Nature, perception and embodiment


'Perception is the foothold of the mind to reality'

This is another statement from Whitehead's The Concept of Nature quoted from Stengers (Stengers 2011, 67). For Whitehead, nature and reality are synonyms: "We humans have direct access to nature through perception; however, it is always temporal, fragmented and partial. Description and analysis are always situated and start from an active position inside a field. There is always a particular way of knowing. We can also never know it all." (Ibid., 64.)

It follows that the ways in which we perceive a mountain depends on what we do there. The experience becomes more sensory textured and affective, more informed and conscious over time, but it will always be partial and never all-including. The good news is that what we sense is real and there is always more to discover.

In this research, the mountain experiences are both method and the ‘data’ of the exploration and the primary source of knowledge of the mountain. They happen in the direct encounter with the forces and processes of gravity, winds, water and stone and the life that dwell there. I perceive the mountain through my body and all the senses. I become affected and emotional, conscious and aware. I grasp and am grasped. Vetlesen states: " […] wild nature is heterogeneous, involving the human person as a whole person, engaging not only the mind, but the entire repertoire of faculties […]" (Vetlesen 2015, 149.)      

The body, sensations and affect are at the core. The body amplifies experience. Perception is embodied, intuitive and pre-conscious. The concept of affect highlights this. Affect is experience that is not yet conscious. The body and the world are intertwined and what the body perceives is felt as affect or emotion (Massumi 2002). This is the primary form of contact between consciousness and the world. The perceiving body and the world it perceives are intertwined and mutually engaged (Merleau-Ponty 1966). However, perception is filtered in the sense that only a fraction of the embodied experience is captured and articulated. It follows that the nuances of sensory perception cannot be fully represented. There is a gap between the entire embodied experience and what I am more or less vaguely conscious of (Massumi 2002). Moreover, perception is multisensory. The senses are mutually reinforcing, even though there are distinctions between them.

The notion that experience is more than we are conscious of corresponds to Henri Bergson’s position that awareness is prior to thought. Linguistic concepts or language sort and filter away sensory experience. Language structures the experience and thereby direct access to nature is lost (Lawlor and Moulard 2016).

Experiencing the futility of words and the need for artistic expression is not new. This quote is from the explorer Amundsen on his South Pole expedition: "Good weather. Still and clear. -46˚. …It is difficult to describe the beautiful scene I saw when I came out of my dog tent this morning. Low down on the S.W. horizon was the moon – shining yellow - just over the rooftop of our hut or snow mound. In S.W. sky the Southern Lights played in many forms and colours – and high up there one sees the Southern Cross among an army of glittering, shining worlds. … If only I could paint. If only I could."  From Amundsen’s diary, 22nd of May 1911 (Huntford 1987, 114).




Perception of a mountain depends on how we move through the terrain. While walking, we experience what happens along the way, continuously changing our sensory perceptions, simply because we change perspective and site (Ingold 2007, 72ff, Ingold 2011, 33ff).

Walking involves all the senses. Walking is grounded. We perceive the terrain through our feet as a rhythmic kind of perception. When we walk, it is through our feet that we literally are in touch with our environment. Walking combines rhythm, quietness and calmness for reflection and sensory discovery of the landscape. There are almost no limits to what we can discover when we walk. We can explore the terrain, take another look, sharpen our ear, one more time and another and yet another.


Through walking and skiing, I explore and experience the mountain and expose myself to the weather. The terrain I am walking in is hard and soft, steep and flat, dry and swampy, rugged and smooth. I need to step, jump and balance. The body flows or it resists and aches. I ski during the winter season and the sensory experience depends of the type of snow. It can be icy, powdered, grainy or wet. It can be flat or bumpy, shaped by the wind, all of which influence the smoothness and rhythm of movement. Such experiences differ from dreaming and imaginations in the sense that practice has direct, physical impact. It matters and it may be risky.  What from a distant position seems like a small, insignificant detail gains significance when experienced through skiing, like a sudden transition between snow and ice, and through walking, for example, a slippery stone in a brook you have to cross.

Here are sounds of walking on wetland                                walking on scree                               walking on hard snow                               and sticks and skiis on ice

Sensory explorations 

Mountain experience is holistic, complex and transient and this is a challenge for artistic articulation. These videos explore the themes of embodied and multisensory mountain experience.

Joys of Cracking

People tend to give priority to the visual sense. At least, this is what I thought. ‘Joys of cracking’ indicates something else. Subtle nuances and beauty of the mountain appear in the transition between water and ice. The video is an outcome of sensory exploration and an epiphany. The beauty of water and thin ice amazed me. However, I had a strange urge to crack the ice. I felt shame and guilt when I destroyed the beautiful patterns, and I wondered whether I had an inner drive to destruct. I was able to reframe this by my engagement with the sound. The epiphany happened due to my enhanced sensitivity to sound. The creative process was, as such, therapeutic.

Winter Winds

Experience of the mountain depends on what you do there, as Stengers emphasised. ‘Winter Winds’ is a playful performance of conceit. I am performing an experiment with my bare feet. I challenge the mountain to test my endurance and to demonstrate human vulnerability. It did not last long. The mountain has no empathy. Endurance of such physical reality is a fanciful notion and conceit.

Mountain Lady

This video is about walking, and it is about sensory and affective relationship to nature.  It is winter, the terrain is barren and the weather changes from cloudy and windy to clear and still. Nature is threatening. The mountain winds can blow her over and she must stay inside for protection. Nature is nourishing. Walking is an embodied, sensory and aesthetic experience. Chatting with social company, however, diverts attention away from the sensory relationship to nature.