In the third of our Intersections blog posts, Jamie Hinrichs (University of St. Andrews) discusses walking as both a subject and a method in environmental history.
Walking is not as pedestrian as it seems, especially when it is made the subject of environmental history. Actually, it was this presumed unremarkable and timeless nature of walking that immediately drew me in. Walking, just like nature, often gets left out of history.
While walking is often relegated to the background of history, it is certainly embedded in the foreground of many rural landscapes. When travelling on foot through rural Britain it is hard to ignore the way in which the land has been marked by footpaths, stiles, kissing gates, sign-posted rights-of-way, or invisible rights to roam. If the rural landscapes of today are managed for – indeed imprinted by – walking, it’s worth investigating how and when it came to be so.
Walking became my path into environmental history primarily because of the importance it has in all arenas of my life. Walking is the principal way I immerse myself in the landscape around me (the wilder the better), an experience that awoke in me the aspiration to become a writer who, by telling their history, contributes to the preservation of landscapes.
I began my thesis with a desire to understand walking as a character in the story of rural landscape conservation in Britain. So far, I’ve been most struck by the connections between the cultural values given to the gesture of walking, and those that are incorporated into the landscape in which the walker walks.
This is central to the research questions shaping the approach to my chapter on hill walking, the idea of which was born three years ago in the Sierra Nevada Mountains while reading by torchlight. I was poring over My First Summer in the Sierra penned by a Scottish naturalist (born in Dunbar – a place I’d never heard of then) who became a champion of wilderness preservation. Although this man (John Muir) died some one hundred years before I had pitched my tent in that same range of mountains he worked to protect, his reflections of experiencing the Divine while ‘sauntering’ through mountain wilderness resonated with my personal experiences.
When I began considering my chapter topics, I grew curious as to whether the sentiments of this Scotsman in America were shared by his contemporary brethren across-the-pond. Was this peculiar only to American mountain preservation? If this occurred in Britain as well, how vital was walking to preservation efforts? Was the spiritual encounter due mostly to the intrinsic characteristic of the mountain, rendering the gesture of walking a convenient mode of conveyance with no greater import?
As I’ve been working on this chapter I’ve found that I’m reading myself into my primary sources. This might be deemed dangerous from the perspective of fostering objective historical analysis, but I do not so much mind this interjection of my present into the past, as it helps me better understand the history I’m attempting to unravel. As with John Muir, the authors of these sources – who I fondly refer to as “My Walkers” – seem to have sought mountain rambles for the same reasons as me. Namely, walking at alpine heights in the mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries seemed to have provided a sense of spiritual renewal. But what caused this need for rejuvenation? And what was it about walking in mountains, specifically, that satisfied spiritual needs? Was this all just a continuation of the Romantic adoration of mountains? If so, could it be argued that spiritual saunters during my period were of any real significance to decisions to preserve mountains?
The cultural values associated with this unremarkable and timeless gesture might tramp right into our present tactics of managing rural landscapes. After all, environmental history need not always be a tale of entropy centred on the ways in which humans brought about environmental degradation due to ecological disregard. Make no mistake – such narratives are vital histories that need telling. However, environmental history may also be a tale of how anthropocentric means can bring about ecological ends, conveying the ways in which landscape preservation can be achieved through the motivation of recreation. Indeed, walking might just be one pathway into an ecocentric future.
Jamie Hinrichs is a PhD student at the University of St. Andrews. Her thesis is titled ‘Out for a Walk: Pedestrian Practices & British Landscape Conservation, c.1850 – 1950’, and she blogs at forest odyssey.