This is part of a series on solitude by Jennifer Stitt, a historian of modern American thought, culture, and politics working on her Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This piece on walking and solitude is the second of five short essays that will be published monthly. Read the first installment, “Listening to Silence, Hearing the Unspeakable” here.
Six years after delving into the wilderness of Walden Woods in search of the silence of solitude, Henry David Thoreau delivered a lecture that would develop into one of his most meaningful essays, “Walking, or, The Wild” (1861). Promoting a philosophy of pedestrianism, Thoreau proclaimed, “Every walk is a sort of crusade.” He described the centrality of walking to his daily life, asserting, “I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.”
For Thoreau, walking was not just a physical practice. It was also a spiritual exercise, a pilgrimage into both the self and the world, and it had become central to his thought and writing. “I believe in the forest, and in the meadow, and in the night in which the corn grows,” he declared. “When I would recreate myself, I seek the darkest woods, the thickest and most interminable and, to the citizen, most dismal, swamp. I enter a swamp as a sacred place.” In 1853, he noted in his journal, “It is worth the while to walk in wet weather; the earth and leaves are strewn with pearls.” Like a pearl diver, Thoreau turned the wilderness into his ocean, collecting treasures from nature’s depths, and from those pearls, he constructed a map of his “inner mindscape.” Walking, he wrote, allows us “to be able to see ourselves, not merely as others see us, but as we are.”
Meandering through the woods deliberately, slowly, lingering hither and thither, mirrored the thinking activity itself, and Thoreau’s writing increasingly began to reflect his solitary sojourns. His teacher Ralph Waldo Emerson observed of his pupil, “The relation of body to mind was still finer than we have indicated. . . . The length of his walk uniformly made the length of his writing. If shut up in the house he did not write at all.”
Suffocated by the crowd of the city, alienated by its deafening mechanical din, Thoreau found freedom in the solitude of nature again and again and again. But he insisted that his walking away from modernity was not a renunciation of the world; it was not retreat, nor surrender, nor a solipsistic escape from society. His perambulatory crusade was, as he put it, a “reconquering [of the] Holy Land from the hands of the Infidels.” Indeed, his walks empowered him to bear witness not just to the world’s beauty but also to America’s sins. Nature provided him with the space to wrestle with the nation’s crimes, to confront the evils of empty materialism, war, and slavery.
Walking made Thoreau’s thought possible—and his thought refashioned America’s moral landscape. “America is said to be the arena on which the battle of freedom is to be fought,” he vented. “Do we call this the land of the free? What is it to be free from King George and continue the slaves of King Prejudice?” In the spring of 1851, Boston had capitulated to the South, returning runaway slaves to the chains of bondage under the Fugitive Slave Act. Twenty-five miles away, Thoreau spoke at the Concord Lyceum: “I feel that I owe my audience an apology for speaking to them tonight on any other subject than the Fugitive Slave Law on which every man is bound to express a distinct opinion—but I had prepared myself to speak a word now for Nature—for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture simply civil—to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of nature.” The walker, he went on to explain, remained utterly unfettered in the wilderness, free from the false god Mammon and from the tyranny of a corrupt community. No political law could violate the walker’s moral freedom; wanderers would discover beauty and justice in the natural world and would return, armed with those higher principles, to transform society. “We saunter toward the Holy Land,” he avowed, “till one day the sun shall shine more brightly than ever he has done, shall perchance shine into our minds and hearts, and light up our whole lives with a great awakening light.”
In the twentieth century, Mahatma Gandhi, inspired by Thoreau’s teachings, advanced a doctrine of nonviolent civil disobedience called Satyagraha—a philosophy that would eventually help lead India into independence in 1947. Literally “clinging to truth,” or “Truth-force,” Satyagraha required the individual to cultivate herself in preparation for disciplined group action; the Satyagrahi vowed to peacefully withdraw her cooperation from the unjust state, from a tyrannical regime no longer capable of distinguishing between fact and fiction, good and evil, truth and falsehood. Through the practices of “self-control, simplicity of life, suffering without fear or hatred, recognition of the unity of all living beings, and whole-hearted . . . service of one’s neighbors,” the Satyagrahi could join together with others to participate in large-scale peaceful protests.
In 1930, Gandhi devoted twenty-four days to walking the countryside of India. He marched 241 miles to the sea, sauntering from his ashram near Ahmedabad to the coastal village of Dandi in order to defy British rule by refusing to cooperate with a punitive salt tax. “Ours is a sacred pilgrimage,” he announced. “Disobedience combined with love is the living water of life. Civil disobedience is a beautiful variant to signify growth.”
The method itself—walking, putting one foot in front of the other, stepping slowly here, striding more quickly there—was as significant as the political freedom that Gandhi’s actions symbolized. Walking was democratic. The poorest, most impoverished people could participate in the Salt March, and they did. It was “even open to children of understanding,” Gandhi pointed out, and women “can stand shoulder to shoulder with men in the struggle.” By the end of the march, tens of thousands of Indians had joined in acts of mass civil disobedience, and more than 80,000 were arrested, 17,000 of whom were women. “A Satyagrahi, whether free or incarcerated, is ever victorious,” Gandhi told his followers. “He is vanquished only when he forsakes truth and non-violence and turns a deaf ear to the Inner Voice.”
Like Thoreau and Gandhi, hundreds of thousands of Americans listened to their inner voices and fought for freedom by peacefully walking during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. They famously marched on Washington, D.C., where 250,000 people bore witness to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream; they marched from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, risking arrest and subjecting their bodies to violence in order to secure voting rights for African Americans; and in 1963, thousands of black students climbed out of schoolhouse windows to protest racial segregation and danced down the streets of downtown Birmingham, Alabama, swaying and shimmying from the Sixth Street Baptist Church to Kelly Ingram Park, where Bull Connor’s fire hoses and police dogs could not drown out the chorale of children’s voices singing:
Ain’t gonna let nobody
Turn me around,
Turn me around.
Ain’t gonna let nobody
Turn me around.
I’m gonna keep on a-walkin’, Lord,
Keep on a-talkin’, Lord,
Marchin’ up to freedom land.
Walking has a long history, as long as human life itself. The idea that the solitary pilgrimage so frequently inspired social protests remains as one of our wonderfully perplexing paradoxes. But it makes sense when we pause to contemplate the act of walking. As Rebecca Solnit points out in Wanderlust, her lyrical meditation on the meanings and uses of pedestrianism, “The impulse to organize around walking is at first an odd one. After all, those who value walking often speak of independence, solitude, and the freedom that comes from lack of structure and regimentation. But there are three prerequisites to going out into the world to walk for pleasure. One must have free time, a place to go, and a body unhindered by illness or social restraints. These basic freedoms have been the subjects of countless struggles.”
In 2017, we have seen those struggles continue. In the United States alone, there was the Women’s March on Washington in January; in April, the March for Science; and in August and September, marches against white supremacy in the wake of violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. It seems as if we are realizing—even in our electronic era of hashtag activism, YouTube sensations, and Twitter-vised (no longer televised) revolutions—the power of “praying with our feet,” of walking away from our computer screens and sauntering into the streets.
Too often we forget our own power as individuals to effect change, to stand up to the daily injustices we too frequently ignore. The past is always ambiguous, and it never provides us with prophets. But it can remind us of what is at stake. History can remind us that those brave millions who marched for freedom had the capacity to turn their thought into action and their action into thought. On our walks into the wilderness, we can see ourselves as we are. We can see our worlds, and we can reimagine and redraw our moral maps—if we remember to keep walking toward that great awakening light.
Jennifer Stitt is a historian of modern American thought, culture, and politics who earned a B.A. and M.A. in history from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She’s working on her Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She lives and writes in Birmingham.