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APRIL 2012: Legs, not cars, are the human form of transportation, but we've lost the habit and art of walking, and with them, a piece of ourselves.

Walk like Thoreau
Out of the mall and into the woods, real or metaphorical

The car didn't kill walking. Way before the car's invention, we were already sitting in workplaces all day long and exercising, if ever, in our spare time. Just read your Thoreau (below) and see.

Is the reason simply an innate tendency to conserve energy and cut corners when we can, as the urban planners and social scientists who study walking patterns seem to suggest? Or is it also our view of walking as an activity without inherent value?

Thoreau believed the trouble is we walk the wrong way, leaving our heads behind in the "Village" with our commercial and social affairs. We aren't really in the walk—or, as he would have it, in the WOODS, by which he means the wild without and within. For he was not only talking about a free state of nature, but a free state of mind.

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The untrammeled walking he recommends cannot be done at the mall or on the treadmill as mere exercise, nor with a headset tuned to music that transports us to another place. It must be done IN THE WORLD with our senses attuned to the sights and sounds around us. It must be done with the radical intention of getting from here to there.

Try walking Thoreau's way a little every day. The point? Being fully alive, with better health and a cleaner environment the happy side benefits.
Excerpts from Walking
By Henry David Thoreau

I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least...sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements....When sometimes I am reminded that the mechanics and shopkeepers stay in their shops not only all the forenoon, but all the afternoon too, sitting with crossed legs, so many of them—as if the legs were made to sit upon, and not to stand or walk upon—I think that they deserve some credit for not having all committed suicide long ago.

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....

...[T]he walking of which I speak has nothing in it akin to taking exercise, as it is called, as the sick take medicine at stated hours—as the Swinging of dumb-bells or chairs; but is itself the enterprise and adventure of the day. If you would get exercise, go in search of the springs of life. Think of a man's swinging dumbbells for his health, when those springs are bubbling up in far-off pastures unsought by him!

Moreover, you must walk like a camel, which is said to be the only beast which ruminates when walking. When a traveler asked Wordsworth's servant to show him her master's study, she answered, "Here is his library, but his study is out of doors."...

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? ...Of course it is of no use to direct our steps to the woods, if they do not carry us thither. I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit. In my afternoon walk I would fain forget all my morning occupations and my obligations to Society. But it sometimes happens that I cannot easily shake off the village. The thought of some work will run in my head and I am not where my body is—I am out of my senses. In my walks I would fain return to my senses. What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods?...

Some do not walk at all; others walk in the highways; a few walk across lots. Roads are made for horses and men of business. I do not travel in them much, comparatively, because I am not in a hurry to get to any tavern or grocery or livery-stable or depot to which they lead....

However, there are a few old roads that may be trodden with profit, as if they led somewhere now that they are nearly discontinued. There is the Old Marlborough Road, which does not go to Marlborough now, me-thinks, unless that is Marlborough where it carries me. I am the bolder to speak of it here, because I presume that there are one or two such roads in every town....

At present, in this vicinity, the best part of the land is not private property; the landscape is not owned, and the walker enjoys comparative freedom. But possibly the day will come when it will be partitioned off into so-called pleasure-grounds, in which a few will take a narrow and exclusive pleasure only—when fences shall be multiplied, and man-traps and other engines invented to confine men to the PUBLIC road, and walking over the surface of God's earth shall be construed to mean trespassing on some gentleman's grounds. To enjoy a thing exclusively is commonly to exclude yourself from the true enjoyment of it. Let us improve our opportunities, then, before the evil days come....

...[I]n Wildness is the preservation of the World....
Read the essay in full at This Green Blog.

—Sheryl Eisenberg


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In the company of Thoreau & his ilk

On This Topic


Thoreau
"Every walk is a kind of crusade, preached by some Peter the Hermit in us, to go forth and reconquer this Holy Land from the hands of the Infidels." —Henry David Thoreau


Davies
"NOW shall I walk
   Or shall I ride?
'Ride', Pleasure said;
   'Walk', Joy replied"
          —W.H. Davies


Muir
"I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in." —John Muir


Kierkegaard
"Above all, do not lose your desire to walk: every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness; I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one can not walk away from it." —Søren Kierkegaard


Resources


Slate
The Crisis in American Walking

NPR
Americans Do Not Walk the Walk

Walk Score
See how Walkable Your Neighborhood Is

Google Books
Wanderlust: A History of Walking

The Thoreau Reader
Annotated Works of Henry David Thoreau
Simply Walking (intro to Walking)
A Sort of Introduction (intro to Walking)

Complete Streets
Complete Streets FAQ



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Sheryl Eisenberg is a writer, web developer and long-time advisor to NRDC. With her firm, Mixit Productions (mixitproductions.com), she brought NRDC online in 1996, designed NRDC's first websites, and continues to develop special web features for NRDC. She created and, for several years, wrote the Union of Concerned Scientists' green living column, Greentips, and has designed and contributed content to many nonprofit sites. Sheryl makes her home in Tribeca (NYC), where—along with her children, Sophie and Gabe, and husband, Peter—she tries to put her environmental principles into practice. No fooling.