Of Watling Street and Communicating with Places — It’s Time To Take The Road Less Travelled… Even If It’s the Street Where You Already Live

 

People already communicate with places. The slow pace we take around cemeteries says something about our relationship with the space… We are responding to gravestones and other contextual markers, and they change our behaviour.

 

By Adrian Reynolds

I’d been hearing stories about Lenny Darnell and his Amazon adventures for a while, always at second hand. It wasn’t until I met the American a few years ago at an event in Edinburgh that I got to hear directly about just what he was doing and discovering. And it’s only now that I’m able to put Darnell’s experiences in the context of the new book by John Higgs. Watling Street explores Britain, and Britishness, taking in mythology, folk history, and personal journeys — a long way from the jungles of South America, but touched by its own quiet magic and feel for the authentic as surely as Lenny’s escapade.

Some of you won’t believe what follows, and that’s fine. I’m just here to relate what the affable Mr Darnell described in a straightforward style one Scottish Saturday afternoon. In the course of his adventures, celebrated pianist Lenny came to be a business consultant who as well as being active in his local community became a member of an Amazon tribe. He lived with them not as an anthropologist, but as one of the group, and part of his interest was in how that tribe got its knowledge of the rainforest they lived in.

It was an answer that perplexed Lenny. Asking the forest? What does that even mean? Do those words even describe a recognizable behaviour?

Lenny spoke to a tribal shaman, and asked how he knew what plants would be of benefit to a person with a particular sickness. He was asking in part to discover if that knowledge was handed down, since that would suggest over several generations that information would dwindle because of the human tendency to forget. Instead the shaman told Lenny — as if it was the most straightforward thing in the world — that when he wanted that kind of knowledge he would ask the forest. It was an answer that perplexed Lenny. Asking the forest? What does that even mean? Do those words even describe a recognizable behaviour?

In chapter 5 of Watling Street, John Higgs relates that London poet and playwright called John Constable was faced with something similarly perplexing –— he’d taken a long walk around roads he didn’t know in the area of an ancient burial site known as Cross Bones. Next morning, he awoke to find he’d written a long rhyming poem from the viewpoint of a medieval prostitute. Where had the words come from, in a form he’d not written before?

The easy thing to do when you mention Amazon shamen and London poets in contexts like this is to suggest that weird substances may have shaped their perceptions. One of the things Darnell discovered was that regardless of the use of psychedelics such as ayahuasca, everyday consciousness as experienced in the tribe was different from what he knew as an American citizen. And the poet John Constable admitted LSD use. Which is handy for anyone looking to dismiss the experiences of either.

Only…

When Lenny was told that the shaman asked the forest for information about healing plants, he hit a dead end… temporarily. It was a phone call to his mentor that led him to ask where in the forest the shaman asked his question. And the shaman told Lenny about the rock he stood on, in front of a waterfall, where he’d direct his question to the waters he faced.

At the time, Lenny was suffering from a skin condition. He went with the shaman to the waterfall, and stood on the rock as instructed. Then supposed he could communicate as instructed, and made a big vivid picture of his skin condition. Almost instantly — wham –—Lenny had a picture of a plant in his head where none had been before. He described the particulars of the plant to the shaman, who was able to find it and use it in a preparation that successfully treated what was happening with Lenny’s skin.

John Constable thinks of his experience that led to the poem as being in contact with what he terms The Goose, a spirit representing the dead buried at the unconsecrated site at Cross Bones. That’s something he’ll never be able to prove, but if it’s a delusion it’s a powerful one that has seen him create work of power over decades that honors people who’ve passed that never made it to the history books.

John Higgs comments that “the noosphere” – the world of our thoughts – “is ultimately grounded in the geosphere. It flourishes when it is rooted in place.” That thought ties John Constable’s experience with Lenny Darnell’s in interesting ways. What they’ve got in common is the way that people relate to place.

People already communicate with places. The slow pace we take around cemeteries says something about our relationship with the space. Yes, it’s because of the bodies buried there, but we don’t see them. We are responding to gravestones and other contextual markers, and they change our behaviour. It’s the same when people are in woodland – they don’t barge about at speed as many do in cities, their attention partly with their phones. They respond to the creaking of branches, the feel of leaves under your feet, birdsong and flowerscent, of walking winding paths and not concrete or paved lines.

And if places were to communicate with us, how would we even know? We’ve draped our cities in billboards and neon and video screens that largely take away any original personality a place had. You could be in Orlando or Warsaw and not know which is which, thanks to the logos and other branding plastered on every surface. If place communicates with subtlety, such that its voice is heard by shamen and poets, how can it make itself heard in cities where people shop for more or less the same items at more or less the same stores paid for by work they do for more or less the same businesses in spaces that look more or less the same?

As John Higgs noted in an email exchange about these issues, it’s not just the space that gets defiled:

“I use the term ‘psychic pollution’ for what you are talking about there — the corporate narratives that are spewed out into our immaterial environments. I do wonder whether psychic pollution will one day become a recognized problem, as we move increasingly from living in a natural world to living in an information world — one which will be legislated against.

“The recent McDonalds advert was a perfect example. A young boy was trying to come to terms with the death of his father, and the advertisers used their black magic to associate emerging from grief with buying a fucking fillet o’fish burger (ironically one of the most depressing items on a McDonalds menu). This is fairly standard advertising trick. They take something personal and precious, such as your relationship with your spouse or your love of your children, and they forge an association with some piece of crap. This makes you think more favourably about the piece of crap and more likely to buy it, but at the same time it pollutes your precious relationships by associating them with a piece of crap. Associations like that are a two-way street.

“The effect from an individual advert may seem slight and negligible, of course, but they accumulate. The side effect of advertising is to damage you, to contaminate your internal and emotional life. To the advertising industry, this is irrelevant in the greater cause of making you buy some crap you don’t want. It is an externality, to use the economic term. They don’t care that your sports team is associated in your mind with a piece of crap, or that the music venues you attend are associated now with some crap or other, or that messages from your friends now come complete with the association of crap. The McDonalds ad was a particularly cruel example — I speak as someone who did lose their father as a small boy — but the overall impact is the same: to make the experience of your life worse.

“All this has gone unchallenged during the growth of mass media and there have been no attempts to legislate against psychic pollution. But now that we’re being bombarded online with highly personalised ads for pieces of crap, it seems to me that we’re going to reach a tipping point where people will finally say, ‘oh now I see what Bill Hicks was getting at’. Can it go on like this?”

Can it?

Take a look at public spaces, and you’ll discover if you haven’t already noted that the emphasis is less on the significance that they may have had in historical or cultural terms, than of the capacity they have to deprive you of money for a coffee and some themed gifts.

In 1987, I hiked down to the Colorado River and back in one day in the Grand Canyon. I emerged exhausted but revitalized by the experience — the sheer timeless power of the Canyon will stay with me forever. Certainly much more so than the ‘I Hiked The Canyon’ shirts that some chancer was selling to tourists at the top, and will have been worn a few times before being used as part of the bedding for a puppy.

I know people who are more acquainted with the landscapes of Vice City than their hometowns

I know people who are more acquainted with the landscapes of Vice City than their hometowns — and they only know Vice City because it exists within the game Grand Theft Auto. If you add up the space that has been constructed to play Minecraft, it exceeds four billion square km. A lot right? Well, it’s probably even more than you thought. The Earth itself comprises a mere 500 million square kilometres.

No, I don’t want to take away your games consoles. Not for long, anyway. But imagine a world where people paid as much attention to their actual environment and the people in it as they do to the behemoth I call Homogenopolis, where everything is branded and quality controlled so it’s the same consistency every time — i.e. more or less shit — and where experiences of nuance and ambiguity are safely locked away so they don’t inadvertently cause an outbreak of thinking/feeling.

But don’t take my word for it. Last night I listened to a radio documentary where celebrated singer-songwriter Richard Hawley was interviewed in the Sheffield recording studio where he’s made several albums. “This is where my mojo lives,” he said simply. But let’s get some of the madness back into it, where we started with the Amazon shaman, and realize it’s less madness than someone being more acute about saying the same kind of thing. For that, let’s go to Robert Fripp, who is very specific about when and precisely where he gets his ideas. In 1992, he had an insight about reforming King Crimson: “The picture of a Double Trio formation appeared in a flash while I was driving past our village church towards Salisbury one afternoon in the Autumn of 1992. The double trio was not what I intended, expected, nor wanted but I trusted this point of seeing sufficiently to act upon it.” Fripp has been similarly meticulous about noting where he was when other significant insights occurred.

The idea that land and mind are connected seems unusual, but the links are even more clear in some other languages. Part of the reason for Native Americans protesting at Standing Rock about the treatment of the river there is a fundamental belief that they have a sacred duty to protect the waters, which are seen as an entity. In the language of the Okanagan people in British Columbia, the closest English translation for ‘ourselves’ is ‘the ones who dream and land together’. Words bind them to the area they live, and to those they share that space with. Koyaanisqatsi, a film which depicts the contrast of natural and manmade world, showing the detrimental effect of industrial capitalism, takes its name from a Hopi word that can be translated as ‘life out of balance’, or ‘a way of life that calls for another way of living’.

All of this may be the delusory ravings of a credulous writer. Maybe. But even if that does turn out to be the case, consider this. How much of what passes through your mind is there as the result of a tv ad you saw, a poster you passed, an email you were sent by a corporation who only want you for your money? I know plenty of mine is. And I know that since choosing to pay more attention to people and place, and discovering what riches they have to offer that no amount of premium branded experience can replace, my life is becoming more interesting and fulfilling.

John Higgs explored an ancient route that goes from Dover to Anglesey – the Watling street of his new book’s title – and in the process discovered more about his past and himself through talking to people like John Constable and others who find unlikely delight in the world on their doorstep. Starbucks will be there another week. It’s time to take the road less travelled.

Learn more about Adrian Reynolds at www.adrianinspires.com

One thought on “Of Watling Street and Communicating with Places — It’s Time To Take The Road Less Travelled… Even If It’s the Street Where You Already Live”

  1. AMAZING essay! This is why I avoid advertising like the plague, even when my friends want to tell/show me about some great clever commercial. I still wake up at night with random ad jingles from my childhood popping uncontrollably into my head sometimes. I would like to to offer a correction, though: The plural of shaman is not “shamen”. It’s not an English word. The plural or shaman is shamans, and the female of shaman is “shamanka.”

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