Time to time our neighbor Sebastian disappears for weeks into the forest, to come back to the village with a computer file full of lines, dots and colors. His work is to map forest areas for trail running clubs. As I begin researching on the forming of landscapes, I decided to accompany him for two days and explored how his mapping tells me something about landscapes of land and mind.
I can barely keep up with Sebastians speed of striding through the dense juniper forest. The thorns of this hardy plant, scratch my skin everywhere. I wonder if Sebastian feels the bushes as I do? Is his skin more used to these painful prickles or is he noticing them as part of encountering the forest? While he is stepping confidently through thorns, with his view directed far out into the landscape, I am entirely focused on what appears in front of my feed; trying to lift a branch here, bend a bush there, to not hurt myself or the bushes. Who is inhabiting this place, I wonder? High up over the valley, where some little bony oaks are barely providing shaddow, where wild orchids dry out in the midday sun, where juniper makes the air smell like a wonderful Gin? Traces of fox poo and sheep shit give a hint of an answer. I can actually imagine how the cloven hooved sheep make their ways on the stony ground, resisting spikes with their dense frizzy wool.
As we began the day, I had imagined that we would cross the to-be-mapped territory from the beginning towards an end, following a horizon while slowly progressing from south to north. Au contraire, we are walking in the shape of petals, making curves and rounds that each time bring us back towards our initial starting point. Bit by bit we are circling around the navel of our explorations, each time seeing scenes of the territory from a different angle. A wall that had been hidden by dense vegetation from one side, suddenly reveals itself from another viewpoint. We walk again and again the same paths and slowly get a sense of the terrain and its textures. Our movement is circular, making shapes of petals, re-turning.
The maps will be used to mark trail running routes with flags that serve as orientation points for the athletes. At one point, we stand in front of an oak and I notice that Sebastian hesitates; he is unsure if to map the tree as ‚significant’ or to merely see it as part of dense vegetation. When in doubt how to map, he says, he thinks himself into a trail runner that approaches with speed and has a fraction of a second to recognize the next signpost – thus what Sebastian marks, has to ‚appear significant‘ in the flux of running through a dynamic landscape. Maps are not general – they serve a specific purpose and are made with a certain intend. I begin to see that mapping requires constant judgement, what to mark and what to see as meaningful. Is this oak a prominent tree of solely part of indiscript vegetation? Will the terrain be accessible in winter as leaves and branches fall or is it a refuge for wilderness in all four seasons? As to Sebastian it is especially tricky to mark the borderlands between different densities of vegetation. Forests do not work in clear distinctions, like maps do, but rather in fluid transitions that do not express themselves in numbers. The skill that I see entailed in Sebastians craft is to make judgements as he goes along, while not loosing sight of the whole appearance of the forest: As he goes on he has to decide which elements of the forest to map while holding the conditions of the territory as a whole.
Encountering the quality of a landscape
A week after our first trip, I accompanie Sebastian to the other end of the to-be-mapped-territory. We sally again into the forest, this time into a low valley in which a dense oak forest swims like an island in the middle of gentle pasteur and grass land. The neatly framed forest is divided by old stone walls – sceletons of a time where farmers freed their cropland from the rocks that cover the soil and piled them up to walls as guardians of kettle and sheep. Except from a different number to describe the density of the vegetation, the map looks in the end very similar than the map of the juniper forest – just the felt experience of being in this place is a totally differnt one. While the high up juniper bushes were protective and the dry and steep landscape not very hospitable, the oak forest is lush, protected, peaceful and moist. As I walk over moss covered ground under the gentle shadow of oaks, I find myself thinking that this seems like a good place to die.
Yet, on the map, the different quality of experience is not visible but is swollowed in uniform lines and dots. The map looks at land from above, as an abstraction. How it feels to be immersed within the landscape plays no role in this depiction. As Francois Jullien (2015) points out, in european thought and painting landscape is often referred to as a static image – looking from far at a still horizon. In chinese paintings in contrast, landscapes appears in tension to the subject; dynamically changing with movement and thus ongoingly transforming. To Jullien, a landscape is not a likeness – as a map might appear like – but rather a source of life one is immersed in that arrises in tensions and correlations: „Landscape makes a world of the land. That is the tension. Landscape is world-creating.“
Cartography and Research as practices of Weltaneignung (world creation)
Seeing landscapes as a creating experience rather than something to look at, takes the practice of mapping out of the representational realm and into the realm of world appropriation. Similarly, I learned to understand research as a practice of meaning making rather than finding out and depicting truth. The process in which Sebastian encounters the forest reminds me of how I conduct research: Sebastian walks the same piece of land many times, each time with different foci of attention. He kneads the territory with his steps. I I think I do that with conversations and readings when a theme grabs my attention, I begin circling around this theme through speaking with people, reading on it, exploring it in different ways. This kneading doesn’t follow a straight line but rather resembles beginning again and again from different angles. In a hermeneutic approach to research, understanding develops through ‚dialoguing‘ with a phenomenon and continuosly asking: how does the part that I now read and interprete relate to the whole that I am looking at? (Bentz, Shapiro, 1998, 112). The movement of circling around and caressing the relation between the parts and its wholeness feels soft and slow; graceful. It offers a way of doing research in an artistic, poetic way, that I resonate with and that I see beautiful writing stemming from as I am beginning to read into dialogue with place and landscape. To pick up a metaphor that Heidegger (1971) uses, interpretation comes not by forceful transgression but rather by allowing an opening or clearing to occur.
Anna Tsing (2015) and Anna Storm (2015) for example both write on post-industrial landscapes in a way that is personal, describing, opening and poetic. Neither offer a vision of how to go on in the antropocene, rather they gather traces of how humans dwell in present day post industrial landscapes and thus make visible true life realities. I resonate with that description, as I see how the landscapes of my research reveal as I step into its ongoing flux. Researching then resembles a kneeding in dynamic landscapes; entering yet-to-see terrain from different angles. Tim Ingold (2018, 3) describes research as searching again and again with curiosity and care: „In its literal sense, research is a second search, an act of searching again. Maybe you are looking for something, or trying to find something out. Your initial inquiries yielded results that were, at best, insufficient. Walking in the hills, you might have got a little lost. So you try again, perhaps with a different approach, taking a different path.“ Making this search visible rather than trying to reproduce something that ‚is out there’ is what I understand as a guiding line for research that is artistic and revealing rather than analyzing and reaffirming.
Both cartography and research seem to me an intense way of world appropriation; of making meaning of the terrain one finds oneself in, which is always both, telling something about the terrain as well as one’s way of perceiving. The work of mapping – if forests or research interests – seems a work of looking at the correspondences of landscapes and mindscapes. Of how one perceives what one is embedded in. This way of seeing acknowledges the inseperability of the world and conciousness, of the geographical and the mental and sees mapping and research as expressing a personal way of seeing.
I can recognize something of Sebastian in the way he walks through the forest, straighforward, alert and awake. He knows the insects inhabiting the air above his head, the wild orchids, popping up between trees; yet he is attuned to map what he sees as crucial for trail running: This mixture of being wide awake; yet driven and swift is something I know of him as a friend and neighbor. Similarly, I can also recognize something of myself in the way I research: I am easily tempted by digressions, likely to stray into pathways that branch out from where I began at. I like the movement of opening and beginning and learn about the quality of persisting and following a path repeatedly. I know myself being like this in other areas of life; I do research in a similar manner as I do other things – the landscapes of my mind reveal themselves in the landscapes I draw and write and it feels intimate to look and touch upon them. I think that this will be the work of my following research: to embark into my inward landscapes through working with land landscapes. For Jullien (2015) both landscapes and intimacy amount to the same question: „How to prompt a new welling up of intensity. How to find soaring in relations, through intimacy. Soaring in the world, through landscape — with landscape demarcated from land. As traditionally defined, a landscape is a part of the land; landscape reveals possible intensity, possible tension. What is slack in the land soars in landscape. The same goes for the intimate relation, which is a sustained tension.“
Heidegger, M. (2001). On the Origin of the Work of Art. In Poetry, language, thought. (A. Hofstadter, Trans.) (1st ed.). New York: Perennical Classics. (Original work published 1971).
Storm, A. (2014). Post-Industrial Landscapes Scars. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.
Jullien, F. (2015). Interview by Zahm, O., Grau, D. retrieved from https://purple.fr/magazine/ss-2015-issue-23/francois-jullien/.
Tsing, A. (2015). The Art of Living on A damaged Planet.
Ingold, T. (2018), Art, Science and the meaning of research, talk at GAM, Turin, 28 March 2018, retrieved from https://www.gamtorino.it/en/events-exhibitions/art-science-and-meaning-research-conferenza-di-tim-ingold.