To trace the route of the absent

October 14, 2011

I’ve just finished Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust: A History of Walking, which explores the social and cultural roles of walking throughout history — from the earliest bipedal humans to medieval pilgrims, the bohemian flâneurs of Paris to the great political marches of the 20th century. There’s some fascinating things in there (who knew that the Ramblers Association began as a radical anti-landownership movement, a working-class rural Victorian version of Reclaim the Streets?), and I’d like to share a few passages that seem relevant to my own journey:

On roads and writing

[Roads] unfold in time as one travels along them, just as a story does as one reads or listens… Just as writing allows one to read the words of someone who is absent, so roads make it possible to trace the route of the absent. Roads are a record of those who have gone before, and to follow them is to follow people who are no longer there — not saints and gods anymore, but shepherds, hunters, engineers, emigrants, peasants to market, or just commuters … To write is to carve a new path through the terrain of the imagination, or to point out new features on a familiar route. To read is to travel through that terrain with the author as guide — a guide one may not always agree with or trust, but who can at least be counted upon to take one somewhere.

The image of the walker, alone and active and passing through rather than settled in the world, is a powerful vision of what it means to be human, whether it’s a hominid traversing grasslands or a Samuel Beckett character shuffling down a rural road.

On urban and rural space

Streets are the space left over between buildings. A house alone is an island surrounded by a sea of open space, and the villages that preceded cities were no more than archipelagos in that same sea. But as more and more buildings arose, they became a continent, the remaining open space no longre like the sea but like rivers, canals, and streams running between the land masses. People no longer moved anyhow in the open sea of rural space but travelled up and down the streets, and just as narrowing a waterway increases flow and speed, so turning open space into the spillways of streets directs and intensifies the flood of walkers.

Many people nowadays live in a series of interiors — home, car, gym, office, shops — disconnected from each other. On foot everything stays connected, for while walking one occupies the spaces between those interiors in the same way one occupies those interiors. One lives in the whole world rather than in interiors built up against it.

In the country one’s solitude is geographical — one is altogether outside society, so solitude has a sensible geographical explanation, and then there is a kind of communion with the nonhuman. In the city, one is alone because the world is made up of strangers, and to be a stranger surrounded by strangers, to walk along silently bearing one’s secrets and imagining those of the people one passes, is among the starkest of luxuries.

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2 Responses to “To trace the route of the absent”

  1. Matt said

    Hey Nick.. this is good to read.

    You know, I’m actually reading Rebecca Solnit right now myself! (Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics) The most striking thing for me about her writing is the way it provokes questions rather than tries to provide answers. I’ve found this really refreshing and don’t think I’d realised how much of what we read seems to be arguing or making a point – trying to win.

    Anyway, good luck with the walk – I look forward to staying up to date as you go!

  2. florence said

    This last passage is quite interesting if you relate it to the current “Occupy” movements. I think I’ll read this book…

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