Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Rotsblog walking GR5 (4): Sunny French Siberia

Day 3: Mouthe - Chapelle-des-Bois

June 15, 2012
21 km

Few villages in France are as beautifully located as Mouthe. It lies in the middle of a small green river valley, surrounded by forests, happily isolated from the outside world. This area is called "la petite Sibérie" - apparently because it gets very cold and snowy in winter. Today, however, the weather is absolutely fantastic - warm and sunny, with a gentle breeze.

The walk through the valley is pleasant. After a while, we enter a forest, and follow shady forest paths for a while. Then we leave the forest, and walk through an empty valley. On our left, the forest continues; on our right, there are rolling grass fields. Flowers are in bloom everywhere. Cows are drinking from a nearby stream, their bells tinkling quietly. After two hours or so, we reach the village of Chaux-Neuve.

Between Mouthe and Chaux-Neuve
We are eagerly looking forward to a cup of coffee with cake, but we are not very lucky. Chaux-Neuve does have a gîte-café-restaurant, but it is closed during lunch time; so is the bar-tabac. The only hotel is in the process of being rebuilt - who knows, it may never reopen. Fortunately, though, there is a fromagerie selling local cheese, yoghurt and drinks. We sit on the bench next to it, surrounded by beautiful flowers, and enjoy an early lunch with some delicious locally produced food.

As we are sitting there, an old lady approaches us, and starts mumbling about "putting papers on the grass". I am not quite sure what she is getting at. "Vous êtes Italiens?" she asks disapprovingly. "Parlez pas la langue?" The last time I was told I do not speak French was fifteen years ago, and I am not amused. "Nous sommes Hollandais," I answer. "Est-ce que nous pouvons nous asseoir ici?" "Yes, yes, but I take care of these flowers, so don't put papers on the grass." I finally understand what she means, and I assure her that we will not litter. She nods, walks back to her house, and sits down behind the window to continue spying on us. Too bad she did not notice the fact that one of her neighbours' dogs had used her flowerbed as a toilet.

We continue our walk through the beautifully hybrid Jura landscapes. Fields become forest, forests become fields; nature and culture are intertwined and inseparable. We see several old farms. After a while, the forest gets more dense. We have to climb, but not as much as yesterday. There are no other walkers to be seen. Every ten minutes, a black SUV with a huge dog behind the steering wheel passes by. We wonder what he is doing here, driving around the forest; we also wonder where his human went. Admittedly, for a dog he drives quite well, albeit a bit too fast. We stop at a clearing in the forest, called "Chez l'Officier", and have our second lunch.

The last kilometres go through dense forest. The paths we use double as ski tracks in winter - this is one of France's most popular cross-country skiing destinations. Today, however, it is hot, and we are getting tired. When we arrive in Chapelle-des-Bois - a small village with a pretty church, surrounded by cross-country tracks, located near a high plateau - it is 5 pm. Time for a bath, and a nice dinner.

Review: La Maison du Montagnon, Chapelle-des-Bois

€28,- per night per person in a triple room, including breakfast.
***** (5/5)

Excellent accommodation, ideally located for walking trips (in summer) and cross-country skiing (in winter). The triple rooms are a bit small, but the beds are comfortable and the sheets clean. There is a restaurant where you can have a 3-course dinner for €16,- (with fresh herbs from the garden), as well as kitchen facilities and a dining room (with outside terrace) so you can make your own food. The sauna and steam bath are very nice after a long day of walking. The staff are friendly - when we had to use the internet because of personal circumstances, they kindly allowed us to use their own computer. Nice breakfast buffet. If you are on a long-distance walking trip, this place is ideal for a rest day.

La Maison du Montagnon, Chapelle-des-Bois

The walking body

 Unexpectedly, I got sick. When I woke up in the early morning, I had a fever and a headache. I tried to get out of bed, but I was so dizzy I could hardly walk. I felt hot and was sweaty, yet my body was shivering. It was clear that my body did not want me to continue walking. I had to take a rest, so we had to stay in Chapelle-des-Bois for at least another day.

Why did this happen? I had been walking quite well, the first three days. We had not started too ambitiously - the distances we had walked were average, certainly not too long. My backpack was not very light, but as I did not carry a tent or camping mattress, it was not too heavy either. On the night before, I had not felt bad at all. I had used the sauna and steam bath, which was very nice. Afterwards, we had enjoyed a big dinner with good wine, at a quiet place with a great view. Actually, I had not felt so relaxed in a long time.

It must have been the unusual combination of physical exercise (60 kilometres of walking in three days, with backpack) and relaxation (sauna, steam bath, food and wine) that triggered it. Usually, you do not get sick when you are in the middle of a busy period: you get sick when you have finished your job, leave the busy time behind, and take it easy for a while. Something like that must have happened. Frankly, writing a PhD dissertation is not exactly the same as your ordinary office job - it is quite a responsibility, and a lonely process, for in the end you have to do it all by yourself. The obligation to finish within three years also causes a significant amount of stress, and leaves little time for any peripheral research or writing activities. In addition, living in a foreign country with a strange climate can be demanding at times, emotionally as well as physically. Do not get me wrong: I love my job, I would not want to do anything else, and I am very happy with the facilities and supervision I get here. But perhaps I should not be too surprised if my body occasionally tells me to take a break.

You may not have noticed it, but when I write sentences like "my body did not want me to continue walking" and "my body occasionally tells me to take a break" (as I did in the previous paragraphs), I am making an artificial distinction between "me" - the individual subject - and "my body" - an object, used by "me" yet an ontologically separate entity. Thus, I differentiate between an abstract, imagined self, and the physical aspect of the self. As I imagine my body to be some sort of external agent, I alienate myself from it. My thinking is based on the notion "I have a body" rather than "I am a body". Why am I doing this?

In fact, when writing this kind of sentences, I am standing in a long tradition of thought, going back to ancient Greece. Plato, for instance, famously distinguished between the physical world and the world of ideas. The former, he argued, was a mere shadow of the latter; thus, the world of physical matter, bodies, food and mud was inferior to the world of the mind, the spirit, the good and the beautiful. According to Plato, it was the duty of the philosopher to escape from the material world, and discover the perfect world of ideas supposedly underlying it. In effect, he denied the actual world, while constructing an imaginary perfect world. This dualistic, escapist worldview was embraced by western Christianity, which conceptualised the physical world as sinful and evil, and the imaginary spiritual world as good and desirable. Christian theology denied people their physicality, and continues to do so today (as exemplified by the Catholic church's celibacy myth).

This existential mind-body dualism (including the implicit understanding that the former is superior to the latter) is reproduced in modern philosophy, science, and medical practices. Descartes' famous statement "I think, therefore I am" is illustrative as much as it is foundational. Why define existence on the base of thought? What about "I eat, therefore I am", "I walk, therefore I am", or, pardon my French, "I fuck, therefore I am"? Human beings are eating, walking and fucking subject, as much as they are thinking subjects - perhaps more so. Yet, classical positivist science is founded on the assumption that mind and body are ontologically opposite entities, just like object and subject are. They may be interrelated, but they constitute a dichotomy, rather than a unity.

It took 'Western Man' a lot of time to realise that he does not have a body, but that he is a body. Nietzsche was the first prominent philosopher who severely criticised the mind-body dualism, and the denial of the physical body, defining the history of European thought - but Nietzsche was ahead of his time in many respects. Later, in the twentieth century, the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty developed the notion of embodiment, and made the important observation that
one's own body (le corps propre) is not only a thing, a potential object of study for science, but is also a permanent condition of experience, a constituent of the perceptual openness to the world. He therefore underlines the fact that there is an inherence of consciousness and of the body of which the analysis of perception should take account. The primacy of perception signifies a primacy of experience, so to speak, insofar as perception becomes an active and constitutive dimension. (From Wikipedia)
In other words: every experience is bodily (and, as a result, situated and partial rather than objective). Not until recently did this important epistemological insight gain widespread acceptance in the social sciences and humanities. Finally, in recent years, the mind-body dichotomy has been challenged by a number of interesting studies in a variety of disciplines, to the point that it may be appropriate to speak of a paradigm shift. Nevertheless, in common parlance as well as in society, the dichotomy continues to influence ways in which we structure the world. Few people question the distinction between 'mental' illnesses and 'physical' ones, for instance, and we continue to perceive ourselves as souls/minds/spirits inhabiting a body - rather than, simply, as bodies that feel and think. In the end, each and every one of us is a body that eats, walks and fucks as much as it thinks, talks and writes; we are singular and unified, now matter how much we like to alienate ourselves from ourselves. 

If you write a PhD dissertation in a field like mine, you basically spend your working time doing three things: reading, writing, and procrastinating. When you are constantly sitting behind your computer or reading books, it is easy to forget that you are a body; easy to conceive of yourself as merely the product of your thoughts. Not until you get pain in your neck or shoulders do you remember that those thoughts actually take shape in a living body. The body is easily forgotten, easily ignored; your world easily reduced to abstract ideas, where there is little or no place for physical matters (not until they start distracting you from your thoughts, at least).

That is one of the reasons it is good to go on a walking trip. You may get lost in your thoughts sometimes, but you are often reminded of the fact that you are a body, sometimes forcefully. After several hours of walking, it is hard to ignore the soles of your feet, or the blisters on your toes. Your shoulders hurt from your backpack, the muscles in your legs hurt from the climbing and descending. You may catch a cold and get sick. But after several days of walking, you feel yourself getting stronger. Your legs get more powerful, and every day you climb a bit faster. Fat gives way to muscles. Your skin gets tan, you grow a beard (if you are a man), you get more handsome. You eat a lot, you enjoy it, but you do not gain weight as you burn the calories afterwards. You sleep better, and get new energy. You are a body, and you have rediscovered it.

But try not to forget it when you are back home.

A strong walker

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Rotsblog walking GR5 (3): Jura landscapes

Day 2: Métabief - Mouthe

June 14, 2012
22 km

Métabief is a well-known skiing destination. There is a number of ski lifts and pistes in the immediate vicinity. In the village itself, there are several shops selling sports gear. There is only one small grocery store, though, inconveniently located on the wrong side of the village, away from our trail. But we do have to go there, as we need to get some food and drinks. By the time we finally leave the village it is already getting late. It is a warm and sunny day, completely unlike yesterday.

We start the day with a long and serious climb: the first mountain of the week, Le Morond (1420 m). The first part of the climb goes through forest. Later, we pass half-open grassland. In winter, this mountain is popular among downhill skiers; in summer, it is used by hikers and mountainbikers. It takes about one hour to walk from Métabief to the summit of Le Morond, and the last part of the climb is very steep. When we arrive, we are surrounded by beautiful views; green mountains and valleys, as far as we can see. In the south, snow-covered Alps are floating in the air.

Climbing Le Morond
We continue our walk along a high mountain edge, towards Le Mont d'Or, the gold mountain. The views are absolutely stunning, and we enjoy our walk to the fullest. We are not the only ones walking here - during the summer holidays, this place probably gets very crowded, but fortunately we are early this year. Our trail does not lead us to the summit of Le Mont d'Or; in stead, we turn right, away from the popular mountain edge. The landscape changes. We now walk through hilly grass fields, surrounded by woodland, populated by big cows wearing bells around their necks. Every now and then, we pass a dilapidated old farm building. There is no human being to be seen.

Le Mont d'Or
We get a cup of coffee at the Chalet la Boissaude, a restaurant in the middle of nowhere, then enjoy a late lunch out in the field. Next, we continue our path through the rolling semi-rural, semi-wild landscapes. The grass fields give way to forest, which give way to fields, which give way to forest, and so on. The fields are filled with colourful flowers. The road is uneven, long, and has many holes, caused by the cows walking around here. Our feet hurt, and we play quiz games to get a bit of distraction. Fortunately, the last kilometres go through more dense forest, on easier terrain. At the end of the afternoon, we descend to the source of the river Doubs, and walk into a lovely green valley. We follow the river to the charming village of Mouthe, where we are going to spend the night.

The river Doubs, near Mouthe

Review: Chambres d'hôtes La Chaumière, Mouthe

€25,- per night per person (including breakfast; dormitory-style, no sheets or towels).
** (2/5)

Once upon a time (i.e., ten years ago), many French villages had a so-called gîte d'étape, where walkers and cyclists could spend the night in a bunk bed for around 8 euros per person, and use the kitchen. Today, many of these places have disappeared, while others have been transformed into hostel-type group accommodation, or bed & breakfasts. Mouthe still has a gîte d'étape, but we cannot stay there, as the entire place has been rented by a school class - an annoying practice, that happens all-too-often these days. So we stay in a bed & breakfast, called La Chaumière, that offers a 'special deal' for walkers - a bed in a small dormitory room (four beds), where you are supposed to use your own sleeping bag and towel. However, at €25,- per person, this can hardly be called economical. The room looks pretty, and the shower is hot. Unfortunately, though, the mattresses are old and uncomfortable - for that money, one would at least expect a decent mattress. Breakfast is included in the price - it is basic but OK, except for a disgusting frozen kiwi. In addition, it is quite odd, to say the least, that check-out time is as early as 9am - something we were not informed about when we made the reservation.

Nature-culture landscapes

One of the fundamental myths of modernity is that there is a thing called 'nature' - a category encompassing most non-human animal species, plants and trees, as well as landscapes that do not show obvious signs of human involvement - which is diametrically opposed to things called 'society' and 'culture'. The former is seen as the origin of life, not influenced by human action but preceding it, as 'pure' and 'wild'. The latter is seen as shaped by human action, and antithetical to the former. Forests are generally perceived as 'nature', as they are composed of trees and plants; even though they may have been planted, and even though they may have taken shape in interaction with human farming and foraging practices. Buildings are generally perceived as culture, as they were built by human beings; even though the materials with which they were built were taken from the soil or the forest, and even though they are inhabited by a variety of organisms interacting with each other (humans, dogs, cats, plants, germs, mice, cockroaches and so on).

The distinction between nature and culture has significant consequences for our perception of reality, and for the ways in which we imagine and shape societies and landscapes. It is reproduced by academia (the institutions that produce, sanction and discredit truth narratives in modern society), where the study of 'nature' is carefully separated - by means of institutional, linguistic and subcultural boundaries - from the study of 'culture' (including literature, religion, politics and so on). It is also reflected in landscape production. Planners, policy-makers and politicians have divided space into areas used for 'human population' (culture), industry (culture), agriculture (culture), and 'nature'. Following nineteenth-century American conservationist ideology, 'pure' nature is perceived (by planners and environmentalists alike) as being 'wild' and 'untouched' by human hands. Hence the forced displacement of native communities after the construction of 'national parks', for example in Africa (and the subsequent forestation of savanna landscapes, when there is no more cattle to eat small trees). And hence the lack of interest in rural, agricultural landscapes on the part of most environmentalists, despite their ecological significance.

Recently, the paradigmatic nature-culture dichotomy has been questioned by a number of scholars. They have challenged structures for academic knowledge production, landscape divisions based on a strict nature-culture dichotomy, as well as the anthropocentric bias in the humanities and social sciences. In stead, they have drawn attention to ways in which human societies interact with and are shaped by a variety of non-human (animal, material, microbial) actors. On the other hand, they have also pointed out that many supposedly 'natural' landscapes are 'cultured', have histories, and are co-produced by human actors. Well-known scholars who have contributed to this paradigm shift include Donna Haraway, Tim Ingold, Bruno Latour and Anna Tsing. Their work is intriguing, as it challenges well-established categories. I am currently in the process of reading Anna Tsing's masterpiece Friction, based on ethnographic research in Borneo, in which she looks at the interplay between globalisation, deforestation, environmentalism and spatial practices. Highly recommended.

One of the things I like about walking is that it always makes me realise that landscapes do not obey maps. On the map, space is clearly divided: human settlement is red, roads are yellow, industry is grey, agriculture is light-green, forest is dark-green, water is blue. In reality, though, the boundaries between fields and forests are fluid, as are the boundaries between human settlements and surrounding 'nature'. Cows leave their 'agricultural' land, and walk in the forest, where they change the ecosystem by eating certain plants. Fields are forgotten, give way to trees, and become forest. Other forests shrink, as villages grow and push them away. Meanwhile, however, some houses are abandoned by human beings, and claimed by bats and birds. 'Natural' forests are used by people, who come to log and replace certain tree species by others. Fields used for agriculture, on the other hand, house a variety of species not controlled by human actors; they are inhabited by flowers, insects and 'weeds', who do not care about spatial divisions. In Europe, there are hardly any 'untouched', primeval natural landscapes. Every landscape is historically and culturally shaped, as much as it is shaped by environmental factors. Meanwhile, 'cultural' landscapes - not only those used for agriculture, but also cities - are full of non-human actors that exercise influence on places and their historical development.

When you walk in the Jura, you realise that there is no such thing as a distinction between 'natural' and 'cultural' landscapes. It is not even easy to divide between forest and field, let alone between nature and culture. Nature and culture are intertwined, and take shape in continuous interaction. The landscape has a social history, as much as it is part of a natural environment.