More on the Greenway

Yesterday, I posted a draft of a paper that I’m planning to give (well, “to post”) at the annual CHAT conference. This year, the conference is dedicated to pilgrimage and movement with all the complexities that these words entail. I proposed a paper that considered my every day pilgrimage through a local park which has led me to unpack this break from my everyday life along spatial and temporal lines. 

The more that I’ve mulled this paper over, I can’t help think that it will benefit from some revision. As a way to kick start this process, I’m going to offer some random thoughts here that maybe will find their way into my paper.

First, I’ve been thinking a bit more about my somewhat lazy use of the concept of communitas. In Victor Turner’s work this term refers to the experience of social equality that occurs during pilgrimage or other kinds of ritual life. I think my use of the term would benefit from re-reading Edith Turner’s book Communitas: The Anthropology of Collective Joy (2011). My thinking is that the concept of radical equality experienced through communitas could extend beyond the limits of human community and considered as a way to understand a transformed relationship with our physical environment. I’m less concerned here with the experiences of stones, trees, animals, or house foundations and more interested in considering whether our relationship to these things changes as a result of the suspension of at least some of the rules of every day life. 

More importantly, does this suspension of the rules of everyday life open up the potential to experience space in new and significant ways. It would probably be useful, I suppose, to consider aspects of de Certeau’s arguments in his The Practice of Everyday Life that distinguishes between strategy and tactics, but, if I recall de Certeau correctly he suggests that tactics include every day practice that seeks to complicate and appropriate efforts of the state to structure practices whether through design or such structured encounters as ritual. The role, in this context, of every day rituals, such as the momentary experience of pilgrimage that comes from my morning walk in the park, remains less clear. On the one hand, there is no doubt that the experience of being in the park is shaped in part by the administrative work that defines the space as a park. On the other hand, my ritualized encounter with this space at least questions (if not subverts) the limits of the human work invested to create the controlled landscape that is the park itself.

This brings me to my second point that will require a bit of development. My daily pilgrimage commences when I cross the earthen flood wall that separates the Greenway from my neighborhood. This simple, if mildly transgressive act, of crossing a wall always triggers me to think about the recent outpouring of literature on walls of various kinds (for example). Walls, for all their imposing monumentality, functioned in a wide range of ways. As Randall Maguire’s articles, for example, have shown walls can go from representing a common space for a community (such as the early fences that separated Mexico from the US) to barriers to movement and marks of division. The earthen and concrete walls in Grand Forks, for example, represent protection from the unpredictable and often violent forces of Red River and this function reinforces its role as a barrier between the ordered life of the community and the less controlled forces of nature. The design of the concrete flood walls, with their molded ashlar-like pattern deliberately evoked stone fortifications of antiquity. The earthen walls, whatever their intended aesthetic, would have made some viewers think of the fortifications at Mandan towns such as Double Ditch where ditches and earthen bases for palisades formed barriers. In this context, crossing the wall involved the kind of tactical (sensu de Certeau) move both historically and in the space of Grand Forks, North Dakota that depended upon the intentional misrecognition of the wall’s function. Despite its appearance, the wall isn’t meant as a barrier to human movement at all. This is simply a side effect of its official function to prevent the inundation of the main area of human settlement during the seasonal floods.

So crossing the flood wall requires a tactical act of misrecognition of their function to enter into the space of pilgrimage along the river. This movement initiates the space of communitas where traditional social relations between things and individuals is suspended.

The final thing that I’d like to include in my paper is a brief musing on the “dog park at the end of the universe.” I no longer take my dogs there, in part, because they can’t be trusted around other people or dogs, but also because I find it so very depressing. There’s something about the history of the park that makes setting aside some of it for our dogs to romp and roam intensely sad. The juxtaposition of the former neighborhood homes that stood where the dog park is now creates a melancholy sense of waste or perhaps irreverence. I wonder if I struggled with confronting the modern ability to unsentimentally repurpose a landscape or the expectation that the past will some vanish beneath the pressing need of the present.

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