Wanderlust: A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit

★★★★★ (5/5)

Walking has been one of the constellations in the starry sky of human culture, a constellation whose three stars are the body, the imagination, and the wide-open world, and though all three exist independently, it is the lines drawn between them—drawn by the act of walking for cultural purposes—that makes them a constellation

What is walking for me?

I associate walking with solitary thoughts that meander much like the path upon which my feet tread. The path is gravelly and coarse, the edges of which are sometimes hidden in patches of dry-green grass.

Whilst reading Solnit’s “Wanderlust”, I became increasingly aware of my confinements – mental, physical and spiritual. I felt cloistered, chained to abstract notions. My feelings ran contrary to what the book embodied and made me question the nature of freedom and independence.

In small doses melancholy, alienation, and introspection are among life’s most refined pleasures.

In the city I am limited by a battle between my thoughts and physical capacities. Up North, where I so desire to return to twice a year, I feel a sense of escape and freedom that is impossible to attain in the confines of the city. Up North, my limbs achieve autonomy, logic and capabilities on their own. They work in sync with my mental progression. Hiking, walking, strolling become second nature. The remarkable sense of adventure runs fresh through me, guiding me towards no set destination but through trails and elephant paths I encounter. I feel a tangible change in my thought process, which complements my body language and movement.

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

Walking and the Thought Process

  • thinking is generally thought of as doing nothing in a production-oriented culture, and doing nothing is hard to do.
  • Moving on foot seems to make it easier to move in time; the mind wanders from plans to recollections to observations.
  • I suspect that the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour. If this is so, then modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought, or thoughtfulness.
  • ideas are not as reliable or popular a crop as, say, corn, and those who cultivate them often must keep moving in pursuit of support as well as truth.
  • Movement is the best cure for melancholy
  • “Climbing is the only time my mind doesn’t wander.”
  • You must be complex to want simplicity, settled to desire this kind of mobility.
  • “Into each of these lives one could penetrate a little way, far enough to give one the illusion that one is not tethered to a single mind, but can put on briefly for a few minutes the bodies and minds of others. One could become a washerwoman, a publican, a street singer.”

Walking as a Physical Experience

  • one’s bodily experience and location shape one’s intellectual perspective.
  • A medical and sexual phenomenon, it is a site of sensations, processes, and desires rather than a source of action and production.
  • The very term “the body” so often used by postmodernists seems to speak of a passive object, and that body appears most often laid out upon the examining table or in bed. A medical and sexual phenomenon, it is a site of sensations, processes, and desires rather than a source of action and production. 
  • Children begin to walk to chase desires no one will fulfill for them: the desire for that which is out of reach, for freedom, for independence from the secure confines of the maternal Eden. And so walking begins as delayed falling, and the fall meets with the Fall.
  • A solitary walker is in the world, but apart from it, with the detachment of the traveler rather than the ties of the worker, the dweller, the member of a group.
  • Up high, biology vanishes to reveal a world shaped by the starker forces of geology and meteorology, the bare bones of the earth wrapped in sky.
  • Thoreau noticed it and wrote, “To the traveller, a mountain outline varies with every step, and it has an infinite number of profiles, though absolutely but one form,” and that form is best apprehended from a distance.
  • On March 17, 1923, while on a speaking tour to raise money for an Everest expedition, the great mountaineer George Mallory apparently got exasperated with the continual questions about why he wanted to climb it, and uttered the most famous line in mountaineering history, the one sometimes cited as a Zen koan: “Because it’s there.”
  • The widely traveled mountaineer and religious scholar Edwin Bernbaum writes, wryly, “Whatever Western society regards as number one tends to take on an aura of ultimacy that makes it seem more real and worthwhile than anything else—in a word, sacred.”
  • Bodily causes had bodily effects; it was to be a revolution not merely of ideas but of bodies liberated, starving, marching, dancing, rioting, decapitated, on the stage of Parisian streets and squares.

The Aesthetics of Walking as an Art Form

  • One of the great pleasures of writing about this subject was that, instead of a few great experts, walking has a multitude of amateurs
  • Cars function best as exclusionary devices, as mobile private space. Even driven as slowly as possible, they still don’t allow for the directness of encounter and fluidity of contact that walking does.
  • Most who have written about this first generation of Romantics propose that they themselves introduced walking as a cultural act, as a part of aesthetic experience.
  • Until the surroundings became important, the walk was just movement, not experience.
  • Even the rude Rocks, the mossy Caverns, the irregular unwrought Grottos and broken Falls of waters, with all the horrid Graces of the Wilderness itself, as representing Nature more, will be the more engaging,
  • Though not going nearly as far as did Dorothy Wordsworth when reprimanded by her aunt, Elizabeth is likewise walking beyond the bounds of propriety for women of her class, and the characters at Mr. Bingley’s house have much to say about it. The transgression seems to be both that she went out into the world alone, and that she turned the idyll of the genteel walk into something utilitarian.
  • these solitary walks express the independence that literally takes the heroine out of the social sphere of the houses and their inhabitants, into a larger, lonelier world where she is free to think: walking articulates both physical and mental freedom.
  • Humble and rustic life was generally chosen, because in that condition the essential passions of the heart find a better soil . . . and speak a plainer and more emphatic language.
  • Even now English people tell me that walking plays so profound a role in English culture in part because it is one of the rare classless arenas in which everyone is roughly equal and welcome.

Walking & Religion

  • Now the assumption that the natural, the good, and the simple are all aligned seems commonplace at best; then, it was incendiary. In Christian theology, nature and humanity had both fallen from grace after Eden; it was Christian civilization that redeemed them, so that goodness was a cultural rather than a natural state.
  • In a journal passage from 1848, he described how on his way home, “overwhelmed with ideas ready to be written down and in a sense so weak that I could scarcely walk,” he would often encounter a poor man, and if he refused to speak with him, the ideas would flee “and I would sink into the most dreadful spiritual tribulation at the idea that God could do to me what I had done to that man. But if I took the time to talk with the poor man, things never went that way.”
  • Pilgrimage is one of the fundamental structures a journey can take—the quest in search of something, if only one’s own transformation, the journey toward a goal—and for pilgrims, walking is work.
  • To consider earth holy is to connect the lowest and most material to the most high and ethereal, to close the breach between matter and spirit. It subversively suggests that the whole world might potentially be holy and that the sacred can be underfoot rather than above.
  • Another metaphorical moral seems built into these two structures, for the maze offers the confusions of free will without a clear destination, the labyrinth an inflexible route to salvation.

Gendered Walking

  • History is often described as though it were made up entirely of negotiations in closed spaces and wars in open ones—of talking and fighting, of politicians and warriors. Earlier events of that revolution—the birth of the National Assembly and the storming of the Bastille—correspond to these versions. Yet the market women had managed to make history as ordinary citizens engaged in ordinary gestures.
  • It became true because enough people were there to make it true. Once again people were writing history with their feet.
  • “Yes, my consuming desire to mingle with road crews, sailors and soldiers, barroom regulars—to be part of a scene, anonymous, listening, recording—all is spoiled by the fact that I am a girl, a female always in danger of assault and battery. My consuming interest in men and their lives is often misconstructed as a desire to seduce them, or as an invitation to intimacy. Yes, God, I want to talk to everybody I can as deeply as I can. I want to be able to sleep in an open field, to travel west, to walk freely at night.”
  • There are three prerequisites to taking a walk—that is, to going out into the world to walk for pleasure. One must have free time, a place to go, and a body unhindered by illness or social restraints.
  • A woman who has violated sexual convention can be said to be strolling, roaming, wandering, straying—all terms that imply that women’s travel is inevitably sexual or that their sexuality is transgressive when it travels.
  • Of course women’s walking is often construed as performance rather than transport, with the implication that women walk not to see but to be seen, not for their own experience but for that of a male audience, which means that they are asking for whatever attention they receive.
  • It makes women’s sexuality a public rather than a private matter. It equates visibility with sexual accessibility, and it requires a material barrier rather than a woman’s morality or will to make her inaccessible to passersby.
  • Travel, whether local or global, has remained a largely masculine prerogative ever since, with women often the destination, the prize, or keepers of the hearth.
  • The geography of race and gender are different, for a racial group may monopolize a whole region, while gender compartmentalizes in local ways.
  • Even in times when women could walk by day, the night—the melancholic, poetic, intoxicating carnival of city nights—was likely to be off limits to them, unless they had become “women of the night.”
  • Woolf wrote of the confining oppression of one’s own identity, of the way the objects in one’s home “enforce the memories of our own experience.”

The Narrative of Walking in the Annals of History

  • What is recorded as history seldom represents the typical, and what is typical seldom becomes visible as history—though it often becomes visible as literature.
  • John Muir took a stand against anthropocentrism, against the idea that trees, animals, minerals, soil, water, are there for humans to use, let alone to destroy,
  • To pretend that the world is a garden is an essentially apolitical act, a turning away from the woes that keep it from being one. But to try to make the world a garden is often a political endeavor, and it is this taste that the more activist walking clubs around the world have taken up.
  • Only in Britain has walking remained the focus all along, even if the word rambling is often used to describe it. Walking has a resonance, a cultural weight, there that it does nowhere else.
  • Private property is a lot more absolute in the United States, and the existence of vast tracts of public land serves to justify this, as does an ideology in which the rights of the individual are more often upheld than the good of the community.
  • We’ve all heard of that future, and it sounds pretty lonely. In the next century, the line of thinking goes, everyone will work at home, shop at home, watch movies at home and communicate with all their friends through videophones and e-mail. It’s as if science and culture have progressed for one purpose only: to keep us from ever having to get out of our pajamas.—SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
  • The world has become inaccessible because we drive there
  • walking as a cultural activity, as a pleasure, as travel, as a way of getting around, is fading, and with it goes an ancient and profound relationship between body, world, and imagination.
  • Early commentators deplored how factory work destroyed family life, taking individuals out of the home and making family members strangers to each other during their prodigiously long workdays. Home for factory workers was little more than a place to recuperate for the next day’s work, and the industrial system made them far poorer and unhealthier than they had been as independent artisans.
  • In fleeing the poor and the city, they had left behind pedestrian scale. One could walk in the suburbs, but there was seldom anyplace to go on foot in these homogenous expanses of quiet residential streets behind whose walls dwelt families more or less like each other.
  • (walking to school, which was for generations the great formative first foray alone into the world, is likewise becoming a less common experience).
  • Television, telephones, home computers, and the Internet complete the privatization of everyday life that suburbs began and cars enhanced.
  • Walking the city is not now an attractive prospect for those unequipped to dodge and dash. This withdrawal from shared space seems, like that of the Manchester merchants a century and a half ago, intended to buffer the affluent from the consequences of economic inequity and resentment outside the gates; it is the alternative to social justice.
  • Earlier forms of land travel had intimately engaged travelers with their surroundings, but the railroad moved too fast for nineteenth-century minds to relate visually to the trees, hills, and buildings whipping by. The spatial and sensual engagement with the terrain between here and there began to evaporate. Instead, the two places were separated only by an ever-shortening amount of time. Speed did not make travel more interesting, Schivelbusch writes, but duller; like the suburb, it put its inhabitants in a kind of spatial limbo. People began to read on the train, to sleep, to knit, to complain of boredom.
  • The decline of walking is about the lack of space in which to walk, but it is also about the lack of time—the disappearance of that musing, unstructured space in which so much thinking, courting, daydreaming, and seeing has transpired.
  • Suntans famously became status symbols when most of the poor had moved indoors from the farm to the factory, so that browned skin indicated leisure time rather than work time.
  • Marx said history happens the first time as tragedy, the second as farce; bodily labor here happens the first time around as productive labor and the second as leisure time consumption.
  • The deepest sign of transformation is not merely that this activity is no longer productive, that the straining of the arms no longer moves wood or pumps water. It is that the straining of the muscles can require a gym membership, workout gear, special equipment, trainers and instructors, a whole panoply of accompanying expenditures, in this industry of consumption, and the resulting muscles may not be useful or used for any practical purpose.
  • I used to try to imagine, as I worked out on one or another weight machine, that this motion was rowing, this one pumping water, this one lifting bales or sacks. The everyday acts of the farm had been reprised as empty gestures, for there was no water to pump, no buckets to lift. I am not nostalgic for peasant or farmworker life, but I cannot avoid being struck by how odd it is that we reprise those gestures for other reasons. What exactly is the nature of the transformation in which machines now pump our water but we go to other machines to engage in the act of pumping, not for the sake of water but for the sake of our bodies, bodies theoretically liberated by machine technology?
  • Thus the body, a recreational rather than utilitarian entity, doesn’t work, but works out.
  • In many ways, walking culture was a reaction against the speed and alienation of the industrial revolution. It may be countercultures and subcultures that will continue to walk in resistance to the postindustrial, postmodern loss of space, time, and embodiment.
  • the street is democracy’s greatest arena, the place where ordinary people can speak, unsegregated by walls, unmediated by those with more power.
  • The very word street has a rough, dirty magic to it, summoning up the low, the common, the erotic, the dangerous, the revolutionary. 
  • In the city, one is alone because the world is made up of strangers, and to be a stranger surrounded by strangers, to walk along silently bearing one’s secrets and imagining those of the people one passes, is among the starkest of luxuries. This uncharted identity with its illimitable possibilities is one of the distinctive qualities of urban living, a liberatory state for those who come to emancipate themselves from family and community expectation, to experiment with subculture and identity.

Beautifully constructed sentences

  • Where does it start? Muscles tense. One leg a pillar, holding the body upright between the earth and sky. The other a pendulum, swinging from behind. Heel touches down. The whole weight of the body rolls forward onto the ball of the foot. The big toe pushes off, and the delicately balanced weight of the body shifts again.
  • The history of walking is an unwritten, secret history whose fragments can be found in a thousand unemphatic passages in books, as well as in songs, streets, and almost everyone’s adventures.
  • the hills had turned that riotous, exuberant green I forget and rediscover every year.
  • he tells of how his father, rather than let him leave the house, would walk back and forth in a room with him, describing the world so vividly that the boy seemed to see all the variety evoked.
  • Most modern writers are deskbound, indoor creatures when they write, and nothing more than outline and ideas can be achieved elsewhere; Wordsworth’s method seemed a throwback to oral traditions and explains why the best of his work has the musicality of songs and the casualness of conversation. His steps seem to have beat out a steady rhythm for the poetry, like the metronome of a composer.
  • “Walking is the best of panaceas for the morbid tendencies of authors.”
  • How beautiful a street is in winter! It is at once revealed and obscured.
  • A city always contains more than any inhabitant can know, and a great city always makes the unknown and the possible spurs to the imagination.
  • “The man who is unable to people his solitude is equally unable to be alone in a bustling crowd.”
  • There’s a way the artificial lights and natural darkness of nightwalks turn the day’s continuum into a theater of tableaux, vignettes, set pieces
  • Space—as landscape, terrain, spectacle, experience—has vanished.
  • turning back to watch the shadows over the hills grow longer and the light thicker and more golden, as though air could turn to honey, honey that would dissolve into the returning night.

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