Henry David Thoreau died in May of 1862 from tuberculosis. One month later his essay “Walking,” which proved to be one of his most beloved, was published. It opens with these words:
“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.”
I retired from my private practice as a Pastoral Counselor in October of 2021. I decided to take a slower year, making few decisions regarding the course of my life, recognizing those decisions that life makes for me along the way and simply navigating whatever pathways emerged in time. I was not disappointed; life has a way of filling open spaces without my help. During this past fifteen months I learned much about myself: that I love to teach, engage in conversation, read, contemplate what I’ve read, but most of all that I love to walk in the woods. I learned that I feel most alive, most myself, when in awareness of being “part and parcel of Nature.”
Yesterday was a fine example. White Clay Creek State Park (https://destateparks.com/FieldsStreams/WhiteClayCreek) has miles of trails through pristine forests. The Lenape Trail winds its way along the creek, then off into the forest, across a field and Fox Den Road, doubles back to the forest and eventually circles back along the creek and to a parking area. After hiking four or five miles I returned to my car refreshed and tired at the same time; a glorious combination of feelings.
When I started walking after my retirement it was with the intention to generate aerobic exercise. At my age (turned 68 last October) that matters, at least to me. But during the year my pace of walking has slowed without my consent nor my intent; it just slowed down. My walking became my mindfulness practice, or at least an important part of it. I wasn’t certain what was happening until I read Thoreau’s essay again, especially its second paragraph:
“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, which word is beautifully derived “from idle people who roved about the country, in the Middle Ages, and asked charity, under pretense of going a la Sainte Terre,” to the Holy Land, till the children exclaimed, “There goes a Sainte-Terrer,” a Saunterer, a Holy Lander. They who never go to the Holy Land in their walks, as they pretend, are indeed mere idlers and vagabonds; but they who do go there are saunterers in the good sense, such as I mean. 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. He who sits still in a house all the time may be the greatest vagrant of all; but the saunterer, in the good sense, is no more vagrant than the meandering river, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea.”
When I go a sauntering I see things that I might have missed otherwise. In the winter woods the grays and browns dominate. Much of the tree bark is silvery; lacking leaves this is the prominent feature one notices throughout the forest. Hidden among the tree trunks are the Christmas ferns, looking as alive and green as in the springtime. Then there are the holly trees, boldly green with red berries and hungry birds feasting. Looking across the canopy of trees the tan leaves on the Beech trees still cling, adding a contrast to the silver and gray of the tree bark. The cedar trees too; verdant throughout the winter. Lacking leaves the wind stirs more easily and sounds carry across the forest, mostly birdsong, occasionally squirrels digging for nutty gold.
I find myself walking slower and slower these days, not from fatigue but from wonder. It’s perfect. There is no need for human activity out here. Sounds of machines left far behind; occasionally another walker, sometimes with a dog, passes by. Smiles come so easily out here, greetings, sometimes conversations, spontaneous, often of things that matter. I am relaxed now, mindful, awake. I leave the forest refreshed, ready to be with my loved ones again. It is like returning from a voyage to a far away land; much to talk about, people you long to see. Yet I’ve only been gone for an hour or two.
I have always avoided making New Year Resolutions. But this year I’ve made one: to live a “Thoreauvian” year. Reading his essays again, finding another wonderful biography (Laura Dassow Walls’ “Henry David Thoreau: A Life”), savoring a paragraph from one of his essays and then contemplating it on a walk or a meditation. His spirit fills me.
This Holy Land Thoreau speaks of is found within. The journey is to the inner regions of mind and spirit. It reminds me of the Japanese poet Basho and his travel journal “The Narrow Road to the Deep North.” Basho’s journey to the “Deep North,” like Thoreau’s to the “Holy Land,” is an exploration of interior spaces: the mind, the heart, the spirit. In these times I experience silence; sometimes for just a moment, sometimes for many steps, many breaths. In his book “Thoughts in Solitude” Thomas Merton wrote:
“To deliver oneself up, to hand oneself over, entrust oneself completely to the silence of a wide landscape of woods and hills, or sea, or desert; to sit still while the sun comes up over that land and fills its silences with light. To pray and work in the morning and to labor and rest in the afternoon, and to sit still again in meditation in the evening when night falls upon that land and when the silence fills itself with darkness and with stars. This is a true and special vocation. There are few who are willing to belong completely to such silence, to let it soak into their bones, to breathe nothing but silence, to feed on silence, and to turn the very substance of their life into a living and vigilant silence.”
Silence has a best friend called Listening. Sigurd Olsen captures this well in his book “Listening Point,” an exploration of what it means to exist within wilderness:
“Only when one comes to listen, only when one is aware and still, can things be seen and heard. Everyone has a listening-point somewhere. It does not have to be in the north or close to the wilderness, but some place of quiet where the universe can be contemplated with awe.”
Walking and Silence. Listening; finding Nature, the wilderness, within. These are my intentions for this year, maybe for this life. This is my journey this year.
During the past year I have not posted on my blog. I was not certain whether to continue writing or not. I’ve decided to post again, to see if I have something to say that may be worth saying. I was concerned that any desire to post may be driven by personal pride, hubris. Again, from Merton’s “Thoughts in Solitude,” there is a warning about this sort of pride:
“When I speak, it is a demand that others remain silent so I alone may be heard. When I am silent, I hear my true self and reach my soul. When I am silent, I hear with a caring heart. Silence teaches us to know reality by respecting it where words have defiled it. If our life is poured out in useless words, we will never hear anything because we have said everything before we had anything to say. . . . .”
I will be posting again this year. I intend to do so in response to my sauntering, and from a place of silence, and from what I have learned by listening. My hope is that my words will be useful, caring, from my true self.
You can read Thoreau’s published material, including “Walking,” at this website: