Taking A Walk With Henry David Thoreau

Photo Credit:Tim Foster/Unsplash

The virtues of walking are being extolled on a daily basis it seems. The mayor of San Francisco issued an order for city residents to stay at home except for “essential needs,” such as medicine or food, but made an exemption for “engaging in outdoor activity, such as walking, hiking, or running provided that you maintain at least six feet of social distancing.” In Milan, said the New York Times, where life in the coronavirus “red zone” amounts to virtual house arrest, residents are still free, if not encouraged, to enjoy a walk or jog “for the sake of outdoor physical activity,” as long as social distances are respected.

I was driving to work (I’m a grocer, an essential front-line worker, apparently) the other morning, noticing how many people were out doing exactly that. I wondered for how many folks this will uncover or reawaken a love of walking. That would be a good outcome.

The two of us sauntered the other day on our favorite path by the Merrimack River. We take dogs to exercise there, we pick up litter and cover up graffiti in the summer, we see eagles and red-tail hawks, we just talk and walk and appreciate this simple flowing glory a few blocks from our house. I begin every run on that path by the river, the same one about which Henry David Thoreau rhapsodized.

He also had much to say about our freshly highlighted bipedal outdoor activity. In an 1862 essay called “Walking,” Thoreau offered timeless lessons, both practical and philosophical (maybe they are even the same) for these times one hundred fifty eight years later. It would be worthwhile to reflect and slow down and ponder them, maybe over a few days. I have been able to read and reread the essay without exhaustion for many years.

“I wish to speak a word for Nature,” he begins, “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.” Right there, he turns us toward a larger context, a context with which we can begin every walk. We are members of society, yes indeed, but in the largest sense we are part of nature and can find a place there, whether we are alone or with someone.

He continues —

“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 pretense of going à la Sainte Terre,to the Holy Land,’ till the children exclaimed,‘There goes a Sainte-Terrer, a Saunterer, a Holy Lander.’ ”

Later that paragraph Thoreau notes that “He who sits still in a house all the time may be the greatest vagrant of all; but the saunterer, in the good sense, is no more vagrant than the meandering river, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea.” Here the Concordian whispers in our ear that we’re not wasting time because we can’t be at the office or the gym or the pool or somewhere being “productive.”

So, go for your walk today, be at a safe social distance and remember that you are part of nature, that you’re on a quest for the Holy Land (whatever that means to you), and that you are no vagrant. You couldn’t be doing anything better.

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