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Under the paving stones, the seabed: walking and the university

Eleanor Cooper

The new Millennium arrived as a dialectic between secrecy and openness; between consolidation and dispersal of power; between privatization and public ownership; power and life, and walking has as ever been on the side of the latter.1

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Walking stick in one hand and the hand of her mokopuna in the other, taking it slow, one foot in front of the other down a gravel road. The photograph of Dame Whina Cooper at the outset of Te Ropu Matakite, the 1975 Land March from Te Hapua to Parliament, has come to signify peaceful resistance in New Zealand and the re-assertion of Māori political identity.2

On the other side of the world, two centuries earlier, a local of Grasmere, Cumbria, would watch the poet William Wordsworth pass in the village. He recalled, ‘He would set his head a bit forrad, and put his hands behint his back. And then he would start a bumming, and it was bum, bum, bum, stop; then bum, bum bum, reet down till t’other end; and then he’d set down and git a bit o’paper and write a bit’.3

Last year, University of Auckland staff and students and members of the public marched up Queen Street chanting ‘Cuts hurt’ and ‘When education’s under attack, stand up, fight back!’ in response to the National government’s funding cuts and education reforms.

Why is it that walking, the most banal of activities, is so often right there at the centre of the action? What is it about ambling and marching that appeals to poets and protesters alike? We have long conceived of the university as a site of cerebral endeavour, analysis and discussion, completely dissociated from the world of physical activity. So why, when people feel strongly about an idea, do they get to their feet and take to the street?

The land is hilly, lined with valleys leading to the sea. This gully is too steep for habitation so the main cluster of buildings sits near the top of the slope, facing the sun as it rises behind the tuff crater of the Domain in the morning. Not far beneath the buildings and roads lies the ancient seafloor, the great bed of Waitemata sandstone, laced with circular trenches carved by feeding stingrays, shells, preserved traces of seabed- dwelling forams and some tropical corals. Soldiers excavating great warrens (now filled with sandbags) beneath Albert Park and the northern wing of the Clocktower during World War Two tunnelled into this sandstone, hewing away submarine volcanic deposits compressed into rock over five million years to make secret subterranean paths.

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Above ground, the footpath from the Business School leading to the General Library owes its steep gradient to the sandstone below. Those approaching the university from the east on bicycle or foot feel the steepness of the hill in their calves and thighs. Some people change their step, moving their weight from their heels to the balls of their feet. Passing the part of this slope beside the Engineering School where several protesting students were pushed over by police last year, I sometimes recall that the Independent Police Complaints Authority subsequently classed the hill as an ‘incline’ – ‘to call it a hill is an overstatement’.4

Sociologist Antonio Negri declares bleakly, ‘There is no outside to our world of real subsumption of society under capital. We live within it, but it has no exterior; we are engulfed in commodity fetishism—without recourse to something that might represent its transcendence’.5 But perhaps there is reason to believe that access for individuals to some thing outside of capital can be found through walking.

Walking is an activity linked to other activites—observing, sensing, exploring, feeling, thinking—that plunge the individual into unmediated engagement with their surroundings. It is concerned with experience, not production; particularities and localities, not universal sameness, and as such it stands in opposition to a placeless, economically focused, homogenized way of being. Like few other things, walking has the ability to bring together body and mind, individual and society, politics and place. It is a fundamental and universal human activity and belonged to us long before our immersion in capital. Anthropologist Tim Ingold goes as far as to say that walking is not what humankind does, it is what we are.6

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Critical theorists have long linked physical and intellectual emancipation. Capitalism depends heavily on the alienation of individuals as they devote themselves ‘body and soul’ to the technical apparatus.7 If one technique of domination is training the body to political or economic ends, it follows that self-governed and creative physical activity constitutes a form of resistance. Indeed, the university billboard outside the recreation centre on Symonds Street quips ‘active body, active mind’. Walking historian and activist Rebecca Solnit elaborates on how political, intellectual and physical freedoms come hand in hand: ‘The fight against [the] collapse of imagination and engagement may be as important as the battles for political freedom, because only by recuperating a sense of inherent power can we begin to resist both oppression and the erosion of the vital body in action’.8

Evolutionary theory also supports the idea that movement of the body can evoke fundamental change in both mind and society. Our intelligence developed as our ancestors stood upright.9 Our light upper bodies, strong legs, and elastic tendons suggest we evolved to be long distance walkers and runners, able to maintain a slow but steady pace for days.10 A leading theory holds that we developed as persistence hunters. Instead of competing with the extraordinary speed of four-legged mammals, we used our superior endurance, pursuing them to the point of collapse over many hours.11 In pursuit, our minds were constantly strategising—reading tracks, or where there were none, engaging in ‘speculative hunting’, developing the capacities of visualisation, projection, empathy and abstract thinking.12

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This raises the question: are we at our physical and mental best in an environment where busy roads form the main arteries of our cities and campuses, and the transport systems and technology surrounding us make time race and lag and career? A world which philosopher Jean Baudrillard describes as ‘Star-blasted, horizontally by the car, altitudinally by the plane, electronically by television, geologically by deserts, stereolithically by the megalopoloi, transpolitically by the power game . . .’.13

As we leap off the bus and into a lecture theatre, confronted by a dual- screened slideshow with embedded video clips, and fix our attention onto the small figure of the lecturer far below, are we playing with or against our innate capacity for physically-grounded learning and thinking? Where is the persistence hunter within us, as we gaze at the PowerPoint display? In this kind of world walking has become almost obsolete. Have we given up the ability to experience our surroundings and swapped a walked world of rich sensory experiences for a star-blasted phantasmagoria?

Running atop the sandstone ridge, Symonds Street becomes an avenue of plane trees where it passes through campus. These London planes were long thought to be an infertile ornamental hybrid, until it was discovered that they produce occasional offspring. Sapling planes have taken root not in the gardens at their parents’ feet, but in tiny rocky cracks in the footpath or pockets in concrete walls, thinking for an instant that they have found the stony river silts preferred by their ancestors. It is autumn and the seed balls are ready to drop; in springtime, maybe unlikely seedlings will be found in the footpath outside Engineering.

One symptom of the devaluing of walking is that in western societies we have come to assume that thoughts and experiences of importance occur only from a stationary vantage point. An addiction to efficiency makes the slow act of walking seem anachronistic and time spent moving between one point and another is considered wasted.14 This observation of Ingold’s seems to capture the experience of racing between destinations on campus. If we are indeed walking creatures, how has this ground shift happened and where is it leading us?

Ingold describes how western children are brought up to disregard the experience of walking. Parents pull their children through the streets between one destination and the next like baggage.15 He contrasts the practices of the Batek of Malaysia. Forest dwelling hunter-gatherers, the Batek step through the bush with their children before them, free to explore under a watchful eye. For the Batek, walking is at once observing, listening, climbing, fingering, remembering, crouching, and it is through these acts that knowledge is forged. Sitting in a lecture theatre is certainly a far cry from the Batek style of learning and we might wonder about the implications of severing an association with place from the intake of information. It is a common observation of lecture-style teaching that students are atomised, isolated and forbidden to interact with each other by the architecture of the lecture theatre. But they are also cut off from the outside world, which remains out of touch, smell, hearing and sight during the process of learning.

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We are built to simultaneously move about, pick things up, and contemplate. Walking is a way to collect information and reflect upon our

environment that comes naturally to us. ‘Unlike the quadruped, with four feet planted solidly in the ground of nature, the biped is held down only by two, while the arms and hands, released from their previous function of support and locomotion, become answerable to the call of reason.

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Marching head over heels—half in nature, half out—the human biped figures as a constitutionally divided creature’.16 On the move, our feet lead our bodies, hands and minds astray from the highway of common experience. We might see walking as a way of gathering information first-hand in a second-hand world.

The demise of a rich conception of walking within Western culture, Ingold proposes, is due to three particular developments of modernity: the physical restrictiveness of footwear, the paving of roads and walkways and the introduction of transport that carries us.17
Together they contribute to our ideas that movement is a mechanical displacement of the human body across the surface of the earth, from

one point to another, and that knowledge is assembled from observations taken from these points’.18 With these developments, we no longer pick our way over uneven ground, feel the texture of the ground underfoot or even experience the weather as we travel. The booted foot pacing over hard, even pavement need be paid almost no heed by the mind of the city walker. There is very little relationship to place cultivated by this kind of walking.

With high levels of foot traffic on campus, almost all surfaces are paved. Steeper slopes are broken into steps so that even on non-horizontal surfaces our feet find a mindless resting place. We walk hurriedly from one destination to the next without gathering information about our environment as we move through it. Are there viable alternatives, when catering to thousands of visitors every day? David Gauld, Professor of Mathematics and longtime president of the Auckland University Tramping Club walks unshod year round. And it only takes a visit to the Architecture School’s courtyard to find an example of a varied and stimulating alternative to a concrete plaza.

The paths encircling the Clocktower wend their way through titoki, kowhai, ponga, kauri, coprosma, puriri. Once I took a walk with a woman from the

Hokianga who taught me about the medicinal properties of these trees. I remember that puriri leaves are boiled and the liquor used to treat sprains and sores, or drunk to relieve kidney complaints. It is good practice, she said, to say ‘E tu’, or ‘stand forth’ before picking a plant’s leaves or berries. In midsummer when few students roam campus, the titoki drops its bright red berries with shiny black seeds which can be crushed to extract oil for painful eyes, breasts and earache. The berries are edible but dry your mouth. When the titoki drops its fruit, it is also a sign that rata elsewhere will be blooming. The Māori saying goes: the titoki fruit is ripe and the rata red in the eighth month. A little up the path from the titoki are orange coprosma berries, far tastier than titoki to nibble as you pass.

As well as connecting walking to our capacity for critical thinking, learning and building relationships to places, Ingold adds elsewhere that ‘walking

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is a profoundly social activity [. . .] in their timings, rhythms and inflections, the feet respond as much as does the voice to the presence and activity of others. Social relations [. . .] are not enacted in situ but are paced out along the ground’.19 The Dogrib people of North West Canada walk to read the movement of animals and patterns of weather, and the longevity of this knowledge is ensured by one generation walking through the landscape with the next.20

In a walk around campus with Professor Brian Boyd, I asked about the trees on campus and whether we had any of the varieties Vladimir Nabokov mentions in his novel Pale Fire. He told me about the ginkgo tree at the edge of Albert Park and how the pungent smell came from the tree’s ripe fruits. Only the female trees produce the fruits and because almost all of the trees on campus are planted rather than self-seeded, males are almost always chosen. We also came across the enormous larch outside the Arts 1 building, losing its leaves and turning auburn like a chameleon beside the red brick wall. Brian said that he had watched the tree grow from when it was planted in 1984, the year the building was finished.

When one is walking and talking, information is embedded in the real and related to places, not just rationally or causally, but visually and physically. We had to discuss the way the heavy flow of traffic through the heart of campus affects pedestrian experience, over the noisy intersection. The constant change of scenery as we walked prompted new questions. It can be no coincidence that Aristotle’s first school was held in a shrine with peripatos— architectural colonnades, or covered walkways— where he would walk about as he spoke. His school became known

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as the Peripatetic School, which loosely means ‘of walking’ or ‘given to walking about’.

Early in Auckland’s volcanic era, the Albert Park volcano erupted. Red scoria can still be found in the grass and soil around the northern end of the park. The eruption also deposited eight metres of ash over the existing sandstone ridges and valleys, destroying the forest. Nineteenth century excavations near the lower corner of the park unearthed a tree stump apparently hewn by humans beneath the blankets of ash, believed at the time to evidence pre-volcanic human habitation of the area.21

Walking home down Wellesley Street when the ginkgo there turns yellow and spreads its golden carpet, I sometimes think of the volcano trees and stingray rocks, silent under the pavements of the university.

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