Walking with Thoreau

Walking seems a simple enough activity. We celebrate it when our children do it for the first time, but once that threshold is crossed, we think nothing more of it; we just do it. About the only time we appreciate it is when we feel like we are doing too much of it or cannot do it at all, yet for Henry David Thoreau, he thought we could not do it enough. 

Thoreau was not an exercise enthusiast. He did not recommend walking as a way to keep your cardiovascular system in good shape, though I doubt he would have minded the benefits of better health. “…the walking of which I speak has nothing in it akin to taking exercise, as it is called, as the sick take medicine at stated hours—as the swinging of dumb-bells or chairs; but is itself the enterprise and adventure of the day.” It was a healthy mind, one underpinned by a life lived deliberately, he was after, and for him, walking was partly the key. 

Best known for spending two years, two months, and two days near a pond called Walden, the Transcendentalist philosopher could not endure the day without having a walk; rather long walks, in fact. “I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.” It was the worldly engagements that troubled him. Thoreau took a dim view of society at large. 

Like many philosophers, to him society was a force man had to fight against because it sapped him of his authenticity and freedom. It was a civilizing force, but not in any positive sense. Those consumed with the trappings of society lived lives filled with too much efficiency and  convenience making a man dim by being too far removed from that best of teachers, Nature. 

“When sometimes I am reminded that the mechanics and shopkeepers stay in their shops not only all the forenoon, but all the afternoon too, sitting with crossed legs, so many of them—as if the legs were made to sit upon, and not to stand or walk upon—I think that they deserve some credit for not having all committed suicide long ago.”

This comfort society offers worried Thoreau, for when so little of life’s struggles have become mitigated, anxiety wells up like water from a spring, black and putrid with the decay of desires tempered, the zest for life like a knife dulled smacking of quiet desperation. 

I wish I walked more, particularly in the woods, for the world often seems too much with me; the problems of the day, the atrophy of development due to conveniences, flashy phone screens and political drama, the concern I have for myself, my appearances, my worldly goods. It is often hard to clear the mind, if it can be done at all. It is comforting to know that not every walk Thoreau took involved unencumbered bliss, “…it sometimes happens that I cannot easily shake off the village. The thought of some work will run in my head and I am not where my body is—I am out of my senses.”  

When we take off, strike out into the wilderness, we uncover a part of ourselves that exists out there, through the movement of our body. It is a type of awakening, that footstep after footstep, the mind removes itself a bit from the swirling cacophony of dates and details, expectations and requirements, externals, externals! Throeau says, the woods will bring air and sunshine into your thoughts. I call this clarity. 

With each step we are closer to the present as it becomes more difficult to ignore the crushing of leaves under our feet, the smell of fallen trees being worked by fungi and mosses, the dampness of air, the coating of pine pollen. While walking, the mind can discover all kinds of internal wonders that arise from this observation; the mixing of the transcendent and the temporal, the sublime and the mundane. Sometimes to go within, we must go out. Being with Nature, the mountains and trees, the communion with that first educator, all is stripped away; our pretensions of the importance of our job positions and titles, the organizations to which we belong, the living that we make. Nature asks us, what are these worth in the end? Frivolities and superficialities. Shiny baubles and nothing more. 

Thoreau suggests the best kind of walking is a type where one saunters about in a somewhat aimless fashion. These kinds of walks, with no particular agenda or destination in mind, awakens us to the nuances and potential for living as we submit ourselves to serendipity. Who knows what the journey might bring? Here Thoreau sings praises of 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.”

Perhaps today this is akin to taking small state highways rather than the interstate. The journey will be slower, a bit windier, but filled with something different than billboard advertisements and truck stops; something a bit more real, a bit closer to the road, filled with a bit more detail. Small towns are colored with lives lived and stories embedded within meaningful structures. When you stop for lunch on a road trip, sit in a local diner and watch community unfold, you will know what I mean. It is these discoveries that are unexpected, that live in our memories, that mark our time and existence, that give us a greater value than that of the interstate. 

Is all this too idealistic? Probably. Is any of it even possible? Probably not, at least not walking four hours a day. For me, the woods are miserably far away, and who has four free hours a day anyway? But perhaps walking about the woods and communing with nature is not the point of Thoreau and the Transcendentalists to begin with. Perhaps it is to become inspired, wake the sleeping self and live life deliberately with meaningful attentiveness. In this, we escape the quiet desperation Thoreau so strongly warned against. It all can begin with a first step.

Note – All quotes taken from Thoreau’s Essay “Walking“.

Compliment this essay with many others from the How To Live or Nature and Travel category.

Follow the author on Twitter  or contact at derekparsons5@gmail.com

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