I go out walkin’
Out in the moonlight
Just like we used to do.
Alan Block & Donn Hecht
Whereas Patsy Cline was singing about walking to find her lost love, I go out walking to find my muse. Across brown fields and quiet woods, I go out in the company of a couple of small brown dogs looking for inspiration.
February. Out along the river, a red-tailed hawk swooped overhead. Two ravens sang their gravelly raven-songs perching near the carcass of a sheep, now nothing but ribs. The snow lay crusty, not good for skiing. The sky was grey and gloomy. The only medicine I know of for gloom, is to go out walking.
Some of my favorite authors are those who walked the land. Often suffering from periods of sadness, they found solace through walking. “My mind only works with my legs.” Jean-Jacques Rousseau claimed. John Muir walked from Indianapolis to the Florida Keys. He believed that bodily contact with the wild word made both the world and the walker better for it. “I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”
William Wordsworth walked well over 100,000 miles. George Borrow walked across Great Britain, Ireland, Europe, and Morocco, learning local languages along the way. Walking was one of the few activities that could lift British writer and walker of the old paths, Edward Thomas from depression. He wrote 140 poems in just two years before going off to fight in the first World War. He died in the opening Battle of Arras, his first encounter on the front.
Mary Oliver, the great early morning walker of beaches and dunes, often followed by a well-loved dog, learned all she needed to know about the world by walking, eyes wide open, as the amazed observer. A rare poet, who wrote simply, loved by even those who claim to not like poetry. I share her a tendency to go walking alone, for it is hard to be observant while talking. She says it well in last lines of her poem, How I go to the woods:
“If you have ever gone to the woods with me, I must love
you very much.”
One of my favorite landscape writers, Robert Macfarlane writes about finding the wild places, the mountain places, the underground places, and the “old way” paths, walking thousands of miles, sleeping in the open, not writing about achieving the summit and looking down, but about being in a place and really seeing it.
Tim Robinson walked every step of the Aran Islands and wrote as a map maker-poet in the Stones of Aran. He tells, in no hurry, the story of the wind and wave-crashed rocks, of the tales people passed down, and of the livelihoods of families who harvested kelp and attempted to grow crops on thin boney soil—fishing boats headed out into icy waters; men and boys lowered over cliffs on ropes to kill roosting birds.
I have been a walker most of my life, even growing up in a city where the creek I played in— imagining it to be a wild river—smelled from sewage. I would head out walking, trying to work through my tumultuous life.
I have wondered about this habit of walking; might we carry an ancestral memory of daily walking to find food and a place to bed down? Our feet may have their own sets of eyes. I carry a topographical map in my head of the places I walk. I can see right where a flat slab of shist, covered with knight’s plume moss lay up above the Morrill Homestead. I can zoom out and see where the brook runs, where the vernal pool, soon filled with frog and salamander eggs is, where the upland hardwood forest begins, and where the white pines now grow over lands once grazed bare by sheep.
However, becoming distracted while driving on the interstate, I may forget what state I am in, let alone be able to zoom out and follow the ridge of the Green Mountains or the winding Winooski River.
Eventually, the dogs and I circled around to from where we had begun our walk, and it was time to go home. One of the little dogs had lagged and was rolling in something dead. I whistled for her to come, that it was time for cookies. With just enough ice to support her twenty-three pounds, she came running down a hill becoming airborne, her beagle ears flapping in the wind. All gloominess flew away as I ululated to cheer her on—walking had yet again, done its magic.