Book of the Week: Beneath My Feet

25 Oct|Rebecca Solnit

"Above all, do not lose your desire to walk: every day I walk myself into a state of wellbeing and walk away from every illness," Kierkegaard

We at the Idler are great fans of Notting Hill Editions, an independent publisher of beautiful hardback essay collections. In Beneath My Feet: Writers on Walking, the latest addition to their catalogue, radio producer and editor Dunan Minshull brings together writing on walking from Petrarch to the present day. Follow in the footsteps of George Sand, Robert Louis Stevenson, Virginia Woolf, Will Self and others, and discover why they saw walking as key to their creativity and wellbeing. As St Augustine puts it, “solvitur ambulando – it is solved by walking.” We feature Rebecca Solnit’s thoughts on walking, which you can also find in the anthology, below.

I sat down one spring day to write about walking and stood up again, because a desk is no place to think on the large scale. In a headland just north of the Golden Gate Bridge studded with abandoned military fortifications, I went out walking up a valley and along a ridgeline, then down to the Pacific. Spring had come after an unusually wet winter, and the hills had turned that riotous, exuberant green I forget and re-discover every year. Through the new growth poked grass from the year before, bleached from the summer gold to an ashen grey by the rain, part of the subtler palette of the rest of the year. Henry David Thoreau, who walked more vigorously than me on the other side of the continent, wrote of the local, ‘An absolutely new prospect is a great happiness, and I can still get this any afternoon. Two or three hours’ walking will carry me to as strange a county as I expect ever to see. A single farmhouse which I had not seen before is sometimes as good as the dominions of the King of Dahomey. There is in fact a sort of harmony discoverable between the capabilities of the landscape within a circle of ten miles’ radius, or the limits of an afternoon walk, and the threescore years and ten of human life. It will never become quite familiar to you.’

These linked paths and roads form a circuit of about six miles that I began hiking ten years ago to walk off my angst during a difficult year. I kept coming back to this route for respite from my work and for my work too, because thinking is generally thought of as doing nothing in a production-orientated culture, and doing nothing is hard to do. It’s best done by disguising it as doing something, and the something closest to doing nothing is walking. Walking itself is the intentional act closest to the unwilled rhythms of the body, to breathing and the beating of the heart. It strikes a delicate balance between working and idling, being and doing. It is a bodily labor that produces nothing but thoughts, experiences, arrivals. After all those years of walking to work out other things, it made sense to come back to work close to home, in Thoreau’s sense, and to think about walking.

Walking, ideally, is a state in which the mind, the body, and the world are aligned, as though they were three characters finally in conversation together, three notes suddenly making a chord. Walking allows us to be in our bodies and in the world without being made busy by them. It leaves us free to think without being wholly lost in our thoughts. I wasn’t sure whether I was to soon or too late for the purple lupine that can be so spectacular in these headlands, but milkmaids were growing on the shady side of the road on the way to the trail, and they recalled the hillsides of my childhood that first bloomed every year with an extravagance of these white flowers. Black butterflies fluttered around me, tossed along by wind and wings, and they called up another era of my past. Moving on foot seems to make it easier to move in time; the mind wanders from plans to recollections to observations.

Taken from Beneath My Feet: Writers on Walking by Duncan Minshull (Notting Hill Editions, £14.99). Read more here. Did you know we’ve launched a new series of monthly Idler Walks? Call out your inner flâneur and imagine a chill Saturday morning rambling through London in the footsteps of Dr Johnson or Rimbaud, discover the city’s original coffee houses or explore Hampstead’s Georgian architecture with Oldie editor Harry Mount.