Tag Archives: Nature

Why walk when you can saunter?

Henry David Thoreau, 1856

Henry David Thoreau, 1856

When was the last time you had a good saunter?

Not a bracing walk on the beach after Sunday lunch, or a sweaty stroll around the shops, but a mind-emptying couple of hours spent outdoors, putting one foot in front of another?

Can’t remember? In that case you may be risking your happiness, your mental health, your limited days of existence as a sentient being in a world that offers soul-blinding experiential delights.

Henry David Thoreau thought you were. In 1861 he wrote his treatise ‘Walking’ (neatly summarised on this Brain Pickings post), in which he described the benefits of sauntering for those who otherwise endured a sedentary life.

By Thoreau’s standards that would be most of us nowadays. (Elsewhere in ‘Walking’ he writes: “I am astonished at the power of endurance, to say nothing of the moral insensibility, of my neighbors who confine themselves to shops and offices the whole day.”)

The Walden philosopher, at leisure to stroll thanks to – it seems – the donut-baking generosity of his mother and sister, extols us to get up and move.

But it’s not that simple.  Sauntering is not a physical act, it’s a mental one.

You can stroll off along a beach, for an hour or more (as I often do), believing that you’re immersing yourself in nature and renewing your sensibilities. But you’re wasting your time – the act of motion is not enough.

Dollymount Strand, March 2015

Dollymount Strand, March 2015

How often we find ourselves strolling while distracted? Thoughts of the day-to-day easily pervade – work, appointments, plans. How much of my walk is wasted as I  fiddle with my iPod’s song selections or its ear buds?

Thoreau again: “The thought of some work will run in my head and I am not where my body is — I am out of my senses. In my walks I would fain return to my senses. What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods?”

So even the great Transcendentalist himself pondered his shopping list while perambulating around Walden Pond.

Aware of this, Thoreau set to practice what he dubbed ” the art of walking”, the highest form of which was the act of sauntering: walking with a presence of mind, a focus on the body, the land, the air, the everything, and with the affairs of “the village” left behind.

It doesn’t come easy. Thoreau stated that “it requires a direct dispensation from Heaven to become a walker”.

Or just finding the right path.

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Meeting Hemingway above Howth

'Even the surface had been burned off the ground.'

‘Even the surface had been burned off the ground.’

There was no town, nothing but the rails and the burned-over country. The thirteen saloons that had lined the one street of Seney had not left a trace. The foundations of the Mansion House hotel stuck up above the ground. The stone was chipped and split by the fire. It was all that was left of the town of Seney. Even the surface had been burned off the ground.
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Six years after the First World War Ernest Hemingway wrote his short story Big Two-Hearted River.

In 1918, on his first day posted in the village of Fossalta in northern Italy as an ambulance driver, the 19-year-old Hemingway found himself combing a field for body parts, following a munitions factory explosion.

Days later he was seriously injured when a mortar shell exploded close to him. He was hospitalised for six months in Milan and left Italy on his discharge in early 1919.

Ernest Hemingway fishing at Walloon Lake, Michigan, 1916. Pic: USNARA

Ernest Hemingway fishing at Walloon Lake, Michigan, 1916.
Pic: USNARA

What he witnessed in his brief time in northern Italy provides a context to a number of the writer’s early works.

It’s perhaps most explicit in Big-Two Hearted River, written in 1925. The story documents a hunting trip in Northern Michigan, undertaken by newly-discharged narrator Nick Adams.

It is is read as a parable for the rejuvenating powers of nature, as Nick leaves the burnt-out town of Seney behind to hike and hunt into the uplands, to locate a place where “nothing could touch him”.

It also introduces a trope that would recur in Hemingway’s later writing: the juxtaposition of mountain against the plain, one representing purity, healing and principle, the other baseness, danger or corruption.

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Last Sunday my wife and I left the city and travelled to Howth, a coastal village 15km north of Dublin’s centre. It had been a long time since we’d hiked. Weeks of the day-to-day had led us both to simultaneously suggest the trip.

Leaving behind the crowds of visiting students, strolling families and traffic we hiked out and above the village to a coastal trail which winds along the cliffs overlooking the Irish Sea.

An hour in, walking the cliff path, we turned a corner and hiked into Nick Adams’ Seney.

The hillside all around was scorched and blackened and the sea air smelt liked cinders.

Days or weeks earlier a fire had been set, burning the grass under the gorse off the ground and much of the gorse itself, with the exception of some golden leaves above the fire line.

All that remained below were burned-up beer cans and glass, and an expanse of dusty black earth.

We walked on, up and out through the desolation to where we turned and there, from a height and in the distance and the clearing air, was the sight of Dublin Bay and the Baily Lighthouse.

We had reached our destination, a hillside washed green by recent rains. The sun shone on the water, the Dublin mountains framed the bay, nothing could touch us.

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Seney was burned, the country was burned over and changed, but it did not matter. It could not all be burned. He knew that…
Two hundred yards down the hillside the fire line stopped. Then it was sweet fern, growing ankle high, to walk through, and clumps of jack pines; a long undulating country with frequent rises and descents, sandy underfoot and the country alive again.

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'Nothing could touch us.' Dublin Bay and the Baily Lighthouse.

‘Nothing could touch us.’ Dublin Bay and the Baily Lighthouse.

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*The excerpts above from ‘Big Two-Hearted River’ are from The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway: The Finca Vigia Editon (Scribner, 1987)

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The (dropped) call of the wild

Croagh Patrick from Murrisk (on a smartphone), February 2014.

Croagh Patrick from Murrisk (on a smartphone), February 2014.

CONTACT with nature is good for you?

After two months of Atlantic storms most Irish people would disagree. Nature, by way of gales and floods, has well and truly come to us.

Isn’t it supposed to be the other way round?

Richard Louv thinks so. Sheltering indoors from last week’s tempests I came across an article in which he proposes ten reasons why we need more contact with the natural world.

Most of the ten are less than mind-blowing (‘nature brings our senses alive’), but a couple are interesting (‘we suffer when we withdraw from nature’).

His overall message is straightforward: ignore the gales (and whatever else) and get out there.

Just as well. The following day we planned to drive 280km across the country to Westport, facing a forecast of storm-forced winds, sleet and snow.

Snow, north Roscommon. Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Snow, north Roscommon.
Pic: Clare Kleinedler

But after a month spent in the city, and much of that indoors, at home or in the office, a windswept trip West was mentally necessary – whatever the weather.

Driving across the Midlands, washed out and browny bleak, Louv’s main point recurred to me: the more hi-tech our lives become the more nature we need.

Conveniently the thought resurfaced as our mobile phone coverage began to dip in and out across the flatlands of north Roscommon.

By the time we reached Co Mayo thoughts of nature took a backseat to the more immediate task of driving through it, as visibility dropped and the journey was reduced to a 60kph crawl.

Far from stressful (though AMII might have disagreed) the drive was oddly relaxing. Confronted with a wall of white and driving over freezing sleet there was nothing to do but focus on the road, or what could be seen of it, and keep going.

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THE snow made an impression on the landscape too.

The following dawn we awoke to an ominous Croagh Patrick, its peak above Westport clouded in grey.

As the morning drew on, and the skies cleared, revealing an ice-covered mountain top.

After coffee in Westport we drove to Murrisk, at the foot of the mountain. We didn’t plan to climb it this time, but couldn’t resist driving a couple of miles out for a closer peak.

A previous visit to Croagh Patrick, November 2010.

A previous visit to Croagh Patrick, November 2010.

Some 760 metres above lay the summit, and we could just make out the shape of the church on it. Having climbed The Reek a number of times I’d never seen it so clear, in such pristine northerly air.

I could, of course, have witnessed the same vista without leaving my sitting room in Dublin, sifting through innumerable online photos of the mountain. But how could that compare?

A month of laptop browsing was worth just a second stood underneath the real thing.

Here was just path, wind, slope and scree, with snow on top. The full, analogue majesty of the outdoors;  our senses ignited, our souls replenished by contact with nature, and not a smart phone in sight.

They sat in our pockets, untouched.

Untouched, that was, until we needed to snap the scene.

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