On a recent summer evening at dusk, a group of people decided to go for a walk together, silently. This involved, most basically, a quiet herd of amblers moving through a Logan Square neighborhood eyeing green grass and fingering cinderblock walls. On another level, though, this was a Walk, as Thoreau would have it; not just the shuffling of sneakers against sidewalk to get from train to home, but a saunter—Thoreau’s word—for the sake of sauntering. Thoreau, of course, wrote a treatise on it. Buddhists call it “walking meditation” when you’re consciously walking, but it is decidedly not exercise.
Walking seems to be the perfect antidote to a full day of writing, or reading, or working creatively. The poet Wordsworth’s working method included obsessively pacing a path in his yard to help stoke the creative fire. Solutions and connections become clear while walking, as the brain and senses are reminded of a world beyond the fifteen-inch tunnel connecting your face and the computer screen. A little breeze tickles your eyeball. The mind becomes unburdened.
The Logan Square walk was coordinated by Michelle Tupko and Adam Jameson as part of the Red Rover reading series. The value of walking for a bunch of happily sedentary types was made clear by Tupko and Jameson as they introduced the phrase “reading a space,” meaning that a walker may observe the sights—say, a burning shopping cart—as metaphors and symbolic pieces culled from a larger text, the world. Perceiving the banal set piece of one’s life with elevated intentionality helps us to recognize the built environment as built, says Michelle. But why would she want to do that?
On her walking tours Michelle prohibits talking. The forced silence curbs nervous chatter among participants. The walk becomes a rare moment where several strangers aren’t encumbered by discussing the weather and other fluffy niceties. We just walk. It’s easy to take the simple act of walking for granted, but it is a feat of biological engineering, a triumph of mass over gravity, the coordination of muscle, bone and mind.
One year ago, Meg Onli realized the value of not speaking while walking. She journeyed by foot for about five hundred miles, from Maryland to Ontario, Canada, to retrace a historic Underground Railroad route. She says that talking during the twenty-mile per day treks last summer felt unnecessary. Although it was not a rule to be quiet, she remained silent and observant, snapping photographs and collecting experiences along her route.
Meg decided to walk this particular string of the Railroad because it connected historic sites from the novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” She was compelled to go “in search of her blackness” by taking a walk inspired by a book. She would read the landscape, as it were, for clues about her ancestors, for whom a book had not been written.
Michelle takes different types of walks. In March of this year she set out to walk over a hundred miles from Lincoln, Nebraska to Gibbon in order to witness a migration of sandhill cranes. She says that 500,000 cranes have been spotted at this area in years past, and the accumulated sound was incredible. Going out to look for wilderness, though, is not the same today as it may have been for Thoreau in the 1800s. In Nebraska, Michelle’s notion of the wild was fraught with romantic assumptions about the vast Midwest prairie, but the world has not really been paved for walkers.
During the Logan Square walk, Michelle decided not to turn left, into some dangerous walking territory. Quite the adventurer, though, during a festival in Michigan she courted the “bad neighborhood” and steered herself there. The definition of a bad neighborhood is variable. While planning her Underground Railroad trip, Meg charted out the routes using popular mapping websites. These mapped the terrain, though, and not the population demographic. Meg set out assuming that the racism she would encounter would be from the historical novel only. On the preemptive advice of a local she changed her pathway to avert a “bad neighborhood” where the Klan was active.
The evidence and souvenirs from Meg’s journey—a slideshow, journal notes, maps and personal correspondences—cover the wall of an exhibition venue. Since the act was mostly performative, it’s a challenge to make this material speak wholly about Meg’s experiences. A set of prints based on fugitive slave posters are most recognizable as elements of an art project.
Michelle has also struggled with the question of folding her walking voyages back into her art practice, as she’s a trained sculptor. She notes that many performance artists produce gallery-oriented work for the purpose of having a show. Exhibiting performance artifacts is one of the few physical manifestations of a validated art career for a performance artist. It’s a line on the resume, and a recognized funnel for grant money. The complexities of how to support the practice of walking may seem distant from walking’s basic concerns, but a journey, as they say, begins with a step.
Published in Newcity (August 3, 2009)