Haunt the Walk: (Super)Nature Writing, Pt 2
Updated: Apr 28, 2020
In the previous Supernature post, we looked at the emergence of the paranormal as a serious topic in contemporary nature writing, beginning with Robert MacFarlane’s book The Old Ways. Here, we’re going to continue exploring these themes across the Atlantic with a look at Robert Moor’s 2016 book On Trails: An Exploration. Moor’s book is a quilt of histories of outdoor recreation, scientific accounts of the evolutionary origins of biotic locomotion in the prehistoric oceans, and Moor’s own memoir of a 2009 thru-hike of the Appalachian trail. Moor is a journalist, and On Trails reads pleasantly and smoothly as Moor synthesizes information from a wide variety of informants in the field: scientists, shepherds, historians, and “hiker trash” (as thru-hikers deprecatingly self-identify). On Trails would pair well with Bruce Chatwin’s 1987 classic The Songlines (not to mention MacFarlane’s The Old Ways) as a meditation on the human history and meaning of experiencing an environment as a vector by moving through it: simply put, of paths, routes, trails.
And like MacFarlane, Moor notes that trails have a weird tendency to be haunted. While hitchhiking through Newfoundland towards Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve for a look at some of the earliest fossilized evidence of lifeforms in motion, Moor hops in the car with a kind driver through the countryside. As they drive along, she points out the western hillsides of Newfoundland, mentioning that such areas were traditionally known to hide “fairy paths.” As Moor writes, “Even now, she said, people occasionally reported seeing small blobs of light floating down these trails.” (44)
(A sign placed at a Newfoundland trailhead, reminding walkers to prepare for fairy encounters by filling their pockets with gifts. source) Moor does not dismiss or ignore his driver’s claims, in fact, he does an admirable job of researching them, and this leads him to Barbara Gaye Rieti’s masterful 1990 doctoral thesis, Newfoundland fairy traditions: a study in narrative and belief.
In Rieti’s analysis, a Newfoundlander might encounter a fairy in one of two ways: there are “wind” stories, in which a fairy suddenly appears without warning (Rieti calls them “wind” episodes because they are usually heralded by a sudden gust or squall), and “path” stories, where a human being, in ignorance or sheer hubris, literally “crosses paths” with the fairies, often by unwittingly constructing a home over a preferred fairy route: "Narratives about fairy paths and winds are especially good for the depiction of everyday life...In 'path' stories we get images of life indoors, in 'wind' stories of life outdoors, but the bigger difference is that in 'path' stories we learn of events unfolding over time, whereas wind stories are usually of single acute episodes." (Rieti, p. 196)
By path or by wind, the fairy is both an adjective and a noun in the Newfoundlander dialect and imagination. A fairy might refer directly to the person of a supernatural humanoid, or it might be a descriptor: a fairy path on which fairies are known to walk, a fairy place, or, in one instance, a man who could foresee the death of others is remembered as “a real fairy man.” In Newfoundland, a fairy is both a kind of being and a quality related to such beings.
(Rieti's work is worth tracking down. Her subsequent 1991 book Strange Terrain: The Fairy World in Newfoundland out of print and hard to find these days, but it is worth the effort. Most folklorists follow Reidar Christiansen in believing that fairy belief did not survive the colonial excursion to the Americas. Rieti capably dismisses Christiansen's conclusions. She deserves to be better known for it.)
In Newfoundland, the fairy–whether noun or adjective, wind or path–is both a real being and an organizing principle. The fairy is a way of organizing the relationship between a human community and the unseen worlds that enclose it. Robert Moor stumbles upon this fairy reality quite accidentally and unexpectedly in the text, but this does not stop him from treating it honestly, if skeptically. As he sits in the car with his driver, she seems to disclose a lifetime of paranormal experience to the unwitting journalist, who merely wanted to look at some fossils:
“As we cruised south, the driver recounted stories of her family’s encounters with ghosts, fairies, white ladies, goblins, gypsies [Clearly Newfoundland is not immune from the deleterious Western tendency to associate paranormal beliefs and phenomena with vulnerable ethnic minorities] and angels. She described in detail a time when a ghost or an angel–she and her husband quibbled over which it was–enveloped her in its arms and prevented her from being struck by a car while she was walking down a snowy road at night. Afterward, she sensed that the angel was following her home. When her dog rushed out of the house to greet her, it trotted right past her and stood at the end of her driveway with its snout angled upward, as if it were being petted by an invisible hand.” (Moor, p. 44)
Moor’s curiosity and skepticism boil over together in his recollection of this drive through the Newfoundland countryside. As he writes, “[Her] stories unnerved me, because many of the details were utterly mundane.” Moor does a wonderful job here of illustrating the feeling of hearing someone recount a paranormal experience. There’s often a disconnect between the extraordinary content of the experience and the banal details that surround it. The skeptic’s first instinct is to assume that they’re being taken for a ride, but the mundane details give the story an atmosphere of credibility. As Moor writes, “The world looks clear and rigid in the bright light of the metropolis, but out here on the edge of the continent, in the murky night and gray fog, anything seemed possible.” (44) Here, Moor alludes to the theme so pervasive in the contemporary discourses of the paranormal that it almost always goes without saying: the paranormal is inextricably connected with rural and wild environments in our contemporary imagination. This connection between the paranormal and the rural or the wild in the popular imagination has been most actively expressed and experienced through the act of walking: the most (superficially) simple of human technologies, the embodied act of moving through an environment. The trend in contemporary nature writing, as we’ve been exploring, has been towards a recognition of the walk itself as an act of connection with an unseen world. As Barbara Rieti’s study points out, the fairy as an organizing principle exists as a vector: routes, paths, trails. And as MacFarlane writes in The Old Ways: “...walking paths might lead you...to ‘slip back out of this modern world.’ Repeatedly, these wanderers spoke of the tingle of connection, of walking as seance, of voices heard along the way.” (21)
Contemporary nature writers like Moor and MacFarlane show us how our cultural association of wilderness with the paranormal has generated new ways of orienting ourselves with the vectors of the subtle world in wilderness spaces through the technology of walking. To put it simply, haunting the walk. If you’re fortunate enough to be cloistered in a walkable neighborhood during this crisis, then I’m sure you’ve come to treasure your walks as much as I have during this isolating time. Our daily walks during the time of COVID-19 can be more than just exercise: they can be a technique for organizing the patterns of our own relationship with the subtle and hidden aspects of the world. This is not a new idea: this technology of actively haunting one’s own walk has been widely theorized in (mostly in the UK) as “psychogeography,” nor have we even opened the book on the religious histories of pilgrimage and asceticism on which these modern practices refer and depend. But all walks start somewhere. For anyone interested in exploring these topics further, here are a few recent resources that are precisely focused on this theme of haunting the walk:
The first is “Force the Hand of Chance: A How-To Guide to Psychogeography” on Timothy Renner’s inimitable podcast/ever-evolving art and research project, Strange Familiars. here’s a link
The second is a critical and philosophical meditation on the theory and practice of walking from Phil Ford and J.F. Martel of the Weird Studies podcast, which remains among the best online resources for philosophical conversations related to the paranormal: take a listen.
My colleague Jack Hunter recently explored some of the connections between fairy belief and ecological awareness here.
Finally, the aesthetically gorgeous Weird Walk zine from the UK is worth seeking out.