Sunday, September 20, 2009

Walking as Cultural Production

This week in my graduate seminar we are reading Rebecca Solnit's intriguing book, Wanderlust: A History of Walking (Penguin, 2000). Solnit argues that while walking has been practiced by our species for untold millenia, walking as a specific cultural practice, engaged in for the sake of walking (as opposed to simply a means of getting somewhere) is only a few centuries old. (She especially associates the practice's emergence with Rousseau's walks, as archived in Reveries of the Solitary Walker and the Confessions. Living as we do in Concord, Massachusetts, where Henry David Thoreau took so many of the walks immortalized in his essay Walking (1862), it is hard not to ponder the ways in which our experiences of walking have been shaped and structured by the great local walkers of the region's past.

Yesterday, as my wife Ellen Schattschneider and I took one of our favorite walks, along the "Battle Road" trail of the Minute Man National Historic Park in Concord, I found myself wondering about the extent to which walking can be understood not only as a historically and culturally-constituted practice but also as a site of cultural production, through which socially-salient meanings, and even new forms of inter-subjectivity can be generated.

Our walk began by crossing the small wooden footbridge near Merriam's Corner, where on April 19, 1775, the first day of the Revolutionary War, intense fighting had taken place between British regular and the colonial Minutemen. A National Park Service interpretive plaque summarizes the fighting along the battle road that day and declares that the fighting was foundational in forging "American identity." In this sense, the five mile trail can be understood as a nationalist site, designed for inculcating a set of patriotic sensibilities in those who hike it. I must admit that given how beautiful the trail is, and how low key the NPS signage is, I tend to resist this reading, at least emotionally. Yet during this, the 50th anniversary of the founding of the park, it is certainly worth reflecting on the ideological climate in 1959 that led Congress to establish the park, and that led subsequently to the trail being surveyed and preserved.

As we crossed the footbridge, we found ourselves thinking of a very different walk and of a very different kind of produced intersubjective awareness. During her ethnographic fieldwork at Akakura Mountain Shrine in northeastern Japan, Ellen would routinely cross over a footbridge in the early hours of the morning to begin a ritualized ascetic climb up the sacred mountain. She discusses this ascetic walk in great detail in Chapter Five ("My mother's garden: ascetic discipline on the mountain") of her book Immortal Wishes: Labor and Transcendence on a Sacred Japanese Mountain (Duke University Press, 2003) Worshippers residing at the shrine, nearly all of the women, are expected to climb one of the mountain's pathways each morning, praying and undergoing various forms of ascetic purification as they do so. The walks, Ellen argues, are not only socially organized, they are also productive of new forms of consciousness. In traversing a rugged landscape intimately associated with their foremothers, who have repeatedly moved across this territory, worshippers enter into intimate relationship with their antecedents. They are opened up to the possibility of dream-visions on the mountain, which they are expected to narrate to their fellow worshippers each evening back in the shrine, and which they immortalize through painting votive images, which are hung about in the shrine's inner sanctum or Shinden. A climbing ascetic might at the mountain's sacred waterfal, for instance behold a vision of the mountain's great avatar, Akakura Daigongen, manifesting himself as a pair of green male and female dragons, and later paint that vision as a form of offering back to the mountain divinities (kami). Subsequently, that particular site on the mountain will be known to worshippers, in part, through that remembered vision. In this way, each ascetic walk up the mountain is partly conditioned by the pre-existing established subculture of the shrine, and also potentially transformative of that subculture.

Back on the Battle Road trail, we found ourselves surrounded in a meadow of tall sunflowers, some of them five or six feet tall. I had been only dimly aware of the sunflowers a few weeks ago, when we last walked on the trail, but they had rocketed upwards since then, and the meadow was a blaze of yellows in the stunning sunlight of an autumn late afternoon. We found ourselves pondering the various directions the of the flower petals were facing: in the open-most part of the meadow most were facing in the direction of the morning sun, although some smaller plants, whose access to the eastern sun had blocked by the higher stalks, had turned their faces towards the western sun. As the trail turned to run alongside the woods to our right, we saw that the sunflowers to our left had turned their faces away from the woods, towards the more open spaces to the north-west. Peering into the faces of the flowers, we saw bees nestled into the interior, evidently hunkering down in the cold.

Along the trail in the midst of the meadow another National Park Service interpretive plaque recounted details of the running battle, including the fact that the effective range of a musket was roughly the distance from the sign to Route 2a, about seventy-five yards away. Yet in this blaze of autumnal color it was hard to imagine many walkers stopping to read the sign; the consciousness being imposed on the walker was more one exultation, perhaps tinged by awareness of the coming of winter, a sense intensified by the darkening reds of the foliage and the slight chill in the air. Indeed, a few minutes later, as we emerged from the woods onto the next open meadow, we came across an older woman, her face turned upwards to the sun. Seeing us, she smiled and held open arms. "Glorious!" she said, "isn't it glorious?" Ellen agreed: "I just wish it could stay like this forever." The woman nodded and smiled, "Forever!" So, for a moment at least, we had an instant of the making of something, if not quite of culture, then of a shared frame of intersubjective awareness, a celebration of life in face of its antithesis.

Later on the walk, walking across one of the boardwalks that crosses the open marshlands, filled with riotous purple loosestrife (an invader, Ellen tells me) and framed by the distant flash of swamp maples, all ablaze with color, we overheard another reminder of how the Autumn beauty of the walk seems to inspire meditations on mortality. A spry elderly gentleman talking on his cell phone passed us. "I'm so old, " he declared cheerfully into the phone, "I can't believe I'm so f***ing old!" A moment later, he caught Ellen's eye and they both laughed delightedly.

So it is a curious paradox of walks out in "nature", that we are simultaneously encouraged to enter into solitary reveries and yet find ourselves, from time to time, caught up in moments of intense "communitas," in Victor Turner's sense, in which we sense ourselves deeply linked to the strangers who pass us by. Perhaps these are not quite instances of culture-making, of the sort found on the rocky paths of Mount Akakura, but they are at least the foundational frames of intersubjective awareness, expanding our horizons beyond our private interior thoughts into possibilities of imaginative social exchange.

Monday, September 7, 2009

First Weekend of Nantucket Research

We're on the ferry now heading back from Nantucket to the mainland (or to "America" as some islanders call it) after a wonderful initial weekend of research on the island's African-American oral history. We were warmly welcomed by many of the island's specialists in African-American history, and very well looked after by our hosts Renee and Bill Oliver of the African Meeting House/Museum of African-American History. It had been great getting to know members of the small but deeply committed multicultural network of Nantucketers committed to researching and celebrating the island’s African-American history as well as that of other communities of color on the island. It has also been delightful getting to know my grad students Mengqing, Shasha and Yaxin, who are skilled, energetic and imaginative researchers.

On Saturday we worked primarily in the Oliver's living room, recording key community historians. The interviews were rich and fascinating, but at the same time reminded us how difficult it is to elicit usable footage for an audio walking tour (accessible via cell phone) through unscripted interviews, especially if the recordings aren't being done in situ. The problem is compounded when gathering accounts of historical events that took place well over a century ago; inevitably, interiews qualify their remarks with "I seem to recall, " or "check this, but I think...", all of which is entirely understandable when they are away from their books, but which won't quite work for a cell phone tour. We'll clearly need to work much more carefully with our community partners and historians in scripting specific segments, which can be read aloud by local people.

The richest footage, we found, were unexpected 'experience near' moments. Frank Spriggs described a potent memory from the late 1940s, when he was the only student of color in Nantucket's public school system. He got to play Santa Claus in the Holiday pageant. At the time, he experienced this as a welcoming and inclusive act, but only decades did it occur to him how telling it was that in playing the role he was required to wear long white gloves and white-face makeup. For white folks, after all, Santa Claus was, unquestionably, white. The memory, which he describes beautifully, should make for an evocative segment on the tour. (We're not quite sure where to place it geographically: perhaps near the high school complex as part of a series of memories on race and the school system?)

Frank also shared some fascinating memories of the seasonal community of African-American domestic servants during the 1940s and 1950s; during the summer the island's population of color would swell from under ten to several hundreds. On their 'free days' (Thursday and half Sunday) these men and women (employed by wealthy summering employers as chauffers, maids, cooks and so forth) would congregate on Main Street and on one particular beach. We'd love to collect more of their stories and include them in the audio tour.

Through a lucky break, on our very first moment on the island we met, on the dock, Mr. Michael Miller, a long time member of the island's African-American community. He directs the Nantucket Martial Arts Academy and is a Master teacher of Tae Kwon Do. He invited us to his Dojon (training center) and we did a great interview with him about his work with young people on the island. We are thinking that this might be one of the final segments of the tour, since it exemplifies a long term narrative on the island, of the creative synthesis of cultures, including East/West and trans-Atlantic exchanges.

Sunday was an extraordinary beautiful, windy early fall New England day; we attended worship service with the Olivers at the First Congregational Chuch, which is featured in Moby Dick (although it is not clear that Melville had actually been on Nantucket when we wrote the novel!). At the front door we were greeted by a woman in the congregation wearing colonial garh, as had her mother and grand-mother before her. (She's pictured above with Mengqing, Yaxin and Shasha).

Mengqing, Yaxin and Sharsha continue to be fascinated by the tragic story of Quak Te, a servant from China who was in effect marooned on Nantucket in 1807 and who committed suicide in 1809. He had been left behind by his employer, the merchant from Canton identified as “Punqua Wingchong” (my students tell me this is an improbable name) . We hope to work more on untangling his story and developing an effective way of including the narrative in the audio tour.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Starting the Nantucket Audio Tour Project!

I'm blogging this onboard the "slow" ferry to Nantucket, with three of our grad students, as we head out to start our community history project with the African-American community on the island this weekend. Renee at the African American Meeting house/Museum of African American History Museum has kindly set up about five interviews for us over the course of the weekend, which is exciting. I'm really pleased that we'll get to meet members of the Jamaican-American community on the island, whom we are hoping to learn about. We've been reading the fascinating studies of the island's African-American history in Robert Johnson's excellent edited volume. Since this group of grad students (Shasha, Yaxin and Meqging) are all from China, we're also very interested in the accounts we've read of Chinese on the island during the Nineteenth century; we wonder if we'll find a way to include some of their stories on the tour.

One thing we are already wondering about is how best to incorporate music and environmental sound into the audio tour. Isabel Kalenback-Montemayor's fascinating essay in the Johnson volume gives some lines of a ballad composed in honor of Absalom Boston, the African-American captain of the 1832 all-black crew of the whaling ship Industry. We're hoping we can find some singers willing to perform the ballad, set to a plausible tune. We're also hoping to record appropriate maritime sounds, of seabirds, surf and wind to edit into various audio segments.