Metaphor: On WalkingBy Doug Bruns
October 15, 2010
Despite my titanium hip, and the foot problems from years of marathoning, despite my tender back–one slipped disc–and the general wear and tear on this 55 year-old aging-athlete’s body, I (still) like walking. It does not escape me that my ancestors trekked from the savanna plains of Africa over 100,000 years ago and never stopped. It comforts me that, as a species, we have walked virtually everywhere, planting our feet on most every single spot planet earth has to offer. It comforts me too, that despite the automobile and the jet, the boat and the train, our first inclination is to get up and walk. I do not take walking for granted. Over the years I have occasionally been in traction, on crutches, in pain or in some other way disposed of my ability to walk. When this has happened, I pretend that I will never walk again. I do this, like thinking of sickness when I am perfectly healthy, as a way to remind myself not to take walking for granted. (This is not unlike the Buddhist practice of going to the cemetery to remind oneself that one day it will all come to an end.) There are a lot of people who cannot walk and I do not want to be one who forgets this.
This comes the day following a hike in the mountains, in that sliver of the White Mountain National Forest that slips across the New Hampshire boarder into Maine, specifically the Caribou-Speckled National Forest. The hike–seven hours, five thousand vertical feet up and down!–is labeled strenuous in the AMC guide book, a detail that escaped me while planning the day’s activity. The down climb was, like all down climbs for me, challenging, like a never-ending Stairmaster workout in reverse–with impact! No matter. The validity of the day was found in the view from the top, from the especially tasty sandwiches for lunch, from watching Maggie swimming and drinking in a mountain stream.
Walking, hiking, trekking, whatever you want to call it, has been on my mind lately, particularly since finishing Julian Young’s new biography of Nietzsche. There, I discovered that Nietzsche walked upwards of six hours a day, day after day, week after week, and so forth, with a notepad; that he did this, building his reserves, then suddenly and furiously would write a book in just a matter of days. Too, I am reminded of Kant, who walked so regularly through the streets of his native Königsberg that shopkeepers set their watches by his perambulations. And Henry David Thoreau, who said, “I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of walking…”–and about whom Emerson said, “The length of his walk uniformly made the length of his writing. If shut up in the house, he did not write at all.” (Henry David said that he needed four hours a day of “sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields absolutely free from all worldly engagements.”) Bruce Chatwin reminds us that “The raw materials of Proust’s imagination were the two walks round the town of Illiers where he spent his family holidays. These walks later became Méséglise and Guermantes Ways in À la Recherche du Temps Perdu.” Walking as art.
I think of walking as a metaphor for–or, more properly, metaphor against–modern life. It is a symbol of pre-modernity. If walking is linked to intellectual creativity and contemplation, what is to be said of a time in history–that is, now–when people walk, if they walk at all, principally for exercise, usually, with ear-buds streaming a host of personal distractions? Is it not obvious that the culture that produced the most fervent example of Western curiosity, ancient Greece, was, obviously without any means of transportation, but for the horse, other than walking? And too, that the second blossoming of human creativity, the Renaissance, a re-connection with those ancients, was also a culture dependent upon the lower extremities for transportation?
At the risk of appearing out of fashion, I am troubled by much of modern culture. It is fast and loud and short on attention; it is crowded and seems lacking and vacuous; rushed and overbearing. None of these adjectives apply to walking. Metaphorically, walking is the antithesis of much of what we call modern. I recognize that this sounds very dusty and outmoded. There is nothing sexy about sauntering. It is, as I said, the opposite of the modern, and the modern is about sexy, if nothing else. I can live with that. I like sexy, in fact. But too, I long for something more traditional than what modern existence seems capable of delivering. And what is more traditional–other than sex perhaps!–than walking?
Walking is simply a metaphor for a slower, more contemplative way of doing a thing we take for granted, that is, getting from A to B. On a larger scale, it is a metaphor for a way of life. Modern culture does not recognize, nor lend itself well to this metaphor. I wonder, for instance, how the general population would respond if they discovered that a presidential candidate walked contemplatively, let’s say, two hours a day? Would it be deemed a waste of time, an indulgence not befitting the highest office of the land? I can’t say, of course, but I suspect it might be a talking point for the opposing candidate. I can imagine the topic coming up in a presidential debate: “What if North Korea lobbed a missile at Japan while my opponent was out taking a walk!”
A young man I admire walked across America with his dog, taking pictures. My son is planning to walk from Georgia to Maine on the Application Trail. Armies used to walk to battle, sometimes over mountains or whole continents. Kids, as the shop-worn adage goes, used to walk to school in the snow. These examples are noteworthy because such once-common activity is not much practiced anymore. I read recently that the worst thing to ever happen to the human species is the transition from hunter-gatherer to farmer (that is, in my analogy, from walker to non-walker), the writer ranting about the ills, figurative and literal, of humanity that followed. (As a side note, the ancient Greeks held that this transition from alert hunter to settled farmer occurred at Eleusis, a place they likewise considered to be the origin of civilization, a place destroyed by Alaric the Visigoth in 396 A.D.) That seems an extreme opinion. Yet, something about it resonates. I recall reading somewhere the line, Drugs are vehicles for people who have forgotten how to walk.
Walkers seem happy. Drivers seem mad. The very word stroll has a connotation of ease and delight. “I’m going for a stroll now…” That’s a good thing. We strive naturally for good things and avoid naturally the opposite. If there existed a single word for being a passenger in a jet, that word would likely imply a connotation the opposite of stroll. That is a simplification–but I seek the simple. Complexity is another attribute of modern existence and one way to offset this is to simplify, assuming one feels so compelled. What is simpler than going for a stroll? Putting one foot in front of the other? I could be way off track here. But I don’t think so.
Orson Welles intoned in “The Magnificent Ambersons,” “The faster we’re carried, the less time we have to spare.” It is a cruel zen-twist of reality that the more hurried our lives, the less time we seem to have. Conversely, the more strolling we do, the farther the horizon stretches before us. Test my theory. Leave late for work, rush to your car and dash from A to B. Take note of how the time accelerates, how it seems to unspool before you. The commute might feel like it is taking forever, yet, in contradictory fashion, it rushes forward. Later, after you’ve caught your breath and you’ve got the leisure, set out on a stroll, not a workout, but a good old-fashioned sauntering. See if time does not relax and grow elastic. There is nothing contradictory about a stroll.
There is an old philosopher’s saw, called Zeno’s paradox, which perhaps underscores this. (Actually, Zeno had nine paradoxes.) In this paradox, as Aristotle states it, “That which is in locomotion must arrive at the half-way stage before it arrives at the goal.” Suppose you are standing ten feet from a wall. You wish to walk to the wall, but first you must divide the distance in half and travel it. You advance five feet closer to the wall. Then, again, you must divide and advance. You move two and a half feet. You are getting closer. But again, divide in half and move–and so on and so on and so on. Every distance can be divided in half and, well, you get the idea (I hope). You will never arrive at the wall because there is an infinite number of divisions you must make. It is not called a paradox for nothing! The point is, a walk is a division of space we physically accomplish. There is no other mechanism at work. We divide space and advance; yet, with a nod to Zeno, we are caught in an infinite progression, seemingly never reaching our destination. Whatever walk we complete, I argue, is simply half-way to our cosmic destination. Perhaps that is why walking is so good for the mind, a practice of philosophers and poets, composers and inventors, it releases us to infinity. A walk can go on forever, as the twisted double-helix of our perambulating African ancestors proves.
Granted, all that seems a stretch. But consider this: Einstein, walking home across the Princeton campus, lost in thought, strolled off the campus, into town, through and out of town, until finally, as the sun was setting, he came to his senses. He was lost, he realized, and had to call the dean and ask to be picked up. Einstein, it can be (under-)stated, understood infinity. Walk on!
I can think about what I’m working on while I walk, sometimes in detail, but I can’t think about it very long while I’m running. Two or three days a week, my partner Ruth and I go for a 2-3 mile walk in a county forest, and then I run about 6 miles home. If I had to choose between the walk and the run, I’d take the walk every time, and not just for the company.
I lived for years among people whose transportation mode was walking, so I walked too. They took it for granted, but it was new to me. Once I got used to it, knowing that I could get anywhere I needed to by walking gave me a feeling of power that I’d never had before. I’d always depended on some kind of machine to transport me, and here I was doing it by myself. More slowly, of course, and carrying far less with me.
You allude to Zen. Have you done “walking meditation?” I cut some meandering pathways through a tall-grass meadow for that purpose. I don’t do it much, but other meditators have used them.
I think the problem with convincing people that walking can be productive in the largest sense is that most people live in urban settings. When I lived in the city, I didn’t think much of walking — too noisy, sometimes dangerous, rarely in attractive settings. Running was best.
In the country, walking is very different because of what’s not there. A few months ago I did a very long walk (67 km) and was in the presence of red-wing blackbirds, calling, nearly the whole way. Some cars of course, and noise from houses, because it wasn’t wilderness — but the sounds that were there, even the light aircraft occasionally overhead, were not unpleasant, and I could pick them out and take them for what they were. They weren’t part of a jumble of harsh competing sounds.
Thanks for writing about contemplative walking. I’ve got a couple of walking pieces sketched out and might post them — you’ve blazed the trail, as it were.
D ~ Thanks for the comment. As a former runner, I too recognized the difference between running and walking, specifically; though running was enjoyable and pleasant, it did not lend itself to the flights of fancy walking does. I could think, as it were, while running, but it was thinking of a very shallow, surface-like nature. Walking allows you so somehow penetrate deeper. I also agree with your assessment of urban verses country walking and running. I’ve run in many cities, all over the world. It wasn’t until I moved here, to Maine, that I started walking. Place matters. Yes, I’ve practiced walking meditation. But it is contradictory to what I’m talking about here. In Zen when you recognize that thought has arisen, you go back to your breathing–or walking–and release it. The emptiness of Zen is just that, empty. I like walking where I can engage. There is, I suspect, a place for emptiness–no, I’m certain there is–but the type of walking I’m talking about here, is not that place. Thanks for stopping by–and the comment.
i loved this. i think we’re on the same wavelength. for one thing, i walk just about everyday for over an hour. that’s not much by nietzsche-ian or thoreauvian standards, but i think it’s a good amount by modern standards. and if i could walk more, i would. i absolutely love it. i do wear ear buds most of the time, but i usually listen to books on tape or lectures or something along those lines, or else i listen to ambient music. i live in LA. it’s sort of pick-your-poison. either you’re streaming in noise from your headphones, or the city is droning in your ears. i usually walk up into the hills, and there’s a nature element at work there, but, like the rest of LA, it tends to be more crowded than, say, the white mountains. it can be nice to have noise-canceling headphones on when you’ve got two industry types on your heels, blathering about hollywood.
anyway. i walked 1,000 miles on the AT in 1997. one of the biggest and best (and hardest!) experiences of my life. i was 21….22….a good age to do that sort of thing. your son is gonna have a blast.
another good one. thanks for putting it down.
B ~ Thanks for your comments. I’m glad you liked the piece. Writing it was something of an exercise to work out how I really felt about the process of moving around on my feet. Since writing it, my walking has extended and is something I look even more forward to. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that I live in Maine (the antithesis of LA!) and it is fall. Perfect for walking and contemplation.
I hope to walk the 100-mile Wilderness (that portion of the AT in Maine leading to the end at Katahdin) with my son next year, assuming he pulls it off. I’m glad to hear about your 1000 mile experience. I’ll pass it on to young Mr. Bruns.
Thanks for the kind words.
What a lovely rumination. I’m a fan of walking for so many reasons and take a long one every night. At least an hour of one foot in front of another is a great antidote for any problems the day brings. I’ve come to refer to my walks as my ‘constitutionals’, bringing back into conversation an old word that is one of those words I find perfect -“a walk or other mild exercise taken for the benefit of one’s health.”
I use my walking time to simply toss away the day, and engage myself in a bit of interior monologue that I simply can get nowhere else in life. On a great constitutional, a sentence I’ve been thinking about from a blossoming story will fully form itself and I’ll walk for an hour or two or three and let the words rumble in my mouth, trying to write the words out in my head. Often, the sheer freedom from everything else that walking offers has helped me think about a story in a way that no other activity can quite do.
I have a very rough plan of walking next summer for four months on the Via Alpina and am so entranced with the idea I can hardly stand it.
Thanks for your lovely essay, Doug. Walk on!!
M ~ Thank you for your kind words. I can easily relate to your thoughts on walking and all that implies. I too seem better able to generate that interior monologue while out and about, walking, than any other way. I end up talking a lot into the microphone app on my iPhone, notes and thoughts. Unlike you (I think), if I talk it out, I loose it. It is as if I can only generate one time the important stuff, after that it is only left-overs. Note taking is important for me. Good luck with the Via Alpina. What a trip that would be. Please let me know if you pull if off. Thanks for reading and the comment.
Doug, I wonder how you would feel about a long, ruminating drive down country roads. Obviously, driving goes against the grain of what you are suggesting, but on the other hand, I find this is conducive to generating the interior monologue. I live in New Hampshire, and when I have been away for an extended period, one of my favorite things to do is get in the car and get lost among the back roads. It’s just…ahhhh…home.
Brian ~ The first time I drove across the Piscataqua–which would have been around 1976–I knew something special had happened. I’d come home. And every time since, I have the same feeling: a rush of emotion, a wave of inspiration and substance. Place matters. And driving or walking, getting to it is all that matters. That has been my experience. As you say…ahhh…home.
Thanks for reading and the comment.
on the east coast, I am utterly incapable of getting lost.
On the west coast, I can’t find my own ass with both hands.
I think there’s something about the “big ocean magnet” being fundamentally on the wrong side.
dwoz – Perhaps that “big ocean magnet” is on the right side, fundamentally…
Thanks for stopping in, reading and the comment.
Cheers from the “right” coast.
cheers indeed. I’m only 45 minutes from you.
[…] walking around, sauntering as it used to be called, elsewhere. (You can find my essay on the topic, Metaphor: On Walking, at The Nervous Breakdown.) It, walking around, is a balm for the soul, good for what ails […]
I have a quote I love, solvitur ambulando attributed to St. Augustine : walking solves everything.