OPEN LETTER

MODERN NOMAD SEEKING SAME

Enjoys long walks through urban ruins, Arctic tundra, redwood forests and busy streets. Hobbies include treasure hunting and getting lost in the woods. 

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As we stomach another round of primetime politics — a sentence that, I’m afraid, may prove evergreen once elections and inductions have come and gone — we are, once again, worn down by the spectacle, bored by cynicism, tired of stumbling on common ground rooted in disdain or disappointment. Perhaps we recall having experienced, at some point in our lives, what it felt like to attach to a potential of newness that didn’t whitewash the past. Maybe we remember connecting to an idea and to each other and how that connection lit us up, only to discover that shameless love-and-pride for a collective isn’t necessarily sustainable. Ideas are transient, colored by events and context. We go back to work. Or war. Or walking the dog. Routine. That’s life. Only life is different now, because we’ve tasted the proverbial honey. We know what it’s like to care and believe and there’s a vacancy in us now that the sweet spot has passed. We wonder if maybe it was never so much about the campaign or tournament or rally or event as it was about connection, because this is the absence that takes up so much space when it’s gone. As Smokey Robinson tells us, a taste of honey is worse than none at all.

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We do what we can to satisfy the craving. Me, I walk. Here’s why: On one particularly strange day in  2011, I found myself stepping off of a ferry and onto an island-turned-mass-grave, resting place for the bodies of nearly a million indigent and unidentified New Yorkers. I’d been invited to this otherwise off-limits burial ground — 131 acres of uninhabited land that once served as the site of a Civil War POW camp, a quarantine zone, a prison and a drug rehab — by a few city officials and one very feisty next-of-kin who’d come to pay her last respects. Her brother’s remains had been lost, long ago tilled into the soil, presumed forgotten.

Given the island’s history, we’d expected to step into a haunting, but it wasn’t at all the dark and morbid vacuum we feared. It was beautiful and quiet and expansive, overgrown with wildflowers and rich with history. It was sacred ground. It was unifying ground. We made eye contact, asked questions: the mourner, the voyeur and the policy-makers, finally bothering to get to know each other. Although we were the only people there, as far as we could tell, we felt the presence of everyone who had ever had lived and worked there, of the hundreds of thousands who never left. We walked with such mindfulness, such appreciation for the land, recognizing that it meant so much more than its real estate value. It meant that life matters, that people matter, even when we’re long gone and yes, maybe even forgotten.

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This, I think, is the honey we crave. We long to feel connected — to each other, to those who set precedent, to those on their way — and we are in luck, because our most accessible connective tissue has been here all along, so ubiquitous and obvious that we’ve forgotten to simply look down. Perhaps the key to growing and sustaining a love of country, independent of current events, is through connection with the land, as even when our conscious contact wavers, our physical contact is ensured by the force of gravity. We instinctively want to get to know the land. Beachcombers powering up their metal detectors and kids digging holes in their backyards are doing more than hunting for lost coins or shortcuts to Shanghai. They are fraternizing with their foundation.

My work explores many things — intimacy and image, perception and presentation, baselines for concepts of normalcy, world views shaped by points of origin — but I’m also interested in a sort of patriotism that has nothing to do with ideology and everything to do with place, an intimate connection to our homeland that is, quite simply, an intimate connection to the land itself. So I walk. I walk mines, tunnels, abandoned buildings, graveyards and courtyards and my very own backyard, small towns, big cities and deep forests, looking down and looking up and meeting people who help me see the world in new ways. I thank them, you, truly. I’ll keep walking until we meet again.

Caroline Walker

Caroline Walker Colorado 1984
me, walking c. 1982