The Walking Library for a Wild City
In November 2018, artist Alec Finlay published in this journal “Mapping the Wild City, Fiadh-Bhaile, Orasul Salbatic”. Finlay’s essay introduced and reflected on Wild City, a programme of participative walks, public readings and workshops exploring wild nature in the city of Glasgow. Wild City was a collaboration with The Walking Library, an ongoing creative research project conceived by Dee Heddon and Misha Myers. In this accompanying essay, Heddon and Myers offer further detail about their contribution to Wild City, namely The Walking Library for a Wild City.
The Walking Library was initiated in 2012, a commission by Sideways Festival. Sideways, a peripatetic, ecologically-focused festival, walked across the Flanders region of Belgium with the specific aim of bringing the disappearing walking routes of the area back into use. If a path is made by walking it, Sideways responded to the opposite fact: a path is unmade by its being unwalked. Over the course of a summer month (August to September) Sideways - a shifting gathering of commissioned artists - visibly walked 300km of these paths, making them in turn once more visible. In a context in which the motorcar prevails - Belgium, the geographical centre of Europe, is a crossroads for the continent’s major routes - the ecological intent of this festival was explicit. The Walking Library was imagined as a library of books good to take for a walk; a mobile library for those walking artists who accompanied the festival and a relaxed site of book-browsing for members of the public who joined the festival as it rested at hubs along the route. This first Walking Library was filled with some 100 books suggested by colleagues, friends and acquaintances as good to take for a walk. As we walked along the slow routes, we collected donations from locals, never refusing anything offered, and diversifying our library as we journeyed.
Since 2012, we have made a number of Walking Libraries editions, each one responding to the context of its commission and its walking. In 2016, for example, we curated The Walking Library for Women Walking as part of a Walking Women festival. That library was filled with more than 130 books donated in response to the question: ‘What book would you recommend to a woman going for a walk; a book that might provide excellent company, inspiration, solace, advice, humour, information…?’ We are motivated in this creative research project to explore in different ways, and through different encounters between books, places and walking, the dynamic relationships conjured through the constellation of people, books, and environments. Books have long been walkers’ companions, from Keats’ carrying of Dante’s Divine Comedy as he walked to Scotland to John Muir’s Robert Burns’ poetry and Milton’s Paradise Lost.
Our most recent Walking Library was The Walking Library for a Wild City, part of the larger collaborative project, Wild City, led by artist Alec Finlay and commissioned by Glasgow Life for their 2018 European Championships cultural programme. The wild city in this instance was Glasgow and the questions posed to prompt suggestions for this specific library were:
What book reveals wildness in the city?
What book would you rewild by walking?
The books that people suggested for this wild city library range wildly, from those which help us see what’s sometimes overlooked – for example, the variety of wild things growing in vacant lots - to dystopian apocalyptic fiction – where nature makes a comeback – alongside helpful pocket guides to urban foraging. The activation of the Walking Library is simple in practice: we invite people to join us, browse the library books, select one or two each to carry as we walk together and to share extracts from these wherever there is felt to be an affordance. We are a mobile, sociable reading room. As we walk and read and look and sense together, we re-map the Dear Green City of Glasgow and rediscover the significance of old names – Sauchiehall Street, willowhaugh; the Kelvin River, the reedy river.
Our first walk, in the East End, is guided by existing street names: Greendyke Street, Glasgow Green, Greenhead Street, Arcadia Street, Green Street. We start at that infamously wildest of Glasgow city venues, the Barrowlands. Dee begins the journey with a personal story:
I first came here at the age of 16, to see Jesus and the Mary Chain. Before the gig, I’d consumed a lot of Buckfast with my equally gothy boyfriend; on entering the venue and heading up the stairs, he stumbled and fell backwards, taking me with him. Burly bouncers unceremoniously ejected us. (I’ve still never seen the Mary Chain.)
The books offer insights, perspectives, and forms of expertise; and so do our walkers.
In the wall in front of us, Buddleia is getting rowdy, colonizing the cracks.
Buddleja, you are a crack addict. […] I remember being twenty-one or so, sitting on a window ledge off the kitchen of a boyfriend’s flat and noticing it properly for the first time. Buddleja davidii, the butterfly-bush, weed of the wayside. Why did you end up in a crack? And why do you choose to live there now? (Alys Fowler, Hidden Nature: A Voyage of Discovery, pp. 54-55).
We learn from horticulturalist-author Alys Fowler that Buddleja was introduced into Europe in 1893. In the UK, its bright flowers were favoured by the Victorian middle-classes. In the ‘wild’, it likes limestone outcrops, forest clearings and riverside thickets.
Walking through the infamous Barras market, we attend to the signage and ponder the likelihood of log cabins really being for sale here. We wonder about the shop called ‘Neon Gecko’ sitting beside one called ‘Dark Crow’ near the pub called ‘The Foggy Dew’. We encounter remnants of mussel shells on the pavements. We don’t know if these are the remains of a seagull’s dinner or a wild city reveller tempted by the nearby Loch Fyne Shellfish Bar, which is quite some distance from Loch Fyne. There used to be cockle and mussel stalls in the Barras, but they’ve mostly all gone now. A childhood memory is shared by one of our participants of walking through this part of the city years ago and the crunching of shells underfoot like walking on the beach. Sophie elects to read to us a sobering passage from The Seabird’s Cry by Adam Nicolson.
It’s a disturbing realization: the gulls on the Hastings seafront, largely fed on fish and chips and on the rubbish from people’s bins, have been transformed by the food we have been giving them. They are no longer wild creatures, but a reflection of who we are and how we live. […] We have created a race of gulls that reflects the worst of us (p. 145).
Behind and across buildings’ ruinous facades, jungles are taking over, and ragwort blooms triumphant in its blazing yellow.
On other walks we see orange-tipped butterfly, common carder bee, chaffinch, blue tit, robin, blackbird, magpie, long-tail tit, jackdaw and gull. The motorway roars alongside us, a fitting backdrop to J.G. Ballard’s Concrete Island, which tells the story of Maitland, who crashed off the motorway and ended up trapped in ‘a forgotten island of rubble and weeds’. The wildflowers persist here nevertheless: forget-me-not, welsh poppy, sticky willy, knotweed, bluebell.
One of our walks, titled a dauner along bird paths, follows a route determined by flight paths. We mostly see and follow pigeons and seagulls. Over the course of the Wild City walks, some books surface as favourites, selected to be carried every time. Amongst them is Eric Simms 1979 book, The Public Life of the Street Pigeon (London: Hutchinson, 1979), a gem of a homage to the much-maligned ‘scavenger’.
Pigeons were able to give such valued service in both world wars that monuments were raised in their honour in Brussels and Lille. In the United States some pigeon heroes were stuffed and are now on display at the Army Signal Corps Museum and the National Museum (p. 49).
Our library’s books carry the traces of their passage, with feathers, leaves and flowers pressed between pages, opening up an extract for the next reader. Sometimes just the book’s memory of a hand holding open a page is enough to prompt the same passage.
We rename the streets we walk ‘Dandelion Daunder’ and ‘Piss-the-Bed Verge’, ‘Windowed Wilding Garden’ and ‘Copper Beech Row’, ‘Kite Green’ and ‘Buddleia Bog’. The eight public walks of this Walking Library edition take us to all compass points of the city, our reading a form of remapping and a tool attuning us anew to the wildness of which we are a part and with which we are always implicated.
This is the first Walking Library that has offered up a series of different walks unfolding across the same geographical terrain. To our surprise and delight, some people return again and again to walk a different route, in the company of different people and different books. Walking across the terrain of the city, we form our own wilding flock.
 For further information about The Walking Library and its various iterations, see https://walkinglibraryproject.wordpress.com and various published articles including: Deirdre Heddon & Misha Myers, ‘Walking Library for Women Walking’, in Walking, Landscape and Environment eds. Pippa Marland et al. (London: Routledge, forthcoming); Misha Myers & Dee Heddon, ‘Walking Library for a Wild City’, Performance Research, 23(7), 2019, 48-49; Misha Myers & Dee Heddon, ‘The Walking Library Collections: The convivial logic of a library made for walking’, Interartive, 2018 https://walkingart.interartive.org/2018/12/walking-library; Deirdre Heddon & Misha Myers, ‘The walking library: mobilising books, places, readers and reading’, Performance Research, 22(1), 2017, pp. 32-48; Deirdre Heddon & Misha Myers, ‘Stories from the walking library’, Cultural Geographies, 21(4), 2014, pp. 639-655.
 Alys Fowler, Hidden Nature: A Voyage of Discovery (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2017)
 Adam Nicolson, The Seabird’s Cry (London: Harper Collins, 2018)
 Eric Simms, The Public Life of the Street Pigeon (London: Hutchinson, 1979).
All images © Mhairi Law.
Professor Deirdre Heddon is James Arnott Chair in Drama at the University of Glasgow. She is the author of 'Autobiography and Performance', and co-author with Jane Milling of 'Devising Performance: A Critical History'. Heddon is also a contributor to 'Walking, Writing and Performance: Autobiographical Texts' and has written a number of articles about walking and performance. With Misha Myers, Heddon has co-authored numerous articles, artist’s pages and essays and co-edited the edition ‘On Libraries’ for Performance Research.
Dr Misha Myers is Course Director of Creative Arts at Deakin University in Melbourne. Her work is all about creating and researching location-based experiences often co-designed and based on people’s stories and experiences of a place. These storyscapes are usually interactive, playable and create connection between artists, participants and place through different forms of social organisation. They often use location-based media, not always digital, sometimes as analogue as a book, an early form of mobile media ideal for augmenting experiences of places with stories.
Misha Myers and Dee Heddon are both connected with the Walking Artists Network.
During the Wild City project, Alec Finlay created 'Mapping the Wild City' – a new series of risographs posters which are available in our online shop. Please click here for details.