During our September 2022 Walking in Air event, I walked around a countryside pond. It was set in low-lying land close to a stream and to a field of cows grazing early on winter hay. When, I came upon the pond, I was struck by the way its surface dramatised the relationship between air and water: the way the reflection of the sky fuzzed whenever a breath of air disturbed the surface of the water. I walked 10 times round the pond, taking a photograph at the same four spots on each circuit. In this way, I recorded the slow changes in the cloud formations above.
Before the walk, seeking orientation, I’d looked at a number of texts. These fed into my thoughts as I walked. Two of the short phrases we had supplied to our fellow walkers-in-air seemed particularly helpful : “In the wind/ Time walks” (Nanao Sakaki, 1980). And, as on a walk earlier this year, Peter Gizzi’s line “A textual nimbus, air born”. These steered my movements through air and by water, enmeshing my passage through the landscape in both time and text. Mei Mei Berssenbrugge’s poem ‘The Fog’ helped me think about the dissolving of water and air into one another under the onlooker’s gaze : “we appreciate fog, as the power to make the space continue beyond a single perception into raw material or youth of the body, like a body of light”. I thought too of the following Emily Dickinson poem. It invokes a wind that is at once immaterial and preternaturally cold. It seems to address the interpenetration of distinct orders – visible and invisible, tangible and intangible :
A Wind that roseThough not a LeafIn any Forest stirredBut with itself did cold engage Beyond the Realm of Bird —A Wind that woke a lone Delight Like Separation’s Swell Restored in Arctic ConfidenceTo the Invisible —
After the walk, I found that ordering the images in rows of four – each row a circuit of the pond – helped me make “the space continue beyond a single perception”.
Walking in Air est un projet interdisciplinaire qui englobe la marche, l’écriture, la pensée, la musique, la performance et la discussion. S’appuyant sur la suggestion de Tim Ingold selon laquelle « la connaissance se forme le long des couloirs transitoires du ‘weather-world’ (monde météorologique) », le projet considère “walking in air” (Marcher dans l’air) comme un modèle de pensée spéculative, d’activité créative et de prise de conscience de notre place dans un espace de nature. Les co-organisateurs sont Will Montgomery (Royal Holloway, University of London) et Emmanuelle Waeckerlé (University for the Creative Arts, Farnham). Les participants sont issus d’un bassin international de compositeurs, d’artistes et de poètes.
Drawing on Tim Ingold’s suggestion that ‘knowledge is formed along paths of movement in the weather-world’, the Walking in Air project considers walking in air to be a model for speculative thinking, for creative activity and for reconsidering our place within the natural environment. The co-organisers are Will Montgomery (Royal Holloway, University of London) and Emmanuelle Waeckerlé (University for the Creative Arts, Farnham). Participants are drawn from an international pool of composers, artists, and poets.
There is no better time than the present when we have lost everything. It doesn’t mean rain falling at a certain declension, at a variable speed is without purpose or design. The present everything is lost in time, according to laws of physics things shift when we lose sight of a present, when there is no more everything. No more presence in everything loved.
The poem is set in motion by the phrase from Weil and it works through variations on the themes of presence, loss, velocity and time. I was struck by the odd word ‘declension’, which hitches grammar to descent. In my first Walking in Air outing in January 2001 I had thought about the following words from an essay by Susan Howe: ‘Maybe the nature of a particular can be understood only in relation to sound inside the sense it quickens. Setting sun. A mourning dove compounds invisible declensions.’ As I prepared for my second walk in air, I thought about the Gizzi poem’s preoccupation with encountering the present. And about an article on Weil, in which Sharon Cameron suggests that the French thinker asks us to reconsider how we attend to the world:
Insofar as contradiction is repellent to what would make the world intelligible, resting in contradiction (indistinguishable from resting in attention) implies relinquishing understanding, along with the recognition that understanding is an operation that can only be performed in a vacuum isolated from the real, as on a plaything. Thus attention is regard that is innocent of desire or aspiration, hence innocent of either masochism or sadism, and not to be explained by a psychologizing vocabulary. Cameron, ‘The Practice of Attention: Simone Weil’s Performance of Impersonality’ Critical Inquiry , Vol. 29, No. 2 (Winter 2003), pp. 216-252.
Cameron finds in Weil a forceful commitment to the value of the unintelligible, endorsing instead a disinterested mode of attention and an acknowledgment of indeterminacy. Getting ready to walk, I thought about this and the Gizzi poem alongside the discussion of knowledge in Tim Ingold’s article ‘Footprints through the weather-world: walking, breathing, knowing’ – Ingold argues that the walking ‘wayfarer’ encounters knowledge in a way that is ‘not classificatory but storied, not totalizing and synoptic but open-ended and exploratory’.
I decided to walk on Wolstonebury Hill in Sussex. The summit was once the site of a late Bronze-age hillfort. Open-cast mining activity in the 18th-century punched a series of declivities into the ground at the top. From the hill, one can look out over the flat plain of the Weald, which runs to the North Downs in Surrey, or East or West along the ridge of the South Downs Way, or at the wind turbines in the sea beyond Brighton.
In the first section of my walking in air, I moved upwards over a section of the ridge, following a chalk pathway running between two gates. To the north, on my right, there was a steeply curving drop. There were white sheep in the field to my left, white chalk underfoot and white clouds overhead. As I walked, I thought of a line from another Peter Gizzi poem that I had with me, ‘How to Read’: ‘A textual nimbus, air born’. Gizzi’s ‘textual nimbus’ seemed to accommodate the interpenetration of thinking and landscape as I moved along the chalk pathway.
After the second gate, I came to a wire fence that was humming in the breeze, moved by the air. I attached contact mics, plugged them into my audio recorder, and lay down in the sun. The sound of wind on wire, only faintly discernible to the ear, became deep and resonant when captured by the microphones. The occasional jogger or rambler stopped to chat, usually remarking on the warmth of the day.
After a time, I moved on towards the top of the hill. I tried to imagine what it might mean to ‘relinquish understanding’, even as I engaged in an activity that was surely guided, in one way or another, by ‘desire and aspiration’. At the top, I found a sheltered spot to lie down in – one of the bowl-like mining scars that pockmark the hill. There, I set up my recorder again. Every time an aeroplane passed overhead I sounded a note on an old pitch pipe. I addressed the huge metal machine roaring through the air above by means of air sounded as it moved through a short metal tube. (When I listened to the recording later, my piping had been so quiet that it was entirely effaced by the sound of the jet engines.)
Some time later, I made my way back to my starting point in two stages. In the first I watched a cluster of skylarks wheeling around the hilltop. Pulling out my phone, I learned that the collective noun for these birds is an ‘exaltation’. I thought again about how passing over the variegated terrain, moving though air that was soft and invisible but full of the sounds of cars and aircraft, my thoughts were modulated by my surroundings: the textual nimbus.
In the final stage of my walking in air, I passed down the easy slope of the ridge, now in declension myself. I tried to attend to the asynchronous patterning of my walking in air: footsteps moving more quickly than breath. Gizzi’s Weil poem ends:
A certain declension, a variable speed. Is there no better presence than loss? A grace opening to air. No better time than the present.
I ended my walking in air and walked home down the hill.