What is this life if, full of care
We have no time to stand and stare?
These words were penned by the Welsh poet W.H. Davies over a hundred years ago. Even as the world continues to progress rapidly in every way, and along it, also the pace of life, in every age there have been some voices that remind us about what we are losing as we rush headlong through our daily lives, in our quest to make a living. But as they remind us, are we, along the way not missing out on the simple joys of living?
One of the simplest joys is that of walking. Walking not as in getting from point A to point B, but walking for the sheer pleasure of it, with the senses attuned to the very act of moving while also imbibing the sights, smells and sounds around. And this sort of moving even has a word that defines it. The word is ‘saunter’.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the verb ‘saunter’ to mean ‘to walk along in a slow and relaxed manner without hurry or effort’; and the noun ‘saunter’ to mean a ‘leisurely stroll’. According to the Cambridge dictionary, ‘to saunter’ is to ‘walk in a slow and relaxed way, often in no particular direction’. Saunter probably derives from the Middle English word santren, which meant ‘to muse’. The first modern use of the word ‘saunter’ in its current form was in the 17th century.
Definitions aside, the concept of a walk such as this was best described and promoted by Henry David Thoreau an American author, poet, and natural philosopher, in the mid-nineteenth century. While he wrote about the joys of a simple life in nature, Thoreau’s essay Walking focuses on the spiritual importance of walking in nature. The essay was first published in 1862, after his death. For Thoreau, the goal or destination of walking is less important than the meditative state of mind which walking induces. He argues that walking cultivates curiosity and wonder, qualities which are often discouraged or undervalued in society.
The walking of which I speak has nothing in it akin to taking exercise, as it is called, as the sick take medicine at stated hours–as the swinging of dumb-bells or chairs; but is itself the enterprise and adventure of the day. If you would get exercise, go in search of the springs of life. Think of a man’s swinging dumbbells for his health, when those springs are bubbling up in far-off pastures unsought by him!
As Thoreau describes it, the genius of walking lies not in mechanically putting one foot in front of the other en route to a destination but in mastering the art of sauntering.
Many years after Thoreau, and at a time when the pace of life had become much faster, and preoccupations with “getting there” propelling every kind of journey, some people felt that it was necessary to remind ourselves that “stopping to smell the roses” along the way was not a waste of time.
Among these was an American WT Rabe who was concerned about the growing popularity of jogging as a fitness trend in the mid-1970s. Rabe was a Public Relations professional who combined his skills and concerns to encourage people to slow down and appreciate the world around them. Rabe was then working as a PR person for the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island in Michigan, which was famous for having the longest porch in the world. Rabe organised an event inviting people to spend a day taking a leisurely walk, free of stress and strain, focusing on the pure joy of the act. In other words–to saunter. Sauntering, as Rabe described it ‘is going from point X to point Z which means you don’t care where you’re going, how you’re going or when you might get there’. In response to this, thousands of people descended on the Grand’s famous front porch, simply to saunter (upon paying a fee of two dollars each). As Rabe’s idea caught on, and his followers increased, he went on to propose that there should be an annual day to celebrate the concept and the act. And so 19 June was designated as World Sauntering Day!
While this may be a successful PR gimmick, sauntering has its advocates among some of my favourite writers. Thoreau’s conviction was that walking should involve a ‘connection’ with our natural world and approached with the mind set of becoming ‘fully present’. He believed that ‘busy’ was a conscious decision. He spoke of returning to his ‘senses’ after a saunter in the wild.
These sentiments are beautifully echoed in a recent essay by Pico Iyer, a contemporary essayist and novelist known for his travel writing. The essay describes the same walk that he has taken for over twenty-five years in Nara a small town near Kyoto in Japan.
For years I used to take this walk as a break after five hours at my desk, a small reward, perhaps, for forcing myself to stay sitting through sunshine and mist. But then I began to notice something: walking shook things loose in me. The very act of ambulation sent my thoughts down different tracks. Movement in some ways—because I had no destination and didn’t have to notice where I was going—allowed my mind to run off the leash like a dog on a beach. If I was stuck at my desk, walking could unstick me.
As he further says, A wise friend from New York sent me his paraphrase from the American naturalist John Burroughs last year: To learn something new, take the same path you took yesterday.
Although this is not a day that is very well known, for most of us who spend a large part of our life with no time ‘to stand and stare’, World Sauntering Day is indeed a good reminder that it is important sometimes to be “pointless on purpose”. This Sunday, let’s celebrate the day with a saunter.