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.

Doorway To The Heart, Territory Of The Soul

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I was the traveller and sojourner that day, and it was through this doorway that the myths and stories of childhood came to life, and to live in a young man’s heart. It was magical, mysterious, and one of many stops along the South-West Peninsular Coast Path in Southwestern England.

For many weeks the promise of Arthur, Merlin, and all the mysteries of the Grail held mighty sway over me as I worked my way from the trails beginnings north along the rugged coast. Images and dreams graced my sleep as I bedded down night after night along the rocky coastline, and few, if any, of them were shattered by the reality of finally stepping onto the rocky crag called Tintagel Castle.

It was during one of the many LongWalks undertaken in my youth. I was not only discovering the history, myths, legends, and the people of the places being sauntered through on these journeys, but I was likewise discovering a great deal about myself.

The cultivation of a sense of place always goes hand in hand with cultivating a sense of self; a marvelous resonance between reciprocating landscapes! It was a true initiation, a rite-of-passage through the doorway of my heart into the landscape of my soul. Sweeter still was when a recent alum of our school, and a very close student/friend of mine, just returned from doing a GAP year experience and I asked her what the greatest benefit of taking such a time for herself was. Her immediate and unequivocal response, confirming this realization, was that of self-confidence and that of the world itself being one’s best classroom.

It has been said that initiation is the psyche’s response to mystery, great difficulties, and opportunities, so it would appear that initiation is something very important to our inner life and being. Or it should be! Initiation from the Latin, initium: entrance or beginning, literally meaning a going in. And, given that life is truly filled with mystery, great difficulties, and opportunity, you would anticipate that our educational institutions would hold and have initiation as one of its key experiences

Should this be education’s true “service” to the greater community?

A speech given a few years back to the graduating class at the University of Pennsylvania by Nipun Mehta really sums it up most beautifully with the acronym W-A-L-K. In his speech (Paths Are Made By Walking) he advises the graduates with the following:

“Right now each one of you is sitting on the runway of life primed for takeoff. You are some of the world’s most gifted, elite, and driven college graduates – and you are undeniably ready to fly.  So what I’m about to say next may sound a bit crazy.  I want to urge you, not to fly, but to – walk.

Four years ago, you walked into this marvelous laboratory of higher learning. Today, heads held high, you walk to receive your diplomas.  Tomorrow, you will walk into a world of infinite possibilities.

But walking, in our high-speed world, has unfortunately fallen out of favor.  The word “pedestrian” itself is used to describe something ordinary and commonplace.  Yet, walking with intention has deep roots.  Australia’s aboriginal youth go on walkabouts as a rite of passage; Native American tribes conduct vision quests in the wilderness; in Europe, for centuries, people have walked the Camino de Santiago, which spans the breadth of Spain.  Such pilgrims place one foot firmly in front of the other, to fall in step with the rhythms of the universe and the cadence of their own hearts.”

W stands for witness, A stands for accept, L stands for love, and K stand for know thyself.

We have to learn how to be aware and in tune to what we are passing through, and to be attentive in the moment while learning, to accept that which presents itself to us. We also need to return to our natural state, which is to love, and to truly come to know who we really are. Walking slows one down to a point where one sees much more of the world, which enables us to digest and accept it more readily. The ability to observe nature creates a reciprocal perception of the doorway into our own heart, and into the territory of our souls. Learning how to take a real Walk in the way that Mehta suggests, and in how Thoreau likewise suggests in his classic essay called Walking, may just be one of the most important skills acquired during our formative years! Follow the link above to read the whole speech as it’s well worth the time.

LongWalking is a most valuable rite-of-passage for youth, and a most appropriate one for our times as we are truly traveling at the high-speed of thoughtlessness. To be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society that is rootless, powerless, ruthless, and futureless is not a legacy befitting the many youthful hearts yearning to discover the lost territory of the soul. The ability to witness, accept, love, and know thy self should be standards of educational endeavor, and should have a greater focus and weight than GPA’s and SAT scores. While these may assist in getting a job, they will hardly factor into obtaining a life worth living richly, and lovingly!

Walking and the Wild

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                                       “It is a great art to saunter”

                                                Thoreau (Journal; April 26th, 1841)

Thoreau’s essay Walking was originally titled Walking and the Wild and it offers one of the best insights into Thoreau’s inseparable relation between walking and thinking. For Thoreau the act of walking was the art of walking, and an art that few in his time fully understood. Thoreau likewise equated walking with wildness and freedom;”In wildness is the preservation of the world“, and “Life consists with wildness“, giving emphasis to that which is wildest being likewise the most alive! He also reminds and instructs by saying we should, like the camel, ruminate while we walk.

It will do us good service to place some of these ruminations by Thoreau into a broader context of his times, and specifically to the questions concerning modes of transport. We must remember that America was a continent discovered by foot. Early explorations certainly utilized rivers as major arteries of travel, however the foot reigned supreme for all true exploratory rambles into the adjoining wilds in early American settlement. Consider such intrepid figures as a Daniel Boone or Lewis and Clark as prime examples. It wasn’t until much later in our collective story that we see the encroachment of the railroad, and our nation moving from being a pedestrian culture to a riding culture. Perhaps the very first intrusive inroad into the art of walking was from the horse, but by the 19th century the rails were running supreme, and the rest of the story up to and including the present is certainly filled by the automobile.

In a very real way, just like the Spanish introduction of the horse drove the walking Native American from the open plains, modern forms of transport have driven the walker into the confines of domestic movement and subjugated open space into a homogenized landscape transcribed by commuters. The walker has become a very poor relation, and we have witnessed a cultural metamorphosis from a walking, riding, driving, to a sitting society. And even the spaces we pass through today are now virtual hybrids of that once homogenized and pasteurized landscape that was once the wild. Walking alas has been reduced to sport, and we exist predominantly as absentee spectators even there within that realm!

But this is not a time to bemoan the loss of the wild for it has always been there, and it always will. Great awareness, and mobilization, has been gathered on this front since the dawning of the environmental movement in the 60’s and I, like Thoreau, have faith in that ‘seed’. But in regards to thought, and thinking in general, I have huge concern!

Emerson philosophized that “civilized man has built a coach, but he has lost the use of his feet“, and wondered what effect the emerging sedentary society would have upon our collective thought process. Thoreau put that thought into action by actively exploring and perambulating the world through the backyards of Concord, and rediscovering the transcendent connection between walking and thinking. For Thoreau, the whistle of the train became synonymous with the sounds of commerce and speed and signaled our capacity to think being sacrificed at the altar of mass modern efficiency. Walking opened Thoreau to the ‘west‘, which was his hoped for American response to the decay associated with the urban industrial reduction of life and living to the machinery of profit in the pursuit of happiness. Walking to the west was the opening to the wild, which was likewise a transcendent journey into the far distant world of values than those reflected by the thinking of his day.

For Thoreau the most alive and free was the wildest, and the surest means for preserving ourselves, and the world in which we live. Life at 3 miles per hour may seem like a simple panacea for our times, but I would suggest that a walk may well be the surest way into an emerging new paradigm for our times. The longest journey begins with the first step and we have never been in such need of new direction. And it will provide the time and space for listening to our very own thoughts!

In the biblical sense of the word, to sin was ‘to miss the mark‘, and repentance meant to ‘have a change of mind‘. It is time for a walk – and a long one at that! The times require new thoughts, more wildness, and true freedom too not only hear, but to walk to the beat of a different drummer!

The Attentiveness Of Walking

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“You must walk like a camel, which is said to be the only beast which ruminates while walking.”

                             Thoreau (Journal, October 31st, 1850)

It’s something we hear, and are told, often. Right from the start, and right out of the gaits, we’re told to pay attention. From day one at school, until we walk out the doors of our academic institutions, we’re held by this question, command, or directive. Pay attention!

It could be the secret key that opens many “doors” in life; if, that is, we are looking for such openings.

It’s just isn’t with school though where we confront these simple and wise words, it’s within all phases, activities, and engagements throughout life. I almost think these words determine our world at times. Or at least to the point where just about everyone is vying for that attention. I mean, think of advertising as one small example; you might not be hearing those exact words, but it is the main point to all advertising. Yes?

Maybe we don’t think about it really? Or perhaps we only think about it when folks talk about its absence, like with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) or Attention Hyperactivity Deficit Disorder (ADHD), but many don’t understand what these things mean anyway. The words themselves are something of a mystery to us, and our connection or relationship to them is mere word recognition. Or worse, as when that relationship becomes a matter of pharmaceutical remediation, which is at best just a more enticing form of seduction, and far from being a “cure” for the lack of, or diminishment of, human attentiveness.

If we were to go into a “tracking” mode of mind we’d maybe first find that the most common definition of the word attention (at least in the field of psychology) is “the enhancement of selected sensory information”. But, as Laura Sewall (in her book Sight and Sensibility) reminds us so nicely, paying attention is not something we usually do, but something that happens to us when we will it. It is an inherent human power, usually seduced, and very much in need of cultivation. William James (American psychologist and philosopher; January, 1842 – August, 1910) described attention as the mind “taking possession”, yet I believe, unfortunately, that we’re living in a day when it’s our minds that are being possessed, and not necessarily by our will, or volition.

And it’s here where I would happily remind and point out that a walk is something that we humans do, and doesn’t just happen to us (normally), and that the mind truly must take possession of its workings or else we wind up being terribly lost. The intent to walk somewhere brings about a certain level of mindful attention even at the most rudimentary level, and if one is following a way-marked path, then the keen awareness of “sign” that so readily aids and abets successful walking is a result of selected attention and the power of will in choosing to “pay” attention. How many of you have experienced the exhaustion of navigating along a sparsely marked or unmarked way, even when the demand upon physical exertion was rather slight? It becomes such a vibrant reminder of what a high level of energies are truly involved, and being drawn out of us, when we will such attentiveness, and what a diminishment of life it is in contrast when so many of us find contentment in the plethora of navigational aid devices that guide us to where we wish to go these days. A true, and full, relinquishment of human potential I fear.

A walk can become an adventure that stirs our imaginations and ignites the fires of creativity to enliven us, resulting often in many an evening around the hearth fire with stories rife with spellbinding power. All mind you, a direct result of an alignment of our looking with thinking – a connection of matter with mind, where inner and outer landscapes are harmonized and attuned to the experience of the moment; a true human participatory involvement, or relationship, with the world powered by the seemingly simple act of paying attention. Even with the simplest of walking engagements we find that the practice of taking walks, as a daily humanizing opportunity, unfetters the mind from the rather mindless habits introduced (unleashed) upon us from the symphonic distractions emanating out of our modern world. Why then are we not doing more of this then?

Richard Louv coined the term Nature Deficit Disorder (NDD) in his groundbreaking book Last Child in the Woods, and it may yet be born out that a daily dose of nature is a far better remedy to realigning our capacity to pay attention, of attuning and harmonizing our inner and outer worlds of experience, and bringing us back to the foundation stone realization of what it means to be in relationship. Going for a walk is a choice of action that propels us into an engagement with the world as opposed to one where we are mere spectators of it. Noted Tracker and Author Paul Rezendes says “attention is care”, where consciously placing one foot before the other may well be our full first step toward bringing us back into a relationship with the natural world, and with ourselves. The power of attention, derived from the Latin word meaning to stretch, could reclaim its birthright as the enabler of true vision, where we may yet remember the simplicity of those prophetic words heard since childhood – pay attention. What a great stretch and stride forward that would be!

And, what then is the gift we are given to begin such an enriching journey? Walking.

Pay attention to that call of taking daily walks; it’s life’s invitation to a healthier engagement and participation in the human journey. It is, from the day we evolved into a bipedal gait, what we were truly born to do.

So let us cultivate our power of attention in order to cultivate a greater vision, and a greater sense for what it truly means to be participating in, and engaged with, the human journey by taking a walk. It is a very simple choice, and we need to pay attention to it. Just do it, and make that first step which is always the beginning of every adventurous journey.

Walking as Art

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Metaphor plays an important part in education and communication. It’s 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. An example (from George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s work, Metaphors We Live By) might be “argument is war”, where we might often hear someone stating “I won that argument” or “I attacked every weak point in her argument”; hence the words used and heard may not include “war”, but the thoughts regarding argument are shaped by the metaphor where arguments are conceived as battles needing to be won!

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, 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, 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! 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 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.

Why I Walk

The winters can be long and hard here in New England. More snow, and more snow later into the year, than one would ever wish for at times. Perhaps the contemplative question of “why I walk” is born out of a springtime surge from within that isn’t being met by its outward counterpart? My gut sense though is that there is a twofold reason; 1) because it’s a great question to be asking , and 2) because I think it’s always good to return often to such primary considerations and re-mind myself (as a devoted walker) why!

So why do I? What is the aim?

Well, the bottom line is for recreation. Pretty simple. Can’t get to a more primary root cause than that I suspect, but not for what we often take recreation to mean – as in being entertained or keeping myself amused. It truly has to do with the re-creation of myself (from recreare ‘create again, renew.’), and to re-member and re-mind myself about what this human journey is for. Walking then becomes a fundamental need from my pedestrian perspective. And there aren’t, or doesn’t need to be, any grand cosmic answers or retorts to the question beyond that (for me). Being mindful of, and remembering that the work of renewing and recreating myself is serious business, walking then becomes a serious business. And, as walking is the archetypal way and means for us to undertake this human journey, it then becomes a highly significant action. And it isn’t about any ultimate destination either, for it’s the journey that matters. And, as with all significant questions, it’s putting the quest back into the question that helps with the re-membering and re-minding.

For me, the question of why, while being simultaneous and consistent to the nature of the quest in regards to the act of walking, often evokes  elements of Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival where the importance of asking the right, or timely, question becomes key to this pondering of recreation, and the real work of re-creating oneself. For those who recall the story, the question that Parzival failed to ask the Fisher King was “what ails thee”, and thus failing to heal the King, enter the Grail castle, and completing the Grail Quest. Interesting to note as well that the Fisher King always appears wounded in the legs or groin, and is incapable of movement (walking). While injured, the King’s kingdom suffers as he does, as his impotence likewise affects the fertility of the land, reducing it to a barren wasteland. (Imagine and ponder that one all you hearty “right-to-roam” walkers out there) So there you have it; a dam important question (Why I Walk) that’s connected to the all important nature of re-creating oneself. And somewhere along my daily quest I often bump into that question of “what ails thee?”. A bit like having to know direction, and realizing when you’re lost when out on a ramble. Or a fundamental daily reconnoitering of where we’re at, and where we’re going, that’s as basic as our morning ablutions.

Likewise, as an educator (who advocates for walking as a crucial component of the adolescent journey), that question of “what ails thee” is ever uppermost in my mind as it follows quite organically on the heals of those first steps when setting out on a walk. It becomes a way of checking in with myself and taking stock of where I’m at in any particular moment! And I re-mind myself often about the importance of these ruminations relative to the journeys that our youth are embarking  upon; their quest being the concern that I must hold relative to my role as educator (which means to draw out and not place in). So what bothers me about what I see today? What is it that ails youth today? They’re not walking, they’re “watching”! We have become a spectator society today, where the world has become something we gaze at (as with the virtual world of the media screen), and not something we enter into or are part of. The dimension of closeness and distance (depth) takes place when we are included within the landscape of our perception, and I believe we are currently witnessing the extinction of experience as a consequence of our spectator-epistemology. That not only creates a suffering that becomes a form of loneliness, but it likewise invokes a loss of personal depth from being out of relationship with the world.

Walking then becomes the superlative antidote to this rather disturbing conundrum, and a true “wonder tonic” that even the pharmaceutical entrepreneurs can’t duplicate into a bottle! James Hillman (Re-visioning Psychology) claims we see what our ideas let us see, and had great concern over the way much of what we perceive is being shaped by the ongoing experience of our our industrialized culture. He, along with many others who ponder such contemporary straights, has come to see our spectator industrial reality as such a significant creative force that it has almost become a developmental and evolutionary co-creative force in our personal and collective stories. There are many who consequently fear that we are essentially living in our own minds and essentially “co-evolving with ourselves in a weird kind of intraspecies incest.” Father Thomas Berry calls us the “autistic generation”; a result of psychic numbing so prevalent and insidious that it becomes the principle defense against this overwhelming assault upon our sensory capabilities! Walking calls forth and enables all our senses, and comes closest, for me, to an experiential event that resonates fully with what it means to be human. David Abram, in his Spell of the Sensuous, tells us that perception is not merely a cerebral event but a direct and reciprocal exchange between us and the world – that it is a participatory act!  Vision, what may well be the most synaesthetic of all the senses (the sense most thoroughly infiltrated and altered by the participation of the other senses) includes listening, touching and feeling, and tasting. When that mindful, attentive part of me, which is fully engaged in my sensory capacities, resonates with an inner attentiveness to the creative journey, I am whole – recreated and mindful of the richness of my experience.

It’s a moment, and experience, that I believe Wordsworth referred to as “a spot of time”, and the direct result of the participatory engagement with the world. Empedocles postulated that Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, created the eye, and that his theory of vision was that, for it to occur, it required a correspondence between the intraocular fire and the external fire (light) . Sight (and real insight) required resonance, a vibratory relationship between the seer and the seen. What comes close perhaps to the Sufi “Eye of the heart” which implies a “seeing” relative to the inner realm, the place of the eye, inside. Or, perhaps even more in keeping with the “Beauty Way” of the Dina (Navajo) people of North America, where walking (with beauty perceived above, below, and beside me) is a way of being where we are both engaged and participating in the world. Vision, and human perception, then becomes a form of translation between the inner and outer geography, and we end our sleepy denial of the real world, due to our mindless collusion with the virtual.

Henry David Thoreau referred to us as “sleepwalkers”, claiming that “we know not where we are”! In his monumental essay on Walking, he made his most prophetic statement in that “in wildness was the preservation of the world”, and the wild Thoreau speaks to is the result of the participatory engagement with the world, and ourselves, which comes through the act of walking. I do believe that in wildness is the preservation of the world, and I believe that in walking there will be the preservation of me as well!

And that is why I walk, and why I love it!