Women have always walked. Walking is in our “molecular memories,” Annabel Abbs insists in her new book Windswept, “carved indelibly into our DNA.” For thousands of years, women in hunter-gatherer societies walked as many as ten miles a day. And, once agriculture bound women to specific portions of land, women still walked to survive. Water, firewood, and food could only be gathered by walking, and women had to walk to visit family or friends and take wares to sell at the market. Women have walked to survive for as long as we have existed.
But the more women were relegated to home, the less they could walk in the wild. Wildness became man’s domain. Men walked to find inspiration, solace, absolution. To harness their creativity and unearth inner peace. When Abbs realized all the books about walking on her nightstand were written by men, she wondered: where were these men’s wives and mothers? In Windswept, she asks, “Could it be that the absent women were creating the very homes that enabled these men to step out with such nonchalance and exuberance?” Abbs’s certainty that women too must have walked in the wild drives her into the archives to find out.
Abbs herself is a chronic walker. She grew up car-less in Wales and walked until the act became part of her identity. In fact, Abbs’s Twitter bio proclaims her an “obsessive walker, cook, reader.”
It seems fitting, then, that Abbs includes “Big Walks” in her research process. Abbs spends time in archives, and Windswept is replete with references to diaries and letters. But research, for Abbs, is more than reading. She is so confident that their walking informed their art that Abbs sets out to retrace the steps of women “for whom rural or wild walking had proved life-changing.” She chooses eight women: Frieda von Richthofen, Gwen John, Clara Vyvyan, Daphne du Maurier, Nan Shepherd, Simone de Beauvoir, Emma Gatewood, and Georgia O’Keefe. Windswept is the record of Abbs’s archival encounters with each of these women, and her experiences walking their paths across Europe and the United States.
Abbs contends that women who walked must be understood through their walking. Of Simone de Beauvoir, she writes:
The funny thing is, no one thinks of Beauvoir as a backpacking hillwalker. We think of her sitting in smoky Paris cafes, a string of pearls at her neck, a chic turban wrapped around her head, Jean-Paul Sartre philosophizing at her side. This is not my Simone de Beauvoir. My Beauvoir—the version I unearth from her letters, memoir, journals, and books, and in whose footsteps I walk—is a compelling, courageous, often reckless hiker. . . . A woman who walks as audaciously and rigorously as she thinks.
Abbs understands “my Simone de Beauvoir” as much through archival research as on the trails Beauvoir loved in Southern France. It is by walking, as well as reading, that Abbs comes to know Beauvoir and the rest of the women she studied.
This approach to research raises compelling questions. How can we know the people whose lives we study, unless we move through the places they loved? Can we understand another person fully if our understanding is disconnected from place?
Abbs does not claim to know her eight subjects simply by reading about them. No, her knowing comes by walking where they walked, admiring the landscapes they admired, breathing the air they breathed, and coming alive in the settings where they found consolation and freedom. How can you know a woman who loved walking without walking where she walked?
In Windswept, Abbs does not just biograph—she goes on the journey too. Trekking through the Southwest United States, Southern France, and Scotland, Abbs understands that she, like the women she studies, is walking away from something. She must grapple with “the empty, childless home awaiting me.” She reflects:
The women in this book were doing more than outpacing their inner pain. They were simultaneously and deliberately preparing themselves for a new path in life. They were testing their nerve, their resolve, their ability to be alone. Without realising it, I was doing exactly the same: ending one life and preparing for another.
We always see other people through the filter of ourselves. Abbs does not claim to be objective or distant from her subjects. She walks alongside them and comes to know them through her own experiences. That is the strength of Windswept: Abbs’s research is, at every turn, deeply personal. She writes:
My experience of walking through French woodland at twilight has rubbed away the edges of my fear. But I know the plains at night will be different. . . As my sight struggles, my other senses expand. My hearing seems more acute. My sense of smell is keener. I’m more aware of the wind on my skin, the dust in my mouth, the soft, pithy grass beneath my feet.
Ultimately, it is Abbs who changes on her walks. Her senses heighten and her perceptions deepen. Abbs undergoes the process of “becoming” that she insists occurs when women walk. Her account affirms that when we seek to find and engage with the past, we too can be changed. Windswept is the record of one woman’s trek to find other walking women. When Abbs sets out into the wild, she finds them, and she comes to find herself more fully too.
About the Reviewer
Morgan Graham is an English PhD student at the University of Minnesota. She is Associate Managing Editor at Pleiades and has published work in The Evansville Review, Great River Review, and Salt Hill Journal. Find her at morgandianegraham.wordpress.com and @morgraha on Twitter.