Adam Weymouth is best known for his book Kings of the Yukon, in which he paddles the Yukon River charting the social and ecological story of the Chinook salmon. But he is also a long-distance walker with a deep interest in pilgrimage. Here he asks: why is pilgrimage important today?
Far below the private jets ferrying their world leaders and lobbyists to and from COP26 last month, another set of participants was arriving in Glasgow in an altogether more timeless fashion. Around 250 people walked to this year's UN conference, some of them as individuals, others as part of groups such as 'Camino to COP' and 'The Ecumenical Pilgrimage for Climate Justice’. They began in the UK, in Spain, in Germany, in Sweden. Some of them walked over a thousand miles. Many spoke of themselves as pilgrims.
I have been to several COPs by now, and for every COP, there are those who walk there. It is a funny thing, on the face of it: the sanctifying of some vast and echoey conference centre on the outskirts of Poznan or Copenhagen or Durban, where negotiators squabble back and forward for a fortnight under shadowless strip lighting that blurs any distinction between day and night. They make for odd cathedrals. And yet, like any pilgrimage, it is a calling. It is a way of bearing witness.
In 2010, I walked across Europe, from England to Istanbul. Some years before I had walked a month on the Camino de Santiago, not out of Catholicism but out of curiosity. And then in 2008 I spent ten days walking on the Climate Caravan across London with about fifty other people, a march to link the previous year's Climate Camp at Heathrow to the new one at Kingsnorth power station.
'They make for odd cathedrals. And yet, like any pilgrimage, it is a calling. It is a way of bearing witness.'
I had become interested in this conflation of pilgrimage and protest, in why walking demonstrated not just spiritual but political commitment. Gandhi's march in protest of the British salt tax is perhaps the best known example: by the time he arrived at the coastal village of Dandi, there were over 50,000 walking with him. And on the Caravan, speaking with my fellow pilgrims, I came to see something of how the fundamental act of walking, day in day out, gave one the chance to think, to observe, to question. Showing up at Kingsnorth was only part of it. There was something else happening, on the inside: inside each of us, and in the bonds between us all.
I wrote my university thesis on pilgrimage and protest, based on my time with the Caravan. But there seemed something perverse in writing about walking from the comfort of a library. I wanted to know how a long walk might feel in practice, and so, a couple of years later, I set out for Istanbul. I had been reading Joseph Campbell’s theory of the monomyth - how stories worldwide map onto the pattern of the setting out, the arrival and the return - and I was curious how pilgrimage mapped onto this. I had also been reading religious texts about the importance of walking to engage with the present moment. But beyond these bookish reasons that I used to explain my journey, there was another, deeper pull. I cannot explain why I felt moved to walk; just that it became an idea so entrenched in my mind that I knew I could not rest until I had. It was, you could say, a calling.
I could tell you many things that I discovered on that trip, and I have since written about them, too. But on my mind just now is this. With the state of Bosnia-Herzegovina at its most fragile since the signing of the Dayton Agreement in 1995, once more being pulled apart by nationalist ideologies, what comes back to me as I listen to the morning news are snapshots of that country. I think of friends I made in Mostar, who took me out for tea one night and spoke to me about a childhood in a war zone. I think of days spent walking down a valley along unfenced, common grazing land, and the shepherd that I met there who shared his homemade cheese with me, and the shepherd's dogs, wild and brutish. I think of the old Bosnian-Croat woman living alone in an abandoned, bombed-out village, who would not leave because it was her home, and who let me pitch my tent in her garden. I think of bright autumn mornings, and the walnuts that I gathered from the ground. I care about that place, I think, because I have spent time with it, walking across it. To care does not change much in itself, of course, but it does mean something.
'I care about that place, I think, because I have spent time with it, walking across it. To care does not change much in itself, of course, but it does mean something.'
I recognise now that some of my early evangelising about walking was borne of being younger than I am now. With two small children of my own, I can better appreciate that not everyone can take eight months to get to Istanbul. I can also appreciate, with several COPs under my belt, that the power of bearing witness is not in itself enough to significantly impact on a UN declaration, or to bring major polluters to the table. And yet, in other ways, my belief in walking remains undimmed.
Pilgrimage provides the framework, the reason to go, and distinguishes the journey from a wander – there were plenty of times along my way to Istanbul that, if I had not had a destination in mind, I might well have given up – but much of the power of pilgrimage comes from that daily act of walking. What could be more simple, more fundamental? And yet with the town-planning definition of “walking distance” as a quarter of a mile, even a wander through a city can be a potentially radical act. In a frenetic, connected world, walking is transgressive. The Parisian flâneurs of the 19th century well understood this, if a little pretentiously, and took tortoises on leads to set their pace. It is a wilful flouting of convention, and it puts one in that liminal space, outside the confines of society, that allows for the creation of new meaning.
'In a frenetic, connected world, walking is transgressive. The Parisian flâneurs of the 19th century well understood this, if a little pretentiously, and took tortoises on leads to set their pace. It is a wilful flouting of convention, and it puts one in that liminal space, outside the confines of society, that allows for the creation of new meaning.'
There is a French organisation called Seuil (and until recently, before funding cuts, there was an equivalent organisation, Oikoten, in Belgium) which works with young offenders, giving them the chance to avoid incarceration if they walk, with a mentor, to Santiago, a journey of several months. It produces far better results in terms of preventing reoffending than locking up children does. Walking is a chance to re-engage with oneself and with the land you walk across, to know yourself and the place better, to come to care. That feels like something that we could all benefit from, especially just now.
Victor Turner, the founder of the anthropology of pilgrimage, suggested that pilgrimage gained in popularity during “periods of destructuration and rapid social change,” such as in the last days of the Roman Empire, and in the Middle Ages. What it is about moments of profound upheaval that leads people to find recourse in the most fundamental of human acts is difficult to say, but over 300,000 people, annually, are now making the journey on foot to Santiago, up from just 690 people in 1985. It makes you wonder how many pilgrims might be hiking to COP in a few decades’ time. Because as the cracks start to show in our own empire, is it any wonder that walking to COP feels like an appropriate, perhaps the only appropriate, response?