engaging obstacles

obstacle

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

Wash Lanes

But today (as with so many other days) Wash Lane remains unvisited by the I of these words. A morning run led close by but little thought was paid to the Lane. Until now (a now that will stretch elastically across days to find pockets of writing opportunity). A form of attending arises and the ‘desktop’ becomes the locus of activity; something of Wash Lane becomes apparent a kilometre northwards of its gravelly course. The unremarkable Wash Lane has (unwittingly) left traces other than (or rather, in addition to) the slowly altering stuttering series of gently rising curves.

Of course, the cartographers have been (t)here. Certain aspects of the Lane are given a form of permanence through theodolite, measure, pen and paper—an endeavour not without sweat and physical exertion for the ‘plotters’—and more latterly, the assistance of satellites, seemingly so remote from the gravel and oaks, projects the Lane’s course into digital space.

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Initially the cartographic renderings are easy to keep count of: two 25-inch and three 6-inch maps courtesy of the Ordnance Survey through the late-1800s and into the mid-twentieth century. Two 1-inch maps from 1899—on one version, the cartographer’s hachures exaggerate the prominence of the fold of land that Wash Lane sits within. The outline edition quietly accepts the Lane’s line. The 1940s bring colour, although none to Wash Lane. The dotted line of the parish boundary running along Dove Lane is familiar to most of these chart-views. Over time the renderings multiply and updates and alterations begin to occur at ever shorter intervals augmented by the aerial photography of the last sixty years (a process which itself has increased in frequency).

Prior to the modern mapping came the Tithe map of the 1840s. Wash Lane runs unlabelled here but is clearly found as the lines of lanes and roads has changed little in the intervening years. What has changed are the enclosures that accompany the Lane. Today’s one field to the west of the Lane was five enclosures (Nos. 66 to 70) two of which had their eastern limit set by Wash Lane at the time of the Tithe. On the east side five enclosures had their western boundaries defined by the Lane (Nos. 59 and 62 to 65). Wash Lane itself is numbered ‘204’ and its then ownership will one day reveal itself to a writing I. This ownership is a trivial point perhaps but all part of the Lane’s story; a story that is impossible to give any value to especially on the part of the Lane itself. If the Lane can be described as a self.

The manner of writing (above) has given the Lane an agency that it does not possess in a traditional way; its identity is born from a usage reinforced by a subsequent naming. The Lane must be seen elsewise, perhaps as a multiplicity that has the (mis)fortune to have risen to enough prominence to be awarded a nominal presence. And yet, in its usage it collaborates with users and inhabitants as the geology, morphology and ecology impact how the Lane is encountered and followed; whilst, reciprocally, the Lane is altered through use. It could also be suggested that it grows recursively as the fractal narratives multiply, interweave and die back.

It can easily be imagined that Wash Lane, its course, was born from necessity—a need to move from what is today the metalled road down to Dove Lane (or vice versa). Maybe the strip enclosures to the north of Dove Lane needed better access from the direction of the hamlet or the farm. The Tithe map sets a latest possible date for the Lane but there maybe exists an estate map or manuscript that more clearly sets out the line, purpose and ownership of this brief course.

This further introductory writing arguably does not go anywhere, much like the Lane ‘itself’ but, like the cartographer and the surveyor, the writing I is laying out marks to triangulate from to get to know the meaningless meaning of the Lane. And to remember a care with/of/for words that may have been recently lost.