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Blissfully Ignorant Wanderings

r.graham.barrett's picture

            As I was about to begin my Thoreauvian walk around the Bryn Mawr campus, I considered briefly examining a map of the campus so I could get a better sense of where my walk might take me. But as I considered whether or not to do so, I thought back to how Thoreau described the Saunterers of the Middle Ages. Thoreau describes the Saunterers as wanderers whose intentions were to reach the Holy Land but were not bound to the final goal of reaching the Holy Land and rove and idly take their time in doing so. Unlike, the Saunterers I was not trying to get to one particular destination but like them I was perfectly content with wandering, soaking in the campus landscape and taking my time in doing so. Examining a map, I concluded, would conflict with the point of this walk because doing so would give a set idea of what I could expect on this walk of campus, rather than letting my own sauntering and exploration give me a sense of what the Bryn Mawr campus had to offer me. As a Haverford student, with the exceptions of the dining halls, and the locations of various classes and events I attended, I wasn’t as familiar with the campus as a Bryn Mawr student or faculty member who knew exactly what the campus had to offer.  But because I had little knowledge of the campus, I had what Thoreau described as “useful ignorance”, in the sense that because I had no extensive knowledge of the majority of the campus and thus everything that I came across would seem new and fresh. Since everything was new to me, be it a hill I had to climb or a tree that I had to pass by on the walk, my enjoyment of the walk would be greatly enhanced.

            Beginning my walk where I had parked my bike at the bicycle rack near the Pembroke building I started moving away from Merion Avenue, going downhill towards the athletic fields. After a few minutes of walking (and by this point reaching the Park Science Building), I began to take into account the exact manner of how I of was walking in the direction I had chosen. First I noticed I was walking alongside the buildings on campus, as if they provided some sort of relatively of safety (in a way they were since it was starting to get windy). The second was that I was walking on the concrete paths that had been neatly laid out to make a journey from one section to campus to another easy and with a decreased risk of coming in contact with the inconveniences of nature (i.e. wet or muddy grass). But in confining pedestrians to within specifically designed walking areas, they were also setting the borders to demonstrate where and where we couldn’t walk. Although walking on the grass sections of the campus would seem like the quickest routes in traversing the campus, the presence of the concrete paths implies that that is the option that the designers and perhaps society as well, prefer you to take. While for the most part there was nothing that physically was preventing me from leaving the path and walking on the grass, there existed a couple of reminders that doing so was frowned upon, such as the fenced off section of the green in front of the Campus Center. But besides this one particular section of the green, the only real acknowledgement of a physical border was the exact point where the concrete touched the grass. With no real physical object to confine me to the sidewalk, my ruminations around the campus shouldn’t just had been confined to the specifically designed sections that were presented but could allow myself a chance for more freedom in my walk, just as Thoreau suggested was possible. By merely stepping off the set pathways, my walk began to feel a lot more unbounded as I felt like I could then really branch out my potential routes and reach new sections of the campus, I might have missed just by sticking to the sidewalk.

            For the most part, although my Thoreauvian walk began to look like a general loop of the campus that might have probably ended exactly where I began at Pembroke, I personally wanted to prevent this. Walking in a complete circle around the campus along what I deemed as the boundaries, namely the roads that ran alongside the main sections of the campus, would limit my exploration to that of a simple circle which many features of the campus were not placed in the direct route of. As I really wanted to see as much of the campus as I could, keeping myself rigidly within the lines of a common geometric shape would not accomplish what I really wanted, so I decided to let impulse guide me and any direction I felt like I could go, I went. This lead to a route leading throughout Bryn Mawr that consisted of doubling back, cutting across the roads bordering campus, weaving in and out of lines of trees, and at one point making a figure 8. The freedom I got from random course corrections or deciding to make a bee line at times allowed me to experiment with how I was going to handle coming across obstacles in my way. Hills provided a chance to see how quickly I could climb up then down them and the trees I encountered provided the chance to see if I could climb them or simply ignore them and move on (unfortunately the only ones I could climb well were the ones overlooking the field hockey field due to their low weight bearing branches).

 But besides discovering what lay inside what I had deemed the boundaries of the campus, the impulsive direction changing led me to actually challenge whether or not the roads I had deemed the campus’ boundaries really were. Although the roads surrounding the bulk of the campus certainly seemed as though they were confining them to inside them, the campus nonetheless still could branch out beyond the roads. I saw this via crossing over to English House, or how Merion Avenue runs right through the southern part of campus and there exists a fairly large portion of campus remaining to the south of the Avenue. To me there was no clear boundary to what I counted as campus, and although the roads certainly showed where it ended at some sections, the campus was by no means confined specifically to a rigid boundary.

As I finally arrived back at where I started, most of what made my ignorance of the campus “blessed ignorance” was gone and looking back that fact is a little saddening. Yet sauntering the campus, sad as might have been to lose the ignorance that Thoreau though blessed, was not without its benefits. An enormous amount of satisfaction came with the walk and the loss of this ignorance as the experience was accompanied with a much more intimate tour of the campus than what I might have had and a rewarding sense of discovery and accomplishment.



Anne Dalke's picture

Boundaries on the inside

As I mentioned in class, I appreciate your opening gesture of deciding NOT to consult a map, but take advantage of your "useful ignorance” in exploring Bryn Mawr's campus. While many of your classmates--who don't at all, by the way "know exactly what the campus has to offer"-- identified Bryn Mawr's boundaries, you have the sharp counter-insight to mark all the "borders" that are defined by the walkways and fences that criss-cross the center, directing us all where to go. Nice.

I was also amused by the image of your trying to climb a number of trees, and finding only one sort that suited!

Like several others, you note that "there was no clear boundary" to the campus…and so I find myself a little puzzled @ the rather self-satisfied tone w/ which you end your essay, so conclusively, as if all ignorance has been erased, all discovery accomplished. Surely there are still multiple "boundaries" to what you know? (and not just about the Bryn Mawr campus?). I think you try too hard to "wrap it up tightly" at the about a different shape for the essay, one that ends by "opening up" into other unknowns...? Where's the next walk headed, for instance?