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Psychogeography: When the Land Speaks

Psychogeography. It might be said that this is a term coined for my experience at secondary school when the geography teacher, Mr Map we’ll call him to protect his identity, took against me and aside from blanking me out of every lesson also started to mark my work with grades such as ‘7F’ and ‘9G’, grades which didn’t exist in the strictly A-D 1-4 grade scheme at my school. I looked at my work and thought ‘I am really bad at geography’. I was a shy kid, avoided confrontation and so I toiled onwards with my cardboard contour 3d project (a particular 10H grade for that green painted, corrugated epic) with my learning of the workings of the Severn Bore and the quest for extracting aluminium from Bauxite in some godforsaken desert somewhere. Definitely an 8Z for that sticking in my memory.

In those days (the 70s! Did you guess?) kids did not show up to Parents Evening. Instead this was an opportunity for the grown ups to talk about you behind your back. My mum and dad headed off to quiz Mr Map on my lack of geography skills. As they put it, I had no idea what I was doing wrong, could he enlighten them?

“She gets A’s in everything else. I thought it would make a change for her.”

My mum and dad, non-confrontational beings themselves, nodded sagely. They were also teachers. On their return home they suggested I write off geography as, clearly, Mr Map was mad as a box of frogs. It was bullying but we didn’t report it. I didn’t care about geography, at least, not in the way that Mr Map taught it.

Because the land is not thin as paper and cannot be captured there.

Psychogeography is about the contours of the hill that hide a castle from view until you are at just ‘that’ tipping point and the land falls away like a magical illusion to reveal the hidden fortress. It is about the feeling you get that this wood you’ve wandered into is a bad place. That the trees here are darker and thinner and more hostile, that the paths through it will maze you, the brambles snatch at you. Psychogeography is about looking up and seeing the dragonshead waterspout, or knowing that there is a little lane just here, Red Hat Lane, that will cut you through town and no one else ever goes there. It’s knowing that if you drop down from the canal path you can pick up the river path and you’re on the edges.

Psychogeography is feeling the land. It is knowing your place because, in a moment, you have let your contemporary digital guard down and your mind, your heart, I’m going to say it, your soul, the most primal parts of you, have reached out to check on the lie of the land. There are places where we fit. There are places where we don’t. These instances do not require thought, they yell at you. The trick to enjoying this experience is to listen to them. When the hairs on the back of your neck prickle, don’t simply comb your hair down.

This experience extends outside your own country too.

On our honeymoon to the West Coast of America we travelled extensively, even venturing into Utah and Arizona to see the Grand Canyon and Bryce Canyon. Along the way we stopped off, one afternoon, at Zion National Park.

We set off on a hike bound for a waterfall. The day was warm and bright and the landscape beautiful. We walked a fair way, through orange red rock to a place where the river that had been thin and brisk, widened out into a  shallow pool closed in on all sides by the soft surfaces of the rising cliffs. This place was greener, shaded by slender trees that crowded near the water. The sunlight, the heat, the rock, the water, the closed in sense of the valley floor where the river had eaten through, ought to have been stunning, manna for the passing tourist. There was nothing dark, only the dappled shadows of the sunlight broken by the canopy of trees. There were lots of people, many of them ankle deep already, walking through the water towards the other end of the small canyon and the rest of the walk.

We didn’t go any further. A few steps into the water and I suddenly felt dreadful, that unexplained sense of things not being right but being unable to explain why I felt that. There were no sudden drops or the blackness of deep water to cause concern,quite the opposite, it was green, sunlit.

This is where psychogeography kicks in. I was feeling bad, really wanted to turn back but my husband, a hiking sort of bloke, had looked forward to this walk. He is also a scientist by qualifications and is a genuine sceptic. He’s what you’d call level headed so I kept my misgivings to myself.  He was walking slightly ahead of me, armed with his camera but, I noted, taking no pictures. I said nothing but in a second he turned to me suddenly and, taking my hand, said ‘Let’s go back’. We were silent, hurried even, as we walked back along the path, passed by the stream of people in primary coloured shorts and hot weather gear headed to the pool.

It was only back at the car, safe in the air conditioned space that he confessed how bad the place felt, a sensation strong enough to persuade him we must leave. Now. My husband said he had felt that we just shouldn’t be there, that it was wrong.

You might say that in going no further we missed out on an epic tourist experience of further waterfalls and emerald pools. We didn’t miss anything, we might have been the only people that day who were privileged to have the deepest experience possible, not that of the tourist looking blindly out through the lens of a camera. Instead the land spoke to us, and we listened.


photo from Seriously, visit.

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