Weaselling in the wilds
March 8, 2012 2 Comments
SPOILER ALERT: a reader found the following post boring. Feel free not to read it if you are looking for something dark or point-ridden. If you are interested in an attempt to explore the ‘modesty’ of adventure read on…
I’ve just found a copy of a participant observation account of a group rock clambering trip which I wrote up a few years ago as part of my MRes. I’ve edited it down a bit, but otherwise it’s as I wrote it and still has some interesting observations relevant to a number of my current areas of work:
My research interest is in how law, norms and physical factors combine to control the definition and use of space / place. The participation described below gave me the opportunity to observe some ‘lived’ experience of people interacting with space in a potentially dangerous (and to them) unfamiliar way. Some friends of mine helped run an inner-city church youth group and I was invited to join their afternoon of ‘weaselling’ in the Peaks with my son. Weaselling involves squeezing through rock crevasses and boulders. A lack of internet hits for this practice (by this name) in anywhere other than the Peak District suggests that this may be a particularly prevalent activity in the Peaks, reflecting the local geology. It is referenced by a number of Peak District activity / outward bound organisations. It is a core feature of experiential learning / team building packages offered by these providers. Our session was run by a qualified instructor, who was also part of this church group.
When I heard about this trip I quickly started to develop preconceptions about what I would learn from the exercise. I pictured a mini bus full of under privileged inner-city kids, who would be full of awe (a mix of terror and excitement) upon encountering the “great outdoors”. This image had partly been fuelled by my impressions of the part of Sheffield from which the Church group hails and a comment that had been relayed to me by one of the organisers prior to the event – that one of the kids parents had claimed not to know where (or what) the Peak District was. I had also been struck by a comment that one of the organisers had apparently sought to reassure a concerned parent that there was nothing to worry about (and that therefore their child should participate) “because the instructor is fully insured”. This struck me as a rather incongruous way to reassure someone who (presumably) was concerned about their son or daughter’s safety. The organiser was using a bureaucratic discourse (i.e. the language of insurance, risk and loss prevention) rather than a more “caring” / emotional reassurance.
I arrived at the lay-by start point to find a collection of private cars. There were various people milling about – all dressed anonymously in red or blue overalls and helmets. The anonymity created by the ‘suited up’ nature of the task clothing removed identity – and seemed to entitle everyone to remain anonymous. The mobile (i.e. ‘on the move’) and ‘turn taking’ nature of the event further removed the need for group cohesion.
Early into the event the instructor clearly signalled his role and rule framework for the session. He did so in noticeably up beat and ‘kid friendly’ language (I have heard the same speech with other groups – and therefore could spot the subtle changes of register). He deployed a sequence of graduated tasks leading us to the main rock pile. He emphasised the dangers posed by straying too close to the cliff edge in clear but colloquial language. However when the weaselling itself commenced he was (necessarily) engaged in coaxing (and in some cases pushing) participants through the cracks and crevasses. He could give little if any attention to those who were waiting (or who had already completed) that task. In that sense the event consisted of a series of queues. Those waiting their turn were left to make their own sense of their queuing – and increasingly as the event progressed (and levels of confidence and/or boredom increased) they wandered around over the boulders (if keen) or drifted out of the event mentally / socially into chatting. Whilst there was some mutual encouragement spontaneously issued by members of the group, there was no team spirit formed – and responsibility for bored or reckless children sat fairly vaguely in ‘no man’s land': responsibility for each child hovering somewhere between the parent(s) – if present – the church group adults and the instructor.
The instructor was supportive and non-pressuring in his approach to participants, but I observed one situation in which a youth, half way through a vertical crevasse ascent was told that there was no option but to go forward. Clearly (from where I was standing) there was physically an option of retreating backwards, however his ‘white lie’ appeared to encourage the participant to carry on and squeeze herself through the remaining void.
Part of the “knack” of weaselling is being able to judge your size and shape – and your body’s distortion capabilities. It would be interesting to know whether youths with body image disorders find this pursuit harder (and or a revelation about their actual body shape). I observed some mild body image related self-deprecation / self-justification for refusal to attempt a particular task from some of the adults – but no instances of manifestly perverse body / void measurement incongruities.
One of the interesting features of weaselling is that children can do the tasks more easily than the adults (because they are smaller) – this introduced interesting levelling moments where young children were chanting “easy, easy” in the intention that that would (somehow) encourage and assist their more bulky parents as they struggled to wriggle through the same rock hole.
It was a cold, windy day and towards the end of the event it started to rain. It was evident that the addition of rain and darkening skies altered the group mood, and hastened the withdrawal of those with marginal interest in the activities. The event was also elemental in another sense – some of the adults remarked on the ‘re-birthing’ imagery and sensation of crawling and squeezing through rocks back into the world, combined with the necessity of ‘surrendering’ the body into these holes and trusting your own ability (and the rock’s indulgence) to be allowed to emerge extruded but unharmed from them. On a less spiritual note, the event gave permission for adult and child alike to get dirty and for adults to do ‘clambering and crawling’ in a way that they may not have had opportunity to do (as play) since childhood.
I heard an adult member of the church group remark that they were pleased to have provided “a day these kids will remember for the rest of their lives”. I’m not sure that this event necessarily will have had that effect / meaning for all. For one child the presence of sheep dung seemed to be the biggest source of alarm, whilst another’s concern appeared to be to clarify whether the instructor owned the rocks that were being explored. For me the most dangerous part was my son milling around too close to the side of a busy road.
I was also reminded that small children see the world differently – I asked my son why he hadn’t wanted to go into the first mini-cave. “Because its dark in there”. He didn’t appear to have the adult apprehension of getting stuck or the boulders collapsing onto him – instead something more primal and indescribable. I asked if it was a fear of monsters – “no, just the dark” he said.
On reflection I didn’t discover much about how participants in this activity view risk, safety or issues of liability about their pursuit. However it was interesting to see how I had to fight against my own preconceptions, and notice what was actually being said / done – rather than wait for what I was expecting to occur.