Wandering is Wondering

2020. Essay. 

Published by Onomatopee in‘Meeting Grounds - On Locality, Community, Connection and Care,’ Wandering is Wondering is a collection of images and text existing as an unexpected consequence of evasiveness. In other words, the production of something born from a will to do nothing.

These observations begin how most things end; by getting up and wandering off. Wandering, with an ‘a’ becomes wondering with an ‘o’ as the interdependency between walking and thinking plays off. Similarly, it seems to me to be no coincidence that ‘rambling’ is a homonym, meaning to both write and speak in a lengthy, confused or inconsequential way as well as denoting the action of walking in the countryside for pleasure. These words, inextricable in spelling and pronunciation and moreso in meaning, demonstrate the concept of distributed cognition. [1] This is to say “the mind does not exclusively reside in the brain or even the body, but extends into the physical world.” [2] As such, this is about my feet as stimulators of thought and as mediators between self and surroundings. After all, “going out” is really “going in” [3] and the “the lover of nature is he whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other.” [4]

It is theorised that all forms of knowledge are situated [5] and thus reflect the particular conditions in which they are produced. In other words, the process of knowing is both site-specific as well as body-specific. I tend to walk in the ‘middle of nowhere.’ As a result of this my thoughts, in parallel to my environment, are typified by a remarkable ordinariness. I suppose, as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “You become what you think about all day long.” [6] For me walking is joyfully aimless, it does not attempt to reinvent the wheel in any way, but simply to get it turning. I step out of my world and into the world on crossing the domestic threshold. Where a 1970s suburban housing estate plunges incongruously into farmland, houses are replaced by herds, flocks and crops. The conflux of humans, animals and machines piece together a vast green patchwork of productivity. Despite being overtly serene, the agricultural landscape is emblematic of intense labour, discipline and control. For this reason, fields are perhaps the most strangely subversive place to go to idle. As Solnit reminds us, “thinking is generally thought of as doing nothing in a production-oriented culture.” [7]

Walking is far from esoteric. Perhaps most appealing is that it does not require any conscious thought as an input yet somehow causes rumination, as if by accident. Thoughtfulness - as something immaterial - is hard to quantify, but as with any practice is noticeably richened by repetition. Like drawing the perfect circle, feet in place of graphite, round and round, over and over, I tread the same places, day in day out. The objective: a certain wholeness, not in shape but in the sensuous intangible. So, I retrace not only my own steps but of others, anonymous and ghostly, layering experiences and encounters. I imagine the bodies and existences that have come before me: the badger tracks immortalised in the once wet - now dry by the sun - mud, the carvings deer have made while gently ploughing through the long grass or places where people like me have grappled with the unforgiving gorse bushes. While bodies have shaped these tracks, so too have the places shaped those who have made them. Pathways are made up of stones and mud, as well as neurons in the brain.

Like stories, paths ask to be followed. On those grounds, walking presents itself as a method for reading the earth. In the wordless yet bountiful language of the rural vernacular, stiles punctuate the landscape. In writing, punctuation is the signs and symbols which serve to separate different elements in order to clarify their meaning, the same can be said for the stiles. While some function like semicolons connecting here to there (two closely connected yet different places) others serve as places to pause: an ellipsis in the continuous flow of walking. Each is a nuanced articulation and alteration of how the body experiences the space it occupies. However, in their conventional sense these banal trees-turned-timber landmarks were never intended to be tools for reflexivity. Humbly, they set out to allow people - but not animals - to climb over a fence. They are incredibly useful objects; photographs of them are entirely useless. Nevertheless, I have been making, spending and arguably wasting time collecting (in defiance of the latter) these objects on 35mm film, a crucially slow medium. While the objective is to document as many as possible, above all it is to dismantle the polarisation between the productive and the pointless. They are harvested by foraging for meaning among the meaningless. So far, there are 36 stiles, all within a 2.2 mile radius of my front door across countless walks, spanning 3 months.

In absence of any pre-existing cultural, social or political symbolism or interpretation, the stile freely offers itself up as a personal muse. As obstacles in the physical realm, they are opportunities in the mind. Although composed of images, the collection holds little aesthetic significance, down to the idea that, “We never just look at one thing; we are always looking at the relation between things and ourselves.” [8] Here, a photograph of a stile is an allegory of the way in which time, place and myself are bound together. Notably, stiles (in spite of their name) don't concern themselves with style. Form most certainly follows function. In fact, the countryside in general embodies an admirable dismissal for the following of fashion. It is, instead, a timeless place. Or at least where time feels more malleable and spacious than in the urban setting. Without doubt, “modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought or thoughtfulness.” [9] Increasingly, moving through the world feels more like being pushed. Resultantly, matters of urgency are ascribed with utmost value and importance. We are encouraged to seize life’s ephemeral treasures or else they’ll vanish, but this is only because everything is moving too fast. By contrast, (photographs of) stiles are devoid of an immediate relevance, due to their disconnectedness from the world beyond the small space they physically inhabit. Nor do they face any threat of imminent disappearance. They quietly trespass through the past, present and future. Waiting, rooted, while everything else moves. I am comforted by this permanence among a deluge of transience. A stile, elementally, is a reconfiguration of a tree and in the words of Robert Macfarlane, “Time is kept and curated and in different ways by trees, and so it is experienced in different ways when one is among them. This discretion of trees, and their patience, are both affecting.” [10] On top of this, is the process of collecting, another tempo-transmuting force. Enshrining the temporality of objects and - above all - capturing the collector's relationship to them.

To collect anything is an unspoken commitment with slowness, gradually unfolding over time with the acceptance that it can never be completed, only continued. In the end of the day, “haste can do nothing...I knew when I had looked for a long time that I had hardly begun to see.” [11] Walking is a way of seeing. As well as knowing and being. The repetitive nature of footsteps is a metronome, setting the inner pace and ensuring the body and mind walk hand in hand.

[1] - Roy Pea, 1993

[2] - Robert A Wilson and Lucia Foglia, "Embodied Cognition". The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2011

[3] - John Muir, John Muir, John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir, 1979

[4] - Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature and Walking, 1836

[5] - Donna Haraway, Situated Knowledges : The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective, 1988

[6] - Ralph Waldo Emerson, unknown

[7] - Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust, 2000

[8] - John Berger, Ways of Seeing, 1972

[9] - Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust, 2000

[10] - Robert MacFarlane, The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, 2012

[11] - Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain: A Celebration of the Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland, 1977