Talking walking

Authored by Sarah Bell

At the beginning of January this year, I met up with Dr Hannah Macpherson, Senior Lecturer at the University of Brighton. Hannah volunteered as a sighted guide for visually impaired walking groups in and around the Peak District, South Yorkshire and the Lake District from 2004 to 2006 as part of her PhD research.

We discussed a number of themes which arose from her research, many of which are relevant to the Sensing Nature project.

Hannah described the feelings of achievement discussed by participants upon reaching summits (including sites of collective national significance), mastering new routes and steep terrains in ‘wilder’ places, building physical fitness and stamina, and countering identity-limiting stereotypes of blindness and disability.  Some expressed a sense of freedom through walking with a guide, picking up pace, not having to worry about obstacles quite so much (with the exception of the typical countryside style) and accessing spaces they might not otherwise visit.

Hannah also discussed how managing the guide-walker relationship was not always easy, particularly amongst walkers who were used to their independence. Whilst these relationships often became mutually rewarding over time, for some they were punctuated by moments of tension and power imbalance. These often stemmed from overly protective actions from guides, undermining the independence and self-esteem of the walkers. Hannah noted that such moments were sometimes dealt with through humour and laughter and were reduced by nurturing partnerships built on an ethos of ‘walking with’ rather than ‘walking for’.

Reflecting on time spent with group participants during these walks and in subsequent interviews, Hannah noted the importance of ‘echo-location’ and sensing 'through the feet' when negotiating these outdoor landscapes, enhancing one’s body awareness in space by ‘reading’ the ground beneath.

Yet throughout her work, she also recognised the stark limitations of language for fully articulating the sensations and experiences encountered whilst walking. Many walkers still used sighted metaphors in their descriptions, particularly those with a longer history of sight, visual memories and a greater degree of residual vision.

In many ways, this links to calls by Siegfried Saerberg (a blind researcher, curator, sound artist and writer) to develop a common language for describing spaces and sensations that is independent of sight.

Through ‘Sensing Nature’, we hope to go some way towards developing this, finding more sensitive ways of describing and understanding our multi-sensory experiences with nature.