On Walking, Together

Embodied Research and the Tidal Schuylkill River

Co-authored by Tathagat Bhatia, Lucy Corlett, Samantha Friskey, Jade Gonzalez, Claire Hampton, Luba Mendelevich, Alexandra (Rose) Nagele, Michael Shultz, and Piotr Wojcik. With Martin Premoli and Luna Sarti. Edited by Bethany Wiggin

Editor’s Note:

Liquid Histories and Floating Archives was an experimental seminar at U Penn that invited students to explore how global climate change interweaves with cultural change, from the hyperlocal vantagepoint of Philadelphia’s tidal Schuylkill River. It’s a watery place home at once to native and invasive plants, fish, and fowl; dogs and their humans; bicycles; freight rail; the Schuylkill Expressway (also known as Interstate 76 or the Schuylkill Distressway); and myriad other assemblages. It’s a mixed up place. To learn about its nature-cultures requires crossing traditional disciplinary borders, and our seminar, part of the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities’ Rising Waters initiative, was cross-listed across six departments and each of the three divisions in the School of Arts & Sciences. Our syllabus is publicly available here.

Students were asked to consider what research methods they needed to apprehend such a mixed-up place, one increasingly prone to nuisance flooding on rainy days, and, although it’s miles up from the sea, to storm surge. One set of assignments, required students to spend time with the river, walking once a week along an identical stretch of the river, while reflecting on that week’s readings. Once they returned back to campus, working alone, they wrote weekly entries on our course blog (Liquid Histories). They mused about how walking with the river informed their reading, and vice versa.  

We also walked the river several times together. In this final course field note, students–identified by the initials they wrote under on the blog all semester long–reflect on the impact of their embodied research and our method of reading-walking. In the very final paragraph, we have blended our voices to create a short walking manifesto or seminar mission statement. Students’ final projects, researched in part by walking, are designed to prompt cognitions and re-cognitions of the river, and will be published in our growing living river archive, a public digital archive maintained by PPEH to encourage environmental awareness and public engagement in, along, and with the Schuylkill.

Finally, an editor’s final word about the intense iterative process we used to co-author our shared statement:

  • we each adopted favorite sentences about walking written by someone else, rewrote them, and removed their author’s initials
  • we bundled our favorites in groups of three and, working in groups, tried to make them coherent
  • we then edited another group’s favorites
  • Finally, we threw out the remaining individual attachments and resorted to the chalkboard to write, erase, chalk over, and settle on a shared sense of conviction that now, in an era of anthropogenic climate forcing, it is more than ever important that we learn to be with the river.   

On Walking

A distant dialogue with Thoreau, and, while not On Swimming, with Roger Deakin

We begin with each student’s individual statement about the importance of embodied research, listed alphabetically by surname.

TB: Walking made me more aware of the scale of things. Before taking this class, I saw the Schuylkill as an unchanging monolith from the vantage point of car windows as they–I– crossed the bridge to University City. As I slowed down and stepped onto the river trail, that changed. The river suddenly became larger and dynamic, it’s waters started flowing. The change of scale helped me zoom into details like the plants around the river and the colour of its water, notice the people who walk dogs along the trail and talk to the man who fishes in the Schuylkill. Human beings are programmed to notice things, but the walks helped refocus that lens and see the river and our various connections with in a different scale.

LC: Walking with the river, I discovered that its life-force is the same as my own. So much of my research and reflection was spent thinking about the Schuylkill’s waters as a tool, a tyrant, or a friend. But now it seems so obvious that the river is not a separate or static entity. The lines drawn by the path our class walked each week have blurred and we have “re-cognized” our place in the hydrologic cycle. My hope is that our collection will allow others to “re-learn” the river in this way, as, moving forward, the trails and lines we previously depended on will become un-re-cognizable.

SF: By walking along the the Schuylkill Trail over the course of the semester, I have had the opportunity to commune with the river, re-connecting with the waterway as a being with something to teach me rather than a resource for me to take from. This semester has taught me to pause, to stop, to dwell; teaching myself to notice the smallest of details or the tiniest of changes has re-centered myself within my own body and within this current moment. I hope, through my contribution to the archive, to make this experience possible for others.

JG: Walking along the Schuylkill, I began to appreciate the various forms nature takes. I now know endless pastures aren’t needed for serene greenery, and that nature can be cradled by metallic infrastructure. The routine encouraged me to discover the intimate details within the Tidal ecosystem and cherish them. I began to peel away the layers of my surroundings and see the individual agents influenced by each other. This semester, I simultaneously felt like a visitor and a contribution to the landscape of the Tidal Schuylkill as I drifted in-and-out and reflected on reading within the small scope of the River Trail.

CH: The embodied research method of walking the Schuylkill river once a week has deepened my relationship with the river. I used to think of the river as my childhood backyard play area. However, after weeks of philosophical thought provoking research, the river has become a space for me to reflect, observe, and explore humanity’s connection to bodies of water. Growing up, the Schuylkill river near my house had different sounds than the tidal Schuylkill we study. So, the deep dive we have performed with the Schuylkill has prompted me to explore how the river interacts with humans and how we connect with the river through sound. Thanks to our embodied research I’ve had the opportunity to re-cognize the river.

LM: Walking the same path along the Schuylkill River every week taught me to notice things differently. I walk the same routes almost every day, but I am always focused on the destination. Every week I would step onto the river, pause and refocus – look around and notice the river. Focusing on the river made me pay more attention to my surroundings. Walking on the river made me see how these surroundings change from week to week. It taught me to want to learn from the ever-changing details, to rely more on observation and to care about the unseen.

RN: The weekly walks along the Schuylkill River taught me to hold multiple spatial and temporal scales in my mind at once. In my early blog posts, while the walking-writing practice was still unfamiliar, I struggled to balance the specific and general, ephemeral and durable, and literal and conceptual. Following a fixed route week after week helped me think about the ways the Schuylkill changes each day, seasonally, and over centuries. I am developing the capacity to notice things about the Schuylkill in an immediate sense while at the same time consider its connectivity to unseen places or times.    

MS: By walking the same route every week I’ve noticed details about the tidal Schuylkill that I might have otherwise missed with a random, single walk. Reading works by authors attuned to water, the environment, and philosophy prior to the walks has helped me to internalize the experience and frame perspective and perception. My contribution to the archive has been directly influenced by these walks in that this is an attempt to recreate the same experience. The video I’m contributing visually shows change and dynamism but is also symbolic of this change in perception we experienced as a class from the start of the semester to the end.

PW: Being absent from a space physically makes it difficult to fully relate to it. Walking along the Schuylkill trail by myself has not only provided me with a time and space to reflect on that week’s readings and class discussion, but has been an exercise in both familiarizing and defamiliarizing myself with that stretch of the river. The object I’m contributing to the archive is fundamentally a physical thing — I wouldn’t have found it if I hadn’t let myself wander.

On Walking, Together

When we walk together along “our” stretch of the tidal Schuylkill River in Philadelphia, we re-cognize it, following it north to south, although not in a line. While lines (embankments, trainlines, the expressway, habits of thought) attempt to constrain the river in its tidal stretch, the river defies these boundaries and includes us in its porous waterscape. Our course might be smooth and then interrupted by a sense of the past or a premonition of the future. And our course changes when we bump into one another. Have we strayed off course? Such emergent relations unsettle prior assumptions about where the river starts and we end. With this recognition, we want to invite you to return and walk with us.

 

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TB: Group Walk 11/13

Mentz and Deakin unmoored themselves from land in their works. The phenomenon is temporary but the experience isn’t. But as foreign and fleeting as the phenomenon might be, it helps me re-cognise a past long forgotten, a connection severed hundreds of years ago. I think back to when the amniotic darkness and fluid suspension of my being in another person. Mentz’s water is “destructive”; that was anything but.  We all start from water.

Deakin studies and swims through the waters of England through a “frog’s-eye-view.” I remember a science factoid: in the 5th week of the embryo’s development, it most resembles a tadpole. Our deep affinity for water predating even our birth. It’s hard to imagine being in water for so long, where you only have “exertions of your hands and feet” to save you, hard to imagine there are creatures for whom this is not, in fact, hostile.

But terra firma is not the only thing I have unmoored myself from. In the friendly chatter of the group, I also find missing my usual reflective pondering. I have jumped from the safe and stable grounds of distant, land-based reflection to the muddy waters of seeing (and not seeing) as a group. My experiences are suddenly linked to that of the people around me. I am no longer in it alone.

Perhaps this is a new form of recognition. Remembering that we were never alone. Maybe I have been approaching my solitary walk wrongly: I can never really “see” the river in the sense of a one-way flow of meaning-bearing photons. I am no longer in it alone. I was never alone.

CH

As we walked along the river on Tuesday I was overjoyed I was not alone. My emotion stems from how uncomfortable I am being alone. So while this class is pushing me to think more deeply about the river and the earth it is also pushing me to become comfortable with being alone. During our walk our class intermingled with each other. I started the walk with matt and jade and ended the walk with Pitir and in between that talked to Sam and almost everyone else. In class we have unassigned assigned seats. I always sit in the second chair on the left of Bethany and Lucy sits on my right and most of the time Jade sits on my left. However during our walk there was no structure and it reminded me of a point Steve Mentz made in his essay Swimming Lessons. “Form calms mobility.” During class we have a set structure and points we need to touch upon and a general lesson plan, but walking along the river we didn’t have that.

Our class’ dynamism along the river and “Form calms mobility” had me noticing the river’s mobility more than usual. The sea walls that are meant to hold the river in, restrict its movement. However, as Bethany put it in class, “the river is talking back”. The river that is bound to rise will not withstand the predetermined structure we have made for it. The river might appear stable to someone driving along 76 or the casual onlooker from the train but there is no way to stabilize something with so much dynamism. The infrastructure around the river may suggest that it is calmly flowing, it is actually roaring and we will see it rise out of this form.

JG- Group Walk and Perspective

The world is cast in a different light when it is viewed with others. No matter how much attention is paid there will always be a detail that is missed unless someone else points it out. This is especially true in that all the little things along the edge of the tidal Schuylkill that have become background noise to me, are suddenly sharp and vivid again with the when commented on by others. The random stickers littered throughout the handrails and support beams are small surprises to discover when they are viewed with excitement by others. The dogs strolling by with their owners have suddenly become the center of our small universe and the dull sting of the cold on rosy cheeks is more manageable when others are also feeling the sensation.

While comradery certainly has its perks, there is a certain beauty in wandering nature with your thoughts. This sentiment is also noted in Steve Mentz’s “Swimming Lessons”. Mentz uses the monumental task of swimming across the Chesapeake Bay to “think some things through”. This kind of nature experience is infinitely more introspective, and the surroundings tend to blend together rather than become the contrasting details of experiencing the world through glimpses in the eyes of others.

The simple act of experiencing nature with others reminds us that we perspective is important and that while we may think of ourselves as the center of the universe, we are not. “We’re neither whales nor dolphins” says Wentz, and certain experiences are beyond our abilities to reach and that is okay. That means we must appreciate the differences even more. This is a sentiment towards green spaces. While it may not matter to us what flowers are planted in an area it matters to the birds and the bees. Perspective is warped by ability and necessity and this makes it impossible to see all the details in a moment.

ms- Group Walk 11/13

It’s always interesting to walk with the group by the river, especially when my usual experience is a solitary one. Experiencing the river through the eyes of my classmates has usually taken place through reading blog posts the day after they’ve gone to the Schuylkill, had time to filter the walk through their brains, and crafted a well-written short essay on their experiences. Today, however, I was able to experience the river with my peers in real time. There has to be a way to capture part of this feeling for our archive, because this is the raw expression of “us” that we need to convey…discovering new things together and the fun chats that take place in real time. Moving together as a group, flowing towards south street down along the river’s edge. This is our archive in motion.

Like the last time we walked together with our guest artist (seems like forever ago now), today’s walk was a familiar and yet completely different experience for me. Walking, talking, joking a bit, everyone seemed to be smiling more than usual. It was more relaxed this time. Maybe it’s because we know we are getting closer to the semester’s finish-line, or maybe we just understand each other better now; this class seems more in tune with each other and the river these days. Either way, it’s clear that we’ve grown together and I think that is a pretty great thing.

 

RN – 11/14

In Swimming Lessons, Steve Mentz describes his swimming stroke as an attempt, “with partial success, to impose form on formlessness.”  By definition, liquids take the form of the solid container in which they exist. In creating the city of Philadelphia, humans imposed a form not only on solid land, but also on the river through shaping the banks that “contain” it.  Mentz’s imposition of form on water is more subtle–not a containment but rather pushing liquid aside to make a path for a solid object. The way we, as a class, are thinking about the Schuylkill River resembles this type of relationship with liquid–we push through it (conceptually) without substantially fixing its form.  

The suggestion that water is essentially formless, however, is one I can’t quite get behind.  The liquid state is less rigid than solid, but it still has a definite form compared to gas. I think we have all experienced the Schuylkill as having form in the process of collecting objects for our archive.  Moreover, water has the capacity to impose form on other things. When we walked yesterday, we saw plenty of objects that the Schuylkill had pushed onto the banks or was still carrying to unknown locations. And how could something formless carve canyons?  

In the second to last paragraph of his essay, Mentz writes, “if nature is the hidden secret at which we may never arrive – perhaps it’s not really there?– exertion is the invisible input behind all ecological endeavors, the biotic cost of the systems in which we swim.”  I can’t quite understand what Mentz means by calling exertion invisible. I’ve heard this in terms of professional performers like dancers or athletes (“they make it look easy!”), but not in terms of ecological processes. Mentz goes on to say “perhaps a machine is just a system that keeps its exertions hidden.”  Sure, there’s a lot going on in a computer that’s invisible (and inconceivable) to me. But when I hear the clanking and sighing of trains and see exhaust fumes emanating from the Schuylkill expressway, machine exertions seem very apparent. I am curious what others make of what Mentz is saying about exertion.

SF: Group Walk 11/13

Waterlog is all about immersing yourself in water, about really being in it. As Professor Wiggin said today, the quality of the water of the Schuylkill River doesn’t really allow for that level of immersion.

Maybe we weren’t in the river, but we were in the mud, as indicated by this photo of Rose’s boot I took. Sloshy, watery mud. I just like this picture because of how wet the soil in this spot was, considering most of the times I go to the river this patch would be completely dry.

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This semester, I’ve been thinking of the relationship between humankind, water, and expectation/interruption, about how humans expect the water to do this and the river responds by doing that.

I saw that today in the art piece in the river, the caterpillar-looking indicators of tide.  (I’m blanking on the artist’s name and the art’s title, I apologize.) One of the indicators were stuck in a stick, indefinitely perched upwards, indicating half-tide. We’ve asked the river to report on itself — and it seems the river cheekily refused.

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This is my second time doing my river walk not on my own (the first time, a few weeks back, I walked with my friends Pranav and Katey). I always underestimate how lovely it is to walk beside someone, to have another pair of eyes point out this detail, to have another human being laugh at your jokes.

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