by Dr Shawn Sobers
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.
by Dr Shawn Sobers
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.