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.
These words, written by Henry Thoreau, the nineteenth-century American writer, resonate with a modern reader more than they did with many of his contemporaries as, in almost any self-help guide or journal, we read about the benefits of striding into the countryside and breathing in fresh air.
The US author, Rebecca Solnit, decries modern life as a series of interiors: the home, the car, the office, shops, café and gym and suggests we need to rediscover our more natural, outdoor surroundings. The British author, Robert Macfarlane, urges us to go out and explore less-travelled paths and reconnect with what he describes as the disappearing vocabulary of our rural past. GPs are recommending that we abandon expensive gym machinery and take a walk out in the fresh air, and insurance companies are offering lower premiums for those who take regular exercise.
However, apart from the benefits to our physical wellbeing, many writers have discovered that walking in a natural landscape can be a source of inspiration. As far back as 387 BC, Plato established his Academy north of Athens in a public garden planted with plane and olive trees. His pupil, Aristotle, founded the so-called peripatetic school in which he and his pupils walked backwards and forwards teasing out the philosophical issues of the day, one step at a time.
Around 1800 years later, William Wordsworth moved with his sister, Dorothy, to Dove Cottage in the Lakeland Fells from which he drew so much inspiration that his poetry and the landscape became intertwined. ‘Let Nature be your Teacher’, he insisted in ‘The Tables Turned’.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, owner of the land and woods where Thoreau built his cabin, was a great admirer of Wordsworth. So much so that he made the hazardous trek from New England to the Lake District in order to meet his hero. He described Wordsworth’s ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality From Recollections in Early Childhood’ as ‘the high water mark which the intellect has reached in this age’ and we might assume that, by offering his friend, Thoreau, a similar opportunity to immerse himself in the natural world, he had hopes of fostering in him a similar level of genius.
Thoreau describes a traveller, asking to be shown to Wordsworth’s study, being told by the servant, ‘Here is his library, but his study is out of doors.’
And for the two years, two weeks and two days which Thoreau spent in Walden Woods, the out of doors became his study. His great work, Walden, was an in-depth description of the comings-and-goings at Walden Pond, a study of the local wildlife and a detailed description of the construction of his cabin — but most importantly, in a similar way to Wordsworth’s Immortality Ode, containing touches of transcendence.
Thoreau described his activity as sauntering, a word he claimed was derived from a la Saint Terre, a medieval expression used for pilgrims wandering without destination in order to raise funds for visiting the Holy Land.
It seems as though Thoreau’s neighbours considered sauntering something of a strange activity. As he writes in Walden:
Some of my townsmen, it is true, can remember and have described to me some walks which they took ten years ago, in which they were so blessed as to lose themselves for half an hour in the woods; but I know very well that they have confined themselves to the highway ever since, whatever pretensions they may make to belong to this select class.
Yet in spite of this, few aspiring authors nowadays possess the wherewithal to survive alone in a woodland cabin, tilling the soil, kneading bread from hand-ground corn and catching fish from the local lake.
And why should they?
Because I’m not suggesting that these skills might make us better writers. But where I’d suggest that Thoreau had the edge is in his insistence on the value of a daily walk. Alone. Without any purpose or direction and preferably, through an uncultivated landscape. As he wrote:
All good things are wild and free...
In her book Walking In This World, Julia Cameron argues that creativity is available to all and can be cultivated and strengthened by a daily walk. And she is not alone in finding something about the rhythm and process of walking that stimulates the muse. In Wanderlust, Solnit suggests that:
Walking itself is the intentional act closest to the unwilled rhythms of the body, to breathing and the beating of the heart. It strikes a delicate balance between working and idling, being and doing. It is a bodily labor that produces nothing but thoughts, experiences, arrivals.
Walking is a healthy form of exercise, pumping fresh blood into the brain, but it does something else more primordial — like new-born creatures instinctively paddling their paws to stimulate their mother’s milk, we find that, step by step and pace by pace, this is the way to stimulate our creativity.
Walking marks us as a species: the day we clambered from our trees, stood upright and took our first faltering steps was the day we began our journey to who we are as people.
We walked out of Africa. We walked across frozen seas. We covered continents by standing upright on two legs in a world in which no other mammals had accomplished such a feat. And after that, we went on to pick up a stick to draw some kind of pictogram to tell the world about it.
So, how deprived are writers cramped inside a city centre apartment compared to those who have the freedom to lace up a pair of hiking boots and tramp through woods and over open moors? Is only a Romantic poet moved to inspiration by the Lakeland Fells? Or can all our writing be beefed up by a burst of bog-walking and breathing in the brisk, crisp mountain air?
If it can, we have to remind ourselves that when the Wordsworths moved to Westmoreland and when Thoreau built his Walden cabin, these were simple alternatives to fashionable city life. Yet how many poets nowadays could afford a writing retreat in the Lakes?
However, as well as his poetry and memoir and pleas for self-sufficiency, Thoreau left other legacies behind. In September 1900, a Sheffield rambler named Bert Ward advertised in the local Clarion newspaper for others to join him on a walk around Kinderscout. The event was to be the first Sunday ramble of the Sheffield Clarion Ramblers who went on to organise regular walks and hikes.
Over the next thirty years, the Clarion Ramblers together with others across the country, campaigned tirelessly for the right to roam across the moors. When their campaigns met with no success, they organised a mass trespass of 500 men and women on the slopes of Kinder Scout on April 24, 1932, resulting in the imprisonment of five of them. But this became a turning point in their campaign and eventually resulted in the creation of the UK’s first national park.
It was Thoreau who had first advocated the conservation of the countryside, writing:
If a man walk in the woods for love of them, half of each day, he is in danger of being regarded as a loafer; but if he spends his whole day as a speculator, shearing off those woods and making earth bald before her time, he is esteemed an industrious and enterprising citizen. As if a town had no interest in its forests but to cut them down!
In 1846, Thoreau was arrested for failing to pay the poll tax which, he claimed, supported the Mexican-American war and the expansion of slavery. He hoped to use his time in jail to raise awareness of these concerns and was later moved to write an essay on civil disobedience in which he argued for acts of nonviolent, civil disobedience to protest against unjust law. His essay went on to stir activists worldwide including Gandhi and Martin Luther King and underpinned peaceful anti-government protest through to the present day.
The cottage in the Lakes might be beyond our financial means, but we can still feel gratitude for Thoreau’s views on civil disobedience as we saunter in search of inspiration through our many National Parks.
You might also like:
Donny O’Rourke visits old haunts in Dumfries and the Borders, ghosted by the bards of Scotland’s past, for the liminal Celtic festival of Samhain.
Julian Turner considers the usefulness of imagination, not just to the writer, but also to the exile and the abused child, and suggests that metaphorical thinking may be psychologically essential.