A walk can often help me solve a problem, issue or make a decision. I am not alone in this way of thinking.
Have you ever seen the Latin phrase Solvitur ambulando?ˈIt translates as “it is solved by walking.” The saying is often attributed to Saint Augustine, though in a poem with that phrase as a title by Billy Collins, he credits it to a “thoughtful Roman.”
The maxim makes it sound so simple: go for a walk until you find a solution then walk back home with a clear head.
And what about the mathematician who tried to figure out some devilish mind-crusher like Goldbach’s conjecture and taking the Latin to heart, walked to the very bottom of Patagonia?
There he stood on a promontory, so the locals like to tell you, staring beyond the end of the hemisphere,
with nothing but the cries of seabirds, waves exploding on the rocks, clouds rushing down the sky, and him having figured the whole thing out.
In an interview, Collins explained a bit about the poem: ” I do have a poem in this new book called “Solvitur Ambulando,” which is Latin for ‘it is solved by walking,’ and the poem is sort of about that belief that, if you have a problem, you take it out for a walk, and you don’t turn around until you have some clarification. So, the poem, really, is about someone who just walks for hundreds of miles without clarification. Walking is always a good time to pick up something.”
Poets are “working” on their poems all the time, so don’t think that if you see a poet gazing out the window, having a drink and staring into space or walking in the park that they aren’t hard at work. Of course, Max Beerbohm said, “The most difficult thing about being a poet is knowing what to do with your remaining twenty-three and a half hours a day”.
These days the phrase can mean more than just walking and might refer to a problem which is solved by a practical experiment.
In The Tao of Travel by Paul Theroux, the phrase comes up several times. It also appears in the writings of Aleister Crowley and Oliver Sacks.
Here’s an odd one – it is the motto of the Royal Air Forces Escaping Society which concerns those Royal Air Forces airmen who “failed to return” from sorties during WWII but either evaded capture or more rarely escaped from captivity.
I also feel that using walking meditation (kinhin) that is practiced between long periods of the sitting meditation (zazen), is another kind of way to solve by walking. The practice is used in Zen, Chan Buddhism, Korean Seon and Vietnamese Thiền.
And that Goldbach Conjecture that Billy Collins referenced in his poem is a yet unproven conjecture that is one of the oldest unsolved problems in mathematics. In case you want to walk and try to solve it, it states that every even integer greater than two is the sum of two prime numbers. The conjecture has been tested for numbers up into the hundreds of trillions, but is still unproven. I could take a very long walk and still get no closer to the answer to this conjecture.
I picked up the book When Einstein Walked with Gödelthis past week at the library because of the title and the photo on the cover of the two mathematicians walking across a campus in Princeton, New Jersey.
I was disappointed that the entire book was not about the two of them, but is instead a collection of essay by Jim Holt. The title essay is one I really like as it deals with one of my favorite topics – our changing notions of time. It comes from a friendship between Albert Einstein and Kurt Gödel when they were both working in Princeton in the 1930s. Einstein had shaken the physical world with his work, and Gödel had shaken mathematics. They ended up taking almost daily walks to their offices at the Institute for Advanced Study.
Gödel would have looked pretty fancy (he liked white linen suits) and Einstein would have looked like the absent-minded genius that we know with his crazy hair and too-big pants.
But what really interests me in reading the essay today was the walking. Today was a very nice spring day that was warmer than it has been. I took the covers of the deck furniture and sat outside with my lunch and coffee. And I went for a walk.
I love walking and I am a firm believer in the power of walking to spark creativity and thought. (More on that tomorrow) Of course, it would be great to have the content of those walking conversations between Al and Kurt. I imagine that the conversations went beyond math and physics, though I’m sure math and science were the main themes.
I have so far only skimmed a few of the other essays in the book, but each could be a walking conversation. Did you know that the word “scientist” was only coined in 1833? It was a philosopher, William Whewell, who used it in his efforts to “professionalize” science and separate it from philosophy. Holt quotes Freeman Dyson (another person at the Institute who I actually got to meet and talk with briefly when he gave a talk at NJIT) as saying that “Science grew to a dominant position in public life, and philosophy shrank. Philosophy shrank even further when it became detached from religion and from literature.”
I certainly couldn’t keep up with Einstein and Godel on the science of time, but I would love to put in my own ideas and get some feedback from the boys.
Some of Holt’s questions that he attempts to answer in the essay are also intriguing ideas for a walking conversation. Does time exist? What is infinity? Why do mirrors reverse left and right but not up and down? And the biographical sketches of famous and not-so-famous thinkers makes me want to go on walks with them too – Emmy Noether, Alan Turing, Benoit Mandelbrot, Ada Lovelace and others.
While in New York City last weekend and staying near The Battery end of Manhattan, I went out for my walk and decided to follow some of the path that Herman Melville would have traveled in his days there.
With an online walking tour as a guide, I set out. The place I wanted to really see was the Custom House where he worked as a customs inspector. I like to imagine him sneaking in some literary time between working on boring forms about tariffs.
Even with a guide, it can be confusing as there are several “Customs Houses” in the city. One is the Federal Hall at 26 Wall Street that had been the U.S. capital until 1790 when that honor moved to Philadelphia and the building went back to housing the government of New York City. The building was razed with the opening of the current New York City Hall in 1812. You can see part of the original railing and balcony floor where Washington was inaugurated in the memorial there. The current classical building was built as the first purpose-built U.S. Custom House for the Port of New York and opened in 1842. A nice place to visit, but no connection to Melville.
In 1862, Customs moved to 55 Wall Street which is where Melville spent his time. Now known as The First National City Bank Building, it rests upon the foundation and lower portion of The Merchants’ Exchange, built in 1842.
Melville’s wife’s family used their influence to obtain a position for him as customs inspector for the City of New York in 1866. This was a humble position, but with a decent salary. He held the post for 19 years. He had a reputation of being the only honest employee in a notoriously corrupt institution.
Though he never knew it, his position and income “were protected throughout the periodic turmoil of political reappointments by a customs official who never spoke to Melville but admired his writings: future US president Chester A. Arthur” (Olsen-Smith).
The basement vaults below Melville held millions of dollars of gold and silver as this was one of six United States Sub-Treasury locations at that time. .
The Merchants’ Exchange replaced the previous exchange which burned down in the Great Fire of New York in 1835
“…it’s worth pointing out that [Herman Melville] worked in [the New York Custom House] as a deputy customs inspector between 1866 and 1885. Nineteen years, and he never got a raise – four dollars a day, six days a week. He was by then a washed-up writer, forgotten and poor. I used to find this subject heartbreaking, a waste: the greatest living American author was forced to spend his days writing tariff reports instead of novels. But now, knowing what I know about the sleaze of the New York Custom House, and the honorable if bitter decency with which Melville did his job, I have come to regard literature’s loss as the republic’s gain. Great writers are a dime a dozen in New York. But an honest customs inspector in the Gilded Age? Unheard of.”
― Sarah Vowell, Assassination Vacation
Just prior to his Custom House days, his writing career was not very successful. His greatest sales had come from his earliest books of adventure and travel. His first book was Typee (1846), a highly romanticized account of his life among Polynesians. That best-seller allowed him to write a “sequel” Omoo (1847). These books gave him enough money to marry Elizabeth Shaw, daughter of a prominent Boston family,
Next, he got to write a novel not based on his own travel experiences. That novel was Mardi (1849), also a sea narrative but a very philosophical one. It didn’t sell at all. It wasn’t what readers expected (or wanted) from Melville. He went back to something closer to the earlier books with Redburn (1849). This story about life on a merchant ship was better received by reviewers. So was the next book about the hard life aboard a man-of-war, White-Jacket (1850). But the books did not bring enough money to sustain the family.
In the summer of 1850, Melville moved his growing family to Arrowhead farm in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. There he befriended fellow novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne. Melville dedicated Moby-Dick to Hawthorne. Melville started the novel in New York in 1850, but finished it in Pittsfield the following summer. But this great American novel was a commercial failure, and the reviews were mixed.
Just to give a sense of those literary times, along with Moby Dick was the publication of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and in 1855 Thoreau’s Walden and Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.
Melville was no longer a popular or well-known author and Pierre (1852) was at least partially a satire on the literary culture of the time – and not a best-seller. Either was his Revolutionary War novel Israel Potter (1855) which was first serialized in Putnam’s magazine but not well received by critics or readers as a book.
Melville published some excellent short fiction in magazines during this slow period: “Bartleby, the Scrivener” (1853), “The Encantadas” (1854), and “Benito Cereno” (1855) which were collected in 1856 as The Piazza Tales.
He wasn’t totally broke and in 1857 he traveled to England and did some lecture tours to earn money. He was reunited briefly with Hawthorne in England. He was also able to tour the Near East.
The last prose he would publish was the quite different and interesting novel, The Confidence-Man (1857).
“Where does any novelist pick up any character? For the most part, in town, to be sure. Every great town is a kind of man-show, where the novelist goes for his stock, just as the agriculturist goes to the cattle-show for his.
—The Confidence Man
With money running out, they left the farm and returned to New York so he could take a position as Customs Inspector. They moved to Allan Melville’s house at 104 East 26th Street, for which they traded their Pittsfield farm.
Melville turned to poetry. That first year at the Customs House he published Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War which contains his poems on moral questions about the American Civil War.
Probably he had given up on the novels due to the poor sales and reviews. Publishers probably weren’t interested either. But I think the trips abroad had an influence on his thinking and I can see him sneaking in some poetry at lunch and breaks from Customs House work at his desk as he walked and maybe stopped coffee houses around Wall Street.
“… the New York guidebooks are now vaunting of the magnitude of a town, whose future inhabitants, multitudinous as the pebbles on the beach, and girdled in with high walls and towers, flanking endless avenues of opulence and taste, will regard all our Broadways and Bowerys as but the paltry nucleus to their Nineveh. From far up the Hudson, beyond Harlem River where the young saplings are now growing, that will overarch their lordly mansions with broad boughs, centuries old; they may send forth explorers to penetrate into the then obscure and smoky alleys of the Fifth Avenue and Fourteenth Street; and going still farther south, may exhume the present Doric Custom-house, and quote it as a proof that their high and mighty metropolis enjoyed a Hellenic antiquity.”
― Herman Melville, Redburn: His First Voyage
I made a stop at 54 Pearl Street, which would have been Fraunces Tavern in Melville’s time. It’s not here anymore, so I had to imagine him at what was described as “a slightly rundown tavern and meeting place.” At numbers 58 and 62, you get a glimpse of what he would describe as “grimlooking warehouses.”
Along Pearl Street was Coenties Slip, a man-made inlet, now filled in and making up parts of Water, Front and South Street. Melville knew the area as a boy, and wrote in Redburn: “…somewhere near ranges of grim-looking warehouses, with rusty iron doors and shutters, and tiled roofs; and old anchors and chain-cables piled on the walk. Old-fashioned coffee-houses, also, much abound in that neighborhood, with sun-burnt sea-captains going in and out, smoking cigars, and talking about Havana, London, and Calcutta.”
This could not have been a happy time for Melville and his family. In 1867, his oldest child Malcolm died at home from a self-inflicted gunshot, which may have been an accident or may have been suicide.
Melville died from cardiovascular disease in 1891, but he had continued to write in his retirement years. Two more volumes of poetry were privately published and one was left unpublished. He was working on another sea novel but the unfinished Billy Budd was not published until 1924.
The 1919 centennial of his birth seems to have started a “Melville Revival”and critics and scholars explored his life, novels, stories and poetry. Certainly, Moby Dick makes every list of the great American works of fiction.
On my walk, I visited (as we know Melville did) Trinity Church to climb up into the belfry. I’m not sure how religious Melville was, but I know that we seem to share similar spiritual concerns, so a prayer for him seemed appropriate.
I walked by what would have been the Post Office a block away from the church on Nassau Street between Liberty and Cedar Streets. It was demolished in 1882. I thought about Melville possibly mailing off his writing to publishers there in the hopes of reviving his career.
If he got to go out for lunch during a work day, he would have seen clerks heading up and down the this busy street. Maybe he dropped in on his brother, Allan, whose law office was at No. 10 on the second floor. It certainly figures into his wonderful short story “Bartleby the Scrivener” with “the numerous stalls nigh the Custom House and Post Office.”
This section from Nassau to Broadway is sometimes called “Bartleby’s Wall Street.” I found no one selling ginger cakes or any apple sellers that would allow me “to moisten [their] mouths very often with Spitzenbergs.”
If Herman’s daily work was boring, being a scrivener like Allan, (they were the all-male secretarial pool of that day) and copying legal documents in “quadruplicates of a week’s testimony” sounds even more boring.
I didn’t get to the intersection of Park Avenue south and 26th Street which was dedicated in 1985 as Herman Melville Square. This is where Melville lived from 1863 to 1891.
A giant species of sperm whale was named in honor of Melville. Livyatan melvillei was discovered by paleontologists who were fans of Moby-Dick. I suppose it is a kind of sad irony that this species is extinct.
“A traveler! I love this title. A traveler is to be reverenced as such.
His profession is the best symbol of our life.
Going from ___ toward ___; it is the history of every one of us.”
Henry David Thoreau’s 200th birthday is this year. I have never quite felt comfortable with the idea of marking birthdays for people who have died, but we do it. I have written about Henry before because I find him an interesting person of contrasts.
He went against the times he lived in. He went to Harvard College and was an intellectual, but in our general image of him, he is a non-conformist. He walked away from society to live in the woods for a year. But he went back. My favorite little anecdote about Hank is that in that year at Walden Pond, he often walked back into town to get some cookies from his mother and have her do his laundry. It is like camping in the woods, but not too far away from a convenience store.
Thoreau was an abolitionist, a serious and the solitary walker and a passionate naturalist. He modeled his life on religious convictions. He believed that each of us has a connection with divine spirit, though I suspect people generally think of him as less Religious and more spiritual. He never went to church. He never married. He never voted and he didn’t pay his taxes.
He literally talked to trees. He was an environmentalist, although that term was not used in his time. He saw a tragedy coming for future generations because of the heedlessness he saw growing around him.
There is a new biography of HDT out this month that I reserved at my library simply titled Henry David Thoreau: A Life. Will I discover new things about Thoreau when I read it? Certainly. Will it change my own life, as I feel my first reading of Walden did? I highly doubt that. That’s not a flaw in the book, but a flaw in me. Or maybe it’s a flaw in almost all of us – our lessening ability to change as we get older.
I found out about the book listening to an episode of Radio Open Source, one of three episodes on Thoreau. Pronunciation trivia: “Thoreau” is pronounced like the word “thorough” though most people tend to emphasize the second syllable instead.
Something that I always liked about Thoreau is that he seems to have kept himself very busy. As someone who spends too much time making To Do lists and not enough time doing things on the list, I admire his work ethic.
He worked. He was alternately a handyman, carpenter, surveyor, lecturer, businessman (his family owned a pencil-manufacturing company) and a constant writer. He spent nearly a decade trying to describe that famous one year on Walden Pond and finally published his Walden or Life in the Woods.
He was a bit of an anarchist. In 1846, he refused to pay six years of delinquent poll taxes because of his opposition to the Mexican–American War and slavery. He spent a night in jail, but was freed the next day when someone, probably his aunt, paid the tax, against his wishes. He used the experience for several lectures on tax resistance, the rights of the individual to self-government, and it eventually became an essay best known as “Civil Disobedience.”
Thoreau studied Indian spiritual philosophies and religions and they appear in his writings. He even followed a diet of rice (“It was fit that I should live on rice, mainly, who loved so well the philosophy of India” and enjoyed flute playing (a musical pastime of Krishna) and yoga.
Henry (whose first name was officially David, but he reversed the first and middle name after college) was also very much at home on rivers. Water worlds engaged him. He made his own boat and he paddled and sailed on nearby waterways. He looked into the water in a scientific way and a philosophical way.
Before his Walden year, he had spent A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers paddling from Concord, Massachusetts to Concord, New Hampshire, and back, with his brother John in 1839. John died of tetanus in 1842 and Thoreau wrote the book, in part, as a tribute to his brother. He did the first draft during that year at Walden Pond along with his journaling that would become Walden
HDT also loved solitary walking. Between 1849 and 1857, Thoreau walked the length of Cape Cod four times, passing through nearly every town on what he described as “the bared and bended arm of Massachusetts.” Along the way, he recorded observations that became the basis for lectures, essays, and, eventually, a book-length travelogue that was published posthumously as Walking in 1864.
After college, came a short period of teaching first in a public school and then in the Concord Academy started by Henry and his brother. The school closed after John’s death.
In Concord, he met Ralph Waldo Emerson who took a paternal interest in Thoreau, advising the young man and introducing him to local writers and thinkers, including Nathaniel Hawthorne. His friendships with Emerson and others in the transcendentalist movement had their ups and downs, but it led to his being a popular lecturer and an anti-slavery activist.
In 1841, Thoreau moved into the Emerson house and served as the children’s tutor, editorial assistant, repairman and gardener. For a few months in 1843, he tutored the sons of William Emerson on Staten Island, while he was looking to make contacts with literary men and journalists in New York City. That was how he found his future literary representative, Horace Greeley.
Thoreau returned to Concord and worked in his family business for most of his adult life.
In April 1844, he and his friend Edward Hoar accidentally set a fire that ironically consumed 300 acres of Walden Woods.
His experiment in simple living began the following year on July 4, 1845. He moved to a small house he had built on land owned by Emerson around the shores of Walden Pond. The house was in “a pretty pasture and woodlot” of 14 acres. It was 1.5 miles from his family home.
He left Walden Pond on September 6, 1847 – 2 years, 2 weeks and 2 days after loving there – and returned to the Emerson house.
In Walden, he wrote “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
Thoreau moved out of Emerson’s house in 1848 and stayed at a house on nearby Belknap Street. In 1850, he and his family moved into a house at 255 Main Street, where he lived until his death.
When his aunt Louisa asked him in the last weeks of his life if he had made his peace with God, Thoreau responded, “I did not know we had ever quarreled.”
Thoreau’s last words were “Now comes good sailing”, followed by two unexplained words, “moose” and “Indian”.
He died on May 6, 1862, at age 44.
During his rather short life, Thoreau had witnessed the transformation of his world from a community of farmers and artisans into a bustling, interconnected commercial nation. This was not a change that thrilled him.
He did not see those changes away from nature, self-reliance and simplicity as positive progress.
He was a contemplative individual and a proponent of finding the wilderness, wildness, even the bewilderness that remained in nature. Even if that wilderness was just a small woods, park or river near your home.
My sons gave me a Fitbit for Christmas in 2015 and I have tried to hit the recommended 10,000 steps a day. That’s the number that has always been recommended. I don’t hit that number most days. I seem to average out at about 6000. That’s better than nothing but not enough. But now it seems even 10,000 steps isn’t “enough.”
The best thing about having one of these fitness trackers is that it makes you mindful of your inactivity. On lousy winter days when I stayed in the house and worked on the computer, I would log less than 2000 steps.
Now, on the Fitbit blog they discuss a recent study that found that employees who sit the most tend to have higher BMIs, bigger waistlines, and higher cholesterol than those who moved more. That is not a shocking result. I could have told you that and you wouldn’t have to give me a grant. The researchers also found that those who were hitting about 15,000 steps (roughly seven miles) a day had normal BMIs and waistlines and no heightened risk of heart disease.
But 15,000 steps – 7 miles?
I wouldn’t label myself as “sedentary” but I certainly spend too much time in front of screens – computers and TV. I don’t need a fancy tracker to tell me that.
The suggestion is to increase your steps by 1,000 then 2,000 a day for a week or two and continue until you get to 15,000.
Part of the problem for me is boredom. I have never been able to do the gym thing. Exercise on machines totally bores me. And when it comes to steps… I love walking, but I like walking in the woods or at least in a park. I do that whenever I can, but I also have been walking around the workplace and around my neighborhood.
The suggested ways to increase your steps are always things like squeezing in a couple of 10 to 15-minute walks and walking everywhere within a one-mile radius instead of using the car. Of course, the walk to the coffee shop probably isn’t “cardio” unless you are really walking fast.
Maybe it is because I taught in a public school for many years, but I still find myself feeling really tired and ready for a nap around 3 pm. What is going on with my body clock?
Sleepiness generally hits all of us 7-9 hours after we wake up from a night’s sleep. That’s not very convenient for anyone who works a normal day. If you wake up at 7 am, it will hit you somewhere from 2-4 pm.
Generally, we fight off the urge to sleep, but our alertness drops. Now that i am in unretired mode, I don’t fight off the feeling much. I take a nap, but for most of you that is not an option.
The fatigue can also be attributed to adenosine, a chemical that accumulates during the day and causes sleepiness. But don’t go out trying to find some adenosine to help you sleep at night. It is used for treating certain types of irregular heartbeat and during a stress test of the heart.
When this sleepiness hits, your internal body temperature also drops starts dipping, I do like a blanket for nap time and a drop in body temperature signals your brain to conserve energy and prepare for sleep.
So what can you do when a nap is not an option? Many people chug down some caffeine or crave a sugary snack. These are not very healthy relief. I love my morning coffee kick, but I can’t do caffeine in the afternoon without wrecking my sleep that night. My wife can have a strong cup of caffeine before she goes to sleep.
What are alternatives?
Dehydration can cause sleepiness, so a glass or two of water can also help. I try to log 64 ounces every day on my Fitbit app.
Get outside and get some sunlight. Twenty minutes of sunlight (through clouds counts too) sends a signal to that brain clock to turn on some energy to wake up and be more alert.
I love to walk and there is evidence that even a 10-minute walk that is brisk can energize you again. You can do it inside, but a walk outdoors adds that sunlight boost.
Want to add more to that walk? Make it social. Some research shows that talking with someone and social interaction can help give your mind a break and gets you to focus outside yourself. Get a walk buddy. Have a walking meeting. Even a phone call (not a text!) might help.
Lots of websites, like the Fitbit blog, will tell you that nap time isn’t just for pre-schoolers. Tell your boss that data shows that a brief, 20-minute nap can be enough to boost mental and physical performance.