Walking Explorations (natural and unnatural)

 

‘Feelings are bound up in place, and in art, from time to time, place undoubtedly works upon genius.’  Eudora Welty

The two Walkshops in Brighton and Bristol explored ways of walking, connecting sensual responses with the landscape and personal narratives. Different approaches included: walking the rim of a glass, walking with a question, mindful walking, following the map and walking instinctively – not as easy at it sounds, with our tendency to overthink decisions, rather than using our intuition. ‘Where do my feet want to go?’ was a genius question one participant asked, which got me thinking about our relationship to our feet. Increasingly, we hear research on how we ‘think’ with our hands. What could our feet tell us, if we paid attention?

Practically everyone who walked using a map, found it interrupted their rhythm; it became a series of stops and starts preventing reflection or the free association of thoughts. Instead of focusing on the process, it framed walking within a goal, a destination to be reached. For some, the reality of the OS map didn’t correspond with internalised maps of place. Reading it felt ‘unnatural’, impossible to summon land from the lines, in the same way, I imagine, it’s difficult for most of us to summon a Bach Cantata from a score of notes, sharps and accidentals.

 

DSC_0384Walking the rim of the glass raised awareness of the numerous barriers we encounter on our explorations:  keep out, private land, no access permittedland is parcelled and privatised, forcing us to detour or retrace our steps. Then, there are our own barriers; fears in the shape of cattle, vacant lots, and empty river banks, making us instinctively uncomfortable.

Overwhelmingly, the landscape is full of memory; palimpsests of other places, people and times,  transporting us back to to our pasts; the images as real in our mind as the earth beneath our feet, prompting suggestions from walkers, that we rarely ever walk in the present, but between layers of time, drifting backwards and forward, connecting memories and associations with our present surroundings.

There was a temptation to play, most resisted. Perhaps it was the rain. Walkers surveyed the land, entering it slowly, hesitantly, hand in hand with the ghosts of childhood;  an urge  to slide down rocks and climb trees, roll in the grass and trespass.  A reminder of how children approach landscape with their bodies, whilst as adult we approach it with their minds.

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To walk mindfully, to pay attention, means slowing down, being conscious of each muscle moving, each sound, the tones and textures arising from the land. For those who could slow themselves to near stillness, another world emerged from the familiar:  ochre lichen rough against skin, rain dripping from beech leafs, oily black skinned rivers.  But, it was hard. It felt awkward, unnatural to go so slow when our norm is to hasten efficiently and purposefully onwards.

The journey now is to use the explorations and reflections on the experience to create individual narrative maps, linking internal and external journeys, developing and deepening connections to place. Spoken Word Events in Brighton and Bristol will take place this autumn.

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Protocol 6 – Instinct, False Starts and Vacancies

When does instinct kick in? The moment you head out of the door, impulsive, intuitively ready for the drift, or before that, lying in bed, considering places and possibilities? To walk ‘instinctively’ is not as easy as it sounds. Decisions have to be made: to walk from the door or to drive? To take money, water, raincoat or just go like Herzog, without looking back?

A blue choke of cars lines Sackville Road. Buses screech, Skip-lorries grind metal on metal, spew dust and grit. I’ve walked from my front door to open country many times, ferreting out green arteries leading through suburbia to  the edge of the Downs, but doing so today would be utilitarian not instinctive; a quick way out. Instinct requires time. Time equals speed over distance. I go back for the car (oh irony), drive west along Portland Road, towards Foredown Tower,

A path opens through ripe wheat, steps down to tarmac, a seventies housing estate, satellite dishes, squished bags of dog shit, begonias, neat and pink, arranged symmetrically in tubs – their tidiness somehow more depressing than the dog shit and satellite dishes. Drives are empty, streets deserted. PACA rises in the distance, crowded by roofs, labyrinthine streets with dormers and paved front gardens.

At a picket fence, bordering a white pebble-dashed semi, a narrow path winds behind garden fences, opening to scrubland, thistles, fag butts, flattened cans and feathery scraps of plastic bags snagged on brambles.  Shoulderland or Bastard Countryside, as Victor Hugo called it – half scrub and scree, overgrown and careless, its wild selvedge makes me uneasy;  aware I am a woman walking alone. I find myself looking back, over my shoulder, often.

Thistles snag my jeans. Long grasses gone to seed, looping purple walls of Rose Bay Herb I used to call Rainbow Willow until Jayne put me right, walking the straight fire tracks of the Forest of Dean, while the children raced ahead,  lobbing pine code grenades at unknown enemies hiding in the thickets.  Now, Jayne has moved to the Limousin, to a glinty flat lake, bordered with pines, the house at night, big square rooms creaking in the dark; five dogs barking at the wind.

The vacancy of the land quickens my step; I feel it more as absence than presence, a rattling on my chest. Psychologists refer to these spaces as liminal, sites of chaos, , transitions, ambiguity, a hiatus between endings and beginnings. Geographically,  a liminal place serves no inherent function. They are places to be got through to get somewhere else.  We cross them quickly, paying scant attention to details; what  thrives or grows wild, or hides deep in its neglect. The temptation always, is to hasten on, towards a lovelier, more orthodox vision of countryside.

At the bottom of the valley, the path drops to a concrete tunnel running under the A27 – horses have left sweet tails of dung.  Mad graffiti covers the walls: I love Izzy…. brown beer……pease pudding now. Sunlight flares. I turn,  follow the path along the edges of a wheat field. Poppies wave in the breeze. A  sleek black crows rises from the fence post; the hallmarks of country ‘proper’.  My footsteps slow,  a sense of ease, spaciousness returns as I climb the path  to a high ridged chalk track. Below, Brighton sprawls in  white boxes, a blue haze of sea bleeds to sky.

Outside Foredown Tower, I sit in my car, staring through the windscreen at the stone wall in front of me, struck unexpectedly by its beauty; the weathered grey brick is studded with milky white and blue flints, spotted with silver lichen.  Auerbach or was it Bacon, painted the view from his studio, the same Camden roofs for years, like Cezanne painting  Mont Victoire, studying it in all lights and seasons, trying to capture its zeitgeist, the mercurial effect of landscape on the soul. That night, I write in my diary: ‘some days walking makes me feel strong, confident, mastering the world… some days I feel tired and insubstantial, as if my feet are barely touching the ground. I’m not making any impact.’

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