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The wisdom of walking

The restorative powers of walking have been well mapped throughout literary history.
Kelly Doune explores this scenic trail, which winds all the way from Walden to Wild.

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Photo by Greg Rochat

Any online search on prolific writer and illustrator Maira Kalman will lead, at some point, to her meditations on the creative benefits of walking, which she mentions in many of her talks, and touches on in two books (The Principles of Uncertainty and My Favorite Things).

“Whenever I think too much, I say ‘stop thinking!’… which usually I associate with some kind of problem… [and allow] my brain to empty, which usually means taking a walk,” Kalman told THINKR in this 2012 interview. “And movement and the journey that you allow yourself to enter. And all of a sudden your brain is clear and empty. And wonderful things happen when your brain is empty.”

“My religion is nature. That’s what arouses those feelings of wonder and mysticism and gratitude in me.”

Walking as inspiration, preferably alone and in nature, is not a novel idea – history has given us dictum upon dictum from some of its greatest philosophers, scientists and creative thinkers, speaking on the nourishment that comes with being mobile in, and one with, the wilderness. Henry David Thoreau and John Muir are two examples of famous 19th-century naturalists who wrote extensively about the transformative power of nature on the individual, documented in both Walden (Thoreau) and My First Summer in Sierra (Muir).

Ralph Waldo Emerson famously gave an account of his philosophical revelations as part of his own rewilding in the essay, Nature (1836), while Nietzsche, best known for his theories on nihilism, wrote heartily about the “second metamorphosis of the spirit” that happens when a man opens his heart to the wild. Even the great Oliver Sacks, a man preoccupied with exploring the uncharted terrain of the human psyche as a neurologist, wrote: “My religion is nature. That’s what arouses those feelings of wonder and mysticism and gratitude in me.”

Photo by Magnezis Magnestic

Nowhere in these great meditations is there a scientific study that is cited in order to justify reasons for spending time outdoors. But in a society that glorifies busyness and can insist that every hour should be spent in the pursuit of achieving something (so much so that we find ourselves continuously using this and that study to explain our desire to recharge, replenish or just to do nothing), it is refreshing to hear contemporary writers preserving both ethos and tradition, praising walking as a vessel to rediscover stillness and presence, unfettered by the pressures of productivity.

In the spirit of all this, here is a list of our favourites literary extracts from writers old and new, on how nature restores and nourishes our being:

“We need the tonic of wildness… At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.” ― Henry David Thoreau, Walden

A large part of my life has been concerned with some of the beauties and mysteries of this earth about us, and with the even greater mysteries of the life that inhabits it. No one can dwell long among such subjects without thinking rather deep thoughts, without asking himself searching and often unanswerable questions, and without achieving a certain philosophy…. Every mystery solved brings us to the threshold of a greater one. — Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

“I would feel more optimistic about a bright future for man if he spent less time proving that he can outwit Nature and more time tasting her sweetness and respecting her seniority.” ― E.B. White, Letters of E. B. White

Photo by Kelly Sikkemal

“Uncertain as I was as I pushed forward, I felt right in my pushing, as if the effort itself meant something. That perhaps being amidst the undesecrated beauty of the wilderness meant I too could be undesecrated, regardless of the regrettable things I’d done to others or myself or the regrettable things that had been done to me. Of all the things I’d been skeptical about, I didn’t feel skeptical about this: the wilderness had a clarity that included me.” ― Cheryl Strayed, Wild

“I felt my lungs inflate with the onrush of scenery — air, mountains, trees, people. I thought, this is what it is to be happy.” — Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

“We tend to think of landscapes as affecting us most strongly when we are in them or on them, when they offer us the primary sensations of touch and sight. But there are also the landscapes we bear with us in absentia, those places that live on in memory long after they have withdrawn in actuality, and such places — retreated to most often when we are most remote from them — are among the most important landscapes we possess.” ― Robert Macfarlane, The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot

“Musing takes place in a kind of meadowlands of the imagination, a part of the imagination that has not yet been ploughed, developed, or put to any immediately practical use… time spent there is not work time, yet without that time the mind becomes sterile, dull, domesticated. The fight for free space — for wilderness and public space — must be accompanied by a fight for free time to spend wandering in that space.” ― Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking

Words by Kelly Doune / Cover photo by Gaelle Marcel

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