Thursday, June 19, 2014

GUEST POST A few thoughts on walking

Phil Smith, author of On Walking... and Stalking Sebald, offers a guide to going beyond wandering around looking at stuff.

In that time called ‘leisure’ where a walk is chosen, a phantom of work soon arrives. Many folk consult a manual. Under the guise of ‘not getting lost’ others take instructions from a map, follow signs and stick to footpaths.

This is, for most people, the default of free walking. It penetrates even resistant walking. The ambulatory Sideways Festival (with its reference to the subtitle of my Mythogeography book and the idea of taking off at tangents) in Belgium was partly funded from the budgets of footpath organisations and was mostly restricted to these official ways surrounded by VERBODEN JACHT signs.

Even within complex footpath systems there is an informal centralisation. My subjective experience of walking footpaths in England and Wales is that the smaller paths, except for those that serve as short cuts in towns and villages, are walked just about enough to keep them trodden down. Well known ones are periodically thickly crowded; on sunny weekends short sections of some of the famous paths like the Pennine Way in the North of England become pedestrian motorways, yet I have often walked a day along the footpaths of the UK and met no one.

Given how much UK government money has been poured into healthy walking initiatives, it is heartening to see how ineffective the state has been.

The chosen walking that I evangelise is not especially different from such work-like leisure walking (indeed it builds upon its contradictions); but it is explicit about the work that it involves. It is a performance; its ‘work’ is similar to the craft and labour involved in making artworks. Its ‘great work’ is one of ideas that can change the person walking them. Performance here does not mean theatrical, nor that it requires an audience (though it might), but that it can tap into a huge resource of live art and performance art practices; into the substrata of thinking that such artists and anti-artists often keep hidden. It means that it is part of body art, conceptual art, site-specific art. It means that it is part of phenomenology, esoterica, hypocritical theory and geopoetics.

All that good stuff that artists tend to keep for themselves, walkers can help themselves to. Once your walk becomes a performance, part of a ‘theatre of life’, a theatrum mundi, it becomes changeable, unplannable and improvisational, it becomes about something (maybe about the walk itself) rather than (or as well as) to somewhere.

Every long walk is a dialogue with your own death; particularly given the accelerating ambiguity of a long walk, endless yet finite and without known destination. It becomes about a dance of chosen change against a rhythm of changes you do not choose. Chosen walking is thinking with your feet. Playing, fondling, voting with them. Nudging things as you go, turning things over with your toes, rolling them with your heel. It is occasionally necessary to go barefoot in order to rebalance a little the dominance of the hand over the foot, to remove a boot and sock and place your naked foot to the path; even on a shopping trip or on your way to work, you can find a moment to do this and feel what heat or chill, what graze or caress you get back from the road. It can be a moment to mark any walk as a dialogue with the surface of the planet. Check your sole for fragments of the 40,000 tons of rock that fall to the Earth each year; wreckage from the birth of the Solar System.

Thinking with your feet is about rediscovering legs as feelers, tentacles, complementary instruments to the meshwork of senses that bathe and caress the surfaces around us; all the time swinging the whole body of instruments around the axes of the spine and through the hips and the various joints; conduct your orchestra of senses. Reconnect the two parts of your body. Use your hips to disperse desires and longings to the landscape.

On Walking... and Stalking Sebald is published by Triarchy Press.

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