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.

Why Disasters Happen And What Can We Do

Disasters plagued the year 2016. Last October 4, Hurricane Matthews plowed through Haiti with 145 miles per hour winds. The event took more than 500 lives. This Category 5 storm pushed to US days later and left 43 dead bodies and marred communities. The Ecuador earthquake in April 16 leveled houses, schools, and vital infrastructures. It claimed around 700 people. More than 30 countries were also affected by one of the strongest El Nino pattern in the last 20 years, causing heavily depleted water tables and damaged agricultural resources. Until today, millions of farmers are still feeling its enduring effects. Well, we can also include a huge man-made disaster in the mix. The war in Syria displaced around 430,000 people in 2016. In total, almost 5 million Syrians are seeking refuge in neighboring countries.

For the longest time, I looked at disasters as events solely determined by environmental pressures. It is even popularly regarded as an “act of God” or “fate.” I can still remember one of my high school classmates saying that the tsunami that hit Indonesia in 2004, killing around 160,000 people, was a way of “cleaning” the immoralities of this world. I encountered similar comments on the landfall of typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, killing around 6,400 people and displacing 4,000,000 others. It is not surprising that stories about catastrophic events can be found in religious texts such as the Bible and the Quran, and even great Sanskrit epics. This kind of perception, even though disconcerting, shows how the general public frame discussions related to disaster.

In the domain of stale discourse, we are demanded ask critical questions. “What is disaster?” “What is to be done?”

I think we can initiate a sounder analysis by defining what disaster is. In the academe, a disaster is now generally understood as (1) an event and (2) a process that overwhelms the capacity of vulnerable social group, economic activity, or infrastructure to resist and recover. This definition is popularized by Anthony Oliver-Smith in his essay Anthropology and the Political Economy of Disaster. It is a substantial leap from the popular approach on disaster, as environmentally-determined events, because this kind of framing factors the social vulnerabilities of people. Historically, these vulnerabilities are rooted in the subordination within a certain population. Simply speaking, disaster is both a product of environmental and social pressures. Thus, it can be better understood when analyzed at the intersection of society, technology, and environment. This definition, of course, calls for the dissolution of dichotomies like “society-environment” or “culture-nature.” These divides are parts of a larger socio-environmental totality. They actively interact. For historian Greg Bankoff, it is actually the mutualism of the two (society and environment) that lies an understanding of vulnerability and its application in revealing both the multifaceted nature of disaster, its historical roots and political context. Political economy will serve as an important analytic tool in understanding disaster. It helps us position events within the “normal” order of things. Society generates its own form of vulnerability, while political economic approach sees disaster as something that is socially constructed as well a natural phenomenon.

The case of storm surge caused by Haiyan in Tacloban, Philippines last 2013, can be used as a case for this topic. Tacloban is considered a highly urbanized first class city in the Philippines. It is the provincial capital of Leyte and has an estimated population of 242,089 as of 2015 census. It is referred to as the most populous city in the Eastern Visayas. The issue of poverty and corruption has always been associated to Philippines national and local politics. In the first semester of 2012, poverty incidence in this country was recorded at 27.9 percent. During the same period in 2015, it was estimated at 26.3 percent. It means that more than 26 million of Filipinos remain poor. And 12 million Filipinos live in extreme poverty, a categorization based on their inability to feed household members. In the Philippines, a person is not considered poor if he/she earns more than 2 dollars a day! Travesty. (Yet, the narrative of trickle-down economics has been endlessly paraded by politicians during election campaigns.)

Haiyan is one of the most powerful typhoons ever to make landfall in recorded history. It is a Category 5 typhoon with maximum sustained winds reaching 315 kph and with gusts up to 379 kph. The extent of its damage was reported to be around 36 billion pesos (717,775,200 US dollars). It destroyed roughly 550,000 houses and damaged 600,000 others. In just a day, it displaced almost 4,000,000 people. Haiyan heavily affected communities located at the coastal zones of Tacloban. The barrage of storm surge virtually flattened local communities. Government officials later disclosed that most of the affected communities were positioned within hazard zones. Majority of those affected are included in the State-defined poverty matrix. As pictured by the local media, the word “storm surge” never existed, and was never viewed a threat, until Haiyan.

Factors that we can attribute in this disaster…

1. Poor urban planning and lack of basic social services such as quality housing (infrastructural vulnerability).

2. Communities and leaders lack adequate knowledge on storm surge caused by super typhoons (informational vulnerability).

3. Huge chasm of socio-economic inequality and issues of misspent public money (economic vulnerability).

4. Disjoint between local government officials and national government officials (political vulnerability)

These are major structural conditions and vulnerabilities that enable disaster. In addition, a major problem that is also observable is how government officials and agencies approach disaster as a socio-environmental problem. They design programs and policies focused on disaster mitigation, not prevention. This is an outdated framing that lacks long-term vision and sustainability. Again, disaster is a process and an event. We need to assess and address the overlapping vulnerabilities, created by maladaptive social processes, in order to avoid or reduce the impact of environmental stress. We also need to understand why there are sub-population more affected within a larger society. It highlights the question, ‘what makes them more vulnerable than others?’

Final Thoughts…

Environmental pressures will only increase under the shroud of global climate change. That’s for certain. We are currently experiencing the strongest storms, longest droughts, and hottest global temperatures. We need to build (both literally and figuratively) better communities that are resilient to the challenges of times.

“It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” – Charles Darwin