No hay camino, say hace camino el andar
(There is no road, the road is made by walking)
Antonio Machado from “Proverbios y cantares” in Campos de Castilla. 1912
My current investigations are taking me on foot through the centre of the city, something I used to do extensively years back and which, I now realise, I have done less and less as I have got older. As I head into the city I am being confronted by the inaccessibility of some seemingly public urban areas.
While it seems as if traversing the city as a pedestrian should be the easiest and most extensive of modes of transport, our city planning has methodically been removing access for walkers to many areas over the years simply by building roads with no pavements, and fencing off any scrub or wasteland areas. Added to this is the insalubrious nature of some of these areas, leaving a solitary female feeling a little vulnerable at times. These barriers to access heighten awareness of potential political and ecological aspects to civic planning: This planning, overtly or not, emphasises the use of the car and creates an inexorable impetus to move people on and through. A desire to linger, to wander and to walk in these places thus is imbued with a sense of transgression and of resistance, somehow pushing the urban walker to the margins.
Alongside this renewing of my acquaintance with my local neighbourhood I have been extending my reading into the many connections between walking and art, walking and resistance, walking and thinking. Beyond the idea of the derive, so beloved of the Situationists, there is a wealth of writers, poets, painters and lens-based artists for whom walking has been the method and the meditation on which they have based their practise.
W.G Sebald, in his Rings of Saturn, wrote a seminal and circular novel, describing at it’s centre the minutiae of a journey by foot through Suffolk, while at the periphery, and always tangentially, writing really about the horrors of the second WW and the holocaust.
Robert McFarlane writes in poetic prose of his encounters with the remaining wild places and fringe-dwelling people that he has encountered on foot. In The Old Ways McFarlane charts his encounters with shamen, artists, activists and sailors along the old roads and waterways of England, Scotland and abroad. Simultaneously he pulls together strands of literature from other writers and other times, making explicit a rich seam of connections from pre-history to the present, all acknowledging the centrality of walking the land to human experience.
(McFarlane, R. (2012)The old ways, a journey on foot Penguin Group)
Richard Mabey, 8 years after I was born, published The Unofficial Countryside.
Written over four seasons he charts the myriad ways that flora and fauna adapt and survive in the modified, polluted environment of greater London. He writes endearingly of the problems, both physical and emotional, of walking through inner city streets wearing binoculars, or chasing pigeons so that they would drop their food scraps for inspection, and I have a strong sense of how odd he must have appeared to many; I have felt a similar sensation many times when setting up a camera in the direction of a subject eminently unworthy or bemusing to the general passer-by. His ability to remain non-judgemental and undespairing when confronted by examples on a massive scale of the ecological havoc we were already wreaking on our environment is inspiring. Nothing is black and white when closely examined; gravel-pits and industrial waste-land are colonised by sand martins and grebes, the strafed patches of London post-World War II turn out to be the ideal breeding ground for the previously rare rosebay willowherb.
(Mabey, R (1973) The Unofficial Countryside. Little Toller Books)
Rebecca Solnit has written extensively on walking, and its engagement with politics, gender, art and history. I have recently begun to read Wanderlust-a history of walking. In this book Solnit flags the myriad threats and barriers to walking in 21st century life, counting the architectures of fear and commerce and the dictatorship of the automobile as among the worst.
Her thoughts underline and reinforce my own half-articulated feelings when walking the Auckland city streets recently.
When writing of these problems she states that “in some places it is no longer possible to be out in public, a crisis both for the private epiphanies of the solitary stroller and for public spaces democratic functions”
(Solnit, R. (2001)Wanderlust-a history of walking. Verso)
At times it seems like a strange kind of self-inflicted torture, reading books about walking when in fact I can only really get out and address my work in this way one day a week; a pilgrimage of any distance is a pipe-dream at present. Finding my material closer at hand is thus a part of the criteria for this work, necessitated by the realities of my life at present.
In strange ways however this circumscription puts me directly in contact with some of the themes I am coming to understand as important in the work.
Dealing with the local is becoming key, and so are questions of access and its attendant issues as well as a more careful and layered sense of “seeing”.
The derive, the pilgrimage, the meditative “mind at three miles an hour” (Solnit, R as above) All are aspects of pre-production and process, and are also bound up in the outcomes.