To Walk Is Human
By Alan Wartes
28 August, 2010
The Story of Here
Some days all I really want to do is this: pull on my most comfortable shoes; change out of jeans into loose-fitting pants—made of linen, perhaps—that flow in a breeze like wind waves on a wheat field; put on my straw hat, seasoned over the years to the shape of my head; throw a handmade bag over my shoulder, with a bottle of water inside, something for lunch, and a notebook for writing in—and walk.
Just walk, that’s all.
Notice, I didn’t say “walk away”. This is not about escape. I have an improbably excellent life. It is excellent because I’m blessed with: a one of a kind wife, children, and other loving people; satisfying labor on the farm and at my writing desk; the will to help leave behind a better world than I found, and enough hope to sustain me when that work grows hard.
It is “improbable” because I routinely break the great social taboo of our time—that is, nothing about my excellent existence makes very much money. If the edge of an ordinary knife is a precarious place to balance a life, think of us as living on the high, thin ridge of an upturned scalpel. As a consequence, I’m not expected to describe my life in positive terms. I am supposed to feel poor and hang my head like a proper “failure” should. Going around like that for a while is supposed to motivate me to settle down and live responsibly. But, I might as well confess: it’s not going to happen. At 50, I’ve claim the right to borrow a line from the great American poet, Robert Bly: “This is my life. Just shut up if you don’t understand it” (from “The Russian”, in Morning Poems). In fact, I’ve developed the annoying habit (from the point of view of people made uncomfortable by my choices) of being quite happy anyway, in spite of my financial disabilities.
For instance, to walk makes me happy. To walk my little circle of earth, here, now. This is how one dictionary defines it: “to move or travel on legs and feet, alternately putting one foot a comfortable distance in front of, or sometimes behind, the other, and usually proceeding at a moderate pace. When walking, as opposed to running, one of the feet is always in contact with the ground, the one being put down as or before the other is lifted.”
I love the simplicity and the hidden wisdom in this description:
“To move or travel on legs and feet.” No machines needed. No license, no certification, or college degree. Walking doesn’t violate Thoreau’s warning to “beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.” It’s low-tech and low-budget. If you’ve got legs and feet, you’re ready to go.
“Putting one foot a comfortable distance in front of, or sometimes behind, the other, and usually proceeding at a moderate pace.” A comfortable, moderate pace. Anything more and you aren’t walking any longer, you are running. Walking is, by definition, counter-cultural, since speed in all things (food, sex, communication, entertainment, work) is the new normal.
“One of the feet is always in contact with the ground.” Grounded. In contact. Connected. Aware. Hmm. Sounds pretty good in a disintegrating world.
Among people who are aware of peak oil, climate change, and the myriad limits to perpetual “growth”, there is little disagreement that something’s got to give. We understand the need to “power down” our civilization thoughtfully and systematically, as Richard Heinberg suggests; and to “transition” to a saner way of living, á la Rob Hopkins. We know the stakes and appreciate the sense of urgency. What sometimes escapes us, however, especially those of us new to the conversation, is knowing where to start. What to do?
One typical response is to look where we’ve always looked in modern times—to the future, and to some new set of emerging ideas or technologies. I have no crystal ball, but I suspect that this particular treasure chest is all but empty. These days, every new innovation, however well conceived, is saddled with the sandbags of “peak everything” right out of the starting gate. That’s the very nature of our predicament. And, as Einstein said, we are unlikely to solve our problem using the same thinking that created it in the first place.
On the other hand, I’m not a big fan of Little House on the Prairie nostalgia, either. Anything we do to power down can be called “new” because, in all of history, nothing like it has ever been done before—has never been necessary before. What worked for our ancestors simply won’t do for us, if for no other reason than there are now nearly seven billion of us (and counting). And yet, it’s impossible for me to shake the feeling that there are answers for us in what is old about human life. Very old. Things so foundational that exploring them might constitute a reset button for the mind, a pathway back to a time before our thinking became so prone to creating more problems than we can solve.
Where to start? How about remembering the things that have been with us since we first stood up out of the African grasses and became human? How about learning how to walk again?
Of all the “first-time” milestones in a baby’s life—first tooth, first word, first haircut—there is only one with the power to instantly stop traffic and command our undivided attention. To witness it is a miracle; to miss it, a tragedy. Who knows how much money Kodak has made over the decades, and how many long distance minutes AT&T has racked up, helping young parents capture and celebrate this seminal moment in their child’s life: his or her first steps.
Even the startled toddler seems to know the importance of the landmark she’s just passed. Moving around on all fours, she has had more in common with the family dog than with her parents and siblings. Now, rising like a monarch on coronation day, she literally moves up in the world. She enters society as a self-motivating member. Her hands are free to discover (all the breakable things Mom hasn’t yet moved to safety), to create unique sounds (on kitchen pots and pans), and to reorder the world to her liking (by pulling all the books off the shelf in the living room). Crawling, she might as well have been in handcuffs. Walking—well, it’s a whole new world.
Let’s be honest: To walk is the essence of “human-ness”. It is what we do—or did, rather, prior to the 20th century. It’s what we are built for, and a big part of what distinguishes us from the rest of the primates. The motion of walking is circular, not linear, seen clearly in the movement of hands and feet. This establishes a rhythm to living that can’t be rushed or avoided, and one that is attuned to universal oscillations of sun and moon and stars. In times past, we’d put one foot in front of the other, at a comfortable, moderate pace, for our whole lives. If you wanted to get there, or return, you walked. And in the process, you took your place—and proved you belonged—in the dance of creation.
Now days, we take our first ecstatic steps and promptly sit back down. Parents clap and cheer and take a few snaps, then slap us in a car seat; a stroller; an airplane; a medieval torture device now known as a school desk; and of course, an easy chair in front of the TV or computer. It is a sitting, riding life now, one we no longer question—“just the way things are”. We don’t walk unless we have to, or it is a symptom of mental or emotional distress. Don’t believe me? Try this: casually announce to your friends and neighbors that you plan to walk farther than the distance to your mailbox. Watch how fast they offer you a ride, assuming—of course—the only logical explanation is that your car is in the shop. Refuse the ride, and watch how fast they start asking if everything is okay with you—the other options being marital difficulty, mental breakdown, midlife crisis, etc.
It has been said that all politics is local. This means, I suppose, that elections always boil down to single votes and the relative satisfaction of single voters. If you are a politician, hobnob with well-heeled lobbyists all you want, but in the end you’d better make sure you’ve taken care of the home crowd. The same could be said of all aspects of the coming descent and eventual collapse of our present way of life—it’s all local. We can stay up all night long, like would-be emperors engrossed in a high stakes game of Risk, debating the fate of nations, and why civilizations always seem to collapse at the peak of power. We can convene another Continental Congress to resuscitate the constitution with rhetoric of the highest caliber. But at the end of the day, if we don’t know our neighbors; if we don’t know where our food is coming from in a pinch; if water is something that just magically appears in the pipe; if we haven’t got a clue what is within walking distance of our homes—well, you get the idea. All that global thinking will be worth exactly nothing.
In other words, to prepare for a local collapse requires me to know what’s here in my local part of the world. The most reliable way to do that—here comes my point—is to get out of your car and walk your neighborhood from time to time. I’m not talking about a Gandhi-esque march to the sea. Just a commitment to put one foot in front of the other at a comfortable and moderate pace once in a while.
Think of it this way. If you drive down a street in your neighborhood, and then I ask you what is there, you’ll probably say, “A bunch of houses, some parked cars, a couple of kids blocking the street throwing a football.”
Try it again, on foot. This time (so long as you go with an attitude of curiosity and engagement) you will notice Richard watering his front-yard tomato plants. You admire them and find that he is eager to talk. He’s eighty-seven (but doesn’t look more than 75) and he’s lived in that house since it was built in 1956. He points to three other houses still occupied by original owners. He lost his wife to cancer and his son to a heart attack. But he still has his garden.
As you move on, one of the kids in the street overthrows a pass right into your arms. His name is Ernesto—and it was a hell of throw. He hopes to play quarterback in high school in a couple years, then, who knows what could happen? His friend, Daniel, would rather play football on the Wii, but his mom made him come outside. You toss the ball a few times and keep walking.
In an open garage you see a young woman with spiked hair and baggy pants. She is busy at work on an astonishing, large format painting of a tropical waterfall with a Technicolor parrot in the foreground—using ordinary spray paint cans. You stop in and ask how she learned to paint like that? “On the side of railroad cars,” she answers. But she doesn’t do that shit any more.
Betsy, a local librarian, is out walking her Pomeranian dogs. Several peach trees are almost ready to harvest. Some young kids have set a sprinkler on their trampoline, throwing water over half the street every time they bounce. A rabbit nibbles grass in the shade of a grape arbor.
Not in a thousand drive-bys would you see as much. Walking is how we belong to the world. It’s how we belong to each other. It’s how we see best what’s coming—for us, not for people half-way across the country or the world—and how we know what to do about it. It’s how we begin tuning ourselves to the frequency of a post-oil world.
There’s more to say, but it’s time to stop talking about it—and go take a walk.