I am reading an essay by Hayden Lorimer, a cultural geographer based in the School of Geographical & Earth Sciences at the University of Glasgow. Lorimer is also a regular runner and in this essay, he is writing about his bodily knowledge of different terrains accumulated over the years as a result of many runs. When he is in Glasgow he runs and whenever he goes away he runs (business or holiday) – wherever he happens to be, he goes out running to get to know the place or, if home, to reacquaint himself with a familiar area.
He writes about running on different surfaces and how his bodily memory acts as a catalogue for a rich variety of surfaces and slopes, feelings and sensations. As he states: “… it is in our bodies that we live out our lives”. I respond to this understanding as I know from my own experience just how powerful body memories can be – whether they be pleasant or rather less so, whether they make me smile, wonder, fearful or tearful.
Running or walking can tell us much … both in the moment and through the raft of memories they evoke. Vivid memories of other places and other people, other situations and other times all flicking through the here and now. Memories that are stored in our bodies and involuntarily recalled as we run or walk. And more specifically in this project, as we take a walk with others slowly through an environment – sharing the experience but each recalling different memories, feeling different emotions, depending on how our lives have been lived out so far.
A thoughtful and beautifully written essay by Lorimer that resonates in every bone of my body … that reminds me and simultaneously makes me think again.
Ref: Hayden Lorimer in Jones & Garde-Hansen (Eds), Geography and Memory (Palgrave Macmillan 2012)
Walking….as soon as I read about your project I thought about a conversation I had had with a friend recently. We talked about the space in between one place and another and how good it was to be aware of experiencing that interstice. I thought about how I had deliberately got off my bike lately to walk because I needed to think before arriving and was speeding along faster than I wanted my thoughts to go. This need to create a coincidence between interior and exterior reality was significant when I first came to Bristol.
Each time I have relocated I have felt excitement but also a fair amount of anxiety. Someone talked to me once about culture shock and I realised that my initial emotions mirrored the description of culture shock: disorientation, rejection of one’s surroundings, anxiety.
When I first came to Bristol walking the same routes every day became very important. It was only by laying down – sedimenting – layers of familiarity each day that I could calm these feelings. I was literally constructing my new reality in increments by habitual walking. With this ‘map’ established I could vary it, branch off at tangents, make discoveries, alter my routes, but I had to walk my own city skeleton before experiencing the tangible luxury of fleshing it out, before enjoying its more generous dimensions.
I’ve almost forgotten now that compulsion to tread a sense of reality, step by step. You can run a place, swim a place, dance a place and once you feel like you ‘belong’, not belonging seems less imaginable. However, I know that if and when I make move again walking my trajectory in that new place will be necessary.
About seven years ago I was recovering from a second episode of what was later diagnosed as Relapsing Remitting Multiple Sclerosis. I had become so unwell and weak that I had limited mobility and would tire after five minutes on my feet. It felt as though I had been run over by a bus. It had even become a struggle to get across the street to collect my son from the nearby primary school and I couldn’t imagine ever riding a bike again. Before this point I took it for granted that my strong legs could take me anywhere. I felt invincible and was even jogging before I got ill. It took me a long time to regain strength and confidence after this. When I did finally begin to build up my capacity and walk more I relished the moments and felt more thankful than ever. But MS has also been compared to an ‘unwelcome visitor’ who can come knocking and barge in at any time. While this can feel uneasy and provoke anxiety, I’ve also thought that the last thing I would want to do is stop myself from getting out there, smelling the flowers in bloom, breathing fresh air and feeling the wind on my face. It’s the pleasures of being in the moment of ‘the walk’ (countryside or other) that I’ve embraced. It helps take me out of the space of worry about the past or the future.
What a lovely project this is. I went to the introductory workshop yesterday. Lovely qwerky project. Lovely qwerky people. Lovely (and plentiful) lunch. This is gonna be good. I’m really pleased to be involved, I’m really pleased the AHRC are funding this. Almost restores your faith in research as a discovery process about that which is really unknown (as opposed to a churning out the same old stuff process).
In the arts-based workshops we will be reflecting on the walks we have taken and exploring ways in which we might visually translate our own individual experiences of the various walks.
We will be using pens, pencils, crayons, different coloured papers etc and together with photographs taken en route, we will tap into our memories of the walks (as well as our creative imagination!) to consider different interpretations of our experience on the ground. I will be bringing a variety of examples to show others but, as a taster and an inspiration, have a look at these terrific maps:
When we go for walks, we are treading on landscapes tamed by previous generations that have conquered nature. Most walks we go on do not involve chopping through wild jungles or scaling up mountains; they are negotiating spaces already tamed for us but unknown path bearers that have gone before, even when diverting from a prescribed route, and climbing uneven ground.
I started thinking about this a couple of weeks ago when I went on a lovely walk with my sister and our respective children. We walked along a new stretch of cycle path near her house In Bath, which includes the longest cycle tunnel in Britain, which took us 45 mins to walk through. Before this new part of the cycle track was opened, the area was wild and impossible to walk through or access. Now the path has been tamed and opened for the public, (officially launched less than a week before our walk), and the novelty for the community is still fresh, the path was full of people of all ages – leisurely walkers, children on bikes and scooters, parents pushing prams, pensioners walking dogs, everyone out to play in April on one of the first sunny days of the year.
The conquering and taming of nature by previous generations affords us many of the luxuries we enjoy today, and being in a cultural, financial, social and geographical position to be able to go on walks is definitely one of those luxuries. Of course the human conquering of nature is also highly problematic with regards environmental sustainability, and today any new building project will have to take into consideration environmental concerns, and this new cycle track is no different. Some Brazilians will want new shopping malls built whilst others campaign to save the rain forests, which are also people’s homes. In Britain we chopped down most of our forests long ago to make way for cities, and some are trying to hold on the last bits of green remaining in the landscape. With every step we should recognise the sacrifices nature has made to make space to accommodate our feet, and the responsibilities we have to respect that sacrifice.
I walk for many reasons – I enjoy walking, it loosens by mind, my body, my being. I am told it is good for my health (although I wondered when walking along Marylebone Road this week whether that is always the case) and that it helps the brain keep active. Walking away the years … is it really that good?!
I work from home most of the time and punctuate my working hours with regular walks – not that it always easy to stir myself , to make the effort to ‘go on a walk’ when part of me is telling me that I should really be finishing this piece of work or doing the paperwork on that project (and what about a cup of tea first?) but I know I need a break and that even a short time spent away from my desk will be beneficial – not only to how I feel but to the work I am engaged with.
I walk to gain distance but simultaneously to become close to, to be proximate to my surroundings and my body, to break away from distractions and the habitual.
I walk away: from routine and domesticity, from my office/studio, from the computer, the telephone, intrusive noise, from interior spaces and often from others …
I walk to: wake myself up, get some air, stretch my legs, listen to the wind, open my eyes and to free my mind from words or images that are going nowhere, projects and ideas that are no longer flowing … walking is movement, the body in action; walking, as I see it, is an opportunity to both recover and discover.
These are not walks of necessity: they are not aimless, neither do they have a concrete purpose – the aim is to get out there, the purpose unknown. The pleasure is a slow shifting (and sifting) of perspective as I become aware of new surroundings, different sounds, altered light, the air and sky above, the ground under my feet … the body settles into a pattern, an alternative rhythm, slowly up the hill and then more easily along the tops.
I usually take my camera and sometimes I take photographs (but this is not a given). I take a sound recorder, often I don’t get it out of my bag. I have a notebook and pencil in my pocket but seldom make notes. But always I return changed – more aware of body and environment, mind loosened by some small discovery en route; today the hedge filling with foliage after the winter, the ground greening, the regular cry of new-born lambs bleating for their mothers, a pair of pink gloves placed on the gatepost (up-turned udders for all to view), the sun chasing shadows across the valley.
Walking happens at a relatively slow pace so there is time to notice small things, both internal and external. I become conscious of the air I am breathing, it catches in my throat when it is dry or cold and becomes thick when humid. As a wise friend noted: ‘Every breathe we take is an exchange with our environment’.
Awareness sharpens, observance of slight differences in ground surface, the crunch of dry leaves or the swish of long grass, the squelch and splatter of mud; muscles that tighten then ease, knees that complain and ankles that threaten to twist; arms that hang loose, hands that fall out of pockets; and there is a slowing of thought as my gaze rests on distant horizons … the aim to walk, the purpose as yet unknown.
It was said by someone in an early research planning meeting that, for them, walking was the natural thing to do if they wanted to have a good chat with a friend. Most of the rest of the group agreed but I didn’t, as walking for walking sake isn’t something I normally do, and if I arrange to meet a friend to chat we would usually go for a drink. I only usually walk if I am going somewhere.
Well yesterday was slightly different. After a work-related meeting with a friend, we both knew we had something on our minds and wanted to speak about it to each other straight away in private. This intuition was prompted by a brief email conversation the week before, so after the work meeting I suggested we go for a walk to chat. (I did not suggest a walk with this project in mind, it just felt like the right thing to do at the time). They put their bags and things in the car, and we proceeded to walk up the high street, around the block and back to the starting point, which in all took about 45mins. Along the way we slowed when the talking got intense, negotiating narrow pavements by walking in the middle of a quiet street, I stopped them at one point walking through dog mess, and we even sat on someone’s front garden wall for a while to talk more closely. The owner of the house opened the door and was coming in and out with bags, putting them into his car. I shouted to him laughing, “I hope you don’t mind us sitting on your wall!” He laughed back saying he didn’t mind. Whilst sat there another man came past whom my walking partner knew, so they chatted for a while, and in their exchange I found out new things about them – about musical talents they were both pursuing together, which was lovely to find out.
Of course I cannot see through parallel lives and envisage what our conversation would have been like if we had drove aimlessly, if we went to a café, or if we found an empty meeting room in the building we had just left. There was something about walking being a confidential space. I knew what we were going to speak about was confidential, so on a walk any ears are transitory, not fixed or fixated. We could easily have driven somewhere, but where? The negotiation of traffic, burning petrol and trying not to crash whilst concentrating on an important conversation would not be ideal. The passenger would get the impression the driver is only half listening, (and rightly so!), and would not want to distract from the safety of the road, so the communication would not be equal, candid or spontaneous. In hindsight we probably should have gone to a café, as our previous meeting ran through lunch time, but I didn’t have any money on me so that would not have been my first option at that precise moment. It wasn’t raining, so a wandering walk it was.
The walk was beautiful not only for the incidents shared along the way, but also as a platform of communication. We shared personal things we didn’t know about each other, both directly in the conversation we had, and also in the ease of our body language in such circumstances – for example, giving way to each other, moderating our pace of walking to accommodate the other.
I started this article saying I only usually walk if I have somewhere to go, what I now realise I actually meant, I only usually walk if the walk has a concrete purpose. Yesterday, the concrete purpose was to communicate. The exchange of communicate was the destination that gave direction to an ‘aimless’ walk. Aimless only in the geographic, not meaningful sense.
Near the end I reminded them that this was not the first time we had such a long heartfelt conversation during a long ‘aimless’ walk, the first time being about ten and a half years ago when we got lost together during a group trip to a holiday camp. They had forgotten all about it, but recalled it instantly when I mentioned it, and laughed.
Walking is a metaphor for many things, and can attach itself to many concrete purposes; you can take ideas for a walk (brainstorming), walking to clear you head, to calm down, to get fresh air, to save money, to see new sights. Some can only walk with music pumping in their ears, others (like me ) need to feel aware of their surroundings. During this research I will be interested in pulling some of these threads of social uses of walks in my writing, entwined with the core themes of this research project – of the communication and awareness of environmental concerns through the ‘meeting of minds’ of the people we recruit to go on mutual walks.
My walk yesterday was intimate, not romantic, but it reminds me of the song ‘A Long Walk’ by Jill Scott. Enjoy.