Reading reflection: Sylvain Tesson’s Consolations of the Forest

I went to spend six months in a Siberian cabin on the shores of Lake Baikal, on the tip of North Cedar Cape.

Consolations of the Forest: Alone in a Cabin in the Middle Tiaga

Sylvain Tesson is a geographer by training and a journalist by occupation, but most of all he’s an adventurer. He’s bicycled around the world, descended into caves in Borneo, crossed the Himalayas on foot, and ridden by horseback across the Central Asian steppes. But the ultimate test of his physical and mental abilities, and the subject of this book, was to live for 6 months in withdrawal from society in a tiny cabin in Siberia. The book reads like an annotated diary, packed with reflections of his thoughts during isolation, the many books he read, the copious vodka he imbibed, his visits with neighbors (who were many hours away from him), and interactions with the world around him.

Tesson attempted to bring digital technology on his adventure, including multiple electronic devices and the rechargeable batteries, solar panels, and cables to keep it working. But what he couldn’t control was the temperature, which often dipped well into the negatives—not a good environment for technology. His computer and satellite phone both failed, though later in his trip his phone miraculously started working again, allowing him to check the weather and touch base with the outside world in a minimal way.

But virtually none of his stories centered on the electronics, failed or otherwise. He wrote his thoughts out by hand in a notebook, and maintained some level of sanity by establishing a routine that was both simple and challenging. It’s a way of living that’s most of us only experience in some small way, like when our computer dies and our phone can’t find a signal. Sometimes we embrace it by going out into the wilderness, though even those opportunities are becoming harder to find, like the trail or campsite that lacked internet on the last visit five years ago now has coverage and is filled with people binging their favorite new Netflix show.

Many a hiker have lamented the loss of wilderness to technology. My favorite Bill Bryson quote from A Walk in the Woods is “How I hate all of this technology on the trail”. And when Wild author Cheryl Strayed visited Virginia Tech, she agreed that her walk of the Pacific Crest Trail would have been very different in the current era of ubiquitous mobile coverage. Maybe Tesson will be next, when technology takes over Siberia.

Reading Reflection: Tim Ingold’s Ways of Walking

Our principal contention is that walking is a profoundly social activity: that in their timings, rhythms and inflections, the feet respond as much as does the voice to the presence and activity of others.

Ingold & Vergunst, Ways of Walking

Tim Ingold and his colleagues assembled a collection of essays titled Ways of Walking, an anthropological study of cultural and historical reasons that people walk. Ingold, now a retired Professor Emeritus, was Chair of the Social Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen at the time, with a history of exploring pedestrian movement. (An earlier post reviewed a previous Ingold book, Lines: A Brief History, delving into his views of the evolution of trails.)

The Ways of Walking book resulted from a 3-day retreat at the University of Aberdeen called “the walking seminar” that brought together researchers from across the UK and beyond. Many of the chapters explore the role of walking in different cultures, including Lye’s examination of the Batek hunter-gatherers, Legat’s juxtaposition of storytelling and walking by the Dene, and Widlok’s comparison of the ancient San’s way of walking and modern GPS-driven approaches. There’s also a nod to the examination of walking in urban landscapes, including in chapters by Lavadinho, Curtis, and Lucas.

I must admit that my favorite part of the book is the walking seminar that birthed it. The seminar reminded me of our original Tech on the Trail workshop, which brought together a diverse group of external experts with a large collection of Virginia Tech scholars. It was awesome to be part of the idea exchange, and the collaborations that were established and have continued are invaluable–culminating in our HCI Outdoors book. Ingold’s Aberdeen retreat seems to have had a similar effect.

Delanna Studi’s And So We Walked

“It was very important to me that I didn’t tell the Trail of Tears as a victim story. It’s a very defining point of who we are as Cherokee people, but it doesn’t define us as Cherokee people.”

@Oregonian

Last month, DeLanna Studi came to the Moss Arts Center to perform her one-woman show, And So We Walked: An Artist’s Journey Along the Trail of Tears. Studi traveled the Trail of Tears with her father as a way to connect with her ancestors’ legacy. While her story is featured on a web site and Instagram site, and elements of her story were highlighted on Facebook and Twitter, her primary focus has been on communicating through her theater project. Through the efforts of several groups at Virginia Tech, Studi brought her show to the Moss Arts Center for four performances over four days. I went to the first of the performances, on Indigenous People’s Day.

The Trail of Tears is the path of forced removal for Cherokee and other Native American tribes. It stretches from the southeastern United States to the Oklahoma territory, over 900 miles. In actuality, it isn’t a single trail but an assortment of paths from desirable expansion areas in growing states like North Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee to far less desirable areas in the unsettled Oklahoma territory. For more information about the Trail of Tears, Studi recommends (and I agree) that you read Steve Inskeep’s JacksonLand: President Andrew Jackson, Cherokee Chief John Ross, and a Great American Land Grab.

Studi and her father traveled what is known as the northern route–the path that many Cherokee, including ancestors of the Studi family, were forced to traverse. She drove and walked with her father, along with a documentary artist and other team members, in 2015. She visited homesteads, towns, parks, museums, trails, and memorials along the way, and she and her team conducted lots of interviews as they went. She posted to Facebook and Twitter, mainly short updates with links to places, articles, and other information.

For many years, DeLanna described her dream project as this journey with her father along the trail–from her original family homestead in North Carolina to the Cherokee reservation in Oklahoma. She had visions of walking the entire trail, though funds to make that happen didn’t come through. But a friend and colleague, Cory Madden, learned about her dream and called her months later to help craft the project. It was Madden who asked Studi to focus her story on her relationship with her father–her original telling of the story was over 30,000 words and over 6 hours long. Clearly this was a good choice, as it highlighted the tensions with her father, who is a full-blooded Cherokee old speaker (his first language is Cherokee) who experienced great prejudice and trauma because of who he is. In an interview with Jill Ditmire, Studi noted that the journey lacked the epiphany she was expecting–there was no singular moment of connection. Indeed, toward the end Studi and her father had a fight, and they didn’t speak for months afterward. But the trail started a healing process, and the subsequent time has brought them closer together than ever before.

From a Tech on the Trail perspective, Studi clearly has the skills (and the team) to establish an online presence. She leveraged Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and a web site to tell aspects of her story and to promote her performances. But it is the one-woman stage performance that is at the heart of her storytelling–a medium that allows the audience to get close to her, to connect with her emotions, to watch her interact with physical objects, to experience her re-creating the interactions that she had with her father and others along the trail.

The performance is a testament to Studi’s skills as a performer. It lasted over 2 hours, with only a brief 15-minute intermission. In the first half, she provided background on herself, her family, and the Cherokee people. The second half delved more deeply into her journey–certainly the physical journey along and around the Trail of Tears, but even more so her personal journey toward discovering who she is, the nature of her relationship to her father and her family, and possibilities regarding a potential love interest who disappears and reappears along the trail. She seemed to feed off of the audience reactions, connecting through smiles, laughs, tears, thoughts. By the end of the performance, DeLanna seemed emotionally drained. She waved her thanks to the standing ovation from the audience and made a quick exit. We lingered a bit afterward, but she didn’t return.

Studi has described her theater performance as the tip of the iceberg with regard to telling the story of her journey. It is certainly an impressive statement, and it will be interesting to see what next steps emerge. Even with four shows in four nights, there were only a limited number of people who could connect with her shows in Blacksburg. I suspect that, next up, there will be a technological microphone to spread her important story more broadly.

Reading reflection: Philip D’Anieri’s The Appalachian Trail: A Biography

What does it take to craft a new book about an old trail? Philip D’Anieri chose to focus on the people who shaped the Appalachian Trail, shining a spotlight on one or two from each era of the trail. His book, The Appalachian Trail: A Biography, consists of a series of biographies that trace the evolution of the Appalachian Trail (AT) from a dream to a reality. The choice to craft a biography-centric view of the AT was both unique and appropriate–each chapter captures the unique skills and approaches of each individual, reflecting the balance between solitude and individualism with importance of community on the AT. As a collection, the book demonstrates how each person’s vision, matched with their unique talents and foibles, helped mold the AT into what it is today. Rather than focusing primarily on the role of technology in understanding trail use on the trail perspective,

Philip D’Anieri is a lecturer in architecture and regional planning at the University of Michigan. He admits that he’s not much of a hiker, and an outsider to the AT community, so it seems like an odd choice for him to focus on a hiking trail that stretches over 2000 miles through the Appalachian mountains. His introductory chapter includes a description of his own section hike of a small portion of the trail, on which he “failed to summit a mountain of utterly mediocre stature”. It became increasingly clear to him that he hadn’t prepared well–he didn’t understand how challenging the climb would be, he started late in the day with the possibility of ending in the dark, and, perhaps most egregiously, he failed to bring any water. He redefined victory, embracing his “up and down” experience to that moment and eschewing the dangers of extending it, as he cut short his hike and returned to his car.

So it might be comforting to know that D’Anieri doesn’t approach his storytelling from the perspective of an expert hiker, but as an expert in urban and regional planning. His teaching and research has explored how urban areas evolve through intentional decisions and uncontrolled events, and he turns that lens to seek to understand the AT. He chooses to focus on select individuals who were instrumental in the evolution of the AT, acknowledging that, in so doing, he walks the line between oversimplifying the evolution of the AT and understating the rich lives of the people who are profiled in an effort to highlight the symbiosis between the evolution of the AT and the lives of the people who were part of the evolution. His exploration includes the original mapping of what would become the AT by Arnold Guyot, the vision for a trail from Benton MacKay contrasted with the reality organized and executed by Myron Avery, the early thru-hiker tales spun by Earl Shaffer and Emma “Grandma” Gatewood, and the telling of the trail by gifted storyteller Bill Bryson. He provides pointers to additional readings about the AT and about many of the featured individuals for the interested reader.

D’Anieri also summarizes the ways that technology has influenced the AT experience. He details three changes that have come about because of technology: (1) “how quickly and easily trail knowledge moves around” including through maps, progress updates, and pre-trip research; (2) social media and the “public performance” aspects of a hike, in which you endeavor to develop and promote a personal brand (which should include the many blogs that emerge each year); and (3) the “blurring of dividing line between civilization and nature” which leads to everything from doing business to contacting Mom becoming an obligation that is difficult to escape–people know you are in contact and expect prompt responses to their queries and entreats!

If you want to read more about the book, check out the official book site, an interview in Discover magazine, or a University of Michigan article. Or, if you haven’t already, go read the book!