The Importance of Walking About: As We Engage Our Gait We Jostle Thoughts and Rest Our Souls

“Is there anything that is better than to be out, walking, in the clear air?”
Thomas A. Clark

In the gleeful, wee early days of her life, I introduced my newborn to walking about. Bundled against the slight February sun we slipped out. We didn’t go far.

“If the day is fine, any walk will do” wrote Annie Dillard in her pilgrimage into nature.

I’ll never forget baring a warm chest for impromptu nursing at the swan pond in Kensington Gardens—Arctic wind notwithstanding. Anything to soothe her crying. People pitied my new-motherhood. I was wobbly but proud. She, satiated.

Our first walk, imperfect but vanquished. I felt a wholeness with her and with my new-mother self.1

The inaugural walk of life, one clear February morning. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Walking connects mind and body and fills both to the brim with feelings of unity.

Franz Kafka endured a traumatic period of deep restlessness when a failed marriage proposal escalated to a humiliating public trial (and inspired his own The Trial). Kafka’s biographer, Elias Canetti, describes how a relentless quest for sleep led Kafka into manic bouts of walking:

He plunges with a sort of elevation into every activity that demands and restores unity of the body [… long walks in the country which enabled him to breathe freely—all these enliven him and give him hope that for once, for even a longer time, he might be able to escape from the disintegration of the wakeful night.

From Elias Canetti’s Kafka’s Other Trial

When my husband asked why I bothered to walk my daughter into the cold, I served him a line from Emerson’s essay, Nature: “The health of the eye seems to demand a horizon.”

I verge to horizons, I am someone who walks. 2,300 miles across the United States, 100 miles up the Thames, half a mile in the Arctic wind with my daughter. Like Kafka, walking restores my unity, invites harmony, and addresses unwanted wakefulness.

British author Robert Macfarlane investigates a need for walking in his superb 2012 book The Old Ways. Macfarlane collects and showcases a blend of walkers, path-forgers, and followers who have traipsed the British Isles for centuries. He finds our creation of paths emanate from a human need to move:

As I walk paths I often wonder about their origins, the impulses that have led to their creation, the records they yield of customary journeys, and the secrets they keep of adventures, meetings and departures. I would guess I have walked perhaps 7,000 or 8,000 miles on footpaths so far in my life: more than most, perhaps, but not nearly so many as others. […] I’ve covered thousands of foot-miles in my memory, because when—as most nights—I find myself insomniac, I send my mind out to re-walk paths I’ve followed, and in this way can sometimes pace myself into sleep.

From Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways

Just as walking can be soporific, it is equally energizing. As we engage our gait so spring our thoughts, our vital unconscious and creativity.

Creative talents such as Gustav Mahler, Charles Dickens, Rousseau, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Mary Oliver, mathematician Henri Poincare, Gertrude Stein, and poets A. E. Housman and Wallace Stevens all benefited from improved footfall. Some sought natural environs, some the city – the common element was movement and thought.

I write while walking. Although I type indoors, I compose passages, phrases, paragraphs, and posts—or, rather, I step aside and sentences self-compose—while walking. In the midst of play, my mind works still. I repeat thoughts until I can retype verbatim. (It’s not coincidental that I fit myself into a profession that allows daily walking. It is mere luck, however, that I possess such a visual memory.)

Vincent van Gogh, a “formidable walker,” unveiled an artist’s eye for fields, suns, and trees, “I walked across a large grassy field there surrounded by trees and houses, with the spire rising high above them.” His most coalesced and inspired thoughts often unfolded after long walks. Gathering these single points of creative beginning into his work.

Verging towards bluebells at Petworth House. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

It’s not just what think while walking. It’s what we forge by walking.

These paths, Macfarlane reminds us, are the memories of people, the remnants of society, individuals, and even ourselves. We leave tracks, evidence of our existence. The ground bears witness (and easily carries it, unlike humans.)

We easily forget that we are track-makers, though, because most of our journeys now occur on asphalt and concrete—and these substances are not easily impressed. […] It’s true that, once you begin to notice them, you see that the landscape is still webbed with paths and footways […] .

From Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways

Not just that we warm the brain, or demonstrate existence, I think there is something further that hooks our unconscious and draws us out step by step.

In her lovely, creatively unbounded book of musings and illustrations, The Principles of Uncertainty, artist Maira Kalman longs for a lengthy walk—“My dream is to walk around the world. A smallish backpack, all essentials neatly in place.”—but settles for a few steps in others’ shoes.

Kalman undergoes that critical suspension of self—the true root of empathy—to see others. Walking as they walk, stepping as they step. Occasionally communicating, but mostly watching. It is a deeply perceptive collection of images, often people’s backs. “Everyone is going forward, and everyone is behind everyone” Kalman writes.

Walking is a way of seeing.

Dickens knew this, he paced London (I imagine him restless restless restless), twelve or fourteen miles a night in relentless pursuit of personality, characters. People and neighborhoods among which he had once lived but from which his success had removed him. Like Kalman, Dickens saw people, then wrote them.

Contemporary Scottish poet Thomas A. Clark agreed, writing in his short but elegant prose/poem In Praise of Walking:

Daily walking, in all weathers in every season, becomes a sort of ground or continuum upon which the least emphatic occurrences are registered clearly.

When walking, we register fully in our minds that which we perceive with our senses.

“I walk, all day, across the heaven-verging field” wrote Mary Oliver in Upstream. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Indeed, walking is about witness because it is about connecting. To people, to ourselves, to our mind, or simply, to our world. Connecting to others as we shuffle forward towards that heaven-verging horizon.