Friday, October 31, 2008

(I will follow)

I set out to write about traveling on foot rather than by car. I had in my head the benefits to personal health and finance that come from walking the quarter-mile errand or parking once at the sprawling shopping center and walking from shop to shop. There is of course the environmental benefit that this practice uses less fuel, which reduces impacts from producing, transporting, and burning fossil fuels. And, there is a diagonal benefit for those people who would otherwise drive to a gym and spend time walking in place.
However, my son’s recent fascination with fallen leaves, a phenomenon he experiences now for the first time, uncovers some of the less tangible and perhaps more valuable benefits of walking. Walking takes us steps away from the built environment, and steps closer to our natural environment.
Thoreau writes in Walking, in his charmingly confrontational style,
I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil--to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society. I wish to make an extreme statement, if so I may make an emphatic one, for there are enough champions of civilization: the minister and the school committee and every one of you will take care of that.
Pirsig follows a related train of though in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, when he describes how different it is to travel on a bike, exposed to the elements and part of the landscape, as opposed to traveling by car, where the real world is something separate and framed like an image on television.
I think Thoreau misses (or more likely avoids) the truth that people are part of both nature and society. However, focusing on the former, he offers important insight. Hidden in buildings, riding in cars, squeezed between earphones, and blocked from the real world by television, it’s no wonder we as a society don’t understand environmental problems or why they are fundamentally important to people. The world around us changes year by year, season by season, day by day, and minute by minute. But we set the thermostat to the same number, year round. We buy grapes in the dead of winter from the same shelf we do in the height of summer, oblivious to the convoluted feat of international trade that makes this possible. We turn the tap, unaware of whether the reservoir is ready to spill its banks, or if it has receded to leave expanses of dry mud. Distracted by a television, we don’t know if the geese have yet passed for the season, or that the Eastern bluebird has come back from the edge.
Even if only for a moment, taking a step out the door pushes away the curtain of our ignorance. Walking through the neighborhood reveals some sliver of all of the natural systems upon which our lives are built. A walk in a nearby wood or farm field is an opportunity to learn. The conscious walk makes clear the habits of water and wind and begins to explain the riddles of thistle and finch.
Save some gas, open your eyes, be the solution, walk away, walk away.

Image source: ER Dunhill

1 comment:

Pat Jenkins said...

it may be good for the soul to walk thoreau, but it ain't goood for my bones. yours truly an old man!!