The Lost Art of Walking

May 18, 2009

Everyone knows that when you walk down the street something occasionally sticks to your shoe. But most people don’t stop to think that something always sticks to the bottom of one’s shoe. It might only be a few million atoms of dirt, or pavement, but it’s there just the same. Not only that, the accumulation of gunk on your sole is actually a two-way process because, with every step, a few million atoms of shoe undoubtedly transfer themselves to the sidewalk.

Given another 100 pages, its quite possible that Geoffrey Nicholson would have included material like this in The Lost Art of Walking. His mind works in unusual ways. Every page crisscrosses the subject of walking, always striding along purposefully, but rarely towards a goal that the reader can anticipate. And therein lies the book’s charm. I have just finished the book, but I already have trouble remembering what it was about. The subtitle, “The History, Science, Philosophy, and Literature of PedestrianIsm,” is not wrong, but it hardly tells you what’s there. Here are some bits I especially enjoyed:

“Well, it turns out the Sumatran orangutans are extremely bipedal. They may not walk on the ground, but they constantly stand on two legs and walk along tree branches, using their arms for balance and for gathering food. The conclusion is that we didn’t come down from the trees and gradually adapt to walking on 2 feet, but that bipedalism was already part of the repertoire. Knuckle walking, therefore, wasn’t an intermediate stage but a later development, necessitated in chimpanzees and gorillas because they’re anatomically unable to straighten their legs.” (p. 10). Interesting. I’ll file that under the “science of walking”.

“When I find myself in a new place I explore it on foot. It’s the way I get to know that place. Maybe it’s a way of marking territory, of beating the bounds. Setting foot in a street makes it yours in a way that driving down it never does.” (p. 12) I had the same thought the other day quite independently of reading it in the book. My main mode of transport around Portland is bicycle, but I drive and walk a lot too. Anyway, coasting down the street, parked cars on each side, it occurred to me that even a bicycle goes too fast and is too exposed to be a useful means of transport for taking in one’s surroundings. We evolved as walkers and runners, not as motorists or cyclists. I suspect some crafty neuroscientist will someday show a resonance between the optimal speed at which our brains absorb new information and the speed at which walking brings new vistas into view.

The book contains an utterly delightful lexicon on walking. I keep turning the Italian phrase darsela a gambe (to make with the legs) (p. 23) over and over in my mind. I hope it sounds as musical as I think it does.

Nicholson quotes many people throughout the book, including the “fine London walker” William Blake. For example, “I must Create a System, or be enslaved by another Man’s” (p. 92) celebrates one of the great joys of walking: extreme spontaneous flexibility. We can stop, turn on our heel, and head straight back the way we came. We can strike off at new and surprising angles. We can crisscross a street a dozen times to greet friends and look in shop windows. Anyone who has ever jaywalked knows how emotionally satisfying a personally created shortcut can be. Automobiles, and even bicycles, are usually enslaved by another man’s System. Walkers rarely are.

Speaking of systems, Nicholson describes a number of rules for constructing walks. Here’s one set that I found particularly appealing, “I came to a decision. I would make six transits of Oxford Street, there and back, from Tottenham Court Road tube station at the east end of the street to Marble Arch at the west, and back again. I would spread them out over the course of the day. I would see how the street and my walking changed.” (p. 106) what a fantastic way to spend a day! I’m already picking out some streets in Portland. I think I’ll start on the Summer Solstice. Maximum daylight.

Among the many sources that Nicholson quotes are New Age web sites extolling the spiritual virtues of walking. (p. 175-176). The stock New Age phraseology is uncomfortably gooey just as one expects so I’ll simply quote Nicholson, “I know that mocking the jejune philosophizing of New Agers is like dynamiting New Agers in a barrel, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing.” I find this amusing, but I also confess to having some mixed emotions too.

Appropriately, Nicholson saves his very best bits for the very end. Near the end of the book, we get to take a walk with Nicholson’s dad, ignore a No Trespassing sign, stride onto private property and meet up with the unhappy landowner. The stage is set for all kinds of outcomes, but the actual resolution is completely unexpected and poignant. A walk that is good to remember. I would find the book again at the library just to reread this chapter.


4 Responses to “The Lost Art of Walking”

  1. arestelle said

    How intriguing. I followed the Books tag to your latest post and browsed to here. Your posts remind me of, and yet seem contrary to, the thinking I saw in a professor from Portland. He teaches classes on Asian religions, and his name is (also) Alan…but he always read the texts with a critical, academic’s eye. He clearly was interested in Buddhism, but never after the manner of a practitioner. I remember him pontificating on the action of walking, too, once. “On a good day, you can really *enjoy* walking…”

    Cheers. 🙂

    • Alan said

      How very intriguing indeed. I live in Portland. My name is Alan. I am a professor. And yet … I am not the Prof. Alan of Portland that you know. Thanks for visiting.

  2. Hi Alan- If you are interested in the Art of Walking you might want to check out the late Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines. As I remember this wonderful tale he spends a substantial amount of time with a group of Aborigines “down under” learning from them about the concept of dreamtime and later in the book comes up with various theories about the curative benefits derived from Walking.


    • Alan said

      Thanks. I’ll check it out. I’ve been on the Oregon coast for the past few weeks dodging the Portland heat wave and the long sweep of the beach has beckoned: Go for a long walk.

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