Walking and the Wild

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                                       “It is a great art to saunter”

                                                Thoreau (Journal; April 26th, 1841)

Thoreau’s essay Walking was originally titled Walking and the Wild and it offers one of the best insights into Thoreau’s inseparable relation between walking and thinking. For Thoreau the act of walking was the art of walking, and an art that few in his time fully understood. Thoreau likewise equated walking with wildness and freedom;”In wildness is the preservation of the world“, and “Life consists with wildness“, giving emphasis to that which is wildest being likewise the most alive! He also reminds and instructs by saying we should, like the camel, ruminate while we walk.

It will do us good service to place some of these ruminations by Thoreau into a broader context of his times, and specifically to the questions concerning modes of transport. We must remember that America was a continent discovered by foot. Early explorations certainly utilized rivers as major arteries of travel, however the foot reigned supreme for all true exploratory rambles into the adjoining wilds in early American settlement. Consider such intrepid figures as a Daniel Boone or Lewis and Clark as prime examples. It wasn’t until much later in our collective story that we see the encroachment of the railroad, and our nation moving from being a pedestrian culture to a riding culture. Perhaps the very first intrusive inroad into the art of walking was from the horse, but by the 19th century the rails were running supreme, and the rest of the story up to and including the present is certainly filled by the automobile.

In a very real way, just like the Spanish introduction of the horse drove the walking Native American from the open plains, modern forms of transport have driven the walker into the confines of domestic movement and subjugated open space into a homogenized landscape transcribed by commuters. The walker has become a very poor relation, and we have witnessed a cultural metamorphosis from a walking, riding, driving, to a sitting society. And even the spaces we pass through today are now virtual hybrids of that once homogenized and pasteurized landscape that was once the wild. Walking alas has been reduced to sport, and we exist predominantly as absentee spectators even there within that realm!

But this is not a time to bemoan the loss of the wild for it has always been there, and it always will. Great awareness, and mobilization, has been gathered on this front since the dawning of the environmental movement in the 60’s and I, like Thoreau, have faith in that ‘seed’. But in regards to thought, and thinking in general, I have huge concern!

Emerson philosophized that “civilized man has built a coach, but he has lost the use of his feet“, and wondered what effect the emerging sedentary society would have upon our collective thought process. Thoreau put that thought into action by actively exploring and perambulating the world through the backyards of Concord, and rediscovering the transcendent connection between walking and thinking. For Thoreau, the whistle of the train became synonymous with the sounds of commerce and speed and signaled our capacity to think being sacrificed at the altar of mass modern efficiency. Walking opened Thoreau to the ‘west‘, which was his hoped for American response to the decay associated with the urban industrial reduction of life and living to the machinery of profit in the pursuit of happiness. Walking to the west was the opening to the wild, which was likewise a transcendent journey into the far distant world of values than those reflected by the thinking of his day.

For Thoreau the most alive and free was the wildest, and the surest means for preserving ourselves, and the world in which we live. Life at 3 miles per hour may seem like a simple panacea for our times, but I would suggest that a walk may well be the surest way into an emerging new paradigm for our times. The longest journey begins with the first step and we have never been in such need of new direction. And it will provide the time and space for listening to our very own thoughts!

In the biblical sense of the word, to sin was ‘to miss the mark‘, and repentance meant to ‘have a change of mind‘. It is time for a walk – and a long one at that! The times require new thoughts, more wildness, and true freedom too not only hear, but to walk to the beat of a different drummer!

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The Attentiveness Of Walking

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“You must walk like a camel, which is said to be the only beast which ruminates while walking.”

                             Thoreau (Journal, October 31st, 1850)

It’s something we hear, and are told, often. Right from the start, and right out of the gaits, we’re told to pay attention. From day one at school, until we walk out the doors of our academic institutions, we’re held by this question, command, or directive. Pay attention!

It could be the secret key that opens many “doors” in life; if, that is, we are looking for such openings.

It’s just isn’t with school though where we confront these simple and wise words, it’s within all phases, activities, and engagements throughout life. I almost think these words determine our world at times. Or at least to the point where just about everyone is vying for that attention. I mean, think of advertising as one small example; you might not be hearing those exact words, but it is the main point to all advertising. Yes?

Maybe we don’t think about it really? Or perhaps we only think about it when folks talk about its absence, like with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) or Attention Hyperactivity Deficit Disorder (ADHD), but many don’t understand what these things mean anyway. The words themselves are something of a mystery to us, and our connection or relationship to them is mere word recognition. Or worse, as when that relationship becomes a matter of pharmaceutical remediation, which is at best just a more enticing form of seduction, and far from being a “cure” for the lack of, or diminishment of, human attentiveness.

If we were to go into a “tracking” mode of mind we’d maybe first find that the most common definition of the word attention (at least in the field of psychology) is “the enhancement of selected sensory information”. But, as Laura Sewall (in her book Sight and Sensibility) reminds us so nicely, paying attention is not something we usually do, but something that happens to us when we will it. It is an inherent human power, usually seduced, and very much in need of cultivation. William James (American psychologist and philosopher; January, 1842 – August, 1910) described attention as the mind “taking possession”, yet I believe, unfortunately, that we’re living in a day when it’s our minds that are being possessed, and not necessarily by our will, or volition.

And it’s here where I would happily remind and point out that a walk is something that we humans do, and doesn’t just happen to us (normally), and that the mind truly must take possession of its workings or else we wind up being terribly lost. The intent to walk somewhere brings about a certain level of mindful attention even at the most rudimentary level, and if one is following a way-marked path, then the keen awareness of “sign” that so readily aids and abets successful walking is a result of selected attention and the power of will in choosing to “pay” attention. How many of you have experienced the exhaustion of navigating along a sparsely marked or unmarked way, even when the demand upon physical exertion was rather slight? It becomes such a vibrant reminder of what a high level of energies are truly involved, and being drawn out of us, when we will such attentiveness, and what a diminishment of life it is in contrast when so many of us find contentment in the plethora of navigational aid devices that guide us to where we wish to go these days. A true, and full, relinquishment of human potential I fear.

A walk can become an adventure that stirs our imaginations and ignites the fires of creativity to enliven us, resulting often in many an evening around the hearth fire with stories rife with spellbinding power. All mind you, a direct result of an alignment of our looking with thinking – a connection of matter with mind, where inner and outer landscapes are harmonized and attuned to the experience of the moment; a true human participatory involvement, or relationship, with the world powered by the seemingly simple act of paying attention. Even with the simplest of walking engagements we find that the practice of taking walks, as a daily humanizing opportunity, unfetters the mind from the rather mindless habits introduced (unleashed) upon us from the symphonic distractions emanating out of our modern world. Why then are we not doing more of this then?

Richard Louv coined the term Nature Deficit Disorder (NDD) in his groundbreaking book Last Child in the Woods, and it may yet be born out that a daily dose of nature is a far better remedy to realigning our capacity to pay attention, of attuning and harmonizing our inner and outer worlds of experience, and bringing us back to the foundation stone realization of what it means to be in relationship. Going for a walk is a choice of action that propels us into an engagement with the world as opposed to one where we are mere spectators of it. Noted Tracker and Author Paul Rezendes says “attention is care”, where consciously placing one foot before the other may well be our full first step toward bringing us back into a relationship with the natural world, and with ourselves. The power of attention, derived from the Latin word meaning to stretch, could reclaim its birthright as the enabler of true vision, where we may yet remember the simplicity of those prophetic words heard since childhood – pay attention. What a great stretch and stride forward that would be!

And, what then is the gift we are given to begin such an enriching journey? Walking.

Pay attention to that call of taking daily walks; it’s life’s invitation to a healthier engagement and participation in the human journey. It is, from the day we evolved into a bipedal gait, what we were truly born to do.

So let us cultivate our power of attention in order to cultivate a greater vision, and a greater sense for what it truly means to be participating in, and engaged with, the human journey by taking a walk. It is a very simple choice, and we need to pay attention to it. Just do it, and make that first step which is always the beginning of every adventurous journey.

Walking as Art

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Metaphor plays an important part in education and communication. It’s 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. An example (from George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s work, Metaphors We Live By) might be “argument is war”, where we might often hear someone stating “I won that argument” or “I attacked every weak point in her argument”; hence the words used and heard may not include “war”, but the thoughts regarding argument are shaped by the metaphor where arguments are conceived as battles needing to be won!

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, 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, 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! 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 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.

Why I Walk

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!

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