Earlier this week I sat with my colleagues from the Ellipsis group and we reflected on our individual learning and the experience of working collaboratively on the Secret Lives of Objects project, we have worked together for approximately 2 years and it has been the longest research exhibition I have been involved with.
Something that became apparent was the force of the project that propelled us forward, just the act of committing to and being part of a group was somehow greater that individual projects and we all commented on how it gave us strength to carry on even when we doubted our work. This discipline was enhanced by regular meetings and deadlines.
With regard to walking, Ashley and Kenyon, two women who walked the Pennine Way talk about how the long distance purpose “pulled them along each day” (Heddon). The Women and Walking project is something I am doing alone and so I am thinking about how to create a flexible structure in which to put deadlines and accountability/support meetings with a mentor/mentoring group.
I’m using an action research model as a basis for the Women and Walking project and from this diagram I’m at Stage 4 on Cycle 1: “Reflecting”.
I’ve been reading the article Walking Women: Shifting the Tales and Scales of Mobility by Heddon & Turner (2012) that has helped to clarify some points that have emerged. The article outlines the masculinist discourses attached to walking and the ideology that glorifies walking as individualist, heroic, epic and transgressive where the walker is seeking out adventure, the new, colonising new territories and releasing one(him)self from the constructs and restrictions of everyday life. The desire underpinning this ideology is one of political freedom and a belief that space is an objective place from where you can separate from the crowd or “the state” and be free. It values “the wild” and sets up a binary whereby the opposite is seen as something of lesser value.
That opposite would be walking with a companion, or in a group, local walking, short distances, walking the same route, understanding that space is created through the operationalisation of relations, by that I mean that we cannot simply remove or escape the cultural constructs that we have internalised, namely our identity that is constructed via cultural ideas about class, gender, race, sexuality, age, disability.
What Heddon and Turner illustrate in the article is how women walking artists have deconstructed the binary by giving examples of work that show that women have always liked adventure and are at the same level of risk of danger as men in “the wild”, thus including them in a landscape to which they have been absent. But, this in not enough, more importantly, they demonstrate how walking artists have subverted the masculinist ideology and thus challenged the norms attached to walking, not just by inverting the binary but by questioning the very nature of the assumptions attached to these beliefs about walking.
Through various walking practices the walking artists they interviewed have demonstrated how there is value in
- everyday walks whether it is familiar or unfamiliar,
- attention to close up detail than focusing on the far horizon,
- recognising that as walkers we have to take responsibility for our viewpoint in that we are not objective and through our subjective perception we, along with others, construct the space we enter into. There is no “pure”space, it is a place of layers of meaning to which we add ours and others add theirs and that to enmesh and enable these stories is a way of developing relationships than trying to escape them or setting oneself up against a landscape to be conquered.
- deconstructing the romanticism around walking in order to make it less heroic and more accessible and normal. Long or short distance, walking is about putting one foot in front of the other and in the moment there can be very practical aspects to attend to like getting through a bog or over an icy stile.
- seeing walking as a web that weaves both the local and familiar with the unknown, wild and solitary, it is not either / or but both and more with an infinite number of possibilities.
Results of the Walking Interviews so far
1. Out of the 16 women I have interviewed only 1 has had an incident where she felt threatened by the presence of a male walker, another received comments questioning her physical capabilities to carry a heavy rucksack. One woman was afraid after media reports but had not experienced any danger directly herself. An older woman was told that “she shouldn’t be going up there alone” but at 70 had never had any trouble, although she was worried about falling over so took her mobile, but still went.
2. 90% of the women walked locally, to “give themselves” “space”, to enjoy the wide openness and height that being contained inside with children or caring responsibilities denied them. Almost all mentioned an exhilaration of getting “on the tops”.
3. The majority of women kept to local walks as they were time limited due to their caring responsibilities.
4. Some of those with children spoke of the stress of taking children on walks, that they had to pack water, food, extra clothes, towels etc. The pace was slower, they had to plan activities to maintain interest and could not switch off, however, being outside always resulted in feeling refreshed and the effort was worth it. Going with other families and children was easier.
5. Some of the older women used walks as a spiritual practice, to do walking meditation and to help them “get out of their head” and into their body, to focus on the landscape than what ever they were thinking about.
6. Two artists said they used walks as inspiration, writers found that the act of walking enabled stories to emerge. One writer had done a long distance walk to inform her novel.
7. Two of the women talked about memories attached to certain walks from their past and how they would return to these walks to invoke those memories.
8. Another woman mentioned that she liked to go on familiar walks to reflect on how she felt the last time she walked the route.
9. Quite a few women were interested to meet the other women who had been interviewed. There was a desire to ‘talk walking” to others.
10. One woman mentioned the sense of ownership and belonging she felt when she walked locally.
11. At the end of each interview all the participants said how much they had enjoyed the experience and how it had made then think about their walking and what influence it had had on their lives.
So far I have felt honoured that women were willing to give up their precious time to spend an hour with me and that it has been helpful for me to reflect on my experience as I walk. With regard to challenging the masculinist ideology of walking, just by becoming conscious of this has enabled me to relax and enjoy local walks than feel guilty that I now cannot physically manage longer distances. My attention has shifted from the far horizon to both how I’m feeling, what is actually going on for me on these walks and to be more conscious of the interplay between the interior and the external landscape. This has felt like a relief and I can now silence that inner voice that tells me that I have not done enough, as if each walk had to be an endurance test.
I’m still not sure about how I will formalise this research, that is my next stage but in the meantime I have more interviews to do. If you want to be interviewed or know anyone who might please contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org.