Walking in a Time of Virus - thoughts from Phil Smith
In the UK, and many other places around the world, we can walk.
Right now, 24th March, conditions and restrictions vary from country to country. The following ideas apply particularly to those places like the UK where we are advised to remain at home unless we have essential work or need to collect food or exercise. The government guidelines allow for one period of exercise per day (and for my purposes I am going to assume that that means a walk) either on your own or with those you are living with; maintaining a safe distance from others.
If that doesn’t apply to you, then you need to adapt these suggestions, or ignore them; whichever is appropriate.
The present ‘social distancing’ is really useful, because Covid-19 is more contagious than most viruses and its hyper-capacity to spread means that without us taking steps to level out its spread it overwhelms health services; with the consequence that more people – including exhausted and over-exposed medical staff – die.
But it’s also useful in another way. Because we can deploy another kind of ‘social distancing’ during our walking; which is to walk at a distance from the ‘norms’ that operate perniciously in our societies. For once, many of us have time – a time we can set aside each day as we walk – to consider, in silent thinking or dialogue with others, how we can extricate ourselves from these ‘norms’. To get outside and become outsiders.
I will describe just two extrications that are directly relevant to socially-distanced walking, but you will be able to think of others and apply your own changes.
Firstly, we need to disrupt our ‘optic flow’. We have developed brains which allow us to flow through terrains, even those with multiple challenges and obstacles, navigating them and yet barely noticing them. So, large numbers of people can (usually) walk through crowded city centres, hardly noticing the individuals and the street furniture around them; yet collisions are rare as people brush closely by each other. In socially-distanced walking, you need to disrupt that efficiency. We need to start noticing.
So, as you walk, pay careful attention to the expanse of the terrain, to those clues that could see you brought suddenly into the close presence of another, by their opening a door or turning onto one footpath from another; if you see others approaching you need to be able to ‘read’ and anticipate their movements so you can keep a distance from them. You need to become a choreographer of your own dance; but it’s not an empty stage. You need to blend your dance to the dance of the place and to its possibilities.
Part of this First Disruption is seeing in two very different ways at the same time; pay close attention to the details of the terrain around you (there are lots of hidden treasures there – more of that in a moment) and at the same time be continuously mentally mapping or diagramming the landscape for its affordances and potencies. Where does it want you to do go? What does it want to do? What is it becoming? What was it once? How is it directing others?
As another part of this disruption, walk in different times. At the moment, no one is quite sure how long the Covid-19 virus can survive on different surfaces; so as you walk, ‘read’ the terrain in terms of how recently it is possible that another person has touched one of its surfaces. In remote spaces a longer rhythm operates, while in what are likely to be more regularly visited spaces a more urgent rhythm applies; allow yourself to touch the deeper rhythms and dodge and feint away from the acceleration of others.
The second extrication is from the dominant ideas about place, nature and heritage. Particularly ideas about the kinds of places you might first think of going to in order to get away from the worries of your (now very unusual) everyday life. The incidents that eventually prompted a number of governments to impose strict ‘social distancing’ were scenes similar to those in the UK, where people flocked in large crowds to a few beaches, heritage sites, parks or famous ‘beauty spots’. The individual impetus of those in these crowds was to ‘get away’ and yet they could not escape from their narrow set of expectations about what and where they could get away to. So they ended up crowded into the same few places.
Part of what needs to be broken here is the idea that natural beauty or history is exclusively (or even more intensely) present in special sites, usually with big car parks and information boards. Every street you walk down is a treasure of geology and materials, each window is a museum of symbols, every tree is a drama of buds, enkissings, wounds and blossoming. For once, many of us have the time to teach ourselves about these things.
Escaping to the marginalized, unnoticed places is also an escape from the ‘norms’; at the big specialized sites history is homogenized into single narratives by the heritage authorities; in the ‘beauty spots’ it is hard to see what is actually there through the glare of the romantic landscape idea. We’re not really in the place, but the place is returning us to its image, in a remembered photograph or oil painting or an idea of one. So, part of this Second Disruption is to avoid all such centres and specializations and seek out small treasures in the margins: sudden explosions of wild flowers in urban wastelands, wild changes of current around warships in the dock, a poem taped to a window, an old rusted kissing gate still visible through brambles and trash.
Part of this is to escape the idea that an experience of ‘nature’ or ‘history’ (or of anything, really) is a commodity we can pick up from a place, like we might visit a shop to get a pair of trainers. Instead, we need to respect every space and place as beyond the usual, as places where we can have intense connections with another time or with an unhuman life, as all having their own narrative, just as we have ours. So, wherever you walk, walk with your own story and weave it around that of the place, the vista, the detail and the texture that you meet. Then you turn each walk into a kind of mini-pilgrimage, changing your story as you walk, and every marginal place you find – an old sign decaying into a poem (DANGER becoming ANGER or SANITARY becoming ANITA) or a fall of red berries in a gutter – becomes a shrine.
Use your close attention to details to find these places, and your looking to the shaping and potentials of the terrain to keep you safely at a distance from any other pilgrims.
One last idea – maybe each day take a moment to visit a tree or a group of trees or a bed of flowers or bushes. Stand in relation to them. As if you were joining their meeting, don’t intrude or put yourself at the centre, but join the gathering. Listen to what they have to say; note their gestures. Once you feel you are in the conversation, allow a feeling to drop down through your legs and into the weave of rhizomes and roots and mycelium and tunneling bugs and loam beneath. And then let the rhizomes and roots and mycelium and tunneling bugs and loam burrow their way up through your legs and into your trunk. Don’t spend too much time there, or you will drain the site. But go often and briefly, and each day you will begin to take a more ecological body home with you.
On your way out, wash your hands to loosen up some of the past, and when you get back, wash your hands again to polish up the future.
All Mythogeography & Walking titles
A Sardine Street Box of Tricks
Counter-Tourism: A Pocketbook
Counter-Tourism: The Handbook
Enchanted Things (A Photo Essay)
Guidebook for an Armchair Pilgrimage
She is the Sea
The Footbook of Zombie Walking
The MK Myth
Walking Art Practice
Walking Stumbling Limping Falling
Walking's New Movement
Ways to Wander
Ways to Wander the Gallery