“In Wildness is the preservation of the world.” – Henry David Thoreau
It felt a little odd to download Thoreau’s essay, Walking, to my tablet to read. I’m not sure how Henry David would feel about digital books. But I know he would still recognize walking all these years later.
It appeared in the June 1862 issue of the Atlantic Monthly. He must have liked it because between 1851 and 1860 Thoreau read the piece aloud ten times, more than any other of his lectures. “I regard this as a sort of introduction to all that I may write hereafter.”
On the essay’s first page, he writes:
I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks, who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering; which word is beautifully derived “from idle people who roved about the country, in the middle ages, and asked charity, under pretence of going à la sainte terre” — to the holy land, till the children exclaimed, “There goes a sainte-terrer”, a saunterer — a holy-lander. They who never go to the holy land in their walks, as they pretend, are indeed mere idlers and vagabonds, but they who do go there are saunterers in the good sense, such as I mean. Some, however, would derive the word from sans terre, without land or a home, which, therefore, in the good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere. For this is the secret of successful sauntering. He who sits still in a house all the time may be the greatest vagrant of all, but the Saunterer, in the good sense, is no more vagrant than the meandering river, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea.
Thoreau mixed this essay in his lectures with another on wildness (not to be confused with wilderness) and says that private property is killing our capacity for wildness.
I love to walk. I try to walk outdoors every day. I try to walk, when I can, in whatever pieces of wilderness are nearby.
Like others, I find walking is a creative stimulant. I prefer a natural area but even walking in a city or around my suburban neighborhood can change the way you perceive the world.
A modern-day look at this is Wanderlust: A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit which looks at walking for pleasure as well as for political, aesthetic, and social meaning. Th book discusses some famous walkers that I admire (Wordsworth, Gary Snyder) and argues for preserving the time and space in which to walk in our world that lacks both wildness and wilderness.
Solnit cherishes walking’s “relaxed gait, one that allows us to take in sights, sounds, and smells that we might otherwise pass by” and its opportunity for private thought.
I am also not alone in thinking of walking in a health-minded way and as a low-impact way of shedding a few pounds and stretching a few muscles.
Thoreau and Solnit both use walking to lead them to other subjects. Walking and philosophizing make good partners.
Fossil evidence shows that the ability to move upright on two legs is the characteristic that separated humans from the other beasts and has allowed us to dominate them. I would say that walking connects us to those early walkers, but as I recently wrote about the stars, that is probably not scientifically accurate.
“Further falling away of my childhood star knowledge came when I learned that our Polaris, which marks the north celestial pole in the sky, was not the star those ancients would have used to navigate. Kochab and Pherkad at the end of the Little Dipper were closer to the north celestial pole in 600 B.C. Learning how our sky view of the heavens has changed over the centuries isn’t at all disappointing to me, but rather a reminder that everything is changing.”
I suspect that those early walkers were walking with a lot more survival in mind than my sauntering. “How we spend our days, is, of course, how we spend our lives,” wrote Annie Dillard in The Writing Life. We make some tradeoffs in deciding between presence and productivity.
Being present in a walk can help you to see. “The art of seeing has to be learned,” says Marguerite Duras. Try On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyeswhich records walks around a city block with eleven different “experts,” from an artist to a geologist to a dog. Yes, walk like a dog walks, like a child walks, be as mindful as Sherlock Holmes, be as tuned in as Thoreau.