On being touched, but not obliged, in Northfield, Minnesota

Downtown Northfield, Minnesota. Image: 123dieinafire/Wikimedia Commons.

Since 1998, Phil Smith has been developing the concept of ‘mythogeography’, “a paranoid, exploratory, detective-like approach to space and place”. He published his first book on the subject in 2010.

In this extract from his new book, “Rethinking Mythogeography in Northfield, Minnesota”, he writes about “being touched, but not obliged”.

On my first morning in Northfield, exploring on Division Street, I met Helen on the doorstep of the Prayer Room. She caught me obsessively studying the way the step outside its front door had begun to bubble ectoplasmically; the sun or the frost had disrupted its ceramic surface and a new pattern of unhuman forces was brazen.

The praying folk began to descend to the street from their upper room. Deploying my best ‘Khlestakhovian Inscrutability’ – a tactic I use in the street, offering a minimum of response (while remaining polite) so that others can fill the quiet with their own ideas and spaces – I engaged gently in a series of conversations (with one precant it was something about comparing the watches of our dead fathers that we were both wearing) until I was asked in to see the Prayer Room.

I was asked if hands could be laid upon me for a prayer. Although I was clear that I was not a believer, I was pleased to accept the offer. Pleased because I felt all these strangers’ hands on me, without aggression; my eyes were open and I saw the shelves of peculiar videos and books, and I heard the words of the prayer as the leader sought in curling sentences to somehow address the immediate future of someone he knew nothing about.

I was re-imagined in prayer in ways that were fantastical for their ordinariness; so far from my intentions I felt wholly unharmed. Being turned into something like an erudite and caring octopus with a fan of praying tentacles, I was lifted up in the arms of a community within a community. I was 4,000 miles from home and on my first day in town I was held intimately by six strangers in an upstairs room.

Such encounters, when entered into mythogeographically, as part of one’s questing journey to understand and intervene in places that are strange or simply unfamiliar, leave one touched, sometimes deeply, yet unobliged. There is no surrender of one’s nomadic slipperiness, no surrender to the grand narratives that are all around.


Even in places where belief and worldview are strictly codified, the mythogeographical pilgrim presents such a benign ambiguity that even the language of faith struggles to get any grip on the edge of that abyss we all hang onto. In a place that was strange to me, it was a meeting in myth on that first morning in Northfield. I discovered a capacity to shape and hold a kind of void within; around which others had then woven something better than I could.

A void worth sharing. 

There is always an essential ambivalence in such unbalanced but efficacious connections, even when they are very intense. They rely on the mythogeographer paying close, polite and respectful attention to everything and yet being ‘not quite there’; and so able to make a deft, intuitive connection to the big picture beyond (or beneath and within) the big pictures.

When I left Northfield I was more determined than ever to be an evangelist for this mythogeography; to encourage more people to take its path – its pilgrimage, even – beyond the big things, through the small things, to the even bigger picture, the picture before decisions.

So, now there is an obligation that arises from my encounter in the Prayer Room, though not one intended by the supplicants there. My part in the upper room octopus and my stay in Northfield in general have made me aware of how little of the potential, the urgency or the route of the mythogeographical pilgrimage I have shared with others. I am trying to go a little further here.

Rethinking Mythography is out now from Triarchy Press.

 
 
 
 

Here’s how Copenhagen puts cyclists at the top of the social hierarchy

A cyclist in Copenhagen, obviously. Image: Red Bull/Getty.

Have you ever wondered why Britain is not a nation of cyclists? Why we prefer to sit in traffic as our Dutch and Danish neighbours speed through the city on bikes?

Forget about hills, rain, and urban sprawl: the real reason we aren’t cycling is much closer to home. It is not just lack of infrastructure, or lack of fitness, the reason that 66 per cent of Brits cycle less than once a year, is because of status.

An obsession with social status is hard-wired into our brains. As we have built a society that relies on cars, the bicycle has slipped to the periphery, and gone from being regarded as a sensible mode of transport, to a deviant fringe-dwellers choice.

Even though cycling to work has been shown to be one of the most effective things an individual can do to improve health and longevity, researcher David Horton thinks that there are a set of collective anxieties that are stopping us getting in the saddle. These include not just an unwillingness to be made vulnerable, but fear of being thought of as poor.

A quick look over the North Sea shows that there is an alternative. Danish culture has elevated cycling to the point of reverence, and the social status of cyclists has followed. As we have busied ourselves building infrastructure that testifies to the dominance of the car, Denmark has been creating magnificent architectural features, aimed specifically at bike users. The Cycle Snake, or Cykelslangen, literally suspends the cyclist above the city, metaphorically elevating the cyclist and creating a sense of ceremony.

In doing so, they are subtly persuading people of all backgrounds to see past their prejudices or fears and take it up as the clearly better choice. This means there are more women cycling, more older people cycling, and more ethnic minorities cycling. The activity is less dominated by comfortably middle class white males: there are cyclists from every side of the community.  

The Cykelslangen, under construction in 2014. Image: Ursula Bach and Dissing+Weitling architecture.

Despite abstract motivations like getting ripped and conquering global warming, it is only when the bike path becomes the obviously better choice that people will start to cycle. It can take years of traffic jams before people try an alternative, but if you make motorists jealous of cyclists, then the tables can quickly turn.

Another way that Copenhagen has done this is by taking privileges normally afforded only to the motorcar, and given them to the bike. The city has ensured that cycle routes do not include blind corners or dark tunnels, and that they form a complete, coherent network, and a steadily flowing system – one that allows cyclists to maintain a reasonable pace, and minimises the amount of times you have to put your foot down.

The ‘Green Wave’, for example, is a co-ordinated traffic light system on some of the main thoroughfares of the capital that helps minimise the amount of cycle congestion during peak times. It maintains a steady flow of cycle traffic, so that there is no need to stop at any point.


Small measures of prioritisation like this one increase the sense of safety and consideration that cyclists experience, making it natural for the citizens of a city to act in their own self-interest and get on their bike.

As well as redefining the streets around the bicycle, the Copenhagen Cycle Chic blog positively fetishises cyclists. The tagline “dress for your destination, not your journey” depicts the social fashion life of the cycle lane as a “never ending flow of happy people heading from A to B”. Its writers are  literally making cycling sexy, dispelling the idea that going anywhere by bike is odd, and helping the world to see that the bicycle is actually the ultimate fashion accessory.

So unlike in London, where cycling is still a predominantly male pursuit, Copenhagen sees a more even split between men and women. Not just because they feel safer on the roads, but because culturally they are comfortable with their appearance as part of a highly visible group.

So while our low level of cycling is partly due to our physical infrastructure, it is also due to our cultural attitudes. The mental roadblocks people have towards cycling can be overcome by infrastructure that is not only safe, but also brings old-fashioned notions of dignity and grace into the daily commute.

Of course, office shower facilities might stop cyclists being ostracised, too.