Podcast Episode 6: Walking-With Place

WalkingLab’s podcast series on walking research-creation aims to distill WalkingLab publications and content into audio form. In this podcast you will learn more about the concept of place, including: critical theories of place, more-than-human theories of geology that unsettle the distinction between living and non-living matter, Indigenous knowledges that centre Land, and a post-human critique of landscape urbanism.

Walking-with place

Welcome to WalkingLab’s podcast series on walking research-creation. This series aims to distil WalkingLab publications and content into audio form. In podcast #5 in this series, listeners were introduced to the Queer Walking Tour as a way of doing place-based research. In this podcast you will learn more about the concept of place, including: critical theories of place, more-than-human theories of geology that unsettle the distinction between living and non-living matter, Indigenous knowledges that centre Land, and a posthuman critique of landscape urbanism. The WalkingLab queer walking tour Stone Walks on the Bruce Trail: Queering the Trail will serve as an example. WalkingLab is co-directed by Stephanie Springgay and Sarah E. Truman. You can find more information at walkinglab.org. While not necessary the podcasts are designed to be listened to while going for a walk. For this walk we suggest a walking or hiking trail.

I’m Rebecca Conroy, artist and researcher and I will be your host today. 

WalkingLab organizes international walking events, conducts research with diverse publics including youth in schools, and collaborates with artists and scholars to realize site-specific walking research-creation events. WalkingLab acknowledges the traditional and unceded territories on which our work takes place. WalkingLab is accountable to  Dylan Robinson’s insistence that land acknowledgements often operate from a politics of recognition and perpetuate settler colonial logics rather than disrupt them. As will be introduced through the podcast series WalkingLab asks walkers to consider where they are coming from in relation to Indigenous peoples and territories where they live and work, and to consider why a land acknowledgement is important to them.

Place is a fundamental part of walking research. WalkingLab has identified five threads where place is mobilized in walking studies : 1) the walking interview; 2) pedestrianism; 3) walking tours and ethnographic research; 4) mapping practices; and 5) landscape and nature. This podcast takes up the landscape and nature thread. You can read about the other threads in the book Walking Methodologies in a More-than Human World: WalkingLab.

Conventional usages of the word ‘place’ mean a specific, fixed location, such as the city of Mumbai, or the corner of Haight and Ashbury. Feminist scholars, such as Doreen Massey, have shifted the ways in which we understand place as something fixed and static, to place as a set of relations between humans, non-humans, and the environment. 

Place often appears in walking research in the context of walking in nature. In many instances nature is often figured as separate to culture, wrapped up in settler-colonial nostalgia for an empty wilderness that never existed, and caught up in a neoliberal health agenda that is tied to Whiteness. Critical disability scholar Alison Kafer argues that nature reserves and hiking trails are shaped around normativity, specifically a compulsory neurotypicality and able-bodiedness. Normative understandings of able-bodiedness suggest that particular bodies are necessary in order to overcome the separation between nature and culture. Kafer’s analysis describes not only the ways that disability is understood as ‘out of place’ in nature, but how access is framed as being against environmentalism. For example, she discusses how environmental activists often argue that non-normative bodies and their support systems, such as wheelchairs, are harmful to fragile ecosystems, while paths cut for able bodies seem not to be. In this way, abled bodies are seen as natural and disabled bodies are understood as unnatural.

Eve Tuck and Marcia McKenzie argue that place-based learning and research is entrenched in settler colonial histories and territorialism, and does not sufficiently attend to Indigenous understandings of Land. Tuck and McKenzie contend that place privileges settler perspectives that maintain distinctions between nature and culture, and where land is merely a backdrop. Moreover, the emplacement of certain bodies often relies on the legal and political replacement of the Native by the settler, through property rights, forced removals, residential schools, sustained and broken treaties, adoption and resulting ‘apologies.’ 

Finally, place in walking studies has rarely taken into account how human bodies and geologic bodies are co-composed. Kathryn Yusoff asserts that discussions about the Anthropocene, the geological era shaped by human-initiated environmental degradation, marks the human as both affecting geology and affected by it. Yusoff’s concept of geosociality is the enmeshment of bios and geos, which expands notions of agency, vitality, politics, and ethics beyond human and non-human organisms to include non-organic matter. 

With these critical insights in mind, in the next section of the podcast we examine a WalkingLab queer walking tour.  

Stone Walks on the Bruce Trail: Queering the Trail was a WalkingLab queer walking tour, that unfolded along a 9-kilometer section of the Chedoke to Iroquoia Heights walking trail in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. [https://www.google.com/search?client=firefox-b-e&q=pronouce+Iroqouia+]

This trail is part of the 900 Km Bruce Trail that follows the edge of the Niagara escarpment. WalkingLab opened the walk with a pop-up lecture on the history of walking, and introduced notable critiques of trail walking that privilege fitness and health: these critiques were touched upon in podcast #4. Further along the trail, in a grassy meadow, WalkingLab spoke about their use of the term queer, and its implication for thinking otherwise about walking-with practices. As highlighted in the podcast #5, WalkingLab uses the term queer in various senses, including attending to sexuality and gender identity, and defamiliarising established assumptions. Margaret Somerville suggests that, in the same way that LGBTQ+ experiences subvert the gender binary that structures heternormativity, queerness may also destabilize the nature/culture binary that structures humanism. In this way, Walkinglab’s Stone Walks on the Bruce Trail: Queering the Trail queers the nature-culture binary, demanding a different orientation to human and more-than-human entanglements.

Katherine Wallace, a geology professor from the University of Toronto, gave a pop-up lecture about the formation of the trail, noting that where participants were walking was once under an ancient tropical sea closer to the equator. She added that the escarpment has undergone more change in the past 100 years than in the previous 9000 years because of human activity, such as quarrying and highways. Wallace’s lecture impressed on the walkers that geology, while typically thought of as fixed and stable, is in fact under constant change. 

Yusoff contends that we must understand ourselves as geologic subjects: not only in the ways that we have acted on the earth and extracted use-value from the land, but that humans are geologically produced. Yusoff evokes the term geosocial to call attention to the ways that the geological and the social are knotted, while also attending to different geologic scales. While the earth has typically been understood as a geologic surface upon which social relations occur, geosociality for Yusoff, insists on the imbrication of geological formations and social formations. In other words, both are materialized simultaneously.

Both Wallace and Bonnie Freeman, an Indigenous scholar from McMaster University, gave pop-up lectures that spoke about the layers of rock as stories. These stories are told through traces of water ripples, ancient critters, and fossils that make up the different sedimentary rocks, and also stories of human and nonhumans who have lived with the land. 

Indigenous scholar Kim Tallbear reminds us that while current scholarship influenced by post-human ideas such as Yusoff’s geosociality has asked questions about the agency of inorganic matter, Indigenous peoples have long thought about the vitality and sentience of nonhuman entities, including stone. She contends that the problem with settler thinking is the way it attaches agency and liveness exclusively to white humans. The consequences of white-centred humanism is that different human and non-human entities are as such considered less-than-human or inhuman. 

Freeman’s  pop-up lecture described her walking journeys with Indigenous youth and place-based knowledge that is Land-centred. She noted that place-based knowledge is knowledge that we receive from and with the Land, and that this knowledge is also collective and relational. She talked about Indigenous guardianship of Land, which comes in the form of interaction with Land, not just care and maintenance of Land through systems of colonization and control. Freeman stated that as we “continue to speak and act upon the land it becomes a reciprocal relationship to us – an active engagement that maintains a balance within all things.” Walking, she noted, was an important part of place-based knowledge. “We learn as we walk,” she said. 

In a heavily forested section of the Iroquoia Heights Trail, Kanien’keha:ka [Pronounce. kgah-nyen–kgeh-hah] scholar Kaitlin Debicki gave a pop-up lecture about a methodology she developed of reading trees. Debicki follows Aninishinaabe scholar Vanessa Watts in arguing that the earth has agency, and that human agency is an extension of that agency. Similarly, Debicki contends that trees don’t simply grow out of or on the land, they are Land. Walking, then, happens with rather than on Land. In the final section of the podcast the artist collective TH&B’s contributions will be discussed alongside the concept of landscape urbanism.

Towards the end of the walk, participants emerged from the forest at the top of the trail, on an expanse of land populated by rusty fences, course grasses, and a soaring electrical pylon. TH&B, a collective of four artists from Hamilton, Ontario named after the former Toronto, Buffalo, Hamilton railway, had pushed and pulled a heavy blue wooden crate on wheels along the trail with the walkers. Arriving at the clearing, TH&B opened the crate, tipped it on its side, and proceeded to roll out a very large boulder, announcing the inauguration of the TH&B park. On the boulder was a metal plate in the form of the TH&B insignia. TH&B talked about how their projects investigate the entanglement of the post-industrial with the natural: for instance, how recent scientific research has shown that rocks often contain evidence of industrial waste. Their work ruptures the nature-culture binary, entangling together industrial symbols and objects with place. 

TH&B’s performance throughout the day had occurred along a section of a former Electric Railway that ran along what was now the Bruce Trail. The railway was blasted out of the escarpment in 1906 before being closed in 1931 and eventually transformed into a hiking and biking trail in 1996. The trail is similar to other urban efforts to re-naturalize de-industrialized space, often referred to as landscape urbanism. Dominant urbanization ideologies argue that re-designing former rail lines or hydro corridors into green spaces and public parks increases health and social benefits, public art and cultural innovation, and adaptive re-use of space. Despite such rewards, landscape urbanism functions as a normalizing process based on racialized, classed, ableist and heteronormative ideologies that co-opt conservation in order to ‘clean-up’ and ‘push out’ different populations, and maintain settler colonial heteronormative elite spaces. Likewise, green restoration movements typically regulate the types of people and behaviours that use the trails, and obscure the space’s industrial legacy.

Engaging with the types of tensions that emerge in landscape urbanism, Randy Kay gave a pop-up lecture on the many uses of the Bruce Trail, including those living on the margins of society who occupy side trails in tents or even small caves, and youth who gather around unauthorized campfires. Kay intersected environmental issues with race and class, asking walkers to consider who is displaced by restoration projects. Kay’s talk highlighted the geosocial and political violence of landscape and its complicity with dehumanization.

Thinking place as geosocial and as Land demands a consideration of the earth where we walk and public parklands not as commodities to be owned, used, and managed by humans for extractive profit but rather as relational. While the movement to re-green, re-wild or retreat from post-industrial areas can be seen as climate positive, landscape urbanism and conservation continue to maintain distinctions between life and nonlife and are invariably human-centred. Moreover, they continue human mastery and control of nature’s wildness and so portray landscapes as inert. Instead of a retreat from former indisutralisted space, Stacy Alaimo would insist on an ethics of inhabitation. This inhabitation is not occupation, but rather a form of ethical action that arises from recognising one’s material role in a larger more-than-human network. As Alaimo states, “being materially situated in place holds in it possibilities that do not neatly replicate or privilege traditional geographic patterns of geometry, progress, cartography, and conquest”. 

Stone Walks on the Bruce Trail aimed to intervene in the ways that place in walking research does not take into consideration geology, Indigenous knowledges of Land, and critiques of landscape urbanism. Tuck and McKenzie maintain that place typically describes the surface upon which research happens and where data is collected. Stone Walks on the Bruce Trail: Queering the Trail sought to queer walking-with by: bringing issues of the geologic and Indigenous knowledges of Land to bear on walking research, place, and the Bruce Trail; challenging landscape urbanism’s re-naturalization and restoration, which continues to bifurcate nature and culture, human and inhuman; and queering the ‘natural’ beauty of the trail through artistic interventions as natureculture happenings. Walking-with place insists on a relational, intimate, and tangible entanglement with the lithic ecomateriality of which we are all apart.

Thank you for listening to WalkingLab’s podcast series on Walking Research-Creation. Don’t forget you can find print publications and references on their website: walkinglab.org. Subscribe to the RRS feed so you can be notified whenever a new podcast drops!

 WalkingLab is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.