Hedgerows

He is speaking about his family history and its ties to a part of Wales I have spent some time. The presentation is beautiful, and everyone in the room is spellbound by his descriptions of the objects from his family’s history and the deeply sad story they tell.

He describes walking recently down the road where his great grandfather had been found many many years ago, and marvelling at the wildness of the hedgerows, somehow chaotic and contained at the same time. I know these hedgerows. I have gazed at them up close in the same way this man I do not know describes doing. 

He shows a picture of the hedgerows, and something odd happens to my heart. It wobbles a little, shaken by something like nostalgia, like grief, like the kind of sadness one feels for a friend going through a difficult time, except that the sadness is for a past version of myself. 

When I wandered along those hedgerows it was summer. I wore gumboots and sometimes a rain jacket. 

Sometimes I wandered as part of a little troupe, and we would sing each other silly songs, and pluck sticky weed, a plant I know as cleavers, from the hedgerow and stick it to one another. On these ventures I learned to recognise stinging nettle, and the other plants in the chaos of the hedgerow that would help ease the pain of a too-close encounter with the nettle. On one occasion, one of my wandering companions pointed out a delicate and tiny orchid, and told us all she knew about the plant.

Other times I wandered just with one other, often at dusk, my favourite time of day, and she and I would talk about the things that were making us sad, the answers we were trying to find in our lives. We would stop to look at the sun setting, and at cows in the fields. I’m not sure we found the answers, but I think what we grew between us on those evening walks along the hedgerows was some kind of hope—the kind of hope that a growing friendship feeds.

In Wales I also walked up a mountain, explored castles, dug potatoes, checked fields for molehills. I removed ivy from trees—an activity involving considerably more effort than that short phrase implies, with small axes and other tools, scrabbling through undergrowth and small branches, and as much brute strength as I could muster—and built and burned a bonfire. Of course, when I say “I” there, I really mean “we”.

Listening to this man’s presentation, a year after my own introduction to the hedgerows, I’m realise I’m finally beginning to understand the kind of room my heart made for the country I walked through then, and the people I walked with. I’m also seeing the depth of the fog that surrounded me at that time, and that perhaps it was a necessary buffer. As that fog has lifted, slowly, a gratitude for that time, those people, and that place has settled in its place. 

Later, at the pub, this man and I talk very briefly about our different connections to the place in his presentation. He tells me he’s spent very little time there himself, but its presence has haunted his family in the generations that came after his great grandfather’s death. I tell him a little about my time there, and I’m struck by the way this place is associated with sadness in each of our stories, and with a shift in the direction those stories. 

For him, this shift happened before he was born, and his exploration of it is in part an attempt to understand how it’s contributed to where he finds himself now. For me, this shift is something much more recent in my past, and I have a feeling that it will still be quite some time before I can see the impact it’s had on the wandering of my life. 

All I know so far is that I think of the hedgerows, and those wanderings along them, often. They are vivid in my memory—the voices of my wandering companions, the soft quality of the light, the quiet of the countryside, the texture of the different plants, and the scent of them. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about how things leave traces on us, and how those traces are not always obvious. Even when they’re felt, we can’t always understand what they really mean, or will mean. I may spend the rest of my life not fully understanding the traces left by the time I spent in Wales. And maybe this is what that man’s presentation showed me—that the traces of a place and things that happen in a place may be felt generations later, and perhaps still not understood.

Threads and spaces between have been concepts at the forefront of my mind for some time now. In my own talk at the conference where the man spoke about the Welsh hedgerows and his family, I spoke about sound as a medium that creates what sound theorist Brandon LaBelle calls ‘relational space’. This is an important argument for my thesis—and is both figuratively and literally true—but I also think that, at least figuratively, the same might be said for any of the senses. They are an opportunity to perceive relational spaces and to notice the threads that run through them. 

I’m still not quite there in trying to understand my time in Wales and what it’s meant for me. The threads are still loose here. But maybe that’s an interesting point at which to pause, and just to notice the slack in the weave. 

I think of my mother’s knitting. The way she weaves together threads of yarn over many hours, in stages, on and off, to make a garment; the way she unravels parts or all of that garment if the finished piece doesn’t quite work, and starts again. 

The things she makes are always beautiful, for all that weaving and unravelling and re-weaving. Maybe I’m still unravelling Wales, so I can begin weaving again.

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Sunflowers 

Excuse me, I say, is this your garden?

It is the end of the week. I’m extremely tired and have been for a long walk. On my way home, I have caught a woman coming out of a house with a wonderful garden behind the front fence and another on the verge, with sunflowers just starting to bloom. It is one of my favourite parts of this particular regular walking route. 

Well, I planted it, yes, she says. She hesitates slightly. 

I tell her how much I love it, how I admire it every time I walk past. 

She relaxes. She is older than I am by maybe fifteen years. Her hair is short, neat, and dark—quite the opposite of mine: long, unruly, fair. Her face is friendly; eyes, bright. She smiles easily. She tells me about the garden’s history, the difficulties with the local council, the concerns of some of her neighbours. But also about her idea that a garden in this spot could be a small source of joy for passersby. 

Do you garden? she asks me. 

I do, I tell her, and bemoan the terrible soil in my front garden, which seems to want to grow almost nothing, no matter how much garden waste and compost and spent coffee grounds and green manure and mulch I throw at it. Unlike the back garden, which is overgrown, wild, and full of food. The front garden is a source of ongoing, quiet frustration for me; something almost always at the back of my mind, so that every now and then a possible solution pops into my head. 

Have you tried sunflowers? she asks me, they seem to grow anywhere and everywhere, even in terrible soil. 

I haven’t tried sunflowers. 

She tells me about the garden behind her front fence, fairly well established now, that only two years ago would grow almost nothing because of low soil quality. But sunflowers grew just fine. 

I could give you some seeds, she says, I’m sure I’ve got some lying around. 

I think I probably I have some sunflower seeds lying around somewhere at home, so I don’t take her up on the offer this time. But we exchange names, and chat about work and households and takeaway dinners on a Friday night. I am struck for about the seven hundredth time since I began gardening just how unlikely it is that I would have met this complete stranger were it not for a garden and a curiosity in me that lends itself to friendliness—a trait that is no doubt amplified by the practice of gardening itself, where curiosity about a plant, a seed, the soil, becomes paying friendly attention: watching, listening. 

We talk about succulents. About how many of the succulents in her verge garden have been grown from cuttings. I tell her about the giant jade plant on my parents’ front verandah, grown from a cutting given to my mum by an old housemate and dear friend of mine at the time we lived together. 

She tells me to come and knock on her door if I realise I do need sunflower seeds. 

I wander home thinking about cities and culture and agriculture and tending to plants; about how many conversations I have had with complete strangers because of a garden; and how the link between cities, culture, agriculture and sociability is so strong and so old that it’s almost invisible. Until someone sows some sunflower seeds on their front verge. 

Small floods

  There are words enough, at last.

I have come to think of this last year, 2015, as the year I lost to grief. 

Grief appeared at strange moments. Unexpected, it bubbled up from somewhere inside and filled me up. Sometimes it leaked, and wet my eyelashes, matting them together in shiny triangles at the edges of my eyes. Sometimes it seethed then raged, like the ocean withdrawing from the shore and the tidal wave that follows. There were days when the grief burned my cheeks with its saltiness. 

This grief is old. It’s been waiting a decade or more for me to give it space. In that time, it’s trickled into spaces all through my body, looking for somewhere it can rest, leaving its mark along the way, like flood marks on a wall. It hasn’t found a home, in all that time. Nowhere to settle, just restlessness and the scars of constant movement.

When I started giving it space, I began dreaming more than I had in years. About loss, about continuing despite loss. Maybe because of it. Starting again, not from scratch, but from where I am. Something we all need to do.

The grief came to rest in my chest; the space that air from outside creates and then deflates inside my lungs. And I wonder now if this is where it wanted me to allow it to go, all this time, so I could breathe it out, let it go. Have I kept it trapped all these years, thinking all the while that it was me who was the prisoner?

Words travel on the exhale when a person speaks, but for much of last year this old grief of mine was only air and water, draughts and leaks. 

Sounds, movement, silence. 

The only words I could use to explain it were nebulous, vague. 

Shapeless. Air and water. 

Mine alone to hold and then release back into the world, to be unmade and remade, the way we all are; to become something else.

It is a very strange and somewhat distressing state of affairs to be someone who has called themselves a writer and to find that there are no words, or that there are only words that make no sense to anyone else, and to feel that you cannot really understand the words other people are using. 

The year I lost to grief wasn’t completely lost, of course. I travelled, I worked, I loved. I made changes. I made new connections with people, more fully realised the depth of many old ones. I found that these people carried for me when I couldn’t a faith in me that I would find with time. I found, too, an immense gratitude, which I’m not sure there will ever be words enough to express, for this faith in me—especially because some of that faith came from people who didn’t have much beyond a hunch to go on. 

These are words enough now for the grief though. 

There is space where the grief once flooded everything else out. Space for joy and kindness and courage and playfulness. Space for all the things I thought I’d lost, but that had, in fact, just been learning how to swim. 

Too much sitting 

I’m in another airport, with my little backpack and my handbag, and the little knots of excitement/anxiety (I’m never entirely sure which it is) in my brow and the muscles of my neck I always have when I find myself at points of departure, and a low hum of ache in my lower back and the joints where the base of my spine meet my pelvis. 

I’m stupidly early, which I almost always am (except when I miss my flight—I seem to be a person of extremes). The departure gate is slowly filling with other people who are anxious or excited or bored or just plain tired. 

I find the most boring parts of travel, perhaps paradoxically, the most interesting, the most nuanced.

I love watching how other people deal with these moments (minutes, hours). At this departure gate, many are looking at a device of some sort. A woman reads a magazine with a picture of a big pile of fruit and vegetables on the page. A man checks and rechecks his passport and boarding pass. One woman—young, maybe 19, with sandy red hair and glasses and milky skin—sits with her elbows on her knees, her head in her hands, and just looks. Looks at everything and nothing in particular. 

I love watching how I deal with these moments (minutes, hours). Do I reach for a device? Do I read? Do I check my email thirty times even though I know there will be no new ones? Or do I, like the young woman with the glasses, just look?

Do I just look at anything and everything and let my mind wander? 

The ache in my back is from all the sitting and it annoys me. The sitting and the aching. The River Liffey has left a greater impression—a quiet one—in my mind than I realised until I found my mind wandering to it. I’m not entirely sure why at this point. Something about rivers in general, I think. I am tired. I would happily look at Ireland’s green for a whole day, but I wonder if I’d change my mind about that if it had rained more while I was here. There was so much sun in Ireland for my time here. 

I miss important people in my life. A lot. But at the same time I like being on my own. I don’t know what to do with that tension. I wonder where all these people are going, beyond the destination of the flight. Home? Holiday? Work? I wonder where I am going. I wonder what on earth I’m doing, roaming around like this, vague and tired. I think about some of the ways in which this year has been incredibly difficult and strange for me and can see that somehow the wandering is helping, even if I can’t say how or why. I don’t know what’s coming next on this trip, and I’m surprisingly calm about that. 

I think about the yoga anatomy video I’ve watched in the last few days about the nuanced relationship between the different parts of our nervous system, between the parts that speed us up and the parts that slow us down. 

My flight is called. There is movement. My body is glad for it. The knots in my neck muscles relax a little. I find my boarding pass. Departure again.

Slow and steady: realising there is no race

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/3a9/1665537/files/2014/12/img_0513.jpgI’ve always been a fast walker. I think it began when I was very small, and had to walk-run-walk to keep pace with adults. And it continued that way, always trying to keep up with someone or something, present or not. 

It won’t come as a surprise to anyone who knows me or anyone who’s read this blog for any length of time that I love to walk. I’ve never owned a car, and for one reason or another, I’ve never quite settled into riding a bike. My feet and legs have carried me all over the place. I walk a lot. And, until recently, everywhere I went, I walked quickly. 

Sometimes I needed to move quickly; sometimes not. Walking quickly was my habit, and I was, I guess, quietly proud of how quickly I could make my way between places on my own two feet. 

This year, for one reason or another, I’ve finally stopped hurrying everywhere. Bit by bit. A cumulative slowing. 

I’ve slowed enough to notice how I’m walking, and to begin to make changes to my locomotion that mean I’ve less discomfort and pain in my hips—discomfort I didn’t realise was so bad until it wasn’t there anymore—and less compression and rigidity in my back—something I hadn’t actually noticed at all, until it too began to disappear. 

But what’s amazed me the most is the ripple this slowing of my walking has sent into the rest of my life. As my walking has slowed, so has my thinking and feeling. Just as there has been space open up for me to notice my physical body and the physical surroundings it’s moving through, there has been space open up in my mind. Space between the thoughts and the feelings and the worrying about everyday or not-so-everyday things. Without a doubt, slowing my walking has calmed me. There’s something about unhurried motion that works so well for me in this way.

Sometime earlier this year, I made a little pact with myself to stop hurrying. To stop rushing. Even if I was late. Perhaps especially when I was late. 

Because I realised at some point that for me, hurrying and anxiety were really one and the same. Hurrying was the embodiment of my anxiety, and hurrying had become so habitual for me that I was no longer sure whether the hurrying or the anxiety came first. 

It’s been an interesting exercise. Not one I’ve always succeeded in, of course. But those little ‘failures’ are probably the most interesting. Once I’d made the connection for myself between hurrying and anxiety, the times I failed to slow down became a sign that there was something it might be useful for me to look at. An anxiety that was perhaps stronger than my general desire to slow down. Noticing that I’d failed to stop hurrying became an opportunity I could take advantage of when I did manage to slow myself. 

And the funny thing was that most of the time, those ‘stronger’ anxieties were not really worth worrying about, once I gave myself the opportunity to tease them out a little. More often than not, they were like a shadow I’d vaguely seen in the corner of my vision as I hurried past—a shadow that looks like a monster until you look at it properly and realise it’s just the shadow of a tree branch moving around in the wind.

This year has been a very full year. Full of wonderful things, but also things that were challenging (those things were often one and the same). It’s not surprising that there were some anxieties lurking. (There always are, aren’t there?) But what I keep thinking about is how I’ve managed to get more done this year by moving slowly than I could ever have even hoped to have done by hurrying. 

The past year feels for me like it was an extended lesson in wandering, in noticing things along the way. Perhaps in appreciating things along the way, rather than missing them as I rushed towards some fairly arbitrary destination or goal. Stopping to smell the roses, sometimes quite literally, since many of my neighbours are skilled gardeners.

I keep thinking about how my year has been full, but not busy, and that the difference between those two things is all in how they feel. I know which one I prefer.

Making, cooking, food and wasting

IMG_0504.JPGWhen my brother and I were little, we used to sit in the dirt under the crab apple tree that grew beside the back door of our home and pile handfuls of dirt and handfuls of fallen crab apples into buckets. We’d fill the buckets with water, and attempt to make soup.

I don’t remember if we ever intended to eat the soup, but I do remember various strategies we employed to try to soften the crab apples so they might be edible. The crab apples were small — more like red berries really — and rock hard. Even trying to grind them between two flat rocks didn’t break them down. We tried soaking them in water for a short while before pounding them with rocks, we tried dropping them from the balcony. I’m not sure what motivated such a strong desire for softened crab apples. Perhaps we were thinking about chewing them, or perhaps we just wanted the texture of the crab apples to match the texture of the mud.

I’ve tried for some time to think of an anecdote that might illustrate how I came to be fascinated with making things. But the truth is that I don’t really remember where or when it started — although this story about the crab apples, and its placement early on the timeline of my life might suggest that the desire to make might be something I was born with or something I was taught from a very young age. And indeed both my parents are makers, and their parents before them. Things made from wood and stone, wool and cotton. Things made from food materials, destined for lunch boxes or the dinner table.

Anthropologist Tim Ingold writes about making as being similar to walking (2010). He suggests that both making and walking are a form of ‘wayfaring’ — that is, they are a way of knowing or coming to know, of making one’s way through the world. He describes a way of making that considers that the materials with which a person makes things are not inert, that skilled practice “is not a question of imposing preconceived forms on inert matter, but of intervening in the fields of force and currents of material wherein forms are generated” (pg 92, 2010). He suggests that to make is to “find the grain of the world’s becoming and to follow its course while bending it to [an] evolving purpose” (pg 92, 2010).

When I first began trying to make things using food scraps as materials, it became obvious to me very quickly that the materials I was using were not inert and that I would need to be willing to evolve my ideas about what I was making and how in order to avoid throwing out vast quantities of failed attempts. This was, after all, part of the reason I was attempting to make things from food scraps in the first place: I was trying to find value in these things that were usually considered waste.

Of the materials I use, I have been experimenting with lemon rinds the longest. My household goes through a lot of lemons, and I’d been taught somewhere along the line to keep them out of the compost for fear of upsetting the critters who made it their home. I also kept turning up yet-to-break-down lemon rinds in compost I was trying to use on the garden, and it was irritating to have to pick them out. The rinds that were kept out of the compost were going in the rubbish bin. This bothered me—mainly because I didn’t believe this could be the only answer. Lemon rinds are an organic material, I thought, surely there was something else I could do with them.

I tried making marmalade first (and in finding out how to do so, came across this lovely essay about marmalade making). It was easy and delicious, but I realised very quickly that I’d need to make an awful lot of marmalade to deal with the volume of material the household produced. So I tried making a lemon vinegar for cleaning. Again, it was very easy, and it was a brilliant all-purpose cleaner — perhaps the best I’ve ever used — but there’s only so much of it that a household needs.

I read that lemon oil was good for cosmetic purposes, and had a brightening effect on the skin and hair. I’d been making my own hair washes and skin moisturisers for some time, so I began trying to incorporate the lemon rind. At first, I made the mistake of trying to use it fresh, and discovered that there is still quite enough flesh in the rind of a lemon to go mouldy and send an entire batch of face cream that way too. It wasn’t the appearance of visible mould that made me realise my batch was going off — the smell changed. It wasn’t awful, but there was something not quite right about it. And when I continued to stubbornly use it on my face, not wanting to waste the cream and the time and effort I’d put into making it, my skin went blotchy and itchy. Eventually, reluctantly, I put the whiffy face cream aside and started again.

A woman at my work told me about how women in India (where she was from) use lemon oil for their skin and hair, and about how they dry the rinds out so they can keep them for longer. She described rows and rows of lemon and other citrus rinds lined up on people’s roofs on hot days, and the vague citrusy scent that hung in the air.

When I tried it at home, it was spring. One day hot and sunny; the next, rain. The lemon rinds went mouldy again, but at least this time it happened before I’d put them in a face cream.

I began a dance with the oven. Every time I was at home for a stretch of several hours, I’d put a tray of lemon rinds into a very low oven. I call this a dance because one of the other uses for citrus rinds is as a fire starter, due to the oil in citrus being highly flammable. I did, thankfully, managed to avoid lighting my oven on fire, but the drying results were inconsistent, and required more of my attention than I really wanted to give.

Then I was gifted a dehydrator. The drying was much slower, much more consistent, and required far less of my attention. And slowly I accumulated jars of citrus (mostly lemon) rind for later use in making other things.

Describing this process of learning how to use lemon rinds rather than throw them out perhaps sounds tiresome and lengthy on paper. At times, I guess it was, but for the most part, this experimentation was fascinating. All the stops and starts and changes of direction have helped me come to know an awful lot more about lemons and lemon rinds, about what they might be useful for, but also about myself. Playing with lemon rinds has taught me how much I enjoy the smell of citrus, that my hair and skin do indeed get brighter when I use lemon oil. It’s taught me to trust my sense of smell and to notice how my skin reacts to the things I make. It has also taught me about the rhythms I follow in my daily life, and for what and how much I am willing to change them — it has shown me how much of what I do is habit, and given me an opportunity to look at those habits with a new perspective.

It has also changed the way I look at and feel about these materials, at the idea that they’re commonly dismissed and thrown away, and at the infrastructure and culture that makes it difficult for people to waste less than they do. There are, of course, the environmental impacts of continuing habits where food scraps and other food are wasted, and those are by no means insignificant, but they are not the main focus of my research. As well as the environmental downside to these food waste habits, there is this idea of Ingold’s that making is a way of knowing and learning, of coming to understand something about the world and our relationship to it. It saddens me a great deal to think that sending food waste to landfill might both contribute significantly to global warming and represent a missed opportunity for making — and for learning through making.

This is perhaps what most makes me feel it is a shame that we have a tendency to think about ‘matter out of place’ (Douglas, 1980) as dirt or waste. In her seminal book ‘Purity and Danger: An analysis of the concepts of pollution and taboo’, anthropologist Mary Douglas examines the ways in which cultures come to categorise things as ‘unclean’ (and, I would argue, as ‘waste’), often because they do not neatly or easily fit into another category. “As we know it,” Douglas writes, “dirt is essentially disorder” (pg 2, 1980) She argues that we shun dirt (or waste) because it “offends against order” (pg 2, 1980). Eliminating dirt or waste is not a negative action, Douglas says, “but a positive effort to organise the environment” (pg 2, 1980). It is an attempt to make our environment conform to an idea we have of it, “to impose system on an inherently untidy experience” (pg 4, 1980).

Douglas’ book analyses cultures across time, finding this systematic categorisation at work (although in different ways) in both ancient and modern cultures, so my argument is certainly not that older cultures managed this objectively better. Instead, my exploration of food waste is an attempt to challenge the boundaries of some of these categories in our own culture, to suggest that there might be something to be learned from looking at, rather than eliminating, what we might refer to as ‘food waste’. It is to suggest that the waste is not so much the materials themselves, but in the labelling of the materials as dirt or waste, and the (failed, as it turns out) attempt at eliminating them. It is to suggest that looking at what we label ‘waste’ might have something to teach us, good or bad, about how we habitually organise our world in other ways.

I think of these experiments of mine with food waste as a form of play. A game that has extended out over years, and will no doubt continue to be played. What I am doing with these food scraps is not so different to what my brother and I did with mud and fallen fruit and pieces of stone. He and I were playing with materials of the world, perhaps imitating the dinner-making process our parents undertook in the kitchen, but we were also engaging with the world in a way that taught us about texture, about how different materials didn’t always behave the same way as one another when they were, say, mixed with water or pounded with rocks. We were probably finding out about ourselves and about one another. We were learning that that the non-human world was not something inherently or only dangerous, even when we were actually playing with dirt; that being in the world can mean engaging with it as a wayfarer, coming to know it through trial and error, rather than applying preconceived categorisations. We were exploring the world. We were making our way, untidily, probably covered in dirt, through it.

~

    Douglas, M. (1980). Purity and Danger: An analysis of the concepts of pollution and taboo. Binghamton, New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul Limited.
    Ingold, T. (2010). The textility of making. Cambridge Journal of Economics, 34(1), 91–102.

Learning to walk

2014-09-12 10.12.22-2Barefoot in the grass in my backyard, I am playing with the mobility in the structures of my feet. It is a sunny spring morning, the kind of almost-warm that draws a person who was very sick of winter outside to pretend the temperature is several degrees warmer than the gauge might suggest. I stand on one foot and feel the bones and muscles in that foot, the ankle and both legs adjust. I feel the damp grass between my toes. Then I stand on the other foot and notice the differences and similarities between it and the first.

On two feet again, I reach my arms up into the air, lift my face to the sun, then fold forward. I step first one foot back and then the other, so that now both my hands and my feet can feel the dampness of the grass.

There is a difference in the ease with which my hands and my feet hold my weight; a difference too between the mobility of these fairly similar structures. My breath is more pronounced when I ask my hands to bear my weight.

I make my way back to standing and walk slowly around the backyard, negotiating the various textures — grass, brick, straw, soil — with my bare feet. They notice as much as my hands and eyes do about the garden. For various reasons, I am consciously teaching my feet to be more aware of and more responsive to the environment I find myself in. I am re-learning how to walk.

~

Ethnographer Tim Ingold writes about the decline in “foot thinking” in modernist societies that put their feet in shoes and create hard surfaces to walk on, and about the relationship between this infrastructure and the valuing of head over heels in thinking, experience, biology and culture (2004). He argues that the mechanisation of footwork, along with other changes that accompanied the onset of modernity, “conspired to lend practical and experiential weight to an imagined separation between the activities of a mind at rest and a body in transit, between cognition and locomotion, and between the space of social and cultural life and the ground upon which that life is materially enacted” (2004, pg 321). Much of the way modern societies conduct and write about travel, Ingold suggests, is done as if the travellers are without legs (2004, pg 322).

This is something I see in yoga classes I teach. It’s something I’ve experienced myself. I’ve watched people struggle to stand and to move about on their feet in anything that looks even vaguely like a comfortable fashion. And when they’re asked to stand on just one foot at a time, they wobble around all over the place. I’ve experienced the same myself. Many of my yoga students also struggle with tight, restricted, immobile and sore upper bodies. It’s only recently that I’ve fully realised how closely the two are connected.

In yoga philosophy, there are two related concepts called ‘sthira’ and ‘sukha’, which can be translated as ‘stability’ and ‘mobility’, or perhaps ‘gravity and ‘levity’. Many of the practices of yoga have developed to try to find a balance between these two ways of being and/or doing. The concepts are relative, not absolute, and we can see them in the very structures of the human body. Relatively speaking, the lower body — the pelvis, the legs, the feet — are structures that are more solidly built (although within each part of the body, when you break it down further, there are smaller parts that are more stable and others that are more mobile). The structures of the upper body — the neck, shoulders, arms, hands, ribcage — are less solidly built, but more mobile. Hands move more freely than feet; arms and shoulders more freely than legs and hips; upper spine more than lower spine. Generally speaking, the upper body has a more ‘sukha’ quality, and the lower body a more ‘sthira’ quality.

But. The body is a responsive thing. It changes depending on how it’s used, and depending on its environment. If, say, we habitually or repeatedly rely on the arms to pull ourselves up and/or do not make use of the bones and muscles in the stabilising structures of the lower body, the upper body will become more stable, the lower body less so. There are, of course, circumstances in which this would actually be helpful to a person — keeping in mind that a body will look for (because it needs, in order to function) both sthira and sukha, a person, say, who has no use of their legs, might find it useful to have stability in their upper body. But for those of us who walk around on our feet and legs, this is not ideal. And, of course, the upper body also houses our breathing materials, which need to be able to change shape to let air in and out of our lungs.

~

I’ve been seeing an osteopath every month or so, on and off, for about the last five years, because of pain and discomfort in my hips. This is something I noticed increasingly as I practiced the physical components of yoga more regularly. Which is not to say that the physical practice of yoga caused the discomfort, more that moving my body in those ways made it impossible for me to continue to ignore what was there. The more aware of my body I became, the more I could feel the instability in my hips, the tightness in my upper spine. I ended up at the osteo because there was a limit to my knowledge, a limit to how much I could see of myself, and to how I could understand what I was feeling. Over time, we’ve begun to work out how it is that I’ve been using my body, and how some of those habits might have contributed to my discomfort.

2014-09-14 12.29.37One day about a year ago, I realised I’d been completely neglecting my feet — in fact, I’d been thinking of them as if they were just inert stumps at the end of my legs. When I told my osteo this, he laughed and nodded, knowingly.

We did a gait analysis. I walked on a treadmill and he filmed it. The forward tilt in the top of my pelvis was obvious, and the accompanying shortness of the muscles at the front of my hips and length of the muscles in the back of my hips. To stay upright, I was bringing my ribcage back, and in doing so, compressing my lower back. And my feet? In this position where I was essentially falling forwards, my stride was long and I was landing on my heels with my shin on an angle, dropping my feet onto the ground, rather than placing them or using them really at all.

The structures of the feet have evolved to have the trajectory of weight as we stand and walk come down through the legs and ankle to the heel, along the outside edge of the foot to where the foot joins the pinky toe, then across to where the foot joins the big toe. The big toe, when we walk, is ideally the last thing to leave the ground. This trajectory is a spiral: heel, little toe, big toe. The outside edges of the feet are structurally more stable (sthira), and the big and second toes are structurally more mobile (sukha). But the way my feet were landing as I walked with my shins out at an angle made it difficult for me to follow this trajectory. My feet had become all stability/sthira, and were just kind of clumping along across the surfaces I walked on, rather than through them.

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2014-09-28 10.13.39-2Ingold writes about walking as a form of knowing. Expanding on the idea of “foot thinking”, he suggest that walkers are ‘wayfarers’ — they they make their way through the world, responding to what they come across. A wayfarer is “a being who, in following a path of life, negotiates or improvises a passage as he goes along. In his movement as in life, his concern is to seek a way through: not to reach a specific destination or terminus but to keep going” (Ingold, 2010a, pg 126 — emphasis is Ingold’s). In contrast, transport carries a passenger across a surface from point A to point B, and what happens along the way is of no consequence (2010a, pg 127).

However, Ingold says, in practice “pure transport is an ideal that can be no more actualised than can the dream of being in two places as once. Time passes and life goes on, even while the passenger is in transit” (2010a, pg 127).

I find Ingold’s suggestion that in wayfaring, walking becomes “an act of inscription” (2010a, pg 127), where the walker leaves an impression of their movements, fascinating. If wayfaring is also a way of knowing, then this way of walking presumably also leaves an impression on the walker.

This idea of leaving an impression and of having an impression left upon an individual, and of the suggestion that attempting to be ’transported’ might also be an attempt to avoid the inevitability of this impression, or perhaps of its two-way nature, brings me to thinking about the ways in which modern societies think about and deal with waste. Much of the literature around waste and wastage uses the framework of “matter out of place” (Douglas, 1980), where waste items, or ‘dirt’, are things that we find difficult to categorise. This is both a useful and interesting framework through which to look at waste, but for the purposes of this piece, I want only to acknowledge it and set it aside. Perhaps not in contrast, but in addition to these ideas, Joshua Ozias Reno suggests a theory of waste that has links to Ingold’s notions of wayfaring and impressions left.

Reno argues that waste is not merely a human cultural categorisation, but is also something that pre-exists symbolic categorisation (2014). He suggests that animals too leave behind waste (their own biological waste, or animal scat), and that for other animals, that waste becomes a sign of life — both the continued life of the animal that left behind the waste material, and the potential for new life that waste materials such as animal scat might signify (2014). (Think here of the animal manure we might incorporate into our gardening ventures to feed the soil and therefore our plants.) Reno argues that human mass waste — which he defines as the waste material that “no longer refers back to the body that left it behind”, and is usually something that is the result of mixing together the wastes of different people — has become “more and more concentrated and contaminating”, and that public images of waste have therefore come to be dominated not by images of “the generation of life, but especially the spread of pollution, the interruption and cessation of life” (2014, pg 19).

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My research is experimenting with waste materials. Specifically, my research is exploring notions of so-called unavoidable inedible food waste in households. The materials I’m looking at so far include citrus rinds, eggshells, avocado skins and seeds, and spent coffee grounds. Thinking of these materials as both signs of life and as potential new life is a helpful framework for me as I experiment with making things from them, finding value in them other than as compost.

2014-10-07 18.53.01-2Here again Ingold’s notion of the wayfarer’s walking is useful. He also writes about how wayfaring might be applied to making, saying that a work of art (or creation) is “not an object but a thing” (2010b, pg 97), and that the role of the maker “is not to give effect to a preconceived idea, novel or not, but to join with and follow the forces and flows of material that bring the form of the work into being” (2010b, pg 97). That my materials are waste materials — signs of the life they came from and signs of the potential for new life — means this framework for thinking about making is all the more potent for me.

The materials I’m working with are still living. And there is a certain unpredictability in that. No two lemon rinds are quite the same, or if they are, the weather on the days I’m dealing with them is unlikely to be the same, or dexterity with which I can use my hands is not quite the same — or any number of other factors that might change. Experimenting with these materials — because that is how I think of this making — means I have to be stable (sthira) with my attention to what I’m doing, and it means I have to be flexible or mobile (sukha) enough in my thinking and expectations to work with only the vaguest idea of what creation I might end up with, because it is likely to change as part of the process.

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When I was a child, I made it my mission, for one reason or another, to walk comfortably barefoot across our gravel driveway. The gravel was not the fine beige sort often used for driveways; instead each slate coloured piece was somewhere between the size of a thumbnail and the size of a teaspoon. I could not rush across the surface with no shoes on. I needed to make my way through, to walk within the landscape’s texture — and often its temperature, since the dark coloured stones gave off more heat — as a wayfarer. With practise, I was able to do so swiftly, but to begin with it was a slow process. At the time, I thought of it as a process of “hardening up” my feet, but I can see now that the opposite was also true. I was also developing the more mobile parts of my feet so they could respond to the gravel. It was necessary to have both stability and mobility to stop myself from falling across or into the gravel with my feet. The gravel was not the same on any given day — it changed with the impressions left by other walkers and by the cars that drove through it.

My learning to walk as an adult is not a dissimilar process. I’m having to teach some parts of my body how to be more stable so that other parts can be more mobile. I’m having to slow down so I can be more responsive to where I’m walking, to where I am. And I’m noticing that perhaps, consciously or not, one way or another, I am always re-learning how to walk.
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    Douglas, M. (1980). Purity and Danger: An analysis of the concepts of pollution and taboo. Binghamton, New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul Limited.
    Ingold, T. (2004). Culture on the Ground. Journal of Material Culture, 9(3), 315–340.
    Ingold, T. (2010a). Footprints through the weather-world: walking, breathing, knowing. JRAI Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 16, S121–S139.
    Ingold, T. (2010b). The textility of making. Cambridge Journal of Economics, 34(1), 91–102.
    Reno, J. O. (2014). Toward a New Theory of Waste: From Matter out of Place to Signs of Life. Theory Cult. Soc. Theory, Culture and Society, 31(6), 3–27.