by Hannah Coles
As a large proportion of my vacation was filled by rowing training I decided to investigate the experiences through a geographical lens. Inspired by Spinney’s (2006) kinaesthetic ethnography of Mont Ventoux, I decided to explore the ways in which landscape is constituted through phenomenological experiences when rowing. This study took place over the course of a month on the River Thames as it flows through Wallingford, and I was particularly interested to see the extent to which the experiences of landscape changed temporally.
The work of R’Kiouak et al. (2018) suggests that through intensive team training there is a shift from inter-personal to extra-personal modes of regulating joint action. Essentially this means that there is a change from focusing on other participants to regulate movement, to a focus upon external factors (the environment) to regulate the same movement. In practice, this means observing the movement of the boat (symmetry, balance, velocity) and responding to this feedback to synchronise movement through the boat. Interestingly, despite the short period over which my research was carried out there was a noticeable shift in my experiences. The first two weeks were dominated by following/ copying other actors, this focus other women influenced the way in which I experienced the landscape. Whilst I was absorbed in back and shoulders of the woman in front of me, watching intensely and trying to mimic their actions exactly, I did not see the wider landscape. Similarly, during this period I was listening to the sounds and rhythms created by the movement of others in the boat (the sound of the seat rolling, the clunk of the oar in the oar lock, the splash as the blade enters the water) in order to synchronise my movement and propel the boat. This absorption in the actions of others impacted my perception of the landscape as my senses were focused somewhat narrowly.
Thus, following several weeks of intensive training there was a perceptible shift in my experience of the landscape. Driven by a reduced need to focus on those around me for synchronicity, my senses provided information from a broader range of sources. This increase in breadth was not linked to a decrease in intensity, and the sensory experience of rowing was similarly intense. However, I saw beyond the person ahead and down the line of the boat, at the often six women ahead of me. I also saw outside the boat, and could see the line of the horizon, the trees with leaves of varying shades moving away from me, the puddles left by the oars sinking into the river, and ripples in the water spreading from the boat. The sounds became of water rushing past the boat, of lurching when the boat became unstable, and sometimes of birds singing, or people talking or engines of road traffic passing overhead. I became more aware of the smells of the river, often fumes but also of farms, of cooking in restaurants, and the food of fishermen. I became less aware of the feeling of the blade in my hand, and the movements felt increasingly natural. This is an interesting example of the hybrid body-subject that Spinney (2006) refers to in his work. Whilst he refers to human and bicycle as becoming one with repeated use, a similar connection appears to occur between human and oar. The connection between human and environment is mediated by the technology of the oar, and over time this interdependence is developed through use.
Having said this, and highlighted the key shifts in phenomenological experience over the course of a month, it is important to note that these experiences are by no means entirely representative. Whilst there is a general trend that sees a shift from inter-personal to extra-personal regulation, these experiences can and do vary greatly from day to day and also within days, from session to session. Weather can influence feeling greatly, with a notable session on 29th October shaped significantly by the heavy rain and strong winds felt in Wallingford and the subsequent feelings of my body shivering, wind and rain swiping at my back, water dripping down the back of my neck, and gripping onto a wet handle. In this case, my experience of the landscape was limited almost entirely to my own body and to the boat close to me. I was aware of the sounds of the boat but of very little beyond this (perhaps only the sound of a coach’s voice through a megaphone), and I cannot recall smelling anything, despite the presence of (I am certain) significant variation in aromas. This is indicative of the varying nature of the experience of landscapes, regardless of training.
Thus, it may be tentatively concluded that the experience of landscape is constructed jointly by the actions of an individual within them and the contexts in which these actions occur. Whilst there is a general trend to a wider experience of landscape with training, there is frequent variability and each session builds upon the construction of meaning (through experience) of the landscape of the River Thames in Wallingford.
R’Kiouak, M., Saury, J., Durand, M., Bourbousson, J., 2018. Joint action in an elite rowing pair crew after intensive team training: The reinforcement of extra-personal processes. Hum. Mov. Sci. 57, 303–313.
Spinney, J., 2006. A Place of Sense: A Kinaesthetic Ethnography of Cyclists on Mont Ventoux 24, 709–732.