There’s Something About Walking
“Faced with a scholarly book. — We are not among those who have ideas only between books, stimulated by books — our habit is to think outdoors, walking, jumping, climbing, dancing, preferably on lonely mountains or right by the sea where even the paths become thoughtful.”
Friedrich Nietzsche, “The Gay Science”, 366.
“I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil, — to regard man as an inhabitant, or part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society. I wish to make an extreme statement, if so I may make an emphatic one, for there are enough champions of civilization: the minister and the school-committee and every one of you will take care of that.”
Henry David Thoreau, “Walking”.
“Tourists. — They climb mountains like animals, stupid and sweating; one has forgotten to tell them that there are beautiful views on the way up.”
Friedrich Nietzsche, “The Wanderer and His Shadow”, 202.
Thoreau begins “Walking” by discussing the origins of the word sauntering, and muses over two possibilities. One is that to saunter comes “from idle people who roved about the country, in the middle ages, and asked charity, under the pretense of going to the à la Sainte Terre”, to the Holy Land. The second origin he considers is sans terre, without a home or land, which for Thoreau means “without a particular home, but equally at home everywhere.” Those who never make it to their professed destination of the Holy Land, Thoreau calls vagrants and vagabonds, on the other hand, “the saunterer in the good sense is no more vagrant than the meandering river.” Thoreau invites us to become saunterers in this double sense of actually journeying towards the holy land and of always being at home in the midst of our sojourn. “Every walk is a sort of crusade … to go forth and reconquer the Holy Land from the hands of Infidels.”
Thoreau remarks that to preserve his health and spirit he needs at least four hours a day of walking, “absolutely free from all worldly engagements.” He finds it astonishing that most people are confined to a small shop or an office for most of their lives, “as if legs were made to sit on.” Thinking of the shopkeeper and the mechanic, Thoreau says “I think they deserve some credit for not having committed suicide long ago.” He marvels at what courage must be mustered to remain seated inside at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, when one has already been sitting all morning long.
Thoreau laments that many of those who do go for walks only ever come back again to the same place they left by the same path, and so they spend half their time retracing their steps, and half their time returning to the village. Instead he asks that “we should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return.” Only “if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled your affairs, and are a freeman, then you are ready for a walk.”
Thoreau believes that we are naturally drawn to forests and fields when we walk. Sometimes, however, our feet have carried us into the forest while our minds are still occupied in the village. Finding himself an hour deep into the woods, but his mind occupied by busyness, even if by good works, makes Thoreau shudder and suspect himself as if he were “some worldly miser with a surveyor looking after his bounds, while heaven had taken place around him, and he did not see the angels going to and fro.” Instead, he encourages us to leave behind the dust of the marketplace and go far afield in body and in spirit. The dust of the marketplace settles on the roads that carry businessmen from village to village, these roads, he says, are no place for walking.
Thoreau encourages us to get away from all cultivation and improvements and to walk into the wilderness. “Nowadays almost all of man’s improvements, so called … simply deform the landscape, and make it more tame and cheap.” He delights in being able to easily walk away from all such landscaping into the wilderness, which for him still stretches unabated for thousands of miles to the West. He laments the day “when fences shall be multiplied, and man-traps and other engines invented to confine men to the public road, and walking over the surface of God’s earth shall be construed to mean trespassing.”
Thoreau’s hatred of the cultivation of the land, which goes so far as to detest front yards and pleasure gardens, mirrors his thoughts on the cultivation of human beings in society. “I rejoice that horses and steers have to be broken before they can be made the slaves of men, and that men themselves still have some wild oats to sow before they become submissive members of society.” The cultivation of individuals, like the breaking of horses, conceals the wild nature of human being and tames even one’s thoughts. “As the wild duck is more swift and beautiful than the tame, so is the wild — the mallard — thought which ‘mid falling dews wings its way above the fens.”
To recapture ones ability to think wild thoughts, Thoreau preaches “the gospel according to this moment”. “Above all, we cannot afford not to live in the present. He is blessed over all mortals who loses no moment of the passing life in remembering the past.” Perhaps no human ever will be so blessed, but we all certainly can seek the blessing of the present moment from time to time. For this Thoreau invites us to walk like a camel, the only animal to chew its food while it walks, and he asks us to ruminate, to let our thoughts chew themselves, while we give in to the rhythms of the walking body and find our way into the present moment. Only in doing so can we rediscover the wildness within us all: “in Wildness lies the preservation of the World.”
“Life consists with Wildness. The most alive is the wildest. Not yet subdued by man, its presence refreshes him. One who presses forward incessantly and never rested from his labors, who grew fast and made infinite demands on life, would always find himself in a new country or wilderness and surrounded by the raw materials of life.”
This wildness is the natural law inside of every plant, animal, and human, and for Thoreau the cultivating, taming actions of human beings do not take away this natural law, but seek to replace it with a law which comes from without. Society teaches us the rules to obey, and for Thoreau “there is something servile in seeking after a law which we may obey.” Instead Thoreau encourages us to seek out the inner laws of nature and to “take the liberty to live”; “a successful life knows no law.”
It is upon this same realization of these inner laws that Thoreau grounds his most important work, Civil Disobedience, and this ground runs like a thread through A Plea for John Brown, Walden, Life Without Principle, and other writings. In order to be ethical, for Thoreau, one has to discover the principles within oneself that connect us to the principles of the universe itself, and relate ourselves to the world, to both society and to the wilderness, along the axes of these universal principles.
Well, what are we to do in this day and age that Thoreau dreaded, where fences divide the land, and surveyors have chopped and parceled every inch of the earth; where the unabated wilderness that Thoreau loved to walk in far from roads and villages has itself been tamed, cultivated, and paved over? Can we still embrace the ideal of Walking that Thoreau thought was so important?
We can, if we are able to reject, to a degree, the dichotomy between cultivation and wildness that was so important to Thoreau. No amount of cultivation completely destroys the wildness within us, or else we could not walk our way back into this wildness. And, nature only ever seems to be tamed, like a dammed up river waiting patiently to spill over it’s bounds and unleash havoc upon humanity’s so-called improvements. The tree that is planted in a park or along a parkway does not think of itself as any less wild than its wayward cousins in a virgin forest. It still functions according its own inner natural laws of wildness, reaching simultaneously towards the sun and deep into the ground. The birds that land on its branches are never weighted down by the dust of the marketplace, and the city dwelling squirrel never loses a present moment to remembering a past one.
Our wildness cannot be removed from us, but it can be hidden from our view. If we wish to see the wildness around us we may be forced to see it in cultivated gardens as we walk past a hundred front yards, or perhaps climbing its way through a crack in the sidewalk, undaunted by hundreds of falling footsteps. A man-made retaining pond can be just as blue as the pure waters of Walden Pond, and when the spring comes and the ice begins to break it still fills the air with its thunderous booming.
To be able to see the wildness waiting to burst through the controlled urban environment one has to be acquainted with the wilderness. There is a sublime experience available in the less than tamed spaces of the world, a terrifying beauty that swallows human ego. While perfect rows of planted and manicured trees feed a sense of self and of purpose. Thoreau challenges us to go out in the wilderness and submerge ourselves in an environment which was not crafted for our comforts and whims; to get lost in the woods and to breathe the mountain air, “which feeds the spirit and inspires.” In our modern era we face a deeper challenge than he envisioned. Thoreau’s beloved Concord of 1862 has nothing on the sprawling concrete, metal, and glass cities of today, and who among us can simply walk from their habitual abode into such a wilderness as Thoreau enjoyed, everyday? The challenge we face is to breathe the mountain air in the city, to find the wilderness amidst the crowded and littered streets, and connect to the nature and natural laws inside our bodies while separated from unbounded Nature. The most important wilderness, however, lies within ourselves. To find it we need to journey to a wild place, once found, we simply need to walk ourselves into the wilderness inside our bodies, with a spirit of adventure and a longing for the present moment; which is itself the Holy Land.
“So we saunter toward the Holy Land, till one day the sun shall shine more brightly than ever he has done, shall perchance light up our whole lives with a great awakening light, as warm and serene and golden as on a bankside in autumn”