On walking

13 October, 2021

Day 13 of Writing Nangak Tamboree.

I walk most mornings and have for many years now. I didn’t always. I come from a family of walkers – I mean, serious, best-in-the-country race walkers, who think nothing of a ten kilometre stroll before breakfast. I was brought up by the side of an athletics track as my dad was in Olympic and Commonwealth Games and my grandfather was an Australian champion and lifelong walking official. So going for a walk in my family holds a slightly different meaning to most. My mum also used to walk every morning: not race walking, but more the kind of stepping out for health we’ve all been doing in our allotted exercise times during lockdown.

But I, being the family rebel, didn’t walk until relatively recently. I quite like proper hiking, and can walk all day when travelling and looking at really interesting stuff, but going for an evening stroll on a beach seemed absurd, and walking for exercise far too dull. I’d be on holiday, and friends would suggest going for a walk and I’d inevitably ask why. Pointless walking, without it being a race, or to discover some particularly excellent thing, seemed like a ridiculous thing to do when you could be lying about reading. Still, I guess it’s been ten years that I’ve walked most days, except for a long stretch last year in deep lockdown when I basically refused to leave the house.

I walk for exercise, yes, and sometimes even jog. But mostly I walk to clear my head. Actually, that’s a lie. I don’t clear my head; in fact, I’m thinking all the time. I clear it of nonsense, and it fills with better or at least more interesting things. I tried listening to podcasts but I just want everyone to shut up and stop talking at me. If I’m deep in a writing project, even – perhaps especially – on a writing retreat or residency, walking is a time to unravel knotty plots or have conversations with imaginary people. Then, I’ll carry a tiny notebook and stop and scribble as I go.

The connection between writing and walking is long and celebrated – the Romantics made it a thing and it’s a thing again now, with nature writers wandering all over the shop. Writers like Rebecca Solnit have made it a focus of some of the most beautiful prose in recent years. I confess I’m a bit more random and not nearly as intentional – normally – as one apparently should be. Even now, with the daily walks designed as writing process, I never know what will happen and usually don’t plan where I’ll go.

A few years ago, I was in a group led by writer and local legend Sophie Cunningham which walked one night following in the footsteps of Melbourne’s first elephant (Port Melbourne to the zoo) and another day the first leg of Burke and Wills’ expedition (Royal Park to Moonee Ponds, although we didn’t take a piano with us like they did). Sophie researched carefully beforehand and wrote about those walks later in her excellent essay collection, City of Trees. Intentional, writerly walking, but we never really knew what would happen, and a group of writers walking generates its own story.

In 1927, Virginia Woolf went for a stroll to buy a new pencil, and, being Virginia Woolf, wrote the most gorgeous essay about it – ‘Street Haunting’ – about walking, about London, and about how your mind slips and listens and glides as you walk:

How beautiful a street is in winter! It is at once revealed and obscured. Here vaguely one can trace symmetrical straight avenues of doors and windows; here under the lamps are floating islands of pale light through which pass quickly bright men and women, who, for all their poverty and shabbiness, wear a certain look of unreality, an air of triumph, as if they had given life the slip, so that life, deceived of her prey, blunders on without them. But, after all, we are only gliding smoothly on the surface. The eye is not a miner, not a diver, not a seeker after buried treasure. It floats us smoothly down a stream; resting, pausing, the brain sleeps perhaps as it looks.

Street Haunting‘, Virginia Woolf, first published 1930.

See how her prose does what she’s describing?

Genius.

Sadly, I am not Woolf, I’m just me, plodding along a muddy track beside a creek. I take the long way to Nangak Tamboree today, which takes me about half an hour each way, and longer if you stop to try to take photos of uncooperative birds with an even more uncooperative camera. There’s a stand of wattles and kangaroos apples along the Darebin Creek inhabited by a family of fairy wrens, and a flittery population of robins, honeyeaters, and little hoppy brown things (that’s the technical term) which never sit still for a moment. (On the way home, I’ll meet a group of park rangers in this spot, all pointing and gasping, thrilled at the shenanigans.)

White-browed scrubwren on a tree branch
White-browed scrubwren finally sitting still

When I reach Nangak Tamboree, I sit on a boulder between the creek and the fenced-off revegetation area, and scribble this down, thinking about writing and walking.

There are now books galore about the creative benefits of walking, and research that indicates that Wordsworth was right – walking does enable writing. A Stanford University study claims that ‘A person’s creative output increased by an average of 60 percent when walking’ but it’s creativity of the random kind, not necessarily the problem-solving sort. That chimes with my experience.

And as Michael LePointe warns:

The more conscious writers become of its creative benefits, the more walking takes on the quality of goal-driven labor, the very thing we are meant to be marching against. 

‘The Unbearable Smugness of Walking’, The Atlantic, August 2019.

Much better to wander off, and let your mind wander as well: ‘only gliding smoothly on the surface.’

A white faced heron in long grass
White-faced heron on the hunt

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