I leave shortly for Fort McMurray Alberta, where I will walk, with hundreds of others, led by Athabasca First Nations and the Keepers of the Athabasca, around a massive tailings pond in the Tar Sands. We will pass between several other massive tailings ponds, and along the edge of a landscape scraped clean of its “overburden” (that’s everything that used to exist there—indigenous peoples and their cultural practices, trees and plants of every variety, animals of all kinds, naturally occurring bodies of water, etc.) and dotted with machinery and the silver towers of refineries. What follows are some brief thoughts about the politics of walking—before the walk. To which I will return after the fact as well.
Walking, we move between renunciation and affirmation. In his recent A Philosophy of Walking, Frédéric Gros refers to renunciation as one of the “freedoms” of walking—a form of “perfect detachment.” Writing on Gandhi’s symbolic protest marches, Gros suggests that “the slowness of the march constitutes a rejection of speed”—which reminds me of the words of Jesse Cardinal, one of the organizers of the Healing Walk: the point is “to take time, slow down, and pray.”
In the face of the Tar Sands project—which has everything to do with speed, with fuelling the speed of our consumption, with the speed of economic development where the mindset, very clearly, is get as much as fast as possible, before the competition, the climate, or reason shuts the project down—the slowness of walking articulates an alternate world view.
I also think of the words of the Zapatistas—caminamos, no corremos, porque vamos muy legos—“we walk, we do not run, because we are going very far.” For activists, I think this is the difficult part. We feel the urgency of the problem in our very bones, and hear the frantic calls for action, even in our unsettled sleep. But the sort of transformation that must be managed—its scale—is so massive, there is simply no way to run there. We have to renounce the sprint, and affirm the long march. We will walk, because the distance to be travelled is so far. But we need to start walking now.
Walking, writes Gros, is also the “recognition of our finiteness.” Here is another renunciation and affirmation. A project like the Tar Sands is all about hubris—about the scale of human ambitions when it comes to material wealth and “development” (an entirely problematic concept). Against the scale of this project, we place our small and finite human bodies. We reject trucks the size of houses, oil sand reserves the size of England, and affirm the scale of the human body walking, the brevity of our lives against the long term effects of this “development” as it drives climate change into an untenable future we will not even live to see.
Which brings us to walking and time. Gros notes the similarity between the repetitiveness of walking and Nietzsche’s idea of the eternal return. Walking is performance and ceremony. I take the same walk, along the same route, almost every day. It fashions a sort of timelessness that heals, a sense, as Gros writes, in which “I have always been here, tomorrow, contemplating this landscape.” This is the future anterior—the temporality of what we will have done—a projection from now into tomorrow. We are the one’s we’ve been waiting for. And we are tomorrow’s ancestors (maybe…if we are lucky). “Walking makes time reversible,” Gros adds.
Walking, we put a foot forward into tomorrow, claiming it as a continuation of today—not in the name of a featureless sameness, but in the name of there being a viable tomorrow in which our feet will fall on forgiving ground. Walking, we hold time in place—we make time, one step at a time, creating the world we are walking into. The politics of this walk are as yet unwritten.
In Wanderlust, Rebecca Solnit describes a protest march near a Nevada nuclear test site as bearing “a kind of bodily witness” to “the apocalypse being prepared nearby.” In the Tar Sands we will bear such witness, to another though very comparable “apocalypse.” “Every walker,” Solnit writes, “is a guard on patrol to protect the ineffable.”
That “ineffable” is in part the lived stories that make mere space a place—the culture we practice on the land, when we are able to be of the land, that enables our living there. Describing the wilderness trails of the Dene people, Allice Legat, in Walking the Land, Feeding the Fire, notes that such trails “are accessible only through stories that tell of what has gone before”—stories “that reside in and grow from places.” Legat continues,
“Walking is an action that implies not being cut off…. Instead, walking entails carefully considering one’s surroundings while thinking with the multitude of stories that one has heard.”
What are we claiming, when we are walking? I think—that we will have a story to tell, and that that story will have a “place.”
I’m going to the Healing Walk to bear witness, to walk with others and listen to others—and to listen to the land. I’m going to the Healing Walk to renounce speed and development and affirm the pace at which we can really think and understand—the speed of walking, the speed of community. I’m going to the Healing Walk because massive systemic processes and changes, like capitalism and climate change, are often abstract and I want to see them up close and breathe their sharp petroleum air because we have made this air and should feel its sting in our eyes and lungs. I’m going to the Healing Walk because capitalism, which we’ve long known to be a mechanism for the production, protection, and escalation of inequalities, is now also revealed to be a doomsday device, a mechanism programmed for ecoside, set on self-destruct. And I’m going to the Healing Walk as one whose Marxist analysis doesn’t always leave room for grieving and loss and ceremony and because intellectual hubris is never too far from economic hubris and I want and need to get close to the ground.