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

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Walking As A Cultural And Aesthetic Act (8)

Camino, Spain

Nowadays we take it for granted that walking is a laudable pastime and recreational activity. We tend to give a positive nod to the walkers we see: they are taking exercise, they are getting out in the fresh air, they are enjoying being part of nature. All Good Things. It was not always thus.

Up until the late eighteenth century no one walked unless they could help it, unless they were poor and could not afford horse, carriage or coach. And, for the ubiquitous poor, walking was not always a pleasurable pursuit. It was a means to an end, not an end in itself - the practical, indeed the only way to drive cattle and pigs to market, to reach crops grown on feudal agricultural strips, to visit friends and family. Beyond the village, routes were uncertain, if not dangerous. Highwaymen and footpads roamed the highways and byways, and folk in other settlements could be suspicious of, or downright hostile to, strangers. Even as late as 1782 the German minister Carl Moritz, walking across England, found himself abused by innkeepers, and ejected from hostelries where he wished to spend the night. His crime? He was on foot! He wrote: A traveller on foot in this country seems to be considered as a sort of wild man, or an out-of-the-way being, who is stared at, pitied, suspected, and shunned by everybody that meets him.

But, by the early nineteenth century, all of this had changed. Influenced by the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who originated the idea of the 'noble savage' living free and uncorrupted in the wild, poets and writers like William Wordsworth and Henry David Thoreau wholeheartedly embraced the cultural, aesthetic and moral value of nature. And, to get close to nature, you had to walk through it. Thoreau's two-year sojourn in a hut by Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts, is well known. He wrote: When we walk, we naturally go to the fields and the woods: what would become of us, if we walked only in a garden or a mall?

And Wordsworth - often accompanied by his sister, Dorothy, or fellow Romantics like Coleridge or De Quincey - must have walked tens of thousands of miles during his lifetime. He would regularly cover fifteen or twenty miles a day, and, even when at home in his Lakeland cottage, would stride endlessly up and down the garden in a creative reverie. Walking in nature gave him solace and inspiration, and he would commonly compose his poems while walking, rather than at his desk. To return to Thoreau, Thoreau also wrote: When a traveler asked Wordsworth's servant to show him her master's study, she answered, 'Here is his library, but his study is out of doors.' Wordsworth's masterpiece of a poem, The Prelude, is really just a long walk in words. 

Throughout the nineteenth century, this walking lark really caught on. Tourism was invented - helped by the boom of the railways - and people travelled further, and walked further, to admire and be awestruck at picturesque views, raging cataracts and terrifying mountain scenery. Hikers and climbers started to explore the European Alps and other mountain chains. Souvenirs were manufactured, and cameras began to record it all. The activity of walking also began to appear in the literature of the day. If you read Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice or Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles, you'll find they are full of people walking.


Arija said...

In Europe through the ages walking through large tracts of landscape was the joy of the journeyman walking to far away towns to seek out a master of his craft, learn as much as he could and move on to another, thus seeing not only his country but also neighbouring ones as he perfected his trade. Scholars walked from one university, sometimes half way across the continent seeking advances in other universities. They wore what we now consider 'the academic gown', a garment that not only proclaimed their calling but also served as balanced bags for carrying any food begged or bought in the sewn up sleeves.

The Solitary Walker said...

So many thanks for telling us about the journeyman artisans and itinerant scholars, Arija. The picture is a far richer and more complex one one than my brief post could deal with, and I'm really grateful to you for filling in some of the colourful and fascinating deatails!

George said...

Very interesting, Robert. Europeans have been much quicker to embrace the pleasures and and other benefits of walking. In the United States, there are still those who will ask, "why would you walk when you can drive." In Texas, moreover, there is a common expression to the effect that "money talks and BS walks," which, again, suggests that walking may sometimes be necessary, but would never be chosen as a superior means of movement. Perhaps I should not generalize too much, but I look forward to the day when more Americans recognize that walking is one of the supreme privileges of being alive, a privilege which costs nothing, but which pays great dividends over the course of a lifetime. The very best of my days have been spent on foot, sometimes in cities, sometimes in the country, sometimes just walking around a neighborhood, but always sensing that the world is created anew with each footfall.

Alive said...

I would like to introduce myself, someone who is very new to blogging. Having first discovered your blog back in May, have been following ever since. What dazzling delights you have given to others through your journeying. Happy New Year.

Ruth said...

Wow, I'm grateful for this information, Robert, which I didn't know, about the history of walking, and how it was looked down upon. Now the walking of my legendary heroes of the 19th century (Thoreau, et al), means so much more to me. You have also shed more light on the particular scene I love in Pride & Prejudice when Miss Elizabeth Bennet walks to Netherfield (is it?) and soils the bottom of her dress with mud. The sisters are outraged that she should walk, and take the earth upon her that way! Elizabeth's courage and confidence in the face of those silly women is even brighter to me now.

I have begun walking over the threshold of War and Peace, my friend. Standing among the stacks in my university library, I had at least twelve editions to choose from, all sorts and sizes (all large, of course, but some thick and stout, others tall and leaner). Would you believe I chose the tallest and heaviest? Because it is tall and heavy? 1146 pages. And of construction to be heavy. I wanted to embrace the hugeness of this greatest of all novels, and besides, it has beautiful pen & ink illustrations by John Groth. It sits so nicely in my lap (not in my hands)! It is translated by Constance Garnett. I have not researched "best translations" so we shall see. Not that I would know any difference among them. But I share this here, partly to update you on my W & P progress, and partly to say, that this is a metaphor for walking. I had felt daunted by the prospect of a cross-country journey by foot through such a vast novel, remembering from my younger days how cumbersome Russian names, like steep inclines with brambles, and the volume of them, can be. But within just a few pages I have been utterly entranced by his beautiful writing. Now, I feel that I hope I will never reach the coast: The End.

The Solitary Walker said...

I love long and enthusuastic comments, Ruth, and thanks for yours. Relax into the book. Don't feel intimidated by all the names and characters. Most are just background. The main protagonists will sort themselves out before long (1. Pierre; 2. The Rostovs; 3. The Bolkonskys) It took me 100 pages to really get into the book. Treat it as a vast panorama against which personal and domestic lives are played. I think there's something great about traversing an ostensibly daunting landscape (or book) and realising - yes! I can do this! And even enjoy it!

Thanks as ever, George, for your valuable comment.

And Alive: I'm so grateful for your appreciative comment, and I'm glad you are finding some delights among these posts.

The Solitary Walker said...

PS Ruth - the Constance Garnett translation is an old, respected and venerable one, but I myself would go something more modern. I have the Rosemary Edmonds one, which reads very well.

emilene said...

Very interesting! Glad I found your blog - I look forward to reading your posts as I prepare for my own camino!

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks, Emiline. Will you be blogging about it?

emilene said...

Hi Robert - yes, I am already blogging about my trip. My site can be found at www.caminosantiago2012.blogspot.com.