Welcome back to the Creative Life Adventure.
I’ve enjoyed walking my entire life. During family vacations to Florida’s Gulf Coast in my youth, I treasured sunny days spent beachcombing. Only well into adulthood did I begin to understand walking’s many powers. It’s nearly unparalleled as a form of exercise. Over reasonable distances it’s perhaps the most sustainable form of transit. Only when I moved to Tampa, Florida, (a surprisingly walkable city in some areas, a terror for pedestrians in others) nearly ten years ago did I learn to appreciate walking as a meditative experience that can mend the soul and stimulate creativity. I’m currently reading Rebecca Solnit’s wonderful book Wanderlust: A History of Walking, and it inspired me to take my own walk and record my thoughts.
Walking, like creativity, starts with a risky venture into the unknown. The choice to begin rejects one life and commits to another. Even if the terrain is familiar, the path we traverse, like the river of which Heraclitus spoke, is never the same: people, weather, traffic, and the built environment, all vary over time. This particular venture took me around a lake where I walk often, but the experience is always different. In this case, beginning really does reflect risk, crossing a busy street in one of the most dangerous states in the U.S. for pedestrians. Every stage of the journey, however, risky or not, will reflect variations on the theme of a familiar path through physical space. The Italian composer/pianist Ludovico Einaudi demonstrated this recently with a collection of recordings called Seven Days Walking. Inspired by Einaudi’s walks on a trail in the Alps, each of the seven volumes of music in Seven Days Walking reflects a different day’s hike on the same path.
Solnit points out in Wanderlust that the human race is the only species vertically-arranged for bipedal movement. Other bipedal life forms, such as birds, have a more horizontal arrangement (not to mention wings). One theory suggests that this upright anatomy reduced sun exposure as early humans ventured from the forests. Walking upright freed the arms to devise and operate tools. It also increased blood flow to the brain, and caused pelvic size to increase relative to overall body size. This allowed human females to give birth to young with larger brains able to utilize that additional nourishment, giving us the big-brained, creative potential we enjoy today. What a virtuous circle: walking improved our mental capacity, so we could contemplate what to do with our ability to walk.
When I walk around this particular lake, it’s easy to appreciate nature’s refusal to limit itself. There are always a variety of waterfowl around the lake, and the ducks seem to breed interchangeably, whether they’re mallards or Muscovies. On the other hand, it’s hard not to be amused and frustrated with city planners’ ideas about what’s good for the human masses. So often we eagerly go along with absurd notions of compartmentalizing the world, believing ourselves to be free when we’re only limiting our choices. Notice, in the photo above, how the pedestrian path around the lake is ringed entirely by a road. We can walk around the lake, after crossing traffic, then savor car exhaust fumes as we exercise. When I walk around my town in non-designated areas (otherwise known as public sidewalks), I almost never see another pedestrian. We give ourselves little space in which to walk and fail to even consider what we sacrifice as a result. Our own self-limitations have served to reduce walkable terrain, and public space, diminishing our ability to gather in demonstration or protest or simply enjoy chance encounters on a stroll through town. That loss of free space has corresponded with our increasing submission to an economic machine that controls our minds and bodies. The two go hand-in-hand and directly affect creativity. “Environmentalists are always arguing that…butterflies, … grasslands, … watershed woodlands, have an utterly necessary function in the grand scheme of things, even if they don’t produce a market crop,” Solnit writes. “The same is true of the meadowlands of imagination; time spent there is not work time, yet without that time the mind becomes sterile, dull, domesticated. The fight for free space – for wilderness and for public space – must be accompanied by a fight for free time to spend wandering in that space. Otherwise the individual imagination will be bulldozed over for the chain-store outlets of consumer appetite, true-crime titillations, and celebrity crises.”
Putting out feet on the ground, in a way we never experience riding overland in our cars, connects us to a world in which we exist but often neglect, or, worse, deliberately try to separate ourselves from. Early English gardens (again, I’m summarizing from Wanderlust) had clear borders to protect the wealthy landowners while they strolled around their stylized landscapes. Over the course of the 18th century, as England became safer, gardens opened onto the surrounding land. Parks provided a natural mingling area between the privileged and the masses, and as English roads were improved walking became more of a directed activity, to reach a destination, and an opportunity for contemplation. Walking became more than a verb, but a state of being, an idea encouraged by the likes of Rousseau and Wordsworth, who incorporated walking into their lives and work. Trekking in Nepal, Go Hike a Canyon, and the Appalachian Trail can all be traced back to the days of Wordsworth. Time eventually took us back to enclosed gardens in the form of gated communities, with their false connotations of a life well lived.
Next time, I’ll continue my thoughts from a walk by the lake.