BY BEN EAGLE
‘’I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.’’
Henry David Thoreau, Walking
Since I discovered his works as an undergraduate I have regularly enjoyed losing myself in the writing of Thoreau. For those of you who are unaware of him, he was an American poet, essayist, naturalist and philosopher who wrote about, among other things, Walden Pond, Civil Disobedience and Walking. He was a master at lyrically explaining his own experiences of the outdoors and thinking about what might be, as opposed to what is, and is heralded as an inspiration by those seeking an ‘alternative life’ or those who simply seek solace in the natural world.
Last weekend I walked through Suffolk with a couple of good friends, specifically walking from Lowestoft to Felixstowe along the Suffolk Coast Path. This was a particularly tough physical challenge, although, surprising myself, I escaped relatively blister free at the end of it all. It gave me a significant amount of time to think. Walking is brilliant for that, particularly when following a long distance path. In this instance you have but one aim, to get to the end of your journey in one piece, and you know that it will take you a certain amount of time to achieve. Throughout the journey, for the entire duration, you have time to think, and often a greater capacity to think deeply. It is time that belongs to you. Walking puts life and life’s events in perspective. It encourages collaboration (assuming you are walking with others) and reflection. It is a wonderful tonic for mental health.
Walking is predictable. It can be carried out at your own pace, and gives you a sense of self-control. It is repetitive; comforting. It enables you to discover new places, probably places that you wouldn’t have thought about going to unless you were walking. It encourages you to be sociable, but at the same time it needn’t be a social activity. Walkers often find how helpful strangers will be if they are in need of directions or some encouragement. Certainly in Suffolk we met many kind and helpful people who were open and willing to talk to us.
Thoreau’s essay (originally a lecture conducted at the Concord Lyceum in April 1851) on walking could be said to be more about nature than people, in that it places the natural world as of essential importance for human beings. However, it’s really about both. People spend most of their time (especially today) focused on society and what society thinks of them, yet it is nature that is the great giver (and taker). Nature is what really matters. By walking you (or at least I) invariably start reflecting on this. It is very rare to think about it at any other time, but for some reason, when walking it seems ‘natural’ to think about nature and your own identity within it.
Thoreau also encourages us to think about the present, and the place that we are in at that time, leaving behind our everyday problems. Walking is a good opportunity to reflect on these concerns, but it shouldn’t be the sole occupation of your thoughts.
“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…What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something other than the woods?”
My walking experience in Suffolk was unique, as all walks are, but it also encouraged feelings of reality; of physical pain; of mental strength. Everyday life has now returned, but it’s ever so slightly different. Walking is a simple act, but it can work wonders.
Ben Eagle is a regular contributor to Country Squire Magazine. He is an environmental and agricultural writer from Essex, blogs at thinkingcountry.com and you can find him on twitter or Instagram @benjy_eagle.