You're not built from the soles of your feet up — it's more like your head is a "castle in the air," with scaffolding reaching down to the ground.I started reading this book in pre-pandemic times, and set it aside to focus on other commitments. When I did pick it up from time to time, it made me angry. Trying to write about it now makes me angry. For all the wrong reasons. But I'll get to that.
A good portion of the book is very sciencey, exploring the evolutionary necessities and advantages of walking.
We are exceptional walkers, possibly the best walkers of all species.
And then it gets neurosciencey, explaining the brain activity that accompanies this particular form of physical activity, and why it's good for your well-being, bodily and mentally. The subprocesses at work even get a little metaphysical.
But the extra factor that helps us find our way is that humans are good at ruminating on our pasts and Imagining Alternative Futures — a capacity that is probably unique to us. The brain's GPS system taps into this and allows us to engage in mental time travel — via memories, or imagining alternative futures. This is a map of time, rather than space, but it is equally essential.
Walking is a way of being in the community. It is a social and a political act. It can mean to walk with someone and for something. It can be an end in itself.
The greatest achievement of this book is to serve as an argument for city planning to consider pedestrianism and "walkability: cities must be useful, safe, comfortable, and interesting."
A more walkable city, in straight, is a city that benefits us all in so many obvious and occult ways — obvious, because walkability adds to our health and well-being; occult, because walkability has so many hidden benefits for creativity, productivity and enriching our societies.
I was happy to learn that those dirt trails we tread into the grass have a name: desire paths — the beaten path from here to there that eschews poorly planned pavements, betraying the fact they were designed by people who think of public space as ornament, by people who live in suburbs, by people who prefer to drive.
[Unleash my body and my soul to imprint all their desire paths on the world.]
For a meandering view of walkability, see The Guardian's series, Walking the City.
O'Mara notes that Kierkegaard wrote that "Every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it." Kierkegaard grappled intensely with the existential despair of life and love; he did not, however, have to contend with the conditions of pandemic lockdown.
I miss walking. I walked to go places, and I walked for pleasure. The city under quarantine was encouraged to get out for some air, some exercise, and suddenly my world was invaded. My private pastime, my secret pleasure, was appropriated by everyone who used to work and dine and drink without taking particular note of their trajectories.
Walking is different now. Avoiding walkers and joggers, people lined up on sidewalks at pharmacies and hardware stores, people on sidewalks stopped to talk with people in their doorways. To maintain physical distance is engaging other brain functions — logistical calculations, risk assessments. Coupled with a general pandemic-onset panic reflex, walking is exhausting. And clearly, there are not enough sidewalks and green spaces for all of us to enjoy as we should.
I want to walk again, let my mind fly.
But mind-wandering is not mere idleness or time-wasting, at least by the common understanding of the term: rather, it is a necessary part of mental housekeeping, allowing us to integrate our past, present and future, interrogate our social lives, and create a large-scale personal narrative. If mind-wandering is idleness, it is a peculiar and active form of idleness — we are behaviourally quiescent, but mentally vigorous.
I do my best critical thinking and emotional processing when walking. I synthesize my reading, I formulate my writing. I find myself, and I own the ground I walk upon.