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.

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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.

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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.
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Cycles

The compost bucket is heavy in my arms. It is so full that the lid won’t stay on properly and through the gaps wafts a smell that means I can’t possibly ignore the fact that what I eat is something that was once alive: the smell of rotting, mould and decay. Of something that was once alive but is no longer. I walk quickly, and the liquid in the bucket sloshes around. I make a mental note to be aware of this when I empty the bucket into the bigger outside bin in a moment, lest there be any stinky splashing. 

The compost bin lives about halfway down our backyard, near the shed. To get there, I leave the house by the deck doors, peer around the side of the bucket to make sure I don’t trip down the stairs, and then make my way across the patchy grass, hoping there are no bindis popping up yet.

As smelly as the kitchen compost bucket is, it is the outside bin I find most confronting. It doesn’t smell, but it has bugs. Thousands of them. Once or twice I’ve also found mice out here. 

When I reach the bin, I put the bucket down and squint as I open the bin’s lid. The insects rush out at my face in a cloud, heading for my nostrils and squinting eyes. They take a few moments to clear, and I shake them away from my face. I empty the bucket, holding it firmly while I tap the bottom to dislodge the slimey bits of pumpkin from the bottom of its insides, trying to avoid dropping the bucket into the dark cavern of the bin. The pumpkin goop is thick and squelchy sounding and reluctant to leave the bucket, stretching and sliding around the bottom of the bucket instead of falling. But it does eventually fall and lands somewhere in the large bin with a satisfying muffled thud.

IMG_0434.JPGWhen the bucket is empty, I put the lid back on and skip back to the house, pleased to have completed the smelly chore. 

I am perhaps eight or nine in this memory. But it could also be cobbled together from any evening in my childhood. Empyting the compost bucket into the outside bin was a regular household chore throughout my entire childhood. 

There was a point sometime last year that I realised I was a bit obsessed with organic waste — and that maybe I always had been. The empyting of the kitchen compost bin into the outside bin, and all the sensory grossness of the task, looms large in my childhood memories.

IMG_0435.JPGI’m not sure now whether these experiences were unpleasant for me as a child, but I tend now to think of them as confronting but worthwhile. Lessons of a very visceral kind in how life works. Certainly they’re not unpleasant memories — just vivid. And they have not in any way made me want to avoid food scraps and food waste.

As an adult, I’ve initiated and emptied compost buckets on behalf of whole sharehouses, and I’ve acquired and become bizarrely fond of thousands of composting worms.* I’m not disgusted easily (except, perhaps, by bugs, but then maybe that makes sense too, given these memories) and my hands have touched and held much food that is very far from being at its best.

And now I find myself undertaking a major research project on food waste that will see me making things from food scraps (albeit before they’re too stinky or slimey) and making a radio feature about it. 

IMG_0436.JPGIt occurs to me know that when I started this blog years ago, I called it ‘avocado and lemon’ because those were two foods that I have always loved to eat together, and now two of the food scraps I’ll be making things from will be lemon and avocado detritus (the third food item is spent coffee grounds). It occurs to me too that the reason that I chose those particular food items is that they’re problematic in large amounts in the compost.

It’s funny, isn’t it, how life seems to move in circles?

*I called all the worms Barry, in case you were wondering. Known collectively as The Barries. I’m not sure why. Barry just seemed like a good name for such an immensely helpful critter.

Finding time: hunting for sticks

Sticks at feetCrunching through the dry undergrowth of a patch of trees in parklands close to my house, I am peering at all the sticks under my boots, looking for the straightest and strongest ones. I hear a loud crunch and a crack from several metres away; the friend I’ve recruited to help me has found something. There are more cracks and crunches and the rustling of leaves — he’s obviously found a pile of them. I crouch down to inspect a pile of sticks and twigs at my feet. Above me a bird calls out again and again in alarm — or perhaps warning — and flits from tree to tree. The air around me smells like damp eucalyptus, after rain earlier in the day.

“It’s okay,” I tell the bird. “I’ll be out of your way soon.”

The sticks are mostly unsuitable: too brittle, too bent. But there are one or two that are okay. I add them to the collection I’m already carrying, and clamber out of the bushy area to find my friend.

He’s found a collection of larger branches that have fallen from a tree. He holds up the ones he’s picked for my approval, and then breaks up a few bigger branches in the pile for their parts. We carry the collection back to a pile we’ve been making this last hour or so on the edge of a garden bed near where his car is parked. We take stock. There are lots of larger sticks, but we need more smaller sticks. Leaving the pile, we head off again.

~

It’s been windy these last few weeks in Melbourne; the winds that come with the change of season at springtime. For much of that time, I’ve been on the lookout for sticks in parks and under trees on roadsides, anticipating several outings for stick hunting. I want the sticks to build things with in my backyard: structures for beans and peas and cucumbers to grow up, stakes for tomatoes and other plants. The plants are growing steadily in my little hothouse, and I’ve been vaguely planning the kinds of structures I’ll need to construct.

I’ve approached the building of my garden coming into this summer season a little differently to previous years. Perhaps because of some other reading I’ve been doing on waste, I’ve found myself trying to think of ways I can make or build things rather than nipping down to the hardware store for bamboo stakes. It’s certainly not that I’m aiming to build everything in the garden from sticks and things I’ve found, but the reading on waste has somewhat shifted my perspective on the usefulness of the things around me. And now that I’m on the lookout for this kind of stuff, I’m seeing it everywhere. Which is to say that I’m seeing usefulness and abundance everywhere. It’s really rather wonderful.

Because it’s not possible for me to carry a giant pile of sticks home on my own (nor, I anticipate, build the planned structures from them), I’ve had to ask for help, and my wonderful friends have been very generous. And this is the other somewhat unexpected outcome of approaching things this way: I have been reminded of the generosity of my friends, and, perhaps even more than that, the stick gathering has been an opportunity for me to spend extended stretches of time with them. Talking about life, solving problems, being serious, being silly, laughing.

~

Stick hunting sunshineLate in the afternoon the day before I went stick gathering with my friend with the car, my housemate and I went for a long wander around our suburb, also looking for sticks. We were limited to what we could carry home, but we still managed to gather quite a lot. Along with smaller bundles of sticks, she ended up with what she referred to as her “Gandalf stick”, and I ended up with a long branch I carried over my shoulder, which required some careful manoeuvring to stop from catching on things. My housemate said she hoped that one of the people glancing strangely at us as we passed them with our load would ask us what we were doing with the sticks. (Sadly, no one did.) As we traipsed home with our strange cargo, the springtime sun sinking, making everything glow, blinking from behind buildings and trees as we walked, I couldn’t help but feel like this time was something magical. 

A giant pile of sticksThe pile of sticks from both these trips sits now in my backyard, waiting for me to start building. Various friends have promised to help with this job — and with other things in the garden — and I am somewhat overwhelmed, in the best way possible, by how amazing the people in my life are. I can’t wait to share the (literal) fruits of this labour with them later in the season.

Thinking About Waste

One of the topic areas I’m researching and writing about at the moment is waste: what it is, what it means, what affect it has on us and the world around us, and what it says about how we relate to the world around us.

I’ve been reading the Milkwood Permaculture blog for several years now, on and off. Recently I worked my way through a big backlog of posts (I’m not exactly consistent in my reading habits) and came across this fantastic video, where Milkwood‘s Nick Ritar discusses the problems with how we deal with our own biological waste.

His point that much of the obstacle is in our own minds is so true. The house I grew up in was in the middle of an acre of land, and we weren’t connected to the town sewerage. We had a sewerage tank instead, and at some point Mum and Dad connected a hose and sprinkler to it, so when the tank was full, it would pump the treated effluent onto the grass or gardens. Perhaps naturally, we called it the Poo Sprinkler, and usually ganged up on Dad when it needed to be moved around the yard (sorry Dad). So it’s probable that my own level of disgust at these things is a little lower than it might be for most, but I still found myself having to get beyond some revulsion while watching Ritar’s talk.

Obviously, the revulsion or disgust is not an entirely unhelpful reaction — our waste mostly needs to be treated in some way before it’s safe to use. But, as this talk very rightly points out, if that revulsion leads to us just wanting to get the stuff as far away from us as possible, it’s not really very helpful at all in the long run. Not recognising ourselves and our waste as part of some larger system is part of why we’re facing the localised environmental and broader climate issues that we are.

Ritar, of course, makes a much more compelling argument than I do. The video is definitely worth watching.