The Book That Has Made All These Walks Feel Highbrow 1

Walking is about all that’s left. Under the prohibitions required by the coronavirus, those of us without exercise equipment or access to gyms (in states run by sane people) have few outdoor options: biking, running, walking. Of those choices, walking is, for me at least, the way to go. Even those of us not obsessed with the step count on our smartphones are walking now, because more than exercise, we simply need to get out of the house, to breathe fresh air, and to see other people even if we can’t get close. Who thought, last Thanksgiving, to express gratitude for walking? Now it’s at the top of my list.

It’s also revised my definition of travel. Walking used to be something you did once you traveled somewhere. You traveled to London or Saigon or the Grand Canyon, and then you walked. And some places you traveled you did not walk at all. I once tried to take a walk in Las Vegas. That did not go well. 

Unless you were hiking the Appalachian Trail, walking wasn’t a synonym for travel. Now it is, at least for me. I travel my block, my neighborhood, my village, and I do it on foot. And it’s all the same as it ever was, and at the same time it’s different. Outside of a car, everything is bigger, longer, steeper. I am mapping my town with my feet, one step at a time.

“Live at home like a traveler,” wrote Henry David Thoreau. I’m beginning to understand what he meant, the way you will when circumstances cause works of art to shift from being merely admirable to being personally important. The night my daughter was born, I went home exhausted but found I was unable to sleep. So I dug out William Butler Yeats’ poem “A Prayer for My Daughter.” It was like reading an entirely new poem, because now I too had a child. I read it through twice and finally fell asleep with the book still open on my lap.   

In his early thirties, Thoreau began working on an essay called “Walking,” which he delivered as a lecture numerous times and which he continued to revise until his death from tuberculosis in 1862, when he was 44.

If you want the fast track to what Thoreau believed about nature, and our place in it, start here. As his biographer Laura Dassow Walls writes in her fascinating Henry David Thoreau: A Life, “Walking” would become the “single greatest statement of his philosophy of life, for walking—away from the village, away from politics, into the ‘Wild’ for spiritual regeneration—was not, Thoreau asserted, a form of retreat, but ‘a sort of crusade… to go forth and reconquer this holy land from the hands of the Infidels.’” The gist of this essay survives in the quote “In Wildness is the preservation of the World,” a slogan that will adorn eco-posters in dorm rooms until the end of time, but all 11,000+ words are worth your time. 

It’s the opening pages that interest me now, the part where the author talks straightforwardly about walking, not as a metaphor or poetic fancy but as a simple, necessary and—in his mind certainly—exalted human action. Thoreau was a champion walker, and in this as in all things he was uncompromising. He liked to walk three or four hours a day, miles and miles. He once walked from his home in Concord, Massachusetts, to Boston (25.3 miles) just to attend a lecture. And being Thoreau, he thought everyone should do the same. 

In the opening pages of “Walking,” he mocks his fellow citizens who don’t follow his example: “When sometimes I am reminded that the mechanics and shopkeepers stay in their shops not only all the forenoon, but all the afternoon too, sitting with crossed legs, so many of them—as if the legs were made to sit upon, and not to stand or walk upon—I think that they deserve some credit for not having all committed suicide long ago.”

Yes, he was insufferable, and the only thing makes him bearable is that here, as always in his writing, he never asks anyone to do something he would not. Thoreau not only preached self-sufficiency, for example, he practiced it: When he wasn’t helping out in his family’s pencil factory, he was a surveyor by trade and also Concord’s handyman, capable of building his own cabin at Walden Pond and growing his own food. And it’s too easy to blow him as a Yankee crank who lived in a simpler time. Yes, about the only people as self-sufficient as Thoreau today are preppers, but Thoreau would surely argue that this just proves his point: we have strayed too far from the basics. 

Reading Thoreau usually leaves me feeling inadequate, even about something as simple as walking. I manage a couple of miles a day, and most of that on sidewalks, certainly nothing like his usual five or more miles a day. But he doesn’t leave me feeling hopeless. On the contrary, he inspires me, because I know deep down that he’s right. Walking, in the woods or in town, does make me feel a little more at home in the world. Knowing how to recognize trees and birds makes me a little less alienated. When I spot a coyote or a wild turkey, even a family of deer, I feel a little thrill that I can’t rationally explain.

And, as Thoreau points out, for a pedestrian, the prospects beyond the doorstep are virtually limitless: “My vicinity affords many good walks; and though for so many years I have walked almost every day, and sometimes for several days together, I have not yet exhausted them. An absolutely new prospect is a great happiness, and I can still get this any afternoon. Two or three hours’ walking will carry me to as strange a country as I expect ever to see.”

As someone with a gnat-like attention span, I know what Thoreau means when he says, “In my afternoon walk I would fain forget all my morning occupations and my obligations to society. But it sometimes happens that I cannot easily shake off the village… What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something other than the woods?” Lately that has not been a problem. I am so eager to get out of the house and see something besides the same walls, the same dishes in the sink, the same same same of being cooped up all day every day that I can’t stop looking and thinking about the outside world when I venture out.

Best of all, walking is something available to almost everyone. You don’t need to be in particularly good shape. I’m certainly not. You don’t need special equipment—Thoreau of course mocks people who make a fetish of exercise. All you need is the impulse to go, to get moving, and right now I’ll take just about any excuse to do that. So, with a little nudge from Thoreau, I have become a tourist in my own town.

As I mentioned earlier, the bulk of “Walking” is spent on the relationship of humans and nature, and the mistake, as Thoreau sees it, in separating those things. It’s a beautiful essay, usually thoughtful, sometimes angry, and sometimes funny (“Moreover, you must walk like a camel, which is said to be the only beast which ruminates when walking”). And if you find yourself saying yes and yes and of course–if, in other words, you find yourself thinking that anyone with a grain of environmental sensitivity knows all this already, bear in mind that when Thoreau wrote his essay in the mid-19th century, environmentalism was not a thing. It’s a thing today because of him, and the tree huggers like John Muir who he influenced. He was nature’s original lawyer in the court of public opinion, and there was never a better mouthpiece.

In the past, I would have called “Walking” an eloquent, stirring essay, but I’m afraid I would have had no emotional connection to it. But under the threat of a pandemic that segregates and isolates, I have taken it to heart like a roadmap for survival. 

It has also made me, and not for any noble reason, feel more empowered. As someone whose dedication to yardwork borders on disgraceful, I was so happy to discover Thoreau was, at best, an indifferent gardener. 

“Hope and the future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields,” he wrote,  “not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps… I derive more of my subsistence from the swamps which surround my native town than from the cultivated gardens in the village.” 

After waxing eloquent on the charms of swamps for most of a long paragraph, he asks, “Why not put my house, my parlor, behind this [swamp], instead of behind that meager assemblage of curiosities, that poor apology for a Nature and art, which I call my front yard? It is an effort to clear up and make a decent appearance when the carpenter and mason have departed, though done as much for the passer-by as the dweller within. The most tasteful front-yard fence was never an agreeable object of study to me; the most elaborate ornaments, acorn tops, or what not, soon wearied and disgusted me. Bring your sills up to the very edge of the swamp, then (though it may not be the best place for a dry cellar) so that there be no access on that side to citizens. Front yards are not made to walk in, but, at most, through, and you could go in the back way.”

I’m not quite ready to turn my yard into a swamp ( some of my neighbors would surely disagree), but I admire the hell out of a writer who cares even less about lawn maintenance than I do.