I walked with a friend from Falmer to Lewes. I wore new Berghaus boots. She carried a sketch pad and a bag of almonds. ‘Identity is a meaningless question,’ she said when I told her the plan, ‘you see it everywhere, the artist is exploring the links between identity and blah blah blah, the work is informed by the artist’s identity…..I never know what that means. Everything an artist does is about them. In his book on the Philosophy of Walking, Frederic Gros claims walking contains no identity – it’s something we hang like a coat on a peg and leave behind us as we stride out of the door.
In 1974 when Werner Herzog left his house in Munich to walk to Paris to save his friend Lottie Eisner from dying, he left, convinced only walking would save her ‘…My steps are firm. And now the earth trembles. When I move, a buffalo moves. When I rest, a mountain reposes. She wouldn’t dare….’ Packing a compass, duffel bag of necessities and wearing new boots, he left to test himself against mountains and weather, buoyed with self-belief. If identity is the total of our physical, cognitive, emotional make-up, the sum of our experiences, values and ambitions, it informs not only our walks, but the decisions we make to walk long before our feet hit the soil. Herzog was a celebrated director with a reputation for making films pitting man against nature; he was a product of gender, socio-economics and the Bavarian landscape. We were two middle aged women carrying water, backpacks, expecting to be home for supper.
In the poppy fields above Falmer, my friend sat in the long grass to sketch the undulating fields in the long afternoon shadows, while I stared at the wide wings of the Amex Stadium curving into the crowns of beech, thinking of a night last November when Brighton played Bristol City, and we climbed to the top stands to watch Bristol City lose 2-1. When the match was over, all the men stood around the TV screens in the bar, singing: ‘there’s only one Bobby Zamora’ every time they replayed the goals.
‘Memories, associations evoked by place,’ I said, ‘isn’t that identity?’
‘Memories,’ I get, she said, ‘but that’s not always place.’
To our right, a battered fence led over the top of the downs, to our left rounded hills, softly feminine, cut with chalk tracks. Wind flowed through ripe wheat, sheep grazed on distant hills – the managed countryside geographers refer to as second nature – sheep hefted, farmed with cattle, stewarded by the National Trust and empty, apart from walkers making their way along narrow tracks cresting the fields, their routes restricted to the green broken lines of bridle and footpaths running like stitches between plots.
The first time I walked this route was over fifteen years ago, with a friend I’d made shortly after moving, when our children were very young. The walk took all day, which would have been hard to arrange, to get out for that stretch of time. Our pre-occupations as young mothers were very different then. We were always anxious, and broke, projecting on a good day, irreverence, a cheerful kind of making-do, and on a bad day, calling each other up with complaints, injustices, tiredness wired in our bones. We worried about the children endlessly: their eating, sleeping, reading, friends – whether we were too strict or not strict enough; how long they should play video games or watch TV; it was all so serious, when most of it mattered so little in the end, which is why I imagine parents look forward to being grandparents; to put the wisdom of hindsight to the test. As the children grew up, my friend and I drifted apart, but a little while ago I ran in to her in town and she told me her daughter had moved to Berlin, and was training to be a permaculturist. My friend sighed. The daughter told her that living in Berlin was the first time in her life she’d felt free to be herself.
‘That’s how identity can interact with place,’ I said.
‘Yes, but you only do that when you are young,’ my friend insisted.
A narrow chalk gully path led steeply down to Kingston where we walked past gardens with empty swings and missed the turning to Spring Farm as I’d missed it the last time I walked here. There’s a reason, for this, a neurological kink. The brain retains misinformation, privileging it over fact when faced with choice. As Lewes, rose over the floodplain of the Ouse, my friend stopped to sketch the willows hanging over the still water. My new boots pinched my heel. I longed to take them off. The willows trailing into the black water reminded me of a painting hanging over the mantelpiece in my parent’s old house. A cheap reproduction of a Corot. If you looked hard enough into the bleak melancholic shadows cast by the trees, you could make out a figure sitting alone in a barque. What was he doing there? I used to wonder. I never liked to be alone in the room with this picture.
At the new Harveys brewery bar, we drank halves of IPA, sitting in the garden, surrounded by families dining out. A woman at the next table, with blonde hair sprouting from a headscarf, talked loudly on her phone: ‘He put milk in the f***ing kettle. He’s 23, for Chrissake.’
‘What stands out about the walk?’ I asked my friend.
She took out her sketch pad, flipped through pages, holding the sketch pad at arm’s length, a critical eye appraising each one, and told me about advice William Kentridge offered his students on drawing landscape, ‘to find the best possible view to sketch and turn 180 degrees.’
‘But you didn’t turn 180’ I said.
The train home followed the route we’d walked. Dusk fell in long purple shadows over Scabby Brow, and the foot-holes. I felt a sense of curiosity, of yearning, something missed. I thought of Herzog, on his way out of Munich at the start of his journey. For all his bravado, he’d been worried about crossing the River Lech and stopped by the Pasinger hospital to see a friend, who’d read his tarot. There was a hangman and the devil, but the friend had lost the piece of paper to interpret the meanings. What would Gros make of that?
It seemed to me that identity whispers with each footstep, sometimes it screams, a thousand reminders that the mind and body are connected through landscape at a particular moment in time; fragmentary associations, memories, actions, chains of associations bubble to the surface, each containing their own journeys and connections within. But, if you hold identity to the light with conscious question, the lovely, elusive ideas and webs of associations dissolve rather than coalescing to insights, knowledge or inspirations.