walking and talking
As teenagers, a friend and I used to perambulate together every lunch break, chatting, gossiping, sharing our woes and triumphs. After a full term of this, she showed me that my hand had worn a dip in her shoulder. She’d been someone to lean on, and I had.
Mankind has always walked and talked; it’s what separates us from other mammals. And I expect since our earliest days we have found the spaciousness of a long walk, and the ease of a side-by-side movement conducive to a certain kind of talk; a sharing, listening, unburdening, wondering, imagining, what-if-ing sort of process.
The anecdata suggests that lots of people deliberately choose a walk as the setting for a big or difficult conversation. Whether it’s dragging the troubled teenager out for a bit of fresh air as a ruse to find out what’s going on, or suggesting a favourite walk to a loved one so the automatic compass can take over and leave the mind free for big thinking, or waiting for the clouds to part and the feet to fall in step before hesitantly dropping the opening gambit that everyone’s been waiting for. My mum has a close friend she walks with regularly who she knows will only get around to telling her the ‘real’ stuff after half an hour of chit chat, weather commentary and plant noticing. Essentially a good walk is a way of broaching the elephant in the room, by getting out of the room.
saying what you mean
The English language is rich with metaphorical sayings, and I think the English particularly like speaking in idioms, because it’s a way of, well, beating about the bush. Even something as innocuous as a walk gets euphemistically treated. We might ‘get a breath of fresh air’, or ‘blow away the cobwebs’ by going for a walk. Some of us like to ‘take a turn’, whilst some older people still go for a ‘morning constitutional’. I know a Cumbrian lass who downplays her hearty 20-mile mountain hikes as ‘going for a bit of a bimble’.
And once we are out on our walk, under the open skies, falling into step with our companion, grateful for the view which releases us of the necessity of eye contact, we might well take a deep breath and start to speak of what is really going on.
And when we do so, in the English language, chances are we’ll use metaphor. Because our feelings are intangible and complex, aside from the purest (mad, bad, sad, glad, shame, fear), we reach for metaphor to translate them into words. Metaphor can describe the indescribable and through imagery convey the qualitative experience of an emotion, rather than simply naming it.
Linguists commonly say there are three types of metaphor. Dead, where the metaphor is so old and ingrained in the language that its metaphorical quality is invisible. Dormant, where the metaphor is so frequently used that we no longer translate the image, similar to a cliché. And active, which is a metaphor which makes us carry meaning across from one thing to another, creating an image in the mind which helps us understand the meaning.
Today so far, I have felt perplexed, sunny, and as though I were facing a brick wall. These are all metaphorical ways of describing my feelings. Perplexed is a dead metaphor. It comes from a Latin word meaning entangled, from a root meaning woven. This definition has been metaphorically stretched from literal entanglement to mental confusion, based on the image that our thoughts are threads which ‘run’ through our heads. But no-one knows that, and it doesn’t matter because the metaphor is long dead and for centuries perplexed has just meant confused. Sunny is a dormant metaphor; it is used so often that we instinctively know it means happy and cheerful. Facing a brick wall is an active metaphor, obvious in its imagery, and dependent on it for meaning. Instant visualisation helps the reader to understand that I felt intimidated and overwhelmed by the thought of an insurmountable, unmovable obstacle.
What I find interesting about the metaphors we use to describe our feelings is that so many of them come from the natural world. We might feel swamped, foggy, all at sea, like we’re out of the woods, on the right path or making rocky progress. I set a challenge at a workshop I ran recently for everyone to brainstorm as many idioms as possible which use language of the outdoors to refer to emotions. The list was impressive: washed up, ahead of the pack, facing an uphill struggle, leaning in to the wind, going against the tide, drowning in quicksand, up against the wall, fresh as a daisy. Feel free to add your own in the comments below!
not saying what you mean
At the other end of the scale of course is using clichés to shy away from emotional honesty. The worst being, ‘it is what it is’. “No! What is it!?”, I want to scream. A feature of ‘youth speak’ is to dispense with imagery and adjectives entirely and resort to the simplest of vocalisations; ‘she just makes me so arghhhh!’, ‘I was like, ewww’, ‘and I thought, hmmm’. This is a cartooning of the self, offering up a pop art speech bubble in place of description. As with comics, the effect is instantly understood but one-dimensional. It tells us what your body, mouth or face did, but not what your soul does.
I once marked a Year 9 essay on ‘Romeo and Juliet’ where the pupil had used imagined speech instead of analysis. In the vein of ‘Juliet is all “oh my god, Romeo is so fit” and her dad is like “uh uh, you gotta marry Paris”.’ I explained that what she needed to use were quotations from the play and then adjectives. But it worried me hugely. Not that she didn’t know how to analyse literature; it was my job to teach her that. But that she didn’t have access to adjectives to describe feelings. Never mind literary skill, what sort of emotional literacy could she have if she lacked this vocabulary? When I read that the average 16-year-old’s active vocabulary is 800 words, I panicked. Imagine describing your lived experience in just 800 words! Come to that, how can you even think if you only have 800 words? But of course teenagers can think. The claim has been debunked by linguist David Crystal, and, as this vibrant project from the British Library shows, communication and creativity are alive and well in today’s yoof. They’ve got names for emotions, even if they’re different to adults’ words; ‘FOMO’ and ‘aggy’ for example. But they might benefit from some encouragement in describing their full lived experience of their feelings. And that is where metaphors come in handy.
making meaning real
George Orwell in his essay ‘Politics and the English Language’ said the value of a metaphor is its power to assist thought. Being able to put words to our emotions helps us to know what those feelings are and to navigate around them. And if those words are visual and engaging, it also helps other people to understand our feelings. Perhaps natural world metaphors are so common because they bring the intangible into the concrete physical world around us.
The unique aspect of ipse wilderness journeys is that, in addition to walking and talking, at various points we use specific aspects of the landscape to invite reflection on our emotions, through the metaphorical link. So as well as talking about how we feel, we are doing so in a place which is rich in isomorphic connections to that emotion.
For example, at a set of stepping stones, we might cross mindfully, taking each step as an opportunity to reflect on life choices we have made to bring us to this point. At a fallen tree, there is an invitation to go out on a limb and say something brave. Coming upon a chasm, there is time to explore whilst considering the shape carved within our psyche by our childhood experiences.
interrogating the metaphor
As well as being a satisfying gimmick, there is psychological value to this process. Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychology, attached great significance to the metaphors his clients used when describing their feelings. As we know, our repressed feelings come out in our dreams, often in a metaphorical way, since dreams are primarily visual not verbal. A person worried about leaving their job might dream of rock climbing with a frayed rope. A dream of drowning might be an expression of anxiety, and we all know, thanks to Freud, what is really going on when we dream of trains going into tunnels! Hence why psychoanalysts are so interested in hearing about our dreams; they are a visual code for the emotions we might not even know we are feeling.
David Grove was a Jungian psychotherapist who, in the 1980s, developed a process called ‘clean language’, in which the therapist pays intense attention to the words (which are usually metaphors) which a client uses to describe their feelings. Grove described this as “interrogating the metaphor until it confesses its strengths”. But Grove also interrogated metaphors physically, by having clients enact them, bringing the meaning back into the concrete world as a way of encouraging a transition from therapy to ‘real life’. For example, a client who spoke of picturing his ex-wife’s head as a bowling ball was recommended to actually go bowling, enabling him to feel the weight of the metaphor in his hands, thereby unlocking further insights and translating his feelings into real world understanding.
talking the walk
Walking along a clifftop speaking of our feelings of exposure is doubly effective; we are getting the chance to share our inner world, and we are potentially finding out more about that inner world, by bringing it to the outside and making it concrete. And, to use another metaphor, we are ‘moving through’ that landscape, processing the emotion as we go. The overarching metaphor of a walk-talk is of course that of the journey; we are reaching for something, active in our process, with the expectation of arriving somewhere different by the end. This is the premise on which eco-therapy is founded.
walking the talk
So next time you head out for a walk-talk, why not take your cues from the natural world you are walking through? Or plan a walk in a specific location in order to examine a particular issue. Perhaps you’re at a crossroads, or have reached a dead end in your career? Maybe you want to dip your toe in the water of something new? You might just find that a quick paddle in the sea will help you find out.