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.

1 comment:

Claire said...

This is a a beautifully meditative consideration of walking as a cultural prodouction. Thank you for the opportunity to experience it through your words.