Part of this adventure is rooted in guided research, in readings meant to inspire and enlighten us on the subject of walking. This first reading comes from the book Walkscapes: walking as an aesthetic practice, by Francesco Careri. More specifically, the reading covers two chapters: “Walkscapes” & “Errare Humanum Est…“, so this reflection will be split accordingly, with a section for my engagement* with each chapter. There will be photographs, some directly related to my words, others vaguely tying in to Careri’s writing.
*By engagement I mean thinking about how the writing connects to my own interests or prior areas of study. Yes it will get a bit off topic, but what’s the point of reading if you don’t make an effort to ponder its applications in a way that matters to you?
The chapter opens with a list, a column of actions and a column of objects or places. Careri calls this list a useful aesthetic tool. The idea, Careri says, is that by performing these actions on these objects / places, we can “explore and transform the nomadic spaces” in a modern city. He further explains that mankind’s origin, before erecting the first stone, lies in walking (page 25). Walking is symbolic, allowing man to transform the landscape. This, I think, is something primordial, something that we share with our kin in the animal kingdom. I think of wolves, who are intimately familiar with their territory. They patrol the area, walking to find water or prey, and by moving through the space, changing it. This is not a place, they say. This is my place. By knowing, by giving familiarity to the unknown, they transform a stretch of woods or a mountain peak into something they can interpret as their own.
Of course, I assume Careri means something a little deeper than that. He acknowledges that mankind walked from necessity, to find food for survival. But, once those objectives have been met, walking allows mankind to “dwell on the world”. The natural world is in chaos, but by walking through it, order can be established. That order can be used “to develop the architecture of situated objects“. Walking is how mankind formed our most important relationship to the land, which he calls territory (page 25). This, to me, still sounds like the wolf. In order to claim something, you must first know it exists. Whether you are primordial man or modern wolf, that discovery must come from seeking it out, stumbling upon it, following the directions of your kin- discovery comes from walking. Perhaps this is what drew us to one another, this understanding of territory. After all, Careri says Paleolithic hunters were eternal wanderers, and what better travel companion than man’s best friend?
The journey survived settlement, becoming ritualized by religion and being given a second life as literary narratives, new ways to experiencing the thing we call wandering. But in the last century, the journey-path had transcended these restrictions, and has become a “pure aesthetic act”. He calls it “architecture of the landscape”, simultaneously physically transforming human space and symbolically acting upon it. There are three moments in art history where the footprints of walking are visible on the timeline, and in all three the artists discover that the space of going is formed by a great sea of amniotic fluid, and islands named the spaces of staying (page 26). I am reminded of The Birth of Aphrodite, both the artwork and the myth that inspired it. The goddess of love and beauty, formed from sea foam and the testicles of Ouranos, the primordial sky. There is something about the sea that invites these connections, connections to endless potential and hidden beauty and creation itself. We came from the sea, mankind and all the rest, evolving from the water in time before time. I wonder if Careri means to invoke this imagery, this ancient lineage that crops up again and again in mythology, the primordial sea, the cosmic ocean.
Careri continues on, walking us along the artist’s timeline in a narrative journey of his own. In 1921, Dada wished to surpass art, and walking was his performance of “anti-art”. He organized “excursions” in Paris, not to see the historical or the beautiful, but to visit the banal. Art was no longer to be confined to pre-ordained spaces- this was to be a reclamation of the urban in the name of art. A few years later, his Dadaists take trips to the open country instead, coining deambulation to describe the experience. It was surreal, revealing the repressed memories of the city. In the 1950s, the “theory of drifting” arose in contrast with deambulation, a transformation centered around constructed situation and playful-creative behavior (page 27). It’s a lot to take in, this almost romanticized notion of hidden depths in the city, in engaging in the simple to find something pure. It reminds me of romantic nationalist movements, the birth of folklore studies, this idea of looking to the simplistic and the unappreciated to find the secret of (national) identity. There’s something a little dangerous, sometimes, about this line of thinking. It’s a bit like the phrase “reject modernity, embrace tradition“. Innocent meme? Maybe. Origin in far-right spaces decrying the degeneracy of the modern world? Yep. Different types of people having similar ideas and taking them in wildly different directions.
Artists continued to create by walking in the latter 20th century, considering walking a form to “intervene in nature”. Sculptors reexamined the path, changing it from an object to an experience, and “reclaim the spaces and means of architecture”. Walking itself became the artform, an action that “left a trace on the land”, creating by doing (page 26-27). I think of desire paths, of the places where the landscape has changed, written over a thousand times by the need to walk. You can see them on the side of the road, a strip of dirt just off the curb where a sidewalk should be, but isn’t. You can find them while mountain biking, a trampled line through the pine-straw where adventurous bikers decided to get off the trail and forge their own way. On the intracoastal, the islands just off Wilmington’s coast, the local teens do this, carving hidden paths through the dunes with their feet, a secret clearing stomped between the sand and brush and shaded with the charcoal from a summer of bonfires. They might not think of their hidden slice of the unknown as art, but I disagree. They come from all over town, hitch rides on strangers boats or pile into a dilapidated dinghy, bring music and food and camping gear, choose to make this space their own, a mysterious territory all their own. I find the notion a bit poetic, a bit beautiful.
Careri continues on, speaking about the intersection between the settled and the nomadic. Inside the city one can find the “spaces in transit”, “territories in continuous transformation”. He describes the relationship between the nomadic void and the sedentary solid as a “delicate balance of reciprocal exchange” (page 28). He has two goals, he says. The first is to debunk the idea of nomadism as anti-architecture, to remind his readers that wandering Paleolithic hunters and nomadic Neolithic shepherds are the fathers of the first act of architecture, the menhir. The second goal is to bring understanding about where the path-journey belongs in history- among architectural archetypes. We must look to the territory, that symbolic construction inside the path, born of the relationship between roaming and the menhir (page 29). I can’t help but ponder the description of the nomadic as a void, of the sedentary as a solid, being in a balance reminiscent of yin and yang, of order and chaos. Yin and yang is a group of forces that are complimentary, a relationship where one cannot exist without the other, neither of them evil, both necessary in the name of balance. This fits his idea perfectly- how can one describe a void without knowledge of solid? How can one be aware of the nomadic as a lifestyle without the sedentary to compliment it? Otherwise, it would simply be the lifestyle. My knowledge of yin and yang stem from a childhood watching Avatar: The Last Airbender, which talks of balance as an important theme.
Careri dissects the path for us, illustrates its meaning in triplicate: the act/action of crossing, the line/object that crosses the space, and the tale/narrative of the space crossed. Walking is a tool, giving recognition to geography in chaos, allowing architects to investigate public metropolitan spaces (page 30). These spaces, by walking, can be described and modified, filled with meanings. These spaces are mutable, constantly changing, and walking allows us to share in this fluidity (page 32). It is a beautiful idea, speaking to participating in an act of creation that is ongoing, collaboration with the land itself. There’s something powerful about creation, this ability to create and change, to leave your mark on the world.
Errare Humanum Est…
Cain verses Abel. Farmer verses shepherd. Sedentary soul verses nomadic soul. But, Careri says, it is not so simple as that. Cain, devoted to agriculture, was the owner of the land. Abel, the owner of living beings, still needed land upon which to wander with his sheep. His “trespassing” provokes Cain to commit the first murder, and Cain is punished with eternal wandering, unable to settle without the land turning barren. There is a shift here, as Abel’s nomadic life was privileged with the freedom to ponder, explore, adventure, and play. Cain’s wandering is a punishment, forced to live without a home. He is the father of all mankind, and therefore the father of both the sedentary and the nomadic (page 37-38). It seems to me that the nomadic life is neither punishment nor privilege. It simply exists, and one must be willing to embrace the seed of the nomadic within their own soul if they wish to enjoy it. If Abel had struck down Cain that fateful day, angered by the notion he was unable to travel as he pleased, would the punishment have been different? I can imagine it would, that Abel would be trapped in a valley where the land was always bountiful, but unable to leave or keep a flock alive. Certain people will always feel the call of the wind, the urge to travel and roam, the inherent need to explore.
Once again he reinforces the notion that the one needs the other. Careri speaks of the Sahel, a neutral space for trade and mingling. It is the border between the dense/solid /full that is the sedentary, and the light/fluid/empty of the nomadic. The nomadic space is infinite, the nomadic city “the path itself” (page 39). This path is “the symbolic place of the life of the community”. When the space you travel is a void, the path is the connection between important points, and your mental map is ever-changing (page 41). This neutral space could be a place of self-exploration, the meeting of two worlds, the chance to test the waters and see where your soul is called to. I have been sedentary, a force of habit stemming from a life in one town. I’ve always wanted to roam though, to strike out and see where it takes me. It’s a scary notion, the possibility that the land is changing behind you, that you might not find your way back. That doesn’t stop me from wanting to wander, but it does temper the urge.
Man could not simply wander without having a way to know where he had been, where he was going. Australian aborigines did this through songlines, an oral tradition hailing to the time before the nomadistic Neolithic, to the erratic roaming of the hunter-gathering Paleolithic (page 44). It is made clear at this point that nomadism takes place in familiar space and with the intent to return, while wandering is in the unknown, without a destination. The hunter-gatherers were wanderers, and their children the shepherd and the farmer are the nomad and the sedentary. The path belongs to them both, “artificial order on the territories of natural chaos”. And to guide this artificial order, says Careri, is a compass composed of the sun and the horizon (page 49). This is interesting, this first attempt to understand the world, to know where you are and where you want to go. The sun as a navigational device makes instinctual sense to me, but the songlines are a different thought entirely. Memorizing the story of the landscape in this way is amazing, the power of oral tradition reminding me of Greek epics. Both are a narrative journey, the one describing the nature of the Australian landscape, the other the mapping of mythical quests. Traditionally, both are oral in nature, meant to be memorized and repeated. Of course, the beliefs of the ancient Greeks are a bit out-dated, in terms of living culture. They live on in the modern Wicca community, as well as various fantasy stories. In contrast, the aboriginal Australian people are very much alive, and their songlines are part of a closed religion/culture, not meant to be written down and widely dispersed for the layman to learn or the random author to use for a children’s story. They are sacred.
Careri goes on about this shifting geography, explaining the stability of the horizon in contrast with the shifting motion of the sun led to a “desire to stabilize the vertical dimension”. This became the menhir, a stone raised vertically, the beginning of man physically transforming the landscape (page 50). The stones had different functions, connected to worship, commemorating heroes, signaling water, or forming boundaries. Shepherds of Laconi, in Sardinia, call them perdas litteradas, lettered stones. This is another meaning in triplicate, the stones being written on, being an element to write on the territory, or being a symbol to describe the territory. There is a link: an area that developed hunting in the Paleolitic often sported a menhir in the Neolithic (page 51). Careri speaks of menhirs that not only indicated routes of commerce, but also existed on the border of territories, in neutral zones that were connected to the identity of more than one tribe. Locmariaquer, more than 75 feet high, is a menhir that would have required 3,000 people (way more than a single tribe) to raise all 300 tons of it. Other sites contained stones brought from hundreds of miles away, more proof of multiple peoples coming together (page 52). These stones are awe-inspiring to me. There aren’t any menhirs in North America, but we’ve all heard of what I think of as the stone crown of Britain, Stonehenge. It has been mythologized, used as a prop for the fantasy genre- a secret portal to another world, or a door to the fae realm. But it is powerful on its own, a symbol of a community- for there is no way one man did that- coming together with a shared purpose. While I doubt the site was someone’s home, it does remind me of Habitat for Humanity, a community home-building project in the modern day. I find this theme strikes wonder into my heart, that people have always worked together on the things they felt were important. We do not just create, we create together. I especially enjoy joint creation, as I feel it strengthens the bonds between us.
From here, the conversation turns to Egypt. While the civilization is stationary, there is still close ties to the nomadic roots. In Egypt, architecture transforms the menhir into volume and the path into interior space. What does he mean? The benben, Careri explains, is the mythological birth of the “first volume in space”, the first sunbeam turned solid, and represented by “a conical monument with a luminous tip”. The ka, the divine spirit of movement/life/energy, a symbol of eternal wandering, represented by two arms reaching for the sun, is the birth of interior space. The benben can be seen in the architecture of obelisks and pyramids, the ka in the New Kingdom temple (page 57). These temples are not to sit and pray, but are to walk- they are designed as a long hallway, flanked by columns reminiscent of menhirs. It is a place of transit, and makes “eternal wandering sacred and symbolic” (page 58). Travel, I am aware, is important in other parts of Egyptian mythology. Specifically, it is part of their ideas of the underworld, with Pharaohs requiring their people to build ritual-boats to ensure he would arrive in the underworld safely. Ra, the sun god, would travel through the underworld each night on his own boat, traveling away from the west after each sunset to ensure his rebirth in the east each sunrise. In a desert nation, where the Nile is the source of all life, it has always made me curious that the underworld’s main form of travel be a river as well. But in Egypt, life after death was to be the same as life, provided your soul survived its judgement. Travel on the water was too important in life for Egyptians to exclude it from their death.
These chapters have opened my mind to a new perspective on walking, and will continue to illuminate my future experiences with a new and fascinating light.