The Importance of Walking About

“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.

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.

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:1

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.

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:2

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.

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.3 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 […] .

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.4

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 marvelous and 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:5

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 forever far heaven-verging horizon.

Pace, Breaks and the True Nature of Play

“Instead of trying to empty my mind, as one does in meditation, and letting my thoughts drift by like moving clouds, I followed my thoughts, but in an unhurried and liberated way.”
Alan Lightman

I was delighted to find—among other things at Chartwell, Winston Churchill’s country abode—a swing hanging from an old oak.

I made good use of it.

nature of play
A little afternoon play allows us to relax, excite and touch fleetingly that elusive thing: innocence. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Did he? Perhaps Winny and Clemmie (they called each other thus) ran out between London cables and Prime Minister’s Question Time. Did Churchill conceive his best thoughts when his rump hit the seat? “Push me, Clemmie. I must consider the Empire.”

No, they didn’t. The swings were installed post-Churchill. And I digress.

Back to “convergent thinking,” as physicist and humanist Alan Lightman calls the “logical and orderly step-by-step approach to a problem.”1 It is with convergent thinking that we make lists, order preferences, and run empires. It is with convergent thinking that we, leaden with purpose, get things done.

However, Lightman also makes a grand case for enabling a mind of play, what he labels “divergent thinking.” How? By inserting breaks in periods of convergent thinking.

American existential psychologist Rollo May, a most trusted oracle of the creative process, agrees. May extols the “necessity of alternating work and relaxation, with the insight often coming at the moment of the break between the two, or at least within the break.”2

A break is shrugging off the burden of purpose. (I imagine it resembles playing with pets). Moreover, May recommends we actively initiate this break, and that we withdraw consciously from stimulation. We ignite the unconscious and coax creativity, and collect creative moments of beginning.

John Constable, Cloud Study, 1821. © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

I grappled with “pace” the day I kept company with a snail. Pace is different from a break. Pace is slowing down. (Or speeding up, but is that an issue these days?) It is also about letting someone—something—else take charge. In my case, a determined little snail who led me around my apartment.

A break is the moment of change. Pace is letting someone else take over. But what about play? What is the nature of play?

When inveterate Londoner Peter Mayle moved to Provence, he found that fresh, local markets, wine, warm days, and bright smells invited different values of time and energy.3 His British friends asked whether he grew bored of the less-stimulating life, Mayle answered easily:

We didn’t. We didn’t have time. We found the everyday curiosities of French rural life amusing and interesting.”

To be amused and interested all day sounds like the nature of play to me.

Play is the swing. Freedom, wind at the face. Play is my most orderly mind cascading down a hill on a sled. Fast freefall and caring not. That is the nature of play.

For Lightman, play is exploration. He remembers the early play of childhood:

There were many creations. None of these projects were assigned in school. They were just things I did for fun in the long afternoon after school when I wasn’t wandering about. Many of the mixings and tinkerings didn’t lead to anything. They were merely explorations of the world and the hidden paths in my mind. I was at play.

When British comedian John Cleese recalls his best moments, those moments of “perfect, timeless happiness” they were far from any feelings of work.4 They included things like “sitting in a deckchair in the garden of my house in Holland Park, gazing at two Burmese kittens doing cabaret; looking at Vermeer’s painting of Delft in The Hague and allowing it to affect me […] .”

Cleese notes these moments had nothing to do with work or striving.

John Constable, Cloud Study, 1822. © The Tate Collection.

In play, we don’t strive. We let something else move us, take us… Down a winding path or vertical hill.

Led by his thoughts, Lightman writes, “I followed [them], but in an unhurried and liberated way.”

The details of pace, breaks, and play are different for each of us, but a few qualities abound. For example, how we approach time, control, ownership of thoughts, and even ownership of our lives.

I found these few lines from Thoreau and I think they perfectly capture the necessary qualities of break, rest and play. In 1849 Thoreau and his brother spent a week drifting up the Merrimack River. He wrote:5

There are moments when all anxiety and stated toil are becalmed in the infinite leisure and repose of nature. […] While lying thus on our oars by the side of the stream, in the heat of the day, our boat held by an osier put through the staple in the prow […] .

Striving towards nothing, feeling amused, and being held or steered by something larger than ourselves. A hill, a tree, or our own thoughts.

(I wrote this post while striving towards nothing and following every possible cloud overhead.)

The Comfort and Companionship of Flowers

“The kindly search for growth, the gracious desire to exist of the flowers, my near ecstasy at existing among them.”
Allen Ginsberg

Has anything ever, during all of humankind, been initiated, occurred, occluded, endured, or laid to rest without the comforting company of flowers? Walk a mile and count the flowers. Walk five paces, you’ll see floral. Whether real, wild, planted, stitched on a jacket, or transposed onto a teapot, flowers abound. We have a decisive impulse for the companionship of flowers.

American poet Allen Ginsberg longed for a place among flowers, longed to be one with them. He too sought the sun. His poem “Transcription of Organ Music,” published in 1955, is an anthem of longing for understanding, for companionship, for a floral realm:1

The kindly search for growth, the gracious desire to exist of the flowers, my near ecstasy at existing among them. The privilege to witness my existence—you too must seek the sun…

We must seek the sun. We must exist among flowers. We must pull them near us, put them on us.

The flowers we keep next to our skin. Tana Lawn Floral Fabric, Liberty London. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

We turn to flowers in moments of profound uncertainty, pain, and fear. It is almost like we ask them to witness our pain and speak of it in their own way. Manet spent his life capturing people, cities, social situations, but he painted flowers, only flowers, during the last months of his life. Matisse, likewise a critical painter of society, turned to flowers during World War II. Even Winston Churchill painted blooms following the Great War. America’s Founding Fathers planted gardens during both the Revolutionary War and the tumultuous creation of nationhood.

Of particular flowers, we each have our favorite. Wordsworth wrote that chrysanthemums appeared in his mind when he had a heart full of pleasure. Coleridge mused on the forget-me-not, Neruda on the gillyflower. George Washington planted flowering trees like peach and cherry (for their practicality), and Thomas Jefferson liked native plants like the flowering dogwood.2 According to my gardening magazines, British gardeners prefer bright, bold pompom-like styles of dahlias and peonies.

For my own company, gather the stalks, those tall, leggy, asymmetrical glads, asphodels, lilies, and crocosmia. Reaching sunwards, bending towards earth. I keep them nearby, precious items of meaning and power.

Tana Lawn Floral Fabric, Liberty London. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Vincent Van Gogh, who never shied from painting blooms, especially his sun-turned sunflowers, wrote to his brother in 1877:3

We passed the flower market on the way. How right it is to love flowers and the greenery of pines and ivy and hawthorn hedges: they have been with us from the very beginning.

Van Gogh wrote often of his deep love of nature and thought it was the way to understand art. He sought it out especially in cities. I wonder what he’d think of gardens today. Slowly, they are changing from being places to rest our eyes on colorful things to areas that engage our senses, overhauling them from tedious electronics and carpeted cement. Places that understand the importance of walking about.

Van Gogh would have loved the beckoning and humble landscape designs of fellow Dutchman Piet Oudolf, whose Lurie Gardens in Chicago and High Line in New York City do more than bring us flowers: they bring flowers, us.

Flowers are a safe witness to our life because flowers are life. Striving towards that sun. Abundant and thriving, satisfying our penchant for symmetry, efficiency, elegance, color. They are humble, gentle, and “open to receive.” It is fitting—like Manet, Matisse, Churchill—that we surround ourselves near death with abundant life.

Tana Lawn Floral Fabric, Liberty London. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Allen Ginsberg so beautifully, mournfully sought to exist among flowers. With a heart full of pleasure and sorrow, he finds the delight:

I had a moment of clarity, saw the feeling in the heart of things, walked out to the garden crying. Saw the red blossoms in the night light, sun’s gone, they had all grown, in a moment, and were waiting stopped in time for the day sun to come and give them…Flowers which as in a dream at sunset I watered faithfully not knowing how much I loved them. I am so lonely in my glory—except they too out there—I looked up—those red bush blossoms beckoning and peering in the window waiting in blind love, their leaves too have hope and are upturned top flat to the sky to receive—all creation open to receive—the flat earth itself.

Flowers, our greatest witness. If they spoke they’d say much, but only to passing pollinators. That we enjoy their company means little to a flower. Is that why we give them a language of their own?4