This piece is part of the Excursions series.
February derives from the Latin februare, “to purify.” Hence, februarius mensis, “the month of purification.” It’s a good name: the deer hunters have retired indoors, the air is brisk and clean, and the woods are as open as at any time of the year: now is the season for walking.
I remember the particular day that I made a religion of walking. It was a Saturday. I was living in Carbondale. That morning I was idly flipping through my Norton Anthology of American Literature and came across Thoreau’s essay “Walking,” which I had never read. I recall reading it that morning with something of a flutter. And, once finished, I walked out into the open air and began to walk, and I have been walking ever since.
I regard “Walking” as akin to Dante’s Paradiso–the proper lens by which to read the rest of the author’s work. You cannot understand Dante without understanding that God is Love, and you cannot understand Thoreau without understanding what it means to walk in wild places. I don’t think any single essay has ever so particularly affected me. The essay opens:
I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil,–To regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society. I wish to make an extreme statement, if so I may make an emphatic one, for there are enough champions of civilization.
From here he moves to the etymology of sauntering. His preferred derivation is from à la Sainte Terre, “to the Holy Land”; that is, it was a phrase applied to those vagabonds of the Middle Ages who went on walkabout, claiming to be making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The true vagrants, Thoreau tells us, are those who merely pretend to go to the Holy Land. A true saunterer is one who reaches the holy land–that is, he who finds the holy land in walking.
It bears speaking in the plainest prose: this reality is the divine body, a sacred mystery past all understanding. Its center is everywhere, illuminating and wondrous. Not the least pebble is here by compulsion, and every one is made of a song; each is a gift, freely and fully expressed without limit, unhindered. None of this has beginning or end, and all this silly sedulous guarding of our precious selves is foolishness, ill-mannered and undignified sacrilege. “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.”
Wordsworth in his “Ode: Intimations of Immortality,” writes that “Heaven lies about us in our infancy.” The best part of us, he says, owes to that early “celestial light.” Yet, the prison house of adulthood closes in on us, and “nothing can bring back the hour/ Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower.” What’s left is but a memory of that childhood joy tempered by philosophic reflection, which, meager as it is, becomes the fountain light of all our seeing. This is lovely, sure, but neither I nor Thoreau cares for that plaintive strain. The sun rises as high today as it ever did. Shake off the dust and go out to meet it. Make your life a part of the dawn. Leave the past to the past. “We cannot afford not to live in the present. He is blessed over all mortals who loses no moment of the passing life in remembering the past. Unless our philosophy hears the cock crow in every barn-yard within our horizon, it is belated.”
At the end of the essay, Thoreau describes a particularly lovely sunset he and his friend witnessed on a walk: “It was such a light as we could not have imagined a moment before, and the air also was so warm and serene that nothing was wanting to make a paradise of that meadow.” But the more poignant magic of it was that “this was not a solitary phenomenon, never to happen again, but that it would happen forever and ever an infinite number of evenings, and cheer and reassure the latest child that walked there.”
My favorite way of walking, though I don’t do it nearly as much as I’d like, is to backpack. We turtles make a strange sight out there, and the day hikers wonder at us. We seem to be doing some sort of strange penance. And that’s not untrue, but it is a soul-saving penance to carry all the necessities for life on one’s back. Everything you carry, you earn by carrying, and the art of backpacking is learning to do without. Now, I have a qualm with those ultralight backpackers who boast of the lightness of their packs yet carry with them items so flimsy that they last scarcely more than a few outings before winding up in a landfill. Let’s not be out here to contribute to the waste and profligacy of general humanity; carry instead those things that last and if not, will melt into the mould as easily as a spring ephemeral. If you do so, you will, at least, be on the right path.
And what is that path and where does it lead? It has many names and many destinations. Often, for me, it is a return to the ways of our ancestors. For two hundred thousand years before the first city walls were built, we walked. And go back a few million years more and you will see that we evolved to walk. Humans are a migratory species. That listless ennui, the restlessness, your frittering of the hours–all that you can shake off by doing what you were meant to do.
I think it’s more than a personal predilection. I came to think this way when my first born was still an infant. As babies will, he would sometimes cry inconsolably. I would try this and that and that and that, and not a thing would work. And then, I would walk outdoors with him in my arms, and the moment we walked out into the open air, he would stop crying–every time. This worked with my daughter, too, though less well, but well enough to lead me to believe we were never meant to be settled but were made to walk.
There have been many others who have made a religion of walking, and some of them have made books of it, few better than Bruce Chatwin’s peculiar Songlines, which is his account of the first peoples of Australia who have an ancient tradition of combining walking with mythtelling. Now, be warned, this is not the rigorous anthropology some might take it to be. Bruce Chatwin, as writers will, bends facts to arrive where he’s aiming, which is his belief that we are made to walk, and will find fulfillment in walking–the meaning of walking is the meaning of human being. My favorite part of the book is the wonderful interlude between chapters thirty and thirty-one called “From the Notebooks,” which is a suggestive and loose congeries of quotes all in some way about walking. The first comes from Pascal: “Our nature lies in movement; complete calm is death.” There is much to recommend here, but one of its subtler and more interesting elements is his weaving among these passages a reading of the Bible as a testament for walking and against those who would build cities of stone and settle:
It was surely a marvellous intuition of the part of the ancient Jews–sandwiched as they were between bullying empires–to have conceived the State as Behemoth or Leviathan, as a monster which threatened human life. They were, perhaps, the first people to understand that the Tower was chaos, that order was chaos, and that language–the gift of tongues which Jahweh breathed into the mouth of Adam–has a rebellious and wayward vitality compared to which the foundations of the Pyramid are as dust.
He writes not long afterwards: “Cain was a settled farmer. Abel was the favourite of God, because Jahweh himself was a ‘God of the Way.’” And then again: “Jahweh, in origin, is a God of the Way. His sanctuary is the Mobile Ark.”
Dogen, too, walked and wrote about walking, notably in his “Mountains and Waters Sutra,” where he quotes an old Zen master, Priest Daokai of Mount Furong, who said to his assembly: “The green mountains are always walking.” Several hundred years later across the Pacific Ocean, Gary Snyder wrote about this in The Practice of the Wild. It was Gary Snyder who brought me to Dogen, and I remember reading many years ago in my hammock pitched somewhere out in the Shawnee what Snyder had to say about Dogen. And it thrilled me, listening to Snyder quietly unfolding what Dogen meant when he wrote:
If you doubt mountains’ walking, you do not know your own walking; it is not that you do not walk, but that you do not know or understand your own walking. Since you do know your own walking, you should fully know the green mountains’ walking.
The green mountains are walking. And the fields are walking. And all the things in them are walking. For a day or two at least, cast away everything you think you have and walk with them. Walking is human, and walking is older than human. Walking was before the age of the Empty Eon. Walking is the great way of being. Walking, you can hear the infinite sea. Walking, you can see the blinding light. Walking will bring you to where you are.
About the Author
Clint Stevens lives and writes outside of Centralia, IL.