Walking the Skyline

Laura Mitchell, PhD

 

The sharp incline of the mountain slope leads from the valley floor up to my skyline, the one I see daily from my front porch in the valley floor. As I stop to catch my breath at the top of the ridgeline, I find myself sitting on ‘my’ skyline, gazing down at the valley, reversing my usual perspective. From here I look down at the sharp, almost ninety degree, bend in the river as it loops around to enter the gorge where the valley floor narrows and the steeply rising mountainsides turn the river westward toward the ocean. As a bird flies, I am lined up directly with the ‘songline’ connecting this part of the skyline to the built part of the community where I live—to a small clutch of houses bordering the riparian edges of the more densely wooded creek bed of willow, oak, sycamore, and eucalypti. I like touching this familiar skyline, a prominence we residents of the valley call Petroglyph Ridge, and sitting on her shoulder touching near at hand what only my eyes normally see from afar—yet also bemused at this comical sense of ownership.

For of course ‘my’ skyline no longer exists and a new horizon, another skyline, has taken its place, shifted to the opposite side of the valley where a softer mountain ridge scribes the valley edge: the far side I can’t see from my house. My body, reorienting to this new skyline across from me, contemplates the total depth and curvature of this hollowed out basin formed by the ancient persistence of water carving and sculpting the coastal foothills into a distinct bowl. The valley floor nestled into the steep mountain slopes where I sit is not broad and open like the pancake valley of the larger neighboring ‘hidden valley’ of Escondido city. As part of the coastal watershed, a richly diverse ecosystem of coastal chaparral scrub, Harmony Grove is home to a small, soon to be erased, agricultural community of dairy and chicken ranches spread out along the flat lands, flanked by residential clusters and orchards here and there rising up along some of the more gentle slopes of the basin.

Sitting on top on the ridge contemplating the entire reach of the valley, it is hard not to fast-forward this scene of mixed-land-use and replace it with images of its future housing development: it is hard not to brace for a loss not yet executed. And even more disturbing, like a nervous tic that is unavoidable, is the contemplation of the irrevocable disruption to the richly entangled relationships of the natural and human community that have lived together here continuously for over one hundred years and when counting in the seasonal nomadic settlements of the Kumeyaay Indians—whose inscriptions mark the petroglyphs at the north end of this ridge—for 1500 years.

As a community, we are all settled in together. The animals and plants know us, have woven trails through the human layer. The native chaparral—itself a complexly rhizomed root system, a whole living organism consisting of diverse numbers of companionable plant species—has held on tenaciously to corridors even in the developed areas: built and natural still move together. Only the relentless slow degradation of creek life, the disappearance and diminution of frog, sunny, bluegill and even crayfish, and the clogging of creek with river moss and pollutants in the summer, tell the true tale of the persistent threat to habitat, to the rights of the land, and the inevitable erosion of the historic and present day character of the human community.

I think about the way we are spiraling out of ecological control and the concomitant disturbance in the way we are entwined in the imaginal fabric of our home communities, an invisible renting of human-nature bindings. I feel this rent reverberate in my own body like the sound of a deadening rush of footsteps going nowhere or an oncoming army, a speeded sense of urgency in a void. I began wondering how the landscape and habitat of a home community inform the collective identity, and how this tear in ecological viability affects us, and what new frameworks of thinking can bring such events into our ken.

Nomadic Awareness

As I move across the ridge toward the place where the petroglyphs lie exposed to the elements, I notice this rising and falling away of successive moments of contact along the path coupled rhythmically with a continual relinquishment of the places I pass through. Immediate perception, in the first flash of awareness, itself is a nomadic awareness: an openness upon the world of direct experience, an embodied alternative to our modern legacy of ownership and appropriation. This rhythm is one of opening and closing the spiral of localized encounters with the terrain and its inhabitants. As I move along the pathway, the storied existence of this ridge comes into relief: the sensorial surround of smell, sound, texture, sight, and rhythm open up the immediacy of the living landscape. Yet it is my sense of intimacy and ‘attachment’ that makes me part of, that weaves me into the landscape, particularizing and intensifying these moments—an attachment that is continually relinquished and returned back to the other, that cannot be possessed; a temporary ownership in the sense of being part of the terrain as I experience it at each point of contact: the sharp stones on the path, the mountain laurel now dried in summer brittleness. This innocent kind of ownership implies a familiarity and noticing, a connection that is implicitly also a letting things be free. Nomadic awareness does not imply nonchalance or rootlessness, rather an ardent presence to each place and situation whether that be a walk in the hillsides, one’s home place, work, art or relationships. To not corral or colonize events into one-sided automatized responses keeps us on our feet—attentive, fluid, nomadic.

We can no longer settle even staying in the same location. We are always adjusting to a loss that we don’t even realize we have had and, on regaining ground, find we have lost it again. That is certainly my experience in becoming an advocate of place and authentic community in my home valley. I hear Rosi Braidotti’s message in my head: the nomadic is a modern response to placelessness. As a metaphor and an approach to place-relations, the Nomadic is both an orientation and a critical mode of thinking based in deterritorialization. It is a response to the need to redefine person-place relations, to think differently, to unbind the imagination, and release the originality implicit in direct experience.

Nomadism requires a different kind of thinking, one not based in linearality and the intellectual modes we have been educated into, but in new forms of collective interrelatedness—modes that are more recursive and cyclical, a spirality that returns but is never the same at each new turn. The spiral is the signature of nature, the archetypal schema written in all natural forms: in a fingerprint, in plant growth, in weather patterns, in the sound print of a violin. As a species, humans were naturally nomadic, says Bruce Chatwin, and developed a prodigious sense of orientation.

For the nomad, deterritorialization is a relationship to the earth characterized by orientation, directional variability, and polyvocality. The nomad relies on sets of relationships where each particular place becomes a nonlimited locality (a universal and a particular at the same time, or global locality). For the nomad, locality is not delimited. The absolute, then, does not appear at a particular place but becomes a nonlimited locality; the coupling of the place and the absolute is achieved, as Ed Casey points out, not in a centered, oriented, globalization or universalization but in an infinite succession of local operations.

I am here and also there throughout within a nonlimited locality. My being is at home at any moment and also moving and distended everywhere into the region. The nomad is the path itself, fully present to the particularity of each place and simultaneously to the absolute—a condition “where everything is everywhere at the same time” (Casey, quoting Whitehead). Nomadic awareness brings one into direct contact with place while at the same time being diffused throughout the environing region.

With the nomadic, we rely more on navigational aptitudes, our reading of the ‘songlines’ (the interlocking network of ways through the land), our wayfinding, and the way we sense our journey by moving deeper into the sensory system, into orientation, directionality, our auditory and haptic senses. Movement, rhythm, bodily responsiveness reads its environment: micro-movements hold conversations with the immediate surround. Our first language is movement. Intrauterine imaging shows that the fetus develops an elaborated sound-specific set of micro-movements in precise response to its mother’s voice tones—literally a bodily analogue to spoken language: not just inducing movement, but as a movement language.

Nomadism is both an acute sense of implacement without appropriation or territorialization and also a polycentric orientation that cuts across categories and responds to contemporary conditions with fluid boundaries, and the recognition of difference and inclusivity. It is this deterritorialization, both of locality and social artifacts, that constitutes nomadic relations and that allows for, as Braidotti expresses it, “a poetic re-involvement with the earth.”

For the nomad, the journey itself is the ritual and the way rather than the contemporary focus on economic viability and use value. The nomad is simultaneously placed throughout all locations of his journey (physical, cultural, imaginal) and also accountable and intensely present at each locality. For the nomad, experience is particularized and at the same time a globalized universal: global locality amounting to an “intensive interconnectedness.” Nomadic awareness brings one into direct contact with place while at the same time being diffused throughout the surrounding region and also centered in the absolute context of the planet and even the cosmos. To be here and everywhere at the same time is the ultimate freedom of nomadic awareness. To re-enter our home-places is a gesture toward this freedom in its call for an open society and the unbinding of the imagination as ways of mending the interrelational fabric of our communities.

It is with this nomadic attitude that I wish to enter my community, listening for polyvocality in the interviews and the appearance of fresh resources. The writing itself is an unpredetermined journey, a wayfinding through the accumulated material and interviews, an open-ended responsiveness to what turns up and what voices want to be heard. Wandering re-establishes the original harmony which once existed between the human and the universe—one that does not necessarily require physical travel. Intentional wandering, nomadic presence, is a practice I have tried to follow in this writing and wish to hone in my relations in my home community.



© 2005-6, Terrapsych.com. All rights reserved.