Ritual Wanderings: Covid-19, Isolation and our Changing Relationship to the Outdoors
By Rebecca Crowther, author of Wellbeing and Self-Transformation in Natural Landscapes
Leaving home daily has become ritualistic. I cross this threshold and then my street, alone. I move down stone steps to a riverside woodland walkway beneath the urban streets. I walk, observe, and share in a perceived collective worry, relief and restricted freedom. Then, I return home, alone. I feel monastic. I have worn a track over the weeks. I move between home-space, cyber-space to a clearer headspace within green-space and back again. Zoom and Teams muddle in my mind as I enter a new space of communication. Somewhere out here lies normality and my sense of self, which has been tangled amidst this loss of control. Somewhere within or across this boundary, in words and in gesture lies an amalgamation of pieces of our normality and humanity.
When I step down, I step in to a network of distanced individuals. We stay within boundaries and weave at a distance. We recognise each other’s gestures. We are all here, to do nothing much, to get out of the house. Some break free from their kids, some from their thoughts, some from boredom and some from violence, whatever we leave on the other side of that boundary, we all find ourselves here, walking, looking, not touching and in thought. There is a sense of communitas, a sense that we all know why we are down here wandering. We’re in it together. This practice is, for many of us, all we have to avoid cabin fever and combat the effects of loneliness in isolation. For many this practice is what will get them through.
Relinquishing control is not something that comes easily to most. Loss of control of our surroundings, relationships, routines, and behaviours or our ability to do as we please doesn’t sit comfortably. We are now in a situation where crossing the threshold of our front door is either an essential act or an act of defiance. If we are not key workers, we must do our bit; stay put and for many, like myself, remain alone and socially isolated for the sake of our families, communities and our NHS. In many ways, we have lost control of what the future holds, indeed what we are able to do in this moment. We stay at home and hope that others will use their skill and powers to see us through. We may feel utterly helpless, at a loss for how to adjust to our ‘new normal.’ A phrase that heightens this sense of a loss of control of our realities.
Many will work from home and some will desperately try to fill their time with crafts, games, reading and connecting with colleagues and loved ones through video communication apps. Some will be productive and creative, others won’t. Some will be terrified, some won’t. Some will be safe and secure, others won’t. Most of us will abide.
There are limited allowances for leaving the home, and we all know what they are. When we do, we must practice social distancing (‘practice,’ with the insinuation of skill, mastery or admirable attribute, is an interesting use of terminology.) One allowance, of course, is exercise, many of us play fast and loose with that term: a wander is perfectly acceptable to most, and a wee sit down to many. We will exercise control over only that which is within our means: our boundaries. Many of us walk without purpose, nowhere to be, no one to see, no goal, no aim except simply to be outside. There is an anxiety that lingers below the nods and ‘hellos’ to those we pass.
Towards the beginning of the UK’s Lockdown I read an article that was doing the rounds on social media; That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief by Scott Berinato (2020 available here). Berinato spoke about the same loss of control and offered a little insight into how some of us might make sense of how we are feeling and begin to feel we have some control. If we can name it, perhaps we can manage it Berinato says. Berinato discussed the work of David Kessler, expert on grief, and why it is important to recognise the grief and, what he calls, anticipatory grief, in what we are experiencing: ‘The loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection. This is hitting us and we are grieving.’ Kessler outlines the stages of grief: anger followed by the bargaining stage, sadness and then acceptance and what is happening to our thoughts and behaviours throughout these stages. Acceptance is the time in which we figure out how we want to proceed and where our power lies, he says. It is acceptance, and a bid for control, that leads us to develop routines and coping mechanisms that verge on the ritualistic.
More than ever we are looking to nature in each excursion to combat anxiety: The ultimate anxiety perhaps. We face our mortality, social contagion and a complete loss of control. Perhaps this anxiety contains the seeds of positive revelation? When I see folk outdoors, I feel ‘normal,’ as if the world is still turning beyond my heavy curtains, my work-at-home desk and my insomnia-laden bed. The gestures I see are far more palatable than what I see online. How, or why, might these gestures create feelings of communitas that may be hugely beneficial to many throughout this crisis? Are these daily excursions a performance of cooperation and compliance, a performance of perpetuating ‘normality,’ of carrying on? Are they gestures subconsciously intended to show ourselves, and others, that we are staying well, practicing self-care, staying safe and within the boundaries? However, perhaps these ritual gestures hint at a deeper truth about the value of ritual.
In the mid-60s, some were discussing ritual as a response to danger (See Edward Shils, 1966.) When we find ourselves in unprecedented and, arguably, indiscriminate dangerous times, is this potentially still the case? Do we wander in response to danger?
Sociologist Edward Shils believed that ritual was often a response to crisis, actual and anticipated. He was writing in the threat of nuclear war, at the time deemed ‘the greatest crisis the human race has ever confronted’ and one that Shills said came upon us suddenly and dramatically, much like Covid 19. Shils was clear that as long as ‘seriousness exists in human life’ there would always be ‘the profound impulse to acknowledge and express the appreciation of that seriousness in words and actions of symbolic import.’ We see this now, in the rainbows in window frames, in clapping for our NHS in the streets, and in being idle outdoors before returning home to our isolation.
Shils believed ritual like behaviour, much like the coordinated, liminal routine of getting outdoors daily, helped to remind ‘participants of the gravity of some aspect of existence, it recalls to them some fundamental rules and symbols of a pattern of life.’ We create structures, routines, patterns, perhaps rituals in order to conjure both normality and the threat to it, or indeed as we morph in to our ‘new reality.’ Escaping outside, crossing the boundary of home and wandering amidst others is expressive. The ritual moves us between the lines across cyber and physical space. We return home and share our photos of walks and landscapes on social media. We share the performance of being in outdoor space in cyber space. How we then interpret this and these actions across the collective is something that will be keeping social theorists and researchers busy for years to come.
Rebecca Crowther is a transdisciplinary ethnographic researcher working between, across and beyond disciplines within the arts, humanities and social sciences. Her research interests lie in the phenomenological experience of natural landscapes.
Berinato, S. (2020) That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief, Harvard Business Review. Available at https://hbr.org/2020/03/that-discomfort-youre-feeling-is-grief?utm_source=facebook&utm_campaign=hbr&utm_medium=social&fbclid=IwAR2m7mHIcnOG121k90msgUa5LAuHYzgv1ZZR-gks0M9iEB0r0VEu8VN_G4g Accessed: 19/04/2020
Crowther, R. (2019) Wellbeing and Self-Transformation in Natural Landscapes, Palgrave Macmillan: UK.
Shils, E. (1966) Ritual and Crisis. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences, Vol. 251, No. 772, A Discussion on Ritualization of Behaviour in Animals and Man (Dec. 29, 1966), pp. 447-450 Royal Society Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/2416758 Accessed: 15/04/2020