Walking the Southwest Coastal Path

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Day 6
Braunton to Westward Ho! (via the Instow-Appledore Ferry) 17 miles

It was a hard slog of about 11 miles from Braunton to Instow following the SouthWest Coast Path and combined Tarka Trail where we caught the ferry over to Appledore. The trail is a tarmaced trail utilizing an old railway track leading down to Bidderford, and very hard on the feet for walking. From a walker’s perspective it is far from ideal walking as I have always felt that a mile on tarmac was comparable to walking two on a natural trail.
So this has been my day’s “suffering” and yet it has been very low on the scale by comparison. But suffering is an intriguing subject to contemplate, an one that we think about often. Not to be wrapped up in any kind of gloom & doom mindset mind you, but suffering is a real necessity from our perspective relative to any transformative journey. Consider what myth and folk tales speak to in this regard; Cinderella needing to suffer the abuse of her wicked step sisters before meeting her Prince Charming, or the King’ son in Grimm’s Iron Hans story who needs to suffer the trials and tribulations of a lowly station in life in order to win the hand of the King’s Daughter in marriage. Mythic stories vary over time and place yet all speak to the recognizable truths regarding the ways we inwardly meet the trails, and opportunities, of our day.
Although beautiful to pass through, the countryside’s charm was being challenged by the metaled pathway reaching up to embrace our steps this day. It would be so sweet if the trail was the green grassy verge that marked most of the trails we’ve passed over on this journey. Good for cyclists for sure, and all the lovely families out enjoying their bit of local heaven, but not good for me!
But stories do serve us well if we but listen deeply to what truths they hold.
I checked my wayward thoughts, dropped into a slightly bended knee, or crouch, where I absorbed more of the trails impact while lowering my stature by a few centimeters. Humbling in gesture but it got me thinking about all the fine people

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My “suffering” for the day turned out to be an opportunity for going a bit deeper into my experience of the day; an experience of the Estuary of the Rivers Tar and Torridge. To witness the ebb and flow of the lifeblood of the land while simultaneously seeing the ebb and flow of my inner state; knowing that a bit of honest attention brings them both into a healthier perspective.IMG_7055.PNGIMG_7057

Walking the Southwest Coastal Path

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Day 5
Woolacombe to Braunton; 14.8 miles

Our day started with a beach walk of about 2.5 miles, leaving Woolacombe in the morning by walking right out onto the beach in front of our accommodations. Coupled to another 5-6 mile stretch of beach walking further on between Saunton (Saunton Sands) and the Broadsands (a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve) our day was mostly contained to the sandy shore. It is difficult to imagine beaches so untouched and unspoiled in the USA outside of a few places. That these shores are so open and available to all speaks to a far different relationship to the land than what we experience back along the New England shores. Encroachment in part always seems

IMG_7018inevitable, and due vigilance is always warranted we suspect, but this kind of open space and access back home would be so privatized and cordoned off that the public would be hard pressed to have an experience of it. Perhaps when you have less of something you cherish it more? Perhaps the more you have, the more somebody wants to claim it and own it for themselves?
We would be tempted to challenge our country by saying “trump that”, but under present circumstance it doesn’t seem fitting at all.

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All in all it was a day of coastal walking characterized by a sense of unbounded freedom. Water, clouds, sand, and wind were the main characters upon a stage which sent our senses soaring to new perambulating heights this day; difficult to be so self absorbed with self interests when in the presence of such natural gifts as these open spaces. On days such as these the concept of private property makes little sense at all!

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Walking the Southwest Coastal Path

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Day 4
Combe Martin to Woolacombe; 14 miles.
We passed out of Somerset and into Devon today. The walking through this land without question has been spectacular, but what has likewise impressed us along with the landscape we passed through is the people we have met along its way.
We spent a rather enjoyable moment at the Sister’s Well just before crossing into Devon. Our guide book said it was reputed to have been a spring that Joseph of Arimathea drank at while on his way to Glastonbury to plant the Holy Grail at the Tor, but not knowing anything more about it at the time, we stopped to spend a few contemplative moments due its considerable beauty and enchanting story. It turns out that it was named for the three nieces of the estate owner somewhere during the 1800’s who liked to play at the well, but in the moment we weren’t very sure, and it never hurts to seek whatever blessings one can get while passing through such enchanted lands. Being brought up in Boston, Massachusetts in a Irish Catholic

IMG_6884parish and having attended a parochial school taught by the Sisters of Saint Joseph, I wasn’t sure if the Sister’s Well was named for the Holy Sisters, who one never messed with, or perhaps it was so named due to some Jane Austin kind of influence. Always good to hedge one’s bet though when engaged in such serious business, but either way the stop was a refreshing one and my wife and I both bathed our feet in the waters to insure our safe footing throughout our walk!
What sank more deeply into a sense of the place was the feeling of power that the story had obviously taken on over time. Local lore had it that the spring gushed forth from the spot where Joseph of Arimathea struck the ground with his staff, and we could not help being struck by the fact that ample attention had been paid to this spot over time. People found meaning here, and treated it with respect. It was special and one felt it clearly.

In retrospect we were later thinking about a conversation we had with one of our several Air B&B hosts named Richard, who, when speaking to him about our walking the Coastal Path and somehow mentioning a past visit to Tintagel Castle, guffawed that no greater hoax had been perpetrated upon the English people and the world. It struck us that everyone isn’t necessarily in tune with the same stories that emanate from such places over time. We each choose the “right of way” perhaps that takes us to the meaning we hold that forms not only our sense of place, but our sense of self. History, it is often said, is written by the victorious, and the factual tales taught to us imbue meaning that may bear closer looking at over time. Folk lore and myth is a different type of story and takes on a life for and by the people who live closely to the land over a period of time as well. Each form of story carries meaning which guides us in our thinking, feeling, and sensing in the day to day series of events that constitute our days. We can’t help but think though, as we witness the daily news offerings of the goings on in the world, which stories take us to a place inwardly and outwardly where we find greater meaning, respect, and value. Values that leave one feeling very tranquil inwardly, and the landscape sacred and profound.

Our feet have been well served these past few days as we’ve navigated this most beautiful land. The walking has been good!

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Walking the Southwest Coastal Path

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Day 3
Close to fifteen miles today and feeling the rhythm of walking working upon our sense of self connecting to the land. That can take time, or not occur at all, if one is not in proper focus. It becomes a matter of having your head connected to the same place your feet are taking you of course, but we don’t often hear about such things. We take it for granted I suppose that we know how to walk. Typically, I suspect most view it purely as a means for getting from A to B, but walking is serious business and we could do ourselves much good if we paid better attention to it. I like to focus on my breathing as I connect with each step I take, while letting any invasive thoughts go. Taking a step is like allowing oneself to fall, with the ground then reaching up to catch us; the net result being that we enter into a flow or dance that we call forward motion. Or walking. It’s a uniquely trust filled moment that likewise is a hallmark aspect of our humanness. I don’t try to think about it but I pay attention to my breath, sense my feet touching the earth, and allow the moment, and the land, to speak.
And the land does speak if we have ears to hear! Its a subtle kind of communication, but its very real for the landscape is alive and always reaching out to us. Thoreau knew it, and in his essay Walking he speaks to the Walker going to the “west” in all of his or her walks, and to do so in a ruminative sort of way. The “west” being his metaphor for what he calls wildness, and what will ensure the very survival of the world. Not something to take lightly these days.
That state of wildness is nothing less than our state of being, where our “genius” resides in relationship and communion with “other”; all that constitutes life and living. An “All and Everything”, which includes the land.

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So it was with these thoughts in mind today, while walking, that my rumination led me to the concept of what’s called here “the right to roam”. That right, called the Countryside and Rights of Way Act means you can walk freely and explore the natural environment by finding your own way, without having to follow proscribed pathways. It means I can listen not only to the land, but to myself, and thus enter a state of wildness where some wonderful sort of benediction occurs through the action of walking. A simultaneous falling and being caught; a falling in love.
I couldn’t help asking myself though how that idea applies to the world of education, and having been an educator? How does the right to roam apply to the field upon which youthful minds and individual genius is drawn out, and unfolds? Where new states of relationship occur and inform the world of possible new states of being born out of our wildness. Do we aspire towards that freedom, or do we demand and insure the following of prescribed and narrow pathways?
The answer I find is easily found by listening carefully to what each landscape stands in readiness to impart if we are inwardly able to hear its call. It then becomes our adventure for, and to, the day.

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Walking the Coastal Path: Day 2


Day two found us walking a 14 mile stretch from Porlock to Lynton ; a nice gradual increase in our daily milage where we often found ourselves appreciating the fact that we had been walking and conditioning for months now in preparation for this walk. Yet more important than physical preparation and conditioning has been the mental preparation, and that becomes more than just a daily slot of time being devoted as it is truly a moment to moment awareness of where we find inwardly. Paying attention to the call to adventure requires a certain mental diligence, and its cultivation, what Thoreau referred to as “self culture”, requires elements of patience and time. Something not easily secured in our rather harried day!
In his essay on Walking Thoreau tells us that “the Highest we can attain to is not Knowledge, but Sympathy with Intelligence”. Earlier in the same essay he says “I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit. In my afternoon walk I would fain forget all my morning occupations and my obligations to society. But it sometimes happens that I cannot easily shake off the village. The thought of some work will run in my head and I am not where my body is, I am out of my senses. In my walks I would return to my senses.”. 

Thoreau certainly harbors the wish to return to his senses in order that he may truly saunter toward the “Holy lands” in even the shortest of walks. And he clearly states that the requisite capital necessary for the LongWalker getting there are leisure, freedom, and independence. Hard to accomplish no doubt when you can’t shake off the “village”, or the multitude of thoughts, concerns and worries, that tend to plague our heads today!

Thoreau’s statement that sympathy with intelligence, not Knowledge, is our highest accomplishment is an immensely interesting one! It’s one of those great trail signs at a crossroad along the trail worth our deepest attention. A real “way finder’ statement, or track, that he deposits along the way for our ruminator benefit.   The connection between the two comments here, that of sympathy with intelligence and returning to our senses, has deep connective relevance to “heart intelligence” , and how in contrast, compulsory education is consumed and dominated by the need to fill the head with knowledge.
As for the training of thought (an art in itself), how is this different from merely dispensing knowledge? Where mere description serves well enough perhaps!  What comes to mind is the old proverb about feeding a man a fish, thus feeding him for the moment, or teaching him how to fish, thus feeding him for a lifetime. No amount of fish, no quantity of knowledge will fully satisfy our human appetite to understand. We live in a period of vast accumulation of knowledge, data heaped upon data. We know much, yet understand little!

Actually, learning to think involves an organic process. “Through the wheat fields of our minds we must nourish our souls.” In any other form of nourishment that sustains the organism, a process of digestion is required. We must break things down before building them up again, before making them ours! We hardly question this fact, and indeed, we go to great pains to ensure that physical food is combined, prepared, and served in just the right way. Yet when we come to “food for thought”, our efforts to assist the ‘digestive process’ often lack flair and creativity. No Art! Little recognition is given to the ambiance of the ‘eating establishment”, let alone the time required preparing and then digesting the meal. Thoughts, ideas, and facts are often shoveled onto the plate in factory-like fashion. The fast foods of factdom! In consequence, this style of learning often leads to a kind of mal-nourishment of the mind.  It is stated within numerous fields of academic study that a paradigm shift in our thinking is of paramount importance if we are ever to realize a healthier and more sustainable future; our current modus operandi being unsustainable, as well as environmentally unsound. If a shift in thinking is not accompanied by an awakening within our hearts, or a true sympathy with intelligence, any shift will be as fleeting and unsubstantial as the unconscious stream of thoughts that currently characterizes our level of cultural, and individual, awareness. This shift must extend beyond a mere reconstruction of how we think about conducting our lives, to include a renewed discovery of the feelings lying behind the reasons for living them the way we do.  An awakening of conscience, or true intelligence, that is reflective of what we feel in our hearts, and ultimately determines our course of action. This is the deeper significance of the concept within indigenous cultures called shape shifting It involves a fundamental shift in the inner form of our perceptual landscape, and the recognition that leisure, freedom, and independence are part and parcel of the educational effort to craft an elevated sense of ourselves, and our life journey.


Walking the Southwest Coastal Path

 

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So we’re off on an adventure!
After delayed airline flights, over-heated trains and freezing buses, we made it to our destination of Minehead, Somerset where we pick up the northern start of the 630 mile National Trail called the Southwest  Coast Path. At 64 and 60 years of age respectively, my wife and I don’t exactly fit most definitions of adventurers, but we take quiet issue with all those views and strike out on our quest with high resolve and stubborn determination.
Our journey is in part a celebration of our retirements from careers in formal education, as well as marking our 36th wedding anniversary. More importantly though we wish to reflect upon the nature of adventure itself and address the lack of it as a necessary inclusion within standard educational curriculum planning. Everyone needs an adventure in their lives, and the fact that most have it through vicarious means today is becoming problematic, especially for youth. Much more to come regarding that over the next 45 days of peripatetic rambling though!
Our call to adventure has been something we have payed heed to now for well over eight months, and the most important key for us has centered around the question of attention. Something we are called to by our teachers since we first enter institutional learning, and away from within the very same demand. Travel calls for it continuously, but true adventure requires it as its very cornerstone and why walking, and long walks in particular, is so uniquely promising toward the cultivation of it. But enough of all that for now, we are off and walking.
Day # 1
An easy 10 mile walk from Minehead to Porlock along a stretch of coastline that stood out dramatically to our cloistered senses after miles of mechanical means of travel. An area of outstanding natural beauty where elemental forces meet and form the stage upon which history has unravelled itself, and where we encounter the nature of adventure itself.

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Exmoor National Park’s grandness borders the Bristol Channel and the land & sea commands an attention easy to hold and maintain. Transitioning from one view to another is marked by the simple turn of one’s head where the senses are bathed in the wealth of nature’s bounty.

IMG_6844IMG_6862 The wild ponies of Exmoor remind us of the deeper connections that live here within this landscape as well as within us as well if we are but steadfast in attending to them. Ah, its good to be back to magical Britain where nourishment on multiple levels await us at every point of the journey. IMG_6872

 

Tracking Leopold: The Golden Rule and Ecological Consciousness

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Several modern day injunctions find their roots in the work of Aldo Leopold. Thinking Like A Mountain, which was a natural progression of thought stemming from his fellow Wisconsinite John Muir, is one worth bearing mention, while the other is the Land Ethic; a piece of writing that has become a classic within environmental literature.

The nub of this idea entails the extension of ethics (moral principles governing social behaviors) from the human social realm to include the land, or biota. Seen, in essence, as a limitation upon our freedom of action, Leopold perceived the ‘land ethic’ as an evolutionary possibility and an ecological necessity, and as the only way for the “land to survive the impact of mechanized man.”

I started ruminating once again upon these pearls of wisdom from Leopold when I recently took notice of a work initiative, called The Golden Rule Project, to which two friends from Utah have been dedicating themselves. Bonnie Phillips and Steffan Soule, a professional magician, have been addressing the rising concern of bullying within our schools through a program that links the Golden Rule concept (treating others as you would have them treat you) to magic. Within this brilliant presentation Steffan makes note that while magic involves making the invisible visible, the magical effects of adhering to the Golden Rule begins with, and is dependent upon, our use of attention to drive that process. Something very challenging to conjure these days it appears from all that is heard concerning attention deficit disorder (ADD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Magical things do indeed start to happen in life when payment of attention is made, or brought into our present moment. Who amongst us has not witnessed the wide-eyed wonder of a child when a wee bit of magic calls forth their attention, and wonder, to the moment at hand?

In his landmark essay Leopold astutely relates how the Golden Rule integrates an individual to society, while democracy integrates the social organization to the individual. It would seem to follow then, that as a Land Ethic would hold the possibility of integrating the individual to the land, so too, as potential, would an ecological consciousness obligate individual action to the self-renewing, life sustaining, principles of the land.

Given the assumption that Man and Nature are one, an ecological consciousness would imply the consciousness of oneself co-existing harmoniously with a consciousness of the environment – or the possibility perhaps? Leopold reminds us that “the evolution of a land ethic is an intellectual as well as emotional process”, and that, “by and large our present problem is one of attitudes and implements.”  (“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”)

It’s our behavior that we need to watch and become aware of then. And if, for the sake of understanding the condition of our existence, we think of consciousness analogously to the electromagnetic spectrum (and the narrow band of visible light whereby we witness the phenomenal world to the stage of development where we become aware of the need to understand ourselves, as well as the world in which we live), we could easily say that we truly need to see the light!

In his day (1949), Leopold recognized that there was of yet no recognition of obligation to the land beyond self-interest (economic interests). Can we say that things have improved any during these past 70 years? I think, in respect to scale, the problems we face today may be much worse, thus demanding even greater levels of attention.

Leopold reminds us that “obligations have no meaning without conscience”, which cannot be merely a government oversight task. It must exist within the individual as something we can “see, feel, understand, love, and have faith in.” To this end Leopold utilizes the image of the biotic pyramid, with each successive layer, or tier, in the pyramid dependent upon the tier below for food, and each species within each layer being alike by what they eat (food chains). Leopold interestingly considers that man shares an intermediate layer, along with bears, raccoons, and squirrels, leaving a key question unasked by Leopold in his essay, which is, assuming we do not sit upon the pinnacle, what feeds upon Man?

Leopold believes that the ‘balance of nature’ image fails to serve our thinking, with the biotic pyramid being better employed, where each layer or level within the pyramid is best imaged, not by any inherent form, but by what an organism eats. “Each species, including ourselves, is a link in many chains.” A very potent thought to entertain, andleopold which brings me to a remembrance of the Thanksgiving Prayer of the Haudenosaunee people, and an image of prayers and wishes of wholeness serving as nourishment (food) for Ecological Consciousness. A Native American waymark spiriting us in the direction of greater attentiveness toward the creation, and the “words to be spoken before all else” are of human thanks and gratitude. A seemingly upside down image as, in our current culture, thanks is usually given after one receives a gift – not before, and unfortunately, often not at all.

Leopold tells us that “the velocity and character of the upward flow of energy (within this pyramid system) depend on the complex structure of the plant and animal community, much like the upward flow of sap in a tree depends on its complex cellular organization”, and that the energy circuit moves both ways; all pointing to an up & down ladder of phenomena where feedback loops point toward a dance of reciprocal maintenance as the main plot of the cosmic story.

Leopold perceives that our most serious obstacle to an evolving land ethic is that we have no vital relationship to it. Unfortunately, he says, we have “outgrown it”, while at the same time pondering if our educational system has become “a process of trading awareness for things of lesser worth?” When he sadly proclaims that “our educational and economic system is headed away from, rather than toward, an intense consciousness of land”, I begin to realize why we need to get out onto the land and experience it. For this reason, the act of walking, as an actual interfacing with the land, is an act of participation; participatory involvement with the processes that give shape, as well as meaning, to our experience within the land. If we take on the guise of Thoreau’s “walker” (as caste and/or order of being), or what I would equate with the “tracker” (and the tracker’s mind) we might be so graced to gain a glimpse of this dance called reciprocal maintenance.

If it does become a problem of attitude, and that we truly are in need of a more objective view of land health, it requires a new way of seeing the world, or a new vantage point on our part. Thinking more like a mountain perhaps serves as a good analogy, where, as Leopold so aptly reminds us, “a land ethic, then, reflects the existence of an ecological consciousness, and this in turn reflects a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of the land”. Health is the capacity of the land for self-renewal.” The human recognition of the obligatory need to understand the laws involved with maintaining such health is tracking; the tracker’s mind which we must invoke in order for the obligation to be worth striving for. A process where the invisible becomes increasingly more visible, and the sense of wonder opens us to following a very different track from that which characterizes our ecological footprint today. Following that track could bring me back to myself, or perhaps a re-membering of who we are, or who we truly could be.

The Land as community is a basic concept of ecology. Perhaps, as Leopold reminds us, “such a shift of values can be achieved by reappraising things unnatural, tame, and confined in terms of things natural, wild, and free.” The journey of getting to that very different vantage point of experiencing the truth of this obligatory striving toward the Golden Rule is a longwalk worth undertaking. Journeys where we too may start thinking like a mountain.

The Biotic View

Walking West With Thoreau

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230px-Henry_David_ThoreauMetaphor plays an important part in education, communication, and day-to-day life.

Metaphor is often used to help make a connection in our ability to conceptualize an idea; to help forge the relationship between our inner and outer world experiences – a bridge of sorts. Though prevalent in communication, we may often not use them in our own language, yet they can actually shape how we perceive and act in accordance with them. So, as I was out walking this morning, I started to think about walking and if it stands as any sort of metaphor, and if I too perceive and act in accordance with the meaning behind my conceptual concept of walking?

We often see the “journey” being used as a metaphor for life (Dante’s, the Odyssey for example), yet the walking metaphor is so common that it is easy to stop noticing it and so pervasive that it is easy to forget, especially since we have moved from a pedestrian society to a highly mobile one. Yet stock phrases such as: One step at a time; walking in circles; walk the talk; uphill battle; moving forward; looking ahead; falling behind, walking the walk; navigating the peaks and valleys; stuck in a rut; finding balance, keeping the pace; it’s all downhill from here. These common words are all part of everyday speech, and do contain walking as a metaphor.

The question relative to meaning, or any of the perceived wisdom gained, or action accorded to and through walking, brought Thoreau’s essay Walking to mind. If a metaphor is a way of communicating meaning through analogy, comparison, symbol – or better yet, a “word-painting/picture” – this essay on walking sees and recognizes the act of walking as a real transformative experience. It is hard for us to capture the transformative nature of the walking experience, so Thoreau resorts to the use of metaphor to help us. But one must always recognize that when reading Thoreau he usually buries the “bone” deep, and that his transcendental writings need to be taken in at a transcendental level if they are to serve the purpose of transforming – Two Fish on One Hook as Raymond Tripp would say.

Thoreau is always going to take you on a journey, and he’s going to make you “walk” that journey upon your own two feet (head & heart). Thoreau was not one to water down any truths, so he works to buoy up the reader in his writings instead, and Walking (for me) is a lasting testimony to why walking is an act of communication of the highest order. A gentle reminder, or way mark upon the proverbial path, that this seemingly simple human act of walking contains a wealth of possibility in these rather dangerously sedentary, virtual times. An opening into a new (old) paradigm that may change the very way we think and act.

First off, Thoreau posits walking as an Art. His opening words on the subject being “I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understand the Art of Walking, that is, of taking walks“, and that this “Art” is a reflection of genius. There’s the metaphor, Walking as Art, and requiring true genius to comprehend the beauty of the practice. The transcendental element, or human inner state achievable, is made clear by Thoreau’s emphasis on the status of being a true walker as coming as a “direct dispensation from heaven“, and that “no wealth can buy the requisite leisure, freedom, and independence that are the capital in this profession.” One must be “born” – or recreated – into the family of Walkers. Second, if Thoreau’s essay on Walking is indeed a “way mark” or “signpost”, where or what is the sign pointing us toward? What is the metaphor serving as a bridge to?

Well, “West” is Thoreau’s clear, resounding (another) metaphorical answer. Thoreau says he usually goes to the woods and fields in his walks, as there is a subtle magnetism within nature that will “guide” him, and us, right. Nature is not indifferent to the way we walk though, as there is a “right way“, and “we are very liable from heedlessness and stupidity to take the wrong one.” (Perhaps the “electronic disconnect” path we’ve followed cited by Richard Louv with his coining of the term NDD, Nature Deficit Disorder).

Thoreau usually heads “west” in his walks, which for him means the future, and any attachment to the past, or influences that might bias his ability to perceive the moment at hand. At the start of any walk he admonishes each of us to “go forth with a sense of undying adventure, never to return“, and that if we are thus truly “free”, than we are ready for a walk. “In any weather, at any hour of the day or night“, Thoreau was anxious to “improve the nick of time“, and “to stand on the meeting of two eternities, the past and future, which is precisely the present moment.” That was the line he wished to toe. And to do that was to truly affect the order of the day – the highest of all arts!

To affect the order of our day, or to affect the order of someone’s day, is what the metaphor points us toward; serves as a bridge to. Walking, in my most humble opinion, both as a human activity and conceptual metaphor, deserves our greatest attention, and our most active imaginations. Thoreau’s essay upon the Art of Walking is perhaps even more pertinent to our times than it was to his. Thoreau likewise equates the “west“, that inner/outer state of awareness, and being present to the moment, as the “wild” – “the West of which I speak is but another name for the Wild“. It was his walks in nature where “the tonics and barks which brace mankind” came from. And thus, what then follows ultimately are Thoreau’s timeless, and most quoted, words of “In Wildness is the preservation of the World“.

So that also means the preservation of us too. Walking, and re-learning the Art of Walking, may very well be the tonic that braces us in these rather troublesome times. Thoreau’s use of Walking as a conceptual metaphor lends greater insight, for me, into why Hazlitt, In On Going A Journey states that walking alone enables the capacity to experience the soul of the walking journey as “liberty, perfect liberty, to think, feel do, just as one pleases“, and to bridge over to where the experience was of “that undisturbed silence of the heart which alone is perfect eloquence.”
To take a walk is to elevate the human condition; whether Thoreau’s sense of the Wild within each and every one of us, or the heightened state Wordsworth often referred to as a “Spot of Time”, to obtain moments of undisturbed silence of the heart is a worthy goal of all our rambling adventures, and well worth our time and attention as the preeminent human activity.To take a walk (inwards as well as outwards) is to elevate the human condition; whether Thoreau’s sense of the Wild within each and every one of us, or the heightened state Wordsworth often referred to as a “Spot of Time”, to obtain moments of undisturbed silence of the heart is a worthy goal of all our rambling adventures, and well worth our time and attention as the preeminent human activity.

A Spot of Time

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Hawkshead, Lake District,UK

The youthful William Wordsworth, the great English Lake Poet of the Romantic Era, was often uncomfortable with the prescribed notions regarding vocational pursuits coming from relatives, friends, and his cultural times.  He sensed himself  as a “dedicated spirit” toward something grander. He did worry about worldly maintenance of course, but from an early point in time, growing up in the Lake District of Cumbria, he was likewise conscious of a “strangeness in his mind” which was accompanied by a feeling that he was “not for that hour” and “not for that place”. He sensed that he was indeed a “chosen son” for some higher, yet unknown, calling. This moment of perceptive thought/feeling/sensation would come to him mostly while in natural surroundings, and while alone with the particular moment in time. Wordsworth called these moments a “spot of time”, where he also apparently would have “visions”, affecting him in such a way where he produced some of his, and the worlds,  greatest poetry.

As an Educator I often wonder if students today ever have their own “spots of time”, where they too may be blessed with such a vision? As a longwalker, I know that the walk becomes an entry point into real experience, where the engagement of the mind and heart rises within, and is accompanied by a power of imagination that ultimately shapes our relationship to the moment. The spirit of place, as the Lake Poets discovered, likewise gives rise to a sense of self-spirit, which the Romantic Movement poets aimed at capturing as their minds experienced  this expansiveness while out in great nature. Interior spaces stifled the mind of Wordsworth, and it is why he composed his poetry mostly while engaged in his long walks!

For many of the Romantic Poets, Romanticism was a reaction to the controlling elements upon the mind coming from modern life, and the perception that the fate of liberty resided in the mind more so than in the world of political intrigues. For William Blake, the moment of mental freedom and visionary powers, game through the foot. Real liberty resided in the mind itself. Or, as the freedom of a walk brought about the desired release without – so one’s mind was released within.

During the summer of 1790 Wordsworth, and his friend Robert Jones, undertook a longwalk of over 3,000 miles through France and Switzerland. This tour henceforth not only became the archetype of all romantic wanderings, but it was a paradigm shifting, clandestine act of disobedience for Wordsworth as well. After two years at Cambridge he was becoming disillusioned with the school’s institutional focus, its values, and its inner corruption. Seen by his family benefactors, his tardiness and delinquency toward his studies at Cambridge, and this break from the traditional forms of behavior, was viewed as foolhardy. However, this walk was a three-month “spot of time” experience for Wordsworth which was central to his development as a poet, and his emerging genius as an artist.This “spot of time” was a newer version of the standard practice of doing the “Grand Tour”, which was a common practice and standard item in the education of wealthy young men for over a century in England. The elite “gentleman” youth of the time would round out their education by taking a tour of what was considered the major centers of culture (Paris, Rome, Venice), and would usually be conducted by carriage and plush lodgings. Wordsworth and Jones went by foot, skipping the cultural centers all together, and opening themselves up to the magic of the land.

Do youth have these celebratory adventures today? A “spot of time” detour from the harried nature of the “prescribed” byways and pathways to sure success?

Not many I believe.

But I did; and longwalking was my cure! So I propose that a new 21st century, rounding out, archetypal educational experience become the LongWalk. A true “spot in time” experience for today’s youth who may likewise sense a constriction of the mind within these highly controlled times. Such an experience could indeed become the same out of the box, paradigm shifting, adventure that Wordsworth’s 1790 3,000 mile tour of France and Switzerland was for him; opening today’s youth up to the discovery of their own potential, greatness, and genius. From an educational perspective, this would become what I often refer to as a “metabolic moment” relative to the heart and mind. Biologically, the metabolic moment of digestion is when food, broken down to its simplest building blocks, makes the transition from our intestinal track (still technically outside of our bodies), across the wall of the duodenum, and into our venous blood supply, where it can now be incorporated into our body, and given “our” unique identity. The world, which we have taken into ourselves through a process of digestion, then truly becomes us! Given that a wise man, or woman, once said, “through the wheat fields of our minds we will nourish our souls”, I relate true educational experience to those moments when young hearts and minds can take into themselves truly nourishing events – or spots of time – that serve them upon their own life journeys. Real moments where they can do their own thinking, and be at liberty to bring meaning and value to their own lives.

This is the essence and therapeutic value of the longwalk. Jean-Jacques Rousseau proposed that at the core of our being lies a special feeling that he dubbed the “sentiment of existence”; Wordsworth found the magic of that feeling in his “spot of time” experiences that opened up his powers of imagination to great visionary power, shaping his times like few before or after have done in such a revolutionary way. All youth should sense that they too are chosen sons & daughters within these pivotal times. Their sentiments regarding existence should be just as special, and full of the promise which all young hearts and souls yearn for. Dedicated spirits to a far greater vision of the future than what is often the “senseless” standard fare of our times.

Do a long walk I then say – its spot on!

The Solitary Walk

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person-walking-in-the-desert Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the Genevan philosopher, writer, and composer of 18th-century Romanticism, best celebrates the solitary walker within the literature of perambulation. His political philosophy influenced the French Revolution as well as the overall development of modern political, sociological and educational thought, yet for our purpose he extols the virtues of walking alone. His book Reveries of a Solitary Walker, composed in later life (1776-1778) was an autobiographical work that reflected the late 18th-century movement known as the Age of Sensibility, featuring an increasing focus on subjectivity and introspection, and amply demonstrates the benefits derived from taking solitary walks.

Although other writers within the genre of walking literature have extolled these virtues of solitary walking as well (such as William Hazlitt, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Henry David Thoreau), it was Rousseau who appears to lend the practice its clearest voice. A somewhat bitter and ostracized social commentator toward his later years, Rousseau utilizes walking as a therapeutic and pleasurable means toward conversing with his soul, as it was the only pleasure that his fellow-men could not take away from him (Walk #1). His claim that he could meditate only while walking, as his mind only appeared to work when his feet were engaged too, gives heed to the belief that musing and movement go hand in hand! He likewise discovers in his numerous walks that following the maxim to Know Thyself, inscribed on the temple walls of Delphi, were not as easy as he had originally imagined. It required serious work with a clear focused intent, yet he states that “these hours of solitude and meditation are the only time of the day when I am completely myself, without distraction or hindrance, and when I can truly say that I am what nature intended me to be.”

William Hazlitt (1778-1830; an English writer, humanist and philosopher) in his essay On Going A Journey says he is never less alone than when alone, as when out-of-doors he has the world of nature for company! Like Rousseau though, his feeling is that the soul of any journey is liberty, and perfect freedom, to think, feel, and do, just as one pleases! Only then, within that undisturbed silence of the heart, will perfect eloquence be found. Others, as company (for him), become distractions, and, as he rightly asserts, he never argues with himself!

There is one occasion though where Hazlitt feels it is a boon to have a companion while out walking, and that is at day’s end when one is to take a meal  –  “I grant,” he says “there is one subject on which it is pleasant to talk on a journey; and that is, what one shall have for supper when we get to our inn at night. The open air improves this sort of conversation or friendly altercation, by setting a keener edge on appetite.” I would most heartily agree with this sentiment!

Robert Louis Stephenson, in his Walking Tours, likewise claims that a walk should be undertaken alone. “Freedom is of the essence” he says, “because you should be able to stop and go on, and follow this way or that, as the freak takes you; and because you must have your own pace, and neither trot alongside a champion walker, nor mince in time with a girl. And then you must be open to all impressions, and let your thoughts take color from what you see.”

Left to one’s own company, Stephenson claims we can find ourselves doing “happy thinking”. He says “we are all so busy, and have so many far-off projects to realize, and castles in the fire to turn into solid habitable mansions on a gravel soil, that we can find no time for pleasure trips into the Land of Thought…… to make our voice audible a moment in the derisive silence of eternity, that we forget that one thing, of which these are but the parts – namely to live.”

If these hours of solitude and meditation are the only time of the day when one can completely be themselves, without distraction or hindrance, and when one can truly say that they are what nature intended them to be, my question then becomes – when do we today find these moments? If we find these moments.

Assuming that if the esteemed authors quoted, during the 18th and 19th centuries, found it difficult, what can it be like today when our modern world tends to pollute our atmospheres with every sort of distraction?

Is it even possible for us to think our own thoughts today?

Walking becomes a form of meditation then for those who take to the “Open Road” in this more subjective, introspective way. The solitary walker, and taking walks alone, is an excellent means toward achieving health. Dietary health being not only what we nourish ourselves physically by, but also with what we nourish our souls. It is often stated that “through the wheat-fields of our minds we will nourish our souls”, and I can think of no better way to gain this life-giving principle than by taking a walk within the world of nature. Walking brings us back into relationship with the environment, creating a human scale where a sense of distance, perspective, and time is regained. We actually do come to our senses again!

As the great American poet Walt Whitman so aptly stated it in his poem The Open Road:

Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road, Healthy, free, the world before me, the long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.

Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good fortune, Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing, Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms, Strong and content I travel the open road.”                        

Imagine; to think, feel, and be healthy and free with the world before you – a requisite dietary need for all of us at some point along the “open road” of discovering our unique genius and calling within the world. Only then, within that undisturbed silence of the heart, will we discover what nature intended us to be.”

Worth some attention.