Posted by: anthropologyinthewind | January 13, 2013

Body of Knowledge

I have already written briefly on the extent of the impacts of human activity on the landscape (Human-nature), but what about the ways in which our relationship with our environment shapes our own human development?

The following are excerpts from my field notes. All are dated early October 2012, just after I had begun regularly volunteering in Dunnet Forest:

“Taking a hot shower after a day of work in the forest, I count 37 bruises and 5 scratches on my legs, the skin on the ends of my toes is white and peeling and every part of me aches. I’ve been experiencing cramps in my calves; my toes hurt; and my wrist and the left side of my left hand are extremely painful.”

“In the evening, I sit on the sofa and my body throbs. My back, in between the shoulder blades, is painful, a sharp, continuous pain. My lower back gently aches; my hands and fingertips, and even my fingernails, feel sore and tight. My wrists are sore; my neck doesn’t want to hold my head up; a blister on my left heel where my boot rubs me is screaming; every movement that I make reminds me of another ache and my body is tense all over.”

“As I lay in bed at night, my body feels as heavy as stone and my arms are stiff and achy, and I wake repeatedly in the night, laying them on a cool part of the covers in an attempt to gain some relief from the soreness.”

At the time, I felt dreadful, but three months further on, now accustomed to the rigours of my tasks in the woodland, I can reflect back and recognise that these discomforts are a central part of learning to become a forester. The knowledge that these physical aches and pains attest to is now embodied within my very being and has been developed through direct interaction with the world around me: when I use my handsaw to cut down small trees, I learn about the force I need to apply to make the cut, and how the growth of the tree and the cut that I have made will direct its fall. When I stack my brash, I learn how the size and shape of the branch determines how I can best manoeuvre it. When planting trees, I learn to assess the density of the ground and how to exert the right amount of pressure on my spade to make the shape and size of hole I require. The scent of the trees as a chainsaw rips through them, and their weight as I carry the resulting rings of wood to the woodpile, alerts me to the health of the tree. All of this knowledge has a sensorial quality that is difficult to articulate in words, but which is beginning to structure the fibres of my being. The shape of my body, the size and tone of my muscles and my capacity to undertake different kinds of tasks are all gradually changing as the work that I carry out in the forest influences my development.

Forest WorkWorking on the Shave HorsePlanting Trees

Tim Ingold, in his book The Perception of the Environment (2000), suggests that:

“The human body is not ready-made for anything, but undergoes continuous change throughout the life-cycle as it is pressed into the performance of diverse tasks. Indeed the recurrent stresses and strains of everyday life do not just affect the development of different muscles; they also leave their mark on the skeleton itself…Once we introduce the environmental context of development into our specification of what an organism is, it must follow that a human-being-in-environment-A cannot be the same kind of organism as a human-being-in-environment-B.”

In other words, whilst ever I move through the world, leaving my trace upon it, so I am shaped by the world I encounter. Furthermore, we are so accustomed to thinking of knowledge as something that resides only in our mind, yet the skills and understanding that we develop through ways of life lived in particular environments are often ‘known’ with our entire body and range of senses. I believe, as Tim Ingold does, that we can best be understood as ‘organisms-in-an-environment’, rather than individuals with separate minds and bodies facing a world out there.

A local person has spoken to me on several occasions, half-jokingly, half seriously, about what he calls ‘the Highlander gait’: an unusual way of walking developed over years of navigating across the boggy moorland and heather covered hills of the local terrain, and which involves raising the feet slightly higher than normal and taking larger strides. I’m sure there must be many more examples of how the local landscape has shaped local people and local ways of life…do you have one you can share? If so, leave your comment or story below, or use the contact form to send a private message to me.


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