The Magazine

Happy Feet

The joys of walking, in theory and practice

Sep 29, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 03 • By LAWRENCE KLEPP
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The Lost Art of Walking

The History, Science, and Literature of Pedestrianism

by Geoff Nicholson

Riverhead, 288 pp., $24.95

Human beings have been going for walks for about four million years, ever since the first hominid got down out of a tree on an African savannah and caused a sensation by staggering around on two legs. They walked through millions of years of prehistory as nomads, reaching the ends of the earth and getting there most often the usual way. Tierra del Fuego? No, that's okay, it's only 11,000 miles; we can walk there from here.

And for the first 5,000 years of history walking, for peasants, peddlers, pilgrims, vagabonds, wandering scholars, streetwalkers, etc., was a doleful necessity that was often dangerous as well, since country and city walkers alike were fair game for brigands. But in the 18th century walking suddenly turned into a virtue, even a philosophy of life.

First Rousseau, in the last book he wrote, Reveries of a Solitary Walker, then the Romantic movement that followed, often literally, in his Alp-oriented footsteps, found equal measures of redemption in reverie and solitude and walking. Just as the world was consulting its watch and deciding it had better hurry, multiplying urgent objectives and inventing faster ways of getting to them, walking became a way of escaping this new tyranny of ironclad efficiency. It was a meandering end in itself. And as such it was a form of protest and rebellion.

The Romantic walker was free to follow whims, stray from the path, indulge curiosity, find the longest distance between two points, get lost in the woods or the city or the reverie. Random walking seemed to promise the recovery of spontaneous or contemplative experience from the newly regimented time and space of the industrial era.

There was, of course, a large slice of sentimental illusion in this. For Rousseau and Wordsworth and Thoreau and their descendents among nature mystics, New Agers, and Gaia-worshipping deep ecologists, walking is good because nature is good-in fact, sacred-and it faithfully rewards devout simplicity. They never noticed that an elaborately developed and organized society was needed to produce the kind of sensitive, self-conscious individual who would want to go out into the woods (lately made safer by the proximity of civilization) to escape society and search for authenticity and his true self.

For the flâneurs and night walkers of Paris like Baudelaire and the Symbolists and the Surrealists, on the other hand, walking became a way of discovering the labyrinthine modern city and registering the bizarre juxtapositions and opportunities for mystery and delirium that it contained. Their walking was random, too, but obsessive and deviant, not serene and pure.

Meanwhile, modern philosophy was being thought up during walks by Rousseau, by Kant, so punctual in his daily Königsberg walk that people set their watches by him, by Nietzsche, who paced the Alps and the Italian Riviera and said he distrusted any conclusions reached by sedentary writers.

So walking, in this self-conscious, rarefied sense, is a modern invention. And it's left a richly ambiguous literary and cultural legacy that has been explored in detail in several books, the outstanding one being Rebecca Solnit's appropriately meandering study Wanderlust: A History of Walking (2000).

Geoff Nicholson's The Lost Art of Walking can be read as a kind of down-to-earth, affable, and reluctant Sancho Panza companion to Solnit's questing, pensive, sad-countenanced book (which he evidently doesn't like). Nicholson, an Englishman who lives most of the time in Los Angeles and defiantly walks in a city built to discourage the heresy, promises a "History, Science, Philosophy, and Literature of Pedestrianism." But what he mostly offers is the tabloid journalism of pedestrianism.

He does pause to consider some cultural and psychological echoes of walking, examining the words for "walk" in a number of languages, speculating about walking as a cure for depression (including his own) and circumambulating the equation between walking and writing. And he manages to get some thoughtful mileage out of the hard fall he took, breaking his arm, while walking in the Hollywood Hills.