From “Walking.” At the age of twenty-seven in 1845, the poet and essayist left his family’s pencil business and built a cabin on the shores of Walden Pond. The two-year sojourn furnished him with the inspiration for Walden and “Civil Disobedience.” On his deathbed in 1862, Thoreau at the age of forty-four said, “Now comes good sailing,” later uttering the words “moose” and “Indian” before he died.
I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks—who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering: which word is beautifully derived “from idle people who roved about the country, in the Middle Ages, and asked charity, under pretence of going à la Sainte Terre”—to the Holy Land, till the children exclaimed, “There goes a Sainte-Terrer,” a Saunterer, a Holy Lander. They who never go to the Holy Land in their walks, as they pretend, are indeed mere idlers and vagabonds, but they who do go there are saunterers in the good sense, such as I mean. Some, however, would derive the word from sans terre, without land or a home, which, therefore, in the good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere. For this is the secret of successful sauntering. He who sits still in a house all the time may be the greatest vagrant of all, but the saunterer—in the good sense—is no more vagrant than the meandering river, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea. But I prefer the first, which, indeed, is the most probable derivation. For every walk is a sort of crusade, preached by some Peter the Hermit in us, to go forth and reconquer this Holy Land from the hands of the infidels.
It is true, we are but faint-hearted crusaders, even the walkers nowadays who undertake no persevering, never-ending enterprises. Our expeditions are but tours and come round again at evening to the old hearthside from which we set out. Half the walk is but retracing our steps. We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return, prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only as relics to our desolate kingdoms. If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again—if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man, then you are ready for a walk.
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. You may safely say, a penny for your thoughts, or a thousand pounds. When sometimes I am reminded that the mechanics and shopkeepers stay in their shops not only all the forenoon, but all the afternoon too, sitting with crossed legs, so many of them—as if the legs were made to sit upon, and not to stand or walk upon—I think that they deserve some credit for not having all committed suicide long ago.
I, who cannot stay in my chamber for a single day without acquiring some rust, and when sometimes I have stolen forth for a walk at the eleventh hour or four o’clock in the afternoon—too late to redeem the day, when the shades of night were already beginning to be mingled with the daylight—have felt as if I had committed some sin to be atoned for. I confess that I am astonished at the power of endurance—to say nothing of the moral insensibility—of my neighbors who confine themselves to shops and offices the whole day for weeks and months, aye, and years almost together. I know not what manner of stuff they are of, sitting there now at three o’clock in the afternoon as if it were three o’clock in the morning.
Odysseus and his companions passing the Isle of the Sirens, Roman mosaic, third century. Bardo Museum, Tunis, Tunisia.
How womankind—who are confined to the house still more than men—stand it, I do not know, but I have ground to suspect that most of them do not stand it at all. When, early in a summer afternoon, we have been shaking the dust of the village from the skirts of our garments, making haste past those houses with purely Doric or Gothic fronts which have such an air of repose about them, my companion whispers that probably about these times their occupants are all gone to bed. Then it is that I appreciate the beauty and the glory of architecture, which itself never turns in, but forever stands out and erect, keeping watch over the slumberers.
No doubt temperament, and above all, age, have a good deal to do with it. As a man grows older, his ability to sit still and follow indoor occupations increases. He grows vespertinal in his habits as the evening of life approaches, till at last he comes forth only just before sundown, and gets all the walk that he requires in half an hour.
But the walking of which I speak has nothing in it akin to taking exercise, as it is called—as the sick take medicine at stated hours, as the swinging of dumbbells or chairs—but is itself the enterprise and adventure of the day. If you would get exercise, go in search of the springs of life. Think of a man’s swinging dumbbells for his health, when those springs are bubbling up in far-off pastures unsought by him!
Moreover, you must walk like a camel, which is said to be the only beast which ruminates when walking. When a traveler asked Wordsworth’s servant to show him her master’s study, she answered, “Here is his library, but his study is out of doors.”
Living much out of doors in the sun and wind will no doubt produce a certain roughness of character—will cause a thicker cuticle to grow over some of the finer qualities of our nature, as on the face and hands, or as severe manual labor robs the hands of some of their delicacy of touch. So staying in the house, on the other hand, may produce a softness and smoothness, not to say thinness of skin, accompanied by an increased sensibility to certain impressions. Perhaps we should be more susceptible to some influences important to our intellectual and moral growth if the sun had shone and the wind blown on us a little less—and no doubt it is a nice matter to proportion rightly the thick and thin skin. But methinks that is a scurf that will fall off fast enough, that the natural remedy is to be found in the proportion which the night bears to the day, the winter to the summer, thought to experience.