This is our final walkshop, the end of our semester-long journey. I have roamed through my own neighborhood, the roads surrounding my area, through paths in the woods, cultivated gardens, past a man-made lake, and the wind-swept shore of a barrier island. I have spent time listening, observing, and simply enjoying the space around me. I do not know if I have grown, do not know if I have changed. I still find many of the men we read about pretentious, still find many of these ideas redundant. But I have enjoyed the experience anyway, and I am glad to have stumbled into it by circumstance, as I certainly never thought to seek it out. I may look back one day, when this pandemic is behind us, and suddenly understand everything. Or I may look back and realize what I think I understand is actually incorrect. But for now, all I can say is this has been a unique journey, one that will help define this chapter of my college career.
This walkshop opens with some interesting introspection about senses, about navigating the world in non-traditional ways. It reminds me of two of my favorite characters, Toph Beifong from Avatar: The Last Airbender, and Terezi Pyrope from Homestuck. Both girls are blind, and both have adapted their senses to help navigate the world with the help of animals. Toph, taught by the blind badgermoles who invented earthbending, uses her earthbending to send out subtle vibrations through the earth by moving her feet, allowing her to sense the placement of people, objects, and animals- as long as they’re on the ground. Terezi shares a telepathic connection with a blind dragon, who teaches her to navigate the world by smell, painting the world in tendrils of scent corresponding to the color and shade of the corresponding objects. Both go beyond the realm of any real-world inspiration of course, Toph able to sense if a person is lying by feeling their heart rate, while Terezi is able to determine a person’s eyecolor through their dark sunglasses, and bloodcolor through their skin. But these girls aren’t the only blind characters given an uncanny extra sense in literature. It is a common motif in sci-fi, fantasy, and comicbooks. This interest in super-powered blind characters seems to stem from a mixture of observing real life blindness, both in animals and people, and trying to explain how they manage without humanity’s favorite sense. hm.
But into the woods I go! There is a little stream next to our neighborhood, and it provides a bit of wilderness without having to stray far, which is a relief given the recent foul weather. The stream empties out into the marshy area of the intercoastal, making it pretty easy to identify the cardinal directions when prompted.
Alternating between periods of silence and prompts, I roamed along the stream, pausing to stop and sit when necessary. The first of these prompts was simply to breathe slowly, to take it all in. Then I was asked to look and listen, to describe. The shallow stream flows past rocks and wooden planks, abandoned from hurricane damage but somehow brought away from the shore, a quiet flow in some places and a loud burble in others.
The creeping vines ensnare everything, and the lush greenery of it all completely hides the truth of the season, an illusory summer of chlorophyll. The sticks and broken reeds crunch beneath my boots, and the little rays of sunlight warm my skin, when they pierce the ceiling of leafy branches anyway. The sand is ever-present, a gentle reminder that I am not deep in the woods, but mere steps from the sea. I feel content here.
I am told to establish myself in the location, so I dip my fingers in the stream. I am surprised by how cold it is, a chilling reminder that yes, this is November. I whisper to the stream my intentions to observe, wondering if a stream this small could have its own Naiad, if she understood my intent to do no harm. I give gratitude to her anyway, thanking her for her work, how she fed the lush greenery between my neighborhood and the road, that she supported a tiny ecosystem just off the boardwalk, a hidden oasis for the birds and squirrels and little green snakes, the skinks with blue tails and the dragonflies.
It is a delicate slice of nature here, and the children of this neighborhood love it too, playing at adventure and exploration in an area too shallow to drown in, close enough to the houses to be safe, shielded from the main road by the lush foliage. If I was a kid still, it would be a hidden playground, a place for me to sneak away to read without being bothered.
Nature exists in relationship to me, I am reminded. I am told to search for movement, and it is easily provided- the stream itself is swift and merry, the leaves all around me vibrate with the motion of the birds I hear but cannot see, of the bugs that bounce off of me as they zoom past. I look up towards the sky, and see nothing but green, dark as the dusk rolls in, a chill in the air rising as the sun sets. A golf cart rolls past on the boardwalk (cardinally north of me), a loud and unexpected interruption to the natural environment. In the distance, on the main road, I hear the tell-talk whoosh of cars speed by (cardinal south), and towards the houses themselves, the friendly chatter of those neighbors (west).
I am told to think of the major landmarks of Wilmington, the things that place it on the map. The Cape Fear River is my obvious choice, the intracoastal itself another. These two bodies of water meet in Wilmington, colliding into a brackish zone that was the subject of quite a few field trips for the science classes of my youth. But the sun is nearly set, and the podcast nearly ended, so as I ruminate on the brackish land, the possible flourishing forest that may have existed on this spot before the land was reshaped to suit the needs of a neighborhood, I retreat.
I am supposed to talk a bit deeper about this place, but for that I must zoom outwards, must gesture vaguely at the 35 miles of the Cape Fear river between Wilmington and the ocean, the Cape Fear Estuary. The estuary exists because the ocean tides actually force salt water up into the river, and the mixture creates a special habitat for feeding and nesting, a nutrient rich zone that many species of fish choose to lay their eggs in, providing a safety zone for the young before they are large and strong enough to foray into the real ocean. Given that the river itself drains the largest watershed in the state, the amount of nasty pollutants being dumped into this space is incredibly dangerous. Estuaries are known for their biodiversity, and for many generations have served as the perfect place to find oysters and clams. But the rise in pollutants led to a safety ban on harvesting from the oyster reefs in some areas, as the shellfish absorb and accumulate pollutants when feeding and filtering the water. This was something that was discussed extensively in school, the pride we should take in living near such a rich ecosystem and the care that must be extended to it. Occasionally I hear people complain about Duke, claiming they dump things upriver and don’t care how it affects the people downstream. I don’t know how true these claims are, but it is certainly a frightening thought, the idea that the river is a dumping ground for many, and they unknowingly or uncaringly are destroying a swath of the coast as the poison they sow is reaped by the plant and animal life forced to endure it.
I did go back later, and found the kids have been taking the wood planks and actually dragging them away from the shore, so they could place them over the stream for navigating it. Here is some footage of me walking it (those loud rolling noises are golf carts, and the whooshing ones are the boats or cars).
For this walkshop I was tasked with making a map, to show my way from, well, my home, with the destination being a special place that I would then walk to, making special additions as I went. When I initially planned to do this walk, I already knew what special place to choose: a little rental house on Canady Road, the place where we stayed for may and june of 2016, when our old house was sold and the new one not quite finished being built. It was in this little house that we discovered Comet’s fondness of baskets, catching him nestled in a wicker basket of blankets provided by the owners. We were there for a few weeks of school, through finals, and a few weeks of summer, and it was strange. But it was an important time in our lives, and I’ve sorta run out of other special places. Anyways, I was gonna walk this on a day that turned out rainy, so I decided to just listen to the story part of the podcast… during which I decided to draw a map. I got a little bit carried away.
The thing about getting carried away is I went a little too detailed (in the places that mattered anyway), with the correct number of houses in my neighborhood and semi-accurate street shapes.
I also had to make sure there was an appropriate amount of detail for the house itself, indicating the private dock Max spent so much time fishing on and the large hill that kept the house above the water level.
Eventually the rain clears up, but this hyper detailed map doesn’t serve my purpose. Instead, I draw a new one, smaller and simpler, more suited to the walk. Once complete, I hit play on the actual score and begin the walk, sketchbook in hand.
The map was told to have my home, the special place, and landmarks in between. Then I was prompted to go to an unfamiliar place, somewhere different. In the sketch above you can see my denoting of it, the mystery path belonging to some private landowner running parallel to our neighborhood. I ducked between the shrubery to get “inside” this area.
To the “left”, you can see the empty neighborhood that was initially woods belonging to the mystery rich guy. To the right, a peak of one of my neighbor’s homes. I went down the in-between space as far as I could, until fencing cropped up and a metal gate loomed, NO TRESPASSING sign too large to ignore.
The PRIVATE PROPERTY sign is probably a holdover from before they sold this chunk, before it became an empty field that the next real neighborhood could be seen through.
The gate reminds me of something off a farm, heavy and sturdy and chained shut. The path continued on, I could see that, and likely parallels the rest of my neighborhood down to some secret house close to the coast. But trespassing is something I try to avoid when on class time, so I turned around and got back to the road, ready to continue on the next prompt. I also made note of the gate on my little map, seeing as I didn’t have any tracing paper. The next place I was told to stop was one where “something reminds me of the home”.
The place I found wasn’t far, it was simply the sign for the neighborhood next door. But the reason it reminded me of home was the flowers, the neat arrangement of orange, yellow, and purple petunias.
We used to grow them, not at this home, but at the home before, and the one before that, back in Swampscott. To make myself “feel at home”, I smelled the flowers, then pocketed a few. Then I continued onwards, passing a construction site (there is always one around here) and one of our very large trees I wish I had the confidence to climb.
The next directive was to find an unfamiliar place, which I did when I stopped at the sign for another marina, this one a location I hadn’t ever thought much about.
How did this place make me feel, I was asked. The answer is that it was eerie, standing next to a sign I had seen many times but never bothered to read. I was also asked to ponder what object I could place at the spot, to make it more familiar. It was like a puzzle, and as I reached into my pocket and pulled out a trio of bruised petunias, I found the perfect piece. I stuck them through a little hole drilled in the sign, an off-center decoration on the “i” in restricted.
I continued from there, getting closer and closer to the destination, until I finally came to the long gravel road leading to the house. It was here that I stopped for another “familiar place”, glancing over the mailboxes before turning my direction down the steep decline of the land before me, then the swoop as it raised up again towards the houses.
the mailboxes are out of frame, as each boasts the family name of the homeowner, but I denote the spot with a little mailbox on my map before walking onto the gravel. There are two houses closer to the road, but the one I want is behind this layer, near the water. I am prompted to stop somewhere facinating, and glancing about, notice the bright silver of a metal pipe laying among the foilage to the left of the gravel, in a lush green path of natural beauty.
what interests me about is is the hard lines and sharp edges, the regular grooves on an object that has no place belonging among the organic landscape. From there I continue on to the house, which is more yellow than the orange I remembered.
I have come as close to the special place as I dare, not knowing who currently occupies it making me cautious to proceed any closer on the gravel, which feels less like a road and more like an informal driveway. I rename the spot on my map as summer of secrets, reminded of the events that transpired in that surreal space, divorced from normal life with our things in boxes and a room not my own, my home no longer mine and my new room not yet finished.
My walk complete, I return home swiftly, not a fan of the cold creeping up my toes. The experience wasn’t lengthy, but there was something fun about it. Given the stress of these last few weeks, I think fun is good enough for me!
This walkshop is about “circumambulation”, the act of walking in a circle around an object. For it, the act is simple: walk in a circle while listening to the mantra embedded in the podcast. The object to walk around would have to be either something revered or something I wished to investigate. By moving around it, I would place homage to it, showing a willingness to learn it and gain a connection. The object I chose to walk around would be my painting palette, a tool I never before had, but have come to use and understand while in my Panting 1 class this semester. I decided I would circle in my office, the space I work, read, and paint. To make the experience more interesting, I decided to put down newsprint to walk on, the pages used up on both sides, covered in sketches from my Drawing 1 and Life Drawing classes in previous years. Here is a photo of the floor, covered in newsprint. I had to stand on a chair to get the image:
Then came the fun idea: why not use the paint on the palette (which was left over from my previous painting and needed to be removed anyway), and the paint from an old tube or two I planned to toss out, to mark my walking. This, I felt, would really emphesis the connection I was making between my drawing and my painting, sealing them together with my bare flesh. I also, of course, put on strava, though as you can see, it pretty much flails around, unable to figure out where I am going, but sure I am moving.
It really overestimates the circumference of the space, which took about twelve steps to circle, but you get the picture. According to my Fitbit step counter, I took 1112 steps during this time, which translates to about 92 rotations around the circle. I am not entirely certain if this is true, but I lost count too quickly to refute my technology. The mantra was calm, a sort of lull that allowed me to focus simply on moving, on staying in the circle without a misstep onto the hardwood or a slip in a particularly thick patch of paint. When all was said and done, the circle was a colorful mess, and I put on my crocks and climbed back on my chair to take the after photo:
I went in from another angle, trying to view the layers of footprints straight on, wanting to capture every detail, every obscuring shape covering the sketches I forgot to throw away, that only existed as a teaching device.
Below is a gallery of close-ups of each panel, each distinct swirl of my acrylic-soaked feet. Not a single smudge ended up on the floor, my focus on the task keeping me steady even as the paper grew more wet. It was fun and silly, reminding me of the little white handprints hanging in the mudroom, relics from 2006 when my brother and I were young.
This week the walkshop is two-fold, that I will be going on a physical walk while listening to the professor’s podcast, but at the same time, I will be planning for a second walk, a sort of pilgrimage, as I am completing the physical walk. It appears we are to take advantage of the fact that the physical movement of our bodies will circulate the blood, helping to rev up the brain for more productive thought.
As always, I begin my walk with the podcast playing, and strava running on my phone. For this walk, I decided to cross the street and wander through the variously connected neighborhoods of Anchors Bend, Middle Point, and Southpoint, with my bike in tow to make my return home swift. I alternated between walking and slowly riding, and used the handlebars to keep my sketchbook steady when I went to write or draw. I wrote notes as I went, but you will not seem them handwritten. I will instead be typing and expanding on them, as my handwriting is shoddy and taking photos of my sketchbook is hit-and-miss as it is. These notes begin below.
As I began my journey, I looked at the list of answers to the question “why do people go on pilgrimage?”, wondering which applied to me. I decided that for each answer, I would try to think about why not, rather than just deciding no. This was to be a process of elimination, giving me time to ruminate on my options before the podcast began to actually prompt me. Also, as I walked, I would take pictures of things that interested me, just for fun.
The first answer was “to go see the place where something happened”. I briefly turned the idea over in my head, trying to think of important happenings that would make me want to go there. Honestly, it didn’t ring a bell- I may know a good number of facts about history, but I care more about the fictional contexts that made me want to learn them than the actual location where some piece of history hails from.
The next reason on the list is “to come close to something sacred”. This one doesn’t fit me either- I don’t really believe in the sacred as a religious concept, don’t ascribe to any one in particular. Greek mythology fascinates me, I am intrigued by the reasons cults appeal to people, and I always like to learn about the more esoteric aspects of a belief, but I wouldn’t want to travel just to visit somewhere like the Vatican, the ruins of a Greek temple, or even Spahn Movie Ranch (the former home of the Manson cult). I consider the environment sacred, but it is all around me, not a singular place I must travel to.
What about “to seek forgiveness”? This one doesn’t track. I have no-one that I need to forgive me, no guilt weighing heavy on my shoulders. I imagine this reason appealed to certain walkers of the Camino, as it was used as an alternative to prison time. I try not to hold on to things too long. If a person is displeased at me, I either deal with it, or move on. People have strong opinions of me, it’s something I’ve always known. I assume the appeal of this would be directed at a higher power, but that certainly isn’t my style.
If I wasn’t planning to appeal to a higher power, then I certainly wouldn’t plan a pilgrimage “to hope and ask for a miracle”! I enjoy the idea of wishes and luck and good-natured coincidences as much as the next fellow, but if there was a large problem dominating my life in that way, I would be working to solve it, not trying to connect with a grand solver. If the problem was something I couldn’t fix, I would turn still rather turn to a support system than take a sacred journey…. hm. It seems I am a bit too literal for the pilgrim’s taste.
The next one falls into a similar vein, it is “to give thanks”. I just cannot get behind this one, for what is turning into a repetitive reason. I am thankful for many things, it is true, but they do not result from a gift. They are the product of my parents hard work and my own decisions, so I have no need to travel to express this.
“To express love of a higher power” is a tried and true reason for a pilgrimage of course, but that does not make it mine. Nature itself is a higher power I suppose, the great mover and shaker that humankind has tried so hard to escape the grasp of. I’ve always wanted to see Yellowstone, which boasts a supervolcano that, upon erupting, would have apocalyptic repercussions for large swaths of North America. That certainly counts as a higher power! But, I reason, I wouldn’t want to perform a pilgrimage for it. I’ve been campaigning its location as a family summer vacation, and the thought of planning a pilgrimage would break my little optimistic heart. My wheels are turning a bit better now, so that’s promising at least.
Well, “to answer an inner call to go” does speak to me. Sometimes I just get the urge to do something, feel a curious pull without a real explanation of it. I find myself thinking of the Boston area in this way- both my parents grew up around there, and when I was young, we lived there too. But now, the house my dad grew up in is an empty lot, bought and bulldozed after grandpa Mondello (the family conspiracy theorist) died. As for the house my mom grew up in, grandma Salines sold it recently, and now lives in Florida with her husband. Both grandmas still visit with their husbands of course, and grandpa would op by with his girlfriend when he was alive, but those homes were important too, that whole area important to the history of the families. I feel like I am on to something here.
The next answer is “curiosity- to see why others go there”. That is a disappointing type of curiosity in my opinion. If I was curious about a place, wanting to see it, I would want to know more about the place itself, or to really see a place I had already learned about. It’s not that I don’t “care” why others go to a place, it’s just that the why of me going there shouldn’t be wrapped up in someone else’s.
The next one is “to get outside the normal routine of life so something new can happen”, and I don’t disagree. I think that is part of everyone’s answer: that as soon as you get up and choose to go, you are deciding to walk away from the normal swing of things, hoping something different will occur during the course of their pilgrimage. I don’t really think it is *enough* of a reason, however. I feel that it only exists as part of a larger whole, that we are multifaceted beings that have the capacity to rationalize a dozen different angles for the thing we wish to do, if we felt like it.
I can spin “to reclaim lost or abandoned or forgotten parts of oneself” however I like. I think I will spin it in the direction of “the Boston area” once again, thinking about those homes I only visited once or twice in the past decade- places now lost, unable to go inside and experience them. There are other places in that area that are forgotten too- when we went to Marblehead, my dad would point out the window and say “this is where _____”, excitedly referencing an event from his youth. My mom did it too, taking us to a restaurant that she favored back then, making sure we got to see her friend Diane, the goddaughter of my grandmother. If I had grown up in this area, around my maternal grandmother and my paternal grandfather and my great uncle Alex who sends me money for my birthday without fail even as he misspells my name, and the great-grandmother from Italy whose face is sharper in photographs than my 2008 memories…. I would like the chance to visit these places, I think. This feeling is calling me much stronger now.
There are only a few more reasons, and my mind is nearly made up, but I still think through the remaining answers. The next is “to admire something beautiful”, and is a reason I have used before. When my family went to Hawaii, we went on hiking and snorkeling trips every day, taking in the flora, fauna, and its stunning natural features: waterfalls, mountains, and beaches made of black, volcanic sand. To be fair, many of my family vacations have exercise and beauty in mind- they just usually take place on a bike. The appeal of seeking out something beautiful has taken us to see manatees in crystal clear waters in the everglades, coral reefs in the Florida keys, redwood trees in California, waterfalls and deep woods in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and more. But I am starting to formulate an idea, and it is more personal history than nature oriented.
The next answer is “to make a vacation more interesting”, and this plan certainly would. I have been to the Boston area before, but we stayed in Marblehead with my dad’s brother and sister, their families, and my paternal grandmother and her husband. It turned into a large family reunion party for both my paternal grandmother’s family and the Mondello clan, but the activities for the rest of the vacation tended to stay in Marblehead and downtown Boston, neither of which places have actually been their hometowns. The tidbits I had managed to learn were interesting on their own, and I have a vase full of seaglass from the Marblehead beaches… but I can’t help but feeling the large number of people, and the tourism angles of things like an all-day whale watching event, prevented my parents from being able to take us down their personal memory lanes, especially my mom, given the nature of the reunion being all dad’s side.
The last two items, “to honor a vow made in response to an extreme event” and “to prepare for death”, simply don’t apply. I will not humor them, as the first sounds a bit too much like a quest, and the second doesn’t fit the way I see the world, nor how death exists in this perspective.
So now, I have an idea. I want to go to the Boston area (not the same thing as Boston itself) to the area where my parents grew up, this time with their histories specifically in mind. I am still walking, still thinking about the family. Sometimes, I wonder if the history of my family is actually as rich as I think it is, or if it is colored by my parents telling.
Grandpa Mondello lived in his home in Stoneham until his death in 2016, long after dad’s mother left with the younger kids, long after dad himself grew up and moved out. He was a conspiracy theorist, believing a small fringe church in Georgia could perform healing rituals, while simultaneously distrusting doctors so much he avoided them for so long that they didn’t catch his colon cancer until it was in his lungs. He was a musician, his lungs so powerful from the saxophone that he didn’t even notice they were under attack. I remember the Mondello family heirloom, a banjo gifted to grandpa’s father, being found by my dad in a secret compartment in one of the many vehicles behind grandpa’s house. Dad also described the finding of grandpa’s apocalypse go-bag packed with silver bars- and a flute. The headstone, which grandpa with his father, has a banjo on one side and a saxaphone on the other.
6.6 miles away, in Saugus, is the former home of Grandma Salines. She is from Italy, and I vaguely remember that house being the place of “sleepovers”, me staying with her while my parents were packing to move. The last time I saw that house had to be in 2008, when we came to see her, and her own mother, who had dementia and ended up passing away soon after. I recall my great-grandmother had a boyfriend when she was young, but he quickly pulled away when her father decided a local fisherman was a better match. My great-grandfather would die by landmine, searching for food with his eldest son, and great-grandma would be the one to raise her 8 children and get them all (plus the wife of that son) to America. It would be my grandma, only 12, who learned english and taught the rest of the family, as well as a community of fellow immigrants. My mom, all growing up and into adulthood, would run into elderly italians who are still grateful for my grandma teaching them. Years and decades later, my great-grandmother would run into the man that was her boyfriend while shopping for groceries, a man she hadn’t seen from her youth. My mom says great-grandma felt she had already lost that chance, and didn’t try to reconnect. I am thinking about all of this as I walk, how her first lost chance created my existence, but still mourning the fact that she didn’t feel she would be able to have a second chance.
I know both my grandmothers were (are?) friends, that my parents grew up knowing each other, that my dad got in trouble when he was a kid for throwing rocks at my mom’s window- apparently her father wasn’t pleased by the racket. Mom’s father is another figure from the past, dead for too many decades to know I would even exist. I was born in a hospital in Melrose, which, when I look on a map, seems to be right between the two towns. But I’ve never seen the place I was born, just as I’ve never seen this grandfather-I-never-knew’s headstone. So now what?
I want to take this pilgrimage to reconnect to the history of both sides of my family, to see the places where important events and fond memories occured in a real way, so I may touch these sites and exist within them for a moment. This will take place in the “Boston area”, starting from the empty lot where my Grandpa’s house was: 44 Oak Street, Stoneham, and going on a meandering route to the former home of my Grandma: 26 Susan Street, Saugus. Both the sites are important, but they are not going to be directly walked between. I plan to have my parents each make a list of places around their homes and the general area: schools, ice cream shops, live-music venues, cemeteries, movie theaters, or anything else of importance in the first few decades of their lives. I will take these lists, find their locations on a map, and with the two homes as a start and end, attempt to draw a fluid shape between the various locations. I will carry this list with me, with the addresses and the reasons why these locations matter. When I arrive to each stop, I will attempt to recreate a moment: if the ice-cream shop still exists, I will certain get some! If recreation is impossible, I will simply examine the site. I will be sure to photograph before moving on to the next one. I may not do this as a solo act- if I can convince my brother, he should experience these places too. The special clothing of this pilgrimage will be simple: I have a shirt from the town of Mondello, Italy, courtesy of my well-traveled paternal grandmother, and so does my brother. It has a bikini-clad woman on what might be a motorcycle or jetski, and is probably advertising an auto shop, but it’s an informal family shirt, and would carry the spirit of searching for family and history with us. Rest of the outfit would be my usual sneakers and exercise shorts and my trusty bag, not to mention my lucky jewelry- a necklace I gifted to myself when I was 10 of blue goldstone (a glass that sparkles like the stars), a ring gifted by my parents of blue crystal, and ring of blue goldstone gifted by my boyfriend. Wearing the rings carries my loved ones with me, and the necklace reminds me how far I’ve come. When I arrive at each site, I will read over the reason for its significance outloud, as the “speech” ritual aspect. Depending on the sites, touch may be involved: I might take a trinket from each place as a souvenir, a way to signify I have successfully found each site. I cannot quite think of a reason for a water ritual aspect, but I might bring some seawater from Wilmington to sprinkle at each site, a way to leave something there that shows how far I came.
Hello all! Today we are going on a bit of a journey, you and me. I will be your tour guide, and I am going to take you on a tour of a “historic” neighborhood someone very famous grew up in- ME! I will take you through different sites, describing for you their sacred significance in my youth.Why? Because tourism focuses on commodifying spaces without caring about the people who actually live, work, or pray in them. There are tours in hollywood where you get bused around to all the famous people’s houses, areas that only matter because someone “important” once lived there. I am not “important”, I am just a person. This place, Demarest Village, was my home from the age of 5 to 15, and now a new generation of kids lives there. The neighborhood only matters in my memory, and in the hearts and minds of those who spent a fond part of their lives living there. I took a long walk through the neighborhood, viewing the places I haven’t seen in five years as if they were a spectacle. I took plenty of pictures, and of course had Strava running in the background while I listened to the podcast. Now it’s your turn to view this place. Let’s begin, shall we?
Hello dear tourists, and welcome to Demarest Village! Before we begin, please take a look at the map I handed out, and make note of the pins on the map. This is but a few of the fascinating places we will be exploring, so you should try to get your bearings now.
As you can see, we have just entered the quaint neighborhood of Demarest Village. When the Mondello family moved here in 2005, they were not the only ones just discovering this patch of suburbs. Other young families were eager to move to the brand-new neighborhood, and the young Sam would find herself starting kindergarten with a half dozen other kids.
This gazebo, located at the front edge of Demarest Village, would become the Ogden Elementary School bus stop for the neighborhood, where every morning a gaggle of kids would congregate with their parents to wait for the bus. It was here, on the first day of school when Sam was a first-grader, that a fellow kid would upset a hornet nest. Sam would end up spending that whole day with a pinky more swollen than her thumb!
If we walk down the neighborhood sidewalk a little bit from the gazebo and cross the street, you can see an empty lot, full of pegs and plastic fencing, covered in weeds. When the Mondello’s first moved here, they came with the promise of a soon-to-be-built country club. There would be a pool, a clubhouse, and other amenities. Fifteen years later, and the lot remains empty- but someone keeps replacing the “no trespassing” fence.
Slightly further in, there is a place when the sidewalk presses into the street, and a chain prevents any interloper from driving onto this empty lot. But in the Spring of 2015, this chain did not exist. It was here that Sam’s father would bring her first car, hidden away from the house so he could surprise her when they went to walk the dog. Sam had only just gotten her permit, and it was her father who was surprised when he realized she couldn’t actually drive her new car- a 2005 BMW x3- without his supervision.
Let’s continue on! As you can see, up ahead is the Village Park. When Sam was young, this was a favorite place of hers. The park contained a rundown playset, while the pond teemed with fish and frogs. She would come here with her brother, working together to catch tadpoles in little nets, or swinging around on the old tire swing.
Unfortunately, the playground was not meant to last. After some number of years, the HOA decided it was too old, too weathered, and not attractive enough to keep so close to the neighborhood entrance. Now, only an empty expanse of pine straw and fallen leaves remain, an eerie hole where childhood joy had once been stored.
Here is the pond itself. Not much has changed since the first time Sam saw it. The area around it is lined with pine trees, and a few bushes dot the shoreline. The slope down to the water is steep in some places, gentle in others. The water is quiet, but bugs dance across it, and turtles lurk under the surface.
To the right of the bridge is the most gentle spot, a flat area at the waterline worn down by years of use. It is here that Sam would stand, little net in hand, staring intently at the murky waters. When she caught one, she had a container ready, an old berry-bucket from the local strawberry farm, filled with pond water for her to display her catch. She usually put them back, but sometimes she would try to convince her parents to let her keep one, an overly-optimistic battle without any chance of her succeeding.
Sam wasn’t the only one, of course. Her brother would often come with a fishing rod, hoping to catch one of the calico-colored fish that the pond was stocked with. They grew to be huge, about a foot long, and when he hooked one, he would drag it towards the shore so Sam could help him get the hook out.
One day, he brought some friends with him, and they caught several of these pretty fish, kidnapping them for someone’s backyard pond. To their surprise, an otter would eat the captured treasures, then somehow find its way back here, glutting itself on the tasty fish.
As we step back out of the trees and away from the pond, you can see a few homes lined up on the right side of a one-way street. One, a pale yellow, was the rental home of Sam’s childhood friend- for a single school-year. Her name was Trinity, and in fifth grade, she moved to the neighborhood and became fast friends with Sam. The girls shared a fascination for Bratz and Monster High Dolls, and both were avid readers of the Warriors series, a collection of children’s books about a secret civilization of wild house cats. The girls would play with their dolls together after school, and at recess they orchestrated the whole fifth grade class into playing as Warriors on the playground.
Our next point of interest is a little paper sign you will see all over the neighborhood. During October, the Demarest Village community would engage in a tradition known as “booing”. The premise is simple: To “boo” someone, you make a little gift basket of sweets and treats, print out a “we’ve been booed” sign, and find a neighbor not sporting the sign. Then, the children would sneak up to the door, put down the gift, ring the bell, and run! The person being booed would then have to put up the sign and make a gift basket of their own, ready to boo an unsuspecting neighbor. It was a delightful tradition for Sam, and she remembers fondly the yearly tradition of hand-dipping pretzel sticks in chocolate to place in the boo bag.
Let’s keep walking. To your left, between the one-way street going deeper into the neighborhood, and its twin leading out, is another gazebo, brown and weathered. This is the home of the neighborhood’s mailbox, the place every family would go to collect their mail. Sam would often get the mail while walking her dog, carrying the little key in her pocket and bringing back the mail in a plastic grocery bag.
Now that we are back on the sidewalk, here comes another important house. This sunny home was inhabited by the Conjura twins, Alexis and Jessica. The (not-so-identical) twins were also Sam’s friends, and had been close to Trinity when she was there. The twins seemed super cool to Sam: they had a dog AND a cat, plus they had parakeets and mice. They were the only kids she knew that had been scuba diving. It was Alex who introduced Sam to her favorite comedy show: Psych! The girls would binge-watch the episodes on netflix together, amazed by the main character’s almost-magical ability to find clues. They shared books too, trading recommendations and getting excited about the latest Warriors or Rick Riordan book. One of the last homes on this section of the neighborhood has changed hands a few times. But the first owner that lived in the home, or at least the first that Sam knew, was a special person, a nature goddess in her young eyes. The woman has cultivated her backyard into a beautiful greenspace, complete with a source of freshwater. She kept chickens, Sam remembers, but the rest is hazy with time. What she is sure of is the quality of the space, a certified “Backyard Wildlife Habitat”. Walking by this sign, which felt like the highest of accolades, is what sparked Sam’s early interest in the environment, in how to protect it and what was happening to the endangered species. This would shape her for the rest of her life, turning her into the person we know and love today.
If you’ve been paying attention as we walked, you might have noticed these little foam darts, Nerf bullets. These darts, shot from large, clunky, bright orange plastic Nerf guns, are a favored toy from the neighborhood’s culture. Nerf guns were well-loved by Sam, her brother, their cousins, and their childhood friends. They were far less dangerous than airsoft, far less messy than paintball, and far less wet than a water-gun. Consider these bullets evidence of childhood spirit, of long afternoons spent chasing each-other through the neighborhood, trying to hit her companions with the little foam darts, desperately dodging the bullets shot at her, then scrambling in the aftermath to scoop up more ammo from the ground before her opponent did. If you walk quietly enough, you’ll probably hear the boisterous laughter of the new generation of Demarest kids, hiding behind the same trees and cutting through the same backyards as Sam’s generation once did.
Turning left onto Dever Court, we are going to ignore the prime attraction and walk straight to the end of the street. Hidden behind the foliage of a front-yard tree was the home of another elementary school friend, Olivia. Olivia and her mother would throw a “mom and daughter tea party” in late December each year. Sam and her mother, as well as many of the other girls their age in the neighborhood and surrounding area. They would dress up in red and green, velvet and bows, hair curled or straightened, and spend the day at a private clubhouse on Figure 8 Island. Sam remembers those little parties fondly, though admits she never had been quite comfortable in a fancy dress.
Walking down the street next to the Olivia house, then back towards Whisper Park Drive, and we will soon come upon the Village Green itself. When Sam was here last, this pivotal park, located in the center of the neighborhood, had a sturdy gate. On days when no-one else was at the park, Sam would bring her dog here during his walk, shutting the gate and taking off his leash so he could scamper around the bushes to his heart’s content, while Sam could sit on the swingset and read a little bit of her latest e-book.
The swingset she remembers is no longer there of course. The neighborhood has been changing things, and this swingset, complete with monkey bars and a slide, is long gone. Her brother used to intentionally antagonize the dog here until he chased him, then the boy would leap onto the swingset and climb up to the top, the dog barking and spinning in circles below, trying and failing to figure out a way to climb it himself.
There is a swingset, of course, jammed in the corner and different than what Sam would remember. This one used to be located at the very end of the neighborhood, at a place I haven’t taken us yet. But this spot used to have a stone birdbath, old and cracked and strangely fitting. The picnic tables have always been here, of course, and there used to be a little grill too, a place for neighborhood get-togethers.
Between this empty space and the location of the new-but-old playground, the sidewalk continues, taking us to the crown jewel of Demarest Village: the neighborhood pool. This pool has long been a favored place in the community, and the Mondello family in particular enjoyed the access in the hot summer months. The family made up their own little ritual, called a “Mondello Jump”, when, after walking or biking had tired them out, they would swing by the pool and jump in real quick, just to cool down before they headed home.
The pool itself is off limits to us tourists of course, protected from interlopers by a password protected gate. But if you get up on your toes, you can peak over the fence, spot the inviting cool water and the relaxing deck chairs. One memorable anecdote with this pool came when Sam and her father stopped by while walking the dog. They had heard shouting, and when the went to investigate, found a neighbor trying to use the pool net to snag something. When they got closer, they realized that something was a snapping turtle! How it got past the fence and why it stayed in the chlorine filled water, no-one knows. But for the massive reptile, it had no intention of leaving, and Sam’s father and the neighbor spent a good long while getting it out of the pool.
Backtracking out of the Village Green and making our way around the area along the street, we come down to the lower section of the neighborhood, where many of the homes were built after Sam’s arrival. On the right, we have houses and sidewalk, but on the left lies a stretch of woods. The trees come right up against the street, it’s true, but if you know where to look, you can find the gap between them. Once you cross the threshold, it’s easy to imagine how Sam and her friends felt: that they were in the wilderness. If you, dear tourist, don’t watch your step, you could fall into that ravine, hidden by the monotony of the pine-straw but deep all the same, deep enough that the current group of explorers uses a rope swing to traverse it. It was back here that Sam and her friends made hidden fortresses, fueling their imaginations with an endless stream of fantasy content, lovingly repeated from favorite books and movies.
Stepping out of the trees and crossing back to the sidewalk, we will soon see the fountain as we continue down the street. When Sam was young, this was a wishing-fountain, a sacred place where the children could whisper their hopes and dreams to the spirit of the fountain, then sacrifice a copper coin in hopes of the fountain granting their wish. Toss in a penny as we go by, and maybe this place will grant your wish too!
As we approach the loop in the road at the end of the neighborhood, we have finally reached The Pomade, the third and final “park” of the neighborhood. This one is the newest of the three, built after the loop began to fill in with homes. This is a large area, and quickly became a family favorite with the community. Let’s go inside!
To our left, a beat-up section of grass, framed by the fan-favorite white picket fence. This area, which sported more picnic tables back in Sam’s day, became the go-to spot for Sam’s brother, who would organize his friends to come down to the spot to hang out and play games in the field. Several years of his birthday parties, which were a few months fashionably late to be near the superbowl, took place in this spot. The parties consisted of barbeque and football, picnic tables crowded with snacks and drinks.
To the right, a playground stands, shiny and new, and certainly not the one Sam remembers. But the spirit of childhood joy remains, bolstered by the benches dragged nearby, evidence of the new generation’s parents watching their kids play for hours at a time.
Beyond the fenced in area is the field itself, the source of many games of sport. It was here that Sam’s brother spent so many hours, dedicated to practicing whatever athletics he was wrapped up in. According to Sam’s recollections, it wasn’t uncommon for her to start walking the dog with her brother, but not return with him until after going on a second walk with the dog a few hours later, her brother busy with his friends and a football.
After we walk back through the Pomade and back to the loop, we can survey the other item taking up the space in the middle of this circle of road. This pond, which wraps around the park and field, is much larger than the other, and sports a fountain to match. This pond is lighter on the fish, heavier on the frogs, and full of cattails, the fuzzy-topped freshwater plant that looks like nature’s version of a corndog.
This pond’s waterline relies heavily on the rainfall, its narrow, steep topography filling up quickly with the rain, and looking like a gorge when it dried out. Sam used to climb down in it, avoiding the mud in an attempt to gather cattails on windy days, then spending the walk home spreading its fuzzy seeds on the wind.
At the far end of the pond lies the drainage area, a mysterious hole and a tunnel leading who-knows-where. When the pond was more dried out, Sam and her friends had speculated, wondering what was down there and whether it could be safe to explore. Secure in their knowledge that cartoons did not lie, and knowing alligators hung out in the Wilmington golf courses, the group had decided a “sewer gator” was too dangerous to risk.
Beyond the pond, at the “back tip” of the neighborhood, is a secret exit. It is much better maintained now, with the boards and the ladder, but it has always been there. On the other side lies Anchors Bend, another neighborhood. But in Sam’s early years in Demarest, there was no Anchors Bend. There was a dirt road, a house sized pile of gravel, and the promise of a neighborhood that would take a decade to actually come to fruition. But that didn’t matter to Sam and her young peers. The gravel pile would quickly transform into something new: Shark Tooth Mountain. The gravel, as it turns out, came out of the ocean, scooped from the seafloor to form what would eventually be the roads of Anchors Bend. Sam and the other children were delighted to discover that the pile contained more than just rocks, not just little broken shells, but dozens and hundreds of shiny little shark teeth, black and grey and white, broken and cracked and perfect, just waiting to be discovered. This would be their goldmine, and the hunger in the children to find the best tooth, the biggest specimen, was overwhelming. It truly is a pity that the gravel is long gone, buried under the asphalt of Anchors Bend, out of our reach forever.
We should now head back, away from the loop. There’s a few more places to view, and as we walk up the street, around the backside of the pool, we find our next spot. This black fence separates Demarest Village from the next neighborhood, Middle Point. But its significance comes from its use as a hiding spot, as a shield between a person and the street: as long as they don’t fall down into the ravine. Every year for Christmas Eve, the Mondello family would throw a party, inviting friends and their families in a massive celebration of food and drink and music. Sam and her brother were tasked to entertain the other kids, to make sure the house survived them. So they organized a traditional game of manhunt: a massive, team game of tag, with one team hunting while the other tried to make it into the goal base without being caught. One year, someone did fall down the ravine during manhunt, getting cut and bloody from the fall. But the tradition persisted, as kids are more resilient, less worried by a little injury.
The street behind Dever Court is lined with more homes, but this one in particular stands out. The day the Mondellos moved in, they were not the only ones. The Linger family was moving into their home, and the space between the two properties consisted of an alleyway and the driveways to each home’s garage. The Mondello and Linger family would become fast friends, the older son taking Sam’s brother under his wing while Sam attempted to understand the middle daughter, who would be starting kindergarten at the same time as Sam. Even now, so many years later, and the mothers are still close, as are the sons.
Behind the strip of homes where the twins lived, where the wildlife habitat was awarded, is an alleyway that opens into Middle Point. This spot became the bus stop for Sam’s middle and high school years, all the way until her family moved in summer 2016 and she said goodbye to Demarest forever. Often, her dad would walk with her, dog in toe, to ensure he would be aware if the bus was late, and to let the dog see her off for the day. Many fond and not-so-fond memories start in this spot, the unofficial beginning of Sam’s day for so many years. The memory of another youth swinging his violin case too close to her dog, and being surprised when the dog attempted to defend himself, is a stark one.
We can now approach Dever Court with intent, having thoroughly investigated the various facets of the surrounding area. Sam’s former home is not yet visible, hidden by trees until our approach.
As we stand here, just shy of the front yard, we can now appreciate the home Sam grew up in. All the plants you see- the flowerless daffodils, the sickly roses, the neat double lines of bushes and shrubs- were all chosen with care by Sam’s mother. Many of them were planted by her, with some degree of Sam and her brother’s help. The home was unfinished when the Mondello’s decided they wanted it, so while they had limited say in the planning, they were the first owners of the home. The window to the left of the door had originally been a guest bedroom, but at some point was swapped out and became the office, a place for Sam’s father to do work, and eventually a place for her own homework. To the right of the door, the window leads to the living room, where a brown leather couch curved against the front wall, while a secondary area beyond the couch and tv hosted a dining table for special occasions. A small, screened in porch trails off to the side of the living room, only accessible via the outside with no door from the porch itself into the home. Upstairs, the center and right window lead to the master bedroom, the master bathroom being behind it, above the dining room area. The master bedroom and the hallway had medium color, medium width floorboards, which were chosen when the carpet- for the whole upstairs began carpeted- was removed from those areas. The left window led to Sam’s brother’s room, which sported narrow, dark wooden floorboards, his personal choice when the carpet was removed from his bedroom floor at some later time. His room was red, but only on the wall of the door, unseen until you entered. The rest of the walls were blue, the dark color of the Patriots, the team which his room was a shrine to.
After walking around the Olivia house and into the alleyway, we can now view another angle. The fence was built to contain the dog, as well as give a measure of privacy. Sam’s aunt had gifted the family the playset from her home, and that had crowned the backyard, only removed and gifted to another family when the Mondellos moved. The white door leads from the backyard to the garage. The little window half-hidden behind the bulk of the garage led to the “mudroom”, where the dog slept and the second fridge was stored. The windowed door nestled to its right led to what was the playroom. It had been planned as a screened in porch originally, but was incorporated into the home to give Sam and her brother a place to play, to keep their toys and watch their burned copies of blockbusters. Further in the home, an open space sandwiched between the playroom and office doors, was a “game room”, a beach themed room with a comfy couch, a table, and floor to ceiling cabinets of games, puzzles, and crafts. The stairs are in the center of the home, but are accessible from this spot, the type that goes half up one way and doubles back the for the other half. When they moved in, there were simply stairs, leading from the playroom down to the grass. At some point, a back deck was installed, a raised wooden platform with an outdoor table and a place for the grill, a place for the potted plants. It appears the new owners have reverted the yard to its original state- but the two dark green trees reaching above the fence are another relic, like the fence itself, placed there to bring an illusion of privacy. The two windows above the playroom door, on the second floor (to the “right” of the garage from this vantage) peak at the laundry room (center) and the guest bathroom (right)- though this bathroom became Sam and her brother’s after they started taking up too much space in the master bathroom.
Above the playroom is the most important window of all: Sam’s bedroom. It had started with carpet, and pale pink walls, and the bed had a pink comforter to match. Then she got the chance to choose her wall color, in late elementary school, and she chose Dragonfruit for its name, a bold and bright pink color. She had a little box tv on her dresser, and every few years they would swap the location of the bed and dresser just to shake things up. When the carpet finally came up, she chose pale, broad wooden floorboards, and the walls were repainted a blue-green, with new sheets to match, a seashell lamp, two fuzzy blue rugs, a big blue shag pillow, and a dangling shell decoration resembling a jellyfish. She acquired bookshelves, dedicated to her love of literature, and stored her collection of webkinz in a drawer under her bed.
Above the garage is the room known as the “frog” by people who live in Demarest. The Mondello’s frog had started as an office, but ended up swapping, becoming a guest bedroom instead. It was the only upstairs room to keep its carpet, and also became the music room for Sam’s father, a dedicated space for him to practice his saxophone- which was so loud that even with the doors all shut, he could be heard down the street. The garage itself had been cluttered back then, full of bikes and more of an active workspace than it should’ve been, tools everywhere. Walking inside from the garage would show a short hallway with the bathroom on the left, the mudroom on the right, and opening up into the kitchen just beyond.
Around the side of the house is the window to the kitchen: oven, microwave, gas burners, fridge, various built in cabinets and pantry, a granite island counter with four high chairs, and a low table further from the window to serve as a “casual” dining table. The area was darker than was enjoyable, the windows unable to catch much sunlight no matter what time of day. Towards the middle of the house, a granite desk was built into the wall, the space that Sam’s mother would use, and where mail would get stored. It’s hard to imagine any of this without a look inside, but I think we’ve powered through the best we can. Thank you for completing this tour with me, and don’t forget to take a selfie with the house itself!
Above is my souvenir bag, containing items from the neighborhood: a nerf bullet to remind me of childhood fun, a rock from the alleyway behind my old home, a little spiky sweet-gum ball from the home’s front yard, and a rose from the bush I helped my mom plant, so long ago I no longer remember when.
Once again, dear adventurers, my adventuring is on hold for the time being. As I am still not so peachy, and the walkshop this week would have been another urban affair, I have been given an alternate assignment. For this assignment, I am to choose a random city (one I’ve never been to), and drop a pin in its center on google maps. I have chosen San Diego, California for this assignment. From there I will switch to google street view and “walk” away from that point using navigable routes, taking stock of directional signs that guide me “out of the city”, and taking screenshots of them. I will answer some questions and write about my experience as well. When I am finished, I will zoom out and drop a pin on where I’ve “wandered” to, then go back in and try to head back to my starting point without retracing my steps. This sounds like a very fun experiment, I used to love using google street view when I was bored in class after finishing computer work. I liked to try and find interesting things to screenshot, especially pretty plants or interesting buildings. I intend to do the same here.
I decided the best way to approach this was to use the screen record function to capture my journey from and back to the city center. While I did this, I put on some music by my favorite artist, Rachel Rose Mitchell, from her double album Light Shows and Shadow Puppets. Mitchell’s songs often reference fantasy, and her favorite fantasy to reference is Tolkien, who writes about a journey deep into lands unknown to the protagonist. I listen to her on car trips, and figured the vibes were the right sort for this urban exploration- so I ended up placing her music directly in the video. I also made sure to keep track of the pins in certain areas of the route, so I could later create a rough “route” using google maps.
I have created two videos actually- one is simply the hour long adventure as I get lost in the streets of San Diego, and the other is a short digital photo album of all the screenshots I took, along with captions either expressing my delight or getting a little into commentary. It is a mixture of people, plants, pretty buildings, and street signs of course. I will post my little album first, and the hour long video of my experience underneath the questions.
What is there less or more of along your route?
San Diego, it seems, has been decorated with much more beautiful and diverse flora along its roads than I am used to seeing. I was struck several times over how similar California can appear to Florida, especially in regards to certain architecture, which I would hazard a guess at some measure of Spanish influence. Both of these aspects were more heavily present in the area around my start point, not so much closer to the highway
What has dropped away or become more apparent?
As I traveled away from the area I landed in, the contrast between the occasional tall building and the mostly one-story shops and homes became more apparent, as the taller architecture dropped away. It was particularly striking when a full fledged home with a beautiful lawn occupied the same street as what seemed to be a hotel or office building.
What has changed?
I am unsure if I can pinpoint the exact change. It definitely began to feel more open in the area surrounding my start point, with only the palm trees extending towards the sky filling the upper portion of my “vision”. I admit I got lost, got turned around, and definitely spent time on the same spot more than once. Near the highway, things began to feel more sparse, a certain amount of emptiness was involved. The buildings near the highway itself lacked life and spirit, being boringly modern and economical in design, with none of the eccentric shapes or colors I found brought life to the neighborhoods and streets surrounding my start point.
The walkshop this week is a bit different. While my classmates were given a prompt involving a busy public area, I am busy quarenteening with the virus, so was given an alternate assignment that could be completed in the home. The walkshop is called Play Anywhere Now or Never, and is made by Idit Nathan and Helen Stratford. There is no podcast for this assignment, simply a link to the project’s website, and an article written on it by Jes Fernie. There is an app, apparently, but it is not available for US users, so I will be using the dice available on the page to “guide” me. First I will write about the Fernie’s article for a little bit of context, then I will create a video of myself attempting to play the prompts. It’s gonna be a bit low energy I think, as I’m supposed to be resting.
“Cut Your Nose Like Your Hair” by Jes Fernie
The text opens with Fernie discussing the alienation caused by capitalism, how automated machines replace human exchange or how “public streets” are being sold to private companies that police the “image” of the people interacting with it. Fernie mentions hostile architecture, the spikes and other design elements meant to prevent the homeless from using public space. All of this, Fernie says, is a “removal of a sense of physical and mental freedom”, forcing people to be constrained by the expectations of society. Fernie goes on to compare this “change in ownership of the public realm” to the Enclosures Acts in Britain, which limited the way free land could be used by commoners. Today’s situation, they say, is more subtle than those Acts, leaving many oblivious to the “low-level controlling hum” (Fernie).
I feel this lack of freedom acutely, and understand why it is so important to talk about. I think “progress” sometimes forgets that we are, in our heart of hearts, still animals. We need a variety of social interaction, and some people only receive it from the person behind the counter. Sure, machines make things fast, they can streamline a process, but they take away that moment where you look into a stranger’s eyes and remember you are not alone in this world. I’ve never been on a street like Fernie describes, one that is monitored to ensure it displays the proper “look”, but I’ve lived in neighborhoods that have a similar purpose. We’ve lived in suburbs for most of my life, and where there are suburbs, there tends to be Home Owners Associations, at least around here. HOAs are a combination of neighborhood maintenance and aesthetic/morality enforcers. I can remember my middleschool friend Rob, who lived in one of the bigger neighborhoods, telling me about his HOA neighbor calling the cops on a “suspicious character” roaming the neighborhood. That individual was a black teenager, maybe 14 or 15, biking to meet Rob’s older sister for a homework assignment. My current neighborhood HOA, while less extreme, harassed my brother for keeping his car, damaged from a wreck, too close to the street where neighbors could see it. This same group prevented our house from being built unless the garage was not facing the street, forcing us to put it at a diagonal angle. When I was younger, I thought it was weird and silly, but now I see the underlying sinister aspect, the harmful way the people in charge try to cultivate a (racist and classist) image and punish those who deviate from it. These groups also forget we are animals, beings who enjoy freedom and play and creativity and who only suffer under constraints. Preventing us from doing things that are not harmful to others does nothing for us, simply allowing us to be harmed, to be mistreated for existing or how we interact with our environment.
The article continues, with Fernie delving into Stratford and Nathan’s project, how their awareness of the low-level hum and their research on the subject spawned the game “Play the City Now or Never”. It is an app-based game that players use to “reclaim the public realm” of Peterborough or Southend. The GPS in the app provides players with prompts when they reach specific sites. The prompts, Fernie says, are absurdist, meant to show players just how constricted society’s rules of acceptability are while in a public space. Some of the prompts reference stories about the location provided by locals, and others are more pointed jabs at privatisation, such as “SKIP TO AVOID THE SECURITY STAFF IF YOU DARE”, on one of those streets Fernie mentioned. Play is the tool of these walkshops, and players are being asked to reexamine the spaces they inhabit and interact with them in a new way, prompting the observing public/authorities/private companies into reacting. Stratford and Nathan made a film to document this act of play, and emphasized women, the elderly, the disabled, and the young, groups who are disregarded in mainstream politics and public life, but rely more on safety nets like Welfare, being in higher danger from privatization and commercialization (Fernie).
This app sounds really interesting, and makes me wish I lived near one of those cities so I could give it a go. I love how the whole premise is essentially an act of rebellion against the constraints of society. When I wrote about Francesco Careri’s “Anti Walk” chapter, I discovered the Situationists/Lettrists expressed a similar sort of rebellion against “proper society”, and makes me wonder if this movement inspired Stratford and Nathan at all. I know the movement is from the 50s, but the problems of the last century haven’t gone away. Every year, corporate lobbyists fight to destroy National Parks, historical locations, and Native American land in order to commercialize every inch of our nation. I am not against social media, but I had hoped it would bring people together, allow people to discover that their quirks and peculiarities doesn’t mean they are alone. While it has done that, social media is also used to uphold these oppressive constraints, to secretly share footage of people existing in a way that isn’t mainstream- cosplayers, the disabled, overweight people, queer individuals, LARPers- all for the purpose of mocking them, of shaming them for the misbehavior of individuality. A project that encourages people to play, to engage the environment guided by childhood wonder, is an exhilarating rebuttal to those who feel such activities are incorrect for the participant and harmful to free space. I will return to my point that we are still animals for a moment, to recall this fact. Animals of all ages, in zoos, aquariums, rehabilitation facilities, homes, and farms, are happier and healthier when given sources of enrichment. According to wildwelfare.org, environmental enrichment, “regular provision of dynamic environments, cognitive challenges and social opportunities” are critical for animal welfare. Separating ourselves from the animal kingdom, trying to fit us in a narrow box of society-approved, productive members of the capitalist machine, starves us of enrichment. We need these public spaces, need the freedom to engage in play without being treated as a nuisance or childlike. Play is not just for children, it is a critical way to enrich our lives and have joyful experiences. Our society is getting closer and closer to a Plutocracy, to being ruled by wealth, and that, plus our current era of late-stage capitalism defined by the growing gap between the rich and poor, the battle between productive “work time” and play has become more fraught. The demographics highlighted by Stratford and Nathan are all considered “less productive” members of society by our ruling class, which consists of able-bodied, at *least* middle aged, men. These demographics, needing Welfare for one reason or another, are considered drains on society by those in charge of shaping it. Bringing these demographics to the forefront of this play empowers their voices.
In this next part of the article, Fernie directly references the same status-quo disrupting movements that Careri spoke about, Dada (1910s-20s), Surrealists (1920s-30s), and Situationists (1950s-60s). Fernie also mentions performance art (1960s-70s), and explains that the four movements had the dual purpose of making participants become active agents, and attempting to inspire a social / political change. Fernie describes the famous April 2921 Dada excursions to places that shouldn’t exist, how promotional fliers included strange demands like “YOU SHOULD CUT YOUR NOSE LIKE YOUR HAIR”, and how the rain made the gathering small and killed future visits. Fernie then mentions the Situationists, who believed that they could repair the social bond by creating an “interface with reality through the art of interaction”, using participation to rehumanize society. Fernie goes into a little depth about Mierle Laderman Ukeles, whose performance art was an attack on entrenched value systems, and a call to action to change the norms of society. Ukeles’ Manifesto for Maintenance Art was a series of performances she created to display the essential role of cleaning and maintenance work, aka woman’s work, and encourage placing value in it rather than ignoring it (Fernie).
I’ve talked about most of this before, but the performance art is interesting to me. It feels like the movements are straying pretty far from what many people define as “art” at this point, getting deeper and deeper into the political side of things. Of course, a big part of all these movements is redefining our perception of art entirely. Art is about drawing the viewer’s attention to something important, to emphasizing its value by creating something around it. There is a lot of power in art, in how artists use their imagination and skill to create new meanings. For a long time, art has valued one way of being, has emphasized the things society deemed important. The idea of a performance artist shining a light on things that haven’t been given the same value makes me hope that Ukeles idea of changing the norms entirely is possible. Art changes people, and people can change society if the movement is strong enough.
The final section of this text starts with Fernie describing Pokémon Go, the augmented reality game that allows people to find and catch Pokémon in a sort of virtual geocaching, the game using your GPS coordinates and camera to show you, and others in your area, real locations the players can find their digital quarry. In summer 2016, it became a cultural phenomenon, and thousands began exploring in the name of catching them all. Fernie says there is a surface comparison between Pokémon Go and PCNN, which both feature discovery and social play. But Pokémon Go has a secret surveillance aspect: it hoards its player’s metadata, then sells it to third parties to use for building comprehensive profiles and crafting targeted advertisements. It appropriates player’s privacy. The other issue, she says, is that the game lacks real creativity, as the players follow certain restraints in order to play. With PCNN, there is no signing over your metadata, and the “rules” are simply prompts, allowing individuals to create their own experience without feeling commoditized (Fernie).
I think there’s something to be said about Pokémon Go selling metadata, how the corporate takeover of our lives began the moment we allowed our devices to lurk, monitoring our every move. But I don’t think critiquing it for lacking real freedom for its players is a valid argument. Pokemon Go is based off a handheld game that functioned with the same rules, being mainly a battle and collecting game. Putting it in the “real world” doesn’t mean it will magically become more engaging on the player’s end- but I would argue it does do so, simply by making historical landmarks, natural sites, and cultural centers places to visit and explore in the name of the game. Even a surface interest in a location allows people the change to interact with a space they haven’t before, and may open the door for them to treat that space differently in the future. If one expects an abundance of lateral thought in an augmented game, one must base that augmented game off a sandbox one- such as Minecraft, which is famous for the individual’s ability to create stunning works of digital architecture within its servers. Of course, neither are really comparable to PCNN, which is closer to a real life choose-your-own-adventure novel, giving the player all the agency they want, allowing them to interpret or disregard the prompts as they wish. That’s what makes this game so special, as it tries to help players free themselves of society’s yoke, and encourages them to take radical acts in the name of the world they want to experience, a world that values play.
For this project, I rolled a die with different prompts on it, then tried to complete the prompts in whatever way I saw fit. It is short and low energy, because I am not back to health yet.
Balance on something or someone: for this prompt, I spent a few minutes pondering what could count for balancing. Balance has a few variations in meaning, but one is remaining in a steady position without falling. So I went to climb around on my roof a little bit! When I moved to this house in June 2016, I was engaging in long skype calls with a group of friends across the states (and Puerto Rico). We didn’t set up our wifi yet, and the coast has notoriously spotty signal, so my phone had no service in my bedroom… But somehow there was plenty on the roof! It was hot and buggy and super duper muggy, but I used to sit out here to talk to my friends for hours. It was a balancing act, but not physically- my parents didn’t think highly of my “internet friends”, despite them being in a nice middle/highschool age range, so it was an act of rebellion to be talking to them. Not to mention the balancing act of being out there when I couldn’t get caught, as my parents didn’t exactly enjoy the “risky behavior” of sitting on the roof.
find a line to follow and go on an indoor walk: I decided to follow the seam between two rows of floorboards are far as I could uninterrupted, which took me from the garage, past my office, the bathroom, the laundry room, through the pantry, down to the kitchen. this line is a line that sound travels through pretty extensively, as i am often sitting at my desk and find myself accidently eavesdropping on a conversation or listening to the dialogue of a tv show all the way in the kitchen!
look down and glide like a bird: i made a semi-successful attempt to slide down the hallway in my fuzzy socks, and crashed into a split a few times. this is a fun and silly play activity I remember my brother getting in trouble for as a kid, which is sort of the point of these exercises, to push the boundaries of acceptability in the name of play.
stare out of a window: if you stare out the windows of my house long enough, Comet will run up to the window and start barking at a perceived threat. But if you stare at him THROUGH a window, he will begin to rev his voice for a mighty howl. it requires patience on your part and impatience on his, which Comet has in abundance. My house has a lot of windows on the first floor, as mom designed it to maximise natural light and offer a view of our yard, with its various plants in the ground and in pots. The downside to this is the huge windows have no blinds, and when I am home alone, I wonder who could stare though the windows, and how much a person could see.
find something old caress the past: since I am home alone right now in a house we built 5 years ago, many parts of the house are rather new. But without tracking down one of mom’s heirlooms or staring at old photographs, the easiest way to find “something old” is to go to Comet Cupid himself. He is pushing 15, and has been part of my life for most of my living memory. plus, he loves pats and scritches. I know he is not part of my past yet, because he is still with me, but I also know his life expectancy is 15 to 18, so he is in his golden years now. With a toe already lost to cancer, growths on his skin, and a canine nasal mite infection that has been plaguing him since I first heard of covid, it makes me cherish the time I have with him.
touch with care: I mean, how could I not take the opportunity to pet my lovely dog? besides, he touches me with care too, licking my palm and nosing at me gently. Comet has always been the kind of dog that acts more cat-like, allowing petting for a few seconds before deciding he’s had enough and scampering off. But he’s also always had a soft spot for me, and I am the only one he doesn’t go crazy on when I pick him up. I’m also the only one he will come back for / allow more petting after getting bored of it. During this time, my only contact with friends and extended family has been online. I’ve barely been able to see my boyfriend, since he lives in Raleigh. I take great comfort in having Comet here, in being able to touch him with care, in knowing he loves me and appreciates my presence.
Today we are to go on another audio-focused journey. But this one, my fellow adventurers, is not about seeking out a specific sound. It is actually, as it turns out, about seeking silence– and discovering just how loud it really is. For the first half of my walk, I simply wandered the immediate area with Comet, listening to Marzan’s podcast.The instructions did not begin until the podcast was nearly over, so I simply walked and listened. As always, I recorded the walk on strava- though this time, it ended prematurely, before the end of my journey. You’ll see the path as a little bit erratic, as I let Comet, a better listener than I, choose the direction of our jaunt.
It is a cool day, dark clouds heavy with rain approaching from the west. The whole week had been marred by downpours, so I was worried this would be too. We left our house and started to walk towards the dock, and I made note of the aggressive wind. Marzan begins by explaining that the sound of the land is being drowned out by the sounds of civilization. “it is our birthright to listen, quiet and undisturbed”, he says. Later, he would ask me to stop and listen. Below is a playlist of the tracks from those places I listened, so that you may listen to them with me.
“Silence is not the absence of something, but the presence of everything”. Silence, as it turns out, is simply the sound of nature. As Marzan describes the sounds of silence he has found, I am walking through my neighborhood, the sounds of Comet’s nails scraping the pavement one of my only sounds. The wind rustles through the trees, and a few brittle leaves rush by us in a gust. Comet has decided against the dock, so we doubled back, passing the house. Behind us, inside the house (see below), someone is playing music loud enough to be heard from the street. My tinnitus is acting up today, a harsh, high pitched, strange sound, like tv static echoing in my brain. I haven’t heard silence in a long time, really, this sound haunting me day and night.
Marzan describes the way listening to the land can put us in tune with nature, developing a relationship with place. The land around here is an ever changing place- the back half of Middle Sound Loop was barely developed when I first moved here, mostly woods and tiny, decrepit houses. Now, layers of neighborhoods dominate the space, people jockeying for the privilege of waterfront property and proximity to the elementary school. As we walk up the street, I catalogue the sounds I hear: crows in the trees, a barking dog, cicadas and my tinnitus trying to out-shout each other, a golf cart rumbling past with giggling children behind the wheel. But there are other sounds too: cars driving by the neighborhood on a parallel road, the rushing wind and rustling trees, the roar of an engine from a boat speeding past our dock…. a square inch of my neighborhood’s sound contains multitudes.
Where is the place I spend the most time indoors? I am being prompted to go to this place. For me, I think I spend the most time in the kitchen, as I often end up responsible for cleaning it, then end up doing work from my chair at the counter. So we return to the house, Comet is released from the leash, and I go sit at the counter. I am told to sit, eyes closed, for ten minutes. It is at this point that I record some of the sounds in the kitchen.
The kitchen, it seems, is not a quiet place. While my head is down, someone is vacuuming in my mom’s room, which is to the left. Someone else is unloading the dishwasher, the rattle of cups and silverware a nearby clatter to cut through the vacuum white noise. This is a common occurrence, this lack of silence in the kitchen, a together-but-separate feeling of everyone doing their own task. When I am done listening, I resume the track. I am supposed to seek out a public or urban environment, so I put my shoes back on and head outside. This time, Comet prefers to stay in his bed.
The spot I finally arrive at is across the street from my neighborhood. There is a church, Middle Sound Advent Christian Church. It is also just a few steps away from the Middle Sound Loop road and Mason Landing road intersection. This church has always been a little spooky to me, as I never really know what goes on in there. It’s an unassuming building, for sure, but sometimes a cop car just idles in its “parking lot”, that little patch of gravel next to the road. I stand in the grass off to the side of the gravel, a careful distance away from the road. Upon Marzan’s prompting, I spend 10 minutes listening to the sounds around me.
There’s quite a bit to notice. The trees around the church and lining the road are tall, and I count four or five distinct birdsongs coming from behind me. In front, cars rush past, and the cicadas are as loud as ever. I think the wind has dialed back a smidge, but the clouds still loom, a dark threat. I am now being asked to find a natural green space, like a park or garden. So I continue down the main road until I reach the next neighborhood, the Mason Harbor Yacht Club. Before we moved to Register Place, we didn’t have our own dock. We rented a boat slip here, from this neighborhood. The place has its own pool, a “club house”, and a patch of greenspace where children play.
It is perfectly cultivated, with a manicured lawn, uniform trees lining a white picket fence, and flowering trees against the corner where the street entrance to the neighborhood is visible. Here I am asked to spend 15 minutes listening. As for the quality, it is remarkably similar to the previous track: the same birds echo their songs my way, cars still rush by in a hurry. The wind still rustles through the trees, and even more bugs join in the cacophony. The sound of the cars going by reminds me of the beach, the white noise sound of an approaching wave, and the water retreating after the crash. I think the trees are muffling them just a bit.
Now, it seems, I am to seek out a natural space “away from the hustle and bustle”. So I continue down the road, past the neighborhoods, until I reach a good spot. The Winston Broadfoot Nature Preserve, according to a UNCW natural area report, was deeded to the university by Mr. Broadfoot ” to be used for educational and research purposes and to prohibit, in perpetuity, the possibility that the land would ever be developed or sold”. It is accessible by a gravel road, and waterfront properties can be found beyond the preserve.
I was to listen for a half hour, while laying down. Off the gravel road was a pine straw path that I was able to get semi-comfortable on, so I did what I could, then began to listen. The sounds of the birds are much clearer hear, and there are more of them. The wind rattling the trees is louder too, overwhelming almost. The weather has began to turn for the worse, and in the distance the echo of a dog bark rings clear. A siren can be heard too- even in this little spot of nature, one cannot be free of the sounds of civilization when trying to reach somewhere in walking distance of my home.
Now it’s time to go back, to turn around and go home. When I arrive, I am to repeat the first exercise. The kitchen is overcrowded, so I sit down in the living room, just adjacent to the kitchen, and listen for a little while from that spot.
You can hear the clatter of the kitchen still, and the urgant jingling of Comet’s collar. My eyes are closed, but I think he has a bone, which he is anxiously chewing. Someone’s using their laptop keyboard, jabbing at the keys with aggressive determination. My own breathing can be heard on this, as can the clicking of a kitchen burner, and the shifting of my position on the couch.
Has your experience of listening changed? If so, how?
My experience of listening has deepened with this exercise. Usually, when I am doing things- whether that’s in the house, the car, or out walking the dog- I listen to podcasts, cutting myself off from outside sound, immersing myself in entertainment to avoid the silence. This exercise definitely put me more in touch with my surroundings and made me more aware of the soundcape.
What was one sound that you heard that surprised you?
One sound I heard that surprised me was one I didn’t get a chance to record: the sound of dry leaves being scraped along the pavement by the wind.
What made it surprising?
That sound is a quniticental sound of fall, the sound of a gust rather than a breeze, the sound of leaves changing color, falling down, and drying up into a crunchy husk. I knew it was September, of course, but something about that sound brought the changing seasons into sharp clarity.
What distracted you from listening?
I was very anxious about standing or sitting in one place with my eyes closed, or even just being visibly alone for a long period of time. Between that and the weather concerned, I was definitely a bit distracted.
What did you do about it?
For the weather, I had my umbrella on hand. For my concerns about vulnerability, I also had a very large knife.
What did this teach you about listening?
This experience taught me that listening is not passive, that people can choose to actively engage in the use of their senses. We are constantly intaking sound, constantly hearing, but that is not the same as actually listening. It is through listening that we process meaning.
How is listening directional?
Listening is directional as we are naturally able to pinpoint the direction a sound is coming from. This can be difficult when a lot of sound stimuli is flooding your ears, but generally speaking, we are able to determine where the source of the sound is. The closer we are, the easier it gets, and certain tones cut through background noise with varying degrees of clarity. But the more you listen, the more in tune your ears will be.
What did you notice about your awareness the longer you were on the walk?
The longer I was on the walk, the more my awareness expanded. It was not simply paying attention, but rather, a shift in understanding about what to pay attention to. It felt like I was categorizing the sounds I heard an entirely different way.
Before I sat down to write this post, I went to do the thing I always do: export my precious audio to soundcloud. As you will learn, the majority of this walkshop was dedicated to seeking out and recording bird sounds. I had gone on a long walk with my dad in Airlie Gardens, a nearby park with a large variety of birds. As the audio was meant to be specifically of birds, I was using his phone to record only when there were birds to hear, and my phone to take photos/listen to the podcast/run strava. After each recording, I saved the file off of the app to keep it safe, then recorded the next one. I would estimate I used his phone for the first half hour of the walk, switching to using mine as the recording device after the podcast had concluded. As I have just discovered, all the audio recorded with my dad’s phone (fifteen minutes of sound) has been corrupted. Additionally, some of the audio recorded from my own phone, which I had been exporting from the app in exactly the same fashion, is partially corrupted for seemingly no reason. As a result, my audio is not as diverse or lengthy as it was meant to be, and I may supplement it by going on a second walk, making this post a two-parter.
Initial visit to Airlie gARDENS
For today’s walkshop, we were asked to explore a wooded area near our neighborhoods, in order to get acquainted with the local birds. Since my neighborhood is pretty suburban, there is a bit of a shortage of nearby woods. Instead, me and my dad went to Airlie Gardens, a combination of historic public garden and local nature preserve. As I mentioned above, I used both my dad’s and my own phone to record the sounds of birds, via the MOREC app. I have spliced together all the useable audio files into a soundcloud, so that you may listen as well.
As per usual, I also ran Strava on my phone to map our route, as well as listening to professor Marzan’s podcast. As you can see in the images, Airlie is a wooded area surrounding a lake, and bordering the intracoastal.
The professor began the podcast by speaking of the divinity of birds, their place in the Torah, Bible, Quran, Norse mythology, and others. He speaks of the modern world, how our walls have muffled their song and closed our minds to their secrets. I am fascinated by the way Marzan describes the anatomy of birds, the intricately designed bodies capable of producing such an awe-inspiring variety of sounds. We walk into the gardens, which begin with a layer of carefully cultivated flowering plants and uniform bushes, but as we walk farther from the enterance, begin to change, reflecting the natural diversity of Wilmington’s plant life, especially its trees. My first spotting of birds is at the top of one of these trees, a flock of American Crows perching barely within eyesight. They look quite grand through the binoculars, but the camera is less flattering. I tried my hand to doodle one later.
Marzan continues, speaking on the types of birds, their special library of calls that are uniquely tuned to their environment, climate, and time of year. He says that the birds are becoming harder to find, harder to hear, as our industry changes the landscape as well as the soundscape. I find myself in agreement, as I am searching the tree-tops not for a crow, but for an osprey (see my doodle). During middleschool, we took fieldtrips here, and could spot the “sea hawk” en mass. Now, I am worried that the next generation might not be so lucky.
At this point, we have reached Airlie Lake, which is usually home to a diverse range of birds. Today, it seems, the only ones hanging around are the Great Egrets, whose long necks are a dead giveaway in comparison to other egrets in the area. I snap a few pictures of the shoreline, though not as close as I’d like. At this point, Marzan asks us to stop and listen, to see what songs we hear. I record some audio, which mournfully did not survive. But the sharp, rapid notes of one particular bird would be heard over and over again, and the first minute of my above audio contains this sound. A gentleman birdwatcher whom I met near the end of my walk recommended my download of the Merlin Bird ID app, and by cross-referencing its sound library with the eBird website’s September birdwatchers list for Airlie Gardens, I was able to take a guess that the culprit was a Red-winged Blackbird, as they are the most-sighted bird in September.
The bird in the above photos is a bright red bird. I was unsure what I was looking at, and decided to follow him. I briefly lost track of his movements while in slow pursuit, but getting a little closer allowed me to spot the black mask and distinctive crest of the Northern Cardinal. The day was hot, muggy, and altogether miserable, so I understood his need to be under multiple layers of shade, but the thick foliage continued to prove itself as my enemy.
The voices of the birds are beautiful, but even with the recording app to help me, I find it hard to distinguish the individual voices. Marzan speaks of the way each bird has their own voice, exploring acoustic spaces as they grow up, so each bird in the same species has a voice all their own. I cannot hope to understand the complex meaning behind each call, each song, each alarm. From the sound of Marzan’s words, it sounds like scientists are no closer to this understanding either. Marzan asks us to pause the track at this point, to listen with my recording device, see what I can pick up. Again, this sound was lost, but it is just as overwhelmingly filled with calls as the section of sound from 1:07 to 2:17 of the soundcloud track.
As I imagine the “sonic neurotransmitters” of the birdsong lighting up the trees with each sound, I look up at the sky. It is a smudgy grey, heavy with clouds. Beneath them dart agile shapes, and I turn my attention to them, watching them dance in the sky. I can’t even tell if this flock I’ve spotted mid-flight is among the ones I’ve been listening to the calling, if their voices are part of the cacophonous choir. But Marzan asks us to stop the track so we may watch the birds, so I adjust my binoculars to track the movements of these graceful beings.
Marzan says that listening to these sounds is our inheritance. Our ancestors relied on sound to help us navigate the world, to ensure our very survival. By listening to these birds, we are reclaiming what is ours. My heart is moved by Marzan’s words, the fact that we are in ecological crisis. The urging to seek these creatures now, the implication that their time may be running out, renews my spirit and compels me onward. The songs of these birds may overwhelm me, but I am grateful that they are still here. Just in time too, as we move into the Five Practices.
Practice 1: “Revel in the acoustic diversity of bird-sound on your walk. Make an inventory of the textures, cadences, pitches, and rhythms that you hear in the voice of birds. Let go of the need to identify the species. Use your ears in the way a wine-taster uses their nose and mouth. Open your senses to the sounds, linger in them, compare them, and enjoy their many layers.” So I do, finding a spot to stand still and readying my recording device, pointing it at the loudest sources the best I can. There are so many sounds, some short and piercing, some almost a squawk, others a stereotypical whistling sound, one bird even seeming to twitter! It’s hard to focus on any one individual song, as it seems they are all in a hurry to make their voices heard. I admire their ferocity, but taking it all in, attempting any sort of coherent inventory, is a herculean effort. The sounds from about 2:17 to 3:17 are a close approximation, as they were taken in roughly the same spot as we made our return later.
Practice 2:“bird sounds reveal the many pulses of the world, minute by minute, weekly, annually, decennially. Compare the sonic textures of the region you were just walking, to the one you’re walking now. How do they differ? What remains the same? Which sounds seem especially sensitive to the passing minutes? Return to this assignment in a couple of days, and notice how the speech of birds differ from how they do today…..” The region I am in for this section, which corresponds to 3:17 – 4:02 of the audio, has quite a different texture. The high pitches remain, but they are joined by an almost plaintive mewling sound, a sure sign of the Grey Catbird.
Another newcomer in the soundscape is something much more guttural, a rolling, deep note reminiscent of a frog, one that has to be the Great Egret. Between this prompt and my audio fiasco, I am double incentivized to return to Airlie, so I do so during the weekend. The associated audio will be found at the bottom of this post. That audio differs from today’s audio in the following way: it is eerily devoid of birdsong. On a 30 minute walk, I was only able to find some birds ready to sing for a minute or two. The hiss of the insects and the echoing sounds of people are loud enough, but the birds didn’t seem particularly chatty. I wonder if the culprit is the weather- this second walk was less humid, less cloudy, brighter and cooler, in the upper 70s instead of high 80s. Could that shift, the signaled onset of fall, really make a difference? I suppose it’s as good an explanation as any.
Practice 3: “bird sounds are tuned to the space around them. A leafy woodland, a canyon, a wind-slammed shore, a city street. Sound flows and resonates in radically different ways in each of these places. in the voices of birds, we hear the diverse physicality of the world, each species adapted to its home. how do the birds of treetops differ from those skulking in the grass? ….note in each place the relation between bird sounds and other voices” The other voices Marzan speaks of are the ways the environment enhances or muffles the soundscape. This is 4:03 – 10:56 of my audio track, and this segment was the only one recorded while standing on a wooden partition overlooking the intracoastal- specifically, Bradley Creek. It is clear that the salty water is amplifying the sound, not just the birds, but all of it. People standing on docks across the water can be heard as well as the birds, but the birds are clear enough. The fast-paced chittering sound of the Belted Kingfisher is unmistakable, while the American Crow makes another appearance with their distinctive caws.
My other audioclips seemed to layer the voices over eachother, the trees and underbrush smudging the lines between each singer. The water adds clarity, not exactly ordering the chaos, as it amplifies the bugs as well, but I think each song has a bit more distinctiveness to it. Of course, these singers could just have more of a difference than the birds elsewhere in the garden, but I don’t expect there to be that great a change from the trees to the shoreline, given the marshiness of it.
Practice4:“as in human friendship, names help us to connect and remember, especially in the early days of our acquaintance. Give names to the five most common bird voices you hear around your home…. Make up your own taxonomy of voices.” It is at this point, standing on the wooden partition, that I made contact with the gentleman birdwatcher. He spoke fondly of the birds, expressing a level of familiarity that signaled lots of experience. It was through him that I found this library of birdsongs, the one I’ve been using to make educated guesses about whose voice I am hearing. Without this app at hand, I listen again to the segment, trying to give names to what I hear. A few of them are as follows:
the strong “caw caw caw” belongs to the voice of a ghost bird, for this is the song we hear in a classic horror film
the quiet “pshew pshew pshew” belongs to a lonely bird, because this song is so distant it feels it belongs in a quiet canyon, isolated from all else
the high, fast “tshtishtish” belongs to a panicked bird, as it sounds like an urgent song, a hurrying rush
the throaty, lower, caw-like “agh” is in the same taxonomy as the ghost bird, but belong to a more monstrous, sticky sort, a song fit for a swamp, comfortable among a chorus of toads
the quiet, high, “hah eii-eii” is kin to the panicked bird, but is more excited than panicked, sounding adventurous
Practice 5: “Tell others what you hear…. speculate about rhythms and seasons. by sharing your observations in your ePortfolio, you’ll stitch strands of bird language through the weave of human conversation. through your stories, birds minds and human’s minds will unite.” What I hear, what I’ve heard throughout my walk, is a glimpse into a hidden culture operating just outside the periphery of human experience. My mind already opened by Muir’s writing, which I discussed previously, I had hoped to get a closer look at the ways these birds communicate, the way they interact with their flock, other bird species, and the larger living world. While I only saw tiny flashes of the birds themselves, the dynamic soundscape they created drove home just how full this world is, how much it teems with life. I am in awe.(The above bird is the Sandwich Tern, who I watched circle above me while looking at the creek.)
SUPpLEmentAry visit to AIRLIE GARDENS
I took a quick trot back to the garden with Chase, determined to get some more audio of birds. The weather was a bit nicer, the air less heavy with humidity. There were fewer clouds as well, and I hoped the bright blue would allow a clearer picture of any birds I saw. But it was not to be. The bugs were in full force, an overwhelming assault of cicadas clamoring to be heard. The birds were… quiet. Downright spookily quiet. Just a few days ago, the birds were an endless wave of song, but this time, it seemed like they just didn’t want to bother. We walked, trying to listen as well as we could, but nothing cut through the insects for a good while. When I finally found a tree that seemed to have activity, I did what I could to listen, using the MOREC app and trying to fiddle with controls, hoping it could pick up the songs better than I. but they only sang for a short while, and it didn’t seem the app was able to cull the background well enough. We continued to walk, to listen, and I think the weather must have triggered the shift. Where were the birds? Why were they so quiet? I left the garden rather unsettled.
Today, dear friends, it appears I am joining a secret society, called The Wander Society. They seem to be a hidden group of adventurers, bonding over the very thing this class is all about: the art of walking. Before we even began today’s excursion, I was tasked to fill out a membership card, to give proof of my initiation to this mysterious club.
By now the drill of any walkshop is familiar. Our assigned location was to be a local park or trail, and I immediately knew just where to go. I live in a small neighborhood off of Middle Sound Loop Road, which is a circular road lined with neighborhoods on a chunk of land potruding into the intracoastal. Just four minutes up Middle Sound is a nature walk, known as Pages Creek Park Preserve. I consider it a pretty safe place, but my parents have a habit of thinking I need a companion, so I was joined by Dad, Comet, Mom, and her sister Carla. I would use strava to trace our walk, which you can see below.
When we arrived, I explained what I would be doing, then set everything up. Phone in one hand for pictures, printable wander society booklet in the other, Professor Marzan’s podcast in my ears, sketchbook and waterbottle on my back. After the podcast concluded, I remained on the trail for a bit, recording the sounds of the woods around me.
This walkshop started with a story, with the professor’s personal story, his introduction to the Wander Society. Marzan had found a copy of Leaves of Grass by Walk Whitman in a secondhand book shop. The book had a number of secret symbols, including a thunderbolt, and some mysterious phrases: “W. W. will show you the way”, “solvitur ambulando“, and “the wander society”. He wanted to investigate this wander society, but the website was cryptic, and the latin phrase seemed to mean “it is solved by walking”. As I pondered this mystery, I began my own journey, traversing down a path covered in pinestraw, but sandy underneath, the roots of trees protruding just enough to snag the foot of the unwary. It is silly to say, but I think of the paths I walk not as a walker, but as a mountain biker. The pinestraw reads as a place for my tire to slip, the sand an obstacle to halt my forward motion, and the roots a nasty surprise when going at speed. I try to think of my surroundings in a kinder light, to ignore the influence my usual method of traveling through nature has, and to just absorb what I feel.
It is clear that the wander society held great meaning for the professor, that his desire to learn about its hidden secrets moved him. His description of reading Whitman sounds almost unreal, the intensity of emotion and the expansion of his soul had changed his life. I admit, poetry has never been a thing to move me in such a way, but literature has always sent my heart racing, has molded and shaped me from an early age. There is something special about a good book, about the way the same words everyone knows can stir the spirit depending on how they’re spoken. Marzan believes the act of wandering can change our lives, so I breathe deep, walk slow, and view everything with an open mind. Now comes the parameters for today’s walk:
The secret world is open to me, Marzan says. If it is a call to adventure, I am determined to take in it all. I take care to watch the treetops, to scan the path, and to look for the things that speak of magic, that would have been the most fascinating part of the walk in my childhood. I open myself up to the paths, and feel instinct tugging me down one fork or another. The photos above are all paths, though not all are the ones I’ve taken. This trail is mostly devoid of signs, of direction, so I amble along, lured this way or that by what catches my eye. I stop at a stump, see the shining shell of the local crab as he rests upon it, the pale bulbous flesh of a mushroom decorating the other side.
I am continuing my walk, stopping briefly at the kayak launch to gaze at the water. It is a beautiful day, tranquil, and the water is calm. Beneath the surface, shrimp dance just in the shadow of the wooden launch, pale blurs impossible to photograph. I remember afternoons spent with a little butterfly net, desperately trying to scoop some shrimp, counting out my catch in a little contest with my brother before returning them to the water. There are some shrimps, I’ve heard, that have 16 color receptors, an unknown infinity of color in their worlds, while our own eyes only sport 3. But even as limited as the human eye is, I can appreciate the bold, bright colors of the creek for a moment, before continuing down the trail.
It is now time to be introduced to the wandering spirits, which seem to be living in the trees. Marzan speaks of the trees as links between sky and earth, between the spiritual world and the modern one. Today, the trees are the physical representation of wanderers past. To quote the wander society: “an extremely high percentage of great thinkers, writers, philosophers throughout history have been avid wanderers”.
I am directed to look to my left, to view a tree that is older, and next to a yellow one. This tree (shown below), craggy and splintered, is Walt Whitman. Marzan names him as one of the greatest wanderers, enlightened by the world around him, a source of enlightenment for all who knew him. What does it take, I wonder, to reach a higher plane of existence? If I wanted to do the same, who would I become? I am almost afraid to find out, to risk letting go of the material, as it is woven through me as much as nature was through Whitman. I imagine him peering out at me from between the broken slivers, his long beard blending with the feathery edges of the bark. I know I will find him again, under my bootstraps, as he tells us so in him poem. I move onward.
Our next spirit, who lives in a downed tree to the right of the path (see below), goes by the name of Fernando Pessoa. Pessoa was a Portuguese writer, who described himself as “a nomadic wanderer through my consciousness”. He would wander the streets of Lisbon day and night, says Marzan. I am struck by a not-unusual moment of jealously, for the things male creators take for granted. Lisbon is a city, but Pessoa felt comfortable there, felt safe to roam it. I never feel quite safe when I walk alone, whether it’s in my neighborhood or in a mall. I cannot imagine strolling around a city by myself, and especially not at night. I am always supposed to be aware, be alert, and be wary. If free-spirited, solitary walks are the way to achieve greatness, I suppose that path is closed to me. I am naturally suspicious, and I am too cynical to take the world for good faith.
The walk continues, and I spot the next of our spirits, Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, in the form of a mediumish tree (see below) that is dappled with red and orange splotches. Apparently, he would stop mid-walk on the path to draw symbols in the mud. At this point, I am prompted to do the same, to sketch the symbol of the wander society, and I do so, using my fingers to sift past the sand and into the dirt below.
The next trees I am to search for should look like twins, and I am pleasantly surprised to find a tree that splits, two identical trunks jutting up from a curved base. They are Dorothy and William Wordsworth, English romantic poets, siblings who walked together for months with pencils and not much else. I think of my own sibling, Max, and try to imagine a lengthy walk with him. His spirit is far from twin to my own, we are diametrically opposed. The idea of walking with him and writing about the landscape isn’t absurd, per say, but it would be cataclysmic to suggest entirely.
The next of our spirits, Charlotte Smith, is meant to be hiding in a tree coming up in front of me. As Marzan says this, a partially felled tree seems to materialize, cutting through the open air above the path. Another English romantic poet and novelist, she wandered the countryside and the shore. Her poems are non-linear, reflecting her contemplative state. I’ve tried poetry on occasion, both as required for school and when the mood struck me, but never when contemplative. They’ve been whimsical, sure, sometimes, but they are mostly an outpouring of anger, a burning need to expel the source of rage.
I continue walking, camera ready, watching the trees. Charles Baudelaire is on my left, “creeping behind another tree”. He was a French poet whose character embodied “wandering without aim” as much as his poetry. He wandered the streets of Paris. I admit, I find it hard to connect to these spirits. I need an aim, need a structure, need a place to go or an end goal, or I risk getting lost. I am easily swayed into overindulging, into endless distractions, in losing sleep as I consider endless possibilities. I know that aimlessness can be freeing, but to me, it is also dangerous.
So I walk, passing a big tree on my right. Henry David Thoreau, an American writer and naturalist who lived in nature. His philosophy of “living deliberately, being awake, and feeding what the soul thrives on”, is much more in tune with my own sense of self than these previous spirits. I especially focus on feeding my soul, consuming literature in the genres I love, listening to informative podcasts, and learning new ways to be creative.
The little tree on my left, it seems, is Walter Benjamin, a German philosopher who promoted the idea of the wanderer in the modern city, who needs the crowd but is so isolated by it. He is, unsurprisingly, another spirit who wandered the streets of Paris. I understand the feeling of being alone in a crowd, the feeling of disconnect from the people around you. It is eerie, for sure, to know that though people walk the same direction as you, you cannot speak to them, you have no meaningful method of connection.
Aristotle, that famous ancient Greek philosopher, hides in a tree entangled by a woody vine, whose snakelike coils climb up his trunk. He founded an entire school of philosophy where thought was harnessed to physical movement. Aristotle is a forefather of Western philosophy, and like all famous men, has skeletons in the closet. He wrote many great things, and many terrible ones. One of my readings for a class I’m in, is his writing about “natural slavery“, as he believed there was a biological element making certain people naturally suited to enslavement. This, along with his other sinister ideas, are the vine coiled around his trunk. Public consciousness has chosen to ignore it, but there it remains, inseparable from his body of work, changing the shape of his trunk’s shadow just as it influences his thoughts.
There are a few more spirits, and a bit more ways to go on this walk. Peace Pilgrim, an American spiritual leader and anti-war activist. She walked across North America for 28 years. I am in awe of her, this woman who vowed to wander until mankind found peace. Her time was that of the Korean and Vietnam wars, and it is a tragic thing that our nation continues to invest so heavily in waging bloody wars, and so little on the things that matter, including the preservation of our natural world.
Then comes John Muir, the Scottish-American naturalist whose writings about the Sierra birds I’ve discussed in the Journal. He was devoted to the preservation of nature, and is the father of national parks. Of these spirits, he is probably the one I respect the most, whose tireless contributions to memorializing nature is directly responsible for many of our famous natural places. Without him, so much more would be lost.
Professor Marzan’s favorite spirit is Virginia Woolf, who said solitary trampling allowed her to spread her mind out Walking would be her main method of plotting her novels. This idea of plotting a novel while walking sounds amazing, but a little daunting. The difference between a novel and a daydream, after all, is writing it down. And when my ideas run wild, I have to make fast notion of them before they disappear.
The next spirit lives in a tree in the distance, near a house. Thankfully, this point in the path cozies up against a neighborhood, and Guy Debord, the French Marxist theorist, doesn’t stay hidden from me. He made urban exploration into a conscious experiment, performing “psycho-geography”, moving around a city by randomness. He also founded a theory of drifting, dropping your normal reasons for going and being guided by the terrain. This sounds fairly meditative to me, removing yourself from “real life” and just seeing where your feet take you.
We are nearing the end now, and on my right I spot Søren Kierkegaard, leaning up against another tree, his roots exposed. The man was a Danish philosopher, who used walking to inform his writing. “when you go for a walk, let your thoughts wander aimlessly”, he said, roaming Copenhagen each afternoon after writing all morning. My thoughts wander as best they can, stumbling through the trees and getting tangled in the underbrush, until I am covered in random burrs, asking questions that I cannot answer. This path is a curious one, that is for sure, and it invokes many a query. But by now, I can see the trees are beginning to thin, and the metallic glint of cars peeking between them.
It is here, 0nly just before the path’s end, that I am prompted to stop. I see the tangled trees lining it, the collection of spirits the professor reads out, their infinite trunks a wall of energy. It is here that I quiet my mind, breathing deeply, and repeat the words of summoning: