engaging obstacles


At the sharp right-hand bend in the metalled road a track runs straight on, south. The first couple of hundred metres are made up with packed hardcore as the track serves old farm buildings here, then an open field or two before it enters a tunnel of trees and runs south/south-easterly as a green lane for just over a kilometre until the path is spat out to cross an open field to Heath Road. Two small woods, coverts, border this stretch of lane. The second of these is older than the other and dates back to at least the early 1800s.

In the area where the green lane passes this second wood, Pye’s Covert, a tree has fallen across the path. The tree came down in the summer storms a couple of months ago; nobody has reached it with a chainsaw and so it continues to provide an obstacle for path users. Initially negotiating the tree was a struggle but, as the weeks have passed, the smaller branches have been snapped off and the tree—or is it two trees?—now present a more simple obstacle in two parts: a larger trunk to climb over (or possibly hurdle steeplechase style if feeling confident) and then smaller branches to duck under.

What does it mean to encounter (something)? Etymologically, encounter is a move in and against (something); it is a meeting. Running with/in the landscape performs a continuous series of encounters most of which are not as obvious as meeting a fallen tree: the feet repetitiously encounter the ground’s surface; the olfactory system encounters smells and odours; the lungs encounter cold air perhaps; and/or fauna or livestock are encountered. Where do the meetings of these encounters take place? As the foot strikes the ground and/or as the echo of the footfall and what it implies travels through the body? As the molecules of volatilized chemical compounds settle on and into the mucous membranes en route to the olfactory nerves? And so forth.

But there is a problem with these images … there are problems. At the very least they seem to be suggesting a world of relatively inert matter just hanging about waiting to be encountered and encountered by a sentient being no less. A sentient being that will ‘make sense’ of the data of the encounter, ‘make sense’ of the things it encounters. A simple exercise could be to reverse the encounter; but would this simply be a bungling, anthropomorphising attempt at empathy? To try to imagine how a chemical molecule might think an encounter with moist, pleated layers of epithelial cells? Even the suggestion that the molecule would ‘think’ is presumptuous … to imagine it not capable of thought, arrogant! But then, what is thinking?

Furthermore, the encounter ‘begins’ even before any obviously material connection has been made—the obstacle is seen ahead, and bodily preparations are made by the runner; speed is adjusted and the space beyond the obstacle of the fallen tree assessed for any subsequent problems.1 The space of the encounter becomes thicker and multi-sensory … at least as far as the runner is concerned. And …

When the tree(s) near Pye’s Covert fell it encountered surrounding trees; it crashed sideways, ripping through small branches, tearing off leaves to eventually be left leaning, supported by neighbouring trees and angled across the path. The wind that stormy night encountered many obstacles as it pushed across the landscape. ‘Part’ of that wind encountered that tree, the fallen tree, and the wind won the encounter, there was a violence to this confrontation. The storm force winds of that night were formed of shifts between zones of varying air pressure, the encounter is much more gradated here as gatherings of air molecules thicken and thin.

Within this notion of encounter lurks the question of difference. It would be easy to frame the discussion around the thought that the runner’s foot (during a supremely athletic steeplechase-style leap over the fallen tree;-]) encounters a different material thing in the form of the tree, difference that is between the human (foot) and the arborescent. Human and other. Human and more-than-human even. But, if the emphasis of thinking is shifted, it could be considered that the difference is formed by the encounter; the encountering is a differing. That is quite a leap to move from an encounter to a differing; and that is not a self-congratulatory observation, more of an awareness of a lot of thought terrain has been shifted across and needs addressing.

The turning off onto the track at the sharp right-hand bend was a turn into addressing—starting to (re)address—human engagement with the non-human world and specifically engagements played out via running. It could have been walking, it could have been sitting (so long as it was active sitting and not an attempt to fix landscape into a mute spectacle). It is (a) question(s) of how engagement(s) function with/in a moving world. And in this instance, it is questions of troubling undertaken through running. Running as troubling of so many assumptions; a troubling doomed to failure, a celebratory, violent and beautiful failing. The troublings sound with and against Baradian intra-action … this is not to assign a universal veracity to the concept of intra-action but to sense what the concept of intra-action can offer to the question of engagement with/in landscape.2 (As hinted at by the comment regarding difference) the scenario above of the fallen tree and the runner is herniated by the concept of intra-action … in this sense the interaction of encounter is turned against itself.

Getting moving again but something of ‘backward’ steps. Maybe a run-up to this obstacle, this twofold obstacle of the tree and engagement with/in the landscape. In ‘engagement’ there is the echo of a pledge; a binding oath or promise. The waves of this echo diffract with Foucauldian parrhesia and Barad’s cutting-together-apart.3 The run-up is rich with possibilities, hesitations and faux pas.

1. Obstacle in its etymology seems a suitable companion to encounter. Both reference a position ‘against’: in obstacle it is a ‘standing’ against whilst in encounter it is a perhaps more fundamental in and against.
2. Karen Barad, “Intra-actions.” Mousse, 34 (2012): 76–81.
3. Michel Foucault, The Courage of the Truth (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 1-19 and Karen Barad, “Diffracting Diffraction: Cutting Together-Apart,” Parallax, 20:3, (2014): 168-187. doi: 10.1080/13534645.2014.927623

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