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Tuesday 19 March 2019

Walking back to happiness

  • Leisurely rambling was once valued by intellectuals as a way to foster ideas and creativity
  • Now we often walk glued to a screen, imagining that we are being productive by reading or working as we hurry along
  • But slowing down and looking about us – a concept recognised in most cultures – is an important way to wise up in our accelerating world

By Robert Macfarlane

The longest walk I ever took was also one of the slowest. It was only 50 yards in distance but it lasted 5,000 years. I was following a set of footprints that had been uncovered on the foreshore at Formby Point, near Liverpool. They had been made on a hot summer’s day in the Mesolithic by a pair of hunter-gatherers; a man and a woman, walking parallel to the shore, their pace steady, unhurried. Their tracks had been baked by the sun, then preserved by the settling silt of a gentle tide. Alongside them were the marks of aurochs, wolves and red deer almost twice as tall at the withers as today’s biggest bucks. Five millennia later, a storm had eroded the foreshore to reveal the footprints. So it was that I could stride alongside these ghostly fellow walkers for a few long minutes. I set out in the contemporary, fitted my pace to theirs – and walked gradually back to the dawn of settled agriculture in Britain.

“I can only meditate when I am walking,” wrote Rousseau in the ninth book of The Confessions. “When I stop, I cease to think; my mind works only with my legs.” A long philosophical tradition shares Rousseau’s belief that cognition might be motion-sensitive – and that the best thinking is done while wandering. Nietzsche was characteristically dogmatic on the subject: “Only those thoughts which come from walking have any value.” Wallace Stevens was characteristically hesitant: “Perhaps / The truth depends upon a walk around a lake.” Darwin used to solve problems while pacing the “sandwalk” or “thinking path” at his house in Kent. Sometimes he would place flints in a pile at the start of the path, knocking one away with his stick after completing each circuit, and quantifying the time it would take to solve an intellectual puzzle – an especially knotty question was a “four-flint problem”.

Perhaps the truth really depends on the speed at which one walks. It is so rare now to walk anywhere slowly. Our verbs of walking have accelerated; we hurry, scurry, march, run, nip, pop. Jane Jacobs, in her classic 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, wrote of the “intricate sidewalk ballet” she saw daily outside her apartment in Manhattan, a graceful dance of people interacting and intersecting. That “sidewalk ballet” is now a pavement lemming-rush; crowds of head-down, screen-gazing pedestrians pursuing their glowing blue dots of destiny. There’s little left in life of leisure in the medieval sense of the word (“the state of having time at one’s own disposal; free or unoccupied time”). “Free” time has been infiltrated by the smartphone’s subtle coercions; “unoccupied” time colonised by the obligations of “productivity”.

The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard specified the slowness of walking as crucial to its creative consequences. He speculated that the mind functioned optimally at three miles an hour, and in a journal entry described going out for a wander and finding himself soon “so overwhelmed with ideas” that he “could scarcely walk”. Kierkegaard is – in my experience as a walker and a writer – right. There is a kind of walking which, more than any other, prompts imagination and reflection. Its definitive qualities are those of unhurriedness and what might be called playfulness, as Johan Huizinga defined the concept – meaning “free” from pre-determined outcome, carried out for its own sake, and set apart from the confines and practised rhythms of everyday life. Such walking is by definition hard to come by, for if you order it into existence then it can no longer be playful.

Yet versions of this kind of walk exist in numerous cultures and languages. Fascinated as I am by words and by walking, I once set out to gather as many terms for the “playful” walk as I could. I found more than 50 from over three dozen languages. In Scots, “to stravaig” means “to wander without fixed aim”; it keeps company along the way with “daunder”, “potter”, “stoat”, “bimble” and “pootle” in English. In Montana, “to whortle” is to wander idly in a forest, without thought of economic gain, “as if picking whortleberries”. In French, “musarder” means “to follow one’s muzzle”. Chinese speaks of “suibian sanbu” – the “careless walk” – and Japanese of “sanpo”, the “walk for relaxation”. In Hindu “tehelna” means “ambling around slowly in a happy state of mind, with or without company”, and in Ladakhi a “skoryangspa” is “one who walks in circles for fun” – a term echoed by the Italian “girovagare” and “gironzolare”, meaning “to walk or wander in circles”. Swahili has the word “kuzunguka”, which also gives rise to “mzungu”, meaning “aimless wanderer” and also slang for a white person, in allusion to the activities of early African colonial-era explorers. And in Finnish a single word – “Käyskentelisinköhän?” – means “I wonder if I should walk around without a fixed purpose?”

A penny for this walker’s thoughts as she enjoys Buttermere in the Lake District

In 1983 the German novelist Sten Nadolny published a fictional account of the life of the Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin. It was called Die Entdeckung der LangsamkeitThe Discovery of Slowness – and it celebrated the careful time-taking of its hero, a lifelong walker who showed himself “immune to the compulsion to be continually occupied”. Franklin’s unhurriedness, seen first as a fault in his childhood, becomes an exceptional virtue in adulthood – allowing him to take finely calibrated decisions and think his way around even urgent difficulties. Nadolny’s novel became a bestseller in Germany, was translated into 15 languages, and even became part of a national conversation about speeding. For a while, on the sides of autobahns, you could see large signs reading Die Entdeckung der Gelassenheit: “the discovery of unhurriedness, of tranquillity”. Calm down. Wise up.

We have only sped up since Nadolny was writing. So the answer to the question “Käyskentelisinköhän?” is, of course, yes. When was the last time you properly stravaiged, truly mooched? Walking – good walking, the best walking – can decelerate you, within and without, helping you to rediscover slowness. The world looks and sounds different at three miles an hour. It pristinates into brightness, granulates into detail. Its countless timescales declare themselves to you, from the signs of the seasons’ turns, to the darting flight of a wren, moving fast in the edge of sight from hedge to wall. Slowing down becomes a means of knowing more.

Further reading

  • As well as helping found the Romantic age of English literature, William Wordsworth was also not a bad walker: according to Thomas De Quincey, Wordsworth clocked up 180,000 miles over his lifetime. Though he did not, as his poem Sweet Was the Walk reminds us, do so hurriedly.
  • If you want to be taken on a slow stroll through pre-war Europe, then try Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts (1977) – or if you fancy a more adventurous stroll, then follow now MP Rory Stewart as he, alone except for a dog, walks slowly (and at times painfully) across Afghanistan in The Places in Between (2009).