What’s so Wild about Walking?

Text:
Tom Osmond

Editor:
Rachel Howard

“What would our lives be like if our days and nights were as immersed in nature as they are in technology?” The author and journalist Richard Louv posited this question as he pushed the term “nature-deficit disorder” into public discourse to describe a range of health problems caused by the ever-growing distance between ourselves and the outdoors. Although Louv’s research was mainly concerned with attention disorders, obesity, and depression, his work struck a chord around the world for it shed light on a certain malaise of modernity far beyond the scope of medical disorders, helping us to better examine our own relationship with the planet.

The ways in which technologies mediate our relationship with our natural environment are deeply rooted, widespread, and normalized to a dizzying extent. More likely than not, you’re reading this from an urban space. These artificial landscapes are referred to in the social sciences as the “built environment”, and the United Nations predicts them to be home to 68 percent of the world’s population by 2050. By definition, we are aware of the technocratic implications of the environment that is built by architects and city planners in the name of governance—or, in other words, control.

The first instance of urban planning is hard to pin down and is squabbled over by historians; but a notable early example comes into view when we look 170km east of Mykonos to the ruins of Miletus. In the era of Classical antiquity, ancient Greek architect and all-round polymath Hippodamus of Miletus put forth the assertion that basic town planning was conducive to successful governance and social order, being well aware of architecture’s potential to shape user behaviour. Miletus, a city on the Anatolian coast, became one of Greece’s most prosperous and powerful cities in the sixth century BC, and the unnatural, grid-shaped geometry of the Hippodamian Plan can be seen around the world today. In a beautiful juxtaposition, the nearby Büyük Menderes river ended up lending its name to the word meander, used to describe the unpredictable winding path carved by a river. It’s almost as though Hippodamus saw the unpredictability of nature and intentionally tried to impose order on the land and its people by extension.

The ruins of a theatre in Miletus, an Ancient Greek city now in Aydın Province, Turkey.

Ancient Greek architect, urban planner, physician, mathematician, meteorologist and philosopher Hippodamus of Miletus.

The ruins of a theatre in Miletus, an Ancient Greek city now in Aydın Province, Turkey, which is seen as the birthplace of the grid street plan.

Jump forward to the late 1700s: The political, social, economic, and cultural forces at play across entire continents are indelibly altered when engineers start sketching out prototypes for steam-powered engines with passenger seats. Since then, technological advances have come to dominate landscapes and further alter the way we engage with nature and with each other. Try to walk across a city and it quickly becomes evident that landscapes are now actively hostile towards the human “pedestrian”: one could conceivably risk one’s life and break “jaywalking” laws in navigating roads, roundabouts, train tracks, and car parks — a stark reminder that since the invention of motorized travel, urban space has been increasingly designed for technology to transport us, and not for humans to experience in a natural way.

As well as being spatially alienated from nature and the natural topography of an area, an urbanite’s psyche is altered: one’s mental map of a city or town may resemble a cluster of bubbles around public transport stops or a signposted entanglement of roads that take us from A to B in insular vehicles, which come with their own microclimates that hermetically seal us from the weather. Those who subscribe to the Durkheimian concept of anomie would also argue that we’re also sealed off from societal norms and collective moral values (the term “road rage” springs to mind.)

“These avant-garde individuals saw the simple act of walking as a rebellious statement against the subtle authoritarianism of transport and technology.”

Jaywalking laws are a stark reminder that many urban spaces are designed primarily for motorized (and non-human) vehicles. Pictured here is the Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo.

In Paris in the mid- to late-1950s, a collective of “novelists, sound poets, painters, film-makers, revolutionaries, bohemians, alcoholics, petty criminals, lunatics, under-age girls and self-proclaimed failures” devoted themselves to disrupting these systems that mediate how we interact with our surroundings, drawing our gaze to the psychological implications of physical space. Known first as The Letterist International and then Situationist International, this group of avant-garde individuals saw the simple act of walking as a rebellious statement against the subtle authoritarianism of transport and technology.

To counter the predictable and monotonous paths of urban existence, the Situationists coined a new concept: the dérive. This was defined by leading member Guy Debord as “a mode of experimental behaviour linked to the conditions of urban society: a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances.” To “drift” on foot across a landscape with no explicit social or economic motives was, for these non-conformist thinkers, both a radical act of autonomy and a form of performative art intended to criticize advanced capitalism. Inspired by the Surrealists and Dadaists before them, these flâneurs would often meet in small groups or pairs and wander the streets of Paris while philosophizing or plotting their next revolutionary act, sometimes walking for days on end. Large amounts of wine also helped, and it’s not unlikely that after a drunken sleep on a bench, many would wake up and carry on.

The Situationists would also cut up maps and reconfigure them, robbing the map of its power over how humans experience space and further randomizing their circumambulations. As Raoul Vaneigem, a member of the Situationist International in the 1950s, wrote: “All space is occupied by the enemy. We are living under a permanent curfew. Not just the cops — the geometry.”

Indigenous communities have survived over thousands of years in harmony with nature precisely because of their belief that nature is a sacred embodiment of the spiritual world. Viewed through the prism of shamanic wisdom, the ecological crisis that we are currently experiencing is fundamentally a spiritual one: the imbalance between humanity and nature is a direct result of humans neglecting this interconnectedness.

There are places where we make our own pathways and there are places where our pathways are dictated to us.

“Walking without purpose is both a symbolic rejection of the architecture of control and an existential exercise.”

A central pillar of Situationist discourse was the concept of “the spectacle”, the notion that people are subordinate to commodities, and that experience itself has become commodified. Many argue that Baron Haussmann's renovation of Paris in the late 19th century accelerated this commodification of experience, as what was ostensibly an effort to alleviate disease, crime, and unrest in the city through the creation of wide boulevards was generally regarded as a constriction of the people’s ability to organize political demonstrations. This also allowed the army to more efficiently quash any uprisings, tanks in tow. This is one of the most visible examples of how architecture can be used to control its “users” and an individual’s experience of their own city is dictated to them from above.

Walking without purpose was therefore both a symbolic rejection of this architecture of control and an existential exercise. The Situationists would simply experience their urban environment for the sake of it, outside of any commercial or economic motives, appreciating the intrinsic value of the city over its instrumental value and simply being in a space. Walking in a wild place like Mykonos achieves something similar. The island’s topography is palpable underfoot, and one feels a sense of place that’s dictated by little else than the forces of nature — something that’s reflected by the transient spaces at Scorpios that shapeshift with the seasons. Roads and pathways tend to follow the lay of the land and the horizon is characterized by the sea, the rocky shore, and rolling inland hills. Scorpios blends seamlessly into its peninsular location, inhabiting its setting instead of imposing on it.

Walking at Scorpios beach, a shapeshifting place subject to the whim of the tide.

“The island’s topography is palpable underfoot, one feels a sense of place that’s dictated by the forces of nature.

It’s not only through the “built environment” that technology mediates our relationship with the planet and ourselves. Humans are bipedal creatures, meaning our feet are our main points of physical contact with the Earth. Could technology be meddling here, too?

At the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, the Ethiopian athlete Abebe Bikila became the first African Olympic gold medallist, breaking the world record at the time by winning the marathon event completely barefoot. The team sponsors provided a new pair of running shoes, but they gave him blisters, so Bikila decided to run just as he had trained in the Ethiopian hills: barefoot. With this simple but radical gesture, Bikila flipped the narrative of the multi-billion-dollar running shoe industry on its head, which was at the time experimenting with how much technology could be integrated into the running shoe to “optimize” performance for athletes and the masses alike. Bikila’s own human feet were the superior technology, and he was all over the news.

Paleoanthropologists, sports industry players, athletes, and casual joggers began brushing up on the biomechanics of the “anatomically modern human” — that’s us, for the last 196,000 years — and people like the Native American Rarámuri of Chihuahua, Mexico, were held up as examples of how physically beneficial it is to interact with one’s natural environment with minimal technological interference. The Rarámuri, also known as Tarahumara, are known for their long-distance running abilities: their ceremonial sport, rarajipari, involves chasing a wooden ball for miles and miles through canyons and cornfields after a night of corn beer and cigarettes. Their method of “persistence hunting” entails running after prey until it simply gives up with exhaustion — all while barefoot or wearing only a pair of ‘barely there’ sandals known as huaraches.

Drawing upon research by human evolutionary biologist Dan Lieberman at Harvard University, author Christopher McDougall details the Rarámuri’s long-distance running abilities in his book, Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, which helped spark a trend for barefoot running after its publication in 2009. The premise of this trend is that the human foot is better designed to interact with the ground than any shoe could be, and that “supportive” technology is in fact pushing our biomechanically primed bodies into laziness and weakness.

“One will notice half-forgotten muscles reawakening, and the sense of touch responding to the environment with inherent familiarity.”

And what is sport but intentional movement? By learning how running shoes could be disrupting the way that the human body best interacts with the ground, can we reach other conclusions about movement in everyday life, outside of sport? Long before fitness became an industry, when our physical strength and mobility were not honed through structured exercises in gyms and on sports fields, the anatomically modern human built strength and flexibility through everyday movements motivated primarily by survival. We had to learn to walk, balance, run, jump, climb, crawl, squat, lift, carry, throw, catch, hunt, and fight. We also learned how to play and dance.

These movements are the natural ways that humans interacted with the ground and we were physically healthier for it. Not limited to our yoga and movement classes, Scorpios is a place for play and exploration. Doing these things barefoot is a gentle “no” to the invasiveness of technology and the first step towards a physical and mental “rewilding”. One will notice half-forgotten muscles reawakening, and the sense of touch responding to the environment with inherent familiarity, from your first movements of the morning to the after-dark dance in the soft sand of Scorpios beach.

To borrow Guy Debord’s imagery: drift through the ambiances at Scorpios and beyond, onto the beaches and into the hills of Mykonos. Re-establish your relationship with nature and the natural self by freeing yourself from technological meddling. You’ll notice a sure-footedness of thought.

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