Problems of Place: Walking and Writing in Unsettled Times

Editor’s Note: It’s EHN’s three-year anniversary this week! We’re celebrating all week long by featuring one piece every day to mark the occasion. In this last piece of the week, as part of our #ProblemsOfPlace series, Celeste Henery reflects on how engaging with her physical surroundings helped provide a sense of solace and connection during unsettling times.

As we crested a fell on a hike in Northern England, a fellow traveler commented “You come alive up here.” This is my memory, from 2017, standing in the upland with old Roman roads and verdant dales stretching out to the horizon. The Irishman’s observation made me aware of a gentleness inside paired with a heightened sense of contentment. It was a feeling state I’d lost in the previous years, with a thin connection to the natural world and a frustrated, if not dull relationship with my writing. I was untangling myself from a conventional academic life as I foraged for a vocation and a lifeway that could nourish what was unmet within me. Moving about the low-lying heather, with views of green pastures below, I felt a sense of renewal that could carry my person and my work. 

With the onset of the pandemic, long since back in Austin, Texas, I sought the pathway back into that soft, vital state. A swell of anxiety from the unknowns of COVID-19 soon became inseparable from my preoccupations with the growing racial violence, the unknowns of climate crisis, and the slowness of righteous change. I also mourned the extended distance from my loved ones. Blessed with steady employment, I was working from home and I had lost no one to the virus. My anxiety, although visceral, was mostly existential and surfaced around the world’s injuries. It asked hard questions about whether my work could bear the weight of these disquieting times. Did I still have enough zeal for my projects? There were no immediate answers, despite my desire for them. But the unconscious imprint of that feeling in the English mountains had me turn to a small thing I know creates levity and insight for me: I went walking.[1]

For well over a year, I’ve traversed my small quadrant of the city, noticing architectural detail and having regular encounters with dragonflies, wild flowers, birdcalls and fluttering wings. I’ve watched gardens flourish and wilt with the change of seasons, houses re-painted for the market and others overtaken by vines and grasses. An endless movement of squirrels along with the occasional sight of a grey fox has maintained something feral about the neighborhood, and city. Among this thriving network of plants and creatures, I’ve felt a part of this local ecology. 

The constellation of life outside my door has provided solace and connection during this dim time. But it also encouraged me to bring more of my explorations and sentience into my work, to remember what moves me about the human and more-than-human world, and to welcome them into deeper conversation. As an anthropologist by training, who thinks and writes about gender and race, and as a lover of the outdoors, I have gravitated to the ecological as a framework to integrate more of the world and myself back into my scholarship. 

This spring I read novelist Leslie Marmon Silko’s The Turquoise Ledge (2010), a memoir of her living and walking in the Sonoran desert outside of Tuscon, Arizona. I was seeking women writers of all kinds who wander, engaging their physical surroundings like I have been during the pandemic. Silko traverses the arid terrain where she resided for some thirty years, identifying minerals that turn into gemstones and the invisible forces that animate the boulders and arroyos of her daily walks. She talks to the natural world and the unseen realms, just as she learned growing up amidst the storytelling of her relatives on the Laguna Pueblo Indian Reservation and the surrounding New Mexico landscape. At her home, relationships across beings and forms express themselves in her descriptions of birds, dogs, and even rattlesnakes that she allows in and out of her living room. But perhaps most striking and magical to me is a fleeting passage mid-book. Marveling about witnessing comet Hale-Bopp’s earth orbit in 1996, Silko writes, “It was the single most beautiful and seductive visitor to this solar system in my lifetime.” She continues, “As the comet began to recede, I experienced a strange desire to go along, to never let the comet’s beauty out of my sight.”[2] Silko writes fluidly about an enrapturing connection felt beyond the human world and brings celestial movements and those of the human heart into a shared ecological frame.  

Although I have yet to have such a numinous experience with the cosmos, both my mother and grandmother have shared lasting memories of a comet’s passing. Similar to Silko, the momentary radiance left an ineffable and indelible impression that seemed to alter, if only slightly, their sense of connection with the universe. They might be less comfortable than Silko holding a worldview that envisions the planet and its galaxy as alive and in conversation, but their experiences seemed to give them a felt sense that such a world is possible, if not already manifest.

I am reminded of storyteller Martin Shaw’s nudge to notice how the natural world vies for our attention: the color of a flower, the strong stance of a tree, a comet’s tail all beckoning us to look.[3] In retrospect, there was something about the expansiveness and ancientness of the fells and upland valleys that courted me and attuned me to that sense of wonderous possibility. For MaVynee Betsch, the famed Black environmentalist, American Beach, Florida compelled her to take up residence on its shores. Until her death in 2005, she dedicated herself to preserving this historically Black place and its historical memory. It was where her ancestors spoke to her and where she felt at peace of heart and, perhaps bittersweetly, with purpose. I learned about Betsch only several years back, but have been drawn to her, like she to the sands and saltwater, for the ways she settled so intimately into the habitat she adored. 

The experiences and ways of women like Betsch and Silko, and my mother and grandmother, have helped me to imagine and experiment living with a diminished sense of partition between established categories, disciplines, species, and places—my own simplified and applied understanding of Donna Haraway’s worlding.[4] They have encouraged me to heed and delight in the connections, cycles, pushes and pulls of the environment. They also silently have cautioned me to not hastily transform the unknowns into questions, but to try and relate to them as enigmatic passengers of this universe possibly awaiting a greeting. The ecological orientation they have bolstered has invited me to practice viewing the world as already in magnificent and often troubled relationship, rather than something to be discovered. 

In reading feminist environmentalist Rebecca Solnit, another woman who writes about her walking, I heard a way to write from this ecological place. In her memoir Recollections of My Nonexistence published in 2020, she recounts finding her voice, a process of allowing more of herself, her concerns and attachments to inhabit and direct her endeavors. She says, 

I wanted writing that could be lavish, subtle, evocative, that could describe mists and moods and hopes and not just facts and solid objects. I wanted to map how the world is connected by patterns and intuitions and resemblances. I wanted to trace the lost patterns that came before the world was broken and find the new ones we could make out of the shards.[5]

Solnit speaks of work that follows relations, proximate or far, work that is influenced by a humanity but not reduced to humans, and work that imparts ideas and observations that seek to repair and console. She may think and write outside of academia and its conventions, but her aspirations and methods suggest how to bring the complexity of the world to bear on academic scholarship and how to invite more of each scholar’s affinities and cadence to shape as well as buoy their thinking and voice. 

For me, this has meant writing about people like Betsch and Silko, reflecting on the intersections of Black life with the natural world, pondering how we might make unusual allies of the environs and risk imagining where the invisible forces might have agency. But it has also meant reckoning with the reality that my aliveness is not solely born of a calm feeling or expansive horizon, but restlessness and heartbreak and mystery that I must recognize myself as part of. As the pandemic continues and climate crisis re-establishes itself daily, my walks are opportunities to encounter the strange world again, to slow down, permit the despair full entrance while allowing beauty to strike and renew. I no longer try to have my curiosity allay my worry but rather engage the urban wilds to feel the full scope of my emotional and psychic range. This is my evolving sense of aliveness entwined with the ecological, and what I’ve learned gives fervor to my work and being. I, too, sense, as naturalist Craig Child says, “it is outside where the grip of the story lies” and where the grip of vibrant work might too.[6]

[1] I dedicate this piece to the pleasures and insights of walking, ever aware of the risks and hurts I’ve also experienced in the streets. I could write another piece on those trials and teachings, particularly as a Black woman, but others have done so and part of the wish for this piece is to take note of the many dimensions of being out in the world and to celebrate the freedoms lived within it. 

[2] Leslie Marmon Silko, The Turquoise Ledge (New York, NY: Penguin Random House, 2010), 142.

[3] Martin Shaw, Smoke Hole Looking to the Wild in the Time of the Spyglass (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2021).

[4] See Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016).

[5] Rebecca Solnit, Recollections of My Nonexistence (New York, NY: Penguin Random House, 2020), 126.

[6] Craig Childs, The Animal Dialogues Uncommon Encounters in the Wild (New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company, [1997] 2007), 5.

*Cover image: “Lake District,” University of Michigan Library Digital Collections.

[Cover image description: A black and white image taken from atop a high vantage point, featuring jagged rocks in the foreground. The view below is of a river valley formed by two large and rounded hills.]

Edited by Anastasia Day, reviewed by Elizabeth Hameeteman.

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