Thinking on….walking, learning, bodies and borders

As an attempt to balance out the idea of four years of academic study, most of which I imagine is going to happen from behind a desk, last year I decided to start a long walk of the coast path from Ramsgate to Lands End, in stages of course and I will find out along the way how many miles it is! Photos from this walk may appear here from time to time.


Having been thinking more about walking as a consequence, I was delighted to find Robert Macfarlane talking about the intimate connections between learning and route finding in his wonderful book about walking The Old Ways. In it he takes us through the etymology of the verb to learn. We see that leornian in Old English means to get knowledge or to be cultivated, which links further back in time to Proto-Germanic, and the verb liznojan meaning to follow or to find a track (2013:31).


I love this idea of learning as a route finding ramble or a hike, an embrace of the curiosity of seeing where a path takes us, a searching for a way that is physically clear enough for us and those interested enough to follow us to actually travel down.

There is a good deal of physicality in this understanding of learning and I don’t think the links between paths and knowledge should be limited to a metaphoric usage, as much as I love, although probably don’t understand, the way the term “the garden of forking paths” is used in statistics. I think instead that learning should both physically take us to actual places we would not have gone before and also that by physically taking our body with us in this process of acquiring knowledge, we discover very different but important new avenues of thought and paths of insight. Having swum and written her way to producing an ethnographic study on long-distance open water swimming, Karen Throsby reminds us about this physicality, referring to “thinking as an inextricably embodied practice“ ( 2013:13).

And being that we cannot separate our learning from our bodies and that our bodies are normally found either in a land or city scape, Robert Macfarlane, (again), continues to inspire me in his musings on the connections between learning and place. He challenges us to ask these two demanding questions of a landscape we might find ourselves in:

“…..firstly, what do I know when I am in this place that I can know nowhere else? And then vainly, what does this place know of me that I cannot know of myself?” (2013:27)

For me, both questions teach me to want to stay in a posture of humility in regards this embarkation on a PhD; not only are we to learn from others but also to learn from places. They too can and should be our teacher. I am taught much by time spent hiking along a coast path, land on my right and sea on my left, always an unpredictable and immense stretch of green/grey/blue ‘otherness’ reaching to a horizon,  which somehow liberates my mind to make connections and percolate ideas that would never find form in the enclosure of a library.

At other times though I remember that this immense stretch of blue/grey sea is a border, the horizon it forms for me brings space and freedom of thought, while for other people, it forms a border which no matter how strong the longing, is nigh on impossible to cross.


This reminds me of another way place can teach us. A few years ago I spent five weeks teaching English in a shelter in the (now non-existent) Grande-Sythe refugee camp near Dunkirk. At the end of this time I experienced the crossing back under that same stretch of blue/grey English Channel of water in a completely different way to ever before. Sitting in the camp on the edge of France, from the confines of a shelter I had heard people tell tales of dangerous, difficult journeys which they had undertaken to reach France from mostly Iraqi Kurdistan and Iran. I also heard about the attempts they made most nights to get from Calais to the UK, the lorries, the waiting in the dark, the police, the dogs, the arrests, the daily disappointment of not making it and having to return to the camp to sleep the day through in order to try again the following night. These are not lives people live just for fun.


I know my immersion in this liminally positioned camp life for a mere five weeks was absolutely nothing like the same as actually having made those journeys or living with that kind of precarious existence myself, yet it was enough to teach me about borders in a profound way. While returning on the train in the dark, travelling between France and the UK, my body suddenly felt bombarded with fatigue, tears, despair, and mostly rage at the unearned privilege which had allowed me to present my white face, followed briefly by my passport, to then be allowed through to board the Eurostar. Travelling under that short stretch of sea with such ease taught me a lesson in both national and white privilege which somehow invaded my body and I think perhaps has stayed within it in some kind of way.

As for my musings on Macfarlane’s second question “what does this place know of me that I cannot know of myself?” I think I need to do a whole lot more thinking before I come to any kind of understanding of its mysticism. Perhaps, given that the weather isn’t so bad today, maybe I need to head out for a walk and see what the sea says to me……










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