One thing I have managed to do in the course of this weird summer is read. Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust: A History of Walking takes me a few further steps (ha) along the trail I have been following with Kimmerer, Abrams, and Odell. Call it a reaction against the virtualization of so much of life due to the pandemic, but my non-fiction reading has centered life in the physical world, in the body as a site of movement and volition. It has been about slowing down, stepping back, conserving space in which one can exist as a physical entity in relation to other physical entities, whether those are Odell’s birds or Kimmerer’s mosses or the sidewalks, streets, and paths.
Solnit’s book is a history, an exploration, a celebration, a tentative eulogy for walking as a cultural practice in the West. Philosophers, pilgrims, writers, record-setters, poets, demonstrators, artists, and workers walk through her pages; they walk in labyrinths, gardens, cities, the countryside, in the Alps and the American West. Their experiences as walkers are mediated to different degrees by their occupation, their class, their sex, and their race. Who can and does walk, why do they walk and where do they do it, and what do their fellows make of the occupation? Like anything else humans do, politics are inevitably involved, whether it’s protestors marching through the streets, contests over marginalized people’s ability to walk in public without harassment, or the embryonic environmental movement sponsoring excursions.
I enjoy books like this, that take an everyday item or activity and throw it under the lens of examination. Wanderlust is an engaging piece of conversation between the author and figures across time and space, about an activity that, unlike many things we do these days, situates us squarely in both dimensions. Irreducible and capable of infinite variation, there is a long, complicated cultural history that will now be called to mind when I say, “I’m going out for a walk.”