Emmanuel Vaughan-LeePaul, it’s great to speak with you today.
Paul Salopek It’s good to be here.
EVWhere are you talking to me from right now?
PSI’m in the northeastern region of mainland China. I am in a province called Liaoning, about, I don’t know, about seven hundred kilometers north of Beijing. And just one caveat: I can’t really choose my audio environments, as you might imagine. I kind of end up where I can walk at the end of each day. So I found the quietest room I could locate in this small town in a lodge. But you might get a little ambient sound. I’m still hearing a little traffic noise outside.
EVAnd what time is it there right now?
PSIt’s a little after seven in the morning.
EVAnd how long have you been there? And where are you heading next?
PSIn China I’ve been walking for a bit over two years right now. And I’m walking north towards the Heilongjiang Black Dragon River, or the Russians call it the Amur, the border between China and Russia.
EVAnd the town that you’re calling in from today, how long have you been there?
PSJust overnight. Because I’m walking every day. So we’re talking about maybe, what, twelve hours, something like that. Got in last evening.
EVWow. So every night it’s somewhere different.
PSYeah, most of the time. I do pause the walk on occasion for longer periods to rest, but also to do my work, to write.
EVWell, you’re ten years into this remarkable journey retracing the migration pathway out of Africa that the first humans took tens of thousands of years ago. And you’ve been retracing this pathway, as our ancestors did, walking at three miles an hour—the pace of which you’ve called “a distinctly human tempo,” which I love the phrase. And I imagine you’ve been asked this question a lot, but I guess I need to ask it as well, which is what prompted you to embark on this journey? And perhaps more importantly, why did you choose to walk?
PSI had been working for a number of years internationally as a foreign correspondent with the Chicago Tribune based in Africa. And my beat actually was mainly Africa but [also] global, because I got sucked into war reporting in Central Asia and the Middle East as well. And after, I don’t know, about nine years of doing that continuously, the combination of the implosion of the print media world in the US and also just kind of having reached a point in my life when I thought that I was looking for new challenges, new ways to tell stories—ways that might get closer to the bone of meaning at an international level—I came up with this idea of combining science with storytelling and following the footsteps of the first anatomically modern humans: people who look like us, who left Africa anywhere between, you know, seventy to a hundred and twenty thousand years ago and began walking across the planet, dispersing across the continents.
And I thought this would be an interesting experiment in slow storytelling or slow journalism, a way of slowing down my methodology and immersing myself in the lives of the people who inhabit the headlines of our day. So it’s been kind of a giant kind of a planet-sized studio to think about how stories are connected—not just kind of mega stories, say the climate crisis or human conflict, but our individual stories as well. And one way that I’ve found that does it really well is by slowing myself down and walking from person to person. That’s basically the premise of this. It’s a listening project where the destination almost always is another person.
EVHmm. And the destination is also, as far as I understand it, the tip of South America in Patagonia. And that’s ultimately where you want to end up. When you set out, how long did you think it would take you to get there?
PSYeah, based on just a rough calculation—I think literally on the back of a napkin in a restaurant in Chicago—I thought it might take about seven years if I walk at the average pace that a human adult walks, which is about three miles or five kilometers an hour. I did kind of thumbnail math and it came out to be about seven years with a route that spans about twenty-four thousand miles from the Horn of Africa, as you mentioned, to the tip of South America. And why the tip of South America? Because it just happens to be a convenient conceptual finish line for a walk that’s hoping to kind of mimic the first human migrations. And scientists tell us that the tip of South America’s one corner of the continents where our ancestors ran out of new horizons.
EVHmm. And it’s taken you ten years to get to China. How long do you think it’ll take you to get from where you are now to South America?
PSEmmanuel, yeah, it’s very, very difficult to predict. I’m already, you know—so much for the back of the envelope schedule, right? But, you know, who’s counting at this stage? The walk has become my life. If geopolitics work out, if the weather works out, if my knees hold out, maybe another three, four years of walking. It depends on a lot of variables. It’s an art, not a science, I’ve discovered—this walking gig.
EVWell, I’ve followed your journey since you set out and read your dispatches in National Geographic, and I felt like through your reporting I’d been witnessing how the world is changing, but also very much so how your relationship to the world and what you find meaningful is changing. And I’m curious about how moving through the world at that pace you set out at, at three miles an hour, altered the way you absorb meaning from the world around you.
PSThat’s a really good question. It’s one of course that I’ve thought of myself. I’ve got to remind my readers often how this came about and how—or how not—I’ve changed over the years. Keep in mind that I was fifty when I took my first steps out of the Rift Valley of Africa, so I had a pretty big chunk of life behind me. I also remind my readers that I was not kind of a conventional foreign correspondent. I had brilliant, empathetic, wonderful editors who gave me lots of time—this magic, special ingredient of time—to delve into storytelling, to delve into everything from investigations of Russian gun runners to following the changing environments in the continent of Africa, projects that required months and months of work.
So I’d actually been doing this episodically, story specifically; subject matter by subject matter, I’d been doing slow storytelling. The difference with this project is that now, over the last decade, it’s been linear; whereas in the past, I would do a story about following the flow of oil across the world, say, to a gas station in suburban Chicago—a project that took seven months—and then later I would jump onto another project that might take a few months, looking at overfishing along the coastlines of Africa. Now these big theme ideas, everything from the environment to politics, to war, to culture, to public health, are actually strung together like beads on a string. And I use that simile decidedly because one of the great gifts of the walk, both emotionally and intellectually, is it’s given a direction to my work and my life that I didn’t have before.
Before, it was a bit atomized. It was deep and immersive, but it was a mosaic, right: here behind me, north of me, south of me, west of me. Here, I’ve woken up every day of my life over the last decade knowing more or less literally where I’m headed next; literally towards sunrise, right? Literally towards the east, across Eurasia, for year after year, right? First coming out of Africa, then through the Middle East, and then across the Silk Roads, through Central Asia, et cetera, et cetera. And that is a powerful perspective to bring to this thing that I do. And it has affected the way I think I write stories. On the one hand, I’m doing sort of the same that I have been doing my entire writing life. And in that sense, I’ve used the phrase that launching a walk across the world is not a departure for me, right? I didn’t have a midlife crisis and chuck a sedentary job aside and then go out and walk the Earth. It’s more of an arrival. This idea is kind of the synthesis of years of practice into a line—a line of progress that happens to follow the footsteps of the ancestors, but a line nonetheless, a line that’s attached to deep history, a line that looks to the future, a line that’s anchored in the present—very present, right? When I’m walking long distances, I can’t tell editors, I can’t tell family members, I can’t tell governments, this is where I’m gonna be next Tuesday. I simply don’t know. So it very much anchors my work in the present. That’s one change.
The other way I think I’ve changed is it’s given me more of a sense of how interconnected life in the world is today. It’s always interconnected; we just don’t see it. Because if we’re sedentary, we are living rich, rewarding lives within the bounds of a geographical bubble that may expand or contract, depending on how much we move—whether we do micro-migrations every day called commuting, or whether we move around through bigger radius from where we have a home, say. By walking every day and getting up and putting on a backpack, having a cup of tea or coffee, and then setting out in a direction—the directionality has been really a powerful shaping tool, both for giving me, in my personal life, a sense of meaning, a sense of a journey that is unfolding in real time—and I know sort of where I’m headed more or less. And it also gives the storytelling, the sense that one story that I might write this week about the environment is connected to a story that I might write a month down the pike that’s connected to climate or resource exploitation or human rights or gender issues or what have you—biology, archaeology. They’re all linked like links on a chain. And so that is really quite nice because the walk has become kind of a book, if you will, where every story I’m writing is a page; but that page is bound to a spine, right, no matter how radically different the subject matter is. Because every day, I don’t know what I’m gonna be confronting. I don’t know what will be the surprise. This project is premised on serendipity. It’s premised on chance. It’s premised on surprise, the wonder of surprise. But that page is glued to a spine, and that spine is a trail that goes from horizon to horizon.
EVHmm. Well, time seems to be a big theme that you write about, and not just because of the nature of slowing down to the speed of three miles an hour to walk. And I was struck by some of your writing where you talked about coming out of more rural landscapes and coming into contact with these really busy cities or some of the world’s busiest trade arteries. And you described this experience as debilitating, not just because of the accelerated motion or the population density of these places, but because it brought you into contact with what you described as the “inhuman fury of modern time.” And it made me wonder how your relationship to modern time has shifted over these last ten years as you’ve walked?
PSIronically, I hoped that walking long distances through landscapes—human landscapes, inhabited landscapes, landscapes that are a mosaic of individual stories—would put me into the Pleistocene state of mind that our ancestors had as hunter gatherers as they moved through their environment and slowed their days down. A time that was more connected to nature, anchored in seasons, as my life is very much right now. I’m outdoors all the time. This is something that puts me more in kind of kinship with, say, farmers or fisher people than with modern urbanites. So time plays a factor in the sense that when I’m in rural landscapes or when I’m in wilderness, my heartbeat becomes, or my feet become, metronomes that tick off not just distance, but also the passage of time. And “time” slows down to what I would call a human scale.
Once my trail, my kind of very crooked meandering trail, transects big urban areas—and it does—time seems to speed up. It’s not just that our contrivances today, not just that our technology, not just that our information, has sped up to the speed of light, right, the speed of electrons, but time itself seems to rush past in a fire hose, a torrent. And so I feel out of time. I have written about this very peculiar feeling of coming, say, from weeks or even months out of rural landscapes or natural landscapes, or more natural landscapes, shall we say—so much of the Earth has been altered, there’s not much natural that’s left that I can see over the last thousands of kilometers that I’ve walked. But coming out of stiller, quieter, more nature-metered landscapes into a big city, I feel a bit like a ghost. I feel like I could almost lift off the sidewalk. I feel almost transparent. I feel like the city is rushing through me, through my body. I don’t know if you’ve seen films where they have kind of fast, sped-up motion around a character—say, if you can imagine a drone shot where there’s somebody standing still, and there are like just whirs of color and movement around them—that’s close to the feeling that I get every time I walk from farmland into a big city. And it’s enhanced by the fact that all the motion around me, which includes humans in rapid motion in motorized vehicles, what have you, don’t seem to see me, because everybody is moving so fast that I feel like I am sort of a fantasm and I could almost walk through the walls of these skyscrapers. It’s a very strange, interesting, sometimes disturbing feeling.
EVHmm. You’ve also written about becoming attentive to a rhythm that exists outside of this kind of time you just described, and you mentioned your heartbeat, but you’ve also written about realizing that there’s a deeper, older, geological pulse that’s present in the land around you. And you’ve said that as you walk, you notice a sensation of standing still, and that in fact “it is the Earth itself that is revolving slowly underfoot. The ultimate in clockwork. A giant cog.” And, you know, this is of course something we all learn, but few of us experience it in the way you’ve described it. How has this changed you, experiencing this day to day?
PSThis sense of geologic time that comes with spending long periods out walking is wonderful. You know, on the one hand, I’ve described walking past modern human infrastructure, the built environment of the twenty-first century, and how when I’m walking in this state of mind, this kind of trance state that’s deeply inward where you’re like in a waking dream. You might be having like a movie of imagery going through your mind, but also you’re hyper alert, right? Because when you’re out walking, you can’t sort of sleepwalk through the world. Your body has to be switched on, right? I don’t walk with ear pods. I don’t listen to music. I can’t, because I need to hear if somebody out in the field hails me. I want to be able to answer that salutation. I need to hear which way the wind’s blowing. I need to hear if there’s a river approaching in the forest. And these kind of sensations of being kind of hyper-alert—like a hunter, like our original ancestors who walked, who blazed these trails—but also being inward does seem to tap into this sense of ancient time, maybe sacramental time, where the world is revolving, as I mentioned, underfoot like a ball. And it comes and goes, right? It’s not something that I can summon consciously. It just comes and goes. I have very distinct memories of when it does appear. There were fields in Turkey where my boots were scaring up clouds of grasshoppers, where I got this distinct impression. I got it walking through the mountains of southwestern China. It comes with this kind of deep sense of equanimity, this sense that, you know, I’m a transient particle through time and space. And on the one hand, I’m directing my direction with every footstep that I take, but on the other, it’s sort of inconsequential which footstep I put down next. And I hope that some of that timelessness is also infusing the work. I hope that’s detectable in the writing.
EVHmm. One of my favorite dispatches of yours wrote about sacramental time, which you just mentioned. And you wrote that, “You walk until your feet disappear. Until all waypoints flatten. The sky becomes the seamless sky. The horizon is just a horizon. The ticking of your wristwatch slows. Plant ten million footsteps across this Earth, and your heart pendulums to rest even as your shadow keeps moving. Look around. This is sacramental time.” And I found this very, very beautiful, Paul. And to me it evoked a sense of a blurring between the physical and the metaphysical. Is that how you experience it?
PSI do. And it’s no surprise that, you know, when people embark on pilgrimage, it’s often on foot, right, down through the ages. I think there is this connection between the body and the mind and landscape at this speed. I remind myself, I think it’s delightful that we are this wondrous walking machine. We have evolved to set one foot in front of the other. We are exquisitely tuned to do this. And so when you do it—even if you live in downtown Manhattan or in Shanghai—and you are busy and distracted—walking feels good. Whenever you’re stressed, what do you do? You get out of the office and you go take a walk, even around the block. If you need to talk to somebody intimately about something important, what do you say? You say, let’s go take a walk. So I think that this sense of well-being that comes with timelessness, the sense of being at peace—it must be very, very old. And it must be like a stylus dropping into a groove on the surface of a planet and making this music. And we are, our bodies are, that stylus, and we’re meant to move at this RPM that comes with the movement of our body. And it just feels natural. It just feels good.
EVAnd it’s very primal, as you just described, and can evoke ancient feelings inside of us. And you mentioned Turkey just a minute ago, and there was a dispatch you wrote from there which also struck me very deeply, where you spoke about longing. And you said, “There comes an old, old longing while walking through the world. Walking, you learn each new landscape the way you might explore the face of a lover—up close, by grazing your fingertips over the features, without distraction, with a sort of doomed attentiveness, acutely aware that each mile sliding by is gone forever, knowing it won’t hold. The best walking and the best writing must happen this way.” I also really love this, you know, it’s very touching. And I guess I wonder about this longing that has been awakened in you.
PSThat piece, it alludes to the acceptance of the passage of time. I think it alludes to the acceptance, ultimately, of mortality. But that passage—I remember that story. I was channeling not just my own feelings, but I was walking with a friend through Anatolia, through Kurdistan, at that time. And he was ethnic Kurd; he was from that landscape and had deep psychic roots in that landscape. And he was grappling with—if you’re familiar with the history of the Kurds in that part of the world—he was grappling with issues of home and homelessness, of being a minority group that had been marginalized and divided up into four modern nation states. And each nation state was struggling to have some sort of agency—at minimum cultural agency, right? And so his longing, I felt keenly. And I think that kind of longing can range from something like that—we’re talking about longing for belonging, you know, a longing to claim wholeheartedly your sense of your own identity and your freedom to choose to do so—to the longing that comes with personal isolation, loneliness, longing for connection. Walking brings this out. I come back to this strange sort of tangency between hyper-awakeness and deep inwardness. Walking just frees this feeling up. It just activates it. And so you can feel both very happy and kind of sadly accepting in the same moment.
EVHmm. It seems that perhaps another effect of life moving at a walking pace is that the points that most of us normally use to anchor our sense of time suddenly become irrelevant or less central, I would guess. And you wrote about how anniversaries, birthdays, the body signs of aging, “all the usual calendars,” they start to dissolve. Can you speak to this? And also what emerges when these markers, they disappear?
PSI think it varies from person to person. And I’ll explain sort of a really wonderful aspect of—I always walk with people, right? That’s the premise of my project. I’m not out here walking the Earth alone. As a storyteller, I think even I would find that rather dull. It’s walking with local people who call these landscapes home. But personally—I think it’s gonna sound banal and trite—but it puts me in the moment, right? So it culminates in being in that moment between each footstep. I’m there, right? You can never stop the movie that’s in your head, but at a certain point, it does kind of, the volume goes down to a whisper, if not silence. And you can just be there. You can just be there. And these are those moments which I mentioned where the globe seems to be rolling under your feet and you’re standing still: a meditative moment. With the people who walk with me—people I call walking partners, who are co-equal storytellers in this project, who we always encourage to either write or record or draw or write poems—I’ve walked with a wonderful poet here in China—about their own walking experience. What I’ve noticed when I start with a new person, I’m kind of smiling inwardly, waiting with anticipation for this sense of reward that invariably comes when somebody comes unanchored from time; when they become aware that they have stopped thinking about industrial time or analog time or digital time; when they suddenly become aware that something feels different today after walking six, seven, eight, twelve, fifteen days: I’m not moving through time the way I have my whole life. And in some cases, it’s difficult for them to articulate it. As you can tell, it’s even difficult for me to articulate this state of timelessness. But they like it, like I do. And they comment on it after they leave the trail. We stay in touch. I try to stay in touch with my walking family. And it’s scores and scores of people at this point. But they have a sense of nostalgia about having moved from this kind of walking time and back into a life where the time is now metered outside the body, right, often digitally these days.
EVHmm. You described that moving on foot and in tune with the rhythms of the land around you, you start to enter another trance-like state, what you described as “a long-wave mental state” in which all the elements of our modern civilization—be they cities or technology or mass media—that seem to be deeply permanent reveal themselves to be, in fact, rather fleeting within this space that you enter; and that you find things begin to lose the materiality. And you wrote, asking, “What essence of our days will survive into the future?” Can you speak to this? And also what becomes ephemeral—beyond cities and technology and mass media—when you step into this long-wave mental state?
PSIt’s interesting because there’s a personal reaction. Your own life becomes ephemeral. And there’s also a macrosystemic phase where virtually everything you see, including the rocks themselves, are transient. This first impression of seeing modern twenty-first century infrastructure change in front of my eyes—I’ve had a couple earlier encounters with this kind of almost a daytime vision, if you will. I used to be a war correspondent. And often when I’d come back from conflict zones into a modern, normal, peaceful city, I would blink and I would see the city structure in front of me destroyed. I would see the spider-webbed glass, broken glass. I would see the black eyebrows of ash coming out of windows that you see in burned buildings. And I would blink again, and then the cities would be restored to their peaceful state.
This project is quite different. When I walk past cities or when I walk past pipelines or highways or mass industrial agriculture projects—I mentioned earlier myself turning into a ghost—I see these things that seem like they’ve been with us forever and will be here for long after we’re gone, turn into this kind of insubstantial ghost-like plasma. It goes back to this notion of geological time, when you enter this phase where you kind of look deeply through things, and you see through time. You see mountains, you see sunlight, you see an iron-hard horizon, you see the sea. And even those things, though, have a sense of unreality to them, a sense of insubstantiality. And, you know, I don’t want to ascribe more than I can to it, but I think it just goes back to you are both disassociated, but on the other side of that disassociation, if you walk long enough, if you pay enough attention, you’re ultimately connected to it, right? The noise—it has meaning. I’m sitting in a small town in China right now. I can hear distant truck traffic on a highway. I can hear an occasional honk of a car. I’m not saying that that isn’t any less real than the ancient coastal wetlands that this town has built upon. I think they’re both here right now under my feet. But if I went out today and I walked enough, they both might dissolve.
And it’s not a negative feeling. Again, it’s sort of the opposite. It comes with a sense of peace. It comes with a sense of connectedness—that I’m connected to something that maybe is even older than the wetlands.
EVHmm. There’s a lot of reference, maybe not directly but implicitly, in your writing to deep time and how archaeologists in millennia will come to stumble across the evidence of our hubris and overconsumption buried in the geological strata, and that there are ports and cities built of steel and concrete or belching factories that you’ve passed on your journey that will one day just become a layer of deep time in the earth.
PSYeah. This struck me first in Djibouti. Djibouti is a small African country next to the Gulf of Aden and has a very busy port, an industrial port where the lights are on 24/7 and ships are being offloaded and whatnot. But it struck me because I was interested in archaeology as a kid, and I took a few courses in archaeology at university, and I went out on active digs. And I remember digging through what archaeologists call “lenses”—middens or lenses of human culture. And in the case where I went to school in central California, these were lenses of shells left by the Chumash people of Central California. If you did a cross-section, say, through a trench, you’d find a lenticular shape in the dark soil of white shell. And it had been compacted through centuries of soil on top of it. And I just imagined Djibouti City, and by extension all the rest of our stuff from our material culture, just crushed into a lenticular layer several meters deep—you know, glass and plastic and metal and a few of our bones thrown into it.
EVHmm. On the other end of the spectrum throughout your dispatches, you detail many moments of engaging on a deeper level with the living world and the more natural, alive world. And there was a story I was struck by, of walking across tree-root bridges in India. And these bridges are hundreds of years old and often outlast the newer concrete or metal structures that might form that strata in the future. And you wrote that to step across these bridges formed from trees was to come into contact with “a rare, harmonious collaboration between the human imagination and the growing muscle of nature,” which in turn allowed you to “span time.” And most people can’t visit some of these places that you’ve been on your journey, Paul. They can’t walk across these amazing old tree bridges in India. But I wonder if you could speak to how you feel the living world—that anyone can have access to—can act as a kind of entryway into experiencing this deep time.
PSYeah, absolutely, Emmanuel, absolutely. You do not have to, you know, make your way to the jungles of northeastern India to experience this thing. I think it’s there for you. And it might be a little tougher to see and experience if it’s part of your daily life, whether you’re living in a small town or a megalopolis or anything in between, because, as usual, if we stay sedentary, we get scales over our eyes, and we stop realizing the wonders of the everyday world around us because they become over familiar. But walking peels those scales off and allows you to rediscover the extraordinariness of so-called ordinary things. And that includes a walk through your town, a stroll out into the fields, or a park near your house—indeed, your backyard, if you choose to go micro, right?
And this notion of how economies that depend on nature also move through this very natural prism of time, struck me more and more and more, partly because of its rarity in a world today. So I’ve written—this might be a little bit of a tangent, but it’s an important one for me—a discovery of this journey is how much of the world has been transformed by the human hand. It has a very heavy thumbprint, Homo sapien thumbprint, on it. I think people are maybe misled a little bit by things like nature documentaries. They assume that there’s still, you know, vast tracts of virgin wilderness covering large portions of the planet. On this walk that has been disproven to me. But still, people who live close to nature, people who farm, especially people who still farm in an artisanal way—you know, they might still use small motorized tractors or what have you, but not the massive-scale industrial farming that now feeds most of the world—these folks have, like those tree-root bridges, concocted over generations, an interconnectedness with the natural landscape that they inhabit that is extraordinarily clever. It’s very innovative. It’s the opposite of being backward and dusty and kind of old-fashioned. And it’s a system of knowledge that is very rare today.
I would say among the mass extinctions that we all are aware of and get written about, what I call “the handmade world” is one that’s happening right now, and one that doesn’t get acknowledged a lot. But walking across those tree bridges in northeast India, and walking through the handmade world of rural India, Northern India at large, and also in southwestern China, where everything is still sort of scaled to the human body, right, whether it’s walking trails, whether it’s handmade homes made out of local materials, often made with tools that themselves are handmade, the fact that the handwork in the fields is done by hand—none of this is easy. It’s an economy that is, by modern definition, underdeveloped and hard. And I completely empathize, and to some degree even agree, with the farmers who would prefer a more mechanized form of farming. It still, though, has this feeling of natural time and human time joining hands and kind of clasping fingers in this kind of middle way, right? It’s a very amazing middle way in the sense—and the way that I wrote about it is—I felt immediately at home in these landscapes, where nature and humans had joined hands across time, not just in geographies. And I’d never been to any of these places before. And I think it’s because they were scaled to my body. My body felt at home.
EVHmm. You also have spoken about a collective forgetfulness of entire knowledge systems and ways of being that have preceded our moment. And you wrote that anywhere you go, “lifeways based on an antique accommodation between the environment and the human hand” are being forgotten in a “vast, invisible and final turning of the wheel,” which is quite sobering.
PSYeah, that’s exactly what I was just explaining. And you know, I was raised in a semi-rural landscape in central Mexico, a village that had been on the outskirts of a big city that has now since been absorbed, in the central Mexican plateau. And so I think this was kind of an awakening of even of my own awareness of something that had been in my bones as a kid; of people who still worked with nature by hand. And it is a traditional system of knowledge that is vanishing. It makes me wonder, especially here in China where when you walk through rural landscapes—it’s famous now, everybody knows—that, you know, these are villages of old people, right? It’s hard to see anybody who’s under fifty or sixty out planting leeks and using the topography in such a way that it will trap rainwater just enough to water your leeks, but not too much to flood your leeks, right? The contouring systems that are done by hand; the kind of limbic knowledge of how hydrology works. At an individual farm-plot level, once these elders are gone, this traditional system of knowledge will be gone. And I do not begrudge these elders one nanosecond the fact that, “hey, I want a John Deere tractor.” I completely get it. And I probably would too. But I would, you know, try to go out and talk to these elders and say, you know, here’s the John Deere, but before we fire her up, tell me how you do it by hand. Because as we enter a century of sort of newly emerging constraints, a century of limitations that we’re only now kind of getting the inkling of—it’s gonna be a tough century ahead—these old lifeways, this old traditional system of knowledge that has sustainability baked into it could come in handy, no pun intended, when it comes to recreating handmade landscapes.
EVOne thing that I think about a lot is the relationship between those ancient ways of knowledge, the stories that are held within them and the land, and the places that these people have lived, sometimes for millennia. And that when these ancient systems of knowledge go, the stories often go too, which is a loss often that maybe isn’t given the attention it needs.
PSI agree. These are maps, these are psychic maps, these are metaphysical maps of where trees grow, where a special tree grows. And once the people who inhabit that landscape go away, once they pass from the stage, that cosmos disappears as well. And the tree just becomes another tree. It becomes a resource, something that a forester ticks off in a census, right, as opposed to a very special tree that has a story wrapped around it, that might have an origin story wrapped around it. So yes, absolutely. And I’ve seen it over and over again. Even here in China—one of the most industrialized countries in the world—there are parts of China where people know trees. They’ll say, see that tree, that’s an ancestor tree. See that little box at the bottom of its trunk, that’s a shrine. You know? And who’s going to maintain the shrine after grandma and grandpa pass away? Probably not too many people.
EVWell, I wonder if we could end our conversation by offering a practice of how to approach walking that those listening could perhaps embark on in their own place that might allow them to begin to see the world through the lens that you do, and maybe even step into sacramental time.
PSI think we all do it, whether to some degree wittingly, to some degree unwittingly, in our lives often—if not daily—often. I’ll give you a personal example. I had to pause for a couple months in Beijing, a very big city, to do some research and to write. And so I rented a small, little flat in a hutong, an alleyway in an old part of the city. And so I joined the sedentary tribe, the majoritarian tribe, those two months. I was sitting in front of a laptop. I did what you and probably hundreds of millions of other urbanites do every day—there was a time of the day where I just needed to take a walk. And I could structure that walk to the local market. It doesn’t have to be far. And I can slip into the rewards of using this astonishing internal metronome that’s built inside of us, inside of our body, that distinguishes us from almost every other animal, within five hundred meters, right? And so that was enough to kind of refresh my day, to be able to go back in front of the work. And I think we all know of friends and colleagues who incorporate a little walking into their commute, right? Let’s say you have to jump on a metro, but you walk to and from the metro, or during your lunch hour, you take a spin around the park and sit in the park. I think these micro-migrations are just as potent and valid, if we can access them. It would help if there’s a little quiet that you’re walking through or to, but you can access this goodness that’s kind of humming in our bones, waiting to be let out.
EVPaul, it’s been a real pleasure speaking with you today. Thank you so much for taking the time at the beginning of your day before you head off to your next destination.