The Walking Woman
By Tanyth Berkeley, with the full text of “The Walking Woman” (1907) by Mary Austin
Conveyor Editions 2017
Review by Leo Hsu
The Walking Woman is a portrait of two women who Tanyth Berkeley meets in the desert, both struggling, living in isolation and poverty, away from their children. Both rejected by society and rejecting society’s expectations, they each find solace in a difficult environment that provides some form of freedom if not joy. The first woman Berkeley seeks out: Ruth is an exile from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (a church that split off from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints when the larger Mormon church stopped practicing polygamy) who vocally protested the abuse of children – including her siblings – stemming from polygamy and intermarriage between family relations. The second woman, Spice, she meets by chance after Berkeley and Ruth part ways. Worked through Berkeley’s book is the entire text of Mary Austin’s 1907 short story of the same name, which serves as a foil for Berkeley’s photographic narrative. Austin’s story describes her narrator’s encounter with a woman who wanders between the small towns of California, suspected by some to be mad, yet respected in her exceptional position. While the intersecting narratives of The Walking Woman blur together, the book is clear in the trajectories that it describes: both Ruth and Spice are absorbed into the liberating and beautiful terrain where they have sought refuge.
“I went to Colorado City to see this rebel for myself, this survivor,” writes Berkeley, “to congratulate her on her courage and to give her support.” Berkeley photographs Ruth in the desert scrub in traditional Mormon dresses. The dresses, Berkeley tells us, are “prairie dresses modeled after nineteenth-century Mormons, as a form of respect and reverence for values of the past. These modest dresses cover the body from neck to wrist to ankles.” Berkeley photographs Ruth in these dresses, in kitchens and in fields, in the river and in caves. Ruth seems distant in most of the pictures, preoccupied or formal. Unknowable, she could be a settler, certainly an anachronism, maybe a spirit or a ghost, so unlikely does it seem that this woman should appear alone in such environments and that she should be so indifferent to the camera. Is she waiting, or simply being?
We learn that Berkeley and Ruth have a falling out, and that after they part ways Berkeley meets Spice near a hot spring in Utah. She photographs Spice in Ruth’s dresses to continue telling Ruth’s story, which blurs into Spice’s story. In the sequencing of the book, Ruth, after becoming increasingly invisible, is transported, maybe through water or through the sunset of the western sky, and appears to be reborn as Spice. We learn that Spice’s life parallels Ruth’s in many ways, and also that she has struggled with addictions, leading her to her life on the margins of society and to the edge of nature. The photographs of Spice have a sharper, more present-day feel: Spice’s eye contact is more seeking and vulnerable, more desperate; Spice’s makeup runs, she huddles in a hoodie with a cat. She too apparently is transported, though it feels less like rapture and more like she has been claimed by the earth. Berkeley’s engagement with these two women speaks to the difficulty of life alone that is a price of both independence and exile. Each of these women has tried in her way to be free. Is one a future incarnation of the other? Are they necessarily alone- that is, could two such women never meet?
Doubling motifs adhere to stories about the American west, perhaps because of the allure of the possibility of reinvention and its accompanying risk of failure. Alfred Hitchock’s 1958 film Vertigo is a male director’s story about a man who refashions one woman in the image of another who he has lost when in fact they are the same woman. In many of David Lynch’s film and television works, the wish or recognition that things could have played out differently calls into being an alternate reality in which one set of possibilities threatens to leach through into the other. Both suggest redemption in reincarnation, where sorrow drives a narrative to produce a second chance, but the second chance is inevitably dressed in its own tragedies.
In The Walking Woman, Berkeley’s initial attempt to photograph Spice in Ruth’s dresses feels like an attempt to correct Ruth’s broken narrative, but by the end of the book we can understand the photographs of both Ruth and Spice as part of a larger pattern. Ruth and Spice do not stand for each other; Berkeley shows us how Spice with her restless unease cannot stand in for Ruth, also restless but largely stoic. Unlike doublings that are driven by a desire that the world be different in a certain way, the walking woman is doubled to reinforce the idea that some people cannot accept or be accepted by a world that asks her to conform to its expectations. With repetition, the exiled woman is less an anomaly, more an archetype.
Like Austin’s narrator, Berkeley is curious about how outsiders who have rejected society's values can find peace with their own ways. By the end of Austin’s story the narrator understands that the walking woman is neither insane nor broken, but has chosen to live on her own terms. In the moment before this realization, the narrator weighs society’s complicated expectations, pressures, and inconveniences and intrusions against the straightforward desires of this woman. One of the most powerful lines in Austin’s story appears on the inside back cover: “At least one of us is wrong. To work and to love and to bear children. That sounds easy enough. But the way we live establishes so many things of much more importance.”
A small inserted addendum provides much of the detail about Ruth, Spice, and Berkeley’s experiences, with a list of statements and quotes that flow fluidly from one speaker to another. It becomes easy to lose track of who is speaking as they are all speaking to the same story. The layering and multivocality come together beautifully. Every aspect of the book – the pastel palettes, alternately bleached and saturated, realized in the images and in the pages and cover of the book; Austin’s story; the assembled voices, with Ruth, Spice, and Berkeley’s own voice as narrator – combine to bear witness to each walking woman’s surrender to the landscape. “At least one of us is wrong”: Berkeley invites us to ask how our encounter with the walking woman changes our sense of the possible and the necessary.
“She came and went about our western world on no discoverable errand, and whether she had had some place of refuge where she lay by in the interim, or whether between her seldom, unaccountable appearances in our quarter she went on steadily walking, was never learned. She came and went, often in a kind of muse of travel which the untrammeled space begets, or at rare intervals flooding wondrously with talk, never of herself, but of things she had known and seen.” “The Walking Woman”, Mary Austin (1907)