When I’m depressed, I read Caeiro — he’s my fresh air. I become very calm, content, faithful — yes, I find faith in God, and in the soul’s transcendent living smallness, after reading the poems by that ungodly anti-humanist who goes unsurpassed on earth.
The Native Americans, whose wisdom Thoreau admired, regarded the Earth itself as a sacred source of energy. To stretch out on it brought repose, to sit on the ground ensured greater wisdom in councils, to walk in contact with its gravity gave strength and endurance. The Earth was an inexhaustible well of strength: because it was the original Mother, the feeder, but also because it enclosed in its bosom all the dead ancestors. It was the element in which transmission took place. Thus, instead of stretching their hands skyward to implore the mercy of celestial divinities, American Indians preferred to walk barefoot on the Earth: The Lakota was a true Naturist – a lover of Nature. He loved the earth and all things of the earth, the attachment growing with age. The old people came literally to love the soil and they sat or reclined on the ground with a feeling of being close to a mothering power. It was good for the skin to touch the earth and the old people liked to remove their moccasins and walk with bare feet on the sacred earth. Their tipis were built upon the earth and their altars were made of earth. The birds that flew in the air came to rest on the earth and it was the final abiding place of all things that lived and grew. The soil was soothing, strengthening, cleansing and healing. That is why the old Indian still sits upon the earth instead of propping himself up and away from its life-giving forces. For him, to sit or lie upon the ground is to be able to think more deeply and to feel more keenly; he can see more clearly into the mysteries of life and come closer in kinship to other lives about him. Walking, by virtue of having the earth’s support, feeling its gravity, resting on it with every step, is very like a continuous breathing in of energy. But the earth’s force is not transmitted only in the manner of a radiation climbing through the legs. It is also through the coincidence of circulations: walking is movement, the heart beats more strongly, with a more ample beat, the blood circulates faster and more powerfully than when the body is at rest. And the earth’s rhythms draw that along, they echo and respond to each other. A last source of energy, after the heart and the Earth, is landscapes. They summon the walker and make him at home: the hills, the colours, the trees all confirm it. The charm of a twisting path among hills, the beauty of vine fields in autumn, like purple and gold scarves, the silvery glitter of olive leaves against a defining summer sky, the immensity of perfectly sliced glaciers … all these things support, transport and nourish us.
None of your knowledge, your reading, your connections will be of any use here: two legs suffice, and big eyes to see with. Walk alone, across mountains or through forests. You are nobody to the hills or the thick boughs heavy with greenery. You are no longer a role, or a status, not even an individual, but a body, a body that feels sharp stones on the paths, the caress of long grass and the freshness of the wind. When you walk, the world has neither present nor future: nothing but the cycle of mornings and evenings. Always the same thing to do all day: walk. But the walker who marvels while walking (the blue of the rocks in a July evening light, the silvery green of olive leaves at noon, the violet morning hills) has no past, no plans, no experience. He has within him the eternal child. While walking I am but a simple gaze.
Days of slow walking are very long: they make you live longer, because you have allowed every hour, every minute, every second to breathe, to deepen, instead of filling them up by straining the joints…
Slowness means cleaving perfectly to time, so closely that the seconds fall one by one, drop by drop like the steady dripping of a tap on stone. This stretching of time deepens space. It is one of the secrets of walking: a slow approach to landscapes that gradually renders them familiar. Like the regular encounters that deepen friendship.
Walking: it hits you at first like an immense breathing in the ears. You feel the silence as if it were a great fresh wind blowing away clouds. There’s the silence of woodland. Clumps and groves of trees form shifting, uncertain walls around us. We walk along existing paths, narrow winding strips of beaten earth. We quickly lose our sense of direction. That silence is tremulous, uneasy. Then there’s the silence of tough summer afternoon walks across the flank of a mountain, stony paths, exposed to an uncompromising sun.
This time, there’s no question of freeing yourself from artifice to taste simple joys. Instead there is the promise of meeting a freedom head-on as an outer limit of the self and of the human, an internal overflowing of a rebellious Nature that goes beyond you. Walking can provoke these excesses: surfeits of fatigue that make the mind wander, abundances of beauty that turn the soul over, excesses of drunkenness on the peaks, the high passes (where the body explodes). Walking ends by awakening this rebellious, archaic part of us: our appetites become rough and uncompromising, our impulses inspired. Because walking puts us on the vertical axis of life: swept along by the torrent that rushes just beneath us. What I mean is that by walking you are not going to meet yourself. By walking, you escape from the very idea of identity, the temptation to be someone, to have a name and a history. Being someone is all very well for smart parties where everyone is telling their story, it’s all very well for psychologists’ consulting rooms. But isn’t being someone also a social obligation which trails in its wake – for one has to be faithful to the self-portrait – a stupid and burdensome fiction? The freedom in walking lies in not being anyone; for the walking body has no history, it is just an eddy in the stream of immemorial life.
Walking causes a repetitive, spontaneous poetry to rise naturally to the lips, words as simple as the sound of footsteps on the road. There also seems to be an echo of walking in the practice of two choruses singing a psalm in alternate verses, each on a single note, a practice that makes it possible to chant and listen by turns. Its main effect is one of repetition and alternation that St Ambrose compared to the sound of the sea: when a gentle surf is breaking quietly on the shore the regularity of the sound doesn’t break the silence, but structures it and renders it audible. Psalmody in the same way, in the to-and-fro of alternating responses, produces (Ambrose said) a happy tranquillity in the soul. The echoing chants, the ebb and flow of waves recall the alternating movement of walking legs: not to shatter but to make the world’s presence palpable and keep time with it. And just as Claudel said that sound renders silence accessible and useful, it ought to be said that walking renders presence accessible and useful.
An author who composes while walking, on the other hand, is free from such bonds; his thought is not the slave of other volumes, not swollen with verifications, nor weighted with the thought of others. It contains no explanation owed to anyone: just thought, judgement, decision. It is thought born of a movement, an impulse. In it we can feel the body’s elasticity, the rhythm of a dance. It retains and expresses the energy, the springiness of the body. Here is thought about the thing itself, without the scrambling, the fogginess, the barriers, the customs clearances of culture and tradition. The result will not be long and meticulous exegesis, but thoughts that are light and profound. That is really the challenge: the lighter a thought, the more it rises, and becomes profound by rising – vertiginously – above the thick marshes of conviction, opinion, established thought. While books conceived in the library are on the contrary superficial and heavy. They remain on the level of recopying.
Think while walking, walk while thinking, and let writing be but the light pause, as the body on a walk rests in contemplation of wide open spaces.
the joy of walking and feeling the body advancing ‘like a man alone’; the fullness of feeling alive. And then happiness, before the spectacle of a violet-shadowed valley below the beams of the setting sun, that miracle of summer evenings, when for a few minutes every shade of colour, flattened all day by a steely sun, is brought out at last by the golden light, and breathes. Happiness can come later, at the guesthouse, in the company of others staying there: people met there, happy to find themselves together for a moment through chance. But all of that involves receiving.
Joy is not the satisfied contemplation of an accomplished result, the emotion of victory, the satisfaction of having succeeded. It is the sign of an energy that is deftly deployed, it is a free affirmation: everything comes easy. Joy is an activity: executing with ease something difficult that has taken time to master, asserting the faculties of the mind and the body. Joys of thought when it finds and discovers, joys of the body when it achieves without effort. That is why joy, unlike pleasure, increases with repetition, and is enriched. When you are walking, joy is a basso continuo. Locally, of course, you may run into effort and difficulty. You will also find immediate moments of contentment: a proud gaze backwards to contemplate the long steep plunge of the slope behind you. Those satisfactions, though, too often present an opportunity to reintroduce quantities, scores, figures (which track? how long? what altitude?). And walking becomes a competition. That is why expeditions in high mountain country (conquering peaks, each one a challenge) are always slightly impure: because they give rise to narcissistic gratification. What dominates in walking, away from ostentation and showing off, is the simple joy of feeling your body in the most primitively natural activity.
When walking in this mode we discover the immense vigour of starry night skies, elemental energies, and our appetites follow: they are enormous, and our bodies are satisfied. When you have slammed the world’s door, there is nothing left to hold you: pavements no longer guide your steps (the path, a hundred thousand times repeated, of the return to the fold). Crossroads shimmer like hesitant stars, you rediscover the tremulous fear of choosing, a vertiginous freedom.
Blinding, mineral, shattering silence. You hear nothing but the quiet crunch of stones underfoot. An implacable, definitive silence, like a transparent death. Sky of a perfectly detached blue. You advance with eyes down, reassuring yourself sometimes with a silent mumbling. Cloudless sky, limestone slabs filled with presence: silence nothing can sidestep. Silence fulfilled, vibrant immobility, tensed like a bow. There’s the silence of early morning. For long routes in autumn you have to start very early. Outside everything is violet, the dim light slanting through red and gold leaves. It is an expectant silence. You walk softly among huge dark trees, still swathed in traces of blue night. You are almost afraid of awakening. Everything whispering quietly. There’s the silence of walks through the snow, muffled footsteps under a white sky. All around you nothing moves. Things and even time itself are iced up, frozen solid in silent immobility. Everything is stopped, unified, thickly padded. A watching silence, white, fluffy, suspended as if in parentheses.
But just a vibration among the trees and stones, on the paths. Walking to breathe in the landscape. Every step an inspiration born to die immediately, well beyond the oeuvre. I like to walk at my ease, and to stop when I like. A wandering life is what I want. To walk through a beautiful country in fine weather, without being obliged to hurry, and with a pleasant prospect at the end, is of all kinds of life the one most suited to my taste.
But walking causes absorption. Walking interminably, taking in through your pores the height of the mountains when you are confronting them at length, breathing in the shape of the hills for hours at a time during a slow descent. The body becomes steeped in the earth it treads. And thus, gradually, it stops being in the landscape: it becomes the landscape. That doesn’t have to mean dissolution, as if the walker were fading away to become a mere inflection, a footnote. It’s more a flashing moment: sudden flame, time catching fire. And here, the feeling of eternity is all at once that vibration between presences. Eternity, here, in a spark.
Thoreau: ‘The West of which I speak is but another name for the Wild; and what I have been preparing to say is, that in Wildness is the preservation of the world.’ That is why walking leads to a total loss of interest in what is called – laughably no doubt – the ‘news’, one of whose main features is that it becomes old as soon as it is uttered. Once caught in the rhythm, Thoreau says, you are on the treadmill: you want to know what comes next. The real challenge, though, is not to know what has changed, but to get closer to what remains eternally new. So you should replace reading the morning papers with a walk. News items replace one another, become mixed up together, are repeated and forgotten. But the truth is that as soon as you start walking, all that noise, all those rumours, fade out. What’s new? Nothing: the calm eternity of things, endlessly renewed.
You lift your head, you’re on your way, but really just to be walking, to be out of doors. That’s it, that’s all, and you’re there. Outdoors is our element: the exact sensation of living there.
Perhaps the itinerant monks called ‘Gyrovagues’ were especially responsible for promoting this view of our condition as eternal strangers. They journeyed ceaselessly from monastery to monastery, without fixed abode, and they haven’t quite disappeared, even today: it seems there are still a handful tramping Mount Athos. They walk for their entire lives on narrow mountain paths, back and forth on a long repeated round, sleeping at nightfall wherever their feet have taken them; they spend their lives murmuring prayers on foot, walk all day without destination or goal, this way or that, taking branching paths at random, turning, returning, without going anywhere, illustrating through endless wandering their condition as permanent strangers in this profane world.
When one has walked a long way to reach the turning in the path that discloses an anticipated view, and that view appears, there is always a vibration of the landscape. It is repeated in the walker’s body. The harmony of the two presences, like two strings in tune, each feeding off the vibration of the other, is like an endless relaunch. Eternal Recurrence is the unfolding in a continuous circle of the repetition of those two affirmations, the circular transformation of the vibration of the presences. The walker’s immobility facing that of the landscape … it is the very intensity of that co-presence that gives birth to an indefinite circularity of exchanges: I have always been here, tomorrow, contemplating this landscape.
forest paths – flat labyrinths – and gentle plains invite the walker’s body to softness, to languor. And memories arise like eddying mists. The air is more bracing with Nietzsche, and above all sharp, transparent. The thought is trenchant, the body wide awake, trembling.
Zhuang Zhu also meant that the feet as such are small pieces of space, but their vocation (‘walking’) is to articulate the world’s space. The size of the foot, the gap between the legs, have no role, are never lined up anywhere. But they measure all the rest. Our feet form a compass that has no useful function, apart from evaluating distance. The legs survey. Their stride constitutes a serviceable measurement.
In the history of walking, many experts considering him (Wordsworth) the authentic originator of the long expedition. He was the first – at a time (the late eighteenth century) when walking was the lot of the poor, vagabonds and highwaymen, not to mention travelling showmen and pedlars – to conceive of the walk as a poetic act, a communion with Nature, fulfilment of the body, contemplation of the landscape. Christopher Morley wrote of him that he was ‘one of the first to use his legs in the service of philosophy’.
And as we know from the pilgrimage diaries of Swami Ramdas, it is when we renounce everything that everything is given to us, in abundance. Everything: meaning the intensity of presence itself.
If I were to envy any persons on this planet, it would be mountain hermits. You often hear old platitudes such as, 'Speak out. Be heard.' On the contrary, a breath of fresh air would be something like: 'Silence, think for at least 15 minutes, and then maybe speak out.
Don't tell me that I can't do it. Go and tell God that story. After all, He is the one who gave me the air to breath and be able to do it well! Go!
The best thing that ever happened to you might be your new job, spouse, awards, etc, but I tell you that being granted to live in order to enjoy these things are wonderful privileges most people can't get.
There were days so clear and skies so brilliant blue, with white clouds scudding across them like ships under full sail, and she felt she could lift right off the ground. One moment she was ambling down a path, and the next thing she knew, the wind would take hold of her, like a hand pushing against her back. Her feet would start running without her even willing it, even knowing it. And she would run faster and faster across the prairie, until her heart jumped like a rabbit and her breath came in deep gasps and her feet barely skimmed the ground.It felt good to spend herself this way. The air tasted fresh and delicious; it smelled like damp earth, grass, and flowers. And her body felt strong, supple, and hungry for more of everything life could serve up.She ran and felt like one of the animals, as though her feet were growing up out of the earth. And she knew what they knew, that sometimes you ran just because you could, because of the way the rush of air felt on your face and how your legs reached out, eating up longer and longer patches of ground.She ran until the blood pounded in her ears, so loud that she couldn't hear the voices that said, You're not good enough, You're not old enough, You're not beautiful or smart or loveable, and you will always be alone.She ran because there were ghosts chasing her, shadows that pursued her, heartaches she was leaving behind. She was running for her life, and those phantoms couldn't catch her, not here, not anywhere. She would outrun fear and sadness and worry and shame and all those losses that had lined up against her like a column of soldiers with their guns shouldered and ready to fire. If she had to, she would outrun death itself.She would keep on running until she dropped, exhausted. Then she would roll over onto her back and breathe in the endless sky above her, sun glinting off her face.To be an animal, to have a body like this that could taste, see hear, and fly through space, to lie down and smell the earth and feel the heat of the sun on your face was enough for her. She did not need anything else but this: just to be alive, cool air caressing her skin, dreaming of Ivy and what might be ahead.