A little over a year ago, in March 2013, I sat day after day in the library of the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin and sifted through the archival records of Robert Lloyd Praeger (1865–1953), the most prominent Irish naturalist of his generation. Examining Praeger’s reprints, his hand-written manuscripts, letters to his wife Hedwig (“Meine Hedie”), his correspondence with botanical colleagues, his Zenith watch, notices from his landlord, newspaper clippings, numerous draft illustrations for his books, and so on, I learned three significant things about “Ireland’s Linnaeus.” First was the extent of Praeger’s walking in the Irish countryside; second, his interest in the urban environment (atypical for a naturalist of his times); and third, the sheer magnitude of the written reflection prompted by his fieldwork.
Over the months following my visit to Dublin, I read—or in many cases re-read—Praeger’s work and gained a fresh appreciation of the extent of Praeger’s travel around Ireland. Lengthy field days traveled largely on foot. The magnitude of these peregrinations becomes clear when one considers the footwork undertaken in order to write Irish Topographical Botany (1901), Praeger’s comprehensive account of Irish plant distribution. In each of the summers in the last half decade of the 1890s, Praeger walked one thousand miles throughout the Irish countryside, his vasculum in hand, plucking and storing plants as he went, sorting his collections only at the end of arduous days. With this renewed appreciation of both what Praeger achieved and how he achieved it (on foot, and with patience), I resolved to walk one thousand miles of my own in the year ahead.
My pilgrimage to the archives reminded me of another, often neglected, aspect of Praeger’s life and work. Unlike many of the twentieth-century botanists, Praeger had a pronounced interest in the urban environment. Not only did he publish papers on plants found in parks in Ireland’s capital where he lived most of his adult life, but he included a superb account of the natural history of Dublin city in The Way That I Went (1937). Additionally, he maintained a very diverse rock-garden at his house in Rathgar on the outskirts of the city. One small portion of this garden, measuring five meters by four, contained over two hundred and fifty plant species. Praeger’s garden book tallies 2000 species in all. Since my own interests these days are primarily urban, I determined that my one thousand miles of Praeger walking would be in a metropolitan direction. I walk into town rather than out of it, paying attention as Praeger might have to parks, and gardens, and opportunistic life that clings to walls, inhabits the interstices, and grows in alleyways.
On my return to Chicago later in spring of last year, I prepared a group of DePaul University students for a summer trip to Irish National Parks. Along with nearly twenty students and my colleague, philosopher Randall Honold, we walked in the spirit of Praeger in four Irish national parks, replicating some of Praeger’s travels as recorded in The Way That I Went. Thus the first steps of my Praeger walk were in the master’s footsteps. So much did Praeger inspire our students that it occurred to me that others might find Praeger’s story and his philosophy of walking inspiring. I discussed with Gavin Van Horn, the editor of this blog, the possibility of writing a piece on the project for City Creatures. Thus in October 2013 the Praeger Urban Challenge was born.
From the outset I was not especially interested in dictating a set of strict qualifying requirements to my fellow walkers. I wrote in the original post that the Praeger spirit simply implies an openness to seeing new things. One should walk attentively, neither avoiding picturesque spots nor heading for them either. You never know where you’ll find a rarity. In my walking I am primarily concerned with concern itself. I do not listen to music as I walk, I put away my phone (though I tweet about the walk afterward!). I try not to get embroiled in thoughts of work.
A final lesson I gleaned from my stay in the Praeger Archives is almost so conspicuous than it could go unnoticed. When you read Praeger, you read yourself into his landscapes. But it’s worth dwelling upon the writing itself. The sheer volume is staggering. Praeger wrote 800 scientific papers and twenty-four books during his lifetime. Though I have not performed a very precise word count, I estimate his productivity to be close to two million words (and this accounts for only his published work!). At the rate at which I write, a moderate one, such output would take considerably more than a decade, with little time for other types of work. So this is how Praeger spent much of his time: not walking, not leaping from tussock to grassy tussock, not botanizing, but working with pen and paper, with galleys, lists, indices, and with letters to publishers. Praeger was a writer first, a walker second. Walking and writerly contemplation go hand-in-hand, or perhaps better, foot-to-hand.
As we approach the six-month mark since my first post on the Praeger challenge, I thought it would be interesting to discover what the Praeger walkers are up to. Of course, we are now entering prime walking season, especially in Chicago, where polar vortices made lengthy ambles treacherous. Thus I renew my call and hope that I can encourage you to join us!
Those who are walking with Praeger in mind share their thoughts on social media using #1000UrbanMiles. I reached out to those who are using this hashtag as well as those who are taglessly doing the walk. I asked walkers to provide reflections on their progress. What follows is a sampling of their observations.
How many miles?
Some of our Praeger walkers are aggressive in their mileage goals and scrupulous in their record keeping. For example Laurel Ross, formerly of the Field Museum, and a leader in the restoration community in Chicago, keeps close track of her mileage. She explained that a “small plastic lump in my pants pocket is almost always logging steps, miles and kilocalories burned” and she provided a brilliant explanation of why a detailed count can be helpful. Perhaps “a tiny bit competitive by nature,” she admits, “I find that the higher the number I log, the more I am inspired to walk.” Another close tracker Stan Cohn, a DePaul biology professor, has “about 470 actual miles, with about another 100 in escrow miles.” These “escrow miles” are derived by the complex formula by which Stan allots a percentage of his dog walking miles! Matthew Wills, a Brooklyn resident who maintains a wonderful urban nature blog (see below), wrote that he is at “298 of 1000 Urban Miles, having begun as soon as I heard about this project last November…”
Catherine Farrell Wilkie, an Irish bogland restoration scientist, is walking in Praeger’s old stomping ground. Her tweets use the hashtag #1000IrishMiles in addition to #1000UrbanMiles. Catherine reported to me that she is “halfway through my walking (and yet only just begun in so many ways).”
A special prize must surely go to Cassi Saari, an environmental consultant working in the Chicago area, who estimates that since August 2013 she has walked 1,100 miles!
Some walkers, however, bring a pleasingly loose interpretation to the challenge. Christy Peterson, a writer and nature educator from Vancouver, Washington, wrote: “My family and I walk our suburban neighborhood weekly and occasionally walk in other suburban areas, but there is no way we will get close to the 1,000-mile goal. So, I am doing the ‘kiddie’ version of #1000urbanmiles.”
Best walking strategies?
Kathleen Soler, a Chicago area naturalist, wrote: “My favorite method of walking is to strand myself…” Walking is “a great alibi,” she confesses. “When you walk you have an excuse for everything. Late to an appointment? ‘I had to walk there.’” Laurel Ross practices a form of zazen as she walks. This consists of “timed periods: four steps per inbreath, five steps per outbreath.” And though she walks and talks with a friend on occasions, “silence is a strong component of [those] talk-walks.” Mary Ellard-Ivey, a biology professor at Pacific Lutheran University in Washington, takes an innovative approach to walking that she calls running! She makes the credible claim that “running, trail running in particular, has a distinct Praeger-like quality about it.” Another runner/walker is Lauren Umek, a graduate student in Northwest University’s Plant Biology and Conservation program.
Walking with companion animals can force a certain attentiveness on the walker, observes Barbara Mikulicz. She noticed that the pace of her walking mirrors that of her beloved pugs. Pre-pug she was “in the habit of walking 5 miles per day.” With pugs she reduced her distance to 1- 2 miles a day, at a much slower pace. More recently the dogs are down to “basically a shuffle, no longer mileage…” However, it’s not the distance that matters, as she has “found myself observing more than any previous faster paced years.”
The Big Winter of 2013-14, how did that affect the walk?
Very shortly after #1000UrbanMiles was launched, Winter almost shut it down. Many walkers in the Midwest and on the East coast remarked on this. As Matthew Wills observed, he was “much slowed down by this year’s winteriness of winter…” As Evan Edwards, a philosophy graduate student at DePaul University, put it: “I can't be blamed for clocking in at just around a mile a day for the months of December, January, February and March…” Kim Frye, a lecturer in environmental science at DePaul, wrote about this most forcefully. She observed that “winter literally stole my urban miles, love triangle style.” Dolefully she recalls that Chicago started “loosing sidewalks… Then we lost the lakefront, there was no trail to follow anymore, no moving water in between chunks of ice, no beaches..."
The winter also dimmed the quality of peripatetic reflection for some Praegerians. Evan glumly wrote that that he hadn’t had “a single revelatory/novel thought when walking during the winter.”
Some walkers, however, struck out into winter with great deliberation. Stan Cohn commented: “There was one of the days when it was about zero to five degrees outside, with about a -15 degree wind chill, when I said ‘sure—why not!’ I was well bundled (4 layers top and bottom) with a hat, gloves, and a scarf as well, and went on a 4 mile walk around Lincoln Park… I loved it. Although my glasses continually frosted over limiting my ability to view the outside, I loved looking at the way that icicles were growing from virtually everything—not only rooftops but car bumpers, car side mirrors, tree branches, sign posts—virtually everything had some sort of ice or icicle clinging to it.”
Though the winter slowed her down, Kim remains undaunted and reported that she was “humbled since winter kicked me where it hurt…” but she is back “on my feet and a little more mindful of my fragile place within nature…again...”
Our friends in the Pacific Northwest had a more fortunate time of it this year. As Mary Ellard-Ivey remarked, the climate of the Pacific Northwest where she walks with her husband and cell biologist Richard Ivey “is probably the most similar to that encountered by Robert Praeger in Ireland.” This winter in the Pacific Northwest provided opportunities for more walking not less. The snowpack was low this winter, “the lowest it had been in 20 years in the mountains,” Mary wrote. As a consequence, “those who prefer to be on skis in December had more time to devote to their urban miles.”
Where is the Praeger crew walking?
Kathleen Soler does “laps on foot in the Forest Preserves, scouring every inch of Harms, Linne, and Somme for invasives… I walked the entire length of Somme Nature Preserve 20 times or more.” Her “favorite urban walk so far has been the long walk from Northerly Island through the Loop, Gold Coast and Lincoln Park to my house. Once, I freely confess, I escaped a car ride in Ravenswood and walked to the goth club to dance with friends.” Christy Peterson’s walking supports her nature education “specialty” which is to observe urban/backyard wildlife. Many of Laurel Ross’s walks are bird walks. Cassi Saari gets a lot of her miles in by walking ten to fifteen miles a day in wildlands around Chicago, delineating the boundaries for prescribed fire areas. Catherine Farrell Wilkie commented that her recruitment to the 1000 Urban Mile community coincided with newborn Alannah Marie. They walk “almost every day in an old woodland estate attached to Charleveille Castle in Tullamore—one of the chambers of the heart of Ireland. Walking with trees is such a different experience to walking the open bog—you feel a hell of a lot more protected, wrapped up in leafiness and the spindly bark of centuries old wooden friends.” Charmingly, this spring Evan Edwards gets to walk around Paris where he is studying for a quarter. He reported to me that he is “averaging around 4+ miles a day because the weather is exceedingly beautiful.”
Why is the Praeger crew walking?
Kathleen Soler walks “out of rage and disbelief at my new (much more sedentary) job, I walk to cure melancholy and ennui, and I walk just for the hell of it, in spite of everything, dammit.”
Several of our walkers commented on how Praegerian walking has changed the quality of their attention. Lauren Umek commented that “walking with a purpose changed the way I participate with my surroundings.” She also noticed how alone she was in her “interactions with nature.” Commenting on our tough winter, Lauren said it intensified her solitude. “I often felt very alone,” she observed, “in what seemed like a zombie apocalypse city with desolate streets.” Matthew Wills claims that “walking consciously, alert, aware—all other ways of saying seeing while looking—is just another step beyond [our first steps]…” “It’s a way of noting the sights, sounds,” Matthew remarked, “and, now with spring nudging in, the smells, over time. It’s a way of being aware of my footsteps on the Earth.” Mary Ellard-Ivey wrote that running in her Praegerian style allows her to be “attentive to the frost and moisture on the ground, the way the terrain changes underfoot and the fresh smell of budding vegetation indicating that spring has finally arrived.”
Discoveries and observations?
Reporting from Paris, Evan commented that his city walks are “routinely interrupted by obligatory cafe rests, street vendors, and, at least for the locals, deep/spirited conversation carried out on street corners.”
Stan Cohn described shifts in his attentiveness: “I have become more sensitive to noticing the changes as well—what are the times of day/weather conditions when I see more birds, less people, more rabbits, less cars, etc. I have also been even more aware of the changes in the seasons—changes in leaf color, depth of foliage, color of the sky, angle of the sun, amount of snow…” Furthermore he noted that since he “never really thought about the ‘urban’ nature of nature before (thinking real nature only happened in pristine places untouched by human hands), I began to sense how even in very urban environments contorted by humanity, nature is there whether we realize it or not, and it is a much more pleasant experience when we do.” Stan concluded that he “began to think that perhaps the basic neglect that many people have for the environment may partially stem from their lack of noticing how deeply we and the environment are connected.”
During his walks, Richard Ivey began to feel a kinship with Praeger. He remarked that “had the two of us lived at the same time and in the same geography Bob and I would have been great friends.” Richard pondered how Praeger might react to the liberties he now takes with the Irishman’s first name. “I am told he would probably be offended by such a truncation of his name [Praeger was typically simply Praeger to his colleagues] but then again, we would have been famously good friends and I would likewise forgive him the abridgment of my name to Rich.”
Natural history observations abound in reports from the walkers. Laurel Ross has logged 80 birds species on her 2014 walks so far. Kathleen Soler found a “gigantic puffball mushroom—boy was that fun to carry down the street!” Cassi Saari remarked on nearly “stepping on 6 garter snakes in the black ashes of a burned prairie, hearing the first chuckles of a northern leopard frog, of flushing a woodcock and tiptoeing around her four lovely, brown speckled eggs…” She summed up her travels by saying: “There’s always more to learn and admire."
True to his profession, DePaul philosopher Rick Lee concludes his remarks on his 1000-mile odyssey, well, philosophically. I quote him here in full:
“At the end of the Odyssey, Odysseus tests whether Penelope truly recognizes him by requesting that she move the bed. This, it turns out, is impossible, because he had carved the bed from the trunk of a tree. Aristotle recognizes, in turn, something crucial, we might even say essential, in this story. Here we see both a relation and a difference between the world that is natural and the world that arises from human craft. Aristotle indicates that the difference between natural and craft is that if you plant a bed, either nothing will grow, or what grows will certainly not be a bed. Walking in the city is impossible without seeing in obvious and less obvious ways the relation between the natural and the art-ificial. After the 'great thaw,' i.e., the slow overcoming of winter by spring in Chicago, one sees how glaciers have an impact on the world. As the snow melts, we see not so much a moraine as a pile of cigarette butts, pieces of cement, and dog shit. I have come to see what I always considered to be artificial as being the effect of the relation of the natural and the sometimes disastrous attempts of humans to make their way in a world that is, I have come to see, not their home.”
So, what have I learned during the first leg of my Praegarian forays?
I better understand now that the physical act of walking dissolves into the point of departure and the destination, just as the act of writing disappears into its product. On a typical walk, you are not inclined to attend to the physicality of your movement; nor does the writer when absorbed in the ruminative act pay attention to the sundry mental feats that result in words on the page. One of the ancillary pleasures of 1000 miles for me is in paying scrupulous attention to the act of walking and the act of reflecting on the journey. The fact that I have fine friends walking and reflecting alongside me accents the pleasure.
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Christy Peterson blogs at http://christypetersondigitals.com/blog/ and you can find her on Twitter at @Tweetstreefrogs. Matthew Wills blogs about his urban nature adventures at Backyard and Beyond, http://matthewwills.com and you can find him on Twitter at @backyardbeyond. See more of Richard Ivey’s photos at http://rgi-images.smugmug.com/Web-Assets/Urban-1000.
Find the Praeger walkers on Twitter: Liam (@Dublinsoil), Kathleen (@topsyturvy) Kim (@UrbanArbor), Cassi(@BOUCUR), Catherine (@seewilkie), Evan (@puremultiple), Rick (@rickleephilos), Lauren (@lglyndal), Barbara (@Spiderwort52).
*Photo credits in this post, from top to bottom: Liam Heneghan; Gavin Van Horn; Richard Ivey; Cassi Saari; Stan Cohn.