Connecting to Place in Iceland

People hiking along a ridge above a waterfall in Iceland

A Conversation with Henry Fletcher and Jay Simpson
By Augusta Thomson

Recorded January 2021

A warm welcome.

Is this your first trip to the mountains, or perhaps a yearly ritual to a remote corner of the world? Either way, you’ve been snagged by the hook and bait I see, and those eyes — sheesh; I sense a longing in those eyes that catch the horizon—and those feverish feet, are they here to dance?

Let’s walk a while. It’s welcome here—your longing. I’m fascinated to hear its rumblings.

Crazy, hey? This is a real invitation, a real space to just be, to listen and welcome whatever’s alive in you, 
in me, in the radical unfolding between us and the arctic space in which we find ourselves. 

The arctic: the world’s edge, a perfect place to explore our own edge? I’d like to try—I’ve sensed an opportunity here all along. That’s how I got here. And you?

— Henry Fletcher

Welcome to the Walking Collective Podcast: an audio project to bring you a mix of walking-inspired interviews, guides, and soundscapes. My name is Augusta Thomson and I’ll be hosting the current episode.

As a visual anthropologist, working on a long-term project about the Camino de Santiago, a thousand-year old pilgrimage that transects the north of Spain, I’ve found that much of the past five years has involved physically walking and thinking about walking. During the summer of 2019, in particular, I spent a great deal of time gathering and pressing flowers along the route, conversing with local community members, and observing each scape I moved through.

I found myself lingering over questions of place, itinerancy and interconnectedness. I wondered and continue to wonder how to connect to the places I move through, if I’m only an ephemeral traveler?

Today I’m speaking with Henry Fletcher, and walking collective member Jay Simpson to walk with this question:

Can walking build connection to place?

Today, I’m speaking with Henry Fletcher, forthcoming co-author of Walking & Wayfinding in the Westfjords of Iceland, and as a trained facilitator, storyteller, and guide working on a trail project in Iceland, ocean education in the UK and development of worldwide trails Film Festival through the World Trails Network.

We’re also here with Jay Simpson, a walking collective member and Henry’s longtime collaborator and co author, Jay is a National Geographic Emerging Explorer Grantee and digital storyteller trained in anthropology. His work focuses on our understanding and relationships with wildlife and land. Thank you both for joining me today.

Augusta: To start off our conversation, I’m curious as to your earliest memories of walking—how did your affinity for walking take root and how has it evolved over time?

Henry: Walking has definitely been instilled in me from a very early age. I grew up on a farm in the UK and invariably when we got home from school, we would take to the lanes, the small, narrow, winding lanes of Suffolk, and traipse across muddy fields, and we spent an hour or two each day, just walking. And that’s continued, and whenever I visit my family back in the UK, that’s one of the first activities that I’ll do with either my mom or my dad, or even my 92 year old ‘gran, who was still walking her two dogs. I explored and traveled a lot, and found myself resonating most with mountain territories, which was somewhat unpredictable because I’ve grown up in a very flat farmland kind of environment, and there’s not a hill in sight. But my grandfather was also a keen traveler to Scotland and he took us up there, when we were kids as well, so perhaps that brushed off on us a little bit. And then when I started my professional life, I was training in Finland on a wilderness guide course, part of which was a hiking expedition to Russia, and also expeditions within Finland. And I subsequently went to Iceland, and found some great opportunities to work in the mountains there. And this is where the project that we’re talking about was born: in Iceland, in the Westfjords region which is full of very steep-sided, flat-topped mountains.

Jay: Henry, it’s so beautiful to hear you talk about your walks with your mother. I don’t think we’ve ever discussed this. For me, it was very similar. I also grew up in a rural area of Maryland very flat, I like what you said not a hill in sight. My family, we are a family of walkers, we will go on nightly walks all the time. It’s what we do, to the point that my boyfriend now makes fun of us for going on multiple walks per day. And I carried that walking forward, the daily ritual of going out for a walk—especially during this pandemic it has been something that’s grounded me and allowed me to actually demarcate the days. But when I was a teen, I was in Boy Scouts and I felt very lucky that there was a group of other boys who all just wanted to go hike. And so, I was able to develop the skills of going backpacking and walking parts of the Appalachian Trail in different areas of the East Coast and in New Mexico, and then later was able to bring that into a more professional path by hiking in South Africa. That’s where I met Henry, this idea of being drawn to the story of a trail being made in South Africa in an area of extreme biodiversity.

It offered me a place to go understand how these things came to be. And what does it mean to try to make a trail?

In that process meeting Henry was one of the best things I’ve been able to take away from that.

Augusta: It seems that the fellowship of walking has been central to your evolving relationship. What was it like to meet while walking in South Africa? How did walking together shape your relationship to each other, and how has it shaped your ongoing collaborations?

Henry: Yeah, the conversations that we had on trail in South Africa… I think it was a process of bonding. Both connected to walking, but also connected to many other topics that happened to arise between us. And you know, it’s a kind of a similar process when you’re walking in a new terrain, you’re exploring the different hidden elements of that terrain—the rock faces and the crevices and the valleys and the peaks—and Jay and I were kind of partners in crime in doing that externally in the landscape, but then were inspired to do the same in relation to one another as well… So as we’re exploring this landscape, we’re also exploring one another.

(All laugh)

Jay: And there was a sense of teasing and joking and provocation. We were able to try to answer each other’s questions but also poke at these uncomfortable things that we were making fun of each other about. But through that we developed a lot of trust, and I had heard afterwards that Henry was starting a project in Iceland, and I really wanted to be part of it. It was only four years after the fact that he invited me to actually come co-lead a trip with him. And of course I had to take the opportunity.

Augusta: Of course. And now you two have taken these collaborations and filtered them into a book project. Can you speak a bit about what this book entails, what you wish to share through its contents, and how it came to be?

Henry: So the guide is a result of six or seven years leading trails in Iceland, in the Westfjords; a region that I studied a Masters about 12 years ago now. I originally set up the project itself to try and reimagine some of the region’s old herding and walking routes that had fallen out of use with the development of roads. The ethos that I’ve tried to stay true to has been one of developing my skill set as a facilitator of nature experiences, whilst at the same time, attempting to create the necessary knowledge and infrastructure of information for others to also start reusing these paths. And that latter objective was developed kind of in partnership with the region itself. The region itself had gone through 20 years of economic recession and they were looking for new ideas and new projects to bring more people to the region, essentially. And having been inspired massively by my experiences working with Jay and others in South Africa, I decided to start a similar project in the Westfjords of Iceland.

The idea was basically to try and stitch together some of the region’s cultural and natural highlights into a mega long-distance trail that would attract all sorts of wonderful characters to come and walk in the Westfjords. We got the wonderful characters, but we still yet to widen our invitation to a broad audience outside of specific invites. And so, the book is really an attempt to do that: to create a broad invitation for anyone who wishes to to come and walk in the Westfjords and engage with its quite mesmerizing ecology and wild places, and opportunities for some really incredible adventure.

Augusta: And I wonder, building on that and the relationality of walking to place, what it means for you to relate to the place of Iceland through its flora and fauna. What practices can you share to help connect travelers to that landscape?

Henry: Yeah, thank you for that question. You know it’s a question that’s running through pretty much all of our work, as I think Jay mentioned earlier. This idea of orientating the people that you’re guiding or with to the landscape and place that you’re within. And the book has definitely attempted to convey some of those practices that we have developed, and I think my go to as Jay’s already hinted at is plants and collecting plants, be it for edible uses or ceremonial uses, or even just decorative uses.

I got into the practice of foraging probably about 15 years ago and it’s just a forever-enriching experience, no matter where I am in the world, to learn about a plant that is edible or useful in some way, shape, or form. It kind of adds a layer—a sensory layer, I guess, first and foremost, both through the flavors, but also the actual picking process of being outside, getting freezing fingers, or scratched up legs from all the thorns that you’re wading through, or clinging to the side of the mountain as you try to pick some tiny berry that only you know about.

Jay: I think, for me to take the invitation that Henry brought to come to the Westfjords and start asking this question of including people in Iceland—I, of course, had started to hear about Iceland through its tourism boom, and everything I heard was that it was a land of fire, and ice, and lava, and all these harsh conditions—and it certainly was cold and had this impressive set of weather and geography.

But what really started to change my mind was learning about foraging as a way to start seeing how what is described as such a hostile place can actually take care of you. 

One of the first plants that comes to mind is blueberries. People were shocked that we could show them: that hillside, that green that you see covering this entire area, is all blueberry bushes. They may only be four to five inches tall, but you can go, and you can lay down and start collecting these berries, and just eat as many as you wish because they’re everywhere. 

There’s Angelica. This plant tends to grow in wet areas of drainage and on slopes, and has this incredible flavor that I had never tasted anything like before. So, I started to understand that the landscapes that we describe as hostile can be totally welcoming and full of ways to nourish you. And learning these things started to reshape the Iceland that I came to know and brought in a different vocabulary, and a way of engagement to place.

Terns swoop at a tree planting volunteer, 2017. Video by Jay Simpson

Henry: It’s an incredibly abundant place. You know, I have this idea that no matter where you are in the world, there’s an abundance of something within the natural world. Iceland is no different, you’ve just got to know where to look for it, and how to approach it, and at what time of year it’s growing. And the people living in Iceland, as with any other place, had a very intimate knowledge of these resources before globalization, because obviously they were dependent upon these resources for survival. The Westfjords itself was actually held up as one of the most secure food resource places within Iceland during the last few centuries because while the rest of Iceland was being bombed by exploding volcanoes, and storms, and other crazy natural events, the Westfjords is the oldest part of the country therefore furthest away from the volcanic center of the island and there was a degree of stability there.

But having said that, the people there, they had to make use of absolutely every resource that they could, be it collecting bird eggs from the cliffs in the springtime, or collecting vast amounts of blueberries, and wild plants, and seaweed to eat—not just for themselves, but also for the animals that they were looking after. I guess the animals were also looking after them. So, yeah, it’s a wonderful place to forage, and it’s definitely been a highlight of many trips that Jay and I have run together. I just remember one afternoon coming down off the mountain side, having walked 10 kilometers with a group of 15 or so people. Jay and I were out front, and we turned back and looked up the hill where everyone was coming down, and suddenly all 13 of them just dropped to the ground as if they’d just been shot or something, and you could see if you looked closely that they were all just scurrying through the blueberry bushes down by their ankles and attempting to take as many as they could.

Augusta: This sounds so picturesque, but I know that Iceland is not comprised solely of gently-sloping blueberry bushes. In your book, you share stories of traversing more unruly terrain. One particular story comes to mind—can you share your experience hiking the cliffs of Látrabjarg?

Henry: Yeah. So this was the first gig that Jay and I had together. It was a very small trip in terms of numbers of people joining us—there was only about six or seven—and I knew about 50% of them. It was very early on in our guiding journey and project journey. Our remit was to guide these quite inexperienced hikers along a 17 kilometer stretch of seacliff, an area known as Látrabjarg. It’s located in the sort of south west corner of the Westfjords; it’s Europe’s most western point, if you don’t count some insignificant island off the coast in the middle of the Atlantic somewhere. And it’s got a bit of a reputation for being dangerous because mist can form within a matter of seconds and completely obscure the edge, and it’s south westerly facing so it bears the brunt of all the storms that come in. And one such storm was scheduled to hit us at around something like six o’clock in the morning, and we wanted to walk it, but if we were going to walk it we were going to walk into the storm.

So we gave our new arrivals, some of whom had come from Australia the day before, an opportunity to make a choice of whether they wanted to walk the cliffs at nighttime—although it wasn’t actually dark because it was summer and there’s 24-hour daylight up there. So we’d be walking in light, but it would be cold, -10°C to -15°C windchill factor. Or we could just skip that bit and go straight to our cabin where we would end our first night if we did the cliffs. So we gave them the choice, and of course, people wanted to see the cliffs and chose to do the walk leaving at midnight. There were about three hours before we were due to leave, and we were like “please get some rest,” but everyone ended up in the bar, sinking a few jars of Icelandic lager. We all set off towards the cliff well oiled.

Jay: Henry and I had this foundation of trust coming from South Africa, but on the other hand of this trust there was also a tendency for improvisation, and just saying yes to what was happening. So when we heard there was a storm coming, and we posed this question to the group, it really was a test to see their willingness to throw the plans aside and go for it. So we were very happy to be setting off, and Henry let us off from the front with very strict instructions on how far to stay away from the cliff sides and trying to keep the group together. I was the very last, I was just making sure everyone was in front of me—but also starting to realize that this beautiful sunset that was lasting for hours and hours—pinks and soft yellows warming the sky—that these were the most incredible photographs I would probably ever take on this trip.

So I started to fall back further and further, as I was taking photos of the group walking ahead, but I eventually caught back up with the group as we continued, and the weather started to get cloudy, and it’s starting to get on towards 3am, 4am in the morning. I could see Henry starting to motion everyone: okay, we’re gonna make for this rock shelter, this little cave that we can all huddle down in and rest for a moment. I kind of jogged up to him as he’s explaining this, saying, “what are you seeing?” And he points and he says “oh, we’re gonna go over here…” But I started to become aware that Henry was not quite seeing the world as it was anymore, and maybe the stress, and lack of sleep, and days of preparation was finally taking a toll. Henry was at his edge.

Henry: It’s called bonking!

Jay: Henry bonked, yes! 

Henry: In the cycling world it’s called bonking I believe.

Jay: He was seeing things. So, I realized that my co-leader was now not actually leading the group anywhere, and that really what I needed to do was to get people away from the cliff side, and to bed. So I helped everyone set up their tents, and we all caught a few hours asleep, and were able to wake up at five or six in the morning to continue walking the last few kilometers until we reached the emergency shelter to ride out the storm. So, we were able to get everyone down and safe into the shelter before the storm came, and spent an entire day resting and recuperating and getting to know each other.

But in that moment, it was as if I really started to see how the landscape and the weather… they were all characters in the story of what was happening. There is no way of removing those forces from what we were doing there. And to be able to guide with someone who is so responsive as well to this dance that you enter, and responding to what the weather’s doing, responding to what the landscape offers—the next day we started filling the day with foraging for items along the beach, and that meant seaweed to be able to add to a soup, with mushrooms that we also foraged, and sorrel that we found on a hillside—but it also meant making decorations and costumes, almost, from some of the sea items on the beach.

Augusta: Always striking that balance between seriousness and play. I love the image of your nature-made costumes. This story about collaborative guiding makes me wonder what it’s like to guide in Iceland. How has your work shifted over the years?

Henry: Guiding practice that Jay alluded to as a dance—it’s a dance between ourselves, our guests, and the landscape itself. And I’d like to extend that metaphor a little bit just to include the project’s overall evolution, going back to how I introduced the project as a kind of trail project that attempted to reimagine some of these old herding and walking routes. It sounds grandiose, and like a fairly big objective, to create this kind of long-distance trail through a region. And, in a sense, it is. Those are big aims, they’re big objectives, and they’re born out of this way of thinking, of creating an imprint on the world, leaving a mark, creating something that’s recognizable. They were definitely ideas that we, or I, started the project with, but they quickly became defunct and somewhat irrelevant as we were met with a very austere terrain and a dance of factors and parameters that we were constantly required to respond to, both from a safety, but also an exploration point of view.

We didn’t necessarily want to get from A to B, having run the trails a couple of times. Actually this is a pretty good place to stay, and play, and explore.

Henry: Something that I’ve enjoyed enormously whilst working with Jay is this is playing, this element of play, and this kind of intuitive sense of leadership that comes from listening

—and listening is probably the most important practice underlying all of our work.

That’s listening to each other, listening to all of those things I listed earlier, you know: the guests, the land, and also the opportunities for us to, in some way, shape, or form, meet those original objectives of getting more and more people walking on these routes. Or at least creating an open invitation for others to do that. And cairns arrived as a possibility about halfway through the project, as a way of marking the trails, and as a way of identifying the trails themselves. They’re often the only thing that give away a trail’s location because underfoot is essentially immovable rock that does not register footprints. So cairns are often the only sign that this was once a walking route, used by people living there.

We started developing an interest. It was a kind of natural extension of our interest in the walking routes and the region, because they’re really marked with cairns. And whilst we were working with groups we came across several that had fallen down. They typically last between 50 and 500 years, so quite a large window there, but we found some fallen down and we were like, you know, this could be a nice project to combine some hard physical work with this creative endeavor to reimagine some of these old herding and walking routes. We used the creation and repair of some of these very old, ancient cairns as an activity, essentially, to orientate people to the land: to some of the cultural history of the place, and also to the internal worlds that they may be arriving with. And so the building of a can became a metaphor, in a way, described eloquently by Jay. Now!

Jay: As we hiked across these trails, in some of the most popular areas there are footpaths that you can discern, but once you get off the beaten track of tourism it fizzles to nothing. And if not the very faint indications in the moss of where people have walked, it is cairns. To go out into these mountainsides, and get lost because these cairns had fallen down, spoke to a need to not just reimagine these landscapes as a tourism product, but as an opportunity, like Henry said, to actually go reconstruct them. And I’d come from a background of facilitation through Outward Bound, and started to see that as we built these cairns, these piles of stone collected from the area—and we’re not chipping them, we’re not trying to modify them or use concrete or anything else—it’s about finding the right stone to fit in the right spot. And that could take hours, to find the right one. It’s just a conversation with you and the stone, and your mental state—if you’re truly listening to the stone or not.

When you’re building these giant cairns with the idea that they could last 500 years, you also start working with large stones, those stones that weigh hundreds of pounds. You need multiple people to be able to move them, and how that team functions to be able to work together in that process also becomes reflected in the cairn. A team that’s fighting with each other, you’ll see it in how the stones look, and you’ll know that this cairn is not going to last—these people were not truly working together. We would have teams work for hours and then realize that actually they needed to pull back everything they had done, and start again. But through the multiple trips that we ran building cairns, I wrote something that was originally published in the Failed States Journal. Their first issue in 2017. It comes from when we were working in a high mountain camp. So: living together as a group, just the nine of us, on a mountainside for over a week at a time alone. And this was adapted from a journal entry.

I found a weighty, rectangular stone about one meter long and half a meter tall and thick. Marina saw me eye it and pleaded no, but when I heaved against its side it rolled. All four of us building the cairn joined in rolling it—and yet it was still a struggle. We developed a rhythm to our roll like a four person engine. Agnes said rolling this stone made her think of the large temples built in the Andes in South America. Push by push, the strain of her body against stone elevated the pitch of her voice until it (and her energy) faltered. Without her, we fell out of rhythm and halted. Together we turned to rest and sat on the stone like a bench with our backs supporting each other. Looking out, the fog now completely surrounded us. What time is it? Day? Century? Everything beyond about five meters was obscured. Time and place only observed peeking through a keyhole. 13 million-year-old basalt rocks, fragile grey moss, the sensation of someone else leaning into my back and me into theirs, a soft mist, and that empty Icelandic silence.

Augusta: Listening to the sound of those stones has me mulling over the nuances of connecting to place. As a traveler, I have often wondered how to connect to the places I move through temporarily. And I wonder if you can speak a bit about what it means for you to connect to place, and how your guiding has complicated or enriched your relationship to place?

Henry: Yeah, it’s a difficult, intractable question for myself, maybe more than others. I say that partly because I have a slightly ambiguous relationship to the place that I call home. And so connecting to place is most certainly a practice. I can only report on the experiences that I’ve had out in the Westfjords, walking there on multiple occasions, and how that has shaped my sense of place. I think more than anything, when I now go out—after several years of walking in these mountains—it feels like a happy homecoming. And there’s a degree of reciprocity there… It’s like a relationship. You know, as with all relationships, you need to invest time, effort, commitment, and then it starts to give.

It requires a certain kind of fidelity. I find, in terms of deepening that relationship to place, nuance is revealed through repeated observation and repeated exposure to a similar or the same place.

The conversation that I’ve experienced between myself and the environment, the land, the nature, the ecology—at times it takes on a magical aspect, there’s a magical dimension to it. Just when you think you have failed, or things aren’t going your way, or a weather front comes in and you have to change direction, something glorious will open up as an experience in response to that occurrence, and it reveals a little bit more of the structure of the land or place that you happen to be in. You begin to understand its behavior. There’s a wonderful practice that I took part in some years ago, guided by a traditional healer from South Africa called Colin Campbell, and at the time I was feeling a little at odds with the world. He encouraged me to revisit the same place, day in, day out, and meditate on that place with my eyes open observing as many different details as I could. And then, just before going to sleep, I would recall that hour spent observing that location, and try to recall, again, as many details as I could. This was offered as a pathway to aligning oneself and one’s spirit with the spirit of that particular place, and it was a very powerful experience just to be able to recall the level of detail that I was witness to, and I can still recall some of the details many years later. And so I think developing that, setting up that space again and again and again, is what naturally breeds deeper connection for me. This kind of tactile engagement with stone whilst building cairns, or foraging plants whilst walking and trying to feed the group, or burying ourselves under a layer of rock just to feel the weight of them… all of these practices shift perception and perspective, of myself and anyone else that I’m guiding. At least that’s the intent in offering these kinds of exercises.

Jay: Part of the heart of the book is that you don’t need to go to Iceland to be able to find these things. The work that we’ve been able to begin, and learn, and play with while guiding in the Westfjords has certainly brought us to these tools that we’re using there. But like Henry has said, you don’t need to go to Iceland and build cairns to be able to understand how to start re-conceiving of connection to place. It allows us that intimacy with stone and with process. We did a tree planting trip where we collected 10,000 local sapling trees and were able to plant them on a museum property that was fenced away from sheep, which is key in the region where sheep tend to eat everything that grows. So in that time, we were able to spend, day after day, visiting these hillsides, and planting thousands and thousands of trees, and starting to think about that act of planting a tree as a way of thinking towards that future of that piece of land. So, by planting a tree, we’re trying to wish, or reimagine that place. What does it mean to do that? What does it mean to take an active stance, and try to take care of a piece of land and think beyond 25 years, 50 years? I started thinking: if we plant this miniature forest, is it really a forest? Or, in fact, do we need to wait until these trees germinate and have their seedlings and eventually die, and it’s really the second generation or third generation of this forest that will truly be an expression that is shared both between our human intervention, and the trees themselves starting to take hold, again, in that place? So, in planting trees, we are able to come to intimately know those hillsides, but also start thinking about a place in a very different dimension, trying to take care of it and imagine its future. Something that I think people could do wherever they live.

Augusta: Well, Jay, I totally agree with that and I think, as you said, the arc of this book really relates to landscapes far beyond Iceland. And, as a natural trajectory from that, what you just said about the lifelines of these trees and the fact that, you know, you’re kind of taking on a personal responsibility to care for landscapes in a particular way while acknowledging that the trees are also part of that, and that they have their own work to do essentially… reminds me of a lot of different discourses on caring for the land or conventional conceptions of sustainability and land stewardship in which there’s often this notion of disciplining, maintaining, preserving, or boundarying. These conceptions seem to reflect a heavily human-centric way of thinking about place, and I wonder if perhaps, in really connecting to a place, it requires a commitment to letting go of those human-cultivated habit patterns and even instincts. In your chapter “Ashes,” near the end of your book, you describe a sort of death of the ego. Akin to that notion, I wonder if connecting and caring for a place actually requires a deeper connection that stems from letting places tell us how they wish to be cared for?

Henry: Yeah, I love that idea, Augusta. It’s moving out of the way, or moving your human ideas and human experience as much as possible out of that equation so it doesn’t become a projection of idea and practice supplanted onto the land, or the sea, or whatever environment it is that you’re working within. It goes back to this idea of listening I think, having the ability to pick up on those cues from the environment, to let it be a lot of the time. Within the Westfjords there’s a declining population of sheep. 100 years ago there would have been twice, if not three times as many sheep as there are now. And with the disappearance of sheep is an increase in the number of birch trees, because sheep eat birch trees. And whilst at the same time there’s a great national effort to reforest a lot of Iceland with both native and non-native tree species—you go for a walk in the Westfjords or pretty much anywhere in Iceland and you’ll typically see mountainsides covered in regimented rows of neatly-spaced saplings which create this kind of grid effect, and outside of the grid is a very straight lined fence running around the whole area that has been planted up to keep sheep out—on the opposite side of the mountain, you might see a renewed growth of birch that is naturally occurring and looks a little bit more jumbled up and unpredictable. There’s that tension there: why are you doing this? Why are you planting? What you could do is to put a fence up and allow nature to take its course. For me that’s always been a much more enriching experience, and it’s behind the deep wilderness experience—if you’re listening to this and you’ve experienced peak wilderness, when I say deep wilderness I mean multi-day trips in environments where you’re self reliant and you don’t have a recourse to be saved if you get into trouble and you’re on the terms of the environment; you’re not going there with your safety bubble intact, you’re out in the wild, and anything could happen.

I think that that kind of experience breeds a humility, and within humility is a capacity to listen and to respond with empathy.

I think that’s essentially, for me, where connection to place holds its real value: when you are able to have empathy for another life form, or even a non life form, a whole environment, and to allow it just to exist for existence’s sake rather than turning it into a utilitarian object or process.

There is, in that letting go process, a great freedom of letting go of those expectations and aims and requirements for it to be deemed a success. Instead, just to welcome whatever comes your way. Of course it’s a beautiful metaphor for life; if we can capture some of this sentiment, I think… most of us agree that the unexpected is both joyous but also difficult at times, and improving on our capacities to welcome the unexpected, I think, is a natural occurrence, or natural extension, and emergent from a practice that aims for a connection—a deep connection—to place.

Augusta: What about you, Jay—do you have anything to add to this?

Jay: Yeah, to me, there’s this act of servitude that really can radically change your relationship to a place, or to the land. What does it mean to take care of a place? When we’re in the Westfjords, and we’re trying to take care, that can mean being very careful where we step in relation to certain patches of moss that may be very old, and because of the harsh conditions, take a long time to grow. So by disturbing this, you’re actually impacting years and years of growth, growth that may look like nothing in our fast paced world. And if we come from more tropical climates where trees will grow visibly within a year… these things take time. I also think of when we’re in the Westfjords and we can drink the water without filtration because it’s pure. It’s from mountain springs, it’s coming from the land, it’s taken care of in that cycle. And when I travel in New York, all the waters here within the city area are filled with toxins and compounds of our urban life, and have runoff of all these elements that are harmful to us.

And recognizing that we should be able to swim or drink the waters around us, and what does it mean to take care of those waters so that they can take care of you?

The act of truly finding that listening, of when you’re in a place and trying to see: what does it mean to take care of it? That may mean resetting a rock on a trail so that it is placed back where it was if you’ve seen that it’s been knocked over. It can mean watching for erosion within a pathway, so that the soils that are there aren’t washed away completely. There’s many, many different ways, and it is that listening and attunement, and asking yourself: how can you be of service to those things? There are a lot of efforts to do various projects, you know, and I shouldn’t take the Appalachian Trail as a model for what we would look to create an Iceland. But if we look for the ways that trails are sustained on the landscape and how sheep or previous people who lived in these valleys were able to utilize the land, with their great depth of relationship there, we can learn from that. So all of these practices tend to take nods from history, and nods from the landscape, as we try to reconfigure ourselves into what we do.

Augusta: So, maybe to come full circle, let’s return to the core question of this podcast, which really centers on walking. How does walking build connection with place? How do you both see this happening?

Jay: To me, two things come to mind about the beauty of what walking can offer. That’s both: you are where your feet are; so, when you’re walking, there’s a way of finding yourself back in the present moment and finding a grounding sense of self, which I think is rare when it is easy to be swept up in all the other things going on in the world. When we’re walking, in one regard, you have to be present—to be able to navigate, and be able to manage the other things you encounter. That really brings us to the second thing. I think that, in connecting to place, when you walk you enter a conversation with where you are. And I think it’s hard to imagine in a place like New York where everything can be sidewalks and level and swept so that you can almost walk anywhere, versus if you’re on a mountain, and it’s covered in rocks, and you have to carefully manage your way across something… they’re two very different ways of moving, but both end up bringing you in a conversation where you have to react with what’s around you, in that it brings your awareness outside of yourself and into a conversation with the place that you’re at. For me, walking has always been something that’s enjoyable and something that allows me… to think with walking, I find that these landscapes of the mind are able to be reflected in the landscapes that we encounter.

Henry: Yeah, this notion of connecting to place is a fairly new concept that probably hasn’t necessarily even come into people’s lexicon or, you know, their lived experience of the world, before the last turn of the century. Because people inherently had a connection to place; it would be fairly rare for humans to talk about a lack of connection. So in a way it’s a fascinating question in and of itself, and a commentary on today’s circumstances that we’re all living within, and the society that we’re living within. This lack of connection is born out of the way that we move, primarily, and also the way that we design our spaces and live in our spaces. What are the main changes that have happened over the last century in terms of the way we move about? It’s four wheels, it’s airplanes, it’s big engines, it’s big boats, and these mechanized ways of traveling, definitely, somehow, created a gap in our experience of the world. We’re living in placeless places, almost. So walking is a fantastic way to rekindle that experience of the world that most certainly engenders a deeper sense of place, just by the fact of being forced to slow down, and observe, and receive in ways that our bodies and minds were always meant to, or are designed to filtrate the world in that way.

Augusta: There are so many beautiful reflections here. I feel like we could go on and on. But I think there’s a lot in this podcast for our listeners to mull over, so let me thank you both for these rich stories and for your time. As a final note, I wonder where you’d like to point listeners if they’re interested in learning more about the forthcoming book and your guiding work?

Jay: If anyone is interested in the book, they can go to We have a sign up, we’re going to do a presale later this year in the summer of 2021. We also have an Instagram @westfjordswayfinding account that has the most up to date information.

Augusta: Wonderful. So, thank you all for joining us today.

Henry: Yeah, thanks Augusta.

Jay: Thanks so much Augusta.

Episode Credits

Hi, I’m Downing Bray and I’m a member of the Walking Collective. This episode was produced by Augusta Thomson (@augusta_x_thomson) and Jay Simpson (@tboltkid). Editing by Emmanuel Hapsis (@excusemybeauty). Additional production assistance by Sam Kellogg (@sampkellogg). It features original music by Annie Garlid (, and it was made possible with the support of the Gallatin Resource Fund at NYU. The Walking Collective started in New York City, New York, which is located on the homelands of the Lënape, also known as the Delaware Tribe or Delaware Nation. Please share this episode with a friend and let us know your thoughts on Instagram @walkingcollective, or by email at Thank you for listening.

This transcript was edited for clarity.