Sensory Experiences in Nature and the Landscape

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This is a narrative, autoethnographic essay that depicts my sensory experience of the journey. I feel this essay is both a successful compliment to existing literature on sensory experiences in nature and the landscape, and a necessary addition to the “dominance of the visual mode of perception” (Press and Minta, 1999, 173) within this literature of Western Culture. By carrying out an autoethnography of my personal sensory experience, it allows for wider conclusions about how the landscape may be experienced by others. The essay addresses aspects of the walk that encompassed significant sensory experiences; walking the more rural, challenging aspects of the Fife Coastal Path and crossing the Fourth Bridge.

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The Fife Coastal Path is beautiful. The views, what I saw each day, were interesting, and awe inspiring, yet they did not shape my sensory experience of the walk. The sensory experience of my walk was actually shaped by, occasionally, what I heard and smelt, but most significantly what I felt. The essay consistently echoes Longhurst, et. al statement that “being and knowing cannot be easily separated” “Longhurst, R et al, 2008, 208). My whole sensory experience shaped my knowledge of the path, and my sentiment towards it.

We turned our backs on the glowing amber sands of St Andrews East Sands Beach, our point of departure, and sought our first Fife Coastal Path signpost at the crest of the upward path. Immediately we were immersed in the landscape, surrounded by thick foliage and treading amongst the greenness. My sense of touch became my prevailing means of navigating my path as I moved, nudged and suppressed branches and leaves. Some of the plants had thorns or stung and so I was tentative in my touch; even simply crouching and sliding past branches my dad pinned back for me. 

Crouch (2015) writes about the tactility of the landscape and how this allows us to feel better placed in our surroundings. This is particularly relevant to this such experience; the unfamiliarity of the path made the sensory experience ever more immersive as the sounds of the sea and wind were secondary to my focus in successfully navigating the path that we were tracing. My “experiencing, knowing and emplaced” (Pink, 2009, 4) body in the landscape was vital in understanding the sensory experience that the landscape would create.

Within close proximity of this wilderness-like stretch of path was, in-fact, the realisation that we had strayed away from the correct footpath, with only a singular route available to us in reaching our intended path. The route from our location to the path below appeared treacherous, and yet mandatory. I heard the splashing and trickling of water running down the gorge which raised my awareness that the rocks may be slippery and less stable. Touching the rocks and land immersed me in the landscape, I became a part of the gorge, sunken into its rocky crevices, forming a connection with my surroundings in an immediately deeper sense. 

Touching the landscape when clambering over rocks made me feel like I needed the landscape there to support me, it made the landscape feel strong and powerful. In this instance, the touch senses impeded all other senses, becoming superior as I descended this landscape. Ingold recognises that vision and hearing are generally the superior sense when observing the landscape from a “sedentary perspective” (Ingold, 2004, 323), however also recalls that this is due to the lack of a “kinaesthetic sensation” (Ingold, 2004, 323) to prevail. 

I assess Ingold to be true in this instance as, whilst my sense of sight and vision were relevant to me in climbing down the rocky path, the experience was significantly kinaesthetic. Having to use my hands as well as my feet meant that I was more connected with the landscape. I felt the landscape with my fingers, I was able to feel the shape of what I was walking over, its texture and how sturdy it was. My lasting memory of the descent is of the way my body clambered down the cliff, the feeling of the damp, mossy rocks, and largely the feeling of reaching out for my dad’s hands each time I felt unstable. My sensory experience here was dictated by touch.

Even when not scaling intricate rock faces or negotiating a particularly overgrown pathway of foliage, my walking experience was still shaped by what I touched and felt simply through the surface I was walking on. The walk was diverse in its paths and surfaces; rocky, narrow paths; flat concrete; soft grass; and many sections of the Fife Coastal Path were laid across beaches and sandy bays. Ingold insists that it is “through our feet, in contact with the ground, that we are most fundamentally in touch with our surroundings” (Ingold, 2004, 330) and that these experiences of touch “are incorporated into their own embodied capacities of movement, awareness and response” (Ingold, 2004, 333). 

Walking across the sand was an inherently multisensory experience – the views were always superior when so close to the sea, the sounds of the waves lapping at the shoreline was more prominent that when walking elevated on the cliffs, and the smell of seaweed was most potent. However, the experience of walking in the sand was the most unique feeling that separated this surface from the rest. The sand is solid, yet fluid, and gives in to the weight of a body and its rucksack. The sand shifts under-foot and shapes to the sole of a boot. 

The sand is both wet and dry, and prompts a meandering from left to right in the search of the ‘perfect’ density, in search of the most comfortable walk. Interestingly, Ingold states that the wearing of walking boots “deprives the walker of thinking with their feet” (Ingold, 2004, 319) as shoes are a “blunt” (Ingold, 2004, 319) to our senses of touch, acting as a barrier between our skin and the surface we are walking upon. I recognise this statement and agree that the true sensation of the surface is removed when a boot is worn, therefore potentially removing the tactility of the surface and obscuring our sensory perception. 

However, the sensation of the sand on the soles of my feet was not a determinant in my experience of walking, but rather the sand as a whole affected my ability to walk across it. My boots were a factor in this, and my sensory experience was shaped by how my boots interacted with the flexibility and flaccidity of the beach. Whilst my sensory perception of walking across the beach would have been different with contact of the soles of my feet on the surface, my boots were not a barrier to my sensory perception of this.

The transition from placing each foot carefully on narrow, slightly muddy, slightly rocky paths to confidently striding on sturdy, flat concrete pavements was a significant and positive tactile experience. Similarly, to walking along the sand, my walking boots were no barrier to my sensory experience of this surface. The touch of a concrete path triggered a positive emotion as this usually meant that we were at a stage in our walk that was less remote and much easier to walk along, offering a period of respite. 

Whilst the sight of a town approaching and the distant noises of cars was a small positive indication, the impact, the touch, of my foot onto the solid pavement released a sense of immediate relief that sight or hearing did not. This sensation was also enhanced when my feet were suffering from significant sores and blisters. Wylie discusses a similar sensation in the enduring of foot-sores and expresses how the landscape stops materialising as “a set of readily affordable surfaces for purposive and smooth motion” (Wylie, 2005, 244). 

The pain that was exerted each time my foot had to mould onto rocks, sand or mud prevented the touch on the surface from propelling me into another, and another. But rather each step, at the moment of contact between myself and the surface, contained a discomfort. This discomfort, when approaching the last few tens of miles of the walk, only subsided when stepping onto a flat, supportive surface; and this thought, this willing for the pain to subside, was more dominant than any experience my blisters grew.

The Forth Road Bridge. Until this walk, I had seen the Forth Road Bridges from a car, from a hill, even from an aeroplane, but I had never seen the bridge below my feet. I had never before grasped rails of the bridge to steady my walk whilst the floor below me rattles in the wind, I had never looked through the railings of the bridge to see such large frames of metalwork and engineering emerging from the choppy waters, and I had never before felt a wind with such horizontal force as if it could wrap around my ankles and trip me up. 

The bridge, before I immersed myself in its span, was not alive. Through walking on the bridge, it came to life. Each part of my body was exposed to and experienced the sensory forces of the bridge. My feet were, whilst on solid ground, unsteady as they shook with every bus that drove past and every gust of wind that twirled around the railings. I felt inclined to hold the railings yet did not – they were cold and left my hands exposed to the harsh sea breeze that was funnelling down the channel. 

My eyes watered as they fought with this breeze and my mouth occasionally caught strands of my hair that refused to be tied down. Whilst the wind and the cars were loud, I almost felt that it was the way I felt these sounds that enhanced and exaggerated this experience. My small structure was at the mercy of its grandeur and was carried through each gesture it made. The bridge really did come alive under my feet and my sensory experience was significantly compelling.

My 77-mile walk from St Andrews to Edinburgh was a multisensory experience, but was ultimately defined by how it felt, and what I felt. To be truly immersed in the landscape, I believe one cannot simply walk over it, or listen to it and watch it from a sedentary position. Using my body to enable me to cross slippery, rocks, to walk across uneven sand and so feel the force of the Forth Bridge allowed me to form a more intimate connection with my surroundings. Touch gave me a sense of place and a personal way to know the landscape like few others would experience.  

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