Sunday, September 25, 2022

Day of Access: the first proxy walk

Walking and not-walking

Gradually the Day of Access project is expanding. The aims are that people whose lives are constrained can gain creative access to wild nature – with an awareness that this will benefit the whole of culture. 


The ideas include minor walks, recuperative walking, foraging, and ways to walk-without-walking, such as the proxy walk. They evolve with the help of other artists and poets, and in-the-doing.


Some of this recent work is supported by Paths for All, whose approach is focussed on the social healing that walking together makes possible. Rather than physical exercise and distances covered, they understand how walks encourage acts of solidarity and empathy, helping people feel less isolated and recover a sense of belonging. 

paths – & gates – show how

we’re made to be together

Paths for All taught me to value the walk someone makes across their living-room, just to take in the view from their window, if that’s all they can manage. 

From their walking groups I also learnt that whenever people make regular walks together in a place, they also tend to take care of the landscape – improving, planting trees, adding benches, renewing paths, adding signs, pedestrianizing.

I’ve been devising, adapting, and modelling a series of concepts and forms that relate to walking and not-walking. The unprecedented rise in disability that Covid has inflicted – and will continue to, given an estimated 10% of people who are infected go on to develop Long Covid – makes it a priority to help the millions of people who experience not-walking


I adopted the term not-walking to describe the in-between experiences that are imposed by chronic fatigue and post-exertional malaise, where walks are constrained and walking too far – not very far at all – leads to relapse. I have in mind someone who may have the ability to reach their kitchen, garden, or a fragment of the world, but who's walking will never amount to what is commonly known as ‘a walk’.


When it first happens the experience of not-walking is profound and shocking. That shock never leaves, but one adapts, or wraps it in a blanket. Not-walking affects the body, obviously, but it also makes the act of changing one’s life a challenge. Havi Carel says: ‘It is not only physical possibility that suffers in the hands of illness. It is ways of being and being with that suffer’. The chronically ill know how essential walking is to being with, and what they lost, in terms of impetus and agency, when they fell into the status of a not-walker. This post is about acts of solidarity that may help to heal that loss.

Window poets


Someone may be resting most of the day with a single window view. 

ill, after VW


the clouds

are not


the same

clouds then


these clouds

are wrong

Some of the most refulgent writings on chronic illness are by the artist Marion Michell, who has severe ME. Her texts describe a microtonal world: “One day this summer, when too unwell to step outside, I scooped a little air through an open window, surprised at its warmth. It was as if I'd bridged a greater distance than an arm's length. Nowadays, so little can feel so much.” 


“Garden out of reach today, but could watch the feasting frenzies of four rose-ringed parakeets around my bird feeding station. I like it best when they alight, for an instant gravely vertical: wings wide, bellies and throats exposed, as if offering their colourfast glory to the arrow of my eye.”

They remind me of one of my favourite haiku poets, Shiki, who wrote thousands of poems from his bed, describing his view and small garden.

Shiki’s journey


“today’s so warm

   I should clean your room?”

      “aye, OK Mum”


she lays a bed out

   in the living room

      “through you go son”


on all fours

   those few yards

      are 5,000 miles


my left leg’s limp

   from pain

      so I put a foot-


pillow under

   my knee and drag

      my body bit-


by bit over

   the dangerous floor

      without any trouble


let myself down

   on the futon

      feet to the sliding


door and garden

   head pillowed north

      now Mum’s in


a dwam standing

   broom in hand

      mumbling “is


that the crowd

   I hear at the 

      athletics in Ueno?”


AF, after Shiki, My Illness, from an original translation by Masako Hira



Proxy walks

A bed isn’t made for a voyage. If I’m unable to walk across a glen, or reach the end of the street, how do I envisage change? Is there someone who would walk for me? Would that help?


One of the frustrations for the not-walker is how to get an onion, garlic paste, almond milk, or post a letter, when the cupboard’s empty and the corner shop and post box are 100m too far to reach.  

When the network of the walked world no longer connects, then they need someone to walk for them. The experience of those with chronic illness is that friends peel off, it's difficult to ask for help, and many people don't grasp the limits someone with ME or Long Covid is living with.


This new project takes walking-for others and not-walking and translates them into an art project: the proxy walk.

The idea is simple: someone gifts a walk in a landscape for someone who can’t, and they both describe a place. Their descriptions are a collaborative text combining memory and sensory impressions.

The focus of Day of Access is offering entry to wild places for those who live with chronic fatigue, pain, or other constraints. With the proxy walk those constraints are too severe for the ill person to elude, except using memory, imagination, and solidarity. 

The Day of Access project began as a way of sharing my experience using Landrovers to drive into wild landscapes. You can read about the first event hereIn terms of the forthcoming program of events, in some cases I’m now too disabled to take part. Long Covid changed the project when it changed my life. That means that, rather than being a place-aware guide, I'm organising events at which others walk for me.

Again, think of all those people who now have Long Covid. If you know one then offer to do a weekday shop for them, and gift them a Sunday proxy walk.

Proxy walkers

As with all good ideas, proxy walks already exist. 

Emma, from Paths for All, told me a nurse in a Perthshire care home was already making walks for residents, going to places hey could see but not reach. The Walking Artist’s Network gave an enthusiastic response to the proxy walk concept, and artists told me of similar projects.


Amy Starecheski walks for the incarcerated, working with oral history and proxy walks, at Columbia University.


Louise-ann Wilson made a walking project inspired by Dorothy Wordsworth’s uses of memory when she was bedbound. 


Anita Bacic conceived a guided walk in which a storyteller tells a walker which route to take through the town of Blato, in Croatia.


Gudrun Filipska tells me there are virtual residencies for disabled artists in Canada’s network of National Parks. 


My friend Marcus Coates made a journey down the Amazon River, for Alex, a patient in St John’s cancer hospice, fulfilling his dying wish.


Alistair Lawrie made a Stonehaven stravaig

Before I introduce the first proxy walk that was made within the framework of my concept, I want to share the manifesto, which sets out the idea and invites you to adopt or adapt it for your own needs. Let me know how you get on.

declaration of St Fillan’s Hill: manifesto for proxy walks


“I will walk for you”


– Davie Polmadie



for a proxy walk we refer to the participants as 

the walker, the recipient, the artist



on the same day, for one hour, 

the recipient remembers a walk 

in the place they have nominated, 

and the walker describes that place, 

making notes as they walk through it: 

the result is a proxy walk



the artist composes a collage text

from the remembrances of the recipient

and the walker



the texts belong to the participants



the artist may also draw a map 

of the nominated place



proxy walk is usually an hour long – 

there are no set upper/lower limits 

in terms of distance and duration



the recipient and walker don’t discuss

the place beforehand – only the location, 

route, date, and time are agreed



if the recipient wishes to make 

a specific request of the walker

they may do so



proxy walk can happen anywhere



proxy walk is a remembrance 

and a walk made in memory



consider the social implications of people 

undertaking proxy walks, placing their walking 

at another person’s disposal



proxy walks redistribute energy 

between people



proxy walk can achieve great distances

using memories rather than milestones



proxy walks and day of access

bring new perspectives to bear 

on disability, landscape, and ecology



in a proxy walk who is the performer 

and who the audience? 



proxy works are acts 

of altruistic Romanticism



proxy walks can be made using 

photography and video, but

only writing allows the recipient

and walker an equal status



the Covid pandemic created 

a million new recipients

for proxy walks



simple forms, such as the proxy walk

always evolve – people are free 

to develop the concept as they wish


St Fillan’s Hill


I chose St Fillan’s Hill because it's a walk I could once do – though with some pain afterwards. It's a wee hillock among big mountains, positioned where the old kingdom of the Picts and Gaels once collided, which explains the remains of a Neolithic hill-fort.

The hour I spent on the summit – a rather grand word for a hill which is only 175m. high – sitting on St Fillan's Chairwas crucial to my realisation that viewing offered an alternative to walking. I suppose my work on disability perspectives on landscape and ecology began that summer’s day in 2010. And this work continues with an act of remembering a dozen years later.

I'd had the proxy walk on my 'to do' list for months when my friend Tamara Colchester offered to go a walk for me wherever I wished. That synchronicity – she'd no idea the proxy walk was a concept I was developing – was a blessing. 

She knew the region from the work she does with stalkers, but she'd never been up this wee hill – a pre-requisite for a proxy walk is that the walker has no previous knowledge of a place, so their impressions are fresh.


Proxy Walk: St Fillan’s Hill (Dùndurn)



walker: Tamara Colchester

recipient: Alec Finlay


I remember an old Celtic chapel on the way in

but we parked by a sewage works

   the hill ahead is small and sits among larger ones

the hill had the appearance of a model mountain

   it does not feel young, maybe even more potent 

   because of its compact size?

as if in a railway diorama, with different textures –

sand, grit, lichen, and moss

it was like a perfect wee walk hillock

   (I have a theory that short men are packed with 

   more vim than tall ones

when I looked at its scale 

I was excited and confused

   the energy doesn’t have to travel as far)

with ME any mountain is so far beyond me

I can only look at it

but this hill had an air of possibility 

there was temptation

I knew there was a possibility of relapse

likelihood even

but it was too within my reach to refuse

we walked across a field

   a sheep-trod field

   dry, until the pocked squelch of a stream

I think there was a fence to climb

   signs of absent drinkers

and the fuss of getting the dog over

   I head towards a pair of birch trees that seem 

   to form an entrance

we reached

   one on either side of a fence

   when I get closer I see that they are actually

   on the same side

   over the fence 

   the foot of the slope

   and I wind myself among the birch’s 

   arched roots

   lying still, I listen to the movement of its leaves

the hill a hint of a traditional fairground helter-skelter

in the way that the paths curl around

   a heron flies past in an elegant line

there were trees, probably birch, hazel and rowan

   an enormous ash, one of the biggest 

   I’ve ever seen – it looks sick, it’s outer limbs 

   dead and dry, but looking again I see new life 

   sprouting from its trunk – tufts of green 

   along its many limbs

was there a still stretch of scree where Colin spotted 

some stonecrop

   a patch of violets at its base

was it English Stonecrop? 

   a single furled flower

   up again, a deer track

maybe the scree

fell from the old fortifications


from when it was a dùn


I’m sure there were foxgloves

   I enter bracken that quickly gets too thick

there must have been bracken too


but the way I remember the hill 

drop down and find a perfect path

it wasn’t a covered by one dominant species

more a mosaic

   I kneel, become smaller 

   so that the space gets bigger

   crawl for a while 

   stand and my path disappears 

before the summit I take a diversion

   in a circle of bracken

there was a rowan or maybe a pair

   no way out

growing in the lee of the cliff

   I wade through green, collecting ticks

one was leaning out vertically


it might be gone now


but it was a lovely image of persistence

   I want to feel the warm ground

I climbed around precariously


to tie a poem-label in the rowan

   I watch many peacock butterflies 

   drinking nectar from the lilac rounds of scabious

   drier now – the plants change

   less sphagnum and more mint, buttercup, and yarrow

   I climb the steep rock using the patches of dry moss 

   that tuft the seams as footholds

   I feel elated as though I’m the only person 

   who has ever climbed this hill 

   then - a discarded sandwich

I remember the plateau as flat 

   the summit is flat

and on it was the famous chair

   a large stone seat

or throne

   as Alec said there would be

named for Saint Fillan

   the surface of the rock wrinkled 

   as though the wind 

   once moved its surface

for investitures and coronations

   I gather a handful of herbs for tea

   yarrow, plantain, wood sage

these found architectural forms are odd

they aren’t cut neatly, and they don’t 

necessarily face the way of the view

   from where I stand, I can see Alec 

   way down below

a piece of stone dropped there by a glacier

   a small figure writing

when the valley was scoured out

a pair with the throne stone

on the summit of Dùnadd

   occasionally looking upward

it’s remarkable how similar in scale 

the two hillocks feel

it was a warm day

sitting on the hill

looking around at the mountains

surrounding us, Mòr-bheinn behind

and the entrance to Glen Artney in front of us

   I don’t wave – he knows I’m here –

I began to get the glimmer of the concept 

of the 'conspectus'

I felt the small hillocks

many of which had dùns

set among mountain ranges

were always places of power 

because of the way they define a view

   I walk a circuit 

it was a day when my experience of disability

and the different scales of the hillock and the mountains

taught me that viewing could be as meaningful as walking

   letting my feet re-meet the place on his behalf

it was a moment when a sense of belonging settled inside me

   ‘when people walk

I don’t remember the walk down

   they enact the future

or if there was pain 

in the days afterwards

I imagine there was

   it’s hard not to become stuck when you’re static

it was one of those rare days 

and the pain was worth it

   seeing you go up there and become small 

there’s a photo of me sitting on the chair 

with my dog Barney

I wonder if that was his first hill?

it’s a long time ago now, twelve years

   is beautiful, but it hurts

with Long Covid I can’t walk across the field now

   seeing you come down with the light in your eyes 

is wonderful, but I can’t

but the exhilaration I see in that younger me

   it’s almost like being dead 

maybe I can gift that to Tamara 

and see if it’s returned in the joy that Saint Fillan’s Hill,

or Dùndurn, gifts to her

   and having passed on a gift

   it’s hard’



The concept of the Proxy Walk was inspired by discussions with the poet Chelsea Cargill and first presented as part of ‘Day of Access’, Travelling Gallery, 2019.


Marion Michell, in Artist Newsletter:



Proxy walks poem-label, AF, 2022

Paths for All walking group in Drymen, with a walking stick by AF, 'a walk is something we take with us as we leave it behind'; photo by Sam MacDiarmid, 2021.

Counterpane blanket landscape, concept AF, photo by Hanna Devereux, 2019, thanks to Rachel Smith. Photo of William Soutar's window courtesy of Soutar House. 'word-mntn (Mor-bheinn), AF, photo by Alistair Peebles.

Declaration of St Fillan's Hill: manifesto for proxy walks, AF, 2022.

word-mntn (St Fillan's Hill), AF 2022.

Thanks to Heritage Lottery Fund, Lapidus Scotland, and Paths for All, for making this event possible.