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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.

Saturday, 16 January 2016

Love in the Heart of the City

 Me and Mexico City, hopelessly and utterly head over heels in love. We go back a long, long way; 26 years, to November 1989, if you really must know. New Kids on the Block sat atop that barometer of popular culture, the Hit Parade, suggesting that the halcyon-haloed decade that was the 1980s, had already fizzled out and was imploding, quite unspectacularly, as a wet fart rather than a damp squib. 
Naturally, I use Mexico City - or el DF (day-efe) - as a case study for my A level geography students. I tell them that were you to put your ear to the pavement you'd hear - and feel - the city's heart beating, to a loud, dissonant and idiosyncratic pulse. It has a reputation for being dirty and dangerous but worse things have happened to me in the English countryside. In my own home, to be precise. 
In any case, the city has cleaned up its act environmentally, if not politically, judging by the number of tooled-up riot police lining the streets of the centro historico (or centro histerico, as one waggish taxi driver liked to call it). In any case, in Mexico as everywhere else, the presence of security forces on the street is usually evidence of the state protecting itself rather than its citizens. 
Though I now consider myself a 'veteran' of travel in Mexico and Central America, twenty six years ago I was pretty much a virgin, having never ventured beyond the confines of Western Europe. Thus arriving in Mexico City came as something as a shock to the system and although, like losing one's viginity, that experience of waking up for the first time in the world's greatest city is one that can never be replicated, the thrill is still there. Benito Juarez International airport - named after the contintent's first indigenous president - was once on the outskirts of the metropolis but has long since been swallowed up by the city's inexorable growth and is only a few kilometres from the centro historico. Although, at long last, the construction of a new airport was finally approved in 2014, until it opens in eight years time, travellers arriving by night will continue to enjoy one of the world's great nocturnal wonders, circling the illuminated City, light stretching out towards and beyond the horizon on all sides, pitching above Zocalo with tail-lights sparking like red stars in slow motion, vertiginuously below. After a long and interminable flight the heart skips a beat, it feels like coming home.
The first time, twenty six years ago, my close friend The Consultant and I were en route to  Nicaragua to spend some time with the Sandinistas whom we would subsequently witness being bundled out of office by a rag-tag, improbable opposition. Mrs Thatcher was still in her pomp, we were two of many who fled political reality to follow ideological flights of fancy elsewhere. After five months circumnavigating the isthmus we returned for a final week in Mexico City, our Sunday departure affording views of the sparkling, snow-capped summits of Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl through the one-day-a-week clear air. 
In 1989 I was not who I now am and when I returned in 1997 my personal landscape was much altered and The Consultant was no longer at my side. I remained naive but now I was a lot more vulnerable, undermined by memories oozing from the crumbling edifices and the sinking soil. Everywhere I went I heard Sinead O'Connor's haunting tones: nothing compares to you. Was she singing about The Consultant or Mexico City? Or both? 
I passed through again in 2001 then in 2007 with my sister. Two sisters on holiday together; sounds like a nightmare but somehow it worked. She spoke no Spanish so I was in charge; the pain, if not absent, was now just simmering away, the past beginning to be drowned out by the present. Time was working its wonders. In 2008, following a disastrous attempt to migrate to El Salvador, I foreswore Latin America, told myself I'd never return and set my sights on Spain. 
Never say never, of course. I turned 50 and somehow squirrelled away a bit of cash; raging against the imminent fading of the light I yielded to the feisty temptress that is my inner physical geographer. She demanded fire and earth, I whisked her away, back to Mexico and Central America. It was supposed to be for one last time but we're already planning next winter's return. 
I'm now a tutor, psychogeographer and PhD student, specialising in landscape experience and cultural geograph so the first trip of the vacation seemed a logical one: a derive across the city to see whether, in the light of the seismic autoethnographic shifts that had changed so much of my character, it had changed.
The Cathedral, the largest in Latin America, stands in the heart of the city, by the Zocalo with its immense Mexican flag. If I were to delve deep into the recesses of my psyche, where landscape and memory dwell, these two symbols of Mexico City would loom large.

Alongside with the physical geography, I was also keen to explore the changing nature of religous place and space in Mexico and Central America, not least because the region played an instrumental role in reconfiguring and re-orientating my Catholic faith. Above, Julia Klug protesting, in the Zocalo, not against the Catholic Church per se but against its numerous abuses. A brave woman! Below, a nun selling street food.

The Clausura of the sixteenth centuty nun and proto-feminist, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, now a university catering mostly, it seemed, to catering studies

After the Cathedral, my next port of call is invariably the market, drawn by the noise, activity and chaos. The Latin American market remains, for me, a constant source of fascination.

The state protecting itself

Zona Rosa - the posh part of town
Edeficios borrachos: sinking and shifting buildings
Monument to the Revolution. Plus striking teachers.

The security quarter