#WorkingOutLoud on Exploring

This year i am embarked on a new doctorate, and the work shared today is part of my first writing: as such it’s fragmentary and incomplete, but illustrative of the approach. This programme, by Public Works at Middlesex University, is a critical analysis of my own published work, and the first chapter is auto-ethnographic, a reflection on where i come from. The writing today considers what it means to be an Explorer, one of the identities that i commonly choose. This work is shared as part of #WorkingOutLoud, with some vulnerability: i recognise that it does not form part of my usual writing, but shared for those who may be interested.

I am an explorer

[In which i consider my identity as ‘Explorer’, and the nature of what is explored].

I am anchored in a landscape, of both physical space and connected ideas. Anchored: lost.

My work can be seen as an exploration of boundaries, within varied landscapes, for it is at the boundaries that we find friction and change.

And at the boundaries that we can most easily weave connection.

Borderland – liminal space – edgelands – wilderness – territory – islands – home.

Our relationship with space is complex: visibility – perception – ownership – idea – belief – horizon.

The notion of landscape infuses my work: the metaphors of ecosystem, exploration, and juxtaposition recur.

I have to be in motion: to walk, to explore. I cannot live a day without movement. It is meditative and energetic.

I am an explorer: i adventure. I have spent years of my life under canvas. I have walked through many boots and take some pride in pitching a secure tent and being able to light a fire anywhere.

I have taught River to light a fire, as my father taught me. We talk about triangles and how the fire breathes. He holds the match wide eyed as i teach him to strike it away.

He treats the fire like a friend, which it can be, but also with caution, as it should be.

My father was an Outward Bound instructor in his youth, before he settled into academia, and our entire childhood was punctuated by his cries of “i’ve canoed there”, whenever we drove past a river or estuary. It became a family joke, although how much he appreciated it i could not say. And now i too kayak, in his shadow.

Every morning, when i walk into his room, River will ask me “is it an adventure day?” Which i guess every good day is.

I suppose you could say that exploring is our family business. Through diverse landscapes.

I am fascinated by the drive to look over the next hill, into the deep valley, or to climb the mountain: by our relationship with the wilderness, and the realisation that our relationship with the landscape is symbiotic, occasionally abusive.

Each shapes the other: we imagine landscape into being, and landscape acts upon our imagination.

The Victorians maintained a healthy distrust of the wilderness, viewing it more as something to be feared, tamed or conquered. The Hound of the Baskervilles was feral, not tame. But today we are more likely to talk about conservation or synergy. The ways that landscapes are created, and interconnected. Dependent upon each other.

In Britain there is little true wilderness: landscapes such as Dartmoor are in fact remnants of an agricultural past, and you can track the development of our landscapes through enclosure, through power and ownership, and through trespass and war, with equal success.

In our modern experience, landscape is typically subdivided, partitioned, segregated, owned, and controlled, and hence the role of an explorer is tied up in boundaries.

To be kept in, to be kept out.

To find them, understand them, to document them, and occasionally to trespass across them.

I describe my work as situated at the intersection of systems: between the formal and social, between the owned and the free. And hence i find myself an explorer of power and space.

In this journey through my work, we will find themes: of exploration within a landscape, but also to traverse between landscapes. By invitation or trespass, both proud traditions. And we will make this journey by looking through different lenses: that of the generalist, the trans-disciplinary practitioner, the explorer, the storyteller and artist, and the cartographer.

The agricultural revolution in Britain began around 4,000 BC, and by the late Neolithic (circa 2,500 BC) the first forest clearances had started in what is now Derbyshire. People acting upon the landscape, to separate one thing from another.

To own something, and by definition, to say that you do not. To have and have not.

The first records of a wall date from this period and, whilst undocumented, it would seem likely that the first trespass would have happened soon after.

Soon (at least in geological terms) after we started to separate space, we started too to separate time: initially with sundials, and later with accurate clocks. And again, once it was separated, it would become owned.

These two divisions, of space, and of time, would come to form the foundations of our society today, where neither space, nor time, is truly your own.

My own writing on the Social Age provides a perspective on this, whereby the fractured social contract, and emergent social communities, subvert models of ownership and control based upon the segregation of space and control of time. It draws a new map where physical and temporal landscapes are abstracted into more social and story formed ones. But more on this later.

To explore is inherently a local activity, although one may argue that technology has created the armchair explorer, but in essence we could say that exploration is about carrying oneself to the boundaries.

We tend to use ‘local’ as a defined and scientific term, whilst in fact it’s an idea that holds great flexibility. The Industrial Age saw the rapid development of a transport infrastructure, to centralise resources, and distribute trade, and hence to erode the local. With transport of resource came transport of ideas, and hence the globalisation of culture. Again, it’s only in the context of the Social Age, with it’s democratisation of technology and abstraction of geography that ‘distance’ has ceased to separate in the ways that it once did.

In ‘Underlands’, Ted Nield charts the lost ‘local’ idea of landscape, for example by the ways that church architecture was initially constructed through local materials, whilst of course today we tend to import and transport materials a great distance (most of our building stone today will be imported from the East). And we do not just import stone: we import the ideas of stone. Ideas are imbued into things, and hence ‘brick’ becomes, for the Victorians, totemic of poverty and industry. Landscape becomes aspirational. An idea as well as a place.

As an explorer, i inhabit landscape: of the feet and the mind. Movement is intrinsic to thought. To quest, to journey, to walk. Simon Schama, in his somewhat monumental work on landscape and memory, shares this story, from a trip to Poland:

“I had come to Poland to see this forest. See what, exactly, i wasn’t sure. Historians are supposed to reach the past always through texts, occasionally through images; things that are safely caught in the bell jar of academic convention; look but don’t touch. But one of my best-loved teachers, an intellectual hell-raiser and a writer of eccentric courage, had always insisted on directly experiencing “a sense of place,” of using “the archive of the feet.” [Schama, 1995, p.24]

So i archive with my feet, and in my head. Sketching maps.


Roger Deakin was a naturalist, a writer with ties to the same Norfolk and Suffolk landscapes as myself (my extended family still farms there, lives there, are buried there).

In ‘Notes from Walnut Tree Farm’ he describes himself and his children, through a landscape of huts and shelters that stretch out from the farmhouse away to the distant sky, both outward and back through time. His writing hut, treehouses, childhood shelters and distant bothies.

He tangles place and people, through distance and time. Things that were separated and owned become, instead, spaces to be claimed, and this sense that space can be claimed has carried into my own work on cultural graffiti and subversion, which we will explore in more detail later: the idea that a ‘place’ may be inhabited by many different tribes, each of which will socially construct it’s ownership.

The farmhouse he lives in is, itself, dilapidated: whilst most houses have an ‘inside’ and an ‘out’, he describes a more permeable relationship with nature, whereby the ‘out’ comes in, primarily in the shape of the owls that roost in the roof, or the mice that cohabit. Similarly, he takes himself out, swimming in the old moat that partly surrounds the building. He explores outwards and in.

His book, one of my favourites, Waterlog, is an exploration of wild swimming, and he pictures himself in the moat, just his nose above water, part in and part out, half water and half air, within the land. Submersed, almost subsumed. Again: he paints himself into the landscape. He does not describe it so much as experience it. His writing is travelogue, but also a philosophy of space.

Our own windows are intact, and i rarely wild swim without a wetsuit, but nonetheless we bring the outside in: we have a tray in the centre of our new table for nature. The stones we have found, interesting twigs or fragments of pottery. We curate: assembling, arranging, locating. This creation of an assembly is, itself, cartographic, as well as creative and artistic. It tells a story, even if only to me.

Our own pockets are always full of stones, which is a habit i have constantly taught to my son (possibly to the despair of his mother), and certainly to the detriment of our windowsills, which are themselves miniature shingle drifts and reefs.

As i make my morning coffee i see the stones: lava from iceland, gathered from a volcano, mortar from a medieval church, washed into the sea, and sandstone from Morocco, next to an argan tree seed, gathered before the goats could eat it, and a fragment of driftwood, washed to our beach.

Our beach you see, because space is not only owned legally.

Clarence Ellis, who wrote the definitive (mid century!) book on pebble hunting, writes that the true delight of the pebble seeker is to read the stories in the stones. He incites you to collect, and illustrated his work with a series of simple watercolours, creating a ‘spotters guide’ as well as a broader philosophy of collecting. To collect for curiosity.

I would agree, but more so, beyond geology, to put the story into the stones. Each stone is a memory of place, and has the value we pick up, and the value that we imbue.

Stones can be totemic: my first degree was in archaeology and material science. It is a standard archaeological joke that any collection of stones is a ‘ritual scatter’, or to put it another way, it probably meant something to someone, but it means nothing to me.

When we lose the story, we lose the imbued value, and so things become worthless – without worth – because the ‘worth’ lived in the story, in our heads. Landscapes too have worth that is socially constructed: churches, city halls, and our own homes are examples of such. This creation of ‘place’ is another theme that i have visited and explored in my work on Community Building and Belonging.

It speaks to me of stories: how we collect them and create them, ideas which have permeated from the beach and right into my core work on learning. Learning as a journey, learning as discovery, learning as the stones in my pocket. Totems, artefacts, shadows.

To be an Explorer is not simply about the new, but can also be about the familiar, within an evolving context. In ‘Four Fields’, Tim Dee goes back again and again to four fields that have punctuated his life: the field at the end of his Cambridgeshire garden, a field in southern Zambia, a prairie in Montana, and a meadow near Chernobyl. He talks of evolving relationships, of people within the landscape, of how they are woven.

In fact, now that i think about it, he always anchors people into the landscape, almost as though there is no landscape without people.

Or perhaps, that memory is the mechanism of landscape?

In ‘The Past is a Foreign Country’, a book that considers how our evocation of the present is anchored and constrained by our perception of our past, David Lowenthal notes that the notion of ‘nostalgia’ is rooted in the idea of homesickness, of sailors longing for a past that is lost to them.

These explorers are using different lenses: for Deakin the landscape is experiential, something to live ‘in’, to swim ‘though’. For Dee is it something to visit and visit again, to evolve in story and understanding, framed by personal story and understanding – they are, after all, ‘his’ fields’ – whilst for Lowenthal the landscape can perhaps only be walked once, but the memory persists.

I revisit landscapes: my new work on Learning Fragments is an attempt not simply to revisit, but to vandalise. To trespass and deface.

It is not an homage, but a raid.

To deconstruct my understanding, to wilfully abandon certainty. To get lost in my own ideas. It is work without end, and without coherent purpose: not to create certainty, but to avoid it.

It is the anti-map. The map to get you lost. It does not represent – it misrepresents. It lies. In service of fracturing certainty.

It’s hard to get lost: my nephew used to be afraid of it, so i took him out to get lost. But i could not.

I was able to convince him we were, but my brain held on. I had a sense of space, and place, that i could not escape. We are trapped by our landscapes. They can blind us to the horizons.

Our son is called River, and our daughter is Meadow. She is sunlit. The sound of bees, the beauty of the flowers.

I remember stumbling into a wildflower meadow in Yorkshire, hiking through the Dales. It was a place of beauty, unwrapped as the vista emerged through a gap in the stone wall.

James Galvin uses a different lens again, to explore a landscape through story alone: in ‘The Meadow’ he takes a hundred year journey through a single field, a high pasture, on the Colorado/Wyoming border. His work is fictional, and forensic: non linear and inherently constrained. You cannot look beyond the fence. Characters are old, then young. At war and in peace. The only constant is the Meadow, and he takes the view that these people never ‘own’ it, for a land, a landscape, can never be owned. The story gets written deeper. It gets written again and again.

I feel this, i experience this, within my writing: core ideas i return to, again and again. ‘The Humble Leader’ is a book i published once, but wrote many times, through different ideas, and in different places. It originated as writing on Social Justice in San Francisco, walking the sidewalks, through homeless communities in conflict with law enforcement, through displaced local communities in conflict with Big Tech, at the rolling edge of gentrification. But it failed: that writing got ‘lost in place’, so i revisited it again, and again, for ten years. Re-writing, re-discovering. Re-working.

Until i found a fragile map: ‘The Humble Leader’ i describe as fragile work. Not a map of a place, but a sketch of an idea. The illustrations themselves are leaves, representing how the ideas are blown in the wind.

I walked, again, through Berlin: familiar now, after many years. But still i got lost. Sometimes i hunt out old graffiti and visit it again and again as it deteriorates over time. Art as decay. Meaning as deconstructed. But this time, i got lost. And then found.

I found a place, a bookshop. Do you read me?

Do You Read Me? Augustrasse 28. Berlin.

It’s one of those bookshops that should not exist in a commercial world: beautiful, curated, a dream made real. The vision and confidence it would take to build it staggers me. And yet there it was. Clearly the heart of a local community of thinkers, writers. It was never busy, but never empty either. Abuzz.

I found a meadow.

Meadow, by Pauline Julier is, in the words of Do You Read Me, “…part of the Occupy Mars project conducted by Pauline Julier and Clément Postec, which sees Mars as a mirror of Earth at the dawn of the new age of space exploration, extractivism, and colonialism. Through a series of films, publications, and public discussions, it bridges multiple alternative perspectives that question both past and future to bring new narratives to the fore and give insurgent voices a platform. A first exploration took place in the Atacama Desert in Chile, where the training sites for NASA’s rovers are located next to one of the largest lithium mines in the world.”

It’s inspired by Galvin’s novel, but could not be more distant. A photo journal of juxtaposed imagery, with no narrative. Where Galvin is forensic, Julier is abstract. Where Galvin documents ownership, Julier challenges it. I find parallels with both.

My work describes what is, what was, and what may be. Not one map, but many, overlaid.

“The more we know, the more there is to know, and the more it all joins up. The harder we look, the less straightforward seeing becomes” [Dee, Tim, ‘Four Fields’ pp.169]

This itself is an interesting notion, for the Explorer.

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
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