Monday, May 10, 2010

Shank's mare

"What do you do now, Chet, that you are retired?"

"I saunter."

"Saunter? You mean walk? Amble? Gad about?"

"Yes, but more. I amble -- and I muse."

In his essay on Walking, Thoreau wonders about the origin of that delicious word saunter. He suggests that it is derived from idle people who roved about Europe during the Middle Ages asking for alms, under pretense of going a la Sainte Terre, that is, to the Holy Land. Children would cry, mockingly, "There goes a Sainte-Terrer," a saunterer. Thoreau likes this etymology as it suggests his own occupation as a peripatetic pilgrim, tramping about Concord and environs in search of natural grace.

But then he also supposes that the word might derive from sans terre, without a land or home. He likes this etymology too, if not having a home means being at home everywhere, which, he says, is the secret of successful sauntering.

All of which is lovely, and an invitation to be afoot, but the contemporary dictionaries I consulted say the word probably derives from the Middle English santren, to muse, which I rather like because it suggests what I am about in my genteel retirement -- walking and musing. It is my blessing, as readers of The Path will know, that my home and place of work are separated by woods and meadows and babbling brook, not quite a wilderness, but a kind of tamed wildness that fits my settled stage of life, and through which I saunter each day to and fro, observing and musing. In his essay on Walking, Thoreau says that a town surrounded by woods and meadows is fitted to raise not only corn and potatoes, but also poets and philosophers. I am grateful if a bit of that rubs off on me.

Walking and musing is a kind of idle vagrancy, I suppose, but the retirement check appears in my bank account each month which means I don't have to ask for alms and children don't mock me as I amble by.

Thoreau again, his final paragraph: "So we saunter toward the Holy Land, till one day the sun shall shine more brightly that ever he has done, shall perchance shine into our mind and hearts, and light up our whole lives with a great awakening light, as warm and serene and golden as on a bankside in autumn."