The joy of walking

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Walking is good for the environment. It is also good for the body and the soul. 

A recent study suggests that walking may slow the aging process. But walking is not merely a tool for longevity. It is also an instrument of spiritual health. An MIT study found that walking increased markedly during the COVID-19 pandemic, often in response to the negative emotional effects of lockdowns and isolation.

So why should we walk? Because walking is good for the earth and for the human spirit.

Sauntering with John Muir and Henry David Thoreau

It is worth considering the art of walking on Earth Day, which also coincides with John Muir’s birthday. John Muir is well known as a conservationist. He was also a maniacal walker. In 1867, he walked 1,000 miles, from Indianapolis to Florida. In his account of that walk, Muir wrote:

Let children walk with Nature, let them see the beautiful blendings and communions of death and life, their joyous inseparable unity, as taught in woods and meadows, plains and mountains and streams of our blessed star, and they will learn that death is stingless indeed, and as beautiful as life, and that the grave has no victory, for it never fights. All is divine harmony.

John Muir, A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf

To “walk with nature” is a metaphor, of course. It means to live in communion with nature. The phrase was employed by the Romantic poet William Wordsworth. And it echoes the ancient Stoics, who taught us to live in accord with nature.

But the metaphor is grounded in the invigorating movement of the body in the world. The Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca said, “It does good also to take walks out of doors, that our spirits may be raised and refreshed by the open air and fresh breeze.”

Henry David Thoreau published a famous essay, “Walking,” in 1862. Thoreau said that he spends hours each day “sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.”

Thoreau reminds us that freedom is a key to the art of walking. When Muir calls for us to “let children walk with nature,” he is encouraging us to allow our children the freedom to roam, to explore, and to discover the “divine harmony.”

Absorbing the world while walking

This is not as far out as it sounds. Walking creates a sense of interconnection. The pace of a walk is exactly right for finding yourself at home in your environment. We miss something when we zoom about, whether online or in cars. We are hard-wired by evolution to absorb the world at a walking pace.

In a car, the scenery passes by in a blur. But when we walk, we see individuals. When walking past other people, whether we say hello or avert our eyes, the stranger is present to us. In a car, we do not even notice the strangers we pass. Nor do we see the trees, flowers, birds, and animals. Walking opens the mind and connects us to the world.

This is understood by the world’s spiritual traditions. When I studied Zen, we did walking meditation. The rhythm of walking frees the mind. In other traditions, pilgrimages are filled with spiritual significance. And in some traditions, a vision quest includes a walkabout.

Walking for all

Not everyone has the leisure to walk. The Sierra Club began as a club for affluent white people with the leisure to hike and climb. John Muir was a man of his time who harbored racist ideas. And native peoples lived in the “wild nature” celebrated by Muir and Thoreau. 

The MIT study mentioned above found that the increase in walking during the pandemic was anything but evenly distributed by class, income, and race: Those with more income and leisure time were much more likely to engage in the practice.

Poets, philosophers, and explorers often forget their position of privilege. We must do better. We need a more universal approach to the joy of walking.

The freedom and joy of walking should be enjoyed by children of all races and classes. Poor children and children of color need to be introduced to the wonders of nature. And all children deserve to have safe neighborhoods and parks, where they can wander, play, and explore. 

There is something transformative about a multi-day backpacking trip through the backcountry.  It would be great if more people had access to that kind of experience. But it should be possible for all people to walk safely through their own neighborhoods. Let’s make sure that everyone has good places to walk.

Making the mountains glad again

When Muir founded the Sierra Club in 1892, his goal was to preserve wild places. He said he hoped this would “make the mountains glad.”

These days, the mountains are not glad. The forests around Muir’s beloved Yosemite are dying. The ancient Sequoia groves have been devastated by drought and fire. We’ve got a lot of conservation work to do.

There is also spiritual work to be done. We zoom about, removed from nature, and from each other. We need to rediscover the pace of nature and find ways to walk with nature. To make the mountains glad again and to heal our own spirits, we must rediscover the joy of walking.

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