(Oxen Pond Walk – St. John’s, NL)
I guess I’ve always thought of myself as something of a walker. I think this probably has a lot to do with the way my parents used, and talked about, walking respectively. When I was a teenager, my mother became a real treadmill walker for the span of 4-5 years as part of an effort to lose weight (which she did – over 1-2 years, roughly 50 pounds in total) and was always the first to endorse walking as a great form of exercise, especially for women in their mid-forties. My Dad and I had a special relation to walking too, though. My bond with my father as one of my best friends was in large part generated in our outings to downtown Toronto to watch professional sports events, something a lot of my friends only got to do on a very rare occasion (if ever – I was very fortunate to have my father choose to pass time with me in this way). Dad really knew his way around Toronto – as a former TTC employee and Toronto resident, he understood where to park in Toronto for free, rather than pay exorbitant downtown parking prices. But of course, that meant that we didn’t park close to the stadium or arena all that often – we would usually have a good 10-15 minute walk to and from the game, on account of where he wanted to park. Looking back now, more than the games themselves, what I remember most about going to those games is the walks with my Dad that helped get me there. I’ll always remember Dad talking about his walking the streets of Europe in the late 70’s, and the way he approached it – as something to really embrace. And he carried that attitude about walking whenever we had to do it: an opportunity for movement, one where we could share our thoughts to one another in a lively and engaging manner, and feel the pulse of a city and culture – that’s a good thing and always will be. And so I always valued walking as a young guy, and still do, because it always had positive association for me (on a number of occasions in high school, I would even bike 20 minutes to a friend’s so I could walk with him and my other friends another 40 minutes to school!). Now, I carry something of a similar perspective regarding the value of walking, in large part due to these influences – though I think my way of looking at it now is best explained in philosophical terms.
You see, there have been a number of influences on the way I understand nature. Part of doing two degrees in philosophy means that you get to learn about nature, for nature is one of philosophy’s greatest concerns (interestingly enough, prior to the Renaissance & Enlightenment, most scientists were simply called, ‘natural philosophers’). There are a number of thinkers who have influenced the way I tend to look at things on the whole, but in one way or another, few are more important than the classical Chinese Daoist, Zhuangzi (sometimes, Chuang-Tsu), Charles Darwin, and Friedrich Nietzsche. For now I’ll focus on the last two, because to me, they are prime examples of men who not only provided thorough insight about nature in their own distinct ways, but also had a keen interest in their own personal connection to nature, and understood the fruits of such a connection. What’s interesting to me above all, however, is that it seems fair to say that the way both men did this, was to go for a good walk.
At my convocation ceremony last November, one of the speakers gave a speech on the way Darwin used to make use of his time at his house at Downhome in his mature years. What was interesting about that talk is that the speaker really emphasized the extent to which, for Darwin, going for a walk as part of his daily routine, was much more than mere exercise. This was an opportunity for Darwin to connect with nature – to take in its beauty, examine its intricacies, and learn from its wonders. Even if only in his backyard (which, admittedly, was probably rather extensive and lush), Darwin never ceased to be intrigued by nature, nor did he cease to analyze it in order to verify his theory of the evolution of species. For Darwin, going for a walk seems generally to have involved active thoughtful engagement with his surroundings – and in this way, we might even say that for him it became a kind of meditation: an opportunity to be in nature, and concentrate singularly on its apparent machinations and function – an opportunity without which Darwin may never have been able to analyze primary natural phenomena to the very full extent that he did. And so it seems that Darwin understood something about nature, that doesn’t necessarily come out in any of his theories on that subject: namely, that walking is not only one of the primary means according to which we can physically connect with nature, but that among a host of other things, it’s also one of the best ways to generate fruitful thought, and enjoy fruitful contemplation, generally – both during, and in between walks. And needless to say, for his time, what Darwin proposed in theory on the topic of nature has few rivals, and his influence on the modern western scientific outlook is only further testament to that fact. Like his (roughly) contemporary counterpart, Nietzsche, Darwin lived out his connection to nature in walking – and that very much paid dividends to the general efficacy of Darwin’s work ethic as a scholar; and to his penetrating perception, and description, of the world from the point of view of a human being.
When I heard this speech given at convocation, I was struck by the extent to which Darwin’s walking hobby, and the way it undoubtedly facilitated his thinking, reflection, and contemplation, seemed a natural parallel to Nietzsche’s. One of Nietzsche’s great works is Thus Spoke Zarathustra: a book written in lyrics, telling the tale of the life of Zarathustra – a wandering prophet who gave voice to the ideas of ‘the death of God’ and ‘self-overcoming’; the ‘Overman’, and saying ‘Yes!’ One of the less popularly known concepts that Zarathustra discusses in this work though, is that of nature – and I think this emphasis reflects Nietzsche’s interest, as the author, in that topic. It is (and hopefully will be) a subject for another day to write about what all Zarathustra and Nietzsche say respectively about nature (NB: though Zarathustra is Nietzsche’s character, he is not necessarily Nietzsche’s mouthpiece for relaying what Nietzsche himself believed, so it’s fair to actually analyze what they say about nature separately). For now, I’ll have to let you read more on that on your own. But what’s worth emphasizing for the purpose of this piece is simply the fact that throughout TSZ, Zarathustra is prone to wandering in nature – he really is a walker; and he even often refers to walking in his metaphors and similes. That Nietzsche conceives Zarathustra as his most important contribution to the world as a writer and a thinker, might tell us something about the way Nietzsche viewed the value of walking – in that his most important literary construction himself was a great walker and wanderer. Or, at least, I think it does because we have a pretty good idea that Nietzsche himself was a walker, and a bit of a wanderer. Since Nietzsche decided to quit his job as a university professor at a very young age (before he was thirty), and not being from a wealthy family, Nietzsche was not particularly well to do. I’m not sure you’d call him poor, but the man certainly didn’t share in the sort of relative wealth that most academics of his calibre would have been able to at the time. From my understanding, he was something of a nomad as a result. He lived in a number of countries, among which Germany, Italy and Switzerland stand out in my mind as relevant. So, there’s an aspect of wandering and getting around in the world that is alive in Nietzsche’s life, and in his thought. And where he went, he would also spend a good deal of time walking. He is known to have walked in the hills of southern Italy, and traversed footpaths in the mountain forests of the Swiss Alps. For Nietzsche, who was also chronically ill for most of his life, it stands to reason that walking was not only an opportunity to clarify his thoughts and sharpen his insight, which itself provides mental relief from stress and anxiety; in fact, exercise, fresh air, and movement in nature probably offered Nietzsche some form of therapy from his physical ailments, ailments like nausea and severe migraines. And this relief found in walking, was a means for Nietzsche to articulating his ideas and thoughts, which he largely expressed in aphorisms (part of some 10,000 pages of literary work Nietzsche produced in his 45 sane years on earth) – pithy, concise thoughts that likely often developed from his meditations while walking. In sum Nietzsche, who from my view ended up insightfully contributing to a reasonable and viable, non-metaphysical or supernatural philosophical understanding of nature (one that I think is, given the appropriate qualifications, perfectly compatible by the way with the theory of evolution, and the understanding of the Dao posited by the ancient Daoists), had a very intimate connection to nature himself, in that he, like Darwin, was a routine walker. My suggestion, for now, is that the movement Nietzsche found in walking is representative of the way he lived his life, and provided a primary means according to which he could engage with the way of nature, and elucidate how he understood its function – much like it did, I think, for Darwin.
Perhaps you can tell then, but I’ve been giving a fair amount of thought to it these last few weeks, and I am prepared to say that I think this connection between Darwin and Nietzsche – though it is of course nothing more than my own analysis of the history, and is purely coincidental – is very much something worth paying attention to: especially if one is inclined to refine one’s relationship with nature, and to be able to engage with it critically at an elevated level of mindfulness. It’s of course not to say that ‘the reason’ these men were able to write, think, and live the way they did, was due to their walking – of course no one thing can be so responsible. It’s also not to suggest that simply by walking will we fall upon philosophical and scientific insights comparably novel and influential to those of Nietzsche and Darwin. But it is to point out that we stand to learn much from these two men whose insight about nature was so profound. It is to say, in other words, that we might do well to follow the footsteps (pardon the expression) of these thinkers, and take to walking: for there are few better ways to really be in nature and actively engage with it, and literally, ‘be green’. If we are so disposed, the result may not only be a greater connection to nature, but to the way it operates, functions, and how it can be thought of; and, – dare I say? – to our own natures. Indeed, this is the value of walking to me now. And though I think much of this is motivated by the way walking was approached and talked about by my parents when I was being raised as a youngster, much of it is motivated by my respect for, and gratitude for, key thinkers like Darwin and Nietzsche; and by how their thought has helped to shape my perspective on life and nature respectively.
Thus, I propose the following: to ‘Be Green’, I am going to walk. It’s already started actually. Having moved recently to St. John’s, I’ve been enjoying starting to walk on the city’s trails, of which there are plenty (indeed, this is one of the reasons I saw St. John’s, Newfoundland as a great place to live – because I knew this new found land was a place where there would be lots of land and sea to behold). And I am going to continue walking. I have a dog I’m now partly responsible for taking on walks for exercise, and I want to walk to help him stay healthy, but also (and frankly, more importantly) I want to get outside in nature (even when that means doing so in the blustery winter winds off the Atlantic in Mid-January…), and walking is how I’ll do it. Of course, by now it should be clear that I buy into the idea that walking is a way to get a better sense of one’s connection to nature, and to one’s understanding of it; I also happen to subscribe though, to the pretty sensible idea that walking is a great way of keeping the spine mobile and healthy, without putting a lot of pressure on it or putting it at risk of injury. In that way, I suggest walking as my way of really being green: of immersing myself in nature (not necessarily concentrating strictly on its preservation – on ‘keeping’ it green, so to speak) in a way supports my physical and mental wellbeing. My proposition is to walk outside a minimum of 20 hours (one hour each day for twenty days out of thirty, at least) between Dec. 25th 2014 and January 25th, 2015, and to continue that pursuit well into the future – and in fact make it part of my regular fitness and personal health routine. Today – Jan. 6th – I have already logged 8 hours. I’m certain that on a number of different fronts, I am already enjoying the fruits of my commitment to return to one of my oldest, and favourite, hobbies.