Stick with me, darling, and sooner or later I’ll be on about walking.
Walking, as both a motif and methodology, has become a significant part of my research. I never planned this. It simply happened that when I arrived in the field, I walked places. It was easy. It was cheap. It pretty quickly became intriguing. When I walked, I saw places, people and things. I could walk and look, think, stop, talk, make notes.
On a practical level, walking gets us from one place to another. But walking is more than this.
A few years back, I volunteered at a large garden and I got involved in a project to create a labyrinth there. It wasn’t a big, hulking stone thing. It wasn’t even arranged from neatly clipped box hedging. In the end it was spraypaint on the grass, around a Jacaranda tree. But it was a labyrinth, just the same.
The meditative labyrinth is not a maze. A single path winds slowly to the centre. There are no wrong turns, tricks or surprises. The goal is simply to walk, slowly and windingly. It is not possible to become bodily lost, but it is possible to become lost in thought. Following the unfurling path is a contemplative experience.
All anthropologists deal in some way with what it means to be human. For most, these questions are inherent yet latent. But some do grapple directly with the human condition, notably including Tim Ingold (possibly the archetypal Marmite anthropologist). Having for some time worked with Heidegger‘s notion of ‘dwelling‘, Ingold has recently moved to an alternative concept of ‘wayfaring‘. He describes this as “our most fundamental mode of being in the world” (2011:152). We are all wayfarers:
[We] journey through the world along paths of travel … movement is itself [our] way of knowing. (2011:154)
What I like about wayfaring is that there is nothing definite about it. It is not about striding determinedly to a preconceived destination. Rather, it has more in common with the slow, contemplative practice of walking a labyrinth. It is not as much about going somewhere as it is about going on.
The final quarter of my fieldwork recently crept up on me. In a few months it will be time to head homewards and set diligently about producing my thesis. Understandably, plenty of people have started asking me: and then what?
It would be comforting to have an answer. It would be reassuring to have a preconceived destination. But I don’t.
I am not sure that many of us really do. We are all going on our winding ways. Sometimes we claim to know where we are going; sometimes we can see a destination ahead and sometimes we really want to. But we can only ever be certain of walking in the moment, in the place where we are now.
It’s a contemplative thing, this walking, here, now. It’s so easily neglected in favour of grand destinations and glorious journeys. And it’s a scary thing admitting that though we dream up destinations, our reality is a labyrinth that we can’t see the centre of. Rather than craning to look, perhaps it is more gentle, more meditative, to embrace the time to walk and look, think, stop, talk, make notes.
Ingold, T. (2011). Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description. London: Routledge.