A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Walking: Curiosity And Discovery (5)

Camino, Spain

The most soulful places are almost always reached only on foot. THE SOLITARY WALKER

I've written about the health benefits of walking, both physical and mental; about walking as an escape hatch from the demands of society and a fast-paced world; about the therapeutic value of walking; about walking as an aid to meditation; about how the simplicity of walking strips everything down to life's bare and necessary essentials. But what actually is the basic, primal driving force behind our desire to put one foot in front of the other, endlessly?

I believe it's curiosity. As human beings we are naturally curious. I know I am. I always want to know what's around the next bend, what's at the top of the hill, what lies beyond the horizon. Or even just what's at the end of the garden. Without any excited sense of expectancy, of insatiable curiosity, walking would be in danger of becoming a mere treadmill. Curiosity keeps our minds sharp, our senses finely tuned; keeps us alive.

It's limitless what is waiting to be discovered, explored and learnt through walking. And walking - in its immediacy and simplicity, its freedom and flexibility - is, I'm convinced, the best way to grasp the world. Not only can walking take you to places most other methods of transport can't reach, but it gives you an inimitably physical, visceral, hands-on experience of the journey. Whenever I'm on a long walk, my senses gradually become more alert as each day goes by. As I slowly lose the built-up fumes of contemporary industrialised, mechanised, homogenised 'civilisation', my mind begins to see more clearly, I can breathe more easily, I rediscover senses - smell, taste, touch - which have been long muted, I rejoice in the freedom of what I'm doing, I melt into the unique presence of each moment, I'm glad to be alive. As Whitman wrote: I celebrate myself and I sing the body electric. And as Thoreau said: Talk of mysteries! — Think of our life in nature, — daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it, — rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! The solid earth! the actual world! the common sense! Contact! Contact!

Walking day after day in a new country is a wonderful way to appreciate it, to get to grips with it, to comprehend it in a profound way. I know from my own experience that I feel I 'know' England and France and Spain in a wholly different way by walking across them, by feeling their earth under my feet and their dirt under my fingernails, than by cruising through them in car, coach or train. In walking you go at Nature's pace, slow and deep. You encounter Nature one-to-one.The barriers between you and Nature, between you and other people, are down. Your feet are planted right there, in the puddles and the mud, on the piney forest floor, on the springy downland turf, in the sand at the edge of the sea. It's instinctive, it's primitive, and it somehow feels just right.


Ruth said...

Just beautiful. Your post makes me think that we can't really know a place, without knowing its land and nature. I've been reflecting lately on Michigan, and how I want to look at its terrain and geological characteristics, and explore them that way. Imagine living as humans without the boundaries and borders we've created for maps, and thinking instead in terms of terrain, content of the dirt, flora, fauna.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks Ruth. Yes, I think those features you describe - the terrain, the content of nature, the position of sun, moon and stars - are ancient mental maps which existed long before the introduction of cartography. Hurl yourself into the landscape, don't look at it through plate-glass windows. That's the secret!

George said...

Another wonderful piece and right on point, Robert. Without curiosity, we might as well be stuck like hamsters on the treadmill. I especially love your response to Ruth: "Hurl yourself into the landscape. . . That's the secret." Oh how true this is. Many people seem to retain an atavistic fear of the landscape, as if venturing into the unknown my expose them to unmanageable peril. The landscape, however, has no quality of "otherness." There is no true boundary there; we are an extension of the landscape and it is an extension of us.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks George. I agree with you - though it's important also to acknowledge the existential difference between human beings and nature (because of human consciousness), and also to respect, indeed be wary of nature, in all its vicious moods!

Raph G. Neckmann said...

Oh yes, that wonderful curiosity that calls one to look round the next turn in the forest path, to see what wonders are in the hidden glade! And the sounds and smells too, all melding in to one another and then suddenly a new sound! Wind or water or a creaking tree. This never cloys.