On the whole, we don’t think much of walking anymore. It is a necessary act to transition from A to B, and even then a largely unwelcome one. Why walk when one can drive? Walking is the simplest and most base form of transport, but it has gradually been eradicated from public life. For those of us who live in cities, we rarely need to walk very far, because convenience capitalism means everything we need is located on our doorstep. Where before we would walk to learn, the computer revolution has brought all that has ever happened to our pockets; we move through digital realms, while sitting firmly still. And, on the off-chance that far-flung travel is required, we throw ourselves into machines which bring us in at one end of the world and out at the other.
This seemingly antiquated, bygone activity is the subject of Frédéric Gros’s A Philosophy of Walking, published by Verso in 2014, who seeks to re-establish the walk as an act vital to our mental wellbeing and identify it as the common thread running through our most iconic thinkers and writers. Gros elaborates his titular philosophy in luxurious prose, interspersed with recollections of figures ranging from Nietzsche to Gandhi and how walking infused their work.
When walking … we discover the immense vigour of starry night skies, elemental energies, and our appetites follow: they are enormous, and our bodies are satisfied.
The text is explicitly romantic; the benefits of walking, for Gros, are not so much its physical health benefits (though we also know this to be true) but rather its spiritual illumination. It can seem, if one wished to be unkind, like dross, some luvvy-duvvy rubbish totally detached from the real world. There is perhaps an element of truth in this, but the great joy of Gros’s writing is that the feelings and sensations he describes are both totally accurate and totally necessary – especially now, in a world where all kinds of movement have become politically and medically restricted.
Days of slow walking are very long: they make you live longer, because you have allowed every hour, every minute, every second to breathe, to deepen, instead of filling them up by straining the joints.
I have been an avid walker for the better part of a decade. It was around 2013 that I started thinking about physical exercise; I was, and am, terrible with most sports, the degree of physio-social embarrassment too high to allow joining any formalised teams. Running? Nope. It was to walking I turned, every evening, and I found great pleasure walking all over my home town of Winchester, with its quiet city streets and calming surrounding countryside. My friends and I would routinely make a walk the activity of choice, transporting ourselves across miles of open country, blissfully unaware of just how lucky we were. I was in secondary school at the time and I often visited my school grounds in the calm early evening; it was mine, then, transformed from a necessary prison to my own dominion. I have never been a slim man, and my appetite is often vast, but my propensity for long walks have created incongruity between my outwards size and my physical fitness; to put it bluntly, I can out-walk pretty much anyone I know.
In the years since, my fondness for walking has only grown deeper and expanded. I can barely function without a daily walk, and will always choose to use my own two feet over a car where possible. I’ve taken walking holidays; last year, I travelled around the UK by train and hardly sat down, covering about 155 miles. In July, I did the same, but across Europe instead. I would average around 15,000 steps per day and could easily have walked further, walking a total of 192 miles – the equivalent of travelling from Winchester to Manchester on foot.
In August, as per tradition, I was in Edinburgh for the Fringe. I booked an AirBnB far out in Linlithgow, learning early on that the last bus would leave the capital around 22:45, hardly ideal for us Fringe-goers whose exploits would stretch out into the early hours. My routine quickly became to get the late train, around midnight or 1AM, and walk the hour’s journey back to the flat. I have never known darkness, or silence, like I did on those walks. Away from city lights, the night took on a blackened blue that was almost holy; the rawest of coloured night, illuminating Scotland with sky stripped straight out of epic fantasy. And it was so, so quiet, clearing way for foot and thought to move as one. To begin with, I was afraid, that some ancient monster would snatch me into the hidden trees, but soon enough my fear fell away and flew – flew far afield, leaving just me, my mind, and two legs with which to move them.
Thoreau observed repeatedly that silence usually taught him more than the company of others.
A Philosophy of Walking is rich in emotive prose, but also in its multi-biographical nature. Gros’s focus on the walks of iconic thinkers provides an entirely new perspective on how we understand them. Nietzsche and Rousseau, for instance, found it impossible to work in stasis; Nietzsche would compose his most famous writings while walking, scribbling in notebooks for transcribing later. Thoreau, famously, wrote Walden while living as a hermit in the wilderness, without which he could never have worked, because it informed the very nature of his writing. Walking allowed Thoreau to “avoid the pitfalls of culture and libraries; for otherwise, what one writes is filled with the writing of others.” For Kant, who “never travelled, never left his native town,” daily walks around the same local route were a vital part of his strictly regimented day (which I shall not spoil here, but it is genuinely fascinating).
Alone, and surrounded – or rather filled – with the quiet murmur of animals and trees, the sigh of wind through the leaves, the rattle and creak of branches. Alone, and fulfilled. Because now he could breathe, breathe and surrender to a well-being slow as a forest path, without any thrill of pleasure but absolutely peaceful. A lukewarm happiness, persistent as a monotonous day: just to be there, to feel the rays of a winter sun on his face and hear the muffled creaking of the forest. Walking there, Rousseau listened: to the leaping of his heart, no longer assailed by worldly emotions, a heart no longer affected by society’s desires, but surrendered at last to its primary, natural beat.
Gros’s biographies are hardly the conclusive authority, either – plenty of history’s most cherished thinkers drew all their emotional intelligence and energy from the world around them, whether it is the idealisation of pastoral England found in Keats’s poetry and Tolkien’s Middle Earth or the vivid, smokey rendition of industrial London in the work of Dickens (who was a particularly prolific night-walker, an experience which has much more literature devoted to it, such as this lovely article from my friend Morgan). Though I can hardly claim to be in the same leagues as these men, my own filmmaking is inextricable from my walks. Unstuck is a film set almost entirely on foot, drawing from the tradition of the forest as a space of regeneration. Tales from the Apocalypse, its semi-sequel, brings the end of the world to the countryside: on their final days, young people find they would rather be outside than in, traversing gorgeous plains in search of meaning before death. Whether I am entangled in narrative knots, or feeling low, or lacking inspiration, or suggesting plans with friends or dates, or simply seeking pleasure that is all around me and costs nothing, the solution is always the same: to go for a walk, now with the words of Frédéric Gros in mind.
A Philosophy of Walking is a truly wonderful book, for the already-keen walker or they who are thinking of beginning, or those who lie in-between. I cannot recommend it enough.
The truth is that as soon as you start walking, all that noise, all those rumours, fade out. What’s new? Nothing: the calm eternity of things, endlessly renewed.