I enjoy walking; it is one of my favorite activities. I don’t do it for exercise. I don’t engage in power-walking, check my heart rate, wear unique clothing, time myself, or measure my distance. My shoes are my only concession to sports clothing. I wear roomy, comfortable, and supportive shoes made primarily for joggers.
I walk three times a day: morning, afternoon, and evening; my dog, also known as Kulfi, the wonder-dog, is my constant and faithful companion. Two of the walks, the morning and evening ones, are focused exclusively on his needs. They are short walks, somewhere between fifteen and twenty minutes. The afternoon walk is our long walk, lasting anywhere from forty-five minutes to an hour.
In the opening sentence of his essay, “Walking,” the 19th-century American philosopher, naturalist, and author, Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) states the essay’s purpose.
I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil—to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society.
He has a noble purpose. The word Thoreau wishes to speak about on behalf of nature, and man’s place in it specifically concerns walking. “I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life,” he claims, “who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks—who had a genius, so to speak, for SAUNTERING.”
Thoreau provides two explanations for the origin of the word “sauntering.” Of his two explanations, he prefers the one that traces the word to a term originating in the Middle Ages in France to describe people who roamed about the countryside seeking alms under the pretext of making a pilgrimage “a la Sainte Terre”—to the Holy Land. Over time, in this understanding of the word’s origin, people shortened the phrase referring to these wanderers to “saunterers.”
It’s an interesting explanation for the origin of the word. Thoreau does not identify his source for it, and I have not been able to find it. Four dictionaries I use at home all suggest the word’s origin is unknown but give as a possibility the Middle English word santren, to muse or meditate, something one often does while sauntering. I also could not find Thoreau’s explanation in the OED online. Nevertheless, Thoreau was of French ancestry, so perhaps he’s right. I don’t know.
Thoreau says something about walking; however, something essential in it for him, that is a secondary purpose of Kulfi and my walks.
It’s not the health and spirits benefit that Kulfi and I find secondary; indeed, it is hugely beneficial. The difference between Thoreau’s purposeful walking and ours lies primarily in Thoreau’s emphasis on woods, hills, and fields, and being “absolutely free from all worldly engagements.”
Few things interest Kulfi more on our walks than our running into another dog while we are walking. Kulfi’s a bit shy at first, but one can tell that his interest is piqued. He seems to recognize one of his kind, another canine, a comrade. And for him, that’s a big deal. He tires of it rather quickly, especially if the other dog is aggressive or too nosy or noisy.
For me, the observation of other humans is a primary focus of my ramble: seeing a son or daughter walking an aging parent, school children on their way home, children and parents together at a playground, soldiers leaving a military cemetery, a family visiting the grave of a deceased loved one. On our usual route, we pass a corner store. Ice cream freezers are all outside, under the shade of an awning. Children are constantly entering and leaving the store carrying a wide variety of frozen treats—typical treats in my desert town.
There is a word, a French word as it turns out, that does more accurately capture the distinction between the nature of Thoreau’s type of walk and mine. He is, as he says, a saunterer. On the other hand, I am a flâneur—a dawdler, an idler, an observer. Wikipedia has an interesting article on the term. It describes a flâneur as an urban figure “representing the ability to wander detached from society with no other purpose than to be an acute observer of industrialized, contemporary life.” I first learned the word a few years ago from my daughter, one of the many things I’ve learned over the years from my children.
Thus the critical difference between Thoreau’s walking and mine is that while his primary focus is nature, mine is urban life. True, I don’t live in New York, London, Paris, or Tel Aviv. I live at the edge of the Negev in the city of Beersheba. My city has about 200,000 people in it, not huge, but not tiny either. It’s perfect, so it seems to me. When I walk, I see nature: date palm trees, cultivated garden flowers, salamanders, hoopoes, mourning doves, crows, hedge-hogs (at night). All of these things are attractive features of my walks, no question. But I find especially fascinating the young boy pushing his scooter, an older man walking with a cane and wearing a virus mask tucked under his chin, two little girls running together holding hands, a couple sitting on a park bench. When I visit the US and spend time in Vermont, I walk primarily for nature, but in Beersheba, I often walk for people.
I should point out that walking in nature may be done for people, and that walking in cities can be done for nature. The two purposes are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, there is an excellent blogger out of Edinburgh, Scotland, named Juliet Wilson. More than any other writer I’ve read, she combines walking in the city with walking in nature. You can find her blog here. She and her walking companion provide much information concerning nature and conservation and beautiful accompanying photographs. I heartily recommend it.
All the best,
I enjoyed reading this post, I like your thoughts about the origins of the word saunter. Thanks also for recommending my blog, indeed I do both enjoy observing nature and city life! Edinburgh is a small city with plenty of green spaces, which is perfect for both types of walk!