Creating Technology for Social Change

The Iambic Pentameter of a 7 Year Walk: Paul Salopek Out of Eden

The poetry of human journeys has been an enduring reservoir of human experience since our earliest days–arresting and inspiring even the most cynical among us. It siezed my imagination as a teenager reading Egil’s saga. It led me through six years of academic study on literature and writing. Today at Harvard, listening to two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Paul Salopek describe his newest project, I felt that timeless pull once more.

Paul is taking a 7-year journey Out of Eden, to walk the story of human migration. He first mentioned the project to Ann Marie Lipinski, Curator of the Nieman Foundation, over dinner. “I’m thinking about walking across the globe,” he said, took a napkin, and drew the line he now hopes to walk for seven years.

(photo by Paul Salopek)

Lipinksi reflects on Paul’s journey. Out of Eden is a response to the erosion of global public reporting and the rise of online news, which often seems politically-influenced, superficial, fragmented, and a-historical. It’s an experiment in “slow journalism.” Although we could tell the story using mapping technology, mobile phones, and visual simulations, Paul hopes “we can get rid of some of that clutter, walking and examining [the important policy issues of our time] at three miles of an hour.”

Next up is Oliver Payne, the editor of National Geographic. He takes us back to his first memory of an editorial collaboration with Paul, 20 years ago, when Paul was a new staff writer at the magazine. At that time, Paul’s main job was to write story captions. Oliver was new as well. When Paul submitted his first caption, the fact-checkers went over his work line-by-line. They normally rip into copy like a vultures over a piece of steak, but Paul’s work was clean. When Oliver did offer suggestions, Paul would go silent, say “hmm, that’s good,” put his editor back in his place.

In 2010, Paul sent National Geographic an email, while editing a book from his New Mexico cabin. He told Oliver an email about Out of Eden. “I’m possibly insane enough to do it,” he wrote. Paul’s ethos, character, generosity, grace, and good-guy-ness inspires us all to reach into ourselves and come up with something better, Oliver says.

Support in journalism and digital content for Paul’s project comes from National Geographic and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Other partners include Project Zero, the Pulitzer Center, the Knight Science Journalism Fellowship, and the Field Museum in Chicago.

Paul steps up next and shows us a 3D map of the world which traces a red line of his planned walk, which starts in January. It’s a journey that our ancestors made between 50 and 70 thousand years ago, one that was formative for our species. As we moved along across the surface of the planet, we innovated our way across. We became a troubleshooting species, overcoming glaciers, predators the size of volkswagen beetles, droughts and famines, and in the process became truly human. It’s the long walk to our becoming.

Paul will start in the Rift Valley in Ethiopia, cross three dozen borders on three continents, scores of languages and ethnic groups. After Ethiopia, he will travel through the levant and make his way to China. He’ll go as far into Siberia as possible and head across Bering Strait. Next, Paul will walk straight down the Americas to Tierra del Fuego, where his seven year journey ends.

Why walk? Why not take a cab, a plane, or even a matatu? Paul strides across the room and counts the iambic pentameter of his stride. Walking, like journalism, involves pacing, rhythm, and absorbing a story through your skin. That’s the story he wants to walk.

Science and art are the other two legs of Paul’s project. “How far do you think the average American walks in a year?” he asks us. Some people walk only 40 metres a day. Active people walk around 1300 miles a year. What about our ancestors? The average male hunter-gatherer walks 10 miles a day, and women walk around 6. For most of human history, we walked over 3,000 miles a year. Our ancestors would radiate out from a centre and bring back stories. End-to-end, they would walk the equivalent distance from Boston to Portland Oregon every single year.

“We are walking machines,” Paul tells us. “That’s normal, and what I’m returning to. Sitting down is extreme.” Paul stands on a table. “When you hang out with hunter gatherers,” they do sometimes sit down on the ground, spreading their feet to smoke or eat. Mostly however, they’ll squat, talking, staying on their feet. Paul’s legs start quivering at 45 minutes, but they stay on their feet for hours.

Paul talks to us about slow journalism and the poetry that makes his project so compelling. As a foreign correspondent “covering” stories, he would fly to a place, write a story, and move on to the next story. At some point, Paul began to wonder about “the stories in-between.” Might the stories we don’t give attention be the stories that are truly important?

Globalisation is knitting together humanity. Paul wants to reveal the hidden connections of humanity, to discover the important connective tissue that links us all. “What will the pace of a heartbeat do to my sentences?” he asks. “If my work stays the same as I move, then I will have failed,” he tells us.

By walking, Paul will stay long enough to pick up details without staying too long to become jaded. He wants to walk a thin line between keeping fresh eyes and inhabiting a story. He hopes that five kilometers an hour is the right pace.

What kind of stories will come out of this walk? Stories about climate change, resource conflict, cultural endurance, and political change. Paul expects to draw on his personal history as a foreign correspondent; he has already covered two thirds of the route:

“A story that revolves around locomotion, human migration, and dispersal, will naturally deal with human migration.” He shows us the migration from Chinese moving out of villages to look for work– the largest migration in history. He shows a photo a skipper from a fisherman who’s plundering natural resources off the coast of Angola. He shows us a photo of a Somaliland money market as an example of economics stories. He shows us photos of African children; Africa has six of the ten fastest growing economies in the world. He wants to tell stories about the media. Will skinny white American journalists be telling those stories or nomads with their mobile phones?

Paul will also take photographic “core samples” that he shares out to the web: photos of the landscape, the sky, the surface of the planet, and a person that lives nearby. He’s going to ask every person the same questions. Paul shows us a photo of the finish line in Tierra del Fuego. “When I arrive in 2020, I’m going to take of my hat, unlace my boots, and bow to the ghost of Darwin.” Paul will stitch these core samples together into a cinematic presentation.

“Ultimately, this is a journey that’s not mine. It’s yours; it’s everybody’s. It’s a journey we have all taken. Some ancestor in our family tree has walked it.” Paul doesn’t want to tell Paul Salopek’s ramble. He wants to tell the travelogue, the quest story of everyone’s boots.

Paul starts in January, and you can follow his quest at #edenwalk and

Ann Marie Lipinski asks Paul if he plans to bring in the voices of the people in the places he visits. In the rift valley, Paul may be walking alongside a few people pushing animals across the surface of the earth. At those times, Paul may not be checking the news. To introduce the world while experiencing a story can sometimes be distracting, though he will need that access when it’s time to write. “My sensory horizon will expand and contract depending on what stories I’m writing.”

Paul’s former work relied on anonymity. How does he plan to deal with the potential for spectacle? News about Paul will travel. How will he fend that off? Paul responds out that people will be able to take photos of him, geocode them, and track his story. If he fights that, he could risk creating a counter-spectacle. He does plan to have a week-long time delay on the journalism, adding a little blur to his precise location. “If mayors greet me, and I get offers of free stays at hotels, or if there’s a Paul Salopek raffle, I would not be able to continue walking.” That might change; maybe he’ll be selling raffle tickets for the privilege of carrying his pack. Paul thinks that too much is happening in the world for him to become a celebrity.

How will Paul stay safe? Paul says that he has been in greatest danger when he’s in a hurry, when he doesn’t listen to locals and drives into danger. Although he will be more vulnerable on foot, he also hopes to move slow enough to gain protection from human word of mouth. All the same, Paul is setting up a system of fallbacks and advisors who know the regions he’s traveling.

Paul thinks that American kids tend to ask more about safety; they see the world as a dangerous place. But even in a war zone, people’s default response is an open hand. If you can make momentary eye contact, keep your hands in a certain attitude, move slowly, and not too slowly, signalling non-threatening attitudes, people will often respond with a natural human instinct of hospitality. Paul believes that wherever you are in the world, you can find someone within walking distance who will feed you, clothe you, and take you in.

What will Paul put on his ebook reader? Aside from journalism, Paul plans to carry a world library going back to some of the earliest quest tales. As he prepares, most of his reading has been background research on the places and issues he expects to encounter, ranging from climate change to animal husbandry and current affairs.

How will he handle the diversity of languages? Out of Eden isn’t an extreme sport; Paul will be accompanied by walking fixers. He hopes to walk slowly enough to pick up Arabic, the Turkic languages, and maybe even Chinese.

On the web, anyone with summer vacation photos will be competing for attention with Paul’s work. How will he stand out? Firstly, National Geographic will foreground the media Paul creates. The web is also a great place to find the audience that cares about what he’s creating. He’s content if the project doesn’t dominate the media so long as a caring audience can experience it.

Will Paul react to online commenters? Paul doesn’t plan to start with heavy interaction, but that might well change over the seven years. “If the story is compelling enough, people will wait,” he hopes.

Laura Amico asks for Paul’s thoughts on the experience of time. Paul wonders what might happen if he’s too slow on foot to follow a story. Might the walk make his story less representative or less artful, he wonders. He expects his pace to vary substantially. Maybe after long periods of quiet, he may move to in-the-moment reporting.

Ethan Zuckerman talks about the idea that the rythm of Paul’s writing may change over those seven years. At the beginning, Paul may want to get away from the fast news cycles. That is likely to change. As he walks through the snow of Vladivostok, the community who are still watching may become very important to Paul.

How will Paul’s idea of home change over time? Will his family visit him? He’s only human after all. Family and friends will be joining him. Paul’s wife, who is a visual artist, will pick places in the world to work from, and Paul will walk to her. “I have never really stopped roaming since I have been six years old,” he says. “I don’t belong in a lot of places, but I don’t know how that’s going to change.”

Paul will be vulnerable to sickness. Walking connects him to people, and he’ll have to accept hospitality from people in places in the world where the dangers aren’t guns and ammo. It’s no fun dealing with illness, Paul responds. He has faced serious tropical diseases in the past. What’s the most dangerous thing on his journey? The microbes on the blade of a food knife. Paul will carry a powerful water filtration system and powerful medicines.

Why isn’t Paul walking through Europe? Migration is a complicated word, since it implies intent. People ate their way across the surface of the planet. Paul’s wife wants him to walk through Europe and stop in Paris. It would take another year or two, and a lot has been written about Europe. Paul is heading East instead of West.

Sandy Close of New American Media asks National Geographic what publishers and supporters can do to build international protocols to come to the help of explorers who get imprisoned. Oliver can’t respond in a general way, but National Geographic will be working to ensure Paul’s security throughout the trip.

Lipinski responds that it’s difficult to develop general protocols, since many issues are nation specific. When Paul was imprisoned in Sudan, the situation was highly dependent on the specific border Paul had crossed, relations between the US and Sudan, and so forth. It’s hard to develop general principles, but it takes a lot of coordination when these crises do happen.

How much will this project cost? Lipinski marvels at how inexpensive Paul’s project will be. Does he expect to set a model for great, inexpensive journalism? Paul doesn’t see his project as any kind of example. “I’ve come up with an idea that allows me to do what I love for a very long time.” Nevertheless, Paul does hope Out of Eden will inspire a greater appetite for global news.

Will Paul be the only one to speak in his stories? “I would love to be a flint, sparking other people’s narratives,” Paul concludes. He’s thinking about handing over his social media account off to other people in a region so they can share important themes from their lives. Even during times when Paul isn’t tweeting, his Twitter feed can function like a moving lens on the Twitter conversations in the regions he visits.