How Big Is Here?
Posted on July 22, 2018
June 20, 6.20pm
"Rob has asked me to climb another crag for a photograph and gifted me the most amazing view. I am on the top of an outcrop, on the spine of this low fell, looking down on Grasmere to one side and Elterwater on the other. I can see the tipped silhouette of Bowfell to the west; to the south I can see all the way to Bowness, the narrow waist of Windermere that we crossed yesterday. I can trace the route of our steps along the Dales Way, further west, and if I had powerful enough binoculars I could probably see the ash tree that prompted us to pause for so long – a magnificent, old tree framing the view of where I now stand, as if to celebrate it. I can see the wooded rise of land where Tarn Hows nestles in its post-picturesque splendour, and beyond that to the high ridge of Grizedale forest and my mind gathers the sights, smells, footfall and thoughts of the seventeen or so kilometres we have walked today. The land behind me - the woods, bogs, farms, tracks and narrow roads, the houses, barns, walls and fields - all this I have trodden into my knowledge of this place. And my perception of ‘here’ is widening ..."
Before we began this week-long walk, I had a thought-provoking conversation with Dave Pritchard, who we first met while we were showing The Long View exhibition in Newcastle, and who is chair of the Arts and Environment Network. We’ve kept in touch since as and as we talked before the midsummer walk, we touched on issues of place, how we understand and value different places, walking, and how creative enquiry and art can reveal stories and prompt new avenues of questioning. And he left me with a few questions that entered my thoughts and had been sitting there, gently bubbling away. One was: How big is Here? *
This question found its way to the surface of my thinking, and fed into the conversation that Rob and I had after we'd met a man who was using his phone for guidance: he had downloaded an OS map that allowed him to see where he was and navigate his route. This kind of technology is very impressive, and perhaps increases opportunities for access, but Rob and I are still wedded to paper maps; not just for way finding, but so that whenever we check to see where we are, we have a sense of our own location in relation to other places.
The following day, we met another man who was walking the Coast-to-Coast trail. He was using a book which had day-by-day route guides, each with a segment of map. He shared his problem with us: he didn’t have a separate map, and couldn’t go beyond the edges of the maps in his book if he wanted to detour or look for a different campsite.
These are different ways of using a map, and none is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, but as we navigated our way we began to talk about the size of ‘here’. We wondered about the increasingly habitual and frequent use of smart phones, the switching of paper maps for digital maps, the perception of one place in relation to another, and the ability of the mind to hold more than one place at one time.
Just how big is here? Is it the size of a phone screen? Is it limited to a room, a village, a town? Is it contained within walls, with here on one side, and there on another? Is it what you see from a mountain top, or from a plane, or is it confined to the dark inners of a single hazel leaf rolled up like a cigar by a tiny weevil? This was a thread of conversation we picked up and dropped, on and off, over several hours. And when I found myself on a rocky crag, in the middle of a breathtaking 360° view of fells, valleys and lakes, it rose into my conscious thoughts and found its way into my notes.
"… and my perception of ‘here’ is widening. Just how big is here? This question seems to be pressing at my mind perhaps more than me actively thinking it through. ‘Here’ can be where I am standing: this piece of rock that is weathered and patched with bright green lichen; just as ‘here’ is as far as I can see. Or it might be the space contained within the boundaries of land I know because I’ve walked through it, or lived there. But all these segments, these versions of ‘here’, are connected. The place that’s ‘here’ has permeable boundaries, it has an expandable identity, it can be the most intimate of things as well as the larger, universal. And in that strain of thinking it is clear that what I do in 'my' here matters beyond my own boundaries - because what I do ‘here’ affects another ‘here’. It is all ‘here’, on this one planet, after all, where, ultimately, everything is connected."
The day ended with rain, and our own boundaried place soon became the inside of the tent. Although people tend to wish for an absence of rain while camping, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. There’s something about being in such a small space, with the sound of wind and rain on the canvas, that’s deliciously cosy, and it helps to focus the mind not just on the tiny space of ‘here’ but also on the immediacy of the present moment – which brings me to a second question that Dave suggested, that also made me smile, and prompted some interesting conversations during our walk: ‘How long is now?’
At that moment, in the rain, snuggled in our bags, bellies full, and ready for sleep, ‘now’ barely extended beyond the warmth and comfort of bed. And sometimes, particularly when walking, ‘now’ is only the present moment; at other times, though, it stretches, like place, to encompass so much more. I feel at times as if I’m in only one place and one moment with each footstep, or with my attention focused on one exquisite flower, or a shape-shifting cloud; at other times I am in a flow, passing through a bigger time span that is not my own moment, and ‘now’ is defined by the longer day, and all the days before.
"The length of a walk writes itself into my body. Sleeplessness has scrawled its lines beneath my eyes and the wind and sun have left a raw flush of my unwashed face. The places I have walked through, the minutes, hours, days, have etched themselves like a virtual map in my body, with thoughts drawing contours in my mind."
* I was speaking to Dave again recently about the question ‘How big is here’ and he pointed me to the work of Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison. Having looked them up I feel a bit embarrassed to admit that Rob and I haven’t found out about them before, as their work is so closely aligned to our own – but I can only start from ‘now’ and am off to find out more.
The Arts and Environment Network is run in conjunction with CIWEM, the Chartered Institute for Water and Environmental Management.
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