from Walking - Part 1 of 3
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"The length of his walk uniformly made the length of his writing. If shut up in the house, he did not write at all." - Ralph Waldo Emerson
I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute Freedom and Wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and Culture merely civil,—to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society. I wish to make an extreme statement, if so I may make a emphatic one, for there are enough champions of civilization; the minister, and the school-committee, and every one of you will take care of that.
I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks, who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering; which word is beautifully derived "from idle people who roved about the country, in the middle ages, and asked charity, under pretence of going à la sainte terre"—to the holy land, till the children exclaimed, "There goes a sainte-terrer", a saunterer—a holy-lander. They who never go to the holy land in their walks, as they pretend, are indeed mere idlers and vagabonds, but they who do go there are saunterers in the good sense, such as I mean. ....
It is true, we are but faint hearted crusaders, even the walkers, now-a-days, who undertake no persevering never ending enterprises. Our expeditions are but tours and come round again at evening to the old hearth side from which we set out. Half the walk is but retracing our steps. We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return; prepared to send back our embalmed hearts(2) only, as relics to our desolate kingdoms. If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends,(3) and never see them again; if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man; then you are ready for a walk. ...
I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields absoutely free from all wordly engagements. You may safely say a penny for your thoughts, or a thousand pounds. When sometimes I am reminded that the mechanics and shop-keepers 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....
When we walk we naturally go to the fields and woods; what would become of us if we walked only in a garden or a mall? Even some sects of philosophers have felt the necessity of importing the woods to themselves since they did not go to the woods, "They planted groves and walks of Platans" where they took subdiales ambulationes in porticoes open to the air. Of course, it is of no use to direct our steps to the woods, if they do not carry us thither. I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit. 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. The thought of some work will run in my head, and I am not where my body is; I am out of my senses. In my walks I would fain return to my senses. What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods? I suspect myself, and cannot help a shudder, when I find myself so implicated even in what are called good works—for this may sometimes happen.
My vicinity affords many good walks, and though I have walked almost every day for so many years, and sometimes for several days together, I have not yet exhausted them. An absoutely 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. A single farm-house which I had not seen before is sometimes as good as the dominions of the king of Dahomey.(11) There is in fact a sort of harmony discoverable between the capabilities of the landscape within a circle of ten miles’ radius, or the limits of an afternoon walk, and the three-score-years and ten of human life. It will never become quite familiar to you.
Now a days, almost all man’s improvements, so called, as the building of houses, and the cutting down of the forest, and of all large trees, simply deform the landscape, and make it more and more tame and cheap. ...
I can easily walk ten, fifteen, twenty, any number of miles, commencing at my own door, without going by any house, without crossing a road except where the fox and the mink do. First along by the river, and then the brook, and then the meadow and the wood-side. There are square miles in my vicinity which have no inhabitant. From many a hill I can see civilization and the abodes of man afar. The farmers and their works are scarcely more obvious than woodchucks and their burrows. Man and his affairs, church and state—and school, trade and commerce, and manufactuures and agriculture,—even politics, the most alarming of them all—I am pleased to see how little space they occupy in the landscape. Politics is but a narrow field, and that still narrower highway yonder leads to it. I sometimes direct the traveller thither. If you would go to the political world, follow the great road,—follow that market man, keep his dust in your eyes, and it will lead you straight to it—for it too has its place merely, and does not occupy all space. I pass from it as from a bean field into the forest, and it is forgotten. In one half hour I can walk off to some portion of the earth’s surface where a man does not stand from one year’s end to another and there consequently politics are not, for they are but as the cigar smoke of a man...
At present, in this vicinity, the best part of the land is not private property; the landscape is not owned, and the walker enjoys comparative freedom. But possibly the day will come when it will be partitioned off into so-called pleasure grounds, in which a few will take a narrow and exclusive pleasure only,—when fences shall be multiplied, and man traps and other engines invented to confine men to the public road; and walking over the surface of God’s earth, shall be construed to mean trespassing on some gentleman’s grounds. To enjoy a thing exclusively is commonly to exclude yourself from the true enjoyment of it. Let us improve our opportunities then before the evil days come.
1. Peter the Hermit, (1050?-1115) French monk, leader of the First Crusade, 1095-99 - back
2. Occasional medieval practice: if a warrior fell on foreign soil, and he was royalty and merited such treatment, his heart might be removed, preserved, and sent home for burial - back
3. "And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life" - Matthew 19:29 - back
4. orders of knights on horseback - back
5. Chaucer (1340?-1400) from Gest of Robyn Hode - back
6. Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) French general & emperor - back
7. Classical style of columns developed by the Greeks and modified by the Romans - back
8. 12th cent. French architectural style, popular in Europe through the 16th cent. - back
9. pertains to or occurs in the evening, in zoology, animals who appear in the evening - back
10. William Wordsworth (1770-1850) English poet, leading figure in Romanticism - back
11. native kingdom, later called Benin, in French West Africa, Nigeria - back
12. pertains to the river Styx which borders Hades - back
13. Marcus Terrentius Varro (116-27? B.C.) Roman author - back
14. variation of Manu; Hindu progenitor of and lawgiver to the human race - back
15. Homer, 8th cent. B.C. Greek epic poet, reputed author of Iliad and Odyssey - back
16. America is named for Italian explorer Americus Vespucius (1451-1512) - back
17. sepulchral monument not located where the deceased is buried - back
Thoreau Reader - Walking Intro - Walking Part 2 - Walking Part 3