Think About It: Thinking about Walking

Don Meyer, Ph.D.

“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...”

Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau has been described as one of the seminal figures in American literature. His books, articles, essays, journals, and poetry total more than 20 volumes. One of his best known books, Walden (1854), he wrote from his journal which he kept while building a cabin in Massachusetts, raising his own food and writing about his experiences.

Between 1851 and 1860, however, Thoreau prepared and read his essay “Walking” a total of 10 times, more than any other of his lectures. He considered it one of his primary works that he once wrote of the lecture, “I regard this as a sort of introduction to all that I may write hereafter.” He died on May 6, 1862, and the essay was published for the first time one month later in the Atlantic Monthly.

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As soon as I read the opening sentence, I knew I would enjoy the essay. “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...” I wouldn’t say that I am an expert walker or that I do it that often, I guess it was just the way he arranged the words that pulled me into the essay. And after reading it a few times, here are a few highlights that stood out to me.

Getting Ready For a Walk. If you are going to be a legitimate walker, you need to be prepared. According to Thoreau, “If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again, -- if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man, then you are ready for a walk.” Even though his words seem overstated, his point appears clear, i.e. anyone who wants to get the most value from a walk must make sure there is a disconnection from other things.

When Walking, Be in the Walk. That same disconnection must be maintained while the walk occurs. “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 my spirit...What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods.” I have often said that I like to be where I am. I think that may be what Thoreau had in mind.

Leave the City. Some people cannot avoid walking in the city. That’s where they live. But for Thoreau, his walking goal was to get out of the city. “...I am leaving the city more and more, and withdrawing into the wilderness.” There he encountered that which would make any walk worthwhile.

Go West. “I must walk toward Oregon, and not toward Europe...Every sunset which I witness inspires me with the desire to go to a West as distant and fair as that into which the sun goes down.” His words “From the East light; from the West fruit,” let the reader know for Thoreau he is writing about more than just taking a walk. His essay captures the depth and breadth of his spirit.

The Wilderness. Whether Thoreau claimed that “Love consists with wilderness” or “In wilderness is the preservation of the world,” his words became some of the most important insights into the environmental movement. He also said, “When I would recreate myself, I seek the darkest wood, the thickest and most interminable, and, to the citizen, most dismal swamp. I enter a swamp as a sacred place...”

I think the time has come to go for a walk.

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is the president ofValley Forge Christian College, Phoenixville.

Responses can be emailed to president@vfcc.edu.

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