All in a Day's Walk

A month-long slow food walking performance

Archive for Activism

Talking Walking (or the Wisdom Teeth of Hindsight)

[I’m writing this with the benefit of hindsight. A whole year’s hindsight in fact. For reasons that will become clear below.]

On Friday 2nd August 2013, I walked nearly 30 miles from my then home in Lea (in South Herefordshire, mere metres from the Gloucestershire border) right across the Forest of Dean to the Green Gathering Festival at Chepstow racecourse. En route I had arranged to meet Andrew Stuck of Talking Walking – the dedicated podcasting website for ‘activism, art, gossip, interviews and news from the world of walking’ – to do an interview that would ultimately be made into a podcast.

He was travelling by train from London to Chepstow, and then planned to walk along the Offa’s Dyke path north of Chepstow. I was to join up with the path towards the end of my walk, so we hoped to walk towards each other and meet at the allotted hour. I would then be interviewed for TW. (It didn’t quite work out like that – though we did succeed in meeting – but more on that anon.)

It did not begin well, underslept and flustered, I set off at 8 am knowing I had about 24 miles to cover before I met Andrew, and very little spare time for getting lost built into the tight schedule necessary to ensure a timely rendezvous.

It was around this time that I’d more-or-less worked out that, on a 1:25,000 OS map, the span of my loosely-stretched hand aligned with a walk’s planned route was approximately an hour’s walking for me. But not allowing for getting lost, tracking back, talking to anyone or an overly wiggly/meandering path.

(I quite liked this one:one scale of my own though – a satisfying physical/temporal take on the one-inch-to-one-mile maps, for a walking geek and a map addict…)

Within half an hour, I had got hopelessly, dangerously lost in a field of >6ft high maize [I am 5 ft 1] that had been planted across the footpath. By the time I’d backtracked, run up a farm track and onto the road to take a longer, alternative route, I already knew that I would deeply regret agreeing to meet someone at an allotted time after 28 miles of walking. That is a lot of miles for mishaps… When the going (and the waymarking) was good, I did have a great sense of bounding through the Forest of Dean: this ancient hunting forest, freemining country, this “strange and beautiful place … a heart-shaped place between two rivers, somehow slightly cut off from the rest of England…” (as Dennis Potter described his home-place).

At other times, I was battling through overgrown undergrowth, with bare legs becoming so scratched and bruised that I eventually drew a sketch of the ‘map’ that the walk had left on me.

By mid-afternoon, Andrew – who had left London without a map and so was attempting to navigate his way from Chepstow along the Offa’s Dyke path by signposting alone – and I ended up in a ridiculous series of mobile phone exchanges. He was asking me to relay directions for him from my OS map, at the same time as I was trying to use it to navigate towards him. But our relative locations spanned either side of the enormous map sheet and so to respond to his requests, I was obliged, one-handed on the phone, to keep unfolding and refolding it.

We did eventually rendezvous – on the Gloucestershire Way, not the Offa’s Dyke path – and walked back towards Chepstow, where, once the calm of navigational certainty had resumed, we found a small meadow high up on the cliff edge of the Wye gorge to do our interview. The sound of drumming from the Green Gathering festival site at the racecourse on the opposite side of the river faded in and out of ear shot with the breeze.

We parted in Chepstow and I walked on alone to the festival, weary, scratched and ready for the wood-heated-water eco-shower that awaited.

***

What happened in the intervening three days is something of a blur – talking to ‘real’ activists: climate campaigners, road protesters, foraging experts, bee advocates, editors of ‘occasional land rights magazine’ The Land; and working in a cafe. I also had a very enlightening conversation with foraging expert Carol Hunt

I set off to return home on Monday 5th August, the penultimate day of the performance. I knew I’d got a long hard walk home and I also, foolishly, couldn’t shake the misperception that it would be ‘more uphill’ going north. I was also cumulatively tired – from the performance, the walking and the festival. So my spirits were dampened still further when there was a deluge of truly biblical, climate-change-freak-weather-type proportions within the first 5 miles: three hours of solid lashing rain, thunder and lightning. It was so wet that rain pooled inside my waterproof map case, having somehow managed to force its way through the almost imperceptible hole made by a thorn on the walk down.

Fortunately my phone, which I’d used to document the entire journey down, including film and audio, was safely zipped into the waterproof Gore-tex pocket of my waterproof Gore-tex coat. But it was not so waterproof as I’d thought. Water even managed to find its way to pool in there too. My phone switched itself off near Bream and refused to reawaken. Running late by the time I reached the middle of the Forest proper, I called in at the Speech House hotel (former hunting lodge and site of “Court of the Speech” for verderers and free-miners) and asked to use their phone to make a call to the dog sitter to let her know where I was.

I was bone weary by the time I returned to Lea. The cottage was eerily quiet, the dogs calmly pleased to see me, the dog-sitter having an evening nap upstairs. I put my phone in a box of rice, hoping for the best. Then I went to bed.

The next day, the final day of the performance, I rested. And waited anxiously for my phone to revive (funny how even eco-activists are so wedded to our technology). I was still hungry and looking forward to my ‘first supper’ the next day. But then on the last night, with no warning – but as if I’d finally earned it – a wisdom tooth chose to emerge. It was painful and I didn’t sleep well. So I woke the day after the performance concluded with the freedom to eat whatever I wish, and ironically found myself unable to eat at all.

[My phone never recovered from its ordeal, losing all my photo documentation from the last 60 miles of walking. So all that remains is the sketch of my scratched legs. Oh well. I suppose it could function as a tastefully restrained Richard Long/Hamish Fulton-esque ‘text work’ or similar: neither of them seem quite so concerned about obsessively documenting their walks through the use of technology. The very thought of either of them Tweeting or blogging (esp. en route) is actually quite a funny one.]

[Images of leg-scratch-map copied and later sent to PhD student Nina Williams for her Mapping in Momentum project]

Mapping in Momentum 2 Mapping in Momentum 1

Guilt and abundance (and raw milk)

Giant courgette

I have a new form of guilt to add to the ever-expanding list: gardeners’ guilt. To our surprise (first season of serious growing, my first growing season here at all) the garden here is almost indecently fecund and productive. It’s all the stereotypical adjectives in fact: lush and verdant etc etc. Even things we planted late and expected not to thrive or fruit just yet are approaching giant proportions. That giant courgette is from the gift plant Rach dug in just 3 weeks ago.  This is normally a cause for celebration of course but I have such an association of denial and asceticism with this piece (from the winter performance, or indeed the first few days of this one) that suddenly faced with so much abundance – of variety, texture, flavour from garden herbs – I feel guilty.

Then I realise that’s what the dyed-in-the-wool environmentalist in me wants to feel: it’s not just about this piece, it’s about a whole ‘performance of identity’ through denial and choice that characterises a commitment to belief systems – whether religious or ecological. Dave Horton’s excellent book chapter articulates this brilliantly in a single paragraph around milk (and which raised a laugh-out-loud of recognition from me when I first read it in the quiet work area of Worcester Hive, to the consternation of fellow readers):

Discomfort can emerge over something so seemingly trivial as ‘milk’. Faced with a choice of ‘milk’, whether at a green meeting or when shopping, the activist confronts a choice of identity. There is no one ‘right milk’, and ‘milk’ correspondingly becomes a site around which identities are distinguished and performed. How should one buy one’s milk? Should it be delivered to the door, lugged home from the supermarket, or fetched from the corner-shop? From where can organic milk be bought? Is the best milk container made of glass, plastic or reinforced cardboard? How can one best ensure one’s milk is produced locally? Ought one to abstain from the consumption of animal milk entirely, and choose soya ‘milk’ instead? What if the only soya ‘milk’ available is non-organic, and potentially genetically modified? Given the impossibility of satisfying all these criteria simultaneously, which ones ought to be privileged when making milk-drinking decisions? Which elements of the diverse ‘milk economy’ should be supported, and why? Through their choice of ‘milk’ activists perform and are performed by their positioning within green networks. [From Horton, D. (2003) ‘Green Distinctions: the Performance of Identity Among Environmental Activists’ in B. Szerszynski, W. Heim and C. Waterton (eds.) Nature Performed: Environment, Culture and Performance Oxford: Blackwell 63-77]

(To which I might add that raw milk from pasture-fed cows is the only way to go, but hey, that’s a whole other story…)

Through ‘punishing’ ourselves in some small way (through denying ourselves something perceived as indulgent, excessive or luxurious but attractive all the same) do we get some satisfaction that we are doing something tangible? Suffering for one’s beliefs as well as one’s art to somehow make it all legitimate?

But as far the environment’s concerned, gardeners’ guilt is utterly pointless and wasteful. So I’m not going to whip myself with this courgette. I’m going to cook it, eat it and be happy…

Onions Courgette plant Chilli and tomatoes  Peas Flowering lettuce Red cabbageHerb spiral 3

Vegan roadkill

Vegan roadkill at White House Farm

A walk through Dymock to Brooms Green, home of Charles Martell cheeses. I’ve been intrigued by this cheese-makers-cum-distillery ever since I’d heard my friend Hugh (himself of the inspiring artisan cider-producing Dragon Orchard) waxing lyrical about them back in December. I wasn’t eating cheese or dairy then of course due to a suspected allergy, but this time around and in the absence of allergy, their delicious nettle-wrapped May Hill Green has been very sustaining on long walks. I set off late today with a belly full of it. I haven’t called ahead to arrange a meeting, optimistically hoping to bump into someone when I arrive. Or simply for the walk to guide me into an encounter with someone else.

I don’t and it doesn’t. In fact, I barely see anyone closer than waving distance: two farmers mending a trailer and a lone dog walker. So much for talking activism today.

I pass through a sinister concrete bridge under the M50 that looks like it should house a 1960s concrete troll and join up with the Daffodil Way, round the edge of Dymock Forest. I pass an equally sinister looking mansion which instantly makes me think, with a goosebump frisson, of  Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger. For miles it seems to be watching me with coolly blank eyes, and I wonder why we anthropomorphise houses when really, they are just hemmings-in of space for us to shelter in.

In Dymock I find myself following the Poets’ Paths to Brooms Green. It’s not intentional. In fact, there’s something vaguely embarrassing about it. Perhaps this is because I’m always achingly conscious that walking seems to have a tendency to turn everyone into a navel-gazing poet or philosopher of varying degrees of awfulness, something I’ve been anxious to avoid through informing my walking practice with my environmentalism and other political concerns, of varying degrees of gentleness. By this, I mean that I’m permanently hyperconscious that, for all that I was at pains to put activism in tracktivism, I know there’s still nothing overtly, tub-thumpingly political about it. And inevitably, in the luxurious engagement with natural world that rural walking offers, the political is not present for me in every step. I am not a pilgrim. I can allow my mind and senses to wander.

What I remain conscious of, however, is that this is no rural idyll. These farmed landscapes are constantly changing and responding to the challenges of economy and climate. Less obvious, dramatic and dizzying than the melting ice-sheets to be sure, but still more fragile than we think. As our oil dependency continues and rural infrastructure falters, maybe we should all be walking these paths and writing bad poetry while we still have the chance? In less time than has passed since Edward Thomas, Robert Frost et al. were walking here, who knows what these landscapes will look like as a consequence not only of changing weather patterns and climate but also resource depletion and population explosion.

On the way home, I’m really hungry. I only brought a small sorrel and beetroot salad with me (no cheese or oatcakes), it’s 7 pm and I’ve walked about 17 miles, 5 more to go. Then I see on the side of the road a whole broad bean plant that’s been pulled up and dropped (by a creature? off a trailer? I’m not sure). Some of the pods are broken, but some are intact and I liberate the beans. Vegan roadkill, I think. At a green activists’ event earlier in the year, I’d been speaking on a forum about local food, revealing my epiphany that I’d suppressed my ethical concerns over killing animals to eat in favour my environmentalist understanding that pasture-fed (and finished) meat was a more carbon-neutral form of local protein (and very likely also a healthier one, than grain-fed meats). A vegan member of the audience had disagreed: with enough planning, she said, we were more than capable of growing enough beans to make enough protein to feed ourselves locally and ethically. The beans dont give me much oomph, but in my ongoing unease with eating meat and dairy, I wonder if she’s right.

My how you've grown, maize Maize at Warren Farm Dexter cow Ford at Brockmoor Farm Ford at Brockmoor Lane Hay Wood Stop the cull M50 footpath tunnel Lake at Timber Hall Farm Boyce Court Slow sign, Dymock Slow signs, Dymock Dymock Poets Path II Dead rat Dymock poets path again Charles Martell cheese Pears at Hunt Court Lintridge Green Put the money in the pipe Morris Men Beauchamp Arms, Dymock Lake at Boyce Court

What I think about when I walk about talking

Capler Camp trigpoint

A walk back from Caplor to Lea. It’s a rite of passage: having lived at Caplor for a decade but moving to Lea, I’m leaving home and walking home at the same time. It’s a walk I first did back in early January, and repeated a week or so later in thick snow. Now I’m carrying strawberries and wearing shorts and sunglasses.

I’m carrying the strawberries (from Holme Lacy, purchased at the Caplor Farm Shop) because I can’t fit the punnet in my rucksack. It’s annoying, carrying them in my hand, so I’m attempting to eat them, but I don’t feel that hungry. What a conundrum: to carry in my hand or my stomach? It reminds me of something our fitness trainer once told us in dance training, that our stomachs are as big as our two hands cupped together, and that this is the amount we should eat in any one meal. Suddenly that makes even more sense: surely as naked, unpocketed, unrucksacked hunter-gatherers, we would only have been able to eat as much as we could carry in our cupped hands?

Yesterday, I bumped into friends in the Rocket Cafe in Hereford. I explain the project to them and they ask ‘what do you think about then, when you’re walking?’. They want to know if I remain constantly conscious about what I’m doing – the wider, activist ethos of the performance – or if my mind wanders onto other things. It makes me smile because only yesterday morning I was furiously composing an email rant in my head.

The relationship between walking and thinking, walking and writing, running and thinking has been so often discussed – and far more articulately and sophisticatedly than I can hope to – that I’ll leave it to the experts. But, while in my own practice I like to think I’d be able to keep the intention of the walk and the overarching performance running through my head, inevitably the rest of life intrudes. (To empty my head, I speak phenomenally long to-do lists into my phone and that seems to help.) That said, I’m so often passing through fields of food crops, there are constant visual, aural (rustling wheat and barley, tractors droning in the distance, cows snuffing and huffing as I pass), tactile (maize leaves whipping my face) reminders of what I’m doing which serve to tether my attention to food and farming.

Poppies in the oilseed rape Raspberries at the Falcon 1 Raspberry scrumping Leaf A trout? Caple Forge Cobrey land as far as How Caple Purple crop? Clouds over Lea Harvested and ploughed since I passed yesterday

Slow activism gone viral?

Cobrey berries

A day at home walking dogs, feeding the horse.

A daily commitment to the animals is easy to incorporate into a life practice. A domestic commitment to and existence with other humans is more difficult to interface with a performance practice, I am discovering. When I first performed this score, I was living alone. I was encountering – socially and otherwise – lots of other people. But the duration and nature of our encounters provided a frame – an imaginary minimalist conceptual proscenium arch – through which I could perform and they could observe. There was a great deal of curiosity, interest, sometimes concern, and sometimes antagonism about what I was doing. But once I was alone, I was alone with the score and I adhered to it rigidly. I had a commitment to the practice.

I didn’t even eat salt.

Now I am living with others – my partner, his son – and the frame has shifted and there are reluctant co-performers inside it. While I know there is a fundamental respect for what I do and am doing, there is also a concern for my well-being and a healthy, affectionate amusement with the whole concept of conceptual eco-art. They want to support me at the same time as they want to subvert the score, which is ultimately compromising me. And my hunger doesn’t take much persuading.

So I’m finding it hard to adhere to rules #2 and 4 of the score when I’m surrounded by the concern as well as the food of others. I’m also an inherently polite activist: I don’t want to be rude or ungrateful. The other day, Callum walked the 5 miles back from Ross-on-Wye with a bag of food from a specialist local-food delicatessen Truffles. Concerned that I was ‘walking everywhere eating nothing’ and with some time to spare, he’d been in, explained what I was doing and bought as much local produce they could determine was grown within walking distance: strawberries, blueberries, raspberries from Cobrey Farm, cheese and spinach pie with ingredients from Newent and they’d even thrown in a small quiche in sympathy with the apparent craziness of what I was doing. He’d got them to write down where everything came from ‘so you’d believe me’ and then he’d walked home from Ross, ‘so it wouldn’t compromise the rules’. It was really touching. So, there was no way I was going to point out that the pastry of the spinach pie was made from flour that undoubtedly was milled if not grown outside the county. I ate it and it was delicious.

It also made me think, on a carbohydrate high, that maybe it’s these conversations that people are having about what I’m doing – even if that’s expressing consternation about craziness – that are what the practice is about. If the score is intended to provoke thought and conversation, then it doesn’t matter who’s having those conversations or why, does it? In fact, it’s even stealthier than I thought : slow food-slow activism gone viral (in a rural kinda way)…

Truffles goody bag

Activism in tracktivism 2

Walk don't drive

Once upon a time, I walked around the Welsh countryside and talked to people about landscape, life choices and climate change. It was an activism-by-stealth because it was a sharing of political ideas (mine and other peoples) in unexpected places (rural landscape) via the conviviality of conversation, sometimes recorded sometimes not. Then I renamed and reframed this tracktivism, an overtly activist practice, and immediately the doubt set in, as I pondered in Activism in Tracktivism? last week.

As I said then, thinking of what I do and re-imagining contemporary activism through ‘gestures’ has been really helpful to me. But what I hadn’t considered, in the context of All in a Day’s Walk specifically, was how this performance could be considered a protest gesture in and of itself through exercising and publicising my right to exist and subsist outside of our broken down rural food infrastructure and the dominance of and dependence on supermarkets, or indeed  motorised transport which is the usual refrain from people living rurally. For this I must extend a huge thank you to Laurence Malt for this Mask – Part 2 blog yesterday. I agree that it’s not a sustainable gesture – and the idea of sustainable activism that creates sustained not temporary change is an important one to me – but I’m empowered by the thought that it’s subversive in its own, domestic, pedestrian way.

Fasting, foraging and food theft

Beans

An incredibly hot day and a walk up May Hill with Rachel and the dogs. (By the evening, the garden thermometer has recorded a maximum of 39 degrees Celsius. In the vicinity of the shed, that is.) On the way out of Lea, the first fields of the footpath are full of dwarf beans. Hungry for something more stodgy and sustaining that salad, I feel like taking some but don’t want to steal. It makes me wonder, as I haven’t before, if food theft is a problem in the UK. Do people steal food straight from the field? As a child I remember occasionally scrumping apples or damsons from branches overhanging a hedgerow onto a footpath or road. But, always having had enough money to buy food of one kind or another, this was for pleasure or naughtiness, not necessity. It’s never occurred to me that some people might be so desperate, even here and now, to feed themselves or their families that they have to go out and forage or steal.

Talking of foraging, back on the first day of the project, I was ‘virtually introduced’ (via email from mutual acquaintance Roz Brown of the Mid-Wales Permaculture Network) to JoSh Rogers who, very coincidentally, is spending July only eating foraged or otherwise found food and spending no more than £1 a day on his everyday life. (This is part of an ongoing series of month-long projects, life challenges and experiments, as recorded in his excellent and very honest vlogs.) This is far, far more hardcore than this ‘performance’ of mine (it makes me feel pretentious even using the word), especially when he’s doing it on top of his everyday (physical) work as a gardener and commuting to work.

And, while we’re on the hardcore fasting front, it also occurred to me earlier in the week, that it’s very coincidentally Ramadan. (I seem to have a knack of accidentally coordinating my projects with key events in the religious calendar.) Then, reading about religious fasting, I was alerted to the Guantanamo Bay hunger-strikers and led me to this very disturbing, important protest video made by the charity Reprieve. In it, US actor and rapper Yasiin Bey volunteers to be filmed undergoing the same force-feeding technique that is being used on the hunger strikers. It is intensely humbling and my nausea (and shame that I couldn’t even watch it all the way through) makes me dismiss my grumbling middle-class stomach immediately.

Against all this my ‘polite’ activist art (and dog-walking) in idyllic rural Herefordshire is pretty pathetic.

Respect y’all.