Unpacking (after) a coyote walk 4

Improvisation, notes on group walks

Walking accommodates. It’s something of a go-to form for socially engaged art, perhaps because extra people can easily come aboard. It is praised as an activity helpful for mind, body and soul. However this attractive approachability can pose a difficulty for those who plan group walks. Leaving the experience bare of a framework may feel too informal for organizers who have cultivated a particular audience, or those who desire to shape an art experience. On the other hand pumping in too much facilitation and programming in the structure of a walk can kill it, flatten it. The sense of meditation and awareness present while walking alone may suddenly become distant while in a group.


Setting a structure for each member of a group to enjoy the minute pleasures of a walk simultaneously can feel downright impossible for an organizer. There have been writers over the years who have argued that the true spirit of walking can only be found alone– or at least sans-conversation. It’s sometimes posed as an either/or equation. Either you have the discourse, or you have the reverie. However I’ve had a few experiences recently where a balance emerged between the two. This helped me see the group walk need not be thought of as a runner up in the experiential department. I should qualify– a group walk can easily be an intense social experience, bonding its members into a story. The question for me is more along the lines of “can a group walk retain a sense of personal meaning, as if it were itself an (art) object to be interpreted on an individual basis?”. My most recent experience of this sensation was on a thin twisting forest trail, again with family, my son taking the lead, I followed behind. I slowed my breathing to be able to hear better and I paid attention to the periphery of my sight. We were apart on the trail and conversation stopped. Each person seemed be in their own world, yet together at the same time. Then we re-engaged in conversation.


I’ve recently noticed two factors can help mediate a group-with-leader dynamic: the nature and existence of a trail, and the ability for each walker to improvise a personal flow between the various quotidian elements associated: breathing, moving, talking, seeing, listening, thinking. A trail, if it’s clear enough, allows for changes in leadership. I once led a silent walk in an area with a thin and inconsistent trail, at dusk. I decided to walk first, and a long line strung out behind me. At the end of the walk, one of the participants said it felt a bit “mother ducky”, which wasn’t necessarily meant as a jab, but stuck in my mind. The 2017 coyote walk consisted of 15 people walking for 3 days. The walk does not follow a single path, it changes between surfaces, roads and trails. This posed a challenge. I had never lead more than 10 people on a walk this involved and demanding. I had doubts about taking it on, but was eventually won over by the idea of embracing a larger solidarity possible with a larger group, especially in the light of a dismal political situation in the US.


A few images for moments that I sensed (from my perspective) a balance took hold:

  1. Walking a neighborhood street we encounter a patch of forest running alongside homes. I know from overhead maps that we can cross the forested area to a bridge running over a highway. After briefly scouting and discovering that no path exists, the group fans out. One walker connects with a faint trail and becomes the group leader. Discussion is focussed on practical matters, then slowly picking through the brush in quiet.
  2. After a long road walk, connecting with a long, level, and wide dirt trail. Without cars. Walkers float forward and backward in arrangement seeing new faces, since there are few questions about navigation.
  3. A silent walking exercise arranged by a participant on the 3rd day of walking. Feeling tired enough to be relaxed and receptive for purely witnessing, among others.
  4. We split into two “teams” for half of a day, taking two routes to camp. Moments of leaving and meeting.
  5. Allowing for expanded stopping time, sitting by a stream.


There are ways of encouraging scenarios that might allow for each person to interpret and act within a walk, but I don’t think there is a prescription. I am still developing a sense for what they are. Many techniques (such as the simple act of stopping) are context specific, relying on a sense of listening, luck or even improvisation. I most enjoy moments when I am at liberty to make and take meaning in my walk and to share that experience– even if it can’t always be put into words– whether acting as leader or participant. I’ll step away from this walking residency now. I’ve tried to put a few thoughts on walking and talking, walking and remembering, walking and community. etc. in relation to the coyote project. Walking and writing, now that’s the hard one!



Unpacking (after) a coyote walk 3

Practicing a walking place

As mentioned, I am writing my reflections on the 2017 coyote walk from a new home, across the continent, in Washington state. In contrast to New York City transportation here is highly centered around the automobile, though with plenty of pedestrian designated trails within reach, serving as destinations for recreation. I was able to take a long walk this past week, with family, on one of those trails, the Tolt Pipeline. It ran behind people’s homes and reminded me a bit of the Croton Aqueduct in NY, which we utilized in the coyote walk, having a similar ambience, width and of course following a water suppling pipe. My 3-year-old son was along with us. It felt like a first “no escape” walk with child– meaning we couldn’t simply opt out at any moment. He ended up riding on my shoulders for a good part of the time. After an initial period of considering whether or not to turning back (being faced with a big hill) we pushed forward and dug in for the duration. I was reminded of the comforts of a one-way long walk with other people. Stopping to look at things, snacking, negotiating, and spreading out along the trail (some people far out in front and some lagging behind) coming back to the central task at hand made for a traveling atmosphere that I recognized from the coyote walk. There was a great relief in recognizing that, for the time being, there were no other things we needed to do– or rather that everything we needed to do we didn’t need to do elsewhere. And that the walk would not end any time soon. The walking itself turned into its own place and social space. I think it is that place that I see dreams about the coyote walk.

In The Songlines, a semi-fictional account of a kind of ethnographic walking research project in Australia, Bruce Chatwin makes a case that the rhythm of walking, and of being carried by a walker has a resonance with children. It is inherent to the human experience. I wondered if the traveling atmosphere of a car has a similar reassuring effect, putting kids to sleep.

One of the participants in our coyote walk this year brought a short text by Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn as a starting point for a conversation, titled We Don’t Walk Alone in this recent short book

When we walk, we’re not walking alone. Our parents and ancestors are always walking with us. They’re present in every cell of our bodies. So each step that brings us healing and happiness also brings healing and happiness to our parents and ancestors. Every mindful step has the power to transform us and all our ancestors within us, including our animal, plant, and mineral ancestors. We don’t walk for ourselves alone. When we walk, we walk for our family and for the whole world.

While a doctor’s or lawyers “practice” might carry an air of professionalism or exclusivity, I am interested in the term practice as a way to accommodate missteps and mistakes, of doing something over again without necessarily knowing the best way to do it. The 9 different paths over 9 years walking a coyote-like route out of New York City were practice. While they had public facing elements in which research was presented and others were invited to walk along, they also served as a way to personally understand my home– geographically and otherwise.

In search of a new practice in/of/for a new place…


Unpacking (after) a coyote walk 2

I included the phrase “inoperative ecology” in my previous post thinking of Jean-Luc Nancy’s idea of an “inoperative community”. In the book by that name he brings up an idea of a community-revealed-in-death (as opposed to one constructed-as-a-project). The project he is initially referring to is a larger societal one, communism, though it can be extended to other purposeful social structuring. Nancy notes a seemingly universal sense of loss and nostalgia around the notion of community: a sense that we have fallen out of a real communal existence somewhere in the past and into the disharmony of our sticky modern situation. The lost closeness and tragedy of separation is particularly connected to a Christian idea, the sharing of a body. Nancy dispels the notion that such a pure state ever existed, instead insisting that community is only what happens to us when we are faced (and particularly lose a member to) the limit of social existence– existence in general– the black gulf of death. Community in this sense does not happen pre-emptively, or as a result of a social intention. And while he is speaking of human existence, we might look to a nostalgic image of St. Francis surrounded by animals, or an unsullied tribe in the rainforest living in harmony with nature to relate the idea of mythic lost community to a mythic lost ecology. It’s the sense of a community arising without a plan, out of necessity, and somewhat in condolence, that is helpful for my thinking through one meaning for our shared coyote walk. An inoperative ecology might describe a way of seeing piecemeal solutions and compromises the new natural world, one that is already flawed, impure. A mystery of human-animal relations revealed in death. For us, retelling of the story Hal the NYC coyote (who died after entering New York City) is a tool towards articulating the central condition of the project. In the three days of walking for/with/parallel to the animal new connections (a community? an ecology?) may or may not form.

The second night on the trail, after a long day, ending much later than planned, virtually finding a camping spot in the dark, holding together as a group under some degree of stress. People set up tents, eat hurriedly. One concerned walker asks for lights out, not wanting to be seen. In the darkness later, a bark. A bark that turns into a howl… I convinced myself I had finally crossed paths with this animal on this walk. But no one mentioned it the next morning. The consensus seemed to be that it was a dog after all. I feel a sense of nostalgia for the situation of the walk, knowing full well that we existed in a fairly exceptional, even unsustainable state.

I have had dreams about this walk. Especially in the months leading up to it. My dreams usually have to do with some halting action to momentum. Leaving late, forgetting things, forgetting people, having to pause the walk for a period of days. The halting only emphasizes the power of the pull away. The action of leaving. I am writing these posts from Washington State, my new home having finally left the territory of the coyote walk.

Nancy, Jean-Luc, The Inoperative Community. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991.
Chance Ecologies curatorial framework focussing on undesigned and postindustrial landscapes New York, website.


Unpacking (after) a coyote walk

Walking can be filled with words or left as it is, left as it was. In these posts for WalkingLab I will put a few words around a 3-day walk (as well as its preparations, and coalescing memory). The recently completed steps are part of a series called the Coyote Walk. This year, 2017, was its 9th annual occasion since early spring 2009. It marks the anniversary of the death of an unfortunate non-human urban wanderer who appeared years ago in New York City’s Central Park. Like this blog, our walk was framed as a kind of residency (an “itinerancy”). I acted as the administrator and 15 others walked along. Together we made a conversation in and of the landscape between the urban and the conserved/unplanned/wild. We began in Central Park and traced green space out of the city on foot, to a larger forested area. The walk was a slow transition out of the city.

A few images
Losing someone, a diner, a hole in a fence, low sun a miscalculation of time, seated on a grassy median, a branch hand-held so it doesn’t whip back.
A wretched smell downwind, a threatening flashlight, a small city of tents- one on asphalt.
Footprints, hawks overhead, fanning out for a path, feet submerged in cold water.

The story of the Northeastern coyote runs along side the project, as a narrative connection and conversation piece for those met along the way. Scat collection is a small practical tie in. Our group was able to collect 4 samples of what we believe to be coyote scat. One found off trail, in a park inside city limits. The scat will be contributed to the Gotham Coyote Project who study, among other things, the inevitable colonization of one of the largest un-coyoted landmasses in North America: Long Island. New York City is an obstacle in the path for this controversial and succesful species. Gotham Coyote analyzes scat DNA for information how coyote populations are moving.

Inoperative ecology
Over the years of making this walk, the initial circumstance that inspired it remained in view, thought not necessarily front and center. Call it the death of an animal at the hands of the city. Not a malevolent exchange, but maybe a tragic-comic myth (a beast transgresses town, is captured and taken to the wild, but drops dead upon its release). This walk has always been intended as a loose response. Recently a pet cat died, hammering home the strange relation we have with animal death: from pure emoting for a companion to callous disregard for the pest or the disconnected dinner.