Here to return to
I walk about; not to and from. — CHARLES LAMB.
TAKING a walk is something different from traveling afoot. The latter I may do when on my way to the cars or the shop; but my neighbor, seeing me at such times, never says to himself, “Mr.——— is taking a walk.” He knows I cannot be doing that, so long as I am walking for the sake of getting somewhere. Even the common people understand that utilitarianism has nothing to do with the true peripatetic philosophy.
The disciples of this philosophy, the noble fraternity of saunterers, among whom I modestly enroll myself, are not greatly concerned with any kind of merely physical activity. They believe that everything has both a lower and a higher use; and that in the order of evolution the lower precedes the higher. Time was when walking — going erect on one's hind limbs — was a rare accomplishment, sufficient of itself to confer distinction. Little by little this accomplishment became general, and for this long time now it has been universal; yet even to the present day it is not quite natural; else why does every human infant still creep on all-fours till it is taught otherwise? But of all who practise the art, only here and there a single individual has divined its loftier use and significance. The rest are still in the materialistic stage — pedestrians simply. In their view walking is only a convenience, or perhaps I should say an inconvenience; a cheap device for getting from one place to another. They resort to it for business, or, it may be, for health. Of strolling as a means of happiness they have scarcely so much as heard. They belong to the great and fashionable sect of the wise and prudent; and from all such the true peripatetic philosophy is forever hidden. We who are in the secret would gladly publish it if we could; but by its very nature the doctrine is esoteric.
Whoso would be initiated into its mysteries must first of all learn how not to be in a hurry. Life is short, it is true, and time is precious; but a day is worth nothing of itself. It is like money, — good only for what it will buy. One must not play the miser, even with time. “There is that withholdeth more than is meet, but it tendeth to poverty.” Who does not know men so penurious of minutes, so everlastingly preoccupied, that they seldom spend an hour to any good purpose,—confirming the paradox of Jesus, “He that loveth his life shall lose it”? And between a certain two sisters, was not the verdict given in favor of the one who (if we take the other's word for it) was little better than an idler? The saunterer has laid to heart this lesson. On principle, he devotes a part of his time to what his virtuous townsmen call doing nothing. “What profit hath a man of all his labor?” A pertinent inquiry; but I am not aware that the author of it ever suggested any similar doubt as to the net results of well-directed idleness. A laborious, painstaking spirit is commendable in its place; it would go hard with the world to get on without it; but the fact remains that some of the very best things of this life— things unseen and (therefore) eternal—are never to be come at industriously. It is useless to chase them. We can only put ourselves in their way, and be still. The secret is as old as mysticism itself: if the vision tarry, wait for it.
Walking, then, as adepts use the word, is not so much a physical as a spiritual exercise. And if any be disposed to look askance at this form of expression, as if there were possibly a suggestion of profanity about it, they will please bethink themselves of an ancient sacred book (to which, according to some friendly critics, I am strangely fond of referring), wherein is narrated the history of a man who went out into the fields at eventide to meditate. He could never have misunderstood our speech, nor dreamed of its needing justification. And your true saunterers of the present day, no matter what their creed, are of Isaac's kin,—devout and imaginative souls, who may now and then be forced to cry with the Psalmist, “O that I had wings!” but who, in all ordinary circumstances, are able to walk away and be at rest. Like the patriarch, they have accustomed their feet to serve them as ministers of grace.
It must be a bad day indeed when, on retreating to the woods or the fields, we find it impossible to leave the wearisome world—yes, and our more wearisome selves, also — behind us. As a rule, this result is not the better attained by quickening the gait. We may allow for exceptions, of course, cases in which a counter-excitement may peradventure be of use; but most often it is better to seek quietness of heart at a quiet pace; to steal away from our persecutors, rather than to invite pursuit by too evident a purpose of escape. The lazy motion is of itself a kind of spiritual sedative. As we proceed, gazing idly at the sky, or with our attention caught by some wayside flower or passing bird, the mind grows placid, and, like smooth water, receives into itself the image of heaven. What a benediction of repose falls upon us sometimes from an old tree, as we pass under it! So self-poised it seems; so alive, and yet so still! It was planted here before we were born. It will be green and flourishing long after we are dead. In it we may behold a perfect illustration of the dignity and peace of a life undeviatingly obedient to law,— the law of its own being; never in haste, never at a loss, but in every fibre doing, day by day, its appropriate work. Sunshine and rain, heat and cold, calm and storm,—all minister to its necessities. It has only to stand in its place and grow; happy in springtime, with its buds and leaves; happy in autumn, with its fruit; happy, too, in winter, — repining not when forced to wait through months of bareness and dearth for the touch of returning warmth. Enviable tree! As we contemplate it, we feel ourselves rebuked, and, at the same time, comforted. We, also, will be still, and let the life that is in us work itself out to the appointed end.
The seeing eye is a gift so unusual that whoever accustoms himself to watch what passes around him in the natural world is sure to be often entertained by the remarks, complimentary and otherwise, which such an idiosyncrasy calls forth. Some of his neighbors pity him as a ne'er-do-well, while others devoutly attribute to him a sort of superhuman faculty. If only they had such eyes! But, alas! they go into the woods, and they see nothing. Meanwhile the object of their envy knows well enough that his own vision is but rudimentary. He catches a glimpse now and then, — nothing more. Like his neighbors, he, too, prays for sight. Sooner or later, however, he discovers that it is a blessing to be able on occasion to leave one's scientific senses at home. For here, again, surprising as it may seem, it is necessary to be on our guard against a superserviceable activity. There are times when we go out-of-doors, not after information, but in quest of a mood. Then we must not be over-observant. Nature is coy; she appreciates the difference between an inquisitor and a lover. The curious have their reward, no doubt, but her best gifts are reserved for suitors of a more sympathetic turn. And unless it be here and there some creature altogether devoid of poetic sensibility, some “fingering slave,”
“One who would peep and botanize
Upon his mother's grave,” —
unless it be such a person as this, too poor to be conscious of his own poverty, there can be no enthusiastic student of natural history but has found out for himself the truth and importance of the paradoxical caution now suggested. One may become so zealous a botanist as almost to cease to be a man. The shifting panorama of the heavens and the earth no longer appeals to him. He is now a specialist, and go where he will, he sees nothing but specimens. Or he may give himself up to ornithology, till eye and ear grow so abnormally sensitive that not a bird can move or twitter but he is instantly aware of it. He must attend, whether he will or no. So long as this servitude lasts, it is idle to go afield in pursuit of joys high and aloof,” such as formerly awaited him in lonesome places. Better betake himself to city streets or a darkened room. For myself, I thankfully bear testimony that when I have been thus under the tyranny of my own senses I have found no more certain means of temporary deliverance than to walk in the early evening. Indeed, I have been ready, many a time, to exclaim with Wordsworth,—
“Hail, Twilight, sovereign of one peaceful hour!”
Then the eye has no temptation to busy itself with petty details; day's mutable distinctions” are removed from sight, and the mind is left undistracted to rise, if it can, into communion with the spirit of the scene.
After all, it is next to nothing we are able to tell of the pleasures of such fellowship. We cannot define them to ourselves, — though they are “felt in the blood and felt along the heart,” — much less to another. Least of all need we attempt to explain them to any Philistine; the walls of whose house are likely enough hung with “chromos,” but who stares at you for a fool or a sentimentalist (which comes, perhaps, to nearly the same thing), when he catches you standing still before one of Nature's pictures. How shall one blest with a feeling for the woods put into language the delight he experiences in sauntering along their shady aisles? He enjoys the stillness, the sense of seclusion, the flicker of sunlight and shadow, the rustle of leaves, the insect's hum, the passing of the chance butterfly, the chirp of the bird, or its full-voiced song, the tracery of lichens on rock and tree, the tuft of ferns, the carpet of moss, the brightness of blossom and fruit,—all the numberless sights and sounds of the forest; but it is not any of these, nor all of them together, that make the glory of the place. It is the wood—and this is something more than the sum of all its parts — which lays hold upon him, taking him, as it were, out of the world and out of himself. Let practical people sneer, and the industrious frown; we who retain our relish for these natural and innocent felicities may well enough be indifferent to neighborly comments. Whatever worldlings may think, the hour is not wasted that brings with it tranquillity of mind and an uplifting of the heart. We seem to be going nowhere and looking for nothing? Yes; but one may be glad to visit the Land of Beulah, though he have no special errand thither. Who ever saw a child but was fond of an idle hour in the woods? And for my part, while I have with me the children (and the dogs and the poets) I count myself in excellent company; for the time, at least, I can do without what is vulgarly esteemed good society. A man to whom a holiday affords no pleasure is already as good as dead; nothing will save him but to be born again. We have heard of convicts so wonted to prison cells that they could feel at home nowhere else; and we have known men of business whose feet, when they stopped going the regular humdrum round, knew no other course to take but to steer straight for the grave. It behooves us to heed the warning of such examples, and now and then to be idle betimes, lest the capacity for idleness be extirpated by disuse.
The practice of sauntering may especially be recommended as a corrective of the modern vice of continual reading. For too many of us it has come to be well-nigh impossible to sit down by ourselves without turning round instinctively in search of a book or a newspaper. The habit indicates a vacancy of mind, a morbid intellectual restlessness, and may not inaptly be compared with that incessant delirious activity which those who are familiar with deathbed scenes know so well as a symptom of approaching dissolution. Possibly the two cases are not in all respects analogous. Books are an inestimable boon; let me never be without the best of them, both old and new. Still, one would fain have an occasional thought of one's own, even though, as the common saying is, it be nothing to speak of. Meditation is an old-fashioned exercise; the very word is coming to have an almost archaic sound; but neither the word nor the thing will altogether pass into forgetfulness so long as the race of saunterers — the spiritual descendants of Isaac — continue to inherit the earth.
There is little danger that the lives of any of us will be too solitary or lived at too leisurely a rate. The world grows busier and busier. Those whose passion for Nature is strongest and most deep-seated are driven to withhold from her all but the odds and ends of the day. We rebel sometimes; the yoke grows unendurable; come what may, we will be quit of it; but the existing order of things proves too strong for us, and anon we settle back into the old bondage. And perhaps it is better so. Even the most simple and natural delights are best appreciated when rarely and briefly enjoyed. So I persuade myself that, all in all, it is good for me to have only one or two hours a day for the woods. Human nature is weak; who knows but I might grow lazy, were I my own master? At least, “the fine point of seldom pleasure” would be blunted.
The ideal plan would include two walks: one in the morning for observation, with every sense alert; the other toward night, for a mood of “wise passiveness,” wherein Nature should be left free to have her own way with the heart and the imagination. Then the laureate's prayer might be fulfilled:
“Let knowledge grow from more to more,
But more of reverence in us dwell;
That mind and soul, according well,
May make one music, as before.”
But this strict division of time is too often out of the question, and we must contrive, as best we can, to unite the two errands, — study and reverie: using our eyes and ears, but not abusing them; and, on the other hand, giving free play to fancy and imagination, without permitting ourselves to degenerate into impotent dreamers. Every walker ought to be a faithful student of at least one branch of natural history, not omitting Latin names and the very latest discoveries and theories. But, withal, let him make sure that his acquaintance with out-of-door life is sympathetic, and not merely curious or scientific. All honor to the new science and its votaries; we run small risk of too much learning; but it should be kept in mind that the itch for finding out secrets is to be accounted noble or ignoble, according as the spirit that prompts the research is liberal or petty. Curiosity and love of the truth are not yet identical, however it may flatter our self-esteem to ignore the distinction. One may spend one's days and nights in nothing else but in hearing or telling some new thing, and after all be no better than a gossip. It would prove a sorry exchange for such of us as have entered, in any degree, into the feeling of Wordsworth's lines,
“To me, the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears,”
and I believe the capacity for such moods to be less uncommon than many suppose, — it would be a sorry bargain, I say, for us to lose this sensitiveness to the charm of living beauty, though meanwhile we were to grow wiser than all the moderns touching the morphology and histology of every blossom under the sun.
“Who loves not Knowledge? Who shall rail against her beauty?”
Not we, certainly; but we will be bold to add, with Tennyson himself, —
“Let her know her place;
She is the second, not the first.”
In treating a theme of this kind, it is hard not to violate Nature's own method, and fall into a strain of exhortation. Our intercourse with her is so good and wholesome, such an inexhaustible and ever-ready resource against the world's trouble and unrest, that we would gladly have everybody to share it. We say, over and over, with Emerson, —
"If I could put my woods in song,
And tell What’s there enjoyed,
All men would to my gardens throng,
And leave the cities void.”
But this may not be. At best, words can only hint at sensations; and the hint can be taken only by as many as are predestined to hear it. As I have said, the doctrine is esoteric. How are those who have never felt the like to understand the satisfaction with which I recall a certain five or ten minutes of a cool morning in May, a year or more ago? I was drawing towards home, after a jaunt of an hour or two, when I came suddenly into a sheltered and sunny nook, where a bed of the early saxifrage was already in full bloom, while a most exquisite little bee-fly of a beautiful shade of warm brown was hovering over it, draining the tiny, gold-lined chalices, one by one, with its long proboscis, which looked precisely like the bill of a hummingbird. An ordinary picture enough, as far as words go, — only a little sunshine, a patch of inconspicuous and common flowers, and a small Bombylian without even the distinction of bright colors. True; but my spirit drank a nectar sweeter than any the insect was sipping. And though, as a rule, an experience of this sort were perhaps better left unspoken, —
“A thought of private recollection, sweet and still,”
yet the mention of it can do no harm, while it illustrates what I take to be one of the principal advantages of the saunterer's condition. His treasures are never far to seek. His delight is in Nature herself, rather than in any of her more unusual manifestations. He is not of that large and increasingly fashionable class who fancy themselves lovers of Nature, while in fact they are merely admirers, more or less sincere, of fine scenery. Not that anything is too beautiful for our rambler's appreciation: he has an eye for the best that earth and heaven can offer; he knows the exhilaration of far-reaching prospects; but he is not dependent upon such extraordinary favors of Providence. He has no occasion to run hither and thither in search of new and strange sights. The old familiar pastures; the bushy lane, in which his feet have loitered year after year, ever since they began to go alone; an unfrequented road; a wooded slope, or a mossy glen; the brook of his boyish memories; if need be, nothing but a clump of trees or a grassy meadow, — these are enough for his pleasure. Fortunate man! Who should be happy, if not he? Out of his own doorway he steps at will into the Elysian fields.