Solvitur ambulando

Bauhaus artist Paul Klee famously described his drawing process as “taking a line for a walk.” In all likelihood, he wasn’t referring to walking as so many of us practice it today—fuel-injected, over-committed, hoofing with a pre-determined purpose, a clear destination, running late. Instead, Klee invokes the sauntering, meandering approach made famous by the likes of Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman and Muir, those first-order naturalists who approached walking as an art form in its own right.

In her scholarly, thoroughly lovely World Enough & Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down, professor, poet and author Christian McEwen illuminates the role played by slow, ambulatory movements led by curiosity and fascination in the creative life.  McEwen notes that novelist Willa Cather “worked at her desk all morning, then wandered the woods and trails all afternoon in search of wildflowers. She told one of her friends that she needed ‘almost to dissolve into nature daily in order to be reborn to her task.’”

Ah, where have they gone, the amblers of yesteryear? Where have they gone, those loafing heroes of folksong, those vagabonds who roam from one mill to another and bed down under the stars? ~ Milan Kundera

McEwen offers that walking in this gentle, unencumbered way taps our own innate interconnectedness with the world around us via chronobiology–our body’s entrainment to the ancient, powerful rhythms of the larger universe.

Poet, philosopher and scholar John O’Donohue carries our chronobiological connection to the land ones step further. In Walking in Wonder: Eternal Wisdom for a Modern World, O’Donohue offers that the body is in some primordial way comprised of the same raw material as the landscape itself:

One of the lovely ways to pray is to take your body out into the landscape and to be still in it. Your body is made out of clay, so your body is actually a miniature landscape that has got up from under the earth and is now walking on the normal landscape. If you go out for several hours into a place that is wild, your mind begins to slow down, down, down. What is happening is that the clay of your body is retrieving its own sense of sisterhood with the great clay of the landscape…To put it in a theological way, I feel that the landscape is always at prayer, and its prayer is seamless. It is always enfolded in the presence. It is a high work of imagination, because there is no repetition in a landscape. Every stone, every tree, every field is a different place. When your eye begins to become attentive to this panorama of differentiation, then you realize what a privilege it is to actually be here.

Thoreau was unbridled in promoting the many benefits of his wandering practice. In Walking he writes, “I think I cannot preserve my health and spirits unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and fields absolutely free from all worldly engagements.”

We’ve got a number of local trails and forest preserves near my home and, with the spillover from the year we’ve just moved through, I find myself spending increasing amounts of time in these hallowed spaces.  I welcome the feeling of coming back to my senses—metaphorically and literally—that these pristine parcels of earth provide. I enjoy the break from thinking and the ways in which answers to questions I didn’t even know I had present themselves, seemingly all on their own—solvitur ambulanto, Latin for it is solved by walking. There’s something about immersing myself in nature as a whole that can beckon a feeling of wholeness and completeness within myself, of being held and supported. A feeling of coming home.

Are you walking much these days? What about walking without a destination, or your phone? A walk with just your two eyes, two ears, two hands and two feet is an altogether different kind of experience, possibly one worth repeating. 

I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown; for going out, I found, was really going in. ~John Muir