Essay: Rambling Men

Essay: Rambling Men: Christian McEwen
Image: Nat Hall

There is a mass of prose-writers, on both sides of the Atlantic, for whom walking has been both subject and inspiration, among them Boswell and Johnson, Walter Scott, Dickens and Carlyle. Those most often quoted belong to the nineteenth century. I think especially of Hazlitt’s essay, “On Going a Journey,” Thoreau’s “Walking,” Emerson’s “Notes on Walking,” and Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Walking Tours.”

The essayist William Hazlitt was inspired to write by meeting Wordsworth and Coleridge at the age of nineteen. He became, in many ways, the obstreperous younger brother of the Romantics, though with more energy and grit and (a favorite word) gusto, than one associates with any of them.  Like Wordsworth, he preferred his own company. For him, nature was companion enough, and the entertainment of his own good brain. “Give me the clear blue sky over my head, and the green turf beneath my feet, a winding road before me, and a three hours’ march till dinner – and then to thinking!” It is clear that his thinking was both frolicsome and fertile; indeed, he describes himself as laughing and running and leaping for joy: a gorgeous picture of middle-aged abandon. But unlike Coleridge, he was unable to speak easily and extemporaneously in such a state, nor did he wish to match phrases with another person. “I can make nothing on the spot,” he wrote. “I must have time to collect myself.”

Thoreau’s walks were clearly undertaken in a very different spirit. Walking for him was not so much a pleasant pastime as a moral imperative. He liked to spend at least four hours of every day out of doors. He had “no walks to throw away on company,” he said. Walking for him had nothing to do with taking exercise.  “[It] is itself the enterprise and adventure of the day.”

“Walking,” written in 1851, is itself a “rambling” essay, and covers lots of interesting ground, beginning with the origin of the word “saunter” (whether derived from those who roamed about the country and asked charity on pretext of going to la Saint Terre, the holy land, or from those who were without a home, and therefore, sans terre).  Thoreau himself preferred the first of these derivations, since for him the holy land was to be found underfoot at any time. Indeed, he cherished the fact that, “Two or three hours’ walking will carry me to as strange a country as I expect ever to see.”

The difficulty now in reading Thoreau’s essay is that it has been so quoted and misquoted over the years as to seem curiously uneven, at one moment packed like pemmican with overly familiar maxims (“In Wildness is the preservation of the World,”  “I believe in the forest and in the meadow, and in the night in which the corn grows.”) and at another startlingly fresh and unfamiliar. I myself was especially drawn by his reference to Gramatica parda, the “tawny grammar” of the out-of-doors, which he felt every child should have a chance to learn. But orderly as he was in his own excursions (carrying an old music-book under his arm in which to press plant specimens, and cramming his pockets with diary and pencils, spy-glass, microscope, pocket-knife and twine) Thoreau was also wary of too much conscientious accuracy. “I must walk more with free senses,” he wrote in his journal.  “It is as bad to study stars and clouds as flowers and stones. I must let my senses wander as my thoughts, my eyes see without seeing…What I need is not to look at all, but a true sauntering of the eye.”

Such “sauntering” shows up most lyrically in his account of the sunset lighting up the pines at Spaulding’s Farm. It was, he says, “as if some ancient and altogether admirable and shining family” had come to settle there. The joie de vivre with which he enters into that image and the ease with which he elaborates it (seeing them “recline on sunbeams,” and persuading himself that he can overhear the “sweet musical hum” of their thought) shows us a playful and imaginative Thoreau, very different from the youthful pontificator who has come down to us over the years.

Thoreau’s mentor was, of course, Emerson, one of the great essayists, though even more of a preacher than Thoreau himself. It is easy to bridle at his assertions, as if one were being force-fed slabs of wholesome whole-meal bread. But it would be hard to disagree with his qualifications for a walk, which he defines as “endurance, plain clothes, old shoes, an eye for Nature” (capitalized!), along with “good speech, good silence, and nothing too much.” That his ideal companions on such a jaunt should be an artist “that is, [one] who has an eye for beauty,” and a naturalist, from whom one can learn the elements of geology, botany, ornithology etc., seems like obvious good sense, with the added pleasure of a private thumbnail portrait of Thoreau.

Both the gusto and the faint taint of home-spun righteousness continue with Robert Louis Stevenson, whose essay “Walking Tours” first appeared in 1876. Like Hazlitt (whom he admired enormously), Stevenson felt that walking should be embarked upon alone.  There should, he writes, “be no cackle of voices at your elbow, to jar on the meditative silence of the morning.” Rather, “you must be open to all impressions and let your thoughts take color from what you see.”

Stevenson died at the age of forty-four, having written a surprising number of books in his short life: adult novels and children’s books, poetry and essays and plays, as well as several volumes of letters. Nonetheless, one of his most heartfelt pleas was in favor of moderation (even, at times, idleness), which he saw as a woefully underrated virtue. Fiercely, he castigated what he called “your over-walker” who returns “to his inn at night, with a sort of frost on his five wits, and a starless night of darkness in his spirit.” He himself preferred a far gentler, more temperate form of exercise, in which the emphasis on clock-time fell away.

“It is almost as if the millennium were arrived, when we shall throw our clocks and watches over the housetop, and remember time and seasons no more…You have no idea, unless you have tried it, how endlessly long is a summer day.”


This is an excerpt from World Enough & Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down by Christian McEwen available from etc.