Saturday, April 03, 2004

Philosophical sidenotes: on walking

This morning I slept in a bit, then had to go out and run an errand at the Savings Bank up on Seventh Avenue. I stopped by the big coffee house down the street from me, got my large hazelnut coffee with lots of milk and sugar and then started up the hill.

After I did my business at the bank, I decided to do a little window-shopping along Seventh Avenue. It has been an overcast day (seven days in a row!) and the temperature has been a middling 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Nonetheless, there were lots of people out on the streets, perusing the wares of street vendors and stopping in and out shops, doing their grocery shopping, picking up the dry-cleaning, or meeting friends for brunch.

Despite the grayness and the slightly less than balmy temperatures, evidence of spring is abundant. Our local city-hardened songbirds were in full melodious swing: robin, cardinal, mockingbird, and English sparrows (these last aren’t so melodious, just a persistent and jaunty "chirp!" over and over).

I walked the length of the Avenue from Union Street to 9th Street then downhill on 9th back to Fifth Avenue and thence home. I was stopping in every florist and plant store along the way (a grand total of 4 along this route), observing their wares and their retail spaces. I’ve had an idea lately of opening up a plant store of some kind.

Thoreau tells us one "must walk like a camel, which is said to be the only beast that ruminates while walking." During the course of my perambulations, I fell to thinking how lucky I am to live in a place where I can conduct all of my personal business, and then some, on foot. -- I can even walk to work, at present, although that is more of a hike than a saunter.

Walking is an under-appreciated mode of transportation in America, and increasingly, I suspect, elsewhere in the developed world. This I note with some concern. We abandon walking at our peril.

I find myself grasping toward an ethical precept, a "moral imperative." Walking has value, and it would be better if humans lived in such a way that facilitated the use of walking for daily business and pleasure. How can I justify such a claim? What are the rational grounds for suggesting to people that they ought to walk, not drive, and that they ought to live in a place that facilitates walking?

When I walk, I am in intimate association with my environment. One sees and feels things one wouldn’t otherwise notice if not walking. Walking is also at a pace that allows one to savor and appreciate (or critically examine) one’s surroundings. Every technologically mediated form of transportation beyond walking removes one from intimate contact with one’s surroundings in greater and greater degrees. First it’s the bike and the rollerblades: zipping by a little faster than on foot, the small things become invisible. Then it’s the automobile, further sealing the traveler off from reality – the noise, the heat or cold, the wind and smells of life. Then there are trains and buses, and finally airplanes that magically transport us within a metal cocoon over vast stretches of the countryside such that we might lose all sense of the immensity of the intervening lands. It’s a common attitude among the New York cultural elite that nothing worth noticing exists between the Hudson River and the west coast. Everything in between is to be past over as quickly and painlessly as possible.

So walking is an exploration of the intimate connection we all have, whether we really want it or not, with nature – human nature as well as the non-human kind. When we don’t walk, we forget who we are, and we become oblivious to the multitude of injustices done against the earth – and against one another. Nature exists, even in the city. It’s doubly important for the urban and suburban dweller to feel the earth beneath his feet.

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“I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil – to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society. I wish to make an extreme statement, if so I may make an emphatic one, for there are enough champions of civilization: the minister and the school committee and everyone of you will take care of that.” – Henry David Thoreau, “Walking.”

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