A habit of asking ‘what are you thinking about?’ may be one of the reasons I often find myself walking alone. Secretly, of course, I’m hoping someone will ask me the same. Those who’ve walked with me know better than to do so. It’s usually food, or something like ‘the concepts of liminality and the palimpsest’.
A palimpsest, as we know, is a surface or substrate that has been re-used, often multiple times, with incomplete erasure, the old work showing through the new. When not distracted by novelty or survival issues, I often find myself contemplating the idea of the palimpsest when walking. The British countryside both exhibits that quality per se and, by layering further experiences onto my own life history, engenders it within myself.
Walking a trail through wild country also engenders two kinds of liminality, in what the French probably don’t call a double engendre. Again, landscapes can in themselves be liminal, as well as triggering subjective experiences of liminality in those who encounter them. But what in this world or the next (or on the threshold between them) does ‘liminal’ even mean? Go on, you want to know…
Liminal means having the nature of or pertaining to a threshold. The only sense offered by my dictionary is the psychological one – describing a sensation at or approaching the threshold of conscious experience. Hence subliminal – sensations below our experience threshold but which we nonetheless still sense. The latter has little to do in modern usage with the sublime, another concept I often ponder in wild country. Their similar form and etymology can apparently be resolved by appreciating that in Latin the word limin signified not so much a doorstep as a lintel, to be approached from below and passed under, rather than from above and over².
Other senses of liminality are available and, thanks to the Internet, we can instantaneously transcend our ignorance threshold in relation to this and pretty much any other matter.
The cultural anthropologist Victor Turner wrote extensively on liminality and a nice chap called Charles La Shure¹ provides a remarkable exegesis of his ideas here. For Turner, to be liminal was indeed to be on a threshold, on an edge, in a crack between categories, in an intermediate state, but to be so only temporarily and in anticipation of transition.
Turner’s liminality implies and contains eventual self-resolution, the expectation that the threshold will be crossed into a new or successor state or category. Hence it differs from marginal or outsider states (of persons, places, being), which situate permanently upon edges. Turner developed this concept by studying rituals. He applied it particularly to rites of passage, of which walking a long distance trail seems to me to be a more than residually meaningful example, especially within the isolated, deracinated and deritualised arenas of our modern lives.
Landscapes can be liminal in their own right. I’ve heard the term used loosely for the seaside. Even a hard, rocky coast experiences transition with every tide and is slowly eroding, but on a human-friendly timescale it feels to me more permanently edgy, more marginal.
In contrast, here on the soft, friable coast of north Norfolk our intertidal zone is literally (and littorally) liminal. Our shoreline is actively transitioning as the sea rises, the land sinks, the storms surge and our own fragile habitat gives way. To stand on Gramborough Hill is to experience liminality almost painfully; the land seems to cry out as it’s ripped from stasis back into the oceanic mobility from which, taking a longer view, it was originally deposited.
Objective liminality is available in the hills too, and on multiple scales, spatial, temporal, geological, meteorological. Changes in the human exploitation and management regimes that dominantly define the character of the British countryside impose real-world liminality on landscapes. Much of the Pennine Way is clearly in transition; from workshop to leisure facility, exploited to neglected, pristine to eroded.
The seasons and the rapidly changing weather within them, within their days even, interpose thresholds of hospitality and survivability that must be negotiated by plants, animals, structures, people. Such objective environmental thresholds are an experience largely unavailable in our more ‘civilised’, more homogeneous normal lives, which we manage so as to minimise or even eliminate inconvenient transitions.
What I find myself dwelling mostly upon, during my solipsistic ploddings, is the extent to which completing a long distance walk is subjectively liminal, in the sense of experiencing a rite of passage.
I’m also very interested, as a conservationist, in whether maximising access for all to the subjective transition of completing a trail is a Goose and Golden Egg scenario. I’m concerned about whether waymarking, trail maintenance and enabling blogs, for example, are manifestations of the kind of civilised flattening of transitions that robs urbanites of their authentic psychological weather.
I’m interested in whether ritualising and institutionalising a trail beyond some threshold can actually decrease its subjective liminality. Does branding the Pennine Way as a life-changing achievement paradoxically decrease the extent to which it changes lives?
It doesn’t necessarily do so by definition, because as La Shure explains “liminality is not outside the social structure or on its edges, it is in the cracks within the social structure itself”¹. The Pennine Way isn’t a natural phenomenon, but a human artefact like a car park, an embankment or a drainage dyke. The liminality we experience during its rite of passage is a social construct, quite distinct from our simultaneous primal experience of the landscape and the outdoors.
It’s clearly true in practical terms that the more the Pennine Way is tamed into resembling our quotidian country parks and day walks, the less it enables us to approach physical, psychological or social edges. The more structure that is imposed on the activity of walking a trail, the less we thereby experience the facet of liminality identified by Victor Turner as when “the confrontation between ‘activity which has no structure’ and its ‘structured results’ produces in men their highest pitch of self-consciousness” (quoted by La Shure¹).
Turner’s insight was how it takes, critically, a confrontation between structure and the absence of it to get the wheels turning in our brains. Until coming across this quotation I had no conceptual framework on which to hang an understanding of the strange consciousness-raising power of The Pennine Way, for all its artificiality and proximity to civilisation. I was experiencing its sublime aspects only naively.
Walking and camping alone in wild country is almost as unstructured an activity as you can get. Yet the following of a defined trail, the tasks necessary for physical survival and the prior planning of this interposition of an atypical activity between segments of our normal lives, all dump structure onto the experience. This confrontation creates a cognitive dissonance, which can be very thought provoking, if you leave yourself enough spare energy to think.
For a trail to maximally raise consciousness both individually and collectively it needs to be a ritual, but one that is neither excessively ritualised nor distractingly arduous. It seems to me that those who push their outdoor experiences to extremes or who sublimate them into consciousness-consuming ‘challenges’ or ‘events’ are missing out.
Also, just as we mustn’t tame The Way, neither must we impose on it in our minds a false isolation from its context. The edge defines the structure, the structure creates the edge. Much of the experiential power of the Pennine Way comes in fact from its being something of a rus in urbe, by the standards of hiking trails globally.
A trail needs, critically, to retain a relative absence of experiential structure. Over-structuring of either the trail itself or the experience of walking it are good ways to rob ourselves of the cognitive dissonance that confers the gift of liminality.
The Way needs to be cared for but not curated; a track between and along the edges of our social structure that is in itself maximally trackless. And yet paradoxically, of course, our very presence on The Way compromises these possibilities.
Liminal individuals, as La Shure notes, can be seen as a threat to structure. They are wormholes, allowing unwonted and unwanted communication between categories. You often sense a celebration of this in folksy evocations of hillwalking as an ‘alternative’ or even ‘radical’ activity, a putative leveller of ‘social class’. La Shure memorably analogises liminal individuals as sewer dwellers, flitting in and out of cities, in and out of social structures, at multiple points of penetration.
At times on the Pennine Way I’ve definitely felt like a sewer dweller, but I’m a very tidy-minded and socialised bograt. I pick up litter, I report broken signs. As the hoolie rages around my fragile tent clinging to England’s wildest summit, I’m on Facebook.
Hence I’m also an example of liminality’s flipside, when liminal individuals temporarily displaced into cracks between categories during rites of passage exhibit a bonding, rather than weakening, function. They link and reinforce pre-existing social structures, across the gaps and cracks both within and between them.
Either way, whether we see ourselves as subversively or constructively liminal, by moving into the fault zone of the trail, accepting possibilities of transition, we move into strange weather but we also, as the song says, bring our own weather with us. Like the trail, the edge is a slippery and fragile place, littered and polluted by our presence.
Considering the intrastructural function of the edgy individual, Turner often focused on the self-imposed liminality of hippies and their seemingly inevitable transitions into either dysfunctional hoboes or golf club stalwarts. More recently Mark Greif³ has examined their 21st century successors, the hipsters. His take on these individuals’ cross-cultural, edge-bridging role is less benign. Greif famously fingers hipsters as defined by tension, and as forming a ‘poisonous conduit’ between the rebel subculture and the dominant class.
This seems the ultimate of the many the paradoxes of seeking the edge via the wild. Our stepping onto a remote trail immediately integrates the edge into the structure. Channelling our society into the wild along the poisonous pipe of our presence amidst it, we drain the wild of its edginess as effectively as a culverted stream.
Furthermore, as only individual socialisation defines where our personal edges occur, our liminality has both uncertainty and dualism. It takes my falling into what I perceive to be a crack to reveal and bridge that crack. In encountering my cracks I heal them. Were they even there?
I’ve come to believe that much of what we create in our lives is a function of our own habitual modes of thought. Whenever I stumble into liminality while walking in a wild place, I try to envision that the channel I create across the threshold by my own presence is bi-directional, that cleansing and healing can flow as easily as contamination.
I like to hope that by walking wild places in the right spirit we can bring gifts to the wild – of awareness, of caring, of very survival – as well as taking from it. That edges are not just frictional paradoxes but the defining source of the structure among which the location of our own rightful home can be elucidated.
By experiencing both edges and our bridging of them, we define and refine our own position, our own functionality, our own existence. By savouring the slippery dissonance of liminality we could become more conscious.
¹ La Shure, Charles (2005). What is Liminality? 18 October, 2005 (first version) http://www.liminality.org/about/whatisliminality/
² Clark, Brian Charles (2000). Thresholding. http://www.wdog.com/brian/Scriptorium/sublime_etym.htm
³ Greif, Mark (2010) What was the Hipster? In Greif, Mark (2016) Against Everything – On Dishonest Times. Verso.