“Walking” by Henry David Thoreau is an 1862 essay about the spiritual importance of walking in nature.
- Thoreau describes walking as a practice that allows one to connect with nature, away from the busy world of commerce and civilization.
- For Thoreau, the goal or destination of walking is less important than the meditative state of mind which walking induces.
- Thoreau argues that walking cultivates curiosity and wonder, qualities which are often discouraged or undervalued in society.
Last Updated on September 7, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1246
In his essay “Walking,” Thoreau considers the nature of freedom, which is often understood to mean merely civil or political freedom. However, for Thoreau, true freedom is the freedom for humans to participate in nature fully, to be “part and parcel of Nature.” Civilization has many champions; nature, few. Yet it is nature which is the fount of civilization. Walking in the wild enables humans to embrace nature. But Thoreau’s walking is not about hurrying; it is about taking one’s time to explore one’s surroundings. He analyzes the verb “saunter,” a synonym for walking, in this context. The English word arose from the Medieval French “Sainte-Terre” or Holy Land. A “Saint-Terrer” was a pilgrim or a “Holy-Lander.” Thus, everyone who saunters engages in a kind of spiritual pilgrimage.
To truly saunter or walk as if on a spiritual voyage, one must not bring the mind’s usual, busy preoccupations into the woods. One must walk to explore new worlds, as if one were a knight or an adventurer. Only when people empty their minds of the outer world’s demands are they ready for a walk. Those who walk in this manner are “Walkers,” a group which is “a sort of fourth estate, outside of Church and State and People.”
Walking is both a “noble art” and a continuation of humankind’s wild past. Even the most quotidian of people, such as Thoreau’s townsmen, sometimes step off the highway to forget themselves in nature, perhaps reminded of the fact that their ancestors were once foresters and Robin Hood–like outlaws. As for Thoreau, stepping into nature occasionally is far from enough. He must walk at least four hours a day to preserve his health and spirits. He cannot understand how people stay inside their homes and shops for entire days without losing their sanity. Further, Thoreau wonders how women, whom society confines indoors, bear their state. He suspects they cannot stand it but are prohibited from expressing their frustration.
Perhaps age prevents some people from walking, but the kind of walking Thoreau is discussing has little to do with speed or exercise. Walking is more about entering a ruminative state in which the journey itself is the goal. Maybe others fear walking and laboring outdoors because the sun, wind, and effort coarsens their complexion. But for Thoreau, the “tan and callus of experience” refines human sensibility far better than sitting idle indoors.
When walking in the wild, one is always on a path of discovery, even in spaces that may seem familiar. Thoreau can often find new unexplored regions while walking two or three hours in the farms and woods around his house. That is why a person truly deciding to walk must go off the highway and choose a path that leads away from the village. Thoreau pauses to consider the origins of the word “village” and suggests that it arose from the Latin words for “road” and “vile.” A village is a space through which everyone travels, and yet no one who lives there actually undergoes a journey. This state of suspension is not true living.
Much as Thoreau loves his long walks, one fact about the landscape he traverses horrifies him—humans dividing the woods into real estate plots. For Thoreau, real estate surveyors are akin to the devil or “the Prince of Darkness,” dividing the land and assigning ownership. The propensity to fell large forests and build more homes scars and devalues the landscape. Thoreau fears the day when fences will multiply and men will devise ways to trap people onto highways and away from unknown woods. Civilization will encroach upon all wild forests, and America’s free lands will become unrecognizable, claimed by greedy individuals. For Thoreau, the privatization and appropriation of the wild is a disastrous future, because “to enjoy a thing exclusively is commonly to exclude yourself from the true enjoyment of it.”
Where should one’s steps take them? Thoreau feels that nature’s magnetism tends to guide walkers along the right direction. Most often, Thoreau has observed that, guided by nature, his steps take him southwest. In his propensity, he reads a larger civilizational shift: people move west because that is where new, unexplored, and wild territories lie. Moreover, the west embodies the “height to which the philosophy and poetry and religion of inhabitants may one day soar.” The east leads to the past—the history, art, and literature of the Old World—while the west leads to the forest, the future, and the pioneering spirit of the New World. The east is the source of light, while the west is the land of fruit. America, the westmost of civilized lands, is the pinnacle of the human spirit’s development.
Thoreau draws on various traveler’s accounts to show that America possesses unsurpassed natural beauty and wild stretches, with even the moon and the sun shining brighter in the western lands. Thoreau hopes that generations of Americans will understand that the civilized draw strength from the wild. It is not by mere coincidence that the mythical founders of Rome, the twins Romulus and Remus, are said to have been raised by a she-wolf. The myth expresses the essential truth that humankind must draw strength from the wilderness. Those who live close to nature are inspired into genius, and genius wildly illuminates the dark like a flash of lightning.
All good things being wild and free, Thoreau rejoices in the wildness even of domestic animals. The taming of animals is a matter of sorrow, much like the taming of human beings. This taming or domestication turns humans and animals into mindless locomotives or machines. Just as animals are not meant to be tamed, neither are humans. Wild, untamed people are as important for the continuity of humankind as the tamed multitudes. Yet the driving thrust of civilization has been to wean humanity away from its wild origins. Social norms turn children into preoccupied adults and curb all curiosity and adventure of spirit. Education curbs and burdens instead of encouraging inner genius to grow.
To truly educate himself, Thoreau chooses to live a “border life” on the cusp of the wilderness and the village. Here, he discovers multitudes of alphabets and worlds which no formal knowledge can impart. Many consider Thoreau to be mad, because he lives a solitary life and is a prophet for nature. However, what seems insanity to the mainstream world is inspiration to Thoreau. To illustrate, Thoreau describes a walk along the farm of his neighbour Spaulding. Although it is a familiar landscape, during Thoreau’s meditative, attentive walk, it seems fresh and new. As Thoreau travels deeper into a landscape, away from the noise of politics and commerce, he enters an inner wildness of spirit. He notices birds he never noticed before, hears unheard music.
That is why it is important to be present in the moment. To be in this attentive state itself is an education and an inspiration. Thoreau finishes his essay with an account of a November sunset he witnessed recently. The sunset was so moving as to be a transformational experience. The light Thoreau saw was of a quality he had never seen before and would never see again. Thus, he realized that each sunset is unique and represents a journey in itself. If one saunters into a new sunset and a new landscape every day, they will walk into a “Holy Land” of infinite possibility.
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