Walking West With Thoreau

230px-Henry_David_ThoreauMetaphor plays an important part in education, communication, and day-to-day life.

Metaphor is often used to help make a connection in our ability to conceptualize an idea; to help forge the relationship between our inner and outer world experiences – a bridge of sorts. Though prevalent in communication, we may often not use them in our own language, yet they can actually shape how we perceive and act in accordance with them. So, as I was out walking this morning, I started to think about walking and if it stands as any sort of metaphor, and if I too perceive and act in accordance with the meaning behind my conceptual concept of walking?

We often see the “journey” being used as a metaphor for life (Dante’s, the Odyssey for example), yet the walking metaphor is so common that it is easy to stop noticing it and so pervasive that it is easy to forget, especially since we have moved from a pedestrian society to a highly mobile one. Yet stock phrases such as: One step at a time; walking in circles; walk the talk; uphill battle; moving forward; looking ahead; falling behind, walking the walk; navigating the peaks and valleys; stuck in a rut; finding balance, keeping the pace; it’s all downhill from here. These common words are all part of everyday speech, and do contain walking as a metaphor.

The question relative to meaning, or any of the perceived wisdom gained, or action accorded to and through walking, brought Thoreau’s essay Walking to mind. If a metaphor is a way of communicating meaning through analogy, comparison, symbol – or better yet, a “word-painting/picture” – this essay on walking sees and recognizes the act of walking as a real transformative experience. It is hard for us to capture the transformative nature of the walking experience, so Thoreau resorts to the use of metaphor to help us. But one must always recognize that when reading Thoreau he usually buries the “bone” deep, and that his transcendental writings need to be taken in at a transcendental level if they are to serve the purpose of transforming – Two Fish on One Hook as Raymond Tripp would say.

Thoreau is always going to take you on a journey, and he’s going to make you “walk” that journey upon your own two feet (head & heart). Thoreau was not one to water down any truths, so he works to buoy up the reader in his writings instead, and Walking (for me) is a lasting testimony to why walking is an act of communication of the highest order. A gentle reminder, or way mark upon the proverbial path, that this seemingly simple human act of walking contains a wealth of possibility in these rather dangerously sedentary, virtual times. An opening into a new (old) paradigm that may change the very way we think and act.

First off, Thoreau posits walking as an Art. His opening words on the subject being “I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understand the Art of Walking, that is, of taking walks“, and that this “Art” is a reflection of genius. There’s the metaphor, Walking as Art, and requiring true genius to comprehend the beauty of the practice. The transcendental element, or human inner state achievable, is made clear by Thoreau’s emphasis on the status of being a true walker as coming as a “direct dispensation from heaven“, and that “no wealth can buy the requisite leisure, freedom, and independence that are the capital in this profession.” One must be “born” – or recreated – into the family of Walkers. Second, if Thoreau’s essay on Walking is indeed a “way mark” or “signpost”, where or what is the sign pointing us toward? What is the metaphor serving as a bridge to?

Well, “West” is Thoreau’s clear, resounding (another) metaphorical answer. Thoreau says he usually goes to the woods and fields in his walks, as there is a subtle magnetism within nature that will “guide” him, and us, right. Nature is not indifferent to the way we walk though, as there is a “right way“, and “we are very liable from heedlessness and stupidity to take the wrong one.” (Perhaps the “electronic disconnect” path we’ve followed cited by Richard Louv with his coining of the term NDD, Nature Deficit Disorder).

Thoreau usually heads “west” in his walks, which for him means the future, and any attachment to the past, or influences that might bias his ability to perceive the moment at hand. At the start of any walk he admonishes each of us to “go forth with a sense of undying adventure, never to return“, and that if we are thus truly “free”, than we are ready for a walk. “In any weather, at any hour of the day or night“, Thoreau was anxious to “improve the nick of time“, and “to stand on the meeting of two eternities, the past and future, which is precisely the present moment.” That was the line he wished to toe. And to do that was to truly affect the order of the day – the highest of all arts!

To affect the order of our day, or to affect the order of someone’s day, is what the metaphor points us toward; serves as a bridge to. Walking, in my most humble opinion, both as a human activity and conceptual metaphor, deserves our greatest attention, and our most active imaginations. Thoreau’s essay upon the Art of Walking is perhaps even more pertinent to our times than it was to his. Thoreau likewise equates the “west“, that inner/outer state of awareness, and being present to the moment, as the “wild” – “the West of which I speak is but another name for the Wild“. It was his walks in nature where “the tonics and barks which brace mankind” came from. And thus, what then follows ultimately are Thoreau’s timeless, and most quoted, words of “In Wildness is the preservation of the World“.

So that also means the preservation of us too. Walking, and re-learning the Art of Walking, may very well be the tonic that braces us in these rather troublesome times. Thoreau’s use of Walking as a conceptual metaphor lends greater insight, for me, into why Hazlitt, In On Going A Journey states that walking alone enables the capacity to experience the soul of the walking journey as “liberty, perfect liberty, to think, feel do, just as one pleases“, and to bridge over to where the experience was of “that undisturbed silence of the heart which alone is perfect eloquence.”
To take a walk is to elevate the human condition; whether Thoreau’s sense of the Wild within each and every one of us, or the heightened state Wordsworth often referred to as a “Spot of Time”, to obtain moments of undisturbed silence of the heart is a worthy goal of all our rambling adventures, and well worth our time and attention as the preeminent human activity.To take a walk (inwards as well as outwards) is to elevate the human condition; whether Thoreau’s sense of the Wild within each and every one of us, or the heightened state Wordsworth often referred to as a “Spot of Time”, to obtain moments of undisturbed silence of the heart is a worthy goal of all our rambling adventures, and well worth our time and attention as the preeminent human activity.

One thought on “Walking West With Thoreau

  1. ncfarmchick

    Metaphor is the main reason I love to read. Now, I understand it may be why I love to walk, as well. Thank you for the insightful words!


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