The great American playwright and novelist Thornton Wilder was an enthusiastic and inspired walker. He once wrote that “…one day’s walk is productive of one fifteen-minute scene.”
There’s little doubt — and scientific data backs it up — that walking is often not so much a physical act as a mental one. Wilder agreed: “Everything I’ve ever done has come into being that way, and I don’t think I could work out an entire play or novel at a desk now if I tried.”
I relate that story, not because I am an aspiring novelist or playwright, but because I feel this is a summer we all could use a little extra thinking time. We live in an ever more chaotic age — an, I-really-don’t-want-to-watch-the-news-tonight kind. We struggle with political turmoil, a global pandemic, dire changes in our climate, and so much social angst that Edvard Munch’s tortured soul in “The Scream” could be our national symbol. If hoofing a few miles a day helps me deal with it all, then so be it, and I’d encourage you to lace up your walking shoes, too.
I alternate between meandering at a leisurely pace in the woods or along a creek bank and pounding the road pavement with arms pumping to get my heart racing a bit; I actually try to accumulate steps by pushing my lawn mower more than what is necessary, too. I may grumble about the hillsides I have to cover, but I’m glad that exercise and work can co-exist.
Those three approaches to walking do as much or more for my mind than for my lungs; I walk, therefore I think. Walking — either with a camera in hand or cross-trainers on my feet or sweating in old grass-stained boots — rarely fails me in solving the issues of the blank page.
Although there is a growing revival for running enthusiasts — remember the Jim Fixx best-seller, “The Complete Book of Running” nearly 45 years ago? — walking may be just as good for you. Some research suggests that running just 5 minutes a day may be extremely beneficial for your heart and lungs, but I gave it up years ago when my feet and knees began to rebel. So, Joanie and I turned to walking together, and we both soon re-discovered something that we already knew: it helped us clear our heads and calm our nerves; something like a reorganization of our mental filing cabinets.
For more concrete proof, I turned to a not-so-recent story by health and diet expert Brianna Steinhilber, who writes for “NBCNewsBetter.” Her findings: Among boasting many other benefits, walking improves creativity and lowers stress and anxiety.
“A study published in the ‘British Journal of Sports Medicine’ found that those who adhered to a walking program showed significant improvements in blood pressure, slowing of resting heart rate, reduction of body fat and body weight, reduced cholesterol, improved depression scores with better quality of life and increased measures of endurance,” Steinhilber wrote. “While the physical benefits are notable, the mental boost that can be gleaned from adding a walk to your daily routine may be more immediate,” she added.
Steinhilber also addressed a landmark Stanford University survey that found that walking “increased creative output by an average of 60 percent,” determining it as “divergent thinking.”
For years, I taught a unit in my English courses about thinking, which featured a now nearly 50-year-old essay by Isaac Asimov called “The Eureka Phenomenon.” The piece, as blogger/geoscientist Mehdi Aharchaou says, is “…an insightful reflection on the power of involuntary thinking.” Asimov uses the Greek mathematician and inventor, Archimedes, as his primary subject, but gives many more examples of other great thinkers whose ideas came at the most unexpected times. One Scottish engineer, James Watt, got his revolutionary concepts on steam power as the result of a “leisurely Sunday afternoon walk.”
I also need to mention William Wordsworth, the poet. Wordsworth, idolized in his lifetime, lived to be 80, and it is estimated that he walked 180,000 miles, mostly through his beloved Lake District. In 1790, he and a companion averaged about 30 miles a day in a walking tour through Switzerland. Wordsworth has been referred to as a “pedestrian poet,” and in 1831, he wrote a sonnet called “Sweet Was the Walk,” a poem of reflection about childhood and how his perceptions of the world had changed as he aged. It was said that Wordsworth often loudly worked lines out as he walked gravel paths and country lanes — in other words, he talked to himself.
We are being warned that it is unwise to be out in this brutal July heat, and I am heeding that advice some. I cut two storm-blown trees last week in advance of the hottest days, knowing that I’d be more lethargic when the humidity pushed the heat index past 100 degrees. I’m trying to mow grass in shorter stints right now, too. I may take a little break from walking, particularly in blue jeans through the sticky woods, but as soon as it cools a bit, I’ll be back at my routine.
In 1804, Wordsworth wrote, “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” inspired by a walk he took with his sister, Dorothy. Impressed by a strip of daffodils they had encountered, and Dorothy’s diary entry about the effect they had on her, Wordsworth’s poem emphasizes the importance of imagination and nature in our lives.
To wander lonely as a cloud seems like good advice in this age of anxiety of ours.