Eyes Down: Walking as Thinking

by Charlie Lee-Potter

Walking is our new national sport. I’ve trudged hundreds of miles in micro-walks this past year, each one measured out in a TS Eliot spoon. I’ve darted from home every day like a fly on a line, hauled back in by government-decreed time and distance. As soon as I’m allowed, I’m going to break my tether and walk 365 miles from Dorset to Cambridgeshire. I’ll follow ancient pathways and tracks, documenting what I see in etchings, pleated paper, photogrammetry and ceramics. But even though the giant expedition has as many miles as days in a year and will have wide horizons and distant views, I won’t be changing my eyeline much. I’ll continue to do what I’ve been doing for months now – walk with my eyes fixed to the ground. The ground is where the ideas hide.

All the work I’ve made in recent years has emerged from walking: large-scale artists’ books capturing the roots of plants and fragments of bark, books which open to such a length that the viewer has to walk alongside them; long, sinuous paintings capturing shadows as they flicker on the grass. Each zig-zagged page of my eleven-metre-long book called Ridge and Furrow is the length of my own stride, meaning that the viewer and I walk companionably together. Fotminne is a porcelain installation which carries the lacey imprints of elm beetles as they tunnelled in the dark behind the curving bark of an elm tree. Shadowline is a thirteen-metre-long painting of the shadows cast onto the ground by three old quince trees. I painted with ink on fine white silk en plein air, and then flew it into the sky like a kite, with friends gripping it at each end to keep it from blowing away. They said afterwards that it was like going hang-gliding without leaving the ground. As the translucent silk soared, sunlight gleamed through the fabric, showing ink marks on both sides simultaneously so that it was no longer possible to tell which was which. All the work focuses on footsteps, pathways or ways of moving across the land, and all the ideas came to me as I walked. My fixation on walking is perhaps ironic since I have a shocking sense of direction. But that’s partly why I walk – it’s a craving to understand how slopes, ridges, dips, lines, rocks and landforms fit together and what shape they make when they combine. To create the large-scale pieces which will emerge from my giant hike from Dorset to Cambridgeshire, I’m researching the properties of the ancient slime mould Physarum-polysephalum. Place a few oat flakes in its path and it will, without fail, find the quickest, most efficient way to slither in the right direction. If I could just learn how to do it too.

As I’ve painted, printed, folded, cut and glued, my walking habits have changed. I rarely look at the horizon now and the skyline seems like a distraction. Each thudding footstep feels hypnotic and I keep my eyes on the ground as I try to think my ideas into existence. And when you stare at the ground long enough, you can’t help but wonder what it looks like from underneath. I should stress that this isn’t an exercise in scrabbling around with the worms. I’m slightly repelled by what lurks beneath, if I’m honest. It’s more a question of viewing the earth from a different perspective, in ways that Bruno Latour recommended in his evocation of a ‘critical zone’. Instead of imagining ourselves as striding around on the surface of landscape as conquerors or masters of it, I’m trying to express the idea visually that we’re embedded in it. And that means looking beneath the surface as well as on top of it. Surface is etymologically derived from the seventeenth-century French sur-face: above the plane. Landscape is a surface or sur-face over which we move. Logically, what lies beneath must be sous-face or underneath the plane, and each face is a ghostly negative of the other. I imagine a walk as a cello string, fixed at each end and with an undulating wave of sound passing along its length as it’s played, dipping both below and rising above the plane. There’s more than idle wordplay here. Aside from seeing the world as Latour suggests, my work also tries to see both sides of the plane by referencing landscape as a kind of midden in which slices of our past, present and potential future are stacked up like trifle. My walking books aren’t supposed to be an alternative expression of what a walk might mean. They are the walk, but seen from above and below. They’re a visual, three-dimensional rendition of Tim Dee’s exquisite idea in his book Greenery that Spring has a walking speed: ‘The ten-degree isotherm […] moves north across the landmass of Europe from the Mediterranean Sea to the Arctic Ocean at roughly fifty kilometres a day between the winter solstice and the summer solstice. […] Spring, therefore, moves north at about walking pace.’ The idea of walking alongside the seasons at their own speed is captivating. It’s reassuring to think that if we just keep walking, Spring will eventually come alongside and stroll with us. Henry Bergson was right when he said that we are the ones passing when we say that time passes, but nevertheless Tim Dee manages to make time seem more human in scale, more graspable conceptually. His idea can be seen in the individual walk, the folded book with pages the length of the human stride, the single footprint.

The most notorious footprint in literary history is of course the one stamped in the sand on Robinson Crusoe’s island. But, whenever I teach Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel, students are astonished that fifteen years crawl by before Crusoe spots the famous print on the beach which so frightens him. It takes another two years before he actually encounters a real-life leg belonging to another human being. I find Crusoe’s stolid manliness, his colonising ways and his obsession with amassing, counting and collating his possessions exasperating. Crusoe is the archetypal figure Latour might have had in mind when he questioned our obsession with extracting resources, although in a recent Guardian interview he chose Elon Musk as his example: ‘people such as Elon Musk think they should go on a mission to Mars. That is escapist’. Crusoe marches around on the equivalent of Mars, forever on the surface, assuming royal status, robed in goatskin and sporting a goatskin umbrella, issuing orders and accumulating stuff. But there’s a beauty to the footprint which goes to the heart of what a walk is for. It says, ‘I’m here’ and ‘I need to work out why’ and having done that ‘I’m going to think of something to do with that knowledge’. The footprint, particularly the single footprint for some reason – where is the other one? - is elemental. It has heft and solidity and yet it can be washed away on a whim by tide or wind. It suggests valour and determination. Even if, like a palimpsest, the ground beneath its feet is wiped completely clean, the print was once there and that’s what counts. The owner of the footprint is embedded, just as Latour would recommend: ‘In the critical zone, we must maintain what we have because it is finite, it’s local, it’s at risk and it’s the object of conflict.’

As I plan my 365-mile walk, a mile for every day of the year, I’ve been listening to John Cage’s exquisite In a Landscape. He would have understood what I mean when I say my art practice isn’t about the walk but is the walk. He loved to walk too, particularly to gather wild mushrooms. He wasn’t even put off when he poisoned himself by experimenting with a variety of fungal skunk cabbage. But what he hated was the thought that music or mushrooms were simply there to tell another story or to be interpreted as standing in for something else. The mushroom, he might have said, is the mushroom:

I am not interested in the relationships between sounds and mushrooms any more than I am in those between sounds and other sounds. These would involve an introduction of logic that is not only out of place in the world, but time-consuming. We exist in a situation demanding greater earnestness. […] It behooves us therefore to see each thing directly as it is, be it the sound of a tin whistle or the elegant Lepiota procera.

That ultimately is the thing: to see it as it is. I can’t decide if it was seeing ‘each thing directly as it is’ which motivated the veteran and dedicated barefoot walker James Leith Macbeth Bain, or a perverse interest in what it isn’t. Bizarrely, it could possibly have been both. His beliefs were ludicrous but I wish he’d been right. In 1914 he explained what a hike without boots could achieve.:

If you walk in a hill-burn you will taste the life of the trout of the hill-burn; and what taste is more exquisite? It is only to be compared to that of the mountain lamb, whose joy you will taste over the grassy braes.

He had similarly daft ideas about the benefits of taking a walk with a wild, bushy hairdo, which might appeal to the salon-starved: ‘the hair is the natural collector of the finger magnetisms of our air for the service of this body, and the weight of a full poll of hair is one of Nature’s means for preserving the poise of the body by causing us to hold the head erect.’ His views on hair styles don’t really interest me, but I’m captivated by the thought that I could go for a walk to taste a trout. I’m particularly smitten because I lost my sense of taste and smell almost a year ago and since I find that a walk can fix most things, it seems particularly magical that it could rescue my palate too. For the moment, I only eat burnt food because the acrid taste claws at the back of my throat and stands-in for taste. And the noisier it is to eat the better, because in a weird kind of synaesthetic cross-wiring, that at least counts as a sensation. My day starts with the dry rustle of knife-blade through blackened, desiccated toast and my crunching sounds like gravel shaken in a plastic bag. So far, walking hasn’t restored my tastebuds, either with or without boots, but at least it always restores the spirits.

I’ve always loved the phrase in Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman that when you walk ‘the continual cracking of your feet on the road makes a certain quantity of road come up into you.’ There’s something about that fair exchange between the ground and the walker, the rhythmic thwack of one foot and then the next, which makes me think more clearly. Not that O’Brien’s words were meant to be a tribute to walking at all – they were a warning against it, in favour of the bicycle. His novel goes on to say that ‘When a man dies they say he returns to clay but too much walking fills you up with clay far sooner.’ But I borrow from O’Brien in ways that suit me. Walking doesn’t fill me up so much as tip me out, so I feel lighter and more agile. Compare that sensation with the one I get when I jog and there’s no contest. I’ve recently taken up running again to build extra fitness for my long expedition, alternating two minutes of jogging with two minutes of walking. Not a single idea comes into my head during the running segments. The sound of my breathing annoys me and I’m infuriated by the raspy swoosh of my nylon anorak sleeves. But the interwoven minutes of walking are simply sublime. I walk at the same pace as Spring, just as Tim Dee noted, and often another idea for a large-scale walking book comes to me. The next one is going to be accompanied by a composed soundscape and it’s going to be constructed out of meticulously-pleated Japanese paper – a kind of giant, kinetic, pin-tucked shirt which will be ten metres long. It’s going to show off sur-face and sous-face simultaneously and I can’t wait to see it.

DR CHARLIE LEE-POTTER teaches English at Hertford College, and is an artist and printmaker. Her Imperial printing press celebrates its 179th birthday in June.

Art by Charlie Lee-Potter