Wanderlust: Rebecca Solnit on How Walking Vitalizes the Meanderings of the Mind
By Maria Popova
“Of all ridiculous things,” Kierkegaard wrote in contemplating our greatest source of unhappiness, “the most ridiculous seems to me, to be busy — to be a man who is brisk about his food and his work.” Just a few years later, on the other side of the Atlantic, another sage of the ages considered a particularly perilous form of briskness — in 1861, Thoreau penned his timeless treatise on walking and the spirit of sauntering. Half a century later, Swiss modernist writer Robert Walser captured this spirit in his short story “The Walk,” which includes this exquisite line: “With the utmost love and attention the man who walks must study and observe every smallest living thing, be it a child, a dog, a fly, a butterfly, a sparrow, a worm, a flower, a man, a house, a tree, a hedge, a snail, a mouse, a cloud, a hill, a leaf, or no more than a poor discarded scrap of paper on which, perhaps, a dear good child at school has written his first clumsy letters.”
But no one has written about walking, its cultural history, and its spiritual rewards more beautifully and with more dimension than Rebecca Solnit in her 2000 masterpiece Wanderlust: A History of Walking (public library).
Walking is embodied presence in motion, presence at once with ourselves and with the world, inner and outer — an active presence of body and mind, which Solnit captures in the opening pages:
Where does it start? Muscles tense. One leg a pillar, holding the body upright between the earth and sky. The other a pendulum, swinging from behind. Heel touches down. The whole weight of the body rolls forward onto the ball of the foot. The big toe pushes off, and the delicately balanced weight of the body shifts again. The legs reverse position. It starts with a step and then another step and then another that add up like taps on a drum to a rhythm, the rhythm of walking. The most obvious and the most obscure thing in the world, this walking that wanders so readily into religion, philosophy, landscape, urban policy, anatomy, allegory, and heartbreak.
Indeed, the metaphysical wanderings that the physical act precipitates are what makes walking transcend its utilitarian purpose of bipedal mobility. Solnit, who has also contemplated how we find ourselves by getting lost, examines this higher-order function of wanderlust:
Most of the time walking is merely practical, the unconsidered locomotive means between two sites. To make walking into an investigation, a ritual, a meditation, is a special subset of walking, physiologically like and philosophically unlike the way the mail carrier brings the mail and the office worker reaches the train. Which is to say that the subject of walking is, in some sense, about how we invest universal acts with particular meanings. Like eating or breathing, it can be invested with wildly different cultural meanings, from the erotic to the spiritual, from the revolutionary to the artistic. Here this history begins to become part of the history of the imagination and the culture, of what kind of pleasure, freedom, and meaning are pursued at different times by different kinds of walks and walkers.
Solnit readily acknowledges that the subjective experience of the walker is what shapes the route of this imaginative meandering through the various reaches of culture:
This history of walking is an amateur history, just as walking is an amateur act. To use a walking metaphor, it trespasses through everybody else’s field — through anatomy, anthropology, architecture, gardening, geography, political and cultural history, literature, sexuality, religious studies — and doesn’t stop in any of them on its long route. For if a field of expertise can be imagined as a real field — a nice rectangular confine carefully tilled and yielding a specific crop — then the subject of walking resembles walking itself in its lack of confines. And though the history of walking is, as part of all these fields and everyone’s experience, virtually infinite, this history of walking I am writing can only be partial, an idiosyncratic path traced through them by one walker, with much doubling back and looking around… The history of walking is everyone’s history, and any written version can only hope to indicate some of the more well-trodden paths in the author’s vicinity — which is to say, the paths I trace are not the only paths.
With the hindsight of a decade and a half, Solnit’s book emerges as triply timely today, as we struggle to master that ever more precarious balancing act of living with presence in the age of productivity. She writes:
Thinking is generally thought of as doing nothing in a production-oriented culture, and doing nothing is hard to do. It’s best done by disguising it as doing something, and the something closest to doing nothing is walking. Walking itself is the intentional act closest to the unwilled rhythms of the body, to breathing and the beating of the heart. It strikes a delicate balance between working and idling, being and doing. It is a bodily labor that produces nothing but thoughts, experiences, arrivals.
In a sense, the creative rewards of walking parallel the creative rewards of boredom, both culturally and developmentally. Although a toddler’s first steps are a more obvious and thus more loudly celebrated milestone, the capacity for boredom — the ability to “do nothing with nobody all alone by yourself” — is an equally monumental, if much more invisible, developmental achievement for the child. Walking, like the capacity for boredom, is a form of intimacy with oneself — with one’s thoughts, one’s world, one’s imaginative and bodily sense of being. Solnit speaks to this beautifully:
Walking, ideally, is a state in which the mind, the body, and the world are aligned, as though they were three characters finally in conversation together, three notes suddenly making a chord. Walking allows us to be in our bodies and in the world without being made busy by them. It leaves us free to think without being wholly lost in our thoughts.
The rhythm of walking generates a kind of rhythm of thinking, and the passage through a landscape echoes or stimulates the passage through a series of thoughts. This creates an odd consonance between internal and external passage, one that suggests that the mind is also a landscape of sorts and that walking is one way to traverse it. A new thought often seems like a feature of the landscape that was there all along, as though thinking were traveling rather than making. And so one aspect of the history of walking is the history of thinking made concrete — for the motions of the mind cannot be traced, but those of the feet can.
Indeed, the history of human creative endeavor is rife with artists and writers whose minds were propelled by rhythmic movement — something Solnit argues defines walking better than its purely transportational function:
Perhaps walking should be called movement, not travel, for one can walk in circles or travel around the world immobilized in a seat, and a certain kind of wanderlust can only be assuaged by the acts of the body itself in motion, not the motion of the car, boat, or plane. It is the movement as well as the sights going by that seems to make things happen in the mind, and this is what makes walking ambiguous and endlessly fertile: it is both means and end, travel and destination.
Movement is also an essential mode of dynamic interaction between self and other, self and world:
Many people nowadays live in a series of interiors — home, car, gym, office, shops — disconnected from each other. On foot everything stays connected, for while walking one occupies the spaces between those interiors in the same way one occupies those interiors. One lives in the whole world rather than in interiors built up against it.
And yet it gives one pause to consider that Solnit (to say nothing of Thoreau) is writing before smartphones and podcasts existed — before we had portable interiors in our pockets, which now accompany us on all walks by default, to a point of even co-opting this notion of connectedness to mean the very opposite. These portable interiors are now infringing on our interaction with the outside world — not only by blunting our attentiveness to the natural world, diminishing our willingness to “study and observe every smallest living thing” with “the utmost love and attention” but also, in densely populated epicenters of urbanity, by tampering with our ability to perform the intuitive pedestrian dance known as “the slip-and-slide.”
Writing on the precipice of a major cultural shift — before the iPhone, before Facebook, before Wikipedia — Solnit articulates the peril of this productivity-fetishism with extraordinary prescience:
I found [an ad] in the Los Angeles Times … for a CD-ROM encyclopedia, and the text that occupied a whole page read, “You used to walk across town in the pouring rain to use our encyclopedias. We’re pretty confident that we can get your kid to click and drag.” I think it was the kid’s walk in the rain that constituted the real education, at least of the senses and the imagination. Perhaps the child with the CD-ROM encyclopedia will stray from the task at hand, but wandering in a book or a computer takes place within more constricted and less sensual parameters. It’s the unpredictable incidents between official events that add up to a life, the incalculable that gives it value.
Artist Maira Kalman — a supreme patron saint of walking, who memorably urged: “Go out and walk. That is the glory of life.” — captures this beautifully in her notion of the “in-between world” full of “moments inside the moments inside the moments,” which Solnit speaks to in considering the immense and endangered value of this vibrant in-betweenery of place and time:
The multiplication of technologies in the name of efficiency is actually eradicating free time by making it possible to maximize the time and place for production and minimize the unstructured travel time in between. New timesaving technologies make most workers more productive, not more free, in a world that seems to be accelerating around them. Too, the rhetoric of efficiency around these technologies suggests that what cannot be quantified cannot be valued — that that vast array of pleasures which fall into the category of doing nothing in particular, of woolgathering, cloud-gazing, wandering, window-shopping, are nothing but voids to be filled by something more definite, more productive, or faster paced… As a member of the self-employed whose time saved by technology can be lavished on daydreams and meanders, I know these things have their uses, and use them — a truck, a computer, a modem — myself, but I fear their false urgency, their call to speed, their insistence that travel is less important than arrival. I like walking because it is slow, and I suspect that the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour. If this is so, then modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought, or thoughtfulness.
In the remainder of the wholly enchanting Wanderlust, Solnit goes on to explore the history of walking from antiquity’s spiritual pilgrimages to the acts of civil disobedience that shaped our modern world. Complement it with Thoreau’s foundational text on walking, then revisit Solnit on the color blue and what reading does for the human soul.
Published June 3, 2015