The Story of Here Begins

To read the first post in this series, "The Story of Here Begins" click here.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

To Walk is Human

Some days all I really want to do is this: pull on my most comfortable shoes; change out of jeans into loose-fitting pants—made of linen, perhaps—that flow in a breeze like wind waves on a wheat field; put on my straw hat, seasoned over the years to the shape of my head; throw a handmade bag over my shoulder, with a bottle of water inside, something for lunch, and a notebook for writing in—and walk.

Just walk, that’s all.

Notice, I didn’t say “walk away”. This is not about escape. I have an improbably excellent life. It is excellent because I’m blessed with: a one of a kind wife, children, and other loving people; satisfying labor on the farm and at my writing desk; the will to help leave behind a better world than I found, and enough hope to sustain me when that work grows hard.

It is “improbable” because I routinely break the great social taboo of our time—that is, nothing about my excellent existence makes very much money. If the edge of an ordinary knife is a precarious place to balance a life, think of us as living on the high, thin ridge of an upturned scalpel. As a consequence, I’m not expected to describe my life in positive terms. I am supposed to feel poor and hang my head like a proper “failure” should. Going around like that for a while is supposed to motivate me to settle down and live responsibly. But, I might as well confess: it’s not going to happen. At 50, I’ve claim the right to borrow a line from the great American poet, Robert Bly: “This is my life, just shut up if you don’t understand it” (from “The Russian”, in Morning Poems). In fact, I’ve developed the annoying habit (from the point of view of people made uncomfortable by my choices) of being quite happy anyway, in spite of my financial disabilities.

For instance, to walk makes me happy. To walk my little circle of earth, here, now. This is how one dictionary defines it: “to move or travel on legs and feet, alternately putting one foot a comfortable distance in front of, or sometimes behind, the other, and usually proceeding at a moderate pace. When walking, as opposed to running, one of the feet is always in contact with the ground, the one being put down as or before the other is lifted.”

I love the simplicity and the hidden wisdom in this description:

To move or travel on legs and feet.” No machines needed. No license, no certification, or college degree. Walking doesn’t violate Thoreau’s warning to “beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.” It’s low-tech and low-budget. If you’ve got legs and feet, you’re ready to go.

“Putting one foot a comfortable distance in front of, or sometimes behind, the other, and usually proceeding at a moderate pace.” A comfortable, moderate pace. Anything more and you aren’t walking any longer, you are running. Walking is, by definition, counter-cultural, since speed in all things (food, sex, communication, entertainment, work) is the new normal.

“One of the feet is always in contact with the ground.” Grounded. In contact. Connected. Aware. Hmm. Sounds pretty good in a disintegrating world.


Among people who are aware of peak oil, climate change, and the myriad limits to perpetual “growth”, there is little disagreement that something’s got to give. We understand the need to “power down” our civilization thoughtfully and systematically, as Richard Heinberg suggests; and to “transition” to a saner way of living, á la Rob Hopkins. We know the stakes and appreciate the sense of urgency. What sometimes escapes us, however, especially those of us new to the conversation, is knowing where to start. What to do?

One typical response is to look where we’ve always looked in modern times—to the future, and to some new set of emerging ideas or technologies. I have no crystal ball, but I suspect that this particular treasure chest is all but empty. These days, every new innovation, however well conceived, is saddled with the sandbags of “peak everything” right out of the starting gate. That’s the very nature of our predicament. And, as Einstein said, we are unlikely to solve our problem using the same thinking that created it in the first place.

On the other hand, I’m not a big fan of Little House on the Prairie nostalgia, either. Anything we do to power down can be called “new” because, in all of history, nothing like it has ever been done before—has never been necessary before. What worked for our ancestors simply won’t do for us, if for no other reason than there are now nearly seven billion of us (and counting). And yet, it’s impossible for me to shake the feeling that there are answers for us in what is old about human life. Very old. Things so foundational that exploring them might constitute a reset button for the mind, a pathway back to a time before our thinking became so prone to creating more problems than we can solve.

Where to start? How about remembering the things that have been with us since we first stood up out of the African grasses and became human? How about learning how to walk again?


Of all the “first-time” milestones in a baby’s life—first tooth, first word, first haircut—there is only one with the power to instantly stop traffic and command our undivided attention. To witness it is a miracle; to miss it, a tragedy. Who knows how much money Kodak has made over the decades, and how many long distance minutes AT&T has racked up, helping young parents capture and celebrate this seminal moment in their child’s life: his or her first steps.

Even the startled toddler seems to know the importance of the landmark she’s just passed. Moving around on all fours, she has had more in common with the family dog than with her parents and siblings. Now, rising like a monarch on coronation day, she literally moves up in the world.  She enters society as a self-motivating member.  Her hands are free to discover (all the breakable things Mom hasn’t yet moved to safety), to create unique sounds (on kitchen pots and pans), and to reorder the world to her liking (by pulling all the books off the shelf in the living room). Crawling, she might as well have been in handcuffs. Walking—well, it’s a whole new world.

Let’s be honest: To walk is the essence of “human-ness”. It is what we do—or did, rather, prior to the 20th century. It’s what we are built for, and a big part of what distinguishes us from the rest of the primates. The motion of walking is circular, not linear, seen clearly in the movement of hands and feet. This establishes a rhythm to living that can’t be rushed or avoided, and one that is attuned to universal oscillations of sun and moon and stars. In times past, we’d put one foot in front of the other, at a comfortable, moderate pace, for our whole lives. If you wanted to get there, or return, you walked. And in the process, you took your place—and proved you belonged—in the dance of creation.

Now days, we take our first ecstatic steps and promptly sit back down. Parents clap and cheer and take a few snaps, then slap us in a car seat; a stroller; an airplane; a medieval torture device now known as a school desk; and of course, an easy chair in front of the TV or computer. It is a sitting, riding life now, one we no longer question—“just the way things are”. We don’t walk unless we have to, or it is a symptom of mental or emotional distress. Don’t believe me? Try this: casually announce to your friends and neighbors that you plan to walk farther than the distance to your mailbox. Watch how fast they offer you a ride, assuming—of course—the only logical explanation is that your car is in the shop. Refuse the ride, and watch how fast they start asking if everything is okay with you—the other options being marital difficulty, mental breakdown, midlife crisis, etc.


It has been said that all politics is local. This means, I suppose, that elections always boil down to single votes and the relative satisfaction of single voters. If you are a politician, hobnob with well-heeled lobbyists all you want, but in the end you’d better make sure you’ve taken care of the home crowd. The same could be said of all aspects of the coming descent and eventual collapse of our present way of life—it’s all local. We can stay up all night long, like would-be emperors engrossed in a high stakes game of Risk, debating the fate of nations, and why civilizations always seem to collapse at the peak of power. We can convene another Continental Congress to resuscitate the constitution with rhetoric of the highest caliber. But at the end of the day, if we don’t know our neighbors; if we don’t know where our food is coming from in a pinch; if water is something that just magically appears in the pipe; if we haven’t got a clue what is within walking distance of our homes—well, you get the idea. All that global thinking will be worth exactly nothing.

In other words, to prepare for a local collapse requires me to know what’s here in my local part of the world. The most reliable way to do that—here comes my point—is to get out of your car and walk your neighborhood from time to time. I’m not talking about a Gandhi-esque march to the sea. Just a commitment to put one foot in front of the other at a comfortable and moderate pace once in a while.

Think of it this way. If you drive down a street in your neighborhood, and then I ask you what is there, you’ll probably say, “A bunch of houses, some parked cars, a couple of kids blocking the street throwing a football.”

Try it again, on foot. This time (so long as you go with an attitude of curiosity and engagement) you will notice Richard watering his front-yard tomato plants. You admire them and find that he is eager to talk. He’s eighty-seven (but doesn’t look more than 75) and he’s lived in that house since it was built in 1956. He points to three other houses still occupied by original owners. He lost his wife to cancer and his son to a heart attack. But he still has his garden.

As you move on, one of the kids in the street overthrows a pass right into your arms. His name is Ernesto—and it was a hell of throw. He hopes to play quarterback in high school in a couple years, then, who knows what could happen? His friend, Daniel, would rather play football on the Wii, but his mom made him come outside. You toss the ball a few times and keep walking.

In an open garage you see a young woman with spiked hair and baggy pants. She is busy at work on an astonishing, large format painting of a tropical waterfall with a Technicolor parrot in the foreground—using ordinary spray paint cans. You stop in and ask how she learned to paint like that? “On the side of railroad cars,” she answers. But she doesn’t do that shit any more.

Betsy, a local librarian, is out walking her Pomeranian dogs. Several peach trees are almost ready to harvest. Some young kids have set a sprinkler on their trampoline, throwing water over half the street every time they bounce. A rabbit nibbles grass in the shade of a grape arbor.

Not in a thousand drive-bys would you see as much. Walking is how we belong to the world. It’s how we belong to each other. It’s how we see best what’s coming—for us, not for people half-way across the country or the world—and how we know what to do about it. It’s how we begin tuning ourselves to the frequency of a post-oil world.

There’s more to say, but it’s time to stop talking about it—and go take a walk.


Robin Datta said...

Yes, indeed we are the only bipedal mammal extant, walking on hind legs for about 2 million years. Aves have been bipedal since their saurischian dinosaur forebears, some 60+ million years (even before their forelimbs were dedicated to flight). The consequences of such a recent evolutionary change are that the bugs haven't been worked out of the system: degenerative disk disease in the lower back and degenerative joint disease, particularly in the knees are both conditions awaiting further adaptation.

The more of a cocoon we carry in our assisted locomotion, the less we are aware of the real world out there: a car is effective insulation from the surroundings. Also the greater the velocity, the less time available to process sensory input: this partly accounts for the difference between bicycling and motorcycling (the other being the physical effort involved).

HanZiBoi said...

Love it! Makes me think of Ivan Illich...although he thought bicycles were OK too. I bicycle much more than I walk - usually I'm going 12 miles or so each way to meetings and such. I think the visceral experience is somewhere between driving and walking.

Perhaps you will like this twist on things:

Robin Datta said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
MonkeyMuffins said...


10 months ago I donated my car and began walking, 7 days a week, the mile-to and -from my parents' house down the road (for the past two years I've been steadily increasing my daily work helping my eighty-six year old parents: mom has early-stage Alzheimer's; dad needs general help).

It easily ranks as one of the best decisions I've made in my forty-four year old life.

I've lost 41 pounds-and-counting as a result, to name but one of the numerous-and-evolutionary physical, mental and emotional benefits.

Keep Walking!

Regarding living with less:


my family is one in which some of us are forever getting screwed into the dirt by the powers that be, while others "make" money-from-money or "intellectual property", or facilitate the corporate thugs who do.

all my life, i've instinctively known the money-side of the family is, essentially, screwing the dirt-side; a microcosm of our larger predicament: have's versus have-nots in overshoot.

but we're not supposed to notice
let alone talk about it

on occasion
i've been foolish enough
to be honest

honesty hurts

i'm forever caught in between
unable to commune with either side

relentlessly bashing my head
in bloody vain
against the unyielding
walls of family

i'm perceived as the "loser"
the "failure"

the weirdo who doesn't get it
the idiot who just doesn't understand

because i don't work
a soul-crushing, atomizing
meaningless nine-to-five
and i didn't buy a wife and family
and a massive-pile-of-debt
and i couldn't "afford"
to lock away my parents
at the first sign of "obsolescence"

you know what i mean -- i'm not successful!

if that's success

i wanna be a failure!

i wanna give it all up

i wanna live, after mom and dad are gone, somewhere else
far away from here
far away from this penumbra of family (*)
far away from the shame of being sane
far away from the silence of truth
far away from this way-of-life that is,
as George Carlin would have said
"stunningly full of sh-t!"

i know it happens

maybe not for me, in the end

but it happens

most people still live real lives
the way human primates
have always lived

outside this nightmarish dream

living and laughing
suffering and dying

within limits
of Earth

but free

it's terrifying
and comforting
at the same time

they are my inspiration
they are my role models

thank you!


(*) though i am tasting family, as i've never known it, working so closely on the mundane with mom and dad each day. whatever happens in the future, at forty-four, this is the best time of my life.

John said...

My grandfather passed away in 1981 at the age of 96 years old. I knew him as a quiet and content man, with a kind heart. He would play baseball with us, even when he was in his 80's -- very active for his age!

Years after his passing, I found out that when given the opportunity, he would walk to a place rather than drive. Even if miles away, he would prefer to walk. I expect he walked to places all through his life, and a long life it was.

On a different note and scale -- sometimes I fly across the country to visit family and friends. Other times I drive across. Whenever I fly, the morning after the flight when I wake up back in my home, I wake up and get the feeling of 'Was I really there?' -- I am suddenly in another place, with almost no transition. When I drive across the country, I allow my thoughts to transition from being in one place, to being in another. I slowly shift from the lush green of the east, to the open lowlands, to the prairie, and back to the arid mountains. The connection between the two places is part of the traveling experience. I have more of a sense that the trip was real (although driving that far can be tedious!)

Similar feelings of transition from one place, and state of mind, to another happens when I bike, rather than drive. And, of course, the treat of the weekend is the walk or hike, to take you away from the noise of the city (and Rapid City can be an urban and a noisy place), to the quite of the Black Hills. Walking (and biking) provide the natural pace that allows the mind the time to accept the journey.

Alan Ray said...

Wonderful comments! Thank you.

Sankar said...

Your write up reminds me of this passage from ‘Immortality’ (1990) by Milan Kundera

"...For eight days I had been scrapping my shoes on the stones of the roads…writes Rimbaud.
Road: a strip of ground over which one walks. A highway differs from a road not only because it is solely intended for vehicles, but also because it is merely a line that connects one point with another. A highway has no meaning in itself; its meaning derives entirely from the two points that it connects. A road is a tribute to space. Every stretch of road has meaning in itself and invites us to stop. A highway is the triumphant devaluation of space, which thanks to it has been reduced to a mere obstacle to human movement and waste of time.
Before roads and paths disappeared from the landscape, they had disappeared from the human soul: Man stopped wanting to walk, to walk on his own feet and to enjoy it. What’s more, he no longer saw his own life as a road but as a highway: a line that led from one point to another, from the rank of captain to the rank of general, from the role of wife to the role of widow. Time became a mere obstacle to life, an obstacle that has to be overcome by ever greater speed.
Road and highway; these are also two different conceptions of beauty. When Paul says that at a particular place the landscape is beautiful, that means: if you stopped the car at that place, you might see a beautiful fifteenth century castle surrounded by a park; or a lake reaching far into the distance, with swans floating on its brilliant surface.
In the world of highways, a beautiful landscape means: an island of beauty, connected by a long line with other islands of beauty.
In the world of roads and paths, beauty is continuous and constantly changing; it tells us at every step: “Stop!”
The world of roads was the world of fathers. The world of highways was the world of husbands. And Agnes’s story closes like a circle: from the world of road to that of highways, and now back again. For Agnes is moving to Switzerland. That decision has already been made, and this is the reason that throughout the last two weeks she has been feeling so continuously and madly happy..."

Sankar said...

I am really touched by your article..thanks !!

Anonymous said...

I watch people and think that we have forgotten how to stand or walk.

The skeleton is for bearing weight, the muscles are for moving. If you leave the weightbearing to the strong pelvic bones, the leg bones, to the supple spine that is cushioned with fluid (so beautifully designed!), you can 'melt' away neck or back pain which is caused by tensed muscles. Bones support, muscles move.

Then, if you let the weight of your body drop into the ground, you will feel the Earth push back. Equal and opposite force. The more weight you pour into the earth, the more will come back, and you will be propelled, feel light.

I was so stunned when I recently watched an old b/w film on an African ritual harvest dance. They moved like gazelles, they stood still so beautifully.

Then, on the way home, I was shocked to compare how people stood or moved on the sidewalks, shuffled down the subway stairs, stood heavily waiting for buses. (True, we would perk up at dance parties, too.)

Still, even though we have more than those people in the film ever had, we did let go of important, basic things.

Alan Ray said...


Excellent description of the power of walking. Thanks.

The big question is, having let go of basic things, what must we do to pick them back up again?

By the way, I found your site to be very entertaining and refreshing.