What is a Wall, After All?

“The way my walls are made, stone upon stone, is like growth.”
Andy Goldsworthy

Walls are made piece by piece. Walls are destroyed piece by piece. All around us, happening everywhere they appear like tracks of some passing despot. It is ours to notice, it is ours to reason why.

What are walls? When do we perceive them? How do we create walls or destroy them? What do they mean to us?

Despite some rather obvious examples, walls are so common nowadays we barely perceive them. Walls are not singular; they function with landscape. Part of a building, yard, or road. Anonymously supporting the lives we lead.

What is a wall
Berlin Wall. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

British sculptor Andy Goldsworthy constructs walls in the wall-building fashion of his native Cumbria. For Goldsworthy, a wall gestures to its immediate landscape but should aspire to obscurity.

Sculpture can take on the quality of a design in the landscape, and I make works that function at that level. But I always feel there’s a more profound level of working with the landscape. I’m usually trying to quiet down the aspects that are perceived as being about sculpture.

Though we might not perceive them, there are walls. The space that used to be whole is divided. Even Goldsworthy’s walls that snake around trees make us wonder what happens to space when it’s divided. Especially natural, unbounded space, which should never brook such divisions, save those made by water, ice.

What is a wall
Berlin Wall. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Unnaturally divided space and an unrelenting, obstructing wall is central to the poetry of British Romantic poet John Clare. In the late 1700s, under the Enclosure Acts, common land was rapidly walled to form farms and fields.

Clare, who lived and wrote during England’s Industrial Revolution, was fascinated and tormented by these abrupt boundaries and enclosures. To Clare, walls were tyrannical. From his poem “Helpston,” circa 1812:

But now alas those scenes exist no more
The pride of life with thee (like mine) is oer
They pleasing spots to which found memory clings
Sweet cooling shades and soft refreshing springs
And though fate’s pleas’d to lay their beauties by
In a dark corner of obscurity.

Walls hide and obscure space in darkness. They create parts and pieces of something once whole.

What do they do to us who live among them?

I traveled to Berlin recently, spent time next to what remains of the Berlin Wall. I remember hearing, as a child, that a wall separated East and West Berlin, and I always wondered but never asked (perhaps intrinsically I knew it was silly) “These people are stuck, why don’t they simply walk around it?” Well, as I saw firsthand: it wasn’t a wall— it was an enclosure. The ends met. Additionally, of course, it was a highly militarized enclosure with many other deterring features.

The Berlin Wall had ends that met. Goldsworthy’s walls don’t, although they do enclose spaces with tight bends. How does enclosure change the nature of the wall? What if our vantage point is inside? What if it’s outside?

What is a wall
Berlin Wall. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

It is human nature to feel something about a wall because walls are decidedly human. In nature, we might find a cliff, or shelf, exhibiting a sleek vertical plane, certainly. However, a wall has two faces. Two faces sculpted by mortals. It must hold something back, something unseen, something imagined. Something apart from us.

What is that “thing apart”? In Berlin, the thing apart was neighbors, family, loved ones. Socioeconomic systems and, thus, entire futures.

At its most abstract level, a wall separates us from the dark unknown. Russian-born novelist Vladimir Nabokov believed an impenetrable wall of time separated him from oblivion.

Over and over again, my mind has made colossal efforts to distinguish the faintest of personal glimmers in the impersonal darkness on both sides of my life. That this darkness is caused merely by the walls of time separating me and my bruised fists from the free world of timelessness is a belief I gladly share with the most gaudily painted savage. I have journeyed back in thought—with thought hopelessly tapering off as I went—to remote regions where I groped for some secret outlet only to discover that the prison of time is spherical and without exits.

When we perceive something as a wall, we normalize its existence, even understand the placement of this thing that isn’t natural. That suggests the strongest walls are those we cannot perceive. Strength alone isn’t entirely bad, however.

In Japanese folklore, there is a fantastical creature called nurikabe. This imagined phenomenon appears as a wall that restricts movement. It occurs when someone is walking alone, perhaps at night, in an unfamiliar area. Who hasn’t felt this psychosomatic effect of fear or exhaustion? Nurikabe is ominous but not permanent; apparently it can be vanquished if struck at its base.1

Even if we feel walls, do we see them? Do we see them as readily as Clare did? Every time you read “wall,” what do you see? Is it tall? How tall? Does it stretch to infinity or wrap and continue onto itself? Does it protect or contain you? I imagine, at the very least, your wall is solid. Strong and staid. Or is it?

Perhaps it is a paper-thin walls of traditional Eastern architecture. Novelist Jun’ichirō Tanizaki wrote beautifully about the luminosity of Japanese interiors made and defined by paper walls:

The light from the pale white paper, powerless to dispel the heavy darkness of the alcove, is instead repelled by the darkness, creating a world of confusion where dark and light are indistinguishable.

Darkness created by this wall is not the obscurity of John Clare’s wall, obscurity that creates its own night of existence. To Tanizaki, walls have a purpose of composure. They maintain and control secrets of space.

Irish ceramist Isobel Egan uses porcelain to make her own paper-thin walls. In her structures, the ends meet, and space is compartmentalized by these translucent, fragile walls. The eye settles easily on the space, and the structures invite mental unburdening. Rest.

Porcelain structures by Irish ceramist, Isobel Egan. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

This soft but firm wall makes me realize how often we see a wall having symbolic antipodes: a masculine wall that separates and defines, and a maternal wall that supports and comforts. Those maternal walls that absorb our pain, hold our secrets, and buttress our backs when, really, a wall could hug every point on a symbolic curve, meaning something different to everyone but something all the same.

What is a wall
Berlin Wall. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

My preferred concept of a “wall”—and what I imagine when confronted with the term—is one of the garden. Take for instance nineteenth-century gardener Gertrude Jekyll, whose collaborative work with landscape designer Edward Lutyens combined structure and playful chaos into what we have come to know as the British garden. For this pair, brimming with creativity and vitality, a wall is a key player. It works with the earth, the plants, and the land. It retains (what a great word) the space so that plants and flowers can feature foremost.

A garden wall is a wall in full supportive maternal significance with a hint of masculine strength. These are walls I build and seek.

In Berlin, I was oddly fascinated with the wall itself. Its materiality. What is this wall made of? What’s inside this wall? Nabokov’s wall was made of time. Goldsworthy’s walls are made of ice or stone. Egan’s walls are porcelain.

What is a wall
Inside section of Berlin Wall. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

The Berlin Wall was made of iron rebar, stones, and cement. I returned with a piece of cement. I broke it out of the kitschy plastic and held it in my hand. It’s nothing. Rough, smooth. A symbol of something that used to be. Just a piece, really.

A piece of a wall. A wall, after all, is nothing more than pieces of things added and adhered.

As Goldsworthy said, a wall forms from growth. Walls don’t simply exist; they are growing. Or decaying. Ever-changing human creations, swayed by our own imagination and power.

When a wall reinforces and symbolizes conventional powers (in other words when a wall opposes its landscape) it might not be destructible to you and I, but it can be addressed, nonetheless.

In 2012, Mexican – American Artist Ana Teresa Fernandez, famous for her melting-ice shoe sculptures (she stands for hours bound in ice-shoes until they melt, releasing her), inspired residents of Mexican border towns to grab ladders, brushes and to “erase the border” (Borrando la Frontera). Using a perfect sky-blue paint they dismantled the wall’s visual malice. Giving comfort where there was no hope.

Walls are made piece by piece. Walls are destroyed piece by piece. They are harmless and harmful. Kinetic and staid.

The thing most particular about walls is they are all around. Happening everywhere anonymously or brutally obstructive. They appear like tracks of some passing despot.

It is ours to notice these walls, it is ours to reason why.

The Importance of Walking About

“Is there anything that is better than to be out, walking, in the clear air?”
Thomas A. Clark

In the gleeful, wee early days of her life, I introduced my newborn to walking about. Bundled against the slight February sun we slipped out. We didn’t go far.

I’ll never forget baring a warm chest for impromptu nursing at the swan pond in Kensington Gardens—Arctic wind notwithstanding. Anything to soothe her crying. People pitied my new-motherhood. I was wobbly but proud. She, satiated.

Our first walk, imperfect but vanquished. I felt a wholeness with her and with my new-mother self.

The inaugural walk of life, one clear February morning. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Walking connects mind and body and fills both to the brim with feelings of unity.

Franz Kafka endured a traumatic period of deep restlessness when a failed marriage proposal escalated to a humiliating public trial (and inspired his own The Trial). Kafka’s biographer, Elias Canetti, describes how a relentless quest for sleep led Kafka into manic bouts of walking:1

He plunges with a sort of elevation into every activity that demands and restores unity of the body [… long walks in the country which enabled him to breathe freely—all these enliven him and give him hope that for once, for even a longer time, he might be able to escape from the disintegration of the wakeful night.

When my husband asked why I bothered to walk my daughter into the cold, I served him a line from Emerson’s essay, Nature: “The health of the eye seems to demand a horizon.”

I verge to horizons, I am someone who walks. 2,300 miles across the United States, 100 miles up the Thames, half a mile in the Arctic wind with my daughter. Like Kafka, walking restores my unity, invites harmony, and addresses unwanted wakefulness.

British author Robert Macfarlane investigates a need for walking in his superb 2012 book The Old Ways. Macfarlane collects and showcases a blend of walkers, path-forgers, and followers who have traipsed the British Isles for centuries. He finds our creation of paths emanate from a human need to move:

As I walk paths I often wonder about their origins, the impulses that have led to their creation, the records they yield of customary journeys, and the secrets they keep of adventures, meetings and departures. I would guess I have walked perhaps 7,000 or 8,000 miles on footpaths so far in my life: more than most, perhaps, but not nearly so many as others. […] I’ve covered thousands of foot-miles in my memory, because when—as most nights—I find myself insomniac, I send my mind out to re-walk paths I’ve followed, and in this way can sometimes pace myself into sleep.

Just as walking can be soporific, it is equally energizing. As we engage our gait so spring our thoughts, our vital unconscious and creativity.

Creative talents such as Gustav Mahler, Charles Dickens, Rousseau, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Mary Oliver, mathematician Henri Poincare, Gertrude Stein, and poets A. E. Housman and Wallace Stevens all benefited from improved footfall. Some sought natural environs, some the city – the common element was movement and thought.

I write while walking. Although I type indoors, I compose passages, phrases, paragraphs, and posts—or, rather, I step aside and sentences self-compose—while walking. In the midst of play, my mind works still. I repeat thoughts until I can retype verbatim. (It’s not coincidental that I fit myself into a profession that allows daily walking. It is mere luck, however, that I possess such a visual memory.)

Vincent Van Gogh, a “formidable walker,” unveiled an artist’s eye for fields, suns, and trees, “I walked across a large grassy field there surrounded by trees and houses, with the spire rising high above them.” His most coalesced and inspired thoughts often unfolded after long walks. Gathering these single points of creative beginning into his work.

Verging towards bluebells at Petworth House. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

It’s not just what think while walking. It’s what we forge by walking.

These paths, Macfarlane reminds us, are the memories of people, the remnants of society, individuals, and even ourselves. We leave tracks, evidence of our existence. The ground bears witness (and easily carries it, unlike humans.)

We easily forget that we are track-makers, though, because most of our journeys now occur on asphalt and concrete—and these substances are not easily impressed. […] It’s true that, once you begin to notice them, you see that the landscape is still webbed with paths and footways […] .

Not just that we warm the brain, or demonstrate existence, I think there is something further that hooks our unconscious and draws us out step by step.

In her lovely, creatively unbounded book of musings and illustrations, The Principles of Uncertainty, artist Maira Kalman longs for a lengthy walk—“My dream is to walk around the world. A smallish backpack, all essentials neatly in place.”—but settles for a few steps in others’ shoes.

Kalman undergoes that critical suspension of self—the true root of empathy—to see others. Walking as they walk, stepping as they step. Occasionally communicating, but mostly watching. It is a deeply perceptive collection of images, often people’s backs. “Everyone is going forward, and everyone is behind everyone” Kalman writes.

Walking is a way of seeing.

Dickens knew this, he paced London (I imagine him restless restless restless), twelve or fourteen miles a night in relentless pursuit of personality, characters. People and neighborhoods among which he had once lived but from which his success had removed him. Like Kalman, Dickens saw people, then wrote them.

Contemporary Scottish poet Thomas A. Clark agreed, writing in his short but elegant prose/poem In Praise of Walking:

Daily walking, in all weathers in every season, becomes a sort of ground or continuum upon which the least emphatic occurrences are registered clearly.

When walking, we register fully in our minds that which we perceive with our senses.

“I walk, all day, across the heaven-verging field” wrote Mary Oliver in Upstream. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Indeed, walking is about witness because it is about connecting. To people, to ourselves, to our mind, or simply, to our world. Connecting to others as we shuffle forward towards that heaven-verging horizon.

Pace, Breaks and the True Nature of Play

“Instead of trying to empty my mind, as one does in meditation, and letting my thoughts drift by like moving clouds, I followed my thoughts, but in an unhurried and liberated way.”
Alan Lightman

I was delighted to find—among other things at Chartwell, Winston Churchill’s country abode—a swing hanging from an old oak.

I made good use of it.

nature of play
A little afternoon play at Chartwell. Play allows us to relax, excite and touch fleetingly that elusive thing: innocence. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Did he? Perhaps Winny and Clemmie ran out between London cables and Prime Minister’s Question Time. Did Churchill conceive his best thoughts when his rump hit the seat? “Push me, Clemmie. I must consider the Germans.”

No, they didn’t. The swings were installed post-Churchill. And I digress.

Back to “convergent thinking,” as physicist and humanist Alan Lightman calls the “logical and orderly step-by-step approach to a problem.” It is with convergent thinking that we make lists, order preferences, and run empires. It is with convergent thinking that we, leaden with purpose, get things done.

However, Lightman also makes a grand case for enabling a mind of play, what he labels “divergent thinking.” How? By inserting breaks in periods of convergent thinking.

American existential psychologist Rollo May, trusted oracle of the creative process, agrees. May extols the “necessity of alternating work and relaxation, with the insight often coming at the moment of the break between the two, or at least within the break.”

A break is shrugging off the burden of purpose. (I imagine it resembles playing with pets). Moreover, May recommends we actively initiate this break, and that we withdraw consciously from stimulation. We ignite the unconscious and coax creativity, and collect creative moments of beginning.

John Constable, Cloud Study, 1821. Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

I grappled with “pace” the day I kept company with a snail. Pace is different from a break. Pace is slowing down. (Or speeding up, but is that an issue these days?)

It is also about letting someone—something—else take charge. In my case, a determined little snail who led me around my apartment.

Slowing down to a halt could also be a measure of pace. In fact, travel writer Pico Iyer argues in his contemplative study of being quiet and still that existing in this state of “going Nowhere” is difficult yet critical.

The idea behind Nowhere – choosing to sit still long enough to turn inward – is at the heart a simple one. If your car is broken, you don’t try to find ways to repaint its chassis; most of our problems – and therefore our solutions, our peace of mind – lie within.

A break, unlike Iyer’s ‘going nowehere,’ is the moment of change. Pace is letting someone else take over.

But what about play? What is the nature of play?

When inveterate Londoner Peter Mayle moved to Provence, he found that fresh, local markets, wine, warm days, and bright smells invited different values of time and energy. His British friends asked whether he grew bored of the less-stimulating life, Mayle answered easily:

We didn’t. We didn’t have time. We found the everyday curiosities of French rural life amusing and interesting.”

To be amused and interested all day sounds like the nature of play to me.

Play is the swing. Freedom, wind at the face. Play is my most orderly mind cascading down a hill on a sled. Fast freefall and caring not. That is the nature of play.

For Lightman, play is exploration. He remembers the early play of childhood:

There were many creations. None of these projects were assigned in school. They were just things I did for fun in the long afternoon after school when I wasn’t wandering about. Many of the mixings and tinkerings didn’t lead to anything. They were merely explorations of the world and the hidden paths in my mind. I was at play.

When British comedian John Cleese recalls his best moments, those he calls “perfect, timeless happiness” they were far from any feelings of work. They included things like “sitting in a deckchair in the garden of my house in Holland Park, gazing at two Burmese kittens doing cabaret; looking at Vermeer’s painting of Delft in The Hague and allowing it to affect me […] .”

Cleese notes these moments had nothing to do with work or striving.

John Constable, Cloud Study, 1822. © The Tate Collection.

In play, we don’t strive. We let something else move us, take us… Down a winding path or vertical hill.

Led by his thoughts, Lightman writes, “I followed [them], but in an unhurried and liberated way.”

The details of pace, breaks, and play are different for each of us, but a few qualities abound. For example, how we approach time, control, ownership of thoughts, and even ownership of our lives.

I found these few lines from Thoreau and I think they perfectly capture the necessary qualities of break, rest and play. In 1849 Thoreau and his brother spent a week drifting up the Merrimack River. He wrote:5

There are moments when all anxiety and stated toil are becalmed in the infinite leisure and repose of nature. […] While lying thus on our oars by the side of the stream, in the heat of the day, our boat held by an osier put through the staple in the prow […] .

Striving towards nothing, feeling amused, and being held or steered by something larger than ourselves. A hill, a tree, or our own thoughts.

(I wrote this post while striving towards nothing and following every possible cloud overhead.)