Henry David Thoreau


“We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure.”

“What I take with me, what I leave behind, are of less importance than what I discover along the way” professed Thomas A. Clark in his short, elegant sermon on the universal pleasures and simple rewards of walking, echoing the meditation of a moving existence by Annie Dillard a generation earlier and Romantic poet John Clare’s longing for field-wide strides a century before that.

Field. Featured in Henry David Thoreau's "Walking" in the Examined Life Library.
“I walk, all day, across the heaven-verging field” wrote Mary Oliver in her last collection of essays. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

A venture forth in the dignity of body and the freedom of spirit is more than movement, it is an entrance to something, an abandonment of something else.

When Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817 – May 6, 1862) kicked up his heels, he exemplified the importance of “what is discovered along the way,” whether it was filling his pockets with ripe fruit and curious fungi or slipping into a more meditative state of being.

In a short sermon, Walking, this great meanderer of space and time takes equal pleasure in noticing as movement.

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 a 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. Some, however, would derive the word from sans terre, without land or a home, which, therefore, in the good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere. For this is the secret of successful sauntering. 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.1

"Walking" photograph featured in Henry David Thoreau's "Walking" in the Examined Life Library.
“I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness.” Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Walking, to Thoreau, who, twenty years earlier wrote about drifting at leisure in a boat, is deeply connected to exercising and expanding personal freedom. Through walking we kick off conformity and small oppressions. Just like how Emma Mitchell described how the pale of depression lifts when she sets about in nature, and how David Wojnarowicz described joy in movement, Thoreau cherishes walking’s liberation.

I, who cannot stay in my chamber for a single day without acquiring some rust, and when sometimes I have stolen forth for a walk at the eleventh hour, or four o’clock in the afternoon, too late to redeem the day, when the shades of night were already beginning to be mingled with the daylight, have felt as if I had committed some sin to be atoned for, I confess that I am astonished at the power of endurance, to say nothing of the moral insensibility, of my neighbors who confine themselves to shops and offices the whole day for weeks and months, aye, and years almost together. I know not what manner of stuff they are of-sitting there now at three o’clock in the afternoon, as if it were three o’clock in the morning. Bonaparte may talk of the three-o’clock-in-the-morning courage, but it is nothing to the courage which can sit down cheerfully at this hour in the afternoon over against one’s self whom you have known all the morning, to starve out a garrison to whom you are bound by such strong ties of sympathy. I wonder that about this time, or say between four and five o’clock in the afternoon, too late for the morning papers and too early for the evening ones, there is not a general explosion heard up and down the street, scattering a legion of antiquated and house-bred notions and whims to the four winds for an airing-and so the evil cure itself.

In seeking the wild without, perhaps we unleash the wild within.2

"Walking" photograph featured in Henry David Thoreau's "Walking" in the Examined Life Library.

“We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure,” Thoreau advised wisely. Couple his beautiful, ambling essay with Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways, a eulogy for the trails we make and what they make of us, as well as his Macfarlane’s search for wild within and without.

As I read Thoreau, a man whom children chased and adored, there is something quite true about recognising and seizing that innocence in movement. Read more in my Traipsing Along Like a Child, and A. A. Milne’s child-like romp through verse.

Wherever you go, however you go, I wish you the ‘spirit of undying adventure.’