Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The peace that passeth

Every day has its walk. Almost always in the mid or late afternoon, ideally in sunshine, but if not, in rain or mist, out across the parish, keeping to the backroads, bothareens and beaches, three or four miles at least, just to keep the machinery going, the 75-year-old legs from locking up, the four-chambered engine ticking.

Exercise, yes, but not just physical. Walking offers something else, something that running or biking doesn't encourage -– reflection and observation. The brain functions at a bipedal speed. It ambles, it lurches, it dawdles, it pauses. One foot in front of the other. One thought in front of another. The Irish naturalist Robert Lloyd Praeger, who walked all over Ireland in the early years of the last century, spoke of walking with "reverent feet." Reverence involves the whole body, the whole self –- brain, heart, soul, pedal extremities. Pede-temptim. Deo gratias.

When Americans walk, we tend to fit ourselves out with Vibram boots and backpacks and a bone-crushing burden of high-tech accouterments and head uphill into rugged terrain. Hiking, we call it. Unless walking is seriously rigorous we don't really see the point. In Britain and Ireland the emphasis is on a more gentle perambulation, here and there, this and that. Rambling, they call it. Sauntering. Traipsing. Shank's mare.

In my younger years I put twenty-five pounds of equipment on my back and labored up and down the mountains of New England. I suppose I enjoyed it, but all I remember is the pain, the stumbling over rocks, the slogging through snow, head down, eyes on the next footfall. These days, I have converted to a more Thoreauvian wanderlust, more in the British style. A water bottle. A Kit-Kat bar. The wind at my back.

With reverent feet, said Praeger, "through the hills and valleys, accompanied by neither noise nor dust to scare away wild creatures, stopping often, watching closely, listening carefully."