Learning the art of ‘Walking’ from Thoreau

Have you ever experienced something ‘spiritual’ while reading a book? An experience so transcendental that could open your eyes and make you question the way you had been living your life till now. “Walking” also known as “Wild”, written by Henry David Thoreau is one such book. It was initially a lecture given by Thoreau, at the Concord Lyceum on April 23, 1851, and was published as an essay for the first time in “Atlantic Monthly” after his death in 1862.

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Walking by Henry David Thoreau

About the author:

Henry David Thoreau(1817-1862) was an American essayist, poet, and philosopher. Being a leading naturalist, Thoreau is best known for his book Walden, which was his personal experiment on spiritual discovery after spending two years, two months and two days in a cabin he built near Walden Pond. The book reflects upon the idea of simple living in natural surroundings. Walking (or Wild) could be seen as an extension of Walden, in which Thoreau talks about the idea of walking the right way, the importance of nature in a man’s life and how mankind should never forget its roots.

Walden Pond

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This book is of interest for:

  • Philosophy and nature lovers.
  • Traveling enthusiasts.
  • Anybody who likes to contemplate.

Premise of the book:

Walking is a transcendental essay, which Henry David Thoreau also considered as one of his seminal works. He even quoted it as, “an introduction to all his coming works.” So, reading Walking is one the most essential aspect, if we want to understand the philosophy of Thoreau in an efficient manner.

When it comes to reviewing this essay it’s an equally difficult task, because of the contemplative style of writing that changes its course quite often. I have tried to write down the main aspects of the essay, which clearly presents his thinking in a concise way:

  • Being a ”Saunterer

Thoreau mentions that he has only met one or two people in his life, who really know the art of Walking, rest all just pretend to walk. “Sauntering” is the right word to use for walking. The word originated in the mid 17th century which was described for “the idle people who roamed aimlessly around the country, in Middle Ages, and asked charity under the pretense of going to ‘à la Sainte Terre’ – which means Holy Land.” They were thus called ‘Sainte -Terrer’ or Saunterer- A Holy-Lander.

So, here Thoreau meant that those who go for a walk, just for the sake of walking are mere vagabonds, but those who really walk like saunterers are the real seekers of the Holy Land. People who have no particular home but are equally at home everywhere. This is the biggest secret to walking. He states that people sitting still in their houses are the greatest vagrant of all. They are still but their minds are somewhere else, which clearly gives the idea that Thoreau believed i.e in mindfulness. Walking should be done as a Holy task, just like a river seeking the course to the sea. (This made me question my walking skills.)

  • Seeking an adventure:

He is disappointed by the fact that people have become more faint-hearted when it comes to walking. They walk as if they are on a tour and half of the journey just becomes an act of retracing steps. This makes walking more of a monotonous task. He believes that walking even if for the shortest route should be done with the spirit of undying adventure. One who walks like a free man letting go of his house, his family and all the worldly affairs, is the walker in the real sense.

He also makes a point of ” pretentious adventure”, means when people pretend that they have experienced one of the best adventures in their half-hour long walking expeditions. He believes that its just the fact that they are elevated only for a moment, by reminiscing about their previous states.

Henry David Thoreau also confesses the fact that he is surprised by the spirit of human endurance. He sarcastically talks about the moral insensitivity of his neighbors who confine themselves to the shops and offices for months and years, as if legs are meant for sitting.

“No wealth can buy the requisite leisure, freedom and independence which are the capital of this profession. It requires a direct dispensation from Heaven to be a walker.”

  • Finding comfort Outdoors:

Thoreau made a point of increasing temperament and decreasing patience of the people with age, as a result of which people resort to indoor occupations. They take walking as a half an hour task, just like sick take medicines. Henry David Thoreau just like George Orwell or Aldous Huxley had the observations of the coming future generations. He makes the point of men, swinging dumbbells indoors for their health, which is ironic seeing the situation of the present generation, where people prefer going to the gym and pulling heavy metallic machines rather than going for an adventurous walk.

” Think of a man’s swinging dumb-bells for his health, when those springs are bubbling up in far-off pastures unsought by him!”

He believes that living outdoors and facing the sun and wind will produce a certain roughness of character, whereas staying indoors will produce softness and sensitivity to certain impressions. Therefore those who stay outdoor and active will have more air and sunshine in their thoughts.

“The callous palms of the laborer are conversant with finer tissues of self-respect and heroism, whose touch thrills the heart, than the languid fingers of idleness.”

  • Be a walker, not a roadster:

He talks of preferring the path to woods rather than taking the course of roads. He believes that roads are meant for the horses and men of business. He didn’t travel in them because those roads are taken when you have to buy something or you have to go to a particular destination. He gives the example of old roads like Marlborough road, which led to some profitable destination and is now discontinued, which also signifies the materialistic nature of humans who discard anything of no value to them. So, he prefers taking the free course.

  • Freedom of walking freely:

Thoreau believed that the day is not far when these free landscapes will be divided into so-called pleasure grounds and the fences will multiply so only a few people would be able to get that narrow and exclusive pleasure, and other engines will be developed to confine men in the public roads, and walking on shall mean trespassing some gentleman’s grounds, which is quite ironic when we see today’s situation! Sigh! And to quote the following line, that hit me so sharply:

” To enjoy a thing exclusively, is commonly to exclude yourself from the true enjoyment of it.”

  • Preserving Wildness:

As “walking” was also known by the name of “wild”, Thoreau also mentioned about the importance of being wild in his essay. He believed that in wildness there is the preservation of the world and men should not forget their roots. There is a difference between drinking and eating for strength and from mere gluttony. The most alive people are the wildest ones. No matter how much society and civilization comes, a man should never forget his real wild roots. To him, a tanned skin is more respectable than a pale white sensitive skin.

“Hope and the future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in impervious and quaking swamps.”

He gives the reference of literature and ancient scriptures to signify the importance of wildness. How Iliad and Hamlet’s uncivilized and free-thinking delights us more than restricted thinking. Dullness is more like tameness. He believed that a truly good book is something that speaks naturally and unaccountably fair. He prefers being surrounded by wild and free friends instead of tame ones. ( This philosophy could also be applied nowadays, where everybody is so much guarded and self- centered, the rawness and free thinking has become quite rare now.)

  • Laws and boundations:

He talks about the importance of ignorance of a man. People who don’t think a lot and have less knowledge are sometimes more useful than those with knowledge. The idea of people following the law and going by it, makes them submissive and a successful life knows no law. By seeking and knowing about a law we get chained to its implications. Live free child of mist, because with respect to knowledge we all are children of mist. A man who has taken the liberty to live on his own is superior to all the laws. For this, he also gives the example of Vishnu Purana which states that:

” That is active duty, which is not for our bondage; that is knowledge which is for our liberation: all other duty is good only unto weariness; all other knowledge is only the cleverness of an artist.”

So, all in all, the essay not only enlightened me about the art of walking but also on the importance of preserving our roots, resorting to an organic lifestyle and free, unbiased thinking that gives birth to many creative aspects of our lives. This book will surely trigger your creative instincts.

It was an eye-opening experience for me while reading this essay in the 21st century, how precise (and sarcastic) Henry David Thoreau was in his predictions about the future lifestyle. The references of Indian philosophy, literature, mythologies, science, and history signified his rich knowledge and experience which should not be missed by anyone. Even if you missed reading Walden, you can definitely read this short essay and get the taste of enlightenment and wildness, which is surely missing in today’s time.

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