Phil Smith: Epic Walking
In the paper circulated before the gathering at CAT, Simon Pope argues (partly by unearthing a grudging blessing from Long Long Ago) for the reconfiguring of art walking as relational rather than epic and difficult, social rather than solo.
Among many other things our Friday walk, generously hosted and led by Jess Allen, was both epic and relational. It had subtle content, the simplicity of destination, and a few introductory words. It had a complex hinterland, in the film of Jess’s project. While social, there was space within the walk to go solo for a while.
I wonder if there is, in nascent form, a useful walking structure here. There was surprising flexibility in the way the length of the route ran on and unfolded. With a little more attention to detail, deploying a few lessons that we learned, introducing some rituals, some extra research preparation to illuminate one or two more layers of the terrain, and adopting some of the walk’s accidental principles, while retaining the possibility to contradict everything except mutual safety, there might be something repeatable in bendy structure and unrepeatable in detail.
Most importantly, to retain and intensify the self-generating of the group itself, the sharing and spreading of stories (the Texas warning not to use firearms during a lecture, a favourite), of tips and old saws, of myths and crucial gossips, chemical components, taxonomies, shapes and groups, lines and coagulating blobs, bubbles and gatherings. An epic/relational walk would be a walk of collective and expanded dramaturgy; while there should be no obligation to ‘write’ the walk, let alone theatricalise it, nevertheless it would be a work of performed assemblage within the ‘happening compartment’ of an a to b trajectory.
Of course, one might say that any extended walk with any group of people might also be described in these terms, and to a certain extent that might be true. Perhaps it is mostly a question of degree. For walking artists more than leisure walkers are likely to make their walks reflexively (conscious that they are in the process of constructing the walk as much as experiencing it) and self-reflexively (aware that in doing so they are making and re-making themselves as much as the walk).
What happens if everyone is a little more aware of the invitation to assemble and construct (both the walk and themselves). People already shared their stories and their expertise, people carried props and left tiny installations, they gathered images and told more stories, they debated ethics of that had done and might do. There might have been some space to allow us to play a little more; to build something with the fallen trees, perhaps. Not to oblige, but for everyone to know that the opportunity is there for someone to initiate that. We might have made a ‘memory palace’ in a field or by a stream. It might have added something if we’d gathered as a whole group one or two more times within the walk.
There is always the possibility of an epic within the skins of a more ordinary effort. That while for most in the group the effort of this was beyond everyday, yet it was not mythic. But for some of us, the final climb was at the very edge of what felt possible. There were numerous points on that path for entertaining the possibility of giving up. I did send Kris on because I thought I had had enough. The stop at the pub had already seen us divide. That was a kind of collective act of bad faith, and, many of us having already discussed the dividing of the walking group at the last meeting, it was also an admirable looseness; to stay together by splitting apart. How far did we really get over that by not having anything to get over and how far did we, in our momentum, miss the most important things. Whether by effort, exhaustion, fear of adders, indulging in an unexpectedly generous glass of wine, wasn’t there something allegorical about the last quarter of the walk? Something that rather comically stitched itself to the other three parts?
What happens to the slowest? Do they set the pace or bring up the rear?
Is it everybody’s responsibility to get everybody to the end/the top?
What is the pattern of shifting groups, pairs, individuals and is there any significance in it?
There was a narrative structure to our walk. It will have been different for everyone, but there might have been common and identifiable elements, crossover points, parallel lines and interweavings. There was an unfolding of the walk in relation to its length; starting with a sense that while not epic it would be longer than and necessarily more driven than an exploratory meander or a stroll, through the growing realisation that this we was to be longer than expected, and then on the final climb to the wind turbines I was walking for two minutes and resting for one. Having got to the top, negotiating the tussocks on tired legs was challenging and there was a moment that felt a mild despair as I lost sight of everyone halfway across and began to sink in to my ankles. I rather relished that moment; it felt familiar. I was very glad that that horrible, joyful moment of vulnerability (and others of us perhaps had similar moments) went unrecognised – it constituted a moment of inner epic to be explored alone for a few minutes. I hope everyone had, and was allowed to have, something similar. Not to solve the discordant and the inequitable, but to survive them, and to allow an assaulted subjectivity to survive.
The unexpected stretching of the distance and duration of the walk added elements of mystery, uncertainty and metamorphosis. This might be written into the epic/relational model.
At the top of the first hill Jess led us in an eyes closed exercise. I think I was that day too caught up in the memories and associations of similar exercises and rather than centering me, it dispersed and offset me to the past. Mark had re-thought about the disappearances of wisps of cloud. And later I thought that maybe I had got something – that it was that nothing left by disappearance that was what I had to be with within the now and in the body, the part of us that vanishes quickly, has no substance, no value, and yet needs to be nurtured for being the subjective nothing, the hole in the I, we have to hide and protect if we want to survive.
There were certain tracks cut into hillsides, beside walls or sheltered between two lines of trees, where the walking felt very protected and rich and affordant; very open to dialogue and allowed for the shifting of focus easily between the terrain and the dialogues and the body. I did a certain amount, not much, of covert dancing.
On the first climb once beyond CAT, I felt the closing of the focus down to the body and the feet and having to make a conscious effort to turn and open up again.
I was a little surprised and interested by the fact that not everyone came to the turbine blade at the bottom of CAT, where I enjoyed smearing my hands in the condensation on the blade and making knotted patterns in it. And then later to recall that, as I lay under the turbine on the top of the final hill, the swish of its blade nursing me to sleep for a few minutes. But I didn’t hold onto the readings. Though I remember very distinctly Jess apologising for quoting Robert Macfarlane. It felt only very slightly odd not to be all together at the start. I’m not sure that uniformity is necessary for a large sociable/epic walk; perhaps it does no harm to have such a spontaneous structural fracture from the start. To add an asymmetry to it from the off.
We walked what felt like very old tracks and yet there was no certainty that that was the case. I missed either a deeper or a more eccentric narrative for the terrain than we could it by surmise. I made a speculation on our ease of passage as due to the lack of economic activity, but Jess explained that where the agriculture had broken down it was much harder to make your way. Jess could not be at every point along the walk. Lucy reminded me of finding the shape of a racecourse in a Belgian forest (she’d remembered the details far better than I had), but we would not have registered its significance without the help of a local guide. Perhaps there is a role for this (and other) expertise on an epic/relational walk.
The military jets, at times flying level or below us, cut the space into the shapes they wanted. They disrupt the romantic gaze to the vista.
Things bring to face to face with yourself.
At time there is an oscillation between immersion and chatter.
We shift between our own serious conversations (though we laugh many times, there is little that I remember that did not weave to the walk’s themes or terrains) and the very few encounters with others. As a group, we probably looked like hikers or ramblers – were we ghosting a conventional hike? Were we doing one? – and I wondered how a group like ours might have a collective relationship to the terrain.
I enjoyed finding the path in the wood. A chance stumble. There was a narrative of storm falls that we engaged with a little, but that might have informed us more. To link those storm winds with the gentler breeze that could still drive the giant blades. To engage more with the barriers and obstacles. I had a conversation that at some point touched on Pilgrim’s Progress and at certain points (the bridge with planks missing beyond which lay a huge upturned tree root and the final climb up Hill Difficulty) the route became overtly symbolic. I liked the announcement about the non-appearance of the first aid box which we non-carried through the walk. And the occasional consultations over the map, and the ritual waving and gesturing with a compass. These were important gestures in our creating a complex dramaturgy rather than a leisure walk. By definition more is at stake when there is the metaphorical investment that is unavoidable among ‘walking artists’.
Waving a warning or a thanks to car drivers is to build a protective thatch of connection around the walk.
I enjoyed Jess’s care for us, her shifting up and down the line of us, though I also worried that this was over-fragmenting her experience and I wished for her to let us fend for ourselves more.
The sheep that, panicked by us, ran at speed at the fence and was for a moment had its head trapped under the barbed wire; I remember that and draw my own conclusions.
I wish we could have walked more in relation to the glaciers. I think we passed an erratic. In front of it, another kind of erratic, a cream plastic bag.
Sharing the different foods to supplement the packed lunch felt important. Clare carrying and sharing extra water; that too.
Taking pleasure in derelict houses: what was it that we were taking pleasure in? The ruins are symptoms of numerous possibilities – economic downturn, a profligate generation, disease, ‘the end of a way of life’ – is it OK to enjoy them as part of the romantic terror sublime, the aesthetics of decay and fall, to enjoy the metaphorical impact of a line of rusting cars? We slid past these ruins, pausing for a minute here or there for photographs, but we had no specific narratives. We did not engage closely or physically with them. Did it matter whether these human disappearances were down to social forces or accidents of fortune? What is the nature of our uninformed slipperiness; does it give us access to generalities, affordances for intuition, opportunities for immersive subjectivity? Is all this to add even further layers of parasitism, to drag the structure even further down?
A number of times, deep in conversation, we missed our turning. That felt like a positive contradiction.
At various times I saw people carrying found objects. Hilary found the King of Scotland’s crown and took it home. Passing so many foxgloves I recalled St Nectan’s martyrdom, carrying his head back to his hermit’s shed and foxgloves growing from every drop of blood, so I picked up a piece of slate as a symbolic second head to carry, as a way of dislocating my perspective. I left the slate at a junction after I had begun to forget I was carrying it.
There seemed to be some significance in climbing gates. Perhaps it called for ritual rather than scramble.
How should we tell each other and others about these walks? Edit the 10 hours down into 20 or 30 minutes of intense experience? Many accounts of walks are driven entirely by one-thing-after-another linearity. Is it OK, is it essential, to transform the structures of these experiences, to aestheticise (even fictionalise) the affects of the walk, to condense and poeticise, in order to convey the immersion and intensity of what a walker takes away from a walk or gathers during it? Or is there another way that can convey the sustained attention, with the closing and opening of focus woven around the plane of a dispersed and even walk? How to share the globules of stuckness, adder bites, urban fallow, tussocks?
Both disappointed and thrilled by the smooth steep bank of oaks on mossy ground ripped into by a new road. It was possible to see the ruined ghost there; invoking a tension between gaze and economics and route that seemed often present.
Would it be possible to create an epic walk that could pulse in and out, in to the extreme of detail and texture, then out to the haze of vistas. In to the intensity of a walker’s involvement with the walk, out to the longer rhythms of geological shifts and tiredness.
Just like hoaxes, epic walks can be like a curse or a promise inflicting certain responsibilities upon us.
An epic walk perhaps should be acknowledged in a collective way. Does each epic walk deserve a book, a long poem, a movie, a long critical paper, a photographic essay, a meal with stories, a re-enactment in a small room to one other person? Do we lose something of walking when we do not celebrate an epic relational walk in an epic relational way?