In his Aesthetic Theory, Theodor W. Adorno claims that ideas of natural beauty, which have been associated with walking in the landscape since Romanticism, result in a belief that ‘nothing in the world is worthy of attention except that for which the autonomous subject has itself to thank,’ and whose ultimate consequence is the ‘unfreedom’ of external objects.1 I take Adorno to mean that the concept of natural beauty, concomitant with the ‘shaping’ power of the Romantic imagination, inevitably makes nature an object for human enjoyment; a set of views to be recruited into rules of aesthetics, and so on. I see this as related to the attitude towards walking expressed by A. R. Ammons in his well-known lecture to the International Poetry Forum in Pittsburgh in 1967, ‘A Poem is a Walk,’ in which he claimed that ‘both the real and the fictive walk are externalizations of an inward seeking’.2 Here he identifies walking as a mode of contemplation whereby the autonomous subject engages in self-exploration via almost incidental contact with the ‘external’ world. The two ideas provided by Ammons and Adorno are nascent in the masculine Romantic subject seen, for example, in Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818), whose pensiveness and elevated position come to define the experience of walking in the ways they suggest.3
I begin this article with the early Wordsworth of Descriptive Sketches, for whom walking is an expression of subjecthood and whose significance, like Friedrich’s wanderer, is implied by the literal position he occupies at Alpine heights. I go on, however, to offer a developmental account of Wordsworth’s poetics in line with Jonathan Bate’s analysis, in which he is coaxed down from the mountain by his sister and his wife, and persuaded of the importance of paying more attention to his local environment. This, I argue, is an important moment in the development of a poetics of embodied engagement with environment which is taken up by Harriet Tarlo, Frances Presley and Helen Macdonald, in their contributions to a genre which Tarlo calls ‘radical landscape poetry’ in her 2011 anthology The Ground Aslant,4 and which Terry Gifford has called ‘UK avant-garde ecopoetry’.5
The scope of this article does not allow me to consider the significance of walking across the work of these poets, although it is clear that walking and other outdoor pursuits play an important role in their wider practice. Whilst I draw on one or two works that appear in their individual collections, my main concern here is to account for a particular vein that runs through their contributions to The Ground Aslant, on the basis that there is much remaining to understand of the genre it represents. Indeed, the theme of walking is only one aspect of landscape that the anthology addresses, but interestingly, those poems that deal with it most explicitly are by women. Tarlo’s selection points towards a deeper engagement with walking amongst the women poets represented, for whom she says ‘[w]riting about the body in and of landscape is a particular strength’.6 According to Tarlo, women poets ‘have only relatively recently thrown off an objectified position as part of an idealised landscape in favour of a speaking one’.7 Interacting and engaging with landscape in this more involved and informed way continues to provide a source of poetic ‘radicalism’ for these women poets.
As I have suggested, Ammons uses the idea of the ‘fictive walk’ metaphorically, suggesting that movement and processuality define the poetic experience primarily in the sense that a poem ‘journeys’ through ideas, images, memories, and so on. I want to take up his acknowledgement of the ‘“physiology” of the poem,’8 as a way of understanding the way in which poetic form relates to walking as embodied experience in the work of these three poets. Where their thematic involvement with walking continues the political discussion Tarlo mentions, their formal experimentation reflects current discourse on visual perception and object relations, overlapping in important ways with Donna Haraway’s ‘situated knowledges’9 and enactive theories of perceptual experience.
I suggest that, rather than serving to provide either opportunities for ‘inward seeking’, in Ammons’s sense, or affirmations of subjectivity, the walking represented in the works of Tarlo, Presley and Macdonald instead explores ways of relating to the external world, or to be more precise, moves towards reconciliation of the interior-exterior dichotomy through an enactive understanding of the body in its environment. Presley’s ‘Stone Settings’10 sequence converts the Romantic affirmation of physical prowess and goal-oriented mountaineering into an embodied and goal-less experience of breath and pace. In particular, ‘White ladder’11 enacts the physical movement it describes, offering itself to a kind of embodied reading, and revealing a phenomenology based on what Lucy Lippard calls ‘perceptual and physiological sensations’.12 Tarlo’s ‘steady yourself on a grass’13 evolves as the movement of the head and eyes on a walk reveals the possibility of intentional and ethical exercises in perception. In ‘Walking’,14 Helen Macdonald acknowledges danger and harm as potentialities particular to women’s participation in outdoor walking, but also reinvigorates pathetic fallacy so that it denotes the interactivity of emotional and perceptual experience. With reference to philosophies of visual perception after Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, and recent developments in cognitive science, I will show how the poetics of walking for these poets expands the possibility of accessing alternative perceptions by entailing changes in perspective, and responds to the need for situated knowledges.
All three offer an account of walking in which the Romantic subject is replaced by a subject who recognizes the limited authority, significance or precedence of her own experience, not in any way as an admission of inferiority to the male subject, but in a demonstration of equality with the objects of perception. Linked to this is their understanding of visual perception as an act that can be carried out consciously, in different ways, and as an embodied activity. The ways of walking and looking represented in these poems constitute eco-ethical gestures inherited from Dorothy Wordsworth, whose intervention in the walking and looking of her brother produced a change in his poetics of nature and environment. Although, as Gifford points out in Green Voices, we cannot demand ‘an engaged modern green agenda’15 from poets of the past, positioning Wordsworth in relation to contemporary eco-poetics helps us avoid presentism in the context of our response to current ecological challenges. Integrating understandings of historically changing perspectives into accounts of our current relationship to the world foregrounds the focused attention that has been given to such issues for at least the last two hundred years, and allows us to see more clearly the innovations of contemporary voices.
The wanderer as emperor
Wordsworth’s early poem, Descriptive Sketches, published in 1793, closes with a statement of intent in the language of sublime conquest:
when, at break of day,
On the tall peaks the glistening sunbeams play,
With a light heart our course we may renew,
The first whose footsteps print the mountain dew.16
Here, in spite of an evident tenderness for such scenes, the poet expresses a desire not only to be ‘the first’ but also to leave a mark of this achievement by ‘printing’ it on the surface of the mountain. The notion that some kind of proof or some material result must be obtained attends his excursion into nature. As Rebecca Solnit expresses it in her history of walking, ‘[b]eing first up a mountain means entering the unknown, but for the sake of putting the place into human history, of making it known’.17 Where the footprints in the dew will inevitably dry up, the evidence of his foray will continue to exist in the form of the poem; the satisfaction of being first comes, therefore, not only with the action itself, but in the subsequent (implicit) declaration, ‘I conquered’. Whether or not this desire is problematic in itself has long been debated; after all, footprints do no lasting damage. Rather than intervening in the landscape itself by erecting a monument on the spot, say, Wordsworth commemorates his achievement in poetry. Just as Solnit notes in her history of walking, ‘[m]ountaineering has often been seen as a pure form of the imperial mission, calling into play all its skills and heroic virtues, with none of its material gains or oppositional violence’.18
Even in the ‘pure’ form, however, imperialism by definition subjects external objects to its own agenda. At its most violent this means coercing less powerful peoples to uphold a particular political regime through enslavement or the threat of death (a form of violence which the poem of course addresses). But even in this pure – according to Solnit, skilled and virtuous – form, the imperial subject exerts a coercive force over its objects, in the very fact that it objectifies them, shapes them into meaning something other than themselves. As Adorno has it, this ‘preoccupation with setting new records,’ and the impulse toward ‘quantification’ is no less than a ‘reflex of bourgeois megalomania,’ and does irrevocable imaginative damage even if no physical violence is inflicted.19 In spite of all that comes before the conclusion of Descriptive Sketches – and despite his sense of horror at the conquering impulse of the political elite – Wordsworth’s narrator expresses his own desire to literally make his mark on virgin territory, committing imaginatively the same violence that is committed actually by the French army.
Down from the mountain, into the view
Later, as is well known, Wordsworth was to repudiate his youthful tendency towards what Jonathan Bate calls ‘ecological imperialism’.20 In The Prelude, Wordsworth remembers how he began to value different things in nature – indeed to renounce the idea that nature might be ‘valuable’ (in Adorno’s sense of quantification) at all. Although, he admits, ‘As we grow up, such thraldom of that sense | Seems hard to shun,’ he is inspired to do so by the examples of his friend, and subsequently his wife, Mary Hutchinson, and of his sister, Dorothy.21 Rather than greedily roaming in search of ‘new combinations of forms,’ Mary and Dorothy teach him to attend to ‘Whatever scene was present,’ and to treat every visible thing as though ‘That was the best’.22 In her journal entry on 16 April 1802, Dorothy writes after a walk around Brothers Water, close to the Grasmere home, ‘I was delighted with what I saw’.23 A certain passivity of tone contrasts her description with that of her brother; she does not say, for example, ‘I sought out sights that would delight me.’ Indeed, throughout her journals, sitting in the landscape appears almost as frequently as walking in it does. On 14 May 1800 she writes, ‘Sate down very often, tho’ it was cold’.24 For Dorothy, allowing nature to come to her is important enough that she will do it even when inclement conditions mean physical activity might generate a much needed and more pleasant warmth.
‘Wholly free’ of ‘appetites’ like his own,25 Mary similarly occupies a totally different position from Wordsworth. Where his rapacious ‘appetite’ sees him gain the heights of hills and rocks, Mary, ‘Through her humility and lowliness,’ inhabits a space that is literally lower.26 He acknowledges that, ‘I too exclusively esteem’d that love, | And sought that beauty, which, as Milton sings, | Hath terror in it’; Mary ‘didst soften down | This over-sternness’.27 In ‘softening down,’ Mary lowers Wordsworth from the heights of the masculine sublime, from the hard rocks to the soft ‘birds’ and ‘flower[s]’.28 Instead of surveying nature from an imperial vantage point on top of a mountain, she is an ‘inmate’ of nature.29
As Bate observes, however, Wordsworth’s generalization of the ‘wis[dom]’ of ‘Women’30 has problematic implications. ‘Orthodox feminists,’ Bate writes, ‘would say that to praise woman thus is to condescend to her, to strip her of reason and speech, to entrap her. Does not “inmate” suggest a prison cell?’31 The OED tells us that in fact only modern usage of ‘inmate’ has the negative connotation of incarceration.32 Given that its original meaning is ‘one of several occupants of a house,’ Wordsworth’s use could simply be an acknowledgement of Mary’s ‘dwelling’ in nature. As Jacqueline Labbe shows, however, these relative positions with regard to landscape are always already gendered. Whilst her male peers enjoy vast prospects from the top of sublime eminences, Dorothy reportedly meets with ‘reprimands by relatives and strangers’ when she attempts to ‘roam the Grasmere hills,’ and so she ‘dutifully plants, picks and walks in the little hillside garden behind Dove Cottage’.33
That Wordsworth describes Mary as ‘wholly free,’ proves for Bate, however, that ‘[w]e need to consider the possibility that to be an inmate of nature might be a condition of freedom’.34 If Wordsworth’s designation of Mary as an inmate is problematic, the fact that Dorothy uses the term voluntarily arguably bears out Bate’s suggestion. In ‘Grasmere – A Fragment,’ she writes:
My youthful wishes all fulfill’d,
Wishes matured by thoughtful choice,
I stood an Inmate of this vale
How could I but rejoice?35
Her willingness to be an inmate of nature is a conscious decision born out of mature thought, not the enforced passivity of a woman who stays in the environs of her home for the sake of domestic convenience or feminine indisposition. There is therefore an argument for the possibility that Wordsworth learns his particular style of eco-poetics from his sister and his wife, who are represented similarly throughout his work. Bate argues that ‘[w]here the picturesque looks, the ecopoetic connects,’36 and according to The Prelude, it is Mary who entices Wordsworth down from the mountain and into the view.
Descriptive Sketches in fact contains the kernel of this, in Wordsworth’s recognition of his own body as part of the view. Where he writes, ‘All nature smiles, and owns beneath her eyes | Her fields peculiar, and peculiar skies,’37 he positions himself – as a person who spends much time out of doors – under the gaze of nature itself, as something visible from above. Despite William Galperin’s claim to the contrary, he is prepared to become ‘a detail among details,’38 often featuring as a visible ‘character’ in his own work, most notably in a position of equality with other bodies on the public roads of The Prelude.
I believe this aspect of Wordsworth’s poetics shares an unlikely synergy with Donna Haraway’s feminist objectivity, and her concept of ‘situated knowledge’. The ‘Western eye’ has, she argues, traditionally been premised on transparency and unrestricted movability, with doctrines of objectivity dictated from an ‘unmarked’ position that is identified as being both ‘everywhere’ and ‘nowhere’.39 Aided by technoscientific developments in visual apparatus and ‘prosthetic devices’, this unmarked position has claimed for itself the title of ‘master subject’, but has also, according to Haraway, paradoxically revealed that ‘all eyes, including our own organic ones, are active perceptual systems, building on translations and specific ways of seeing’.40
In ‘The Thorn’ Wordsworth’s narrator makes use of the technology Haraway describes, claiming, ‘one day with my telescope, | To view the ocean wide and bright […] I climbed the mountain’s height’.41 But importantly, his efforts at attaining that view are thwarted by bad weather:
A storm came on, and I could see
No object higher than my knee.
‘’Twas mist and rain, and storm and rain:
No screen, no fence could I discover;
I looked around, and thought I saw
A jutting crag, – and off I ran,
Head-foremost, through the driving rain,
The shelter of the crag to gain;
And, as I am a man,
Instead of jutting crag I found
A Woman seated on the ground.42
The experience proves deeply unsettling, not only because he runs headlong into the wretched Martha Ray where he expected to find a vacant shelter, but because of the implicit challenge to his ‘direct, devouring, generative, and unrestricted vision’.43 He is forced to acknowledge that the ‘wandering eye’ or ‘traveling lens’44 of the unmarked master subject must in fact be situated in the world, and subject to all the same elements that afflict the ‘marked’ and visible body of Martha Ray. Indeed, it is his own situated experience, in the driving rain, and not his telescope, that discloses to him the nature or content of the immediate environment. Just as for Haraway, ‘partiality and not universality is the condition of being heard to make rational knowledge claims,’45 for Wordsworth it is the embodied experience he has on the mountain, and not the telescopic view from it, that become the subject of his poem.
Enactive perception and aesthetic seeing in Tarlo’s ‘steady yourself on a grass’
Harriet Tarlo takes from Dorothy and the later William Wordsworth this attention to the act of looking. Gesturing, in ‘Steady yourself on a grass’ towards the ethical possibility of renouncing desire or motive in encounters with landscape, she implicitly draws attention to the unavoidable intentionality of acts of looking carried out by ‘organic’ beings, as Haraway puts it, with ‘active perceptual systems’ and ‘specific ways of seeing’. Dorothy emphasizes the importance of approaching nature ‘Without an object, hope, or fear,’ suggesting that the hidden isle of the poem ‘Floating Island’ is most likely to appear to perception when unlooked for, ‘Perchance when you are wandering forth | Upon some vacant sunny day’.46 Tarlo’s poem stages a similar openness to environmental phenomena at the same time as it subtly advances an enactive account of perception like that proposed by Francisco J. Varela, Evan Thompson and Eleanor Rosch in The Embodied Mind, in which the perceiver is actively engaged in producing her visual environment through the movement of her body.
‘Steady yourself on a grass’ presents a walk up Meal Hill, near Holmfirth in West Yorkshire, as an accumulation of perceptions, the momentary noticing of flowers, berries and other plants, birds, sky, and fellow road users. The poem’s shape is structured around the turn of the head and the movement of the eyes when walking along, passing different visual stimuli, and creates a sense of effortless attentiveness. The walker devotes a moment to each object she perceives, perhaps registering some quality, but easily detaches herself from deeper involvement in order to move on in the progress of the walk and in the chain of available percepts:
the way up meal hill
plashy donkey steps
all the green berries
hawthorn gone to berry
heather out stretching
shining irregular edge
blurred edged line down
their front crest between
paint yellow: great tit47
She exercises a loosely selective perception, and her gaze is at once led by what is seen and controlled enough to pause in attention, echoing the kind of looking recommended by Dorothy Wordsworth. The balance between these two ways of seeing – between a languid and a directed gaze – reveals a sense of consciousness of perception as an act which can be carried out in different ways. In one example, Tarlo writes that you might see ‘bilberries turning | everywhere, once your eye’s in’,48 or when you make the effort to put your eye in by attending to detail. Her walking companion, on the other hand, advocates an opposite way of seeing: ‘look, she said, squint your eyes | and it all blurs into one’.49
Both ways of seeing are equally available when we perceive that we can control our perception, and both can be understood as aspects of what Martin Seel calls ‘sensuous perception’.50 He argues that as ‘beings who can know conceptually,’ humans make use of both the ‘sensuous and empirical givenness’ of objects in order to determine certain information about them, but can also consciously disengage from this type of determining perception activity.51 In other words, ‘whoever can perceive something that is determined can also disregard this determination, or to be more precise can disregard the fixation on this determination,’52 just as Dorothy advises in ‘Floating Island’. We can choose, he says, to either perceive the ‘phenomenal constitution of an object in its being-so [bilberries turning/ripening] or make it present in its appearing [the abandonment of information-gathering in the blurring of the vision]’.53 Tarlo makes certain determinations about the objects she passes, for example according to foreknowledge of their seasonality – ‘late ragwort | late clover’54 – but is also open to experiencing Seel’s ‘play of appearances in their repleteness’: ‘green berries | all the green berries’.55
Charles Taylor’s account of Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology integrates both modes of seeing in the notion of ‘coping’, whereby conceptualized knowledge and unreflective inference combine to structure our experience. In an example strikingly similar to Tarlo’s walk, he says, ‘[m]y recognition that the goldenrod is out is sustained by a context being in place, for example, that I’m now entering a field, and it’s August. I’m not focussing on all this. I know where I am because I walked here, and when I am because I’ve been living this summer, but these are not reflective inferences; they are just part of the understanding I have in everyday coping’.56 For Taylor, sensuous experience ‘embeds’ conceptual thought in a context just as it embeds us in the world.57 Importantly, both modes are fundamentally reliant on ‘having found [one’s] feet in the place’.58 Therefore, the aesthetic or contemplative mode is equally a way in which contact is made with the environment – the body must still go to certain spaces, the eye focus on certain objects, to engage in aesthetic perception or to determine information about them. Walking is particularly suited to the creative and selective deployment of these various perceptual modes, encouraging as it does in Tarlo’s poem the movement of the head and eyes and a contingent consciousness of the perception-act.
The fact that we are able to deliberately manipulate the way in which we perceive, as Tarlo’s walkers do, would support the idea that humans have some consciousness of the processes and even problems involved in perception. In Action in Perception, and in a related article entitled, ‘Is the Visual World a Grand Illusion?’, Alva Noë argues that this kind of consciousness of perception is entirely plausible, despite or indeed because of the nature of certain limitations in normal perceivers. He suggests that we do not always perceive the world as it is, due to the limits of our vision – for instance when we experience a landscape or scene as if it were a picture, with all the elements visible in equal detail, when in actual fact our peripheral vision is blurred and indistinct. Noë highlights this difference not in order to set up a division between an external reality and a false internal image but to show that we often experience a detailed picture even if we do not see one. He argues, however, that we are not unaware of the difference between what is perceived and our perception of it; or in other words, that we are not ‘victims of an illusion about the character of our own consciousness’.59 According to him,
[i]t is just not the case that we, normal perceivers, believe we see a complete, dynamic picture of a stable, uniformly detailed and colourful world. Of course it does seem to us as if we have perceptual access to a world that is richly detailed, complete and gap free. And we do!60
When we reflect on our perceptual experience, it becomes obvious that it is not picture-like and uniformly clear. What we do experience, he claims, is a sense of ‘having access’ to the world ‘by looking here, or there, attending here, or there’.61
Error, contingency and pleasure in embodied perception
Tarlo’s walker experiences just this sense of accessibility through exploration, of the ability to problem-solve through movement. She describes a cloud as ‘not against sky but it is’62; here she acknowledges that the sky is not a flat blue plane over against which the cloud sits, but that this is how it appears to her. This echoes Merleau-Ponty’s claim that ‘there are of course confused spectacles, such as a landscape in the fog, but even so, one still admits that no real landscape is in itself confused – it is only confused for us’.63 She demonstrates a conscious kind of double vision, switching between her immediate sensory experience of the cloud and the knowledge she has acquired that the sky is not a flat surface – just as sighted people are able to blur and unblur their eyes in quick succession in order to produce an uncanny perceptual effect. Her perception is different to her knowledge of what is really there because, according to Noë, we do not develop a ‘detailed internal model of the world’ through contact with it, to which we refer every time we perceive.64 We do not need such a model, because ‘the world is right there’.65 In other words, we do not force our experience of the world into correspondence with a pre-existing mental model; rather we access the world-model on a constant, moment-by-moment basis, modifying present perceptions with any remembered information that might be available or necessary.
Most of the time this is sufficient to allow us to make sense of our environment so that we are able to guide our actions in it appropriately. But this moment-by-moment interaction can also result in errors of judgement. These errors can be unconscious, like walking into a glass door that appears not to be there, or adopted consciously in the service of a particular aesthetic sensibility, like Tarlo’s interpretation of the cloud. Importantly, even the unconscious errors can be pleasurable examples of what Seel calls ‘aesthetic semblance’. He argues that false perceptions of objects can in fact ‘enrich’ them with ‘additional aspects’.66 Merleau-Ponty described something like this in an example of an encounter with an object understood to be a table:
my vision of the table depends on a body and therefore always implies a perspective, so that the table is seen from different angles, in different ways. It can even happen that what I judged from one perspective to be a table turns out to be something else owing to a movement giving me a more favourable perspective.67
If, as enactivism suggests, perceivers and environments emerge as distinct entities through interaction, perceivers have the implicit feeling that they ‘actively make objects appear’ as they move around in space.68 Samuel Todes claims that, ‘through movement we do not merely notice but produce the spatiotemporal field around us, our circumstantial field, the field in which things appear to us and in which we feel alive’.69 Different decisions about how we move will therefore make different objects appear, giving rise to the feeling of creating or structuring those appearances. ‘Of course’, he goes on, we know that ‘what appears to us in this field is not produced by movement’ (my emphasis); we know this because ‘objects may surprise us in their appearance’.70
The surprise of learning that the perceptual system upon which we rely has failed can be pleasurable because we know that in most circumstances we are able to correct the error by moving or looking from a different perspective. Errors do not usually signify the total failure of the system; nor do they compromise the general ability of perceivers to cope with their environment. Mistaken impressions are not experienced as disempowering because perception is not understood to be a power over things; rather it is an ability to engage with spatiotemporal fields as they arise according to movement. Surprise and error can be pleasurable because they in fact reinforce the fact that we have this ability. We can enjoy the sensation of perceiving something we know to be an impossible aesthetic ‘semblance’, as Tarlo’s walker does, and as our longstanding fascination with optical illusions surely proves. Similarly, we can enjoy an unexpected encounter with an object we previously believed to be a table, and even the fact that it continues to resemble a table from certain perspectives when experience has revealed that it is not. Tarlo’s walker perceives the cloud as against the surface of the sky, even though she knows this is not actually so. In such a case, Seel argues, ‘the sensuous impression retains value not as a purported fact nor as a deceptive apparency […] but as an aspect of the presence of the object that is remarkable in itself – as an additional element of its appearing’.71
This is a phenomenon with which both Wordsworths were evidently familiar. In ‘Floating Island’ Dorothy describes how the island ‘Might’ be seen ‘from the mossy shore | Dissevered float[ing] upon the Lake’.72 This floating, whilst understood by Dorothy to be merely an effect of the winds and tides, is relished as a magical phenomenon. She acknowledges that it might be how it is seen, that it is simply one of the aspects of its appearing. Similarly, Wordsworth describes how he,
As one who hangs down-bending from the side
Of a slow-moving Boat, upon the breast
Of a still water, solacing himself
With such discoveries as his eye can make,
Beneath him, in the bottom of the deeps,
Sees many beauteous sights, weeds, fishes, flowers,
Grots, pebbles, roots of trees, and fancies more;
Yet often is perplex’d, and cannot part
The shadow from the substance, rocks and sky,
Mountains and clouds, from that which is indeed
The region, and the things which there abide
In their true dwelling; now is cross’d by gleam
Of his own image, by a sunbeam now,
And motions that are sent he knows not whence,
Impediments that make his task more sweet.73
We must read his claim that he ‘cannot’ part the ‘shadow from the substance, rocks and sky, | Mountains and clouds, from that which is indeed | The region,’ as an exaggeration or deliberate misstatement. He knows that the mountains and their reflection simply appear to him at that moment to be indistinguishable. The reflections of the landscape and his own face in the water distort his perception of the objects actually in the water, but he knows that his face is not among them. As in Noë’s hypothesis, he is not deluded as to his own delusions; he understands that his own perception can ‘impede’ rather than facilitate access to the reality of a situation, but that this can be ‘sweet’.
Although not a walk, it is the fact that he is moving in the boat that enables him to experience this type of perceptual error, and then to attempt to correct it. According to Noë’s account of enactivism, the understanding that we are always at risk of making such errors causes us to move our bodies and our eyes in order to experience a more detailed perception. For Noë, this proves that humans have an
implicit practical understanding that they are coupled to the world in such a way that movements produce sensory change. It is this implicit practical understanding that forms the basis of their readiness to move about to find out how things are.74
In other words, humans implicitly understand their perceptual experience to be contingent upon a range of factors which are more or less under their control – including the independent movement of objects and the movement of objects (from the perceiver’s point of view) according to bodily movement.
This reveals an ethical dimension which I believe is also present in Tarlo’s poem. Wordsworth here has a ‘task’, which is to overcome those impediments, and make true ‘discoveries’ of the eye. The truth of these discoveries is validated rather than undermined by the contingency of his perceptual experience, as Haraway argues it should be. Whether or not the discovery of ‘truth’ is possible is not necessarily the point – the important thing is the ongoing attempt and the validation of situated knowledge. In ‘steady yourself on a grass’, Tarlo ‘plunges’ herself into the objects that surround her, as Merleau-Ponty expresses it,75 exploring the alternative modes of perception which a walk enables. Not only is she attentive to the objects that constitute her particular route, but also to the activity of her own perceptual system and its specific ways of engaging with the environment. In both there is a commitment to perception as an embodied process, and to the contingent relationship between the perceptual system and the appearance of the spatiotemporal field. Tarlo’s contribution follows from a late Wordsworthian and Dorothean mode of walking in which looking around has replaced looking down upon nature, and in which experimental poetic form reflects the saccadic and bodily movement understood in contemporary philosophy to structure perceptual experience. If, as Bate claims, Wordsworth is ‘the exemplar of how to look,’76 Tarlo’s poem is exemplary of the movements and decisions we make in order to see.
Breath and embodiment in Frances Presley’s ‘Stone Settings x3’ and ‘White ladder’
Frances Presley’s ‘White ladder’ and ‘Stone Settings’ sequence manifest the physiology of the walk, not through the turn of the head or the movement of the eyes, but through the rhythm and pace of the stride. The form of these works captures both the rhythm of walking and the texture of Presley’s experience in the landscape of Exmoor, where she reports experimenting with outdoor, in situ composition. In an interview with Edmund Hardy for Intercapillary Space, she explains that the poems came out of an attempt, guided by a local archaeologist, to trace the remains of Exmoor’s Neolithic stone settings.77 In ‘Stone settings x 3’, for example, her detection of:
three rows of
three evenly spaced
stones, is complicated by ‘layers of debris,’79 just as the even spacing of these rows in the poem is disrupted by a deviation from this linear form. The three neat rows deteriorate into sparser and more disordered rows, but subsequently reassert themselves, just as the passing of time might dislodge or cover up arrangements of stones in some areas, leaving others intact:
three and thrice
hand in hand
god desses of
destinie his terrific
daughters wretched old80
In ‘White ladder’, two widely-spaced but parallel columns of text render the ‘white’ page a topography, corresponding to the remains of the ‘metalled’ Roman road which the poem references; the eyes (and/or breath if read aloud) progress across and along it as do the strides over the ‘double row’ of ‘sandstone slabs’.81 The strong rhythm of this poem is generated less by the choice of words or punctuation than by its spatial presentation. The large gaps between words act like the poet’s ‘natural breath-length’,82 or as the moments in walking in which the foot moves through air before being planted on the ground. Interruptions in the columns force an adjustment of pace, and represent either encounters with physical obstacles in the walk, or the slabs that evidently remained elusive in Presley’s actual search for them, as documented in the interview with Hardy. In a sense, we go along with her on this walk, led around this place in real time.
Wordsworth’s famous preference for walking the path at Rydal Mount when working out his compositions indicates that for him, ‘verse [wa]s not primarily a collection of opinions, ideas and attitudes, but a sort of technique of the body, at once cognitive and corporeal’.84 Presley is similarly ‘foot-bound’ to the Exmoor landscape, as Wordsworth expresses it.85 More recent studies of human cognition would describe this as the result of our ‘structural coupling’ with the environment.86 The kind of compositional practice that stresses the interrelation of physiological and cognitive processes, and their fundamental relation to environmental features serves as compelling proof of the idea that organism and environment are ‘mutually specified’ in the way Varela et al suggest.87 The entangled archaeological traces determine the movement of Presley’s body, and she then ‘allow[s] the site to “dictate” the formation of the language’.88 In other words, she responds to the layout of the stones not only with her body but also in the poetic result of her experience there. The landscape dictates her movement, and therefore the language with which she evokes that movement, meaning that the poems have a fundamental relation to the landscape they reference.
I am not making claims about the ‘essential’ relation of signifiers to signifieds here. Rather, like Charles Olson, I wish to characterize the relationship between the landscape and Presley’s bodily experience, and in turn the reader’s experience of the poems, as kinaesthetic. Olson argues that ‘[a] poem is energy transferred from where the poet got it […], by way of the poem itself to, all the way over to, the reader.’89 Movement gives Presley access to the particularities of the place, which are then recorded in the particularities of poetic form that the reader experiences. Of course, the reader does not actually experience the landscape, nor does she necessarily experience an imagined version of it, but rather the textures and rhythms that the landscape dictated. Here it is important to highlight that Presley says the landscape dictated not just ‘the language’ of the poem, but the ‘formation of the language’. It is this distinction that means the poem captures the texture of her experience, evoking the physiological process of rhythmic breathing, and eliciting something akin to a ‘proprioceptive’ response from the reader.90
Making sense of Presley’s poem involves performing what we might call ‘leaps’ with the eyes, the words being positioned much further apart than is usual. This eye movement, whilst relatively small, generates a sense of ‘internal haptic space,’ and the poem becomes ‘a vehicle for intuiting our own body’.91 In other words, reading this radical form is a physiological experience that shares aspects of Presley’s own. It draws attention to ‘the kinds of experience that come from having a body with various sensorimotor capacities,’ which are themselves ‘embedded in a more encompassing biological, psychological, and cultural context’.92 If Tarlo’s poem exemplifies the idea that ‘through movement we do not merely notice but produce the spatiotemporal field around us,’93 Presley’s adds to this the recognition that our bodies are in turn also determined by the perceptual fields in which we find ourselves; the landscape might ‘dictate’ the ‘formation’ of the movements by which we produce our perceptual fields.
The feats and failures of walking women
I have so far suggested that these poets resist the invocation of power in their interactions with the natural landscape. In some senses, though, the questing or mountaineering impulse is taken up by contemporary women poets, as indeed it was by Dorothy Wordsworth, whose taste for testing her own endurance is evident in her journal entry of 14 May 1800, in which she writes, ‘I walked as long as I could’.94 Even Tarlo’s attentive walker climbs a hill. Presley explains in the interview with Hardy how she often composes her work out of doors, even when the weather makes this a laborious task. She describes how she set about ‘Stone Settings’ by ‘writing on site,’ on an exposed Devon moor, recalling also that ‘[u]nfortunately due to bad weather and the remoteness of sites this proved a more difficult technique than expected!’95 In fact, she goes on, ‘conditions were rarely ideal,’ but this allowed her to variously experience ‘the sheer physical pleasure, or discomfort, of exploring the layout of the stones.’96
Clearly women have been physically exerting themselves in order to explore and experience their environment for as long as men have, a brother and sister jointly inaugurating the practice of walking for recreation, as Solnit points out.97 Many women number among the walkers whose journeys Solnit describes in her book, and indeed Solnit herself, along with friends such as Lucy Lippard, are tough and prodigious walkers. The point Presley’s ‘Stone Settings’ makes is not simply that women can walk and work outdoors, but that the resultant poetry can call into question, or offer up for scrutiny, the imperialism of the Romantic masculine mountaineer. As Hardy notes, ‘Stone Settings’ is prefaced with a quote from female archaeologist Hazel Eardley-Wilmot’s Ancient Exmoor, in which she describes the stones as ‘Exmoor’s special puzzle.’98 Hardy suggests that Presley is ‘not trying to solve this puzzle,’ but ‘to see it from different perspectives – from the air, from other texts, from the mapped ground.’99 Demonstrating physical stamina, gaining the top of a hill, penetrating the earth like Eardley-Wilmot, Presley’s poems suggest, do not necessarily entail an imperial assertion of point of view. They can be ways of understanding more clearly the range of objects and experiences that shape the landscape. Like Tarlo’s ‘steady yourself on a grass’, ‘Stone Settings’ offers alternatives to the single view and vantage point of the nature-conqueror.
Indeed, failure to conquer is integral to Presley’s project. She admits that she was ‘wholly unable to find the double quartz stone row of “White ladder”, even with the help of the Exmoor archaeologist!’100 But that failure became a ‘strength’ when it was acknowledged as a testament to ‘the impurity of being’ and the inability to impose order in a landscape that is ‘complicated by being peopled’ (‘peopled’ in the widest sense including non-human beings).101 The reference to the metalled road, which Oliver Rackham describes as a Roman construction technique, evokes the militaristic determination to create order out of disorder, and to force upon those who walk it a particular set of experiences.102 The ‘uncompromising red lines’ of Roman roads, laid out by military engineers, ignore ‘[g]radients, fens, wet hilltops, perils of ambush and any protests of people whose land lay in the way,’ only bending from their course to avoid the most ‘formidable natural obstacles’.103 This goal-orientation, along with the type of walking it encourages, are parodied in ‘White ladder’, the walk momentarily becoming a march:
one by one104
As Solnit points out, ‘[m]arching subordinates the very rhythms of individual bodies to group and to authority,’ negating the vital and embodied experience of walking.105 Presley’s failure to find order in the stones therefore preserves the ‘impurity’ of a landscape that is littered with the evidence of past interactions, and over which ‘we are not in charge’.106 In her own words, it acknowledges ‘the multiplicity of voices that exist in any landscape, in any discourse, and our responsibility to listen to those voices, as well as the recognition of our own very limited line of sight.’107 Implicit in the enactive account of perceptual experience is that each perceiver structures their own environment. Presley’s recognition of the other entities that exist in the landscape opens it up as a space in which no one perspective takes precedence over any other, and in which objects are themselves ‘actors and agents’.108
Being satisfied with no result, treating whatever one finds in the landscape as though ‘that was the best’ is, as Wordsworth acknowledges, the special ability of Mary and Dorothy. Presley and Tarlo do not seek to demonstrate mastery over their environment, like the relentlessly linear course of Roman roads, nor to use the experience of walking to ‘inwardly seek’ in Ammons’s masculine Romantic sense, but to engage with external objects of nature through embodied perception.
Emotional experience and interiority in Helen Macdonald’s ‘Walking’
Conversely, in Helen Macdonald’s ‘Walking’,109 an attempt is made, through the breath, to cast off the phenomenal senses. With ‘eyes shut & breathing’,110 Macdonald’s walker focuses attention inward. Similar to the way in which meditation encourages attentiveness to the breath as a way of achieving a heightened spiritual state, the sense of embodiment that breathing realizes in this poem is an acutely interior experience. The common human practice of walking to clear the head, resolve a problem, or gain clarity over a certain issue is explained, according to Christopher Tilley, by the notion that kinaesthetic experiences induce cognitive processes.111 On this account, the significance of walking in human existence is less in its perceptual function than in its capacity to enable profound ‘inward seeking’.
The tighter form of Macdonald’s ‘Walking’ also reflects a focus drawn inward, compared to the openness of ‘steady yourself on a grass’ and ‘White ladder’. The density of black printed words on the page even creates a kind of darkness that reflects the crepuscular setting of the poem, as opposed to the more or less explicit presence of the sun in Tarlo and Presley’s poems. In ‘Walking’, ‘the head bows & nothing is’.112 The ‘Where. Why and etcetera’113 of the walk are referred to dismissively. The walk is here the facilitator of an intensely interior experience, allowing the walker to ‘concentrat[e] on the sodden lake of the heart’.114 External reality is noticed ‘in the sense of a register only’; it briefly intercedes in the experience as the sensation of ‘cold’, serving to remind her that she is indeed ‘still alive’, a phenomenal being, but more importantly, ‘still hurt’.115 The psychological state of the walker is considered here as overriding the physical. Macdonald writes, ‘I am balanced on one foot, assuming the next step is groundward’116; her body is functioning automatically, and separately from the mind which is busy with its hurt.
The distress of the walker also speaks of her failure to connect with her environment. Walking in natural surroundings is often supposed to alleviate stress, to placate a racing mind or quiet a restless body. But for Macdonald’s walker, ‘Where calm comes is never known’.117 That she says ‘where’, as opposed to when or how, for example, suggests that she understands calm to be a state of mind achieved in a certain place. Her walking has failed, however, to disclose the elusive ‘lake of sweet cloves and lotus’.118 Unlike Tarlo and Presley, for whom even error and failure are experienced as proof of their enactive relationship with the environment, Macdonald’s walker cannot rely on her ‘shaking’119 body to guide her perception. She must ‘assume’ the ‘next step is groundward’; her perceptual experience provides her with no sense of security or assurance that this is true.
Phenomenological accounts of human-object relations have been criticised for providing ‘an overly “cosy” reading of place’.120 In particular, Timothy Morton argues that they do not recognise strangeness or uncanniness in encounters with the environment, or the possibility of ‘gaps’ in our experience.121 In other words, phenomenology makes the notion that the next step is groundward too much a matter of certainty. In Realist Magic, Morton reiterates the central claim of Object Oriented Ontology: ‘things withdraw from total access’.122 Objects are, according to OOO, ‘irreducible to their perception or relations or uses,’ ‘which means that they limit what one can think about them’.123 If this is right, then Macdonald’s walker can do no more than ‘assume’ where her next step will take her. Yet Morton concedes that ‘[w]ithdrawal isn’t a violent sealing off. Nor is it some void or vague darkness’.124 His ontology aims to preserve the ‘mystery’ or ‘ambiguity’ of objects in a ‘rich’ and positive sense, not to inspire existential distress.125 The withdrawn quality of objects does not, therefore, fully explain the ‘hurt’ of Macdonald’s walker.
In any case, it is the walker herself who attempts to withdraw, ‘Shielding the harm from further harm’.126 But bowing the head does not reduce the intrusion of the world on her perception. ‘Little owls calling through dawn | mate selection, early spring on ash fence’ penetrate the ‘voile and velux’ of the home; ‘external’ nature penetrates interior space.127 Yet, in this poem, nature has already taken on qualities of the walker’s hurt, which are reflected back to her, magnifying her suffering, and which cannot be blocked out. Her trauma forces her to perceive that ‘wherever the ground is, blood’.128 The therapeutic possibilities of walking – ‘calm’, ‘regularity’ – fail when the traumatized mind encounters only the trauma of a land drained ‘into raw salt and a poverty of sand’.129 We might read this as ‘pathetic fallacy’, which according to Bate, ‘occurs when the emotion distorts the mental reflection of nature in such a way that the poet no longer sees the object as it really is’.130 Perhaps in Macdonald’s poem it is a deliberate complication of any eco-ethical agenda that might be inferred, as the emphasis on the interiority of the walker means we cannot be sure whether the trauma of the land is represented in its own terms or in that of the perceiver. But such a reading forces the poem to declare the existence of a world which ‘really is’ external and unreachable (or withdrawn). We might instead consider that the use of pathetic fallacy denotes an acknowledgement of the power of emotion over experience. In this way, the poem collapses the internal-external dichotomy; this walker’s environment is not seen through her emotional state, but rather her emotional state and her environment interact to generate her particular perception, re-enforcing ‘the possibility that internalized knowledge affects actual physiological experience’.131
Karl Kroeber claims that for Wordsworth, the ‘landscape is inseparable from the history of the poet’s mind’.132 This is also clearly identifiable in Dorothy Wordsworth’s understanding of the relationship between mind and world. She writes, on 14 May 1800, ‘I sate a long time upon a stone at the margin of the lake, & after a flood of tears my heart was easier. The lake looked to me I knew not why dull and melancholy, the weltering on the shores seemed a heavy sound’.133 That she says, ‘I knew not why,’ suggests in fact the opposite: she has just explained that her mood is responsible for the particular appearance of the landscape at this moment. Rather, it reveals the extent to which that appearance is internalized, and to which her emotional and perceptual experience are entwined in the world around her.
Macdonald’s pathetic fallacy should be understood in this Wordsworthian sense, not as the projection of mind onto matter, but as the entanglement of mind and world, and as a mode of seeing in line with James Gibson and Tim Ingold’s ‘ecological perception’. We do not ‘cover’ the world with ‘meaning,’ Ingold argues, but experience meaning as ‘immanent in the contexts of [our] pragmatic engagements with [the world’s] constituents’.134 Ecological and enactive understandings of visual perception mean that we need no longer distinguish between interior and exterior; instead we should think of vision as a constant process of relation and feedback between the physical and emotional position of the looker and the objects to which she attends. Nevertheless, Macdonald shows that the emotional aspect of our engagement with the world can have the effect of making objects withdraw – psychological distress can dislocate our sense of security in the body’s ability to ‘cope’ with its environment.
The hostile landscape
Macdonald’s poem also raises an important issue in a gendered account of walking. The final line, ‘wherever the ground is, blood,’ alerts us to the fact that walking outdoors has been and continues to be dangerous for women in particular ways. In prose-poem 8 of Somerset Letters, Presley similarly reminds us of the first rule of walking, that ‘you should never go anywhere on your own or without telling someone that you’ve gone’.135 Macdonald’s walker, her head bowed, ‘Shielding the harm from further harm,’ perhaps resembles less stout Dorothy Wordsworth than, say, Tess Durbeyfield, who disguises herself in the hope of attracting as little attention as possible on her long tramps through the countryside. ‘Still alive, still hurt,’ like Macdonald’s walker, Tess experiences the particular dangers to which lone, disenfranchised women are exposed when walking. Tess of the d’Urbervilles is littered with instances in which the unseen threatens: ‘As she walked […] some footsteps approached behind her, the footsteps of a man; and owing to the briskness of his advance he was close at her heels.’136
Presley’s rule is of course an acknowledgement that the rural landscape is sometimes hostile to all human exploration, regardless of gender; that it must not be approached as if it were simply there for people to enjoy. The Ordnance Survey map reference in Presley’s ‘Blurred passage’, alludes to the equipment which must accompany any excursion into even the most familiar or benevolent-seeming of landscapes, if the walker is to avoid ending up ‘under powered | water whipped | hair stranded | foot turned’, or worse.137 The poem voices the tension between these dangers and a desire to explore the landscape unfettered, to open oneself up to epiphanic moments or new encounters such as:
smell of almond gorse
small white wood anemone138
It also references the ‘Right to Roam’,139 celebrating the consolidation of efforts to conserve British countryside for public enjoyment but also problematizing the implicit assumption of the walker-adventurer that the land belongs to them, that it is for them, by highlighting the potential hostility of the landscape.
Conclusions and implications
At the same time as they explore the possibility of ‘structural coupling’ in organism-environment relations, Tarlo, Presley and Macdonald also address the sense of ‘externality’ that persists in contemporary understandings of landscape, nature, reality, and so on. On a practical level this relates to the spaces in which we actually walk – how do we protect or conserve areas such as National Parks without implicitly treating them as a ‘screen’, ‘ground’ or ‘resource’ for our inward seeking?140 In philosophical terms, it relates to current discussions about objects themselves – perhaps phenomenology and enactivism allow us too complete access to their being, guaranteeing what Adorno called their ‘unfreedom’; on the other hand, perhaps the emphasis on mystery and withdrawnness in OOO reinforces the idea of externality in ways that move us scarcely beyond the masculine sublime. Macdonald and Presley’s important caveat on the potential hostility of ‘external reality’ raises questions such as: how can a landscape with which we are structurally coupled pose such significant dangers? How might it be possible to square the notion that human perceivers enact their environment with the particular ways in which walking has been, and continues to be hazardous for women? How might women embrace the ‘marked’ position required by feminist objectivity and enact their environment with the same autonomy as ‘unmarked’ male bodies?
In the hands of these poets, the familiar walking poem enters a ‘radical’ poetics of landscape, in which poetic form becomes the means of testing insights into the co-constitution of organisms and environments provided by phenomenology and cognitive science. Their formal presentations are figures for the activity of the perceptual system, drawing on the role of the eyes, in concert with the body, and the emotional content of human interactions with the world. Where they connect features of later Wordsworthian and Dorothean walking with contemporary considerations of perceptual experience, they also strengthen congruities between Romantic and contemporary eco-poetics. Presley rehabilitates the impulse towards imperialism by showing how the hard graft of walking and working outdoors produces an embodied sensation distinct from the victory of physical achievement; Tarlo’s walker immerses herself in a relational and contingent world; Macdonald complicates the act of walking for women, but ultimately stresses the possibility of deep emotional engagement with the world.