- Wood Mountain Walk and the Possibilities of Decolonization through Relationships with People and Land in Solo Walking Performance
Over nine days in July and August 2018, I made what Robert Macfarlane calls an “improvised pilgrimage” (235) in southern Saskatchewan. I called it Wood Mountain Walk: a 250-kilometre walk from Regina, the provincial capital, where I live, southwest to the village of Wood Mountain. I was walking in honour of the late poet Andrew Suknaski, who was born near that village and whose first and most important book, Wood Mountain Poems, takes the area’s hills and history as its subject matter. This pilgrimage was also a walking performance. Given its duration, it was the kind of walking performance Deirdre Heddon and Cathy Turner describe, disapprovingly, as “individualist, heroic, epic and transgressive” (224). The current trend in walking performance, as Phil Smith suggests, is “more sociable” and “democratic” (Walking’s New Movement 76). While long, solo walking may be “inaccessible to most people due to its epic proportions” (Walking’s New Movement 76), I still think that, like other forms of solo performance, it has value: relational aesthetics cannot define every artistic practice. Besides, while I could have walked with someone else, no one I know would consider sleeping in ditches or going for days without coffee, and I wanted to avoid the complexity and carbon emissions of a support vehicle. So, I chose to walk on my own.
Wood Mountain Walk was the first of a series of walking performances—some solo, some with other people—I intend to create in Treaty 4 territory in Saskatchewan over the next two years. I am curious about what possibilities such walks might create for a deeper, non-extractive engagement by settlers with the land, and whether such walking might be a way to think about decolonization. Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang tell us that decolonization is not a metaphor, that it must involve “the repatriation of land”— “all of the land, and not just symbolically”—to Indigenous peoples (7). It’s true that walking, rather than effecting a repatriation of the land, is a symbolic gesture. Nevertheless, I am exploring it as a place to start that holds the possibility of personal decolonization. Walking is part of my response to the ongoing history of colonization in this province, along with developing relationships with Elders and beginning to learn the Cree language, nêhiyawêwin.
Solo walking might be a surprisingly powerful way of attending to the land. Writer and walker Craig Mod argues that “the grand, pervasive boredom” of a long solo walk leads to “a heightened sense of presence.” That heightened sense of presence might be an essential prerequisite for developing a relationship with the land that is not extractive. In an interview with Naomi Klein, Anishinaabeg writer and activist Leanne Betasamosake Simpson states:
The act of extraction removes all of the relationships that give whatever is being extracted meaning. Extracting is taking. Actually, extracting is stealing—it is taking without consent, without thought, care or even knowledge of the impacts that extraction has on the other living things in that environment. That’s always been a part of colonialism and conquest.(in Klein)
Developing non-extractive relationships with the land is an essential first step toward decolonization. Could walking help us develop such relationships? That is the question I intend to investigate in my research.
Wood Mountain Walk was, in part, a test of whether long, solo walking performances are possible in rural Saskatchewan. Walking here is hard, for many reasons: distance, weather, the availability of water, the sparse population. Not surprisingly, nobody walks here, as Matthew Anderson points out,
unless they walk to or from a vehicle, they are in trouble, or they are too young or too poor to have a car or truck. In many cases, walking in rural Saskatchewan may denote low social status. It is certainly an unexpected sight. In the southern Saskatchewan countryside, a lone walker will not [End Page 51] simply be stared at. In areas where one can spend hours without any sign of human activity on the horizon, hikers are likely as not to encounter well...