Saturday, 26 February 2011

Walking as 'subversive detour', urban hunter-gatherers and why we need to put our bodies into the world

I have just finished reading Wanderlust - A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit. Rebecca is a special kind of writer, who takes on seemingly mundane subjects, links all kinds of sources and her own sideways look at things and weaves it all into an intricate tapestry. I was blown away by her small volume A Field Guide to Getting Lost last year, where she looks at the idea of loss and living with uncertainty with very fresh eyes.

Wanderlust is a much thicker book, tracing the history and meaning of walking from theories about the origins of our upright walk, via the great tradition of Wordsworth and British walking, Alpine Clubs and mountaineering, philosophy, pilgrimage, political marches, Parisian flaneurs, the obstacles to walking that women have encountered through the ages and her own very personal accounts of walking in places as varied as urban San Francisco, the Mojave Desert and the Las Vegas strip.

Of all the amazing stories and insights she relays, it is her love for urban walking that struck the deepest chord with me. I absolutely love walking and hiking in wild places, and those walks are among my most beloved experiences and memories. They are the peak moments of exhilaration, of feeling completely at home in my place on Earth. But like Rebecca, I have a longstanding love of walking in the city. It's a more low key and slow burning love, more an everyday love, because for the last 17 years, the city has been my everyday environment. But there is, at the bottom of it, a similar kind of exhilaration often when I - consciously - walk through London. That is, walking here with the same interest and immersion that I would have on a walk through an ancient forest.

In Wanderlust Rebecca draws attention to an obvious, but probably often overlooked reason why urban walking, if we only give ourselves over to it with dedication, can resurrect in us ancient feelings and connections because of its closeness to a hunting-gathering situation. Here is - and it's worth to quote at length - the for me most AHA! inducing passage in the book:

The history of both urban and rural walking is a history of freedom and of the definition of pleasure. But rural walking has found a moral imperative in the love of nature that has allowed it to defend and open up the countryside. Urban walking has always been a shadier business, easily turning into soliciting, cruising, promenading, shopping, rioting, protesting, skulking, loitering, and other activities that, however enjoyable, hardly have the high moral tone of nature appreciation. Thus no similar defense has been mounted for the preservation of urban space, save by a few civil libertarians and urban theorists ( who seldom note that public space is used largely by walking it). Yet urban walking seems in many ways more like primordial hunting and gathering than walking in the country. For most of us the country or the wilderness is a place we walk through and look at, but seldom make things in or take things from (remember the famous Sierra Club dictum, "Take only photographs, leave only footprints"). In the city, the biological spectrum has been nearly reduced to the human and a few scavenger species, but the range of activities remains wide. Just as a gatherer may pause to note  a tree whose acorns will be bountiful in six months or inspect a potential supply of basket canes, so an urban walker may note a grocery open late, or a place to get shoes resoled, or detour by the post office. Too, the average rural walker looks at the general - the view, the beauty - and the landscape moves by as a gently modulated continuity:crest long in view is reached. A forest thins out to become a meadow. The urbanite is on the lookout for particulars, for opportunities, individuals and supplies, and the changes are abrupt.Of course the city resembles primordial life more than the country in a less charming way too; while non-human predators have been radically reduced in North America and eliminated in Europe,the possibility of human predators keeps city dwellers in a state of heightened alertness, at least in some times and places. (p173/174)

I like the idea of moving through urban space with a hunter-gatherer mentality, as opposed to the mentality of a consumer, shopper, a commuter, a frightened person, a stressed out person. I recognise this mindset very much.Years ago, when I lived in Brixton (for the non Londoners, Brixton is a lively, very mixed, densely populated part of South London, now like many such parts having become a bit gentrified but still retaining and regaining a lot of its essence), I probably had the purest experience of the hunter-gatherer. It was born partly out of having no money and needing to walk everywhere, needing to find the cheapest places to meet everyday needs, to meet people, to have entertainment, to - yes, actually - survive. The other part however was the genuine excitement of discovering new and unexpected things around corners, of having to learn to deal with unexpected situations, of being a part of a vibrant, not always pretty, but very real sort of urban eco-system. I was reminded of this by the chapter in Wanderlust, where Rebecca describes her walks through San Francisco. In those days in Brixton, I knew my neighbourhood like the back of my hand, I felt safe because I knew it and could move in it with exactly that combination of ease and alertness that Rebecca describes. I still do urban walking in the part of London where I live now and having had the essence of it so beautifully brought together by this great book, I'm going to do it with renewed dedication from now on.

It is interesting that Brixton, being quite a contained area where everything is easily reachable on foot, and where there is an air of subversiveness in the place, made walking so easy and compelling for me. Where I live now, although by no means suburbia, places are more drawn out and less connected. Rebecca Solnit talks at length in the book about the scourge of American cities that have been built only with cars in mind. Where sidewalks have been completely done away with in some places and where with non existent public transport, poor people get practically imprisoned in their neighbourhoods. Where opportunities to experience oneself physically and fully engaged in ones urban environment are taken away. We are - still - lucky in most places in Europe, although there are examples here too of monstrous urban areas where roads cut off places from one another.

In wonderful synchronicity, these thoughts about urban walking link to the gist of an essay by Ivan Illich I read just before reading Wanderlust. In "Disabling Professions", published in 1978, Illich talks about how the rise of 'the professions' such as doctors, lawyers, teachers, have disabled people by concentrating vital knowledge and life skills in the hands of experts, to such  a degree that the very power and decision making about one's health, dwellings, learning, where one can be born or die, have in essence been transferred to institutions and law makers. "Disabling Professions" is a sobering read, really pushing a finger in a wound that we all know we have but rarely allow ourselves to feel the pain it causes.

If we want to break out of all these dependencies, we need to pursue activities that subvert the idea that all our experiences need to be mediated, safe, controlled, in expert hands. We need to claim activites that give us back a sense of our own autonomy, of being able to deal with stuff, to work out, resolve, improvise, face and get on with by ourselves, to reclaim the authority that our hunter-gatherer ancestors had over their life. And part of that is to preserve and defend urban public space - get to know our neighbourhood, be physically in it, keep an eye on and get involved in what happens to the public spaces around us. And just to make this clear: I am not saying that hunter gatherer lives where easy or pretty, but I'm saying that there was a greater measure of self-authority, and that is such an underrated, precious thing.

If there is a history of walking, then it too has come to a place where the road falls off, a place where there is no public space and the landscape is being paved over, where leisure is shrinking and being crushed under the anxiety to produce, where bodies are not in the world but only in cars and buildings, and an apotheosis of speed makes these bodies seem anachronistic and feeble In this context, walking is a subversive detour, the scenic route through a half abandoned landscape of ideas and experiences. (p12)

What I like most about Rebecca's passionate plea for urban walking, is that it deals so practically with where we are at. It does not require us to all go and live on the land, but deeply acknowledges our current situation, where most of us do live in urban areas. Where many of us feel unsafe, cut off, have lost all sense of being bodily immersed in our surroundings because of that, and where many of us are dreaming about a life in the country that we may well never have. 

There is a cluster of ideas coming together from different angles about the importance of our actual bodily experience in the world, the reclaiming of individual authority that is embedded in the communality of a larger world, the facing and dealing with things as they are. In another wonderful bit of synchronicity, the thread seems to spin further, as the book I have just started reading is The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abrams, which is all about a deep repositioning in how we experience ourselves in the world as bodily sensing creatures amongst other such creatures - food for a future blog post. 

The recent renewed taking to the streets of people around the world is not quite the same as the kind of walking I'm talking about here. But maybe these great communal expressions of walking to protest and revolt have to be underpinned by the small everyday acts of reclaiming our autonomy, of which I think urban walking is one.

For more on Rebecca Solnit go to her website   and read this lovely interview
For more on Ivan Illich, check out the resources on Dougald Hine's website
For David Abrams go to

(If anyone wants to read any of the books I'm referencing, try to get them in your local independent bookshop or try your local library - that's where I got all of them from!)


  1. Hi Daniela,

    ‘walking and connection’

    A lovely, resonant, sharing and reflection . I use to wonder about myself walking, stalking the streets of London, sometimes late on a Sunday night, at times aware of a primitive, prowling instinct like that of a panther. Partly laying claim to, and marking, my territory. Getting to know it. Sometimes finding solace in the walking, physical exertion and release of energy or tension. Sometimes making curious discoveries, voyeuristically noting and imbibing the random activities of individuals and happenings. Lyrics and melodies often come to me while walking, so do conversations, and ideas, inspirations, dots and connections, in relation to ongoing, sometimes, unresolved, conversations and issues.

    I started to realise after some years having lived in, or travelled to, different parts of the world that one of the first things I tended to do upon arrival in a place was to walk it. I didn't really arrive, or feel grounded, real, until I walked the place.

    I realised at some point there was something particularly powerful and connecting in this.

    To get to know a city I needed to walk it, be in it, notice it, all the little nooks, crannies, people and happenings, to get the measure of a place, to sense it, feel it, and see its many faces and facets.

    I like London for being a real walking city. There still seems to be some respect for public space, the idea of it, the need for it, and walking as mode of movement - though there be hierarchies. Newer cities like Sydney, my home town, or even LA have their walking places but it feels clear that walkers are not factored in unless it’s walking to their cars, or to the bus stop, way down the priority list in terms of mode of movement/travel.

    In London I can still get annoyed at the priority given to cars. But in other cities I've felt a very real sense of being ostracised as a walker. I'm a natural jay walker, which is a fine-able offence in the US. And no amount of pedestrian modelling will ever come up with ‘desire lines’ to suit me.

    Further, places reliant on cars are not benefitted by the fact of having them. They always feel disconnected to me, as noted in your extracts above. A neighbourhood that can't be walked is not my friend. I don't feel at ease, or in place, and have indeed felt cut off. Reliance on cars, metal and rubber cuts me off from the experience of being in a place. It's really telling when I'm looked at sideways for saying: "I'll walk".

    Taking it further, I've received looked at sympathetically for saying: "I'll catch the train" in Sydney, and aghast for saying: "I'll "catch the bus" in LA. This is really telling about a place and its people, and I mention it because it’s all interlinked.

    Being in the body is the key to connectedness, connected to sensuousness, feeling, sensing and knowing. Being in our being-ness, feeling our beings, connects us to the same in our surrounds, and immediately asks/causes us to respond in simpatico.

    Everything our western culture tells us we can derive pleasure from, and expects us to live by, seems to push toward the opposite. Holds rationale, logic and thinking over being and feeling, talking over experiencing, what is known and can be proved over what has not yet been discovered and is experiential and just as real .

    I feel, in this day and age, to be totally connected to our bodies, our beings and selves, places and surrounds, moment to moment, noticing and witnessing, is to be free and liberated. This could be the truly radical and revolutionary act of our time, more so than possibly than talking, thinking or action.

    But I like it for the immeasurable, multi-faceted experience it affords, and the ecstatic potential.

    So that’s where walking and talking takes me...
    A random connection of thoughts

  2. Thanks for your thoughts Allie, I completely relate to what you're saying. Shining a light on those subversive acts that we can simply live and be is striking me as more and more important!

  3. Hi Daniela,

    Thanks for this thoughtful, expansive detour through Wanderlust, which is a book I love too and beckons to be re-read.

    Another facet of urban walking that interests me is the walker as memory-keeper: the one who notices and remembers what was there, before changes came to put something up or tear something down.

    Sometimes the changes to a city are vital (important signs of life), but where they've been imposed on a place without much thought to its individuality, it can matter that someone knows what was there before (a special tree, a pub, a garden); in case one day it calls to be put back.

    I've enjoyed your other posts too with their parallels to my own journey - out of academia to recover the lost parts of myself and be more fully here in the world.

  4. Catherine, thank you for your comments about remembering - I think that's part of entering a real relationship with the world, to become a custodian of it's memories! And yes, this journey, it's an interesting one - maybe we can exchange more thoughts in future.