SERF MUSINGS ON HAPPY WANDERERS…
Well m’ dears, you’ve heard about pilgrimage corteges on those dear little medieval horses, travelling to Canterbury and such, … herewith it’s walking in Nay-chur, with three well known essayists, Robert Louis Stevenson, William Hazlitt and Henry David Thoreau making their thoughts known regarding the walking tour, walking, not for fitness or destination, but for less tangible things on which they more or less agree.
‘He who is indeed of the brotherhood,’ says Stevenson, in his essay on ‘Walking Tours,’ ‘does not voyage in quest of the picturesque, but of certain jolly humours — of the hope and spirit with which the march begins at morning, and the peace and spiritual repletion of the evening’s rest.
He cannot tell whether he puts his knapsack on, or takes it off, with more delight. The excitement of the departure puts him in key for that of the arrival. Whatever he does is not only a reward in itself, but will be further rewarded in the sequel; and so pleasure leads on to pleasure in an endless chain.’
Going it alone…
Hazlitt and Thoreau couldn’t agree more. For Hazlitt:
‘The soul of a journey is liberty, perfect liberty, to think, feel, do, just as one pleases. We go a journey chiefly to be free of all impediments and of all inconveniences; to leave ourselves behind much more than to get rid of others.’
‘I cannot see the wit,’ he says, ‘of walking and talking at the same time … Is not this wild rose sweet without a comment? Does not this daisy leap to my heart set in its coat of emerald? Yet if I were to explain to you the circumstance that has so endeared it to me you would only smile…
In my opinion, this continual comparing of notes interferes with the involuntary impression of things upon the mind, and hurts the sentiment. If you only hint what you feel in a kind of dumb show, it is insipid: if you have to explain it, it is making a toil of a pleasure. You cannot read the book of Nature without being perpetually put to the trouble of translating it for the benefit of others. I am for the synthetical method on a journey in preference to the analytical. I am content to lay in a stock of ideas then, and to examine and anatomise them afterwards. I want to see my vague notions float like the down of the thistle before the breeze, and not to have them entangled in the briars and thorns of controversy. For once, I like to have it all my own way; and this is impossible unless you are alone.’
Call of the Wild.
For Thoreau, also, walking is a solitary event. In his 1861 treatise, ‘Walking,’ he sets out how the primal act of mobility connects us with our essential wildness, it is a spiritual act undertaken for its own sake.
‘All good things are wild and free,’ says Thoreau.
‘When we walk, we naturally go to the fields and woods: what would become of us, if we walked only in a garden or a mall? ‘
‘Life consists with wildness… The most alive is the wildest.’
A serf sometimes feels this on a stormy day, walking with her dog along the sea-shore, a wave’s breadth from the surging ocean, feeling its spray on her face. Say, does man’s best friend feel it too, a call of the wild connecting him with his inner wolf?
Your Own Way.
For Stevenson, walking has also to be a solitary activity for the reason that ‘you must have your own pace and neither trot alongside a champion walker, nor mince in time with a girl.’ He disagrees with a comment by Hazlitt concerning exuberant movement…
‘Give me the clear blue sky over my head, and the green turf beneath my feet,’ says Hazlitt, ‘ a winding road before me, and a three hours’ march to dinner– and then to thinking! It is hard if I cannot start some game on these lone heaths. I laugh, I run, I leap, I sing for joy.’
‘Not wholly wise,’ says Stevenson.’ I do not approve of that leaping and running. Both of these hurry the respiration; they both shake up the brain out of its glorious open-air confusion; and they both break the pace. Uneven walking is not so agreeable to the body and it irritates the mind.’
Stevenson observes that you lose that dreaming rhythm when you abruptly change the pace. Serfs concur. I sometimes muse, walking by the river, whistling to the birds and such, that my bi-ped, four-step walking rhythm is keeping in time with my pulse.
And here’s Thoreau with a nice comment on the art of walking, not by mechanically putting one foot in front of the other hell set on a destination, but by mastering the art of sauntering:
‘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.’
And so pleasure leads to pleasure in an endless chain ….
Arriving at the Inn.
‘If the evening be fine and warm,’ says Stevenson,’ there is nothing better in life than to lounge before the inn door in the sunset, or lean over the parapet of the bridge, to watch the weeds and the quick fishes.’
‘How fine it is to enter some old town, walled and turreted, just at approach of night-fall,’ says Hazlitt,’ ‘or to come to some straggling village, with the lights streaming through the surrounding gloom; and then, after inquiring for the best entertainment that the place affords, to ‘take one’s ease at one’s inn!’
‘It is then, if ever, that you taste Joviality to the full significance of that audacious word.’ Stevenson commenting again. ‘Your muscles are so agreeably slack, you feel so clean and so strong and so idle, that whether you move or sit still, whatever you do is done with pride and a kingly sort of pleasure. You fall in talk with any one, wise or foolish, drunk or sober. And it seems as if a hot walk purged you, more than of anything else, of all narrowness and pride, and left curiosity to play its part freely, as in a child or a man of science. You lay aside all your own hobbies, to watch provincial humours develop themselves before you, now as a laughable farce, and now grave and beautiful like an old tale.’
‘I have certainly spent some enviable hours at inns.’ says Hazlitt. ‘What a delicate speculation it is, after drinking whole goblets of tea and letting the fumes ascend into the brain, to sit considering what we shall have for supper…’ recollecting with amorous precision … ‘It was on the 10th of April,1798, that I sat down to a volume of the New Elise, at the inn of Llangollen, over a bottle of sherry and a cold chicken.’
So let us leave these wanderers to their ease and heart–felt happiness in some comfortable inn and muse further upon wandering …
A Stroll may Change History.
There’s another kind of walking, the thinking walk … where something you’ve been working on, if you’re lucky, comes together, a connected-ness, as you wander.
Here’s a case significant in its consequences that I’ve recorded before. James Watt, an instrument maker out walking in the city of Glascow, one fine afternoon in 1765. For months Watt had been working on Newcomben’s steam engine trying to solve the problem of inefficiency from wasted steam. Walking up Charlotte Street, he passed by the old washing house.
‘I was thinking upon the engine at the time,’ he wrote later, ‘when the idea came into my mind that as steam was an elastic body it would rush into a vacuum, and if a communication were made between the cylinder and an exhausted vessel, it would rush into it and thereby be condensed without cooling the cylinder … I had not walked further than the golf-house when the whole thing was strong in my mind.
Pied-a-terre ter every-where.
There was a time, before the advent of steam engines, or even roads, before the advent of cities or large towns, when most of the world’s human population walked. Right up to the Middle Ages, except for a few kings and queens and dukes, most everybody walked. Much of England at that time was still covered in forest, and there was only one city, London Town, a focus of opportunity to some of England’s rural population. To get to London, or any local town or marketplace, you walked.To sell wares or buy, to visit relatives, to seek your fortune like Dick Whittington, you walked, tramping the network of trails that criss-crossed hill and dale, or like Red Riding Hood, taking a winding path through the woods.
Literature is crammed with walkers, one notable even walking through the under world, another group of travelers journeying to the centre of the earth. There’s J.R.R.Tolkein’s hobbits, Frodo and Samwis, (Gollum‘s excluded, more slithering and crawling than actual ‘walking.’) Young people walked. There’s Charles Dicken’s David Copperfield. Thomas Hardy’s characters are dedicated walkers, The Mayor of Casterbridge, Gabriel Oak, Tess D’Urbervilles, hmm, might have been better if she’d stayed at home. Lots of females in literature go on walks… Jane Austin’s Elizabeth Bennett thinks nothing of a four mile walk, Jane Eliot’s always walking, over hill and dale, along sea fronts, through the streets of Bath. In Nathanial Hawthorn’s ‘Scarlett Letter’ who can forget Hester Prynne’s walk in the forest? So symbolic.
Wired for walking.
‘Man’s instincts were forged in the desert’ says Bruce Chatwin.
‘The real home of man is not his house but the road. Life itself is a travel that has to be done by foot,’ says Chatwin, who tells us in his fascinating study of nomads, ‘The Songlines.’ that his own name means ‘winding path.’
In ‘The Songlines,’ Chatwin describes the Aboriginal creation myth of the invisible thread of song lines that cross the Australian landscape, put down by totemic ancestors singing the world into existence, these Dreamtime tracks becoming ways of communication between distant tribes.
Chatwin converses with an aboriginal ex–Catholic priest who tells him how the songlines were created:
‘Each Ancestor, while singing his way across country, was believed to have left a trail of ‘life-cells’ or ‘spirit-children’ along the line of his footprints … the song was supposed to lie over the ground in an unbroken chain of couplets: a couplet for each pair of the ancestor’s footfalls, each formed from the names he ‘threw out’ while walking.’
A child inherits his or her totemic ancestry and stanza of the songline from where the tribal elders decide is his or her conception site, that place where the already pregnant woman feels the foetus quicken, corresponding to the moment of spirit-conception.
In ‘The Songlines,’ Chatwin also presents a controversial thesis that it is our settled life that fosters aggression, whereas nomads live in harmony with others and their world. He recounts a fascinating meeting with Konrad Lorenz, ethologist and brilliant mimic, where Lorenz, describing the inherent territorial aggressive instincts of animals and humans, gives a performance of a meeting of two conflicting male sticklebacks, both unbeatable in the centre of their own territory, progressively fearful as they stray away from it. And as Lorenz told the story, says Chatwin he became the stickleback, ‘crossed his hands under his chin splaying his fingers to imitate the stickleback spines. He coloured at the gills. He paled. He inflated and deflated, lunged and fled.’
Contrary to Lorenz, regarding instinctive human aggression, Chatwin believes that man in his natural state is not aggressive. He gives a picture of the harmonious life in a nomad tribe, the Nemabis of the Sahara and says that the world, if it is to survive, needs to return to the ascetic, nomad life.
Hmm …Inherently good or inherently evil? Difficult to make that call regarding flawed yet reflective, complex human beings. And back to a golden age? Naychur without that comfortable wayside inn?