Everything is Everything – Lauryn Hill

This came up on my iTunes shuffle.

As we exit 2021, winter is upon us but spring is on the way, let this be our inspiration for 2022.

Perfect example of art as a mode of exploration and expression of personal experience.

Lyrics

Everything is everything
What is meant to be, will be
After winter, must come spring
Change, it comes eventually

Everything is everything
What is meant to be, will be
After winter, must come spring
Change, it comes eventually

I wrote these words for everyone who struggles in their youth
Who won’t accept deception, instead of what is truth
It seems we lose the game
Before we even start to play
Who made these rules? (Who made these rules?)
We’re so confused (We’re so confused)
Easily led astray
Let me tell ya that

Everything is everything
Everything is everything
After winter, must come spring
Everything is everything

I philosophy
Possibly speak tongues
Beat drum, Abyssinian, street Baptist
Rap this in fine linen, from the beginning
My practice extending across the atlas
I begat this
Flipping in the ghetto on a dirty mattress
You can’t match this rapper slash actress
More powerful than two Cleopatras
Bomb graffiti on the tomb of Nefertiti
MCs ain’t ready to take it to the Serengeti
My rhymes is heavy like the mind of sister Betty (Betty Shabazz)
L-Boogie spars with stars and constellations
Then came down for a little conversation
Adjacent to the king, fear no human being
Roll with cherubims to Nassau Coliseum
Now hear this mixture, where Hip Hop meets scripture
Develop a negative into a positive picture

Now everything is everything
What is meant to be, will be
After winter, must come spring
Change, it comes eventually

Sometimes it seems
We’ll touch that dream
But things come slow or not at all
And the ones on top, won’t make it stop
So convinced that they might fall
Let’s love ourselves and we can’t fail
To make a better situation
Tomorrow, our seeds will grow
All we need is dedication
Let me tell ya that

Everything is everything
Everything is everything
After winter, must come spring
Everything is everything

Everything is everything
What is meant to be, will be
After winter, must come spring
Change, it comes eventually

Source: LyricFind

Songwriters: Lauryn Hill / Lauryn N. HillEverything Is Everything lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, BMG Rights Management

Rewilding on the Urban Fringe – A Proposal

Image – Edge of old peat cutting Walton Moss, Cumbria, UK.

A Proposal for working with art-making outdoors as a mode of discovery and discourse to support the process and practice of rewilding.


(I attended this excellent event A Natural Capital Lab on an urban fringe: challenges and possibilities on Jan 21st and made this proposal to work with art. To date no response to the proposal, but on reflection, I should have asked if there were any rewilding in the urban fringe projects currently running, or asked if anybody wanted to start one.)


My interest in rewilding on the urban fringe is prompted partly by my childhood living on the urban fringe in Derby, by my work in outdoor education which included two urban outdoor programmes and by my personal arts practice. I trained as a Drama and Movement Therapist, and guided by the principles of the arts therapies, most of my art making involves exploring and expressing my personal experience of the outdoors. I work with the outdoors as art and art as research.

This posting on my blog is presented as an invitation to conversation and collaboration. Art making as a mode of inquiry has many and deep connections to rewilding, particularly on the urban fringe.

I think there is scope for art making outdoors to be of use to the principles and practice of rewilding in the following ways.

  1. Art making has an affinity with the rewilding process and has the scope to facilitate personal insight into rewilding, in practice, in situ practically and intellectually.
  2. Art making can be used as a kind of performative research to explore and express personal experience as an adjunct and complement to quantitative and qualitative research.
  3. Art making, when undertaken guided by the principles of the art therapies, can promote a sense of attachment to place which can be mutually beneficial to the health of both the persons and places involved.
  4. Given mutual agreement, art made through outdoors as art activities, can serve as a catalyst for discussion, illustration and promotion of said activities and the persons and places involved.

Like the idea and practice of ‘Art’ the idea and practice of ‘Rewilding’ can be contentious. Both have some aspects which are not contentious. A fine art oil painting of a landscape is undeniably art, as the scientific data which is used in ecological sciences is undeniably an accurate account of the plants and animals in a community. But strong disagreements exist as to whether certain things can be classed as art, in the same way that strong disagreements exist about both the scope and value of rewilding.

In Practice as Research – Approaches to Creative Arts Enquiry. Edited by Estelle Barrett and Barbara Bolt, Professor Estelle Barrett, talking about art making as research in postgrad research says that art as research is subjective, situational, emergent and multidisciplinary. In the same book Professor Brad Haseman describes art based research as performative research.

My proposal is that guided by ideas and practices from arts education and the arts therapies, particularly when art is used as a form of enquiry or research, art as research acts as a useful mode of enquiry in situations that are subjective, situational, emergent and multidisciplinary. Core scientific data may still prevail in certain areas in which objectivity of material phenomena is required, but art making as enquiry is useful when we want to explore personal experience and subjective phenomena.

For example photography could be useful in work in which we are inviting people to explore and express where they think ‘wilderness’ begins and ends. This is even more so in the urban fringe. In a photo series called Northern Territories I explored the point where human managed space ended and wilder, less managed space started. In Local Internet, prompted by the work of James Bridle I explored the way that the idea of ‘The Cloud’ was still around us as a very concrete phenomena and totally crossed the boundary between online and offline spaces.

Art as research is very situational and personal but these ideas could be useful if used in other settings to help persons involved in rewilding produce images to prompt discussion about where they would draw a line between human and wild spaces.

In the arts therapies, in art making, and in art as inquiry the process is very important. One may have an intention for art making, but the final outcome, the art made is uncertain. This is similar to rewilding. In Urban Wilderness in Central Europe – Rewilding at the Urban Fringe, the authors Matthias Diemer, Martin Held, and Sabine Hofmeister say of rewilding ‘..for some ecosystems there are no clear conceptions of the composition or appearance of the future wilderness state.’1 Rewilding, like art, is a creative act. Working with art outdoors could be a way to help people understand that with rewilding, like adtr making, the outcome may not always be certain.

Just saying what art is, like saying what rewilding is is difficult because creative acts are, by their nature, difficult if not impossible to accurately predict. In pure scientific research, the capacity to predict an outcome and test it, is central. This is a source of vital information about some things that can be measured and predicted. Arts as research does not challenge this or contradict this. But with rewilding, predicting the path of secondary succession towards a state of preservation of a fixed final climax state is not always possible.

The artist John Cage talks about the creative act thus “When you start working, everybody is in your studio – the past, your friends, enemies, the art world, and above all, your own ideas – all are there. But as you continue painting, they start leaving, one by one, and you are left completely alone. Then, if you are lucky, even you leave.”2 In rewilding, in the end, even we leave in faith that the place can take care of making wilderness for itself. Rewilding may have a human hand at inception, the first brush strokes, but human hand leaves in the end. Nature is creative.

Frans Schepers and Paul Jepson say of working with rewilding as opposed to fixed conservation approaches ‘This conservation approach, which has been compared to restoring a painting that then needs curating, is at odds with the process-oriented ethos of rewilding and the uncertain ecological and conservation dynamics this entails… Rewilding is seen as a process rather than a state…3 ‘ The rewilding act is not that of restoring an old painting, it is the creation of a new painting.

We could see that as a mode of enquiry art making outdoors can help people look at what is wilderness and where it starts and ends, particularly in the urban fringe, it can help people experience rewilding as process and as an unpredictable creative act and provide access to understanding wildness through performative experiences, alongside quantitative and qualitative data.

  • rosebay willow herb

My experience of working with the outdoors as art and art as research has included both formal research and exploration of more personal experience. The use of art making as a form of enquiry is, I think, of most use as an adjunct to more formal quantitative and qualitative approaches. I think it invites a mode of working which, when guided by principles form the arts therapies and arts education can offer a degree of rigour of process. The arts generally have a long history of providing an outlet for expression and discourse.

All work is localised to the setting, the place in which the art making is taking place, and the artform and content subject to enquiry. Any work is, like the actual form the rewilding takes, open to a creative and thus unpredictable outcome. Nature, like art, can speak for itself. But two examples of how to work with the arts are presented which may illustrate the process in two specific settings. One is presented below, the other will follow and is part of a project I am doing in the Solway Firth.

On arrival at my current home, a neighbour told us about a flood which came down a ridge behind our houses and entered a friends kitchen. It seemed inconceivable at the time. There was no watercourse within a quarter of a mile of our houses. But during lockdown I went looking for evidence of the story. To my surprise I found a cloistered and culverted stream ran right where she said. It was invisible except for the occasional sound of water form under two large concrete slabs behind a garage and a vague path of dampness on a football pitch after heavy rain. On some maps a series of disconnected water features were shown, but on others they were entirely absent.

After a few days of rain, I went out with a camera to film the path of the water on the football pitch, when a dog walker called me over and we got talking. He confirmed the story. The flood happens 17 years ago and ruined his dads car when it entered the families garage. The then open stream was filled in by the council as a result of the flood. I found the path of the stream, mostly hidden but above the surface in three places in over it’s 2 kilometer course. I walked this with a GPS tracker to make a performance of it’s whole journey down to the River Irthing from a spring behind our houses. I discovered that this spring was on a feature that was was part of ‘Brampton Kame Belt’ ‘..one the largest glaciofluvial complexes within the UK.’ I liked the idea of a mythical stream existing only when it rained and wrote a story about this like it was a Norse Myth. I become very attached to to this elusive, nameless stream, like it is the local secret only locals know about.

I know that the ridge the flood water came from was left by the bed of a river that flowed over the melting glaciers that disappeared 10k years ago. I know that on rainy days I can follow the wet path in the football pitch that marks the now filled in path of a stream, or find a spot under willow tree behind my house that produces the unseen but clearly audible sound of rushing water. I used story writing and performance to connect with the stream in a more personal imaginal way. I developed an empirical and personal connection.

This empirical and personal connection together acted to bring a feeling of attachment. In childcare, attachment is defined as ‘the maintenance of proximity’, and is an important source of security for care-giver and child. Because art making outdoors connects me to place with both empirical data and personal experience I feel now feel more attached to this stream and thus to the place I reside. So whilst with regards to rewilding, empirical, ecological data is vital, a personal attachment to place may be something that could be mutually beneficial to place and person. Understanding place through both empirical data and personal experience could be an interesting way to help people involved with rewilding form attachments to place.

Many rewilding schemes exist in the UK. Many will be supported by volunteers. Volunteering is a great way to connect with and form attachment to place. Participants involved in rewilding schemes will be familiar with many ecological, data driven modes of understanding. Having done a BSc in Human Ecology I can see this is vital. But as an arts therapist and art maker I can see that art making, or at least an approach to enquiry rooted in art making has had many benefits for me.

Any form of engagement with place and particularly physical or embodied engagement forms attachment. My experience is that this attachment has helped me through lockdown. My art based enquiry has maintained my mental health. But what the arts involvement has done has taught me to be is open in my approach to the place I live. Open in the way I understand what is going on.

  • things from a different perspective

For rewilding, and particularly rewilding in the urban fringe, a mode of engagement with process, a mode of understanding rewilding in it’s contentious and unpredictable nature that is open could be advantageous.

A Proposal

Therefore I make a proposal for conversation and possible collaboration in exploring art making as a mode of enquiry, understanding and attachment to place, in support of rewilding in the urban fringe.

I live in North Cumbria and would love to work with people nearby in England or Scotland on an actual site, ideally in the urban fringe.

Beyond lockdown, I would also be interested in connecting with individuals who may be interested in working with the outdoors as art, to simply experiment and explore ideas and possibly form a means by which we could support each other in personal arts, health, educational, ecological or environmental practice.

Art making makes art. Be it visual art, music making, poetry, performance art, pottery, sculpture, whatever. Sharing and showing art made is valuable as a way of inviting discussion, illustration and promotion of place, process, project and person. Showing and sharing art made is the art as research equivalent of the scientific peer review. I evokes discourse. But personal witnessing of art making is central to the arts therapies. We cannot all be artists but we can all make art. For some people showing what they made is a terrifying proposal. But in some way personal witnessing is like wilderness. To be true wilderness, it may be that it is unseen by any eyes but the eyes of the people, plants and animals that live there. In the arts therapies, art made is seen by nobody but the therapist and the person or persons in therapy. What is shared is shared with consent.

If anyone is interested in a sharing a journey of exploration and discovery, a journey of uncertain outcome, like adventure, like rewilding, like art, please visit my blog at movingspace.blog and get in touch.


  1. Urban Wilderness in Central EuropeRewilding at the Urban Fringeby Matthias Diemer, Martin Held, and Sabine Hofmeister.  ↩︎
  2. john cage / score without parts  ↩︎
  3. Rewilding in the European Context  ↩︎

Solway Walk – Thinking and Reporting

Back in the world reflecting on the experience of art making.

On return home, my reflections on the Solway walk had a number of sources. I had my direct recollection of the place and the experience of walking around in circles, my gps tracks and my movie footage.

What was most immediate was direct recollection of the move from representation to improvisation of the image of an idea of experiential learning through art. What was interesting was that the return to the camera where I reflected that ‘I learned something about my model’ was partly an image in my head but mostly a feeling. The feeling was that the move from representation to improvisation was a feeling of change. It was not a rational thing.

I saw the footage and recalled that the pause in my speaking was me trying to connect with the learning. I had a vague ghost of an image and I was trying to visualise it. One source of inspiration about art as enquiry in post grad research came from the work of artist and academic, Dr Estelle Barrett1. She describes art as research as being a thing of ‘doing and the senses’. It is subjective, situational, emergent, multi-disciplinary and often non-verbal. I knew some change had taken place. By changing my experience of embodying my drawing of my idea, my idea had changed.

In my head what floated around was an image of a map of different experiences and interests with my walking path moving between them. On my return home I used a drawing app and made an image of I thought the map might look like. This is what I drew.

The drawing showed three elements. The looping line I had walked. This was my experience over time moving from one thing to another. Then the things I moved through over time, the art I made, other artists work as source material, art and learning theory, more structured research and reading and revisiting various ‘projects’ with a coherent theme. Then there was a n idea of my connection with the art making. I thought about it on the way in and out and reported on it. I have a journal and use sketchbooks for ideas and images. I became a witness to my own art making, and through reportage her, other people also witnessed what I made. The art making was characterised by mostly doing and the senses. I moved out of fully thinking mode.

Central to it was working with artform, which had a bit of all of the above, but had its own things to show and share. I felt a need to return to the central bit. What it contained I realised was always specific to the actual experience of artform at the time. I intend to try and map what happened in here on the day. On another day this would contain something different and something the same.

What emerged form this drawing, this thinking through doing and the senses, was not so much the act of art making I had put at the centre, but a realisation that the experience of art-making was inseparable from all the stuff going on in my life. The intention to make something as art at the centre still stood and like the walk on the beach, this making as enquiry makes itself. The art making has a mind of it’s own, the intelligence of material. And intention made the intelligence of many materials available. In this case the material was walking.

The experience of walking, and then dancing or performing the image was close to what I felt was my actual experience. But I had lots of stuff going on. I usually have a couple of art projects on the go, I have in mind the work of other artists and off other art works I had made, many of which involve walking. In many cases I did more formal reading and research or related ideas or phenomena, including academic research and writing. I experiment with different arts practices, with varying degrees of success. I reflect on art I wanted to make and my ability to do so. I make judgement on myself and my art making ability, and what I felt I ‘should’ be making and what I actually did make. Lots of stuff going on at a personal, intellectual, embodied and artistic level. Nothing is ever static, hence ideas in the original drawing of rhizomatic or adimensional knowledge.

My simple map image above came closer but it was a static image and the experience of the land depicted by the map was dynamic. A couple of things emerged.

1 – If a map were to be made to accurately represent the experience it would have to be local. It would have to show the things that were present in my immediate experience specific to the artform I was working on. The point of a map of a place is that it is specifically local. I was struck that the walk was specific to an actual place, but I was using it to make a map of a generalised idea about art making. This connected to a recurring theme.

Can you generalise about the experience of art making, create an image of that is replicable like I wanted to walk a replica of the image of an idea. Or does art making as a creative act and thus inherently improvised, mean that all art making is specifically local to the experience at the time? If we consider visual art, the art of image, the image has to be fixed. An image can only show a snapshot of an experience, but is can show insight into the personal processing going on with me in the experience. This has strengths and weaknesses.

2 – The move from a fixed image, from representation, to improvisation, to performance, opened the possibility of performance as a useful artform in which the artform was the experience. The film I captured of experience would show the walk as it happened. This would not be a snapshot of an experience. But this has limits. The point at which I moved to performance and I changed my ideas about my model and my art making would be present in the form, unless I added a commentary. But a picture is worth a thousand words. A image is a snapshot of an experience but it can show insight into my response to my experience.

Going from static to moving image.

From a static image I went to the movie footage with the intention of seeing if it could help me process my experience. I went to my movie footage and what struck me was the sound of the place I did the walk. I explored making a movie and to just show we wandering around in circles, but this did not appeal to me. A 20 minute movie of a beach with a man wandering about would not appeal to people viewing the footage either.

The duration was important and some artists have used the durational quality of movies to explore ideas. Andy Warhol famously made ‘Empire’, an 8 hour film of the Empire state building. It is boring but raises issues about how we experience and represent time.

But 20 minutes of me walking about was not what I wanted. I worked at speeding it up but lost the sound of the place. The movie below is my attempt at showing what the walk felt like out on the Solway, between high and low water, in feral space between human and wild spaces. To get the sounds of the experience listen with headphones. The soundtrack is from ‘Tu Non Mi Perderai Mai’ (You Will Never Lose Me) by Johann Johannsson and captured the feel of the walk.

As I write this it is now 2021. On viewing the footage what strikes me now is that I was totally mistaken over the date. I was a week out. The walk was the 18th of November. The desire to change the duration and speed up the footage also reflected a sense in which the walking a mile seemed to take no time. It was not boring and passed quickly. I also noticed that the movement of myself was reflected by a dog walker and the vehicles on the road. Over a month after the experience, this account or reflection of the experience shows me new things.

My belief is that the making of an art object that is between being both the experience and an account of the experience offers interesting opportunities to explore experience directly through art making. My research after my walk led on to two ideas from performance and post grad art as research which explore this idea of liminality and ambiguity between art as the experience and the account of the experience which I will cover in subsequent posts.

As a souse of reflection I also had my GPS tracks. I downloaded them and plotted them on various maps. I put the raw .gpx files into various apps or online mapping sites. One of the things I am drawn to is the way different maps tell you differne things about place you see on the map. I like Korzibski’s idea that ‘The map is not the territory’, both in terms of our experience of place, but in broader terms of consciousness. This is something I want to cover in posts about humanistic geography and the idea that we perform the outdoors as a place and an idea.

The mapping of .gpx tracks did not disappoint.

The idea that the image is a snapshot of moving experience was evident above.

Different mapping conventions show different things. I am fascinated with how using a map of a place before you visit colours your expectations and information about the place before you arrive and experience it directly. Also, if you go somewhere and look at the map on return, your direct experience dominates but you see new things.

it made me laugh to think that 6 hours later and my walking site would be underwater. Obvious retrospectively but it reminded again me that the Solway is never still and yet it is constant. Tides can be predicted with great accuracy, but never occur at the predicted time. A westerly wind will advance an incoming tide and hasten the time of a high tide. The spring tides always follow the full and new moon, two peaks a month. Neaps follow the moon as she moves from full to new moon. But the range of the springs, the height from top to bottom, vary over the year in a similar way to the month. We have two big springs a year. We have two big springs a month.

Working with the outdoors as art to explore and express personal experience can tell us about art, experience and the outdoors. I think offers interesting opportunities. But the outcome is never fixed in the way the tides are never fixed. We can say what we expect to happen, that at Silloth on the south Solway a spring tide of 9.24m will occur at 1306 on January 14th 2021, but in detail, what actually happens is always local. It is subjective, situational, emergent, an outcome of many factors. Subject to the weather and the sand, the lay of the land. My proposal is that the creative act, art making, is likewise. We start with a clear intention to paint a landscape that could be regognised as a representation of a real place, but the details of what we make is not fixed. It is a known journey of uncertain outcome, it is adventure.

The next two posts are about ideas form the arts about performance and the art object which may provide some academic and practice connections between art making and outdoor experiences.


  1. Practice as Research – Approaches to Creative Arts Enquiry. Edited by Estelle Barrett and Barbara Bolt. I.B.Taurus Press  ↩︎

Solway Walk – The Experience

The Experience of Walking an Image of an Idea about Art as Experiential Learning

Dubmill Point in Allonby Bay was empty and big. From the road to the low water line was about a kilometre. I chose a spot to walk in the centre of the image above, a low bank of hard sand.

Dubmill Point on the South Solway

My intention was to walk the image below; my sketch of an idea about art making as experiential learning. I wanted to recreate this as a walk on the beach. I would use gps to track the shape I made, and record the walk on camera, and see what happened when I moved an idea from one artform to another, from an image to embodiment. I would walk with intention, attention and attitude. I would then write about my experience, reflect on theories and practices from the arts and learning, and see where this took me next. In my model below I would follow up this experience of art making into reflection, inquiry, reportage and further art making. I would not only walk my talk I would walk my thoughts.

art as experiential learning model

I set up my camera so as to get as much of the walk as possible without me becoming a dot in the distance. I set up my GPS and found my central point, meant to be the ‘Art Making’ part of the image of an idea. I set off walking in big loops.

Music : overdub1 by Chris Reed

As I walked it I kept seeking to return to the centre point. At first I found I lost sight of the central point. This would mean my GPS track would not reflect my drawing, so I put a marker there, a bit of seaweed and started again. I treated this as a rehearsal, an initial loop round my experiential learning model.

I set off again to recreate my drawing. I walked a line, one foot in front of the other, but by passing through the central point, I also walked in wonky looping circles. I got into a rhythm, I started to pay attention to how this might reflect art making as experiential learning. The central point became the place I returned to, but the loops took me to different places on the beach.

After a while I started to develop a kind of relationship with the central point. It occurred to me that instead of just walking the shape of the image of the idea, I could do a big slow looping dance with the centre as my static partner. I trained as a dancer and wondered why I had not thought of this before.

In the moment of being in moving as an artform, in the intelligence of that material, in witnessing my doing and the senses, it felt like this had significantly changed the experience. I found a freedom from mere representation, from figurative form, and improvised a new form. It became performance. Through this experience I learned a new thing about my art making practice.

All in all it was a quick and easy thing. It took me about 20 minutes to walk a mile. There is quite a strong tradition of walking as art and performance art in outdoor settings. These forms are interesting in that they are durational, the art making only happens when the person is walking or performing. The experience may well be documented through film, photography or other forms, but it is unlike a painting in which the artform exists after the making it. The artform is the experience. Performance based arts are very experiential and offer interesting opportunities for experiential outdoor learning. But Mark Rothko stated that the art, even a painting, is the experience.

This is something I want to explore further. If the art is the experience, and we work with the outdoors as art, the art we make outdoors can tell us not only tell us something about outdoor experience, it can be the outdoor experience. We make something that is outdoor experience. This interests me a great deal.

Doing strange things in the name of art, like walking around in circles on beach may seem meaningless, but often I find that the most important learning comes out of what seems to be the simplest most meaningless experiences, or experiences that seem to have many different meanings. Ambiguity is important.

Walter de Maria, made action-art and land-art, only available when experienced directly in the outdoors. He said…

“Meaningless work is potentially the most important art-action experience one can undertake today”

…but also

Any good work of art should have at least ten meanings.

Walter de Maria 1968

See video here

Read article here

But my intention was to use this to explore my model of art as experiential learning, and at the time what struck me was that by changing from walking the shape of an image of an idea, to performance, dancing, improvising the idea directly in the space, my model changed, and so did my idea about art as experiential learning.

The image that immediately came to mind was my life as a map with different experiences and interests, different places, other artforms made, with the artform I am currently working on as the one with the closest proximity to where I was at the time. In my next post I want to reflect and report on this aspect.

Solway Walk – Introduction

Towards a Model of Art as Experiential Learning

On November 18, 2020, I went to Dubmill Scar in Allonby Bay, the English side of the Solway Firth, to walk. I went to walk as art. Guided by the art therapies and experiential learning, I make art outdoors to explore and express personal experience. I work with the outdoors as art.

Most of my art making revolves around a series of place based projects. For this project on the Solway, I started with walking, but walking as a creative act. Walking in the space, I try to pay attention to what is happening with an attitude of openness to experience. I seek to be in the space as an experiment to see what happens rather than be in the space as a venue for activity. The art is the experience, and the experience is the activity.

This walk needed a large space with open access and no boundary fences, and at the bottom of the tide, briefly, the Solway has a lot of walking space. The Solway does this by being eternally transitory. It is always in a state between high and low tide. The border between Scotland and England, it belongs to nobody but the sea, the sand and the things that live there. These things need no fences or footpaths. I have been visiting the Solway for years. It is never the same twice. It is a space open to possibilities, and as such, a place of creativity.

For this walk, the space was needed to recreate an image of an idea I worked on previously on about making art as experiential learning. My background in experiential learning has introduced me to a number of models of how we learn from experience. In all of them, there is an image of simultaneous movement, around a circle and along a line.

Plan Do Review Cycle

Kolb’s Learning Cycle

Using this idea and image of learning from experience as a starting point I reflected on my own art making and drew a sketch of experiential learning with art making at it’s centre to see how it might look. I wanted to move this idea between artforms. Each artform has it’s own intelligence, and shows things from another point of view. It is used in the arts therapies and is called multimodal working. It is an interesting technique. To aid with this I decided to film the walk.

things from a different perspective

As a starting point for how a model of experiential learning from art may look, I drew this.

art as experiential learning

First draft of a model of art as experiential learning.

In this model the looping line is my passage through time, through my life. The central bit is my encounter with art making. When I make art I learn something and this loops out back into my life and informs my next round of art making.

There a sort of sequence to this. I think about making art, then witness and pay attention to what I am doing and my senses when I make the art. The art form, the material of the art making has an intelligence of it’s own which can tell me something. This is an idea from artist and research Paul Carter called the Intelligence of Material (IOM). As part of this I also engage in reportage of my experience, which is what I am trying to do here. Writing and reporting helps me understand what I am thinking. In formal art based research, this is called exegesis, meaning interpreting arcane texts.

At the time I was also thinking about Rhizomatic Knowledge from Deleuze and Guattari and Bubble Charts as I felt that my experience of art making had an adimensional or three dimensional quality, hence the images at the bottom

But the bit I wanted to work with were the big recursive loops through art-making and back into life, where I did more formal research of artform, ideas, the work of other artists, theories of learning or art-making. So off I went to the Solway, with it’s big unimpeded wide open spaces, always in movement between states, and thus ripe for creativity to walk this image of an idea about experiential learning.

It is difficult to create and analyse at the same time, so my intention was to be in the space and the moment, witness what happened when I was walking as art, then reflect and report later on moving an idea from an image to an act of walking.

Generally what happens is that what I learn through the experience of art making acts like a cascade of dominoes, expanding out into inspiration to new art making, connections to theories and practices of art making and learning and insight into place and personal experience.

Over a series of posts to my blog I want to follow the cascade of ideas and art-making that will come out of the walk, then curate the posts into a themed collection of ideas, practices, artworks, a bit like a magazine. Over time I want to do a series of magazines covering different topics relating to art, experience and the outdoors.

In the next post I want to describe what happened when I did the walk of an image of an idea about art as experiential learning.

Applying the Pathways to Nature Connectedness at Societal Scale

Finding Nature website

Posted on November 17, 2020 by Miles

The climate emergency and crisis of biodiversity loss show that the human-nature relationship is failing. The scale of these inter-related issues requires a new relationship with nature. Bringing about that new relationship with nature requires interventions and approaches that effect large changes at scale across society. In our latest paper we propose an approach to creating a new relationship with nature at a societal scale based on improving nature connectedness using a framework called the ‘pathways to nature connectedness’. The paper published open access in Ecosystems & People suggests how the pathways can be applied at various leverage points across policy areas such as education, health, housing, arts, health & transport. It’s a long read at around 10,000 words, so this blog presents a summary of some key aspects.

What is nature connectedness and why does it matter?

The psychological construct of nature connectedness describes an individual’s relationship with nature. It can be increased through carefully designed interventions to prompt engagement with nature – such as noticing the good things in nature. Nature connectedness matters because it brings benefits for both humans and nature; it is a causal factor in improved mental wellbeing, increased pro-environmental behaviours and pro-nature conservation behaviours. The evidence of the benefits to wellbeing is such that it is argued that nature connectedness is a basic psychological need. The importance of the construct is further illustrated by proposals for its inclusion in the Gallup World Poll (GWP) which has an international reputation as a tool for global decision-makers.

Calls for ‘reconnection with nature’ have increased, but have been vague, with fragmentation around what nature connection is and with little concrete guidance towards achieving societies that are more connected to nature. The psychological construct of nature connectedness helps with the current diversity of approaches to understanding people’s connection with nature. It provides a measurable focus within this fragmentation, with an evidence base of benefits to the wellbeing of both people and nature.

Introducing the Pathways to Nature Connectedness

The pathways to nature connectedness provide a typology of activities that provide a methodological approach for improving human-nature relationships through targeting and increasing nature connectedness – you can find a summary of the 5 pathways (sensory contact, emotion, beauty, meaning and compassion) on this postcard, but briefly they are:

·       Senses: Noticing and actively engaging with nature through the senses. Simply listening to birdsong, smelling wild flowers, or watching the breeze in the trees.

·       Emotion: Engaging emotionally with nature. Simply noticing the good things in nature, experiencing the joy and calm they can bring, and sharing feelings about nature with others.

·       Beauty: Finding beauty in the natural world. Simply taking time to appreciate beauty in nature and engaging with it through art, music or in words.

·       Meaning: Exploring and expressing how nature brings meaning to life. Simply exploring how nature appears in songs and stories, poems and art, or by celebrating the signs and cycles of nature.

·       Compassion: Caring for nature. Simply thinking about what we can do for nature and taking actions that are good for nature, such as creating homes for nature, supporting conservation charities and rethinking our shopping habits.

Rather than a detailed model, the pathways present five overarching types of relationship involved in improving nature connectedness. They can be applied at various points, from individual activities in nature, to nature engagement programmes, to the design of infrastructure and school curricula and beyond to improve relationships between humans and nature on a larger scale. In sum, the pathways provide clear direction of the types of relationship for society to foster.

The pathways research was based on Kellert’s (1993) nine values of biophilia. Five of the nine were pathways to nature connectedness, four were unrelated to nature connectedness. These were fear of nature, dominion over nature, utilitarian use of nature and a purely scientific relationship.

Nature is often seen as a resource (utility), or a source of challenges to conquer (dominion), or nature is presented in terms of facts and figures (science), or as a threat (fear of nature). These types of relationship are common, often emphasised within capitalistic societies and can be seen as essential pathways for human survival and progress that, unchecked, have led to nature’s decline – as shown by the red arrow in Figure 1.

The five types of relationship which form the pathways to nature connectedness are included in the green arrow which points towards improved nature connectedness and its benefits: pro-environmental behaviour, pro-nature conservation behaviour and mental wellbeing. Greater focus on the types of relationship with nature that promote nature connectedness can lead to a new, more sustainable, relationship with the natural world.

Figure 1. A graphical summary of the types of human-nature relationships, nature connectedness and their outcomes. Key: Pro-env. = pro-environmental (carbon & resource use reduction); Pro-nature = pro-nature conservation (wildlife habitat creation).

Societal relevance of the pathways approach

The application of the pathways has informed a successful large-scale campaigns (e.g. 30 Days Wild) and visitor experience programming (e.g. at the National Trust and Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust). However, a paradigm shift in human-nature relationships is required at a larger scale. But which of the five pathways have greatest societal relevance? The full paper discusses this in detail, but here’s a brief summary.

Figure 2. Types of positive relationship with nature and scale of relevance and leverage. The statistical importance for nature connectedness identified by Lumber et al (2017) is represented by the solid oval. The proposed scale of relevance is represented by the dashed oval.

The relevance of the pathways for individual and societal connectedness to nature, and their potential for application at deep leverage points (more on that later), is represented in Figure 2 which considers the location of connection/leverage points (X-axis) and scale of relevance (Y-axis) for the five types of relationship with nature found to be positive pathways to nature connectedness. Let’s consider the societal relevance of each pathways in turn.

Meaning is related to cultural aspects of our lives that have great resonance at a societal scale. This pathway relates to deeper relationships, the symbolic use of nature to represent ideas, and provides an opportunity for societal change. Cultural programmes could be focused on developing these deeper relationships with nature on a large scale – through the cultural celebration of our relationship with nature and renewed appearance of nature in cultural products – and fundamental societal systems such as health care for example.

Emotions can, and have been, targeted on a large scale (e.g. consumerism) and brought societal scale changes. Emotions are fundamental features of human function. As far back as 1928, Edward Bernays targeted people’s unconscious desires in order to manipulate people towards items they didn’t need – creating modern public relations through appealing to people’s emotions. These ideas helped develop consumerism and self-absorption in Western society.  Edward Bernays recognised the scale of relevance of emotion, using them to mould public desire, shaping a consumer culture and shifting social norms at a societal scale. Through public relations campaigns, emotions could change social norms to a situation where a good life is seen as a nature connected life, rather than a consumerist life. The recent shift from the desire for experiences rather than consumer goods provides an opportunity to promote pathways focused experiences, rather than basing them on dominion and utilitarianism.

Compassion. Although care for nature is an overall goal of a new relationship, Figure 2 suggests that the compassion pathway doesn’t necessarily present opportunities for deep leverage. This is because it is likely that other changes are required first. Those engaged with pro-nature conservation behaviours typically have higher levels of nature connectedness. So before engaging people with pro-nature conservation behaviours that can require personal commitment, there could be a need to increase connectedness through meaning and emotion. However, humans are a social species, our capacity for co-operation emerged from social connectedness and emotional bonds. Therefore, focusing on the similarity of people with nature, rather than focusing on developing concern for nature directly may function as a more effective societal leverage point. For example, research shows that anthropomorphism can drive nature connectedness. The similarity of people and the rest of nature as a common discourse, rather than consumptive and dominance frames are required together with the provision of more opportunities for people to care for wildlife everyday, for example through access to places where people can easily engage in pro-nature conservation behaviours.

Beauty is a strong theme when people are asked to notice the ‘good things in nature’ – however we know that the beauty pathway works together with other pathways, such as when deriving meaning or evoking emotions. So, it is likely that this pathway doesn’t lever transformational change on its own. Rather, beauty needs to be available for sensory contact and wider meaningful engagement with nature.

Sensory contact is a pathway that relates to interaction, therefore there is a need for engagement with a wide variety of nature – which is provided in accessible and everyday places. Of course easily accessible nature does not have to be engaged with, so there is a need to design places, campaigns and activities to prompt that engagement. Nature contact can have a large scale of relevance and bring societal impact on nature connectedness if the engagement is fostered – through cultural programmes for example. When sensory contact is prompted, for example, through noticing the good things in nature or campaigns such as 30 Days Wild, there is evidence of a positive and sustained impact on nature connectedness. These interventions and our other work also highlight that the pathways to nature connectedness rarely work alone. Sensory contact involves noticing beauty, it elicits emotions, brings meaning and can involve care for nature.

Nature Connectedness, System Characteristics and Leverage Points

A truly sustainable future will challenge basic assumptions on the organizing of a society. Leverage points (Meadows, 1999), consider the parts of the system where maximum impact can be gained from small changes. Meadows (1999) describes twelve leverage points from shallow places where interventions are relatively easy to implement, but less impactful on system behaviours, to deep places where interventions are difficult but can deliver transformational change. Abson et al. (2017) note the twelve leverage points fall into four broad groups:

  • The shallowest are system parameters, for example standards.
  • Next, interventions can target feedback loops, the interactions between system elements.
  • Third are social structures that manage feedbacks and parameters.
  • Finally, the deepest group are intentions, the underpinning values and goals that shape the emergent direction of a system.

Where can nature connectedness have greatest leverage? Where can the pathways approach be applied for maximum effect? There’s a more detail in the full paper, but here’s a few examples.

System intentions: values and goals

The values and goals of the system are the deepest leverage points and therefore most important – often simple to write, but most difficult to change. For example, take a look at the priorities of the UK Government’s Department of Education (Sept. 2020):

“We’ll develop world-class education with the following principles:

  • ensure our academic standards match and keep pace with key comparator nations
  • strive to bring our technical education standards in line with leading international systems
  • ensure that education builds character, resilience and well-being”

Standards and well-being are important – but there is no wellbeing without nature’s wellbeing. Revising these principles to include a goal for a sustainable relationship with nature would be a simple change of wording, but very difficult to achieve. Being a deep leverage point, it would though have a great impact on schools, curriculum and teaching.

More widely, facts and research evidence can help establish goals. For example, nature connectedness being four times more important for living a worthwhile life than socio-economic status could help make it a goal for some. However, values come from meaning, which can come from experiences, but also how nature is reflected in society, such as in our models of human well-being.  Formally recognising the value of a right to a close relationship with nature would be very powerful. For example, a close relationship with nature could be considered as a universal human right, similar to the right to family life and social connections. This deep leverage is difficult to achieve, but would be a major contribution to embedding a new relationship with nature through wider society.

System design: institutions and social structures

Social structures manage feedbacks and system parameters – these rules, incentives and constraints create the social environment. Given the climate and biodiversity crises, policy and organisational goals should acknowledge the need for a new relationship with nature. Nature connectedness can be coupled into structures as an institutionalizable target – it is measurable so the nature connectedness of the people an organisation works with could be a strategic priority with associated Key Performance Indicator (KPI). A strategic plan and intention to improve nature connectedness can adopt and apply the pathways to nature connectedness.

A strategic plan for nature?

System feedbacks: the extinction of experience

A key reinforcing feedback loop in relation to human-nature relationships is ‘extinction of experience’.  The on-going reduction in experience of nature permeates culture and society such that social feedback helps reinforce a social norm of reduced experience of nature. Increased urbanisation, especially when poorly designed, reduces the opportunity to engage with nature – reducing positive feedback. This is then reflected in cultural feedback, for example, the decline of references to nature in cultural products – which all adds to loss of orientation to engage with nature. There is potential to shorten feedback related to the five key relationships identified by the pathways, while disrupting feedback loops related to the four non-pathways relationships. This can include measures to strengthen feedback regarding the positive links between people and local nature and on the health of the natural world.

System Parameters: standards, policy and infrastructure

Standards, policy and infrastructure provide valuable but weak leverage points. Infrastructure is slow to change, however, policy can help show what is valued and also turns on or off the taps of funding. Policy change may be relatively ineffective in influencing behaviour, but can send a clear message on the types of behaviour that are favoured. Therefore, policy changes can contribute to the deeper paradigm shift required for a healthier relationship between humans and the natural world.

We present more details and recommendations in the full paper, there’s also some ideas in our New Relationship with Nature Briefing here.

Summary and Recommendations

The pathways to nature connectedness provide an important framework to help deliver solutions toward a new relationship with nature. It is proposed that the meaning and emotion pathways to nature connectedness can provide the deep leverage required to increase sensory contact. These three pathways have a large scale of societal relevance and the potential to provide solutions across a range of leverage points to foster closer human-nature relationships. Resulting interventions can also encourage people to engage with the remaining two pathways, to engage with nature’s beauty and to care for nature.

As a basic psychological need, nature connectedness should inform the values and goals of our systems for maximum impact on the human-nature relationship for a sustainable future. The pathways to nature connectedness provide a structured means to inform new societal and institutional goals. Using new narratives to highlight the meaning of nature to humans, such as models of health that unite wildlife and human wellbeing, can provide new values and desirable ‘system goals’. Approaches from mass-consumer persuasion through appealing to people’s emotions can also play a role in influencing values and goals on a large scale.

Changes in system values and goals inform the design of institutions and social structures for a new relationship with nature. As a measurable construct, nature connectedness can be a key performance indicator for institutions, such as those delivering health and wellbeing. Targets can be set and the pathways used to inform strategic plans. For example, including the enjoyment of nature in health and social care delivery.

To help create new social norms, a closer relationship with nature can be integrated into social structures with incentives, such as funding for cultural products and urban design informed by the pathways. More sensory contact, sharing of positive emotions, and structures that shorten system feedback along pathways to nature connectedness can counter the extinction of experience and renew the human-nature relationship. Feedback regarding the positive links between people and local nature for wellbeing, and on the health of the natural world can also be enhanced.

Standards and policy provide weak leverage points, but many opportunities to apply the pathways to nature connectedness. For example, education curricula can be informed by the pathways, transport policy can be used to promote pathways relationships and planning policy can help turn public spaces into places that prompt sensory contact, celebrate nature, and elicit positive emotions through engaging with nature. Arts policy should recognise the close links between cultural expression and the pathways to nature connectedness.

In sum, as humans we are deeply affected by emotions and stories with meaning. We want to believe our lives are worthwhile and meaningful. The power of emotions and trust in shared stories have been used to bring millions of people together, to create consumer culture and ultimately disconnect us from nature, damaging the natural world in the process. However, as a species, our story is nature and for a sustainable future, nature needs to re-emerge as the human story through societal values, social structures, feedback and policy. The pathways to nature connectedness provide a framework for improving human-nature relationships within that context.

Enjoyed this blog? Try reading A New Relationship with Nature: what it means and what we can do.

M. Richardson, J. Dobson, D. J. Abson, R. Lumber, A. Hunt, R. Young & B. Moorhouse(2020) Applying the pathways to nature connectedness at a societal scale: a leverage points perspective, Ecosystems and People, 16:1, 387-401, DOI: 10.1080/26395916.2020.1844296

Quote – John Berger on place and performance

It has always struck me as odd when people talk about the value of their home and then quote the price of their property without realising this tacitly tells me something about their own values.

Berger gets to the heart of the difference between place, a located set of values, and space, a location without values. We fill space with values and make it place, but the actual space does not matter. We acquire space and perform place. A theatre is an empty space until it is filled with people acting together, including the audience. Then the empty space becomes a place full of people just being together. But an audience is never passive.

Whilst this does not apply to just to the underprivileged, the street, like the web, is an easily accessible and very public space to enact theatre. Theatre and performance help us rehearse making place out of space. This process of theatre as making place has always taken place on the street, like BLM, but now includes the web, social media, TV, Netflix, Facebook, TikTok, Animal Crossing etc and as such new places will be made.

‘Zoom fatigue’ is taxing the brain. Here’s why that happens.

An interesting article from National Geographical about Zoom and what it does to your head.


ScienceCoronavirus Coverage

Video calls seemed an elegant solution to remote work, but they wear on the psyche in complicated ways.

The unprecedented explosion of video calling in response to the pandemic has launched an unofficial social experiment.

By Julia Sklar

PUBLISHED April 24, 2020

Jodi Eichler-Levine finished teaching a class over Zoom on April 15, and she immediately fell asleep in the guest bedroom doubling as her office. The religion studies professor at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania says that while teaching is always exhausting, she has never “conked out” like that before.

Until recently, Eichler-Levine was leading live classes full of people whose emotions she could easily gauge, even as they navigated difficult topics—such as slavery and the Holocaust—that demand a high level of conversational nuance and empathy. Now, like countless people around the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has thrust her life into a virtual space. In addition to teaching remotely, she’s been attending a weekly department happy hour, an arts-and-crafts night with friends, and a Passover seder—all over the videoconferencing app Zoom. The experience is taking a toll.

“It’s almost like you’re emoting more because you’re just a little box on a screen,” Eichler-Levine says. “I’m just so tired.”

So many people are reporting similar experiences that it’s earned its own slang term, Zoom fatigue, though this exhaustion also applies if you’re using Google Hangouts, Skype, FaceTime, or any other video-calling interface. The unprecedented explosion of their use in response to the pandemic has launched an unofficial social experiment, showing at a population scale what’s always been true: virtual interactions can be extremely hard on the brain.

“There’s a lot of research that shows we actually really struggle with this,” says Andrew Franklin, an assistant professor of cyberpsychology at Virginia’s Norfolk State University. He thinks people may be surprised at how difficult they’re finding video calls given that the medium seems neatly confined to a small screen and presents few obvious distractions.

Zoom gloom

Humans communicate even when they’re quiet. During an in-person conversation, the brain focuses partly on the words being spoken, but it also derives additional meaning from dozens of non-verbal cues, such as whether someone is facing you or slightly turned away, if they’re fidgeting while you talk, or if they inhale quickly in preparation to interrupt.

These cues help paint a holistic picture of what is being conveyed and what’s expected in response from the listener. Since humans evolved as social animals, perceiving these cues comes naturally to most of us, takes little conscious effort to parse, and can lay the groundwork for emotional intimacy.

However, a typical video call impairs these ingrained abilities, and requires sustained and intense attention to words instead. If a person is framed only from the shoulders up, the possibility of viewing hand gestures or other body language is eliminated. If the video quality is poor, any hope of gleaning something from minute facial expressions is dashed.

“For somebody who’s really dependent on those non-verbal cues, it can be a big drain not to have them,” Franklin says. Prolonged eye contact has become the strongest facial cue readily available, and it can feel threatening or overly intimate if held too long.

Multi-person screens magnify this exhausting problem. Gallery view—where all meeting participants appear Brady Bunch-style—challenges the brain’s central vision, forcing it to decode so many people at once that no one comes through meaningfully, not even the speaker.

“We’re engaged in numerous activities, but never fully devoting ourselves to focus on anything in particular,” says Franklin. Psychologists call this continuous partial attention, and it applies as much to virtual environments as it does to real ones. Think of how hard it would be to cook and read at the same time. That’s the kind of multi-tasking your brain is trying, and often failing, to navigate in a group video chat. Today’sPopular StoriesMagazineWhere have all the insects gone?TravelU.S. national parks could be privatized. Here’s what would change.ScienceThe pandemic may fuel the next wave of the opioid crisis

This leads to problems in which group video chats become less collaborative and more like siloed panels, in which only two people at a time talk while the rest listen. Because each participant is using one audio stream and is aware of all the other voices, parallel conversations are impossible. If you view a single speaker at a time, you can’t recognize how non-active participants are behaving—something you would normally pick up with peripheral vision.

For some people, the prolonged split in attention creates a perplexing sense of being drained while having accomplished nothing. The brain becomes overwhelmed by unfamiliar excess stimuli while being hyper-focused on searching for non-verbal cues that it can’t find.

That’s why a traditional phone call may be less taxing on the brain, Franklin says, because it delivers on a small promise: to convey only a voice.

Zoom boon

By contrast, the sudden shift to video calls has been a boon for people who have neurological difficulty with in-person exchanges, such as those with autism who can become overwhelmed by multiple people talking.

John Upton, an editor at the New Jersey-based news outlet Climate Central, recently found out he is autistic. Late last year, he was struggling with the mental load of attending packed conferences, engaging during in-person meetings, and navigating the small-talk that’s common in work places. He says these experiences caused “an ambiguous tension, a form of anxiety.”

If you’re feeling self-conscious or overstimulated, turn off your camera and save your energy for when you absolutely want to perceive the few non-verbal cues that do come through.

As a result, he suffered a bout of autistic burnout and struggled to process complicated information—which he says is normally his strength—leading to feelings of helplessness and futility. To combat the issue, he began transitioning to working mostly from home and stacking all in-person meetings on Thursdays, to get them out of the way.

Now that the pandemic has pushed his coworkers to be remote as well, he has observed their video calls lead to fewer people talking and less filler conversation at the beginning and end of each meeting. Upton says his sense of tension and anxiety has been reduced to the point of being negligible.

This outcome is supported by research, says the University of Québec Outaouais’s Claude Normand, who studies how people with developmental and intellectual disabilities socialize online. People with autism tend to have difficulty understanding when it’s their turn to speak in live conversations, she notes. That’s why the frequent lag between speakers on video calls may actually help some autistic people. “When you’re Zooming online, it’s clear whose turn it is to talk,” Normand says.

However, other people on the autism spectrum may still struggle with video chatting, as it can exacerbate sensory triggers such as loud noise and bright lights, she adds.

On the whole, video chatting has allowed human connections to flourish in ways that would have been impossible just a few years ago. These tools enable us to maintain long-distance relationships, connect workrooms remotely, and even now, in spite of the mental exhaustion they can generate, foster some sense of togetherness during a pandemic.

It’s even possible Zoom fatigue will abate once people learn to navigate the mental tangle video chatting can cause. If you’re feeling self-conscious or overstimulated, Normand recommends you turn off your camera. Save your energy for when you absolutely want to perceive the few non-verbal cues that do come through, such as during the taxing chats with people you don’t know very well, or for when you want the warm fuzzies you get from seeing someone you love. Or if it’s a work meeting that can be done by phone, try walking at the same time.

“Walking meetings are known to improve creativity, and probably reduce stress as well,” Normand says.


The modern day flâneur

Theories and demographics are all very well, but to know New York City’s inner life you need to walk and talk

By William Helmreich

aeon.co

June 21, 2013 

When I was nine, my father found a new form of entertainment for me. Whenever our schedules were free, we took the subway from Manhattan’s Upper West Side to the end of the line and walked around, exploring the neighbourhood. We saw swampy marshes in Canarsie, Brooklyn, public housing projects in Astoria, Queens, and beautiful, forested Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. One time, my father poked his head into a pub and everyone scattered. We never found out why.

In this way, I learned to love New York City. I still do. And over the past four years, partly in homage to New York, but largely to furnish material for a book-length study, I’ve walked some 6,000 miles across the city’s built-up terrain — that’s 120,000 blocks. The question, for a professional sociologist such as me, is: was this the best way to study a city?

Approached correctly, walking forces you to slow down and really look at what you’re seeing. Like the flâneurs of times past, one needs to stroll leisurely and engage people in conversations about how they feel about where they live, what they do, and how they perceive the place is changing. Had I driven through the city, along its highways and thoroughfares, I would have missed 90 per cent of what I found: the teeming life of the city’s backstreets, its parks and playgrounds, its outdoor and indoor eateries — all this would have remained invisible to me. Besides, driving (and for that matter, cycling) tend to mark you as an outsider, even if you live there. When you cover ground quickly, people assume you’re just passing through. But when you walk through a neighbourhood, people assume you’ve got reason to be there.

With walking, it’s the journey that’s the destination. The minute you begin observing, you’re there.

Six thousands miles might seem a ludicrous challenge but, like the proverbial mountain, you walk it one step at a time. A marathon runner could cover the ground I walked in 12 or 14 months, but my leisurely pace was both less strenuous, and much more systematic. I used street maps and marked off each street, correcting for haphazardness and habit, since people tend to stick to their routes and repeat patterns. I myself had lived in Washington Heights, in upper Manhattan, for eight years, and thought I knew its every part. I didn’t. I’d often walked 164th Street, but rarely 163rd. Ditto for 159th, as opposed to 158th Street. Returning to the area as a participant-observer, of the kind valued by urban ethnographers from the Chicago School of the 1920s, onwards, I discovered places I’d never seen before.

I often entered interior courtyards of buildings where I watched children playing games bounded by arcane rules that only they knew because they’d created them. I saw unique architectural details, not visible from the sidewalk. I entered apartment buildings and experienced the smells and sounds of urban life as it is experienced indoors. One time, a man allowed me to see his apartment on the 21st floor of a housing project. Inside, I discovered that the entire living space was done in bright red — the walls, tables, chairs, even the microwave oven and the clothes-hangers in his closet, not to mention the silverware, or, should I say, redware. Why? ‘I’ve always loved red,’ he said simply. The takeaway for me was that we can’t always fully explain human behaviour. My studied trespass brought home the fact that our tools are bounded by the limits of human understanding — ours and that of others.

Walking slowly through NYC, I saw things that a cyclist, threading through crowds, or trying to negotiate spaces filled with automobiles, couldn’t see. Could a cyclist look for more than a second at the fifth floor of a building on a narrow one-way street and notice the large letter ‘M’ carved into its façade, and then explore its meanings for the residents? Or look down at the sidewalk and discover the intricate designs of trellises, flowers, and leaves etched into its surface, without risking life or limb?

One of my aims with this project was to try to comprehend the actual physical process by which a neighbourhood gentrifies. I asked an Asian student emerging from an apartment building in what was once a sketchy part of Manhattan’s Washington Heights area if the neighbourhood’s ethnic population, once poor and mainly Hispanic, was changing. He told me it was becoming much more mixed. ‘But,’ I demurred, ‘the names next to the buzzers in your own building are almost all Hispanic.’ ‘That’s only because we haven’t had a chance to remove them and put our own names in yet,’ he said, with a twinkle in his eyes. And so I learned that reality isn’t always what you see. More important, I realised, you must ask questions, not simply observe.

The Hasidic neighbourhood of Williamsburg abuts the black community of Bedford-Stuyvesant at Flushing Avenue. On one side of the avenue are privately developed apartment buildings occupied solely by Hasidic families. On the other side, the Marcy Houses, a red-brick public housing project built in 1949, loom over the street. I saw three Hasidic children with velvet skullcaps and curly side-locks standing on a balcony, staring intently at a basketball game going on in the playground outside the Marcy Houses. Perhaps they were keeping score. Or perhaps they wanted to join in. This was the childhood home of rapper Jay-Z — so named, according to internet legend, because the J and Z subway lines run nearby. It looks and feels like a ‘don’t cross’ border.

Sociologist William Helmreich takes time out from walking to admire the Centro La Paz Mural on 125th st, East Harlem. Photo by Neville Elder

New York City policy is to not tear down housing projects, but to rehabilitate them. Where will the Hasidim, with their explosive birth rate, go once their area has filled up? Walking through the project, I find out soon enough. They’ve built more apartment buildings deep in the black area beyond the project. It’s sort of like a river that, when blocked, simply flows around the barrier and continues.

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‘We’re proud of what we’ve built here, and no one messes with this stuff. They wouldn’t dare.’

Walking through the project buildings, I learned something else. In stark contrast to the grim outward appearance from the main thoroughfare, there are beautiful gardens, created and maintained by the residents. Brilliantly coloured flowers grow here, as well as manicured shrubbery, which surrounds statues and drawings done by local residents. No one has vandalised them. ‘We’re proud of what we’ve built here, and no one messes with this stuff,’ an elderly woman sitting on a bench told me. ‘They wouldn’t dare.’

Walking along the newer structures beyond Flushing Avenue, where the Hasidim are still a minority, black, Hispanic and Hasidic children play ball together in the street. It’s the kind of contact that will probably soften their views about otherness as they grow into adults, working in this multi-racial city. The Hasidim are seen as insular, but are they as insular as children raised in the all-white Bronx community in Edgewater Park? In gentrifying areas, you see who talks to whom, and how comfortable they are by their body language. In taverns or restaurants, you see races intermingle, belying the stark categorisations of town planners, statisticians and theorists.

The delight is in the details. Had I not walked, I would never have met the man standing on his porch in Jamaica, Queens, watering a small, neatly kept garden filled with lovely, unusual flowers. ‘These flowers are beautiful,’ I remarked. ‘Where did you get them?’ ‘I’m so glad you asked,’ he replied softly. ‘They are flowers from my country, Guyana, which I love. I planted them to remind me of home.’

Here was an expression of the pain, even heartbreak, of leaving one’s native land, that no amount of probing dry statistics about remittances to the homeland, residential patterns, or ethnic credit associations could yield. And it opened a window for me on to the deeper struggles and hopes of immigrants.

To really understand the immigrant experience in New York City, you need to encounter immigrants on their own turf. The American approach of respecting, even celebrating, ethnicity can lead to the formation of communities isolated from larger society in ways that make their socioeconomic progress so much harder.

For example, there are neighbourhoods, parts of Bushwick and Washington Heights, where hardly anyone speaks English. You can’t get directions or buy something in a store unless you speak fairly good Spanish. I interviewed a Dominican building superintendent who has been living in the city for 27 years. He spoke no English. Why is that, I asked through his nine-year-old daughter, who was our translator. ‘Because I don’t have to in this neighbourhood.’ His daughter will have an easier time.

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The hot-dog vendor from India explained that his life isn’t important. He’s doing it for his children

It’s not just about the language, but the importance of success and how it is measured by immigrants. I speak with a hot-dog vendor from India and ask him if this is what he dreamed of when he came here. It isn’t, he admitted, but then he explained that his life isn’t important. He’s doing it for his children. I found that immigrants are acutely conscious that they’re changing the trajectories of generations to come when they decide to emigrate from their often-impoverished homelands.

In Brooklyn, I came across a gentrifying block lined with brownstone dwellings. One of them featured a simple sign that read ‘P De Rosa — 180 — Grocery’. Underneath were neon signs for two old-time beers — Schaefer and Rheingold Extra Dry. It was clearly not a functioning establishment; so why was the sign there? After chatting with a woman sitting in front of a nearby house, I learned that it had been a grocery store many years ago. I tracked down Mr De Rosa’s grandson who explained that his family had kept the sign out of respect for his grandfather’s saga of immigration and hard work, eking out a living, his native village in southern Italy far behind him.

‘It’s a matter of respect,’ Mr De Rosa’s grandson said quietly. ‘For me it was an important lesson about filial love. Every Christmas and Easter, the neon lights are turned on for the beers that were advertised in the old days.’

And then there’s the ‘Halem Bike Doctor’ (the misspelling is deliberate), a man who fixes bicycles, sells them at unbelievably cheap prices, and then sponsors an annual Father’s Day bike race around adjacent Marcus Garvey Park, open only to ‘children with good grades’. Or the man whose small yard, and much larger garage, featured thousands of memorabilia items from the Brooklyn of the 1950s and ’60s. Memory and lived experience are everywhere layered together, then brought into relief by community characters such as these.

Without walking New York City block by block, I would never have known about these jewels, or had the opportunity to converse with the hundreds of people I encountered on my jaunts. Without walking the entire city, I would never have learned which of the things I found were representative of the city as a whole and which, on the other hand, were uniquely interesting and so worthy of inclusion in my book. Seeing and understanding these patterns and repetitions enables the researcher to see connections from one area to another, and to realise how it’s all part of an interconnected whole.

So often it was the chance encounter, followed by a spontaneous exchange, that led me to important insights. Walking one day through a somewhat hazardous part of Bushwick, Brooklyn, I came across a tall, burly black man walking four pit-bull terriers. What made the sight really unusual were the two boa constrictors curled around his neck. When a woman with a girl of about seven approached, he proclaimed: ‘Here, your child can pet these dogs!’ And when she drew back, he complained in a mocking tone: ‘Now you’re not being a nice New Yorker.’

I fell into step with him, and was surprised to find a man on the next block, also with a young child in tow, take him up on his offer. The man allowed his daughter to pet the dogs and then stood by admiringly as one of the boas encircled the fearless child. No one paid much attention to the black man, the snakes, or what he was saying. In a posher area, a crowd would have gathered, gaped at this menagerie, and most likely have called the police. After all, owning wild creatures in the city is illegal without a special permit. What the incident brought home to me was that the norms of behaviour in New York vary greatly, depending on where you are. ‘Big deal. This is Brooklyn,’ said one man when I asked what he thought of the scene.

I learned a similar lesson outside the Jackson Houses project in the South Bronx, when I asked a black woman if the area was dangerous. She told me that it most definitely was. When I informed her that the murder rate in the area had declined dramatically from about 2,000 deaths a year in the 1980s and ’90s to about 500 today, she retorted: ‘Oh yeah? Well, if the murder rate went down to 500 a year, then 400 of them is happening right outside my building.’ Perceptions of crime are relative. It might be down in overall numbers, but the distribution is what counts to those living in high-crime areas.

In a crowded metropolis, where people are busy, you find that the niceties of communication are frequently ignored. People don’t listen to you because they’re on the clock. That’s what happens in a large city, where, as the German sociologist Georg Simmel said a century ago, time rules the day. Yet when I asked if I could use a photocopier machine, because my daughter was getting married, the answer was ‘Sure.’ Or when I requested permission to use a bathroom, saying: ‘I’m going on vacation next week,’ I’d be told ‘Go ahead.’ As long as you at least say something, it’s fine. Perhaps Simmel overstated his case — since there are times when time doesn’t matter.

Some of my most intense and revealing conversations with strangers took place on the busiest of streets. Waiting for a bus on Brooklyn’s bustling Atlantic Avenue, a woman poured out her heart to me about her ‘mean and crazy sister’ who was stealing money from their joint bank account. Another person railed about how he’d been driven out of the community in which he grew up; while a third explained why his dream was to be a filmmaker.

There’s no question that walking a city, be it London, Paris, or New York is challenging, arduous and, at times, dangerous. Most cities do not have ideal climates. You can’t walk only when the weather is clement, or doing a project of this sort will take 20 years to complete. I walked in all four seasons, in light rain and in snow flurries. Sometimes I’d travel two hours to my starting point, just to walk for a single hour. You grab time when you can. I’d walk early in the morning, late at night, weekdays and weekends. I often had to walk four hours in a day to find, in the last minutes, the ‘gem of the day’. It’s highly intensive labour.

But the rewards make it immensely worthwhile, sociologically, and in human terms. Stride for stride, I believe there’s no better way to really know a city.

The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City (2013) by William Helmreich is published via Princeton University Press.

Nature connectedness and noticing nature: Key components of a good life.

For the past six months or so we’ve been working with the National Trust exploring how being connected with nature relates to pro-nature behaviours …

Nature connectedness and noticing nature: Key components of a good life.