A while back my daughter and I were sitting together on a tram. She was texting; I was reading. Looking up for a moment she noticed the title of my book, and gave me one of those looks. ‘Seriously Dad,’ she said with something between mild pity and eye-rolling despair, ‘who would read a book about that?’
She’s right. I do make some odd choices, but when I saw this one on the shelf at Hill of Content—one of the most reassuring bookshops in Melbourne—I smiled and slipped out the credit card. Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust: A History of Walking was first released in 2000. Old news I guess, but it’s such a good book it keeps reappearing.
Perhaps my interest is tied to how much I walk. Willingly. In fact, it’s one of the pleasures of life. No mountain treks, nature trails or anything quite as virtuous. My nightly routine is to simply roam the streets and laneways of the city where I live. For me, walks like these are endlessly fascinating, space to think and breathe. To risk overstatement, it’s life restoring.
Solnit walks too, but just as significantly, she writes beautifully. What’s more, she is passionate about the place of walking in human development, cultural history and in our individual and communal wellbeing. Solnit ranges broadly in her book, from the evolutionary beginnings of bipedalism to the religious significance of pilgrimage and labyrinths. Following the poets and writers of great literature, we begin in the garden and journey beyond to the country lanes and then the mountains and wilderness. And finally we walk the city streets. Along the way we discover walking as creativity, pilgrimage, restoration, celebration, discovery, protest, endurance and achievement, well-being, consumerism and citizenship.
All in all, I was struck again with just how spiritual the act of walking can be. And it is that for me, as much as any more explicitly religious practice of my life. I often think of walking as a spiritual discipline of presence: presence to self and presence to place.
Presence to self: there is something about the pace and rhythm of walking that syncs the way I think and feel … slowly! Solnit says the same: ‘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.’ For me, walking is a choice to give the mind and heart the space they need to talk to each other. In a way, it’s a practice of being present to myself, a means of personal awareness and wellbeing. But its benefits, thankfully, go way beyond me. What I am able to give to others deepens as a consequence.
Presence to place: for me, walking is also a routine discipline of being present to my neighbourhood … really noticing it. It’s certainly true that we see places when we walk in a way that we would never see them otherwise. As Solnit says, when we walk we give ourselves to places and, in turn, they return the favour: ‘when you give yourself to places, they give you yourself back; the more one comes to know them, the more one seeds them with the invisible crop of memories and associations that will be waiting for you when you come back, while new places offer up new thoughts, new possibilities. Exploring the world is one of the best ways of exploring the mind, and walking travels both terrains.’