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On Earth Day, Thoreau Says ‘Take A Walk’

Apr 22, 2011

Since today’s Earth Day, let’s all take a second to live out Henry David Thoreau’s excellent essay, “Walking.”

thoreausign On Earth Day, Thoreau Says Take A Walk

Though most of us know Thoreau for his work “Walden,” “Walking” most fully captures the famous transcendentalist’s theories on nature.

While surely he appreciates and understands the need for civilization, Thoreau also warns of untamed expansion: “Nowadays almost all man’s improvements, so called, as the building of houses, and the cutting down of the forest and of all large trees, simply deform the landscape, and make it more and more tame and cheap.”

Tameness and dullness are one-in-the-same. “Life consists with wildness,” he asserts. “The most alive is the wildest.” And to truly tap into the world and one’s own wildness, man must walk.

But this walk can’t be just for exercise. It must be a “saunter,” a far more sacred and spiritual act than simple ambulation.

“I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks, who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering,” insists Thoreau, before offering an elegant definition of the activity.

[The] word is beautifully derived ‘from idle people who roved about the country, in the middle ages, and asked charity, under pretense of going à la Sainte Terre’—to the holy land, till the children exclaimed, ‘There goes a Sainte-Terrer,’ a saunterer—a holy-lander….

Some, however, would derive the word from sans terre, without land or a home, which, therefore, in the good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere. For this is the secret of successful sauntering… Every walk is a sort of crusade, preached by some Peter the Hermit in us, to go forth and reconquer this holy land from the hands of the Infidels.

Nature’s not something we can ignore, or conquer. It is the life blood of all civilizations—”[Civilized nations] survive as long as the soil is not exhausted”—and to truly thrive as a people or nation, citizens need to have an appreciation and fondness for nature, that “vast, savage, howling mother of ours.”

Sadly, Thoreau saw a trend in America and lamented, “How little appreciation of the beauty of the landscape there is among us!” So, today, this Earth Day, I suggest you get off your tush and saunter into the wild, where ever you may find it, and learn what Thoreau knew: connecting with Mother Earth elevates one’s whole self.

“All good things are wild and free,” and to be truly free—from want, from stress, from civilization—we must immerse ourselves in nature, without a second thought, for “What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods?”

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