Reflection 126: Walking with Thoreau

July 8, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

Extreme sports are the norm among those who feel they have to prove themselves. These days, walking is about as boring as weak tea or rice pudding. But in his time, Henry David Thoreau made walking the equivalent of an extreme sport. In “Walking” in his posthumously published book of essays, Excursions (Houghton Mifflin, 1893, originally published 1863), he says this: 

We should go forth on the shortest walk . . . in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return,—prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only as relics to our desolate kingdoms. If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again,—if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man, then you are ready for a walk. (Page 252f.)

Bungee jumping or hang gliding off a cliff, maybe—but walking? What these activities share if Thoreau could have compared them is freedom. People in every age have made sacrifices and taken risks to be free in living their lives. We all know the feeling of getting away from our troubles, duties, and responsibilities for a time. Freefalling through the air can take you there, and walking through the right terrain can as well. Not walking to reach a set destination, but walking with a free spirit, which is what Thoreau had in mind:

I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least,—and it is commonly more than that,—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements. (Page 254.)

That kind of walking frees consciousness to follow its own course without distraction. To engage the landscape out of interest and excitement, not necessity. Being free opens the way to adventure and discovery, which is what Thoreau sought on his jaunts:

Two or three hours’ walking will carry me to as strange a country as I expect ever to see. A single farm-house which I had not seen before is sometimes as good as the dominions of the King of Dahomey [in western Africa]. There is in fact a sort of harmony discoverable between the capabilities of the landscape within a circle of ten miles’ radius, or the limits of an afternoon walk, and the threescore years and ten of human life. It will never become quite familiar to you. (Page 259.)

Here walking is used to expand consciousness by exploring the limits of personal experience in such a way to achieve resonance with all that the landscape has to offer over the course of a lifetime. That, now, is walking. Walking as an extension of the mind, as a mutual engagement between consciousness and its place on Earth in its time. Can anything be more exciting, demanding, or rewarding than that?

One Saturday in June, to make a point of walking, not driving, I joined two friends in walking a little over a mile and a half along Norway Drive to reach the site of a day-long retreat—and then back again that evening:

We pass by Hamilton Pond where we meet three snapping turtles digging nests in roadside sand. Lupine, buttercups, iris, and daylilies bloom all along the way; cow lilies are just coming on. A female black duck crosses the road heading for the pond, followed by a single duckling; they sail off through reflections of pine, spruce, and birch across the cove. In roadside marshes, bobolinks and red-winged blackbirds pour out liquid duets. Three turkey vultures sweep circles through blue sky. On the return walk, we gape at a bald eagle atop a tall spruce. A pair of flycatchers alight on a pondside bush. Slanting sunrays on green foliage, flowers, light winds, clear air, birdsong, good friends—all add to far more than an experiment in cutting our carbon footprints: it is a celebration of ambulatory life itself. What are we doing driving along listening to CDs or the radio when we could be coursing along the footpaths of the Earth!

We commonly believe we have to be fully employed to survive. Every act must contribute to the economy—our modern-day god. But Thoreau’s point in Walden is that the human economy is an aberration of nature which turns life into drudgery—as if drudgery were a virtue. No wonder he steers clear of the cultural wonders of his day in taking his walks.

I can easily walk ten, fifteen, twenty, any number of miles, commencing at my own door, without going by any house, without crossing a road except where the fox and the mink do: first along by the river, and then the brook, and then the meadow and the woodside. There are square miles in my vicinity which have no inhabitant. From many a hill I can see civilization and the abodes of man afar. The farmers and their works are scarcely more obvious than woodchucks and their burrows. Man and his affairs, church and state and school, trade and commerce, and manufactures and agriculture, even politics, the most alarming of them all,—I am pleased to see how little space they occupy in the landscape. (Page 260.)

Freedom for Thoreau, then, is freedom from distraction by what many take to be the essence of civil affairs. Imagine being free from the news of the day, from All Things Considered, say—from stock prices, political posturing, the fraught lives of celebrities, from glamour and glitz and hype and spin and the rest of the distractions we waste our lives attending to in great detail so we can achieve the required degree of emptiness in time to die. If I really want to scare myself, I think of the horde honking and waving to get my attention so I can devote precious energy and awareness to their concerns and not mine. I’m with Thoreau in his take on walking: 

In one half-hour I can walk off to some portion of the earth’s surface where a man does not stand from one year’s end to another, and there, consequently, politics are not, for they are but as the cigar-smoke of a man. (Page 261.)

Exactly, we pride ourselves on blowing smoke rings as if we didn’t have worthier things to do with our lives. The most recent presidential primaries and campaign went on for two years! Two years in the lives of 300 million people represent a heap of Earth’s energy spent trying to affect the outcome of a single day of voting in one nation. We could have gone on a lot of walks in that time and ended up our own persons knowing exactly where we were and what we stood for, not mere constituents of one party or another—elephants or jackasses.

What is it that makes it so hard sometimes to determine whither we will walk? I believe that there is a subtle magnetism in Nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright. It is not indifferent to us which way we walk. There is a right way; but we are very liable from heedlessness and stupidity to take the wrong one. (Page 265.)

That’s what I’m searching to discover in this blog, that “subtle magnetism in Nature” that provides proper guidance if only we would attend to it inwardly, not outwardly. That sense of direction wise men and women have steered by since beginning times. Every now and then I sense it strongly, that pull to pay attention to what is truly important. And do my best to follow that pull wherever it leads because it is the most important clue consciousness can provide about the meaning and purpose of life. Everything about us is “of” nature, after all. We are natural beings from a long line of natural beings. It is fitting for us to walk in nature to ensure our current state of nature can engage its proper companions.

We would fain take that walk, never yet taken by us through this actual world, which is perfectly symbolical of the path which we love to travel in the interior and ideal world; and sometimes, no doubt, we find it difficult to choose our direction, because it does no yet exist distinctly in our idea. (Page 265.)

From my perspective, consciousness is not devoted solely to the ideal but is far larger in being experiential to the max. That is, besides cognition, it embraces every aspect of emotional, imaginative, and sensory life. I’d say here Thoreau’s transcendentalism may be getting in the way by crediting guidance to intuitive perception of “higher laws” as if they existed apart from personal consciousness. For myself, I believe the human mind is the great organizer and, given sufficient experience to chew on, is fully capable of finding its own way without the tug of external magnetism, so-called. When our minds are clouded, the problem often comes down to being distracted by other minds with other agendas made evident and insistent through the culture we live in. How are the greedy to profit if we follow our own star as our own man and woman? I love to travel through the fullness of my experience, as Thoreau did of his. He was a native explorer of two worlds at once, both inner and outer in balanced relationship. 

It is hard for me to believe that I shall find fair landscapes or sufficient wildness and freedom behind the eastern horizon. I am not excited by the prospect of a walk thither; but I believe that the forest which I see in the western horizon stretches uninterruptedly toward the setting sun, and there are no towns nor cities in it of enough consequence to disturb me. Let me live where I will, on this side is the city, on that the wilderness, and ever I am leaving the city more and more, and withdrawing into the wilderness. (Page 266f.)

Into the wilderness of his personal consciousness, that is, in preference to the civilized world of the city other men had built for themselves. Walking, for Thoreau, frees him from “all worldly engagements.” It offers the journey of self-exploration leading to self-discovery and the hard-won freedom of being himself. In the city, this is sometimes painted as escapism into the interior. But look what came in Thoreau’s case from such a personal journey: works such as Walden, Cape Cod, The Maine Woods, Excursions, as well as The Journal. Only one person could have written them. We are fortunate he insisted on being free to walk his own path.

We go eastward to realize history and study the works of art and literature, retracing the steps of the race; we go westward as into the future, with a spirit of enterprise and adventure (Page 267.)

If we do not pursue that adventure, whose life are we living? Not our own, surely. No, we live the life of the “good citizen.” The end of selfless living is working for someone else, which is a better bargain for one than the other. Are we here to support Microsoft, Coca Cola, General Motors, and various governing bodies, or to be ourselves to the hilt? If we drive, we will go where our vehicles take us on roads paved by the state; if we walk, we will end up making our way cross-lots and arriving as free men and women.

Make our own way—that’s exactly what consciousness has evolved to enable us to do. Note carefully: each of us has the equipment. There is no excuse for not using it. We are born navigators and walkers. If in wheelchairs, we are free to engage others in helping us travel. My conclusion regarding running low on oil is it is better we not search for substitutes but learn to go on our own at last. That is, to discover our own journeys and not follow the official map too closely. Consciousness and intuition will guide us, feet and legs go the distance. Cities will become human again, carbon footprints shrink. And the rewards will not go to others but will accrue to us precisely to the extent we move ourselves forward.

Martin Luther King Jr.-72

 

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