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Sunday, 28 February 2016

Liberating the Landscape?

We began to climb. A long continuous ascent through fields of freshly mown hay, great swards of pasture that had retained the richness of their pigment and supported flocks of newly shorn sheep. If the gloom above deepened, then the light around shone with renewed growth and vigour. Up here there was an airiness, an unrestrained sensation of liberty. I suddenly thought of Simone and realised what she had been trying to explain for the sumptuous roll of the hills and the unfettered flow of form lead the heart and mind into a voluptuous, day-dreamy haze.
 María Inés de la Cruz, Our Lady of the Orchards (Liberty Press, 1996)

Although, during the past three years, I seem to have spent very little time hiking in England, amidst the simmering volcanoes of Central America, the dazzling white limestone sierra of the Cordillera Cantabrica and hot, sticky plains of the Meseta, there reamins one place, in Wessex, that is very dear to me, and for reasons I still don't understand: Castle Neroche in the Blackdown Hills (see &

The Neroche Herepath (
My visits to this sacred space normally take place in the summer but living in Bath is doing my head in so, in early February, I decided to take in a brief visit to Neroche and the Blackdowns en route to my fortnightly supervisory meeting at Exeter University. I spent much of an exhilerating but sodden and wind-blast weekend following the part of the Neroche Herepath. Depending on which version you prefer, Herepaths were either 'people's' or military tracks and date from the ninth century. The Neroche Herepath, part of the Neroche Landscape Partnership Scheme, was opened in 2008 and comprises about 40km of trails, some of which are wheelchair accessible, that circle the Blackdown plateau and the vale of Taunton Deane below. With Liberating the Landscape as its clarion call, the Neroche project sought to enliven the landscape through a variety of local projects and workshops including art and natural history. It might have made an excellent research project but since Lottery funding came to an end in 2011 the impetus appears to have dried up (though I'm happy to be corrected if I've got this wrong). An report on the scheme, Enabling Positive Change: An Evaluation of the Neroche Landscape Partnership Scheme, can be found here and here (shorter version). If you can cope with the ineitable jargon and frequent references to the 'Big Society' (which makes it already feel outdated), it's worth a read.
The project might have petered out but the Herepath is a great legacy and, even on a winter weekend of gales and driving rain, still attracted a good number of walkers, drew people out into the landscape. It's therefore depressing to report that a good couple of kilometres of the trail, on permissive paths rather than public rights of way have remained closed since August 2013 and, caught in a bureaucratic rights-of-way no-mans-land, show no sign of being reopened as none of the agencies involved in the Neroche Project appear prepared to stump up the necessary funding.
The problem section, near the village of Bickenhall, was constructed in 2008 from tyre-filled wire gabions to provide a safe, solid surface for walkers, horseriders and cyclists. An innovative idea but one that has ultimately proved unsatisfactory, at least in the view of Somerset County Council who have deemed it unsafe and tried to fence it off, try being the operative word.

Needless to say, for me and, apparently, a good few others, a footpath closure notice is like a red rag to a bull and, on foot, I was able to circumnavigate the obstructions with relative ease but cyclists, horseriders will find it more difficult and many less-confident ramblers will be put off. And what we have, after two and a half years is a self-fulfilling prophecy as parts of the path, particuarly along the riverbank, are becoming overgrown and, in the summer, brambles will make it nigh on impassable. The authorities will squabble and pass the buck, that much is to be expected, especially in a climate when both money and imagination are in short supply. What concerns me more is that someone from officialdom has seen fit to condemn the surface of the offending path as unsafe when to anyone with an iota of hiking experience it's clearly not. Did he/she actually put on his/her boots and walk it? Or did they just take a cursory look? Paths are, by their very nature, uneven and irregular, even, in adverse conditions, precarious. Is the protuding rubber of the exposed tyres any more of a risk to a rambler's well being than a rutted steep and stony track? 

Above and below, the 'problem' surface

I love the Neroche Herepath, it's a great concept and a great path through one of my favourite landscapes. PhD fieldwork permitting, I plan to return on a monthly basis to watch the landscape come back to life. And I love the Herepath all the more because it's the sort of project that will encourage more people out into the field; back in Bath I might be a curmudgeonly misanthrope but there's nothing I like more than not being alone in the countryside. From what I've read, I think the Neroche Project, with its focus on learning and creativity, could be construed as at least attempting to liberate the landscape from the shackles that bind it. Yet the current state - and status - of the path, troubles me, hints at something rotten within the nation's collective psyche. It speaks of a deep fear of the unforeseen and the unpredictable; it wants to pre-emept every move and govern every footstep, to account for every possible eventuality and remove from even this most mundane and quotidian of activities the pleasure of risk and uncertainty. Take, for example, the notice in the photograph below, found wherever the path encounters a road. Don't get me wrong, I'm not one of those obnoxious, right-wing knuckleheads who considers 'Health & Safety', alongside political correctness, migrants and the EU to be the greatest threat to human civilisation - such as it exists - but there are times when stating-the-bleeding-obvious can be not only tedious but downright dangerous.
No shit, Sherlock!
If I were an equally obnoxious conspiracy theorist I might be tempted to add 'that's exactly the point': they are trying to turn us into compliant and docile followers, always in thrall to the order and the instruction, incapable of making decisions for ourselves, without the guidance of the ubiquitous 'leader'. If they were blessed with imagination and intelligence I might be tempted to agree but I think it's more of a case of the land of the blind and the one-eyed king. 
'Liberating the Landscape'; like education and democracy it is, in theory, a great idea but in the wrong hands it's just a glib and meaningless phrase trotted out by those who wouldn't understand the notion of liberation if it stood up and punched them in the face. The sort of people who talk about 'service delivery' and 'logistical solutions'. 
Or, worse still, when it's reduced to consumerist banalities by those who desire to turn liberation in on itself, for whom it remains a dirty and dangerous world. 
Where do we go from here? Back to the Herepath, of course. Care to join me? Somebody's got to keep the paths open. 

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

You are the land, the land is you

This summer (late June through to the end of August) as the principle part of my PhD fieldwork, I shall be walking the Camino de Santiago from Le Puy-en-Velay in France right through to Santiago, exploring the relationship between pilgrims/hikers/walkers and the landscape through which they pass, to explore the ways in which the landscape might perform in a manner that might be considered spiritual or religious. I'm posting details on another, research-specific blog: but I'll also be sticking them on here - see below:
I'm looking for research participants to join me en route, for part or the whole way, from all faiths, genders, ethnicities, ages and none. Get in touch, if interested.

In a nutshell, it’s all about landscape. It’s about landscape and what it does to people when they move through it; how it moves them, impacts on them in both body and mind in a way that might be considered spiritual or religious. It's about becoming-in-the-world as opposed to simply being-in-the-world. Crucially, it’s about the relationship between landscape and movement – on foot, both spatial and temporal – and how that movement produces spiritual or religious responses to the landscape, such as the one I experienced on the Camino de Santiago back in 2012, so there is a strong personal – autoethnographic – strand running through the research. I’m asking whether the landscape ‘performs’ in way that might be considered spiritual or religious and I’m wondering whether others, from different backgrounds – for example, atheistic – experience the same performative affect. Here I shall fend off any snide insinuations that I’m merely rehashing – and not adding much to – existing research on pilgrimage in general and the Camino de Santiago in particular by tossing into this already bubbling melting pot a heady mix of experimental geographies, of creative and innovative approaches to experiencing and – crucially – representing landscape, of dealing with affect and emotion.
Finally, putting on my theological hat and wearing it at a jaunty angle to look like an academic dilettante, I’m going to explore that tierra desconocida where geography and theology collide. A spiritual tectonic boundary, if you like.
So, the first question I’m asking myself is how does this ‘feel’ for the landscape - this landscape experience - come about; how is produced and how might it be described. There are numerous ways to go about it this but I want to begin by returning to my first encounters with landscape studies, as an undergraduate in Dorset - the capital of geography - back in the 1980s. Not just an exercise in nostalgia or a comfortable trip down memory lane, but a reassessment of what I learned then in the light of what I’ve learned since returning to academia because hindsight, as you know, is a beautiful but dangerous creature. This is part preamble, part literary review, part setting out my stall. Here is where my story begins and this is how I got here. We might call this the starting point, even though the narrative has no beginning or end but is a work in a state of constant creation and re-creation.
The second question. To be a pilgrim. Or not, as the case might be. I’ve introduced the idea of affective landscapes, now I want to discuss ways in which landscapes might perform: geographies of mobilities and, more specifically, walking. There’s a lot to tease out here and a rich seam of contemporary literature to mine: when does the pilgrim become a hiker and vice versa; walking as ritual; walking as dwelling; walking as a temporal as well as spatial immersion in the landscape; walking as a conduit from the profane to the sacred. Walking for the sake of walking, a means without an end.
The third question: pyschogeography and ‘gonzoid’ geography. You can tell I’m getting trail-fit, comfortable with the terrain and adapting myself to its needs rather than the other way round; questions of subject and object arise here. As it’s nigh on impossible to say what pyschogeography is I’m going to outline how a psychogeographic approach ties in with post-phenomenological and more-than-human geographies of landscape – where the likes of Dewsbury and Deleuze come up against Nick Papadimitriou whose Scarp is one of the texts which been fundamental in helping to define this research (inasmuch as it can be ‘defined’, of course). Scarp brings autoethnography and landscape experience together to the extent that it’s difficult to make out where the one ends and the other begins – you are the land the land is you, we are the land, the land is us.
But pyschogeography is a largely urban practice, Anglo-Saxon and predominantly masculinist. What might a more feminist or queer pyschogeography that focuses on spiritual spaces look like?
The fourth question, and a protuberance of significant academic import not just to surmount but to surmount convincingly, with gusto and panache. This is the first real challenge, an engagement with theology that takes in geographies of pilgrimage and sacred space/place but goes further. Here is the tierra desconocida: the unknown land where the geography and the theology come together. And because it’s a tierra desconocida I can, at present, only outline what it might look like; although it’s not a product of my imagination it’s a landscape shaped by a creative and radical theological and geographical imagination. It’s a landscape in which encounters with theologies of liberation play an important role.
And here I want to make a detour/deviation to address how the ‘geographical imagination’ might manifest itself within the realms of this investigation; an embodied, affective imagination, spiritually-inclined but with intimations towards some sort of socio-political agency (as per liberation theologies).
The fifth and final question follows on from the previous one; takes us right off the straight and narrow and into realm of spiritual landscapes. It is the end, if you like, of the first stage; reminds me of reaching the Alto de Perdón on the Camino Francés, just after leaving Pamplona. From this ridge one can look back towards the Pyrenees and see – perhaps marvel – at how far one has walked. And one can look forward with a sense of anticipation and, perhaps, enchantment at the path meandering ahead, apparently into infinity. And one thinks of Kierkegaard, about how life can only be understood backwards but must be understood forwards.
I don’t expect the fifth and final question to beget answers, only more questions that will, in turn, inform and shape the fieldwork which also take me back to the Camino Frances to reconsider and reappraise. These questions might attempt to define and/or redefine what is meant by spirituality and/or religiosity, particularly within the context of the Spanish landscape (and an explicitly ‘Catholic gaze’ which might be compared with other types of spiritual/religious gazes). They might also address the ways in which the spiritual and the religious might manifest themselves in the landscape, are they prompted by faith or do they occur involuntarily, without faith as a precondition. And they might also ask how we deal with and represent the spectral and the unexperienceable, the messy excess which defies quantification and categorisation.
I do expect the fifth and final question to answer itself with an assertion; an insistence that however elusive definitions might be, spiritual landscapes should not be dismissed as romanticised attempts to reconstitute the primitive or prelapsarian. Rather that the spiritual is as tangible as the human and physical and, in some ways, might represent an attempt by the former to make sense of the latter.