Walking Home

reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker

Walkers Have Never Been Modern

May 26th, 2016

Walkers Have Never Been Modern

for Bruno Latour


Robert MacFarlane along with Stanley Donwood and Dan Richards wrote a beautiful little book called Holloway. A holloway is “a sunken path, a deep & shady lane. A route that centuries of foot-fall, hoof-hit, wheel-roll, & rain-run have harrowed into the land.” In other words, a holloway embodies and records a human history of acting in and with the non-human world, a world made of earth, stone, water, but also animals, wheels, wagons, and tools. I recently finished the Camino Frances path of the Camino de Santiago, crossing the Pyrenees near St. Jean-Pied-de-Porte and walking through Pamplona, Burgos, and León to Santiago de Compostela, and then beyond to the Costa de Morte, to Muxia and Finisterre (900 kilometers). Though its paths are not usually as deep as the holloways MacFarlane explores in England, they record a deep history, one of pilgrimages to Finisterre that even predate the Christian Era. While parts today must be re-routed to newer paths to avoid trekking on what have become major highways, the Camino breaths a complex history, passing by every church in its path, but also circling natural formations, avoiding rugged climbs, reflecting the wisdom of the choices made by centuries of walkers. With each step, the modern peregrino is constantly aware of those years of wear, an overwhelming sense of human and nonhuman history.

Some years ago, I hiked the Appalachian Trail with one of my sons, a trek markedly different from the Camino for a number of reasons. Over 2000 miles, the AT winds its way up the east coast ridge of the United States, from Georgia to Maine, never very far from large population centers but on land that is largely depopulated, giving little sign of its ever having been occupied. There are of course moments when hikers feel history. Passing through northwestern Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland is a lesson on significant battles of the American Civil War, but often the sense of hikers, one reinforced by the designers and maintainers of the trail, is that they are walking in wilderness, a place devoid of human history. This mood is even stronger for those hiking the other two major US long-distance trails–the Pacific Crest and the Continental Divide–both of which indulge walkers in the fantasy that they are walking where no one has walked before. Unlike the intensely historical nature of the Camino, the trope of American long-distance trails is uninhabited wilderness. Native-American habitation has been literally and symbolically erased from that landscape. American hikers, particularly those from the west, tend to fetishize this blankness, using human absence as a form of valuation, what is called the “fallacy of the wilderness.” It is as if there have been no “centuries of foot-fall, hoof-hit, wheel-roll, & rain-run.”

It may seem odd to turn to a French philosopher of science and technology to talk about attitudes toward the wilderness and human history, but Bruno Latour, in his early book We Have Never Been Modern and the recent An Inquiry Into Modes of Existence gives a vocabulary to help frame these observations. At the risk of oversimplification (which is inevitable given the length of this essay), We Have Never Been Modern is a critique closely related to Alfred North Whitehead’s notion of the “bifurcation of nature” which initially was a criticism of the philosophical distinction between an object’s primary and secondary qualities but eventually becomes a tool to dismantle the subject/object distinction that has dominated modern philosophy at least since Kant which is the avowed purpose of An Inquiry Into Modes of Existence. In Latour’s timeline, Modernism began (or did not actually begin) when Western philosophy accepted and enforced a rigorous distinction between the subject and the object. An accomplished modernity would be one that could rigorously control the boundary between knowledge of the natural world and of human society. Latour’s insight is that while that wall might be tall and seemingly impregnable, it (like all geopolitical walls real or imagined) cannot stop subject/object hybrids (what he calls “quasi-objects” and “quasi-subjects”) from proliferating. No matter how hard the modern knowledge police work, the subject/object distinction cannot be maintained for long.

A nature untrammeled by human contact and history, one seen only from a scenic overlook or walked on paths that were never built for transportation or human labor, is the wilderness ideal. From that perspective, American long-distance trails mimic the modernity Latour decries, one that erases the history of the material world and the imprint of human thought and action on the landscape. They are a celebration of Nature purged of all humans except the limited few with the strength, stamina, time, and financial wherewithal to make the trek. The holloway is an example of the sort of hybrid Latour invokes to destabilize the notion of an accomplished modernity. The holloway is objective, made of what we would call natural objects–dirt, stones, trees, roots, plants–and is subject to natural forces–rain, wind, drought, frost heave. But it is also social as it was made and is maintained by human activity, serving as a conduit for labor, play, transportation, and human contact. To walk a path is to live its history and trip over its ruts, at the same time!

The modernity Latour critiques is one without history, and many ways it is one without thought. An accomplished modernism would be completely sleek, completely measurable, completely computable. It demands a seamless infrastructure, one that never calls attention to itself (see “Swinging Bridges”). In many ways, it is the neo-liberal dream. Walking a holloway track– the Camino de Santiago or Nepal’s Helambu circuit–is to feel a sedimented history, but also much more. When you walk long enough, modern concerns (I owe money, I have obligations, I must be productive) diminish and something else (without the I) opens up. A range of forces come to bear–gravity, oxygen levels, a fine-grained sense of the weather, attention to flora, fauna, the impress of human activity, and memory. These and other factors constitute a mood that can open to reflection and ultimately open onto the possibility of thinking instead of having thoughts which, like ideas, become tokens to move about in some discourse to be measured and validated by a calculus of intellectual activity. The latter–thoughts–are prized by the neo-liberal academy as they can be converted into statements that circulate as a proxy for thinking and an emblem of intellectual activity, but are actually a faint shadow of the non-modern experience of thinking. In that light, the academia’s long slide from celebrating wisdom to knowledge (18th century) to information (20th century) to data (21st century) is to the neo-liberal university, a place of constant self-assessment, periodic review, and impact analysis, a machine designed to halt thinking in its tracks. The optimism of Latour’s book is his claim that we have never been modern, that such a state can never be accomplished because the boundary between subject and object, self and world, is a chimera. Purification gestures may create power relations and try to reduce thinking to having thoughts, but the hybrid I am calling thinking proliferates outside those boundaries, in a world that never was modern.

On morning I woke in a Kathmandu hotel with no electricity which is of course a regular occurrence in most of the world. Technological differences tend to be what we first notice when visiting other places. Heading out of the city deeper into the mountains is a move toward fewer conveniences and what seems a simpler life. Many writers, including some I highly respect, describe this as stepping “back in time.” I understand what they mean. In isolated rural areas, the daily practices of the people living there are often quite similar to those of their ancestors. Farmers tilling narrow terraced fields with short-handled heavy hoes or metal-tipped wooden plows with a yoke of oxen is a scene repeated for centuries if not millennia, so for visitors, it is of an antique simplicity. However the “back in time” attitude is the result of a parochial sense of modernity. Yes, without doubt, the people living in, say, Melamchigaon are not working in sanitized, hermetically-sealed, climate-controlled environments staring at computer screens all day, but they live in the 21st century, surrounded by artifacts of that era including the ubiquitous steel and aluminum sheathing, cell phones, polyester jackets, airplanes and helicopters circling, soldiers patrolling with automatic weapons. While they may not be in a high-tech envelope, they, like the vast majority of the world’s population, are in the larger 21st century world. The place where they live and work is a hybrid of high tech and traditional practices that a narrow, hyper-modern view overlooks. What the “back in time” trope brings is a sense of distance from and a concomitant blindness to the hybrid nature of all our lives. Silicon Valley daily life is also full of activities long practiced by humans but overlooked in pursuit of a digital totality. Ezra Pound’s plea to “make it new” starts with an “it” that is modernized, but the “it” and all its deep history is sedimented in that “new.” Stepping into Melamchigaon is not a temporal disjunction. It is spatial. It is stepping into a different modernity or, to use Latour’s terminology, into the non-modern world where we have been all along.

T. Hugh Crawford


May 22nd, 2016



Early on in Walden, Thoreau says, “It is true, I never assisted the sun materially in his rising, but, doubt not, it was of the last importance only to be present at it.” Presence at first light, ever elusive but somehow fundamental. The labors of many people require they rise before the sun, but being up early does not necessarily put one in the presence of the sunrise as an event, the first of the new day. Long-distance walkers are a privileged few as they, like Thoreau, are up and about, doing their daily labor before the sun, and most days find themselves lingering on some path watching the unfolding of yet another rosy-fingered dawn.

In El Gamso on the Camino de Santiago, G–, my trekking partner suggested we get up early enough to see the sunrise from the peak at Cruz de Ferro. Walkers are game for most things, but this was a pre-dawn trek of 15 km including a long steep climb. At 4:00 am, we were up and in a few minutes hiking fast and hard down the path, headlamps dimly lighting the way. It was smooth but still there was the occasional stumble. An advantage of the early time was a sky awash with stars, the Milky Way streaming through the middle, punctuated by the occasional meteorite, but we had to ignore the sight most of the time, focusing instead on our feet. There was less than 3 hours time to cover the distance. Before long a crescent moon rose at our backs, partly showing the way. That time of morning brings new sensations. Birds often unheard call out. Different temperature gradients cross the skin. The earth and plants exhale unique odors. Setting a brisk pace, we made the the next town in good time but then had to climb a ridge in mud and flowing water, all as the horizon began to lighten ominously. Soon anticipation gave way to near despair. Pushing on through the just-waking village of Foncebadon, we crested the main ridge, still short of Cruz de Ferre but finding an ideal place to see the morning in. Sunrises happen every day but they are never the same. This day some low clouds ran interference as the orange intensified along the horizon, then a brilliant flash of yellow light turned our retinas purple. Soon the sun’s rays touched all around and, though we had not materially assisted in its rising, we had contributed our mite and received everything in return. It’s a strange feeling to have been up and toiling long and hard only to recognize that a new day has just commenced. We got up, stretched, and made our way to the Cruz de Ferre, an iron cross atop a tall wooden pole surrounded by a huge pile of rocks brought by peregrinos from all over the world. I found a rock by the path and pitched it over my head onto the pile, while G– retrieved the one she had carried from some far away place. Anticipation frames a moment, but the moment always exceeds it.

That morning while watching the sunrise, I could not help but recall Hölderlin’s hymn, “The Ister,” and Heidegger’s commentary in a book of the same name. I kept repeating the opening lines:

Now come, fire!
Eager are we
To see the day.

Command, presence, inevitability, anticipation, anxiety. Sunrise is but one in 24 hours of moments, but it is a singularity, an edge, a precise point. It predates industrial time and is measured not in seconds or minutes but in duration–a taunt, stretched now that extends from the first bit of pure light to the emergence of the sun as full body. Heidegger, ever the interrogator, questions Hölderlin’s opening line: “Yet if “the fire” comes of its own accord, then why is it called? The call does not effect the coming.” He is pursuing a broader philosophical point, but his questioning uncovers the walker’s dilemma, one phrased by Thoreau differently but essentially asking the same thing: what calls for presence at a sunrise? Eager to see the day, we pause watching colors, the false dawn, then the moment of pure light. Our eagerness calls on the sun to come, but it was the sun all along that brought us to this ridge. Presence at sunrise questions Being in ways few other quotidian actions can. The most temporal of events calls the caller out of measured time into dureé. It is time as a thread stretched to absolute thinness. Clocks do not tick at sunrise; time expands, filling the horizon.

But fire can bring destruction, and to think the now is to think its end. Not far from the Cruz de Ferro is the Galician Atlantic coast and Finisterre, the end of the earth in the Medieval world, the place where the sun goes to die. On the Costa de Morte there once was the altar of Ara Solis dedicated to that daily dying sun, something pilgrims witness with each sunset. Sunrise is both inevitable and not, prompting questions of the end rather than the beginning. Ben Schneider (of the band Lord Huron) asks, “what if the world dies with the sunrise?” Not an anxiety strongly felt by those called to witness the beginning of the day, but a thought that lurks in the background. To anticipate an event is to entertain the possibility of it not happening. Heidegger also calls the now the “time of poets.” The sun calls the poets to write. It calls walkers differently, not to give words but more fundamentally to mark the surface of the earth, to write paths with bootsoles. To be present at the sun’s rising, the way is trod, the ridge is climbed. To participate in the now of that moment is to be part of a longstanding community with feet maintaining the way and naming the history of the land’s dwellers, sometimes going back millennia. The pause on the ridge gives the sunrise a silent voice. An event made reverent by the act of stopping to pay attention, to attend. Deleuze asks of Leibniz and Whitehead “What is an Event?” He then produces a multiplicity of answers, or, to put it the same way, his answer is a multiplicity with some convergence. An event is a gathering to an intensity, a set of forces singled out and directing attention. It is, in Whitehead’s terms, a concresence of elements, the active creation of the new and, I would add, the now which is always novel.

Sunrise calls out a particular now for our attention, showing by implication the production, the concresence, of all nows, however unremarkable others may be. Sitting there on that hill in that moment was an event. We did not materially assist the sun in its rising, did not wake the birds’ songs or paint the full palette of colors on the sky or cause the mist to rise from the plowed earth or bring both light and shadow to play across the land. But we were there attending and anticipating. Already wide-awake from a long, hard hike, we were there to begin the new day.

T. Hugh Crawford

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