Walking as a Settler Body: Pedagogies of Humility Through Touching

Vanessa Wintoneak

Derbarl Yerrigan is a significant river that runs 175 kilometers through Whadjuk Country in Western Australia. I have been walking with Derbarl Yerrigan, educators, and young children for a year and a half with a focus on generating climate change pedagogies. This work is necessary as Earth, and all of its inhabitants, are facing the impacts of accelerated change in the time of the Anthropocene. My research is concerned with the common worlds of young children and how climate change pedagogies are generated by paying attention to the everyday encounters and relations of young children and the more-than-human world. In particular, I am concerned with a necessary paradigm shift in education away from human exceptionalism and learning about the world, toward learning to become with the world (Common Worlds Research Collective, 2020). Becoming with is required for future survival and offers an opportunity to depart from colonial world-making, which includes pedagogies that perpetuate erasure and extractivism. The process of becoming-with (Haraway, 2016), or walking-with, Derbarl Yerrigan for this research has generated pedagogies of humility, which I see as critical to decolonised futures that are attentive to living on a permanently damaged planet. Humility, as a pathway (Kwaymullina, 2020), for socially and environmentally just futures, is something I have become interested in exploring due to the persistent condition of not knowing while I walk-think-write as a settler body on unceded Aboriginal Country. In this post, I discuss becoming-with river humbly through touching and engage in critical reflection to demonstrate how pedagogies of humility are always in the making, uncomfortable, messy, and generative.

Becoming-with river through touching

Touching is a humble research-practice-in-the-making that has emerged over the past year and a half of weekly walks with Derbarl Yerrigan. Donna Haraway (2008, 2016) talks about becoming-with as a practice of becoming worldly in the company of companions. The river and I become-with each other through the practice of touching, which is sometimes the soft, salty, weedy smell that fills my nostrils before I can even see the water, or the oils that seep out of my skin as I wade in the shallows, or the sounds of sand, shells, and dried seagrass rustling in the wind. Touching happens when I am near the river, but also from afar. We are entangled beings who touch each other and (be)come together-apart (Barad, 2012) as I think and write about walking with her mixed salt and fresh waters, when I long for her in times of being away by listening to audio of our walks, and when her algal blooms cause a rash that covers my skin. As this project began, I did not fully understand touching to be a relational practice, instead I saw touch as something I, the human, had agency over. Perhaps this is the influence of my training and experience as an educator where Western, humanist, and universalist ontologies are privileged. With the help of Haraway and Barad I have come to understand touch to be more than just two objects touching or coming together, rather I now view touch as a matter of response; response that is bound in accountability and ethicality. To touch is to be response-able to the other, but also as the other, creating “attachment sites for world making” (Haraway, 2008, p. 36). This is made possible as Barad (2012) suggests, by troubling the human self. By doing so, this opens the possibility to always be open to touch, moments where the inhuman within compels us to feel, care, and respond (Barad, 2012), offering a real chance at becoming partners (Haraway, 2016). So how is it then, that surrendering to my inhuman self has resulted in touching as a pedagogy of humility? What does touching offer the future of education? How does a settler body respond to river and how does river respond to a settler body? To work through these questions, I will draw on shell encounters from my walks with Derbarl Yerrigan.

Walking (as a settler body) with Derbarl Yerrigan

Walks with Derbarl Yerrigan began with a small group of young children and their educators as part of an international study on generating climate pedagogies. We would walk weekly, at the same 500 metre stretch of the river, which was located near the child care centre. This project was initially part of an internship experience where I developed walking practices for my PhD research. Due to restrictions brought about by COVID-19, my project was required to shift from continuing these weekly walks with the child care centre to walking ‘alone’ with Derbarl Yerrigan. I call this period of my research re-turning and re-membering with river. Re-turning refers to multiple practices that turn theories over and over again, all the while making new temporalities as they turn (Barad, 2014) and this concept was used as a frame for analysis in my research, to be able to draw on the first year of walks together with walking ‘alone’ to think with concepts and theories. Re-membering is an embodied undoing of time, where colonial practices of erasure and avoidance are brought to task (Barad, 2014). I use re-membering as a methodological and pedagogical tool to hold myself accountable to that which is often silenced in early childhood research and education and it offers me the opportunity to challenge the linearity of time by enfolding the past, present, and future.

Shell-river-human relations

Figure 1 River shell invitations and greetings. Photograph by Vanessa Wintoneak

Water is reflecting the sun and softly rocking against the shore. There is a distinct mound of river shells that create a barrier between water and dry sand where I walk along Derbarl Yerrigan. Of course, the mound is temporal, depending on the weather and tide. I curiously await to see if any shells will be here to walk-with today. As I reach the river, I can hear the murmur of rolling shells against one another as each wave laps at the mound. This is Derbarl Yerrigan’s greeting, her invitation to me to get closer and become present. I respond by slipping off my shoes, tightening my backpack and squatting low for physical shell touching.

Eyes closed, I inhale deeply and then slowly exhale.

Shells tumble between my fingers, wedge between my toes, and flip underneath my palm as sand becomes lodged in my fingernails.

I let Derbarl Yerrigan know that I am here.

I open my eyes and begin to flip, slide, and inspect the shells. Murmuring aloud, I wonder about these shells- their age, their past inhabitants, their strength. I remember the shells on the other side of the river, where I normally walk with young children, and wonder if these shells have traveled from there over to this beach? I choose one, or maybe two, to walk down the beach with. I like to slide my thumb along the ridges of the bumpy conical shells and make circular patterns with the smooth inner surface in the wider mollusc shells. I stand and begin to walk which causes crunching beneath my feet. I stop and cringe. Should I be stepping on and breaking these shells into hundreds of tiny pieces? I try to step over, around, and away from the mound to avoid causing more damage. This moment is also an invitation, one that tells me to move away, and to not be close, while also cautioning against being caught defaulting to the role of the saviour.

Then comes the end of the walk, where I am faced with a decision of keeping these shells and taking them home with me. I have been faced with this decision many times before, both while walking ‘alone’ and with young children. Should I/we take? Why? Why not? In particular, there is this one shell from the very first walk with Derbarl Yerrigan that travels with me in my car, rolling around in the small compartment catching my attention so often when I drive. Another river shell collection has been arranged into a glass jar, which sits perched on my writing desk. Who am I to be taking these shells from Derbarl Yerrigan? How can I render these feelings of human domination and shell attachments?

Instead of retreating into the questions raised in this post, I am turning towards them. I am turning towards vulnerability and not knowing and staying here. I choose to focus on how touching, as an entangled response between myself and Derbarl Yerrigan, offers a humble walking practice for living in decolonised futures amongst a permanently damaged planet. I open towards a humble future, where I take responsibility, continue to make mistakes but acknowledge them, and shift the pace of how and why I walk with this world.

Vanessa Wintoneak is a PhD candidate and lecturer in the School of Education at Edith Cowan University, Western Australia. She is a co-founder of The Ediths, a feminist, interdisciplinary research collective and member of the Common Worlds Research Collective. Her research interests are situated in feminist posthuman theory and include relational, creative, and experimental practices. Her PhD project involves walking with Derbarl Yerrigan, a significant river, and young children to generate radically relational pedagogies in order to produce new knowledges in the times of rapid environmental change.

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