russian peasants boundless space used to have the opposite meaning. It connoted despair rather than opportunity; it inhibited rather than encouraged action” (55-56). But Tuan also argues that solitude is related to feelings of spaciousness. “Solitude is a condition for acquiring a sense of immensity,” he writes. “Alone one’s thoughts wander freely over space. In the presence of others they are pulled back by an awareness of other personalities who project their own worlds onto the same area” (59). As more people appear in a space, a sense of spaciousness will eventually yield to one of crowding (59). Being under the gaze of others can be restricting as well (59). As responses to crowding, “[e]tiquette and rudeness are opposite means to the same end: helping people to avoid contact when such contact threatens to be too intense” (60). I’m not sure any of these observations apply to all cultures at all times; in other words, I’m not convinced that Tuan is finding the human universals he says he seeks in his introduction. And he acknowledges this: “How physically close we tolerate or enjoy the presence of others, for how long, and under what conditions vary noticeably from culture to culture” (62). Nevertheless, he suggests that crowded conditions have a cost: “The cost appears to be a chance to develop deep inwardness in the human personality. Privacy and solitude are necessary for sustained reflection and a hard look at self, and through the understanding of the self to the full appreciation of other personalities” (65). That sounds like an attempt to universalize specifically Western concepts, and I don’t believe that attempt is likely to be borne out by anthropological or historical examples, although I could very well be wrong about that.

In his sixth chapter, Tuan thinks about the relationship between spatial skill or ability and spatial knowledge. “Spatial ability becomes spatial knowledge when movements and changes of location can be envisaged,” he writes (68-69). Spatial knowledge is not necessary for spatial skill: people can find their way around a neighbourhood, for example, while finding it difficult to give a stranger directions. Spatial skill is not conscious; it appears to be embodied—although Tuan does not use that term—because examples of similar skills include touch typing or riding a bicycle, “occasions on which we perform complex acts without the help of mental or material plans” (68). Tuan cites studies where human participants and rats learn to negotiate mazes by integrating tactile, kinesthetic patterns. “They learn a succession of movements rather than a spatial configuration or map,” he notes, and the fact that rats perform just as well as humans in this task suggests that our large brains are redundant to the task of learning pathfinding skills (70). Humans who have participated in such studies find themselves unable to describe or reproduce the mazes they have navigated (72). Such experiments suggest

that when people come to know a street grid they know a succession of movements appropriate to recognized landmarks. They do not acquire any precise mental map of the neighbourhood. Of course, a rough image of spatial relations can be learned without deliberate effort; people do pick up a sense of the starting point here, the goal out there, and a scattering of intermediate landmarks, but the mental image is shaky. Precision is not required in the practical business of moving about. A person needs only to have a general sense of direction to the goals, and to know what to do next on each segment of the journey. (72-73)

Moreover, after making a journey, people seem psychologically predisposed to discount departures from the route they imagine they are taking: in studies, when asked to reproduce their journeys in drawings, people simplify their routes, leaving out or minimizing the angularity of the turns they made (73). What this suggests, Tuan argues, is that “[s]patial ability precedes spatial knowledge. Mental worlds are refined out of sensory and kinesthetic experiences. Spatial knowledge enhances spatial ability” (74). And, I would add, spatial ability is proof that something like embodied knowledge exists—knowledge that is felt and experienced, but that is difficult to express symbolically, in words or images. Tuan seems to agree. “In a narrow sense,” Tuan writes, “spatial skill is what we can accomplish with our body. Its meaning approximates that of agility” (75).

In the next chapter, Tuan discusses mythical space and place. “Two principal kinds of mythical space may be distinguished,” he argues:

In the one, mythical space is a fuzzy area of defective knowledge surrounding the empirically known; it frames pragmatic space. In the other it is the spatial component of a world view, a conception of localized values within which people carry on their practical activities. Both kinds of space, well described by scholars for nonliterate and traditional societies, persist in the modern world. They persist because for individuals as well as for groups there will always be areas of the hazily known and of the unknown, and because it is likely that some people will always be driven to understand man’s place in nature in a holistic way. (86)

The first kind of mythical space, he continues, “is a conceptual extension of the familiar and workaday spaces given by direct experience” (86). The second kind, however, “functions as a component in a world view or cosmology. It is better articulated and more consciously held than mythical space of the first kind” (86). It constitutes a world view, a “more or less systematic attempt to make sense of environment,” and these coherent and complex systems of belief produce a sense of order and of the place of humans within nature. Two common schemata exist in cultures across the world as ways of answering the question of how we are related to the earth: 

In one schema the human body is perceived to be an image of the cosmos. In the other man is the center of a cosmic frame oriented to the cardinal points and the vertical axis. We have here two attempts to organize space, not with any narrow purpose in mind, but to gain a sense of security in the universe. (88-89)

Tuan explores these ideas in detail and presents a number of examples before concluding that mythical space is an intellectual construct that can be very elaborate, as well as being “a response of feeling and imagination to fundamental human needs” (99).

Tuan’s eighth chapter discusses architectural space and how humans, as compared to animals or birds that build structures, are aware of what they are doing. In the ninth chapter, he explores the experience of time and space. The discussion in this chapter of how antiquity tends to be idealized in traditional cultures reminds me of a lecture in my first-year journalism course, and I’m sure that Professor Bird was drawing on Tuan’s thinking in that class. Tuan also suggests that perspectival vision, developed in Europe during the Renaissance, changed our experience of time and space by structuring them to conform to a central human subject: “Under the influence of landscape pictures, painted or captured by the camera, we learn to organize visual elements into a dramatic spatio-temporal structure,” he writes (123), creating a cone-shaped space that “opens up from the point where one stands, to the broad horizon that separates earth from sky” (123). “Every perspective landscape painting or photograph teaches us to see time “flowing” through space,” Tuan contends. “The distant view need not call forth the idea of future time; the view could be our backward glance and the vanishing road the path we have already trodden. Both the past and the future can be evoked by the distant scene” (124). This shift in visual experience has had profound implications for our experience of time: “Historical time and oriented space are aspects of a single experience. Intention creates a spatio-temporal structure of ‘here is now,’ ‘there is then’” (129). If this argument can be supported by evidence, it suggests that the invention of perspectival representation was a momentous step in changing the way we perceive time and space.

Tuan also notes that distance is often measured in time, which means time is not only envisioned as an arrow pointing at the future, but rather that it “is perceived to be repetitious, like the swing of the pendulum, and it is calibrated to internal biological rhythms as well to the observable periodicities of nature” (129). Distance is measured in units of time, he continues, to “convey a clear sense of effort. The useful answer to questions of distance tells us how much effort is needed—what resources of energy are required—to achieve a goal” (129). Short distances (in cultures where people walk) can be measured in paces. Long distances can be expressed in “sleeps” or days—something that is very common during long-distance walks. Tuan draws a sweeping conclusion from this example. “The intention to go to a place creates historical time: the place is a goal in the future,” he argues:

The future cannot, however, be left open and undefined. . . . This constraint on the future, on historical time, is itself a strong reason for estimating distance in time units. . . . Time everywhere regulates human lives and livelihood. The essential difference between technological and nontechnological societies is that in the former, time is calibrated to the precision of the hour and the minute. (130)

Finally, Tuan returns to the theme of his previous chapter, contending that there are three different kinds of mythic or cosmic time: cosmogonic, astronomic, and human. Cosmogonic time tells stories about origins, including the creation of the universe, while human time is the course of a human life. “Both are linear and one-dimensional,” Tuan notes. Astronomic time, on the other hand, “is experienced as the sun’s daily round and the parade of seasons; its nature is repetition” (131). Astronomic time is best represented symmetrically, but human time is directional and asymmetrical: “one’s back is to the past, one’s face to the future. Living is a perpetual stepping forward into light and abandoning what is behind one’s back, cannot be seen, is dark and one’s past” (132-35).

Tuan’s final chapters address our intimate experiences of place. “It is impossible to discuss experiential space without introducing the objects and places that define space,” he writes at the beginning of his tenth chapter (136):

Space is transformed into place as it acquires definition and meaning. We have noted how strange space turns into neighborhood, and how the attempt to impose a spatial order by means of a grid of cardinal directions results in the establishment of significant places, including the cardinal points and center. Distance is a meaningless spatial concept apart from the idea of goal or place. It it possible, however, to describe place without introducing explicitly spatial concepts. “Here” does not necessarily entail “there.” (136)

Places can be locations where we have intimate experiences and occasions (136-37). “Place is a pause in movement,” Tuan suggests. “Animals, including human beings, pause at a locality because it satisfied certain biological needs. The pause makes it possible for a locality to become a center of felt value” (138). Our lasting affection for home—assuming that is experienced universally, which is it not—“is at least partly a result of such intimate and nurturing experiences,” in which our parents—I think Tuan means our mothers—are our primary place (138). “Each intimate exchange has a locale which partakes in the quality of the human encounter,” Tuan writes. “There are as many intimate places as there are occasions when human beings truly connect” (141). This argument would suggest that the path I take, or make, when I walk cannot be experienced as place, because I am not pausing or having intimate experiences along the way. In order to contend that my path is a place, I would have to argue against Tuan’s description of place. That’s good to know. However, that’s not the only way Tuan describes place. “Place exists at different scales,” Tuan writes. “At one extreme a favorite armchair is a place, at the other extreme the whole earth” (149). The armchair suggests a pause and an experience (at least potentially) of intimacy, whereas the earth suggests a very different notion of place, one that could only be understood symbolically. For Tuan, “[h]omeland is an important type of place at the medium scale. It is a region (city or countryside) large enough to support a people’s livelihood,” and our attachment to our homelands can be intense (149). “Human groups nearly everywhere tend to regard their own homeland as the center of the world,” Tuan continues (149):

In diverse parts of the world this sense of centrality is made explicit by a geometrical conception of space oriented to the cardinal points. Home is at the center of an astronomically determined spatial system. A vertical axis, linking heaven to the underworld, passes through it. The stars are perceived to move around one’s abode; home is the focus point of a cosmic structure. Such a conception of place ought to give it supreme value; to abandon it would be hard to imagine. Should destruction occur we may reasonably conclude that the people would be thoroughly demoralized, since the ruin of their settlement implies the ruin of their cosmos. Yet this does not necessarily happen. Human beings have strong recuperative powers. Cosmic views can be adjusted to suit new circumstances. With the destruction of one “center of the world,” another can be built next to it, or in another location altogether, and it in turn becomes the “center of the world.” “Center” is not a particular point on the earth’s surface; it is a concept in mythic thought rather than a deeply felt value bound to unique events and locality. In mythic thought several world centers may coexist in the same general area without contradiction. It is possible to believe that the axis of the world passes through the settlement as a whole as well as through the separate dwellings within it. Space that is stretched over a grid of cardinal points makes the idea of place vivid, but it does not make any particular geographical locality the place. A spatial frame determined by the stars is anthropocentric rather than place-centric, and it can be moved as human beings themselves move. (149-50)

I wonder if this is true, or if it’s true of all cultures in all places. I really don’t know. Tuan suggests that a profound attachment to the homeland is a worldwide phenomenon (154), but is that attachment always experienced mythically? Don’t traditional societies have different attachments to homeland than modern, Western societies? And isn’t that attachment symbolic or even imaginary, as Benedict Anderson argues? 

In his twelfth chapter, Tuan argues that places are often defined according to their visibility:

Place can be defined in a variety of ways. Among them is this: place is whatever stable object catches our attention. As we look at a panoramic scene our eyes pause at points of interest. Each pause is time enough to create an image of place that looms large momentarily in our view. The pause may be of such short duration and the interest so fleeting that we may not be fully aware of having focused on any particular object; we believe we have simply been looking at the general scene. Nonetheless these pauses have occurred. It is not possible to look at a scene in general; our eyes keep searching for points of rest. We may be deliberately searching for a landmark, or a feature on the horizon may be so prominent that it compels attention. As we gaze and admire a famous mountain peak on the horizon, it looms so large in our consciousness that the picture we take of it with a camera is likely to disappoint us, revealing a midget where we would expect to find a giant. (161)

Once again, place is defined as a pause, but this time, these pauses are fleeting and visual. Some places, certainly, are visually striking, such as mountains. Nevertheless, not every place has visual importance:

Many places, profoundly significant to particular individuals and groups, have little visual prominence. They are known viscerally, as it were, and not through the discerning eye or mind. A function of literary art is to give visibility to intimate experiences, including those of place. The Grand Tetons of landscape do not require the services of literature; they advertise themselves by sheer size. Literary art can illuminate the inconspicuous fields of human care such as a Midwestern town, a Mississippi county, a big-city neighbourhood, or an Appalachian hollow. (162)

I like this quotation—so much that I posted it on Facebook—because of its emphasis on the work of writers, and by extension artists, in creating a sense of place. It suggests that perhaps the path I take or make when I am walking could become a place as a result of the writing I produce about it. Perhaps I don’t have to launch an argument against Tuan’s suggestion that places are pauses, if I can claim that a space can become a place through an aesthetic response to it. 

In his thirteenth chapter, Tuan returns to the theme of the relationship between time and place. This relationship presents an intricate problem that invites different approaches, and in this chapter, he tells us, he will explore three such approaches: 

time as motion or flow and place as a pause in the temporal current; attachment to place as a function of time, captured in the phrase, “it takes time to know a place”; and place as time made visible, or place as memorial to times past. (179)

“Place is an organized world of meaning,” Tuan writes:

It is essentially a static concept. If we see the world as a process, constantly changing, we should not be able to develop any sense of place. Movement in space can be in one direction or circular, implying repetition. A common symbol for time is the arrow; others are the circular orbit and the swinging pendulum. Thus images of space and time merge. The arrow represents directional time but also movement in space to a goal. Goal is both a point in time and a point in space. (179)

“Goal is one of the three categories of place that can be distinguished when movement is in one direction, with no thought of return,” Tuan continues; “the other two are home and camps or wayside stations. Home is the stable world to be transcended, goal is the stable world to be attained, and camps are the rest stops for the journey from one world to the other. The arrow is the appropriate image” (180). Movements involve paths, which tend to be circular, in the sense that they are paths to and from places. “As a result of habitual use the path itself acquires a density of meaning and a stability that are characteristic traits of place,” Tuan writes, but such places have the intimacy of home (180-82). As I read this, I wondered if it was true—if, for example, tribal cultures that move seasonally along the same paths might not come to experience those paths as places as well. This is a question Tuan addresses immediately:

The nomad’s world consists of places connected by a path. Do nomads, who are frequently on the move, have a strong sense of place? Quite possibly. Nomads move, but they move within a circumscribed area, and the distance between the two extreme points of their peregrination seldom exceeds 200 miles. Nomads pause and establish camp at roughly the same places (pastures and water holes) year after year; the paths they follow also show little change. For nomads the cyclical exigencies of life yield a sense of place at two scales: the camps and the far larger territory within which they move. It may be that the camps are their primary places, known through intimate experience, whereas the territory traversed by nomads seems more shadowy to them because it lacks a tangible structure. (182)

I’m not sure Tuan’s conclusion is correct: why wouldn’t the “territory traversed by nomads” have “a tangible structure” and therefore be experienced as place? I wonder if anyone has taken on Tuan’s thinking here: if there are any published critiques of his conclusion. It would be worth taking a look.

Next, Tuan thinks about how long it takes to know a place. “Abstract knowledge about a place can be acquired in short order if one is diligent,” he writes. Such knowledge is primarily visual. “But the ‘feel’ of a place takes longer to acquire,” he contends: 

It is made up of experiences, mostly fleeting and undramatic, repeated day after day and over the span of years. It is a unique blend of sights, sounds, and smells, a unique harmony of natural and artificial rhythms such as time of sunrise and sunset, of work and play. The feel of a place is registered in one’s muscles and bones. (183-84)

“Knowing a place . . . clearly takes time,” Tuan continues. “It is a subconscious kind of knowing. In time we become familiar with a place, which means that we can take more and more of it for granted” (184). Tuan’s example is a new house, which becomes familiar over time, but I’m still thinking about those nomads, who might follow the same paths, together, as a culture, for decades or centuries. Why wouldn’t those paths become places for them? 

While it often takes time for a space to transform into a place, that’s not always how things work. We might spend many years in one place which leave few memories, but “an intense experience of short duration, on the other hand, can alter our lives” (185). That is one point that we need to bear in mind. Another is the human life cycle: “ten years in childhood are not the same as ten years in youth or manhood. The child knows the world more sensuously than does the adult. This is one reason why the adult cannot go home again” (185). It is also one reason why a native citizen knows a country better than an immigrant, Tuan continues, an argument that does not stand up to scrutiny, in my opinion. There is no reason why a newcomer cannot develop a powerful sense of place, and the claim that children experience place more deeply is simply derived from Romanticism. It might have been true of Wordsworth, but it is not necessarily true of children who spend their lives indoors watching screens. 

Next, Tuan thinks about collections of objects of the past, as they are gathered together in museums. Museums may help a people develop a sense of history, by surrounding them with artifacts from the past (191). However, that sense is not the same as being rooted in a place. “The state of rootedness is essentially subconscious: it means that people have come to identify themselves with a particular locality, to feel that it is their home and the home of their ancestors,” he writes (194). Musuems, however, reflect “a habit of mind opposed to one that perceives place to be rooted, sacred, and inviolable,” because museums consist entirely of “displaced objects” (194). “A truly rooted community may have shrines and monuments, but it is unlikely to have museums and societies for the preservation of the past,” Tuan concludes. “The effort to evoke a sense of place and of the past is often deliberate and conscious. To the extent that the effort is conscious it is the mind at work, and the mind—if allowed its imperial sway—will annul the past by making it all present knowledge” (198). Museums and historical societies, then, are ironic institutions: they set out to create or demonstrate rootedness, but end up doing the opposite.

Finally, we arrive at Tuan’s brief epilogue. Learning about space and place—or the learning that turns space into place—is largely subconscious, he contends; it does not require analytical thought (200). That doesn’t mean that conscious thought and planning are unrelated to the development of human spatial ability, however: “With the aid of charts and compass (products of thought), human beings have sailed across the oceans,” he notes (200), although it’s also true that people who live on islands in the Pacific Ocean are able to sail across the oceans without such products of thought, as he discussed earlier (81-83). The experiences that are difficult to articulate are the ones that interest Tuan, however. Geographers (his discipline, you may recall, is geography) speak as though knowledge of space is “derived exclusively from books, maps, aerial photographs, and structured field surveys,” he writes, and as a result, “[a] large body of experiential data is consigned to oblivion because we cannot fit the data to concepts that are taken over uncritically from the physical sciences. Our understanding of human reality suffers as a result” (200-01). “Experiences are slighted or ignored because the means to articulate them or point them out are lacking,” a lack that is not inherent to language, since writers and artists have found ways to give form to feelings and intimate experiences, including those of place (200-01). For Tuan, Space and Place is one attempt to systematize human experiences of space and place: “It can claim success if it has made the reader see the range and complexity of experience, and if in addition it has clarified some of the more systematic relationships between and among the wealth of experiential components” (201). “But the essay has a still larger purpose,” Tuan continues:

the kinds of questions it poses (if not the answers) enter the debate of environmental design. The discourse of planners and designers must be enlarged to include questions such as these: What connection is there between space awareness and the idea of future time and of goal? What are the links between body postures and personal relationships on the one hand and spatial values and distance relationships on the other? How do we describe ‘familiarity,’ that quality of “at homeness” we feel toward a person or place? What kinds of intimate places can be planned, and what cannot—at least no more than we can plan for deeply human encounters? Are space and place the environmental equivalents of the human need for adventure and safety, openness and definition? How long does it take to form a lasting attachment to place? Is the sense of place a quality of awareness poised between being rooted in place, which is unconscious, and being alienated, which goes with exacerbated consciousness—and exacerbated because it is only or largely mental? How do we promote the visibility of rooted communities that lack striking visual symbols? What is the loss and gain in such promotion?” (202)

These are difficult questions, Tuan acknowledges, and they are the kinds of questions social scientists and planners have found it convenient to forget. The goal of this book, he concludes, is “to increase the burden of awareness” (203). Social scientists may not be aware of these questions–or as aware as they perhaps ought to be–but, as Tuan has noted repeatedly, they are central to the work of artists and writers. Tuan is trying to bridge very different epistemological approaches to the world, and I wonder if such a bridging is possible.

At the beginning of this immanent reading, I suggested that I would have a better sense of my response to Tuan’s book after summarizing it. I’m not sure I do, though, partly because of the complexity of the two central terms he discusses. On the one hand, I have a much better sense of the distinction between space and place—at least the distinction Tuan draws. On the other hand, the relationship between space and place—or at least between the spaces and places that interest me—remains somewhat confused. Can walking through a space turn it into a place? Is the path one follows a place or a space? In other words, how intimately can one come to understand a space by walking through it? These are questions I will continue to ponder, and no doubt I will find myself returning to Tuan’s book as I do so, both to take things from his analysis and to dispute some of his conclusions.

Works Cited

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. 1983. 2nd. ed., Verso, 2016.

Forster, E.M. Aspects of the Novel. Penguin, 1968.

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