A Desire to Walk
Walking will not cure the world but it can go some way to righting ourselves, so that we can then get back to doing the work we need to do. I'm very prone to those inner-soliloquys right now - in my case, currently full of anxiety and Trump-induced-fear - that Frederic Gros has spoken about:
"Walking makes the rumours and complaints fall suddenly silent, stops the ceaseless interior chatter through which we comment on others, evaluate ourselves, recompose, interpret. Walking shuts down the sporadic soliloquy to whose surface sour rancours, imbecile satisfactions and easy imaginary vengeances rise sluggishly in turn. You are facing a mountain, walking among great trees, and you think: they are just there. They are there, they didn't expect me, they were always there."
- from A Philosophy of Walking by Frederic Gros
There is a rather charming interview piece in The Guardian with Frederic Gros. The interviewer asks:
Have there been points in your life where you've found walking helpful to your mental state?
"Absolutely. There is an element of repetition in the act of walking where you can forget. And there is a tiredness. A peacefulness. I think that when you are really alone you have a fragility. The feelings are more intense. You have more of the feeling of the eternity of things. There are moments of vibration between your own body and the landscape."
Gros talks about a kind of walk where you: "conceive an affection for yourself. You forgive yourself instead of making excuses. Nothing left to lose, just keep walking. And everything, all around, takes on this new face: indulgence for the fearful, hiding bird, for the fragile, wilting flower, indulgence for the thick foliage. For, once you no longer expect anything from the world on these aimless and peaceful walks, that is when the world delivers itself to you, gives itself, yields itself up. When you no longer expect anything."
Near the beginning of the book Gros says, "What I mean is that by walking you are not going to meet yourself. By walking, you escape from the very idea of identity, the temptation to be someone, to have a name and history." He goes on: "So we are a moving two-legged beast, just a pure force among big trees, just a cry."
And maybe it's important to have that time each day when we are 'just a cry.' Just that.
Walking with a dog, is another type of walking I suppose. The kind of dog you have will change the perfume of your walking. The frequency with which your dog stops to sniff and mark territory, the pace you yourself keep, the smoothness of the creature's leash walking.
And walking with a camera is yet another kind of walking. One's looking becomes more delicate, sharper, refined. One loses oneself in the walking, becoming lost again while focusing in on the leaf, twig, or dried seed pod that has attracted one's attention. And then, the quality of light becomes paramount, the weather. Is there fog, or frost, lightly falling snow?
The steadiness of one's hands, evenness of breath, the dog's willingness to sit still, all come into play.
It's when I'm walking that I come closest to feeling an affection for myself.
Whatever other health benefits, I'm sure the walk is worth it to arrive at ourselves this way, and to arrive at the fragile peace in which we're able to indulge in the unexpected beauty of whatever natures offers up on a particular day.
We can't talk about walking without mentioning Rebecca Solnit's book, Wanderlust: A History of Walking. In she says: “Walking . . . is how the body measures itself against the earth.” And, “Walkers are 'practitioners of the city,' for the city is made to be walked. A city is a language, a repository of possibilities, and walking is the act of speaking that language, of selecting from those possibilities. Just as language limits what can be said, architecture limits where one can walk, but the walker invents other ways to go.”
I live in the city but by a 'transportation and utility corridor' near a highway. So there is a strip of land with a walking path beside the fenced off corridor. There are coyotes living in the field and we acknowledge their path, we keep an eye out for them. We are limited, but we are also inventive. We find paths we hadn't imagined, we create new paths. We persist in our walking and discovering. We find work-arounds. We sneak through gates, look out for possibilities. We are unperturbed by the weather. We persist.
I’m glad that I haven’t lost my desire to walk, or at least that the dog (now almost 10 years old) never has lost his. As Søren Kierkegaard says,
“Above all, do not lose your desire to walk. Everyday, I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it. But by sitting still, and the more one sits still, the closer one comes to feeling ill. Thus if one just keeps on walking, everything will be all right.”
Well, maybe not everything. But I do think that walking greatly contributes to a state of well-being, a state of open-heartedness, and a state of readiness (which I believe we need now more than ever). Walking teaches me how I want to be and move through the world.
I can certainly say that I have walked myself out of less productive thoughts, and into my best thoughts. I think I can honestly say that this morning constitutional is very close to being at the center of my life. It’s nothing fancy. A lot of the neighborhood is quite ugly. The houses are the usual mess of suburban houses – often too large and ungainly, often the yards are poorly landscaped. Often there is little attempt to beautify. And then there are these urban forests and stretches of land that occur in the middle of a city. They are scrubby and straggly and serve as meeting places for under-aged drinking parties. It’s not uncommon to see empty beer cans, junk food wrappers, firecracker residue, Slurpee cups and rum bottles. I sometimes spend half my walk avoiding the usual suspects, nice enough people who just want to talk when I wish to be quiet.
So yes, the walk I take is nothing fancy, nothing extraordinary, but I have learned from it and it has sustained me and soothed me and calmed me. In The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau refers to the “long poem of walking,” and it’s like that. I pick it up afresh everyday, this book I’m reading/writing, this long poem of walking. Even though I cover a lot of the same ground every day, it’s always different.