Friday, November 26, 2010

Natives of the Outside by K.L. Kivi

“The street is a world where people in flight from the traumas that happen inside houses become natives of the outside.”
Rebecca Solnit

This line from Solnit’s book “Wanderlust: A History of Walking” reached out and grabbed me the other day. Solnit has a knack for a trenchant turn of phrase as was evidenced in the brilliant first essay in her book “A Field Guide to Getting Lost” as well as in “Wanderlust.” She seems to be preoccupied by similar topics as I am: the way our modern culture has caused us to diverge from a more basic, physical and conscious state of being, the dichotomy of inside/outside being a key concern.

I think myself as a “native of the outside” but not because of traumas suffered within houses. I suppose each of us has our own route to the places we end up. I’d say I’ve had an inexorable draw to the outdoors that is probably encoded in my peasant DNA. That said, I also have felt like an outsider to mainstream culture most of my life. Did that propel me to connect more profoundly with non-human life or was it the other way around. Solnit’s traumatized natives of the outside are people for whom the world is turned upside down; once the notion of safety of home is undermined, then perhaps it’s not difficult to cast off its companion notion that outside is dangerous. Or maybe, the unveiling of the lie of home sweet home puts other mainstream notions in question, creating an easier avenue of exit from said mainstream.

Solnit’s book is certainly good at unveiling aspects of our culture that often remain unexamined. She delves succinctly into the twists and turns of our culture and their impact on us as individuals and communities. I love the way she speaks of the human body as a “sensing, breathing, living moving body (that) can be a primary experience of nature too: new technologies and spaces can bring about alienation from both body and space.” I too have pondered the impact on our psyches of having bodies whose primary functions are recreational rather than utilitarian. Instead of our feet carrying us to gather food and shelter, we now drive to work and take our bodies to specific places for specific activities, be they hiking, soccer, etc, for them/us to get their/our necessary movement. Bitingly, she writes, “the body that used to have the status of a work animal now has the status of a pet;…(it) is exercised as one might walk a dog.”

She goes even further, noting that in our modern car culture, walking could be seen as an “indicator species” for our physical, psychological and psychic health. Walking can be seen as “an ancient and profound relationship between body, world, and imagination.” She draws on the relationship between writing and creativity, talking about the walking habits of writers from Dickens to modern day adventurers. When we are no longer able to walk because of a scarcity of time, a scarcity of walking spaces, a scarcity of cultural values that honour walking, the gym becomes “a kind of wildlife preserve for bodily exertion” which accommodates something essential after we abandon the original modes of human physical activity. But what kind of wildlife preserve can a gym be in you think of bodily motion being as much about a beckoning to the imagination and an experience of place as physical exercise? In teasing apart too many strands of this rope, one might end up with a pile of tattered, useless sisal instead of a functioning whole.

I could go on, as this subject has strands that connect to so many other topics. In the meanwhile, I highly recommend Solnit’s work, especially if you’re interested in erudite, thought provoking and well researched non-fiction. But, a better conclusion yet might be to spare your eyes and sitting weary body and get out for a walk.

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