The winters can be long and hard here in New England. More snow, and more snow later into the year, than one would ever wish for at times. Perhaps the contemplative question of “why I walk” is born out of a springtime surge from within that isn’t being met by its outward counterpart? My gut sense though is that there is a twofold reason; 1) because it’s a great question to be asking , and 2) because I think it’s always good to return often to such primary considerations and re-mind myself (as a devoted walker) why!
So why do I? What is the aim?
Well, the bottom line is for recreation. Pretty simple. Can’t get to a more primary root cause than that I suspect, but not for what we often take recreation to mean – as in being entertained or keeping myself amused. It truly has to do with the re-creation of myself (from recreare ‘create again, renew.’), and to re-member and re-mind myself about what this human journey is for. Walking then becomes a fundamental need from my pedestrian perspective. And there aren’t, or doesn’t need to be, any grand cosmic answers or retorts to the question beyond that (for me). Being mindful of, and remembering that the work of renewing and recreating myself is serious business, walking then becomes a serious business. And, as walking is the archetypal way and means for us to undertake this human journey, it then becomes a highly significant action. And it isn’t about any ultimate destination either, for it’s the journey that matters. And, as with all significant questions, it’s putting the quest back into the question that helps with the re-membering and re-minding.
For me, the question of why, while being simultaneous and consistent to the nature of the quest in regards to the act of walking, often evokes elements of Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival where the importance of asking the right, or timely, question becomes key to this pondering of recreation, and the real work of re-creating oneself. For those who recall the story, the question that Parzival failed to ask the Fisher King was “what ails thee”, and thus failing to heal the King, enter the Grail castle, and completing the Grail Quest. Interesting to note as well that the Fisher King always appears wounded in the legs or groin, and is incapable of movement (walking). While injured, the King’s kingdom suffers as he does, as his impotence likewise affects the fertility of the land, reducing it to a barren wasteland. (Imagine and ponder that one all you hearty “right-to-roam” walkers out there) So there you have it; a dam important question (Why I Walk) that’s connected to the all important nature of re-creating oneself. And somewhere along my daily quest I often bump into that question of “what ails thee?”. A bit like having to know direction, and realizing when you’re lost when out on a ramble. Or a fundamental daily reconnoitering of where we’re at, and where we’re going, that’s as basic as our morning ablutions.
Likewise, as an educator (who advocates for walking as a crucial component of the adolescent journey), that question of “what ails thee” is ever uppermost in my mind as it follows quite organically on the heals of those first steps when setting out on a walk. It becomes a way of checking in with myself and taking stock of where I’m at in any particular moment! And I re-mind myself often about the importance of these ruminations relative to the journeys that our youth are embarking upon; their quest being the concern that I must hold relative to my role as educator (which means to draw out and not place in). So what bothers me about what I see today? What is it that ails youth today? They’re not walking, they’re “watching”! We have become a spectator society today, where the world has become something we gaze at (as with the virtual world of the media screen), and not something we enter into or are part of. The dimension of closeness and distance (depth) takes place when we are included within the landscape of our perception, and I believe we are currently witnessing the extinction of experience as a consequence of our spectator-epistemology. That not only creates a suffering that becomes a form of loneliness, but it likewise invokes a loss of personal depth from being out of relationship with the world.
Walking then becomes the superlative antidote to this rather disturbing conundrum, and a true “wonder tonic” that even the pharmaceutical entrepreneurs can’t duplicate into a bottle! James Hillman (Re-visioning Psychology) claims we see what our ideas let us see, and had great concern over the way much of what we perceive is being shaped by the ongoing experience of our our industrialized culture. He, along with many others who ponder such contemporary straights, has come to see our spectator industrial reality as such a significant creative force that it has almost become a developmental and evolutionary co-creative force in our personal and collective stories. There are many who consequently fear that we are essentially living in our own minds and essentially “co-evolving with ourselves in a weird kind of intraspecies incest.” Father Thomas Berry calls us the “autistic generation”; a result of psychic numbing so prevalent and insidious that it becomes the principle defense against this overwhelming assault upon our sensory capabilities! Walking calls forth and enables all our senses, and comes closest, for me, to an experiential event that resonates fully with what it means to be human. David Abram, in his Spell of the Sensuous, tells us that perception is not merely a cerebral event but a direct and reciprocal exchange between us and the world – that it is a participatory act! Vision, what may well be the most synaesthetic of all the senses (the sense most thoroughly infiltrated and altered by the participation of the other senses) includes listening, touching and feeling, and tasting. When that mindful, attentive part of me, which is fully engaged in my sensory capacities, resonates with an inner attentiveness to the creative journey, I am whole – recreated and mindful of the richness of my experience.
It’s a moment, and experience, that I believe Wordsworth referred to as “a spot of time”, and the direct result of the participatory engagement with the world. Empedocles postulated that Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, created the eye, and that his theory of vision was that, for it to occur, it required a correspondence between the intraocular fire and the external fire (light) . Sight (and real insight) required resonance, a vibratory relationship between the seer and the seen. What comes close perhaps to the Sufi “Eye of the heart” which implies a “seeing” relative to the inner realm, the place of the eye, inside. Or, perhaps even more in keeping with the “Beauty Way” of the Dina (Navajo) people of North America, where walking (with beauty perceived above, below, and beside me) is a way of being where we are both engaged and participating in the world. Vision, and human perception, then becomes a form of translation between the inner and outer geography, and we end our sleepy denial of the real world, due to our mindless collusion with the virtual.
Henry David Thoreau referred to us as “sleepwalkers”, claiming that “we know not where we are”! In his monumental essay on Walking, he made his most prophetic statement in that “in wildness was the preservation of the world”, and the wild Thoreau speaks to is the result of the participatory engagement with the world, and ourselves, which comes through the act of walking. I do believe that in wildness is the preservation of the world, and I believe that in walking there will be the preservation of me as well!
And that is why I walk, and why I love it!