Revelation: The World As We Walk

“No story is like a wheeled vehicle whose contact with the road is continuous. Stories walk, like animals and men. And their steps are not only between narrated events but between each sentence, sometimes each word. Every step is a stride over something not said.” – John Berger

My dogs and I always enjoy a good amount of brisk walk every six in the morning. As early as 5:30 AM, they will start to occupy the bed to rouse their human, akin to an alarm, signifying that it is a new day, and they want to go outside. As I prepare the leash, I often observed that the younger pup (a year-old male Shi Tzu x Terrier) is more excited than the older one (a three year-old Shi Tzu x Poodle). It is because of the age difference perhaps. I’m really not sure. Our course is usually the immediate neighboring block. They stop for the occasional pee and poo. And sniffing is also a very noticeable behavior as we go along. They keenly smell the grass, the earth, stagnant water after a night of long rain, and even other dogs. After all, canines sense their world through smell (unlike human whose perception is heavily reliant on vision). They discover things as they roam around. Walking takes around twenty minutes, sometimes longer if they are still fervent to continue. The activity is already a mundane ritual for us.

Currently, it is relatively easy to find a number of physicians attesting that walking promotes better blood circulation and balances your energy level as you start the day.

It also burns the extra energy of your dogs – an important practice to eliminate unwanted behavior like hyperactivity and excessive barking (simply, it stops them from being bored).

A short walk late in the afternoon is also a good distressing activity after a long hard-day of work. Walking, as a form of physical exercise, has long been examined by many researchers (from medical research to physical education)

It is quite unlikely, however, to see walking as a focal concept when we talk about social theory and epistemology. That is why it is fascinating to reflect on why anthropologist Tim Ingold poses the idea that walking is a means of understanding (through the process of ‘revelation’) the world. Aside from the mere physical exercise, what can we get from walking?

Walking and Wayfaring

“When I was a child my father, who is a botanist, used to take me for walks in the countryside, pointing out on the way all the plants and fungi – especially the fungi – that grew here and there. Sometimes he would get me to smell them, or to try out their distinctive tastes. His manner of teaching was to show me things, literally to point them out.  If I would but notice the things to which he directed my attention, and recognize the sights, smells and tastes that he wanted me to experience because they were so dear to him, then I would discover for myself much of what he already knew. Now, many years later, as an anthropologist, I read about how people in Australian Aboriginal societies pass their knowledge across the generations. And I find that the principle is just the same!”  – Tim Ingold, The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling, and Skill

How do humans navigate? How can we find our destination within the realm of the unfamiliar? Recent technological advances made the process of navigation much easier. People are now equipped with smartphones, GPS, maps, and other apps/gadgets to locate places. Just type the exact address and a readily accessible phone software will assist you without fail. The advent of map-making, and the progress of this technology, changed the way we discover (and unveil) the world. Hauntingly, a destination-oriented transport alludes the idea that nothing is worth ‘learning’ along the path of travel. It presses us to think that we are situated within finite destinations. A certain end. A universe of points and coordinates, not pathways.

For the longest time (prior to the invention of mapmaking), humans discovered the worlds by means of wayfaring (like walking). For Ingold, wayfaring is humanity’s fundamental modality of travel. We build our knowledge as we explore, we learn as we walk. And as we move, we just don’t leave trails on the ground but also meanings and stories inscribed together with the movement. Walking, then, becomes a cognitive revelation. It grounds us to understand not only ourselves but our surrounding.

Bruce Chatwin’s book titled “The Songlines”, for instance, narrates how Australian aborigines conceive their world and formative history. Based on Aboriginal cosmology, there are ‘songlines’ that crisscross the whole continent of Australia and are said to have been traced out by their ancestral creators as they walked the land during the formative time called the Dreaming, leaving their mark in such landscape features as hills, rivers, rocky outcrops, ridges, waterholes and gullies. Outsiders may just view the varying physical markers in Australia as simple geographical contours. But for the local aborigines, these markers hold stories and histories, symbols and meanings.

Our early ancestors relied on physical markers (like creeks, trees, mountain ridges, rivers, even stars) to understand and navigate their environment. In his essay titled “Ilongot Visiting: Social Grace and the Rhythms of Everyday Life”, Renato Rosaldo discussed how the Ilongot people in the northern Philippines navigate their terrain by means of walking. Rosaldo posited, “Ilongot speak of walking on paths that meander, like the courses of the streams they follow, in ways that cannot be foreseen”.

Final Thoughts…

For the wayfarer, speed is not an issue because the destination is never the end goal. People whose business of life  is conducted at successive stopping-points (destinations) wants to spend his time in places, not between them. And it misses the whole aspect of building knowledge by means of simple movement. Like how my dogs sense the world as they smell their path of navigation, humans produce/reproduce narratives and meanings as they traverse their respective landscapes. Walking is a matter of laying trails and stories as one goes along.

Take a break and have a phenomenological walk.