To walk step by step over a region of the geophysical landscape absorbs detail and scale in unparalleled detail. The act of walking contracts space and time. Miles consumed on foot, though it takes much longer than a car, train, or plane, distill into memory, and the space traversed becomes navigable, not slowly but at the speed of thought; the fastest speed you can imagine. I call this taking possession and none of the ‘faster’ modes of travel take ownership of space in this way.
“Walking between faraway places, arriving with a determination to play, until you must depart – sweet sorrow ! This living the glorious life – la bohème – of the noble Conquistador forging fresh paths along the road less traveled.”Orson Welles
Nowadays, large geophysical spaces get made by machines that dwarf the dimensions of the little human bag of bones and meat. First glance can be daunting. But should it be? Distilled memory doesn’t waste time dwelling on past efforts. It doesn’t waste time on time, period. It can transcend both the grandest scales of the natural world and the most ambitious mechanical constructions of man.
Take the vast desert plain on the edge of Cairo from which rise the Great Pyramids of Giza, the Necropolis, and the Sphinx. Toil (and time) devoted to the simple physical discovery of these many miles of space contracts to a mere blink of “spent labour” the moment it’s done. By using your feet to make good the exploration, Giza is experienced as a wonder in three dimensions, full of life and sound and smell. Google Earth flyby can’t compete.
Time itself becomes an elastic concept once it’s distilled into memory. Ironically, this may be closer to the reality of our universe, despite our linear intuitions convincingly trying to frame the cause and effect of lived limbic experience as it’s happening. After your walk, space and the time collapse as fixed constants. Recalling past journeys, you can traverse the largest of spaces at whatever speed you like, in whichever order you prefer.
Psychogeography is a transformation of fixed space and linear time, into curved space and relative time. What a piece of work is a man!
Walking is the ultimate expression of freedom. It takes possession of space in the high resolution and lets you move through the experiential timeline with perfect but flexible fidelity.
Imagination can parse humble explorations on foot into a superhero virtual reality. It can leap buildings in a single bound! Points, no matter how far apart, get traversed as if by teleportation!
But there’s something more significant gained by walking. Taking possession means you need to explore the world’s geophysical spaces, not in cold isolation but connected, integrated into the psychogeography of the environment. Walking is the only way to achieve this authentically; one by one, your own footsteps.
Walking is also the ultimate babelfish of geography. It moves from unfamiliar terrain to new surroundings in actual time, travelling the void space of transitions connecting distinct ecosystems, nuance intact. Void becomes non-void as it fills the blank spaces with colour. The most profound form of taking possession is the placement of your experience of those living spaces on the robust foundations of completed map-space.
This is not all.
Unlike looking at the map or postcard – enjoying the conceit of ‘being there’ – or listening to anecdotes or even watching Google Street View, the walker gets to own the context too. The walker becomes the flaneur. He or she takes possession of genuine moments in time, the living performances that’s the true content of every passing instance. In short: the PEOPLE.
And these people hidden, frozen faces blurred by exposure of the Google car. Instead, the human and animal cast of characters move about their day (or night) kinetic energy in full flow. You and they exist in the space; living with it, through it, around it, in all the many-splendour’d beauty and banality of “being there”.
They say the journey is more important than the destination. If that’s true, it’s because of the people. Taking possession is book ended by arrival and departure, walking for a time in the life-space of fellow travellers (locals or transients) with whom – for a little while – we shared the road less travelled.
Je m’en allais, les poings dans mes poches crevées;
Mon paletot aussi devenait idéal;
J’allais sous le ciel, Muse ! et j’étais ton féal;
Oh ! là là ! que d’amours splendides j’ai rêvées!
Mon unique culotte avait un large trou.
– Petit-Poucet rêveur, j’égrenais dans ma course
Des rimes. Mon auberge était à la Grande Ourse.
– Mes étoiles au ciel avaient un doux frou-frou
Et je les écoutais, assis au bord des routes,
Ces bons soirs de septembre où je sentais des gouttes
De rosée à mon front, comme un vin de vigueur;
Où, rimant au milieu des ombres fantastiques,
Comme des lyres, je tirais les élastiques
De mes souliers blessés, un pied près de mon coeur!
– Arthur Rimbaud, 1872
BEWARE! NOT ALL TRANSLATIONS ARE THE SAME.
I was going away, fists in my torn pockets;
Even my greatcoat was something imaginary.
I was walking under the sky, my Muse! And I was faithful to you;
Oh! La, la! What splendid loves I was dreaming of!
My only trousers had a terrible tear in them.
Like Petit-Poucet dreaming, I grinned and I rhymed
Along the way. My lodging was under the Great Bear,
My stars in the sky shook their soft, rustling frills.
And I listened to them, seated by the roadside,
Those good September evenings, and I felt the dew
Drops on my forehead like an invigorating wine;
Where, rhyming in among the supernatural shadows,
Like a lyre, I plucked at the strings,
Of my broken down shoes, one foot resting close to my heart!