I cannot preserve my health and spirits unless I . . . [saunter] through the woods and over the hills and fields absolutely free from all worldly engagements.
—Henry David Thoreau
I go for a walk almost every day, so when I can’t or don’t, I start feeling stiff in the joints . . . of my soul. Walking helps mend my monkey mind, or what I dub “squirrel skull” after the eternally restless, long-tailed rodents chaotically leaping from limb to limb in my yard.
I started going for walks as a teenager, to escape trauma at home. Heading outdoors, I was blessed unawares meandering through meadows, dew soaking my Converse sneakers to wet my sockless feet. I tramped past barns, climbed over rusting barbed wire fences, and made regular pilgrimages to a remote location on a neighbor’s land where my soaring red-tailed hawk friends had a nest in the crown of a tall tree. I stood a lot in the middle of pastures and drank in the intoxicatingly spicy fragrance of broken grass being turned into richest milk, wondering at the serenity of cows steadily chewing the cud in that peaceful rip-rip-rip rhythm.
My husband, Sean, likes to remind me twenty years on and still with astonishment in his voice that I rose early and walked through dawn and its familiar mists beside those same green meadows the morning of our nerve-wracked wedding day. Later I would walk through my nauseous pregnancy. Even when Virginia was surprised by blizzards that year and twice slumbered under several feet of snow, I with my belly bulging set out from our tiny one-bedroom apartment and down the sidewalk, filling my lungs with clean, sharp air and releasing it as cold white smoke. I slipped through slush, bent my knees and extended my arms horizontally for balance like a surfer, switchfooting through Charlottesville’s pedestrian zone.
I walk the way some of my good friends knit. Walking gives my unruly thoughts a safe space in which to rest. Somehow, the simple movement of my legs over ground is prayer. Walking helps me be naked with God. It encourages my heartache kept deep inside to break through the surface. As I walk, the agonizing difficulties others face come to mind. I give them all to Christ.
Walking also frees me to ponder and digest verses that I often carry. During the isolation of study, information overload, and stress of my graduate school years, I walked the University of Georgia campus and its Five Points neighborhood carrying 3” by 5” cards on which I typed Bible verses such as “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7). I chewed and chewed these nourishing words.
I walk because I can forget oaks are huge, their bark beautifully rough to touch, their patterned leaves comforting. The sound oaks make as they are played by the wind is music whether the leaves are inchworm green and swaying softly or a dry dirt brown and rattling against the sky. In winter, one of my favorite oaks that I have known thirty years stands with its limbs bare and lifted up to the sky, making that no-sound music of silence to remind me that less can be abundance and simplicity pleases God.
I walk because the “evergreen” of pines doesn’t mean “ever-the-same.” I love pines’ ordinariness. Easy to overlook, they can surprise with their beauty. I think that if we could say pines have a temperament, they would be shy. I earned my way into their trust. Sometimes they lean in the wind this way, sometimes that. Sometimes birds sit up in them, sometimes not. They lose limbs in storms. At different times of day, their green is darker, and sometimes they shed brown pine needles that stick into the ground in a diversity of lovely sculptured designs.
I walk because clouds are never the same, obviously, but as an inhabitant of this brave new Facebooking world, I can easily forget to look up at them. When I was translating The Cloud of Unknowing, I noticed clouds a whole lot more, and that habit has not gone away since. They speak to me of God’s love and his mysteriously intimate presence in my life. Sometimes the clouds in my part of Georgia are as towering as any Abraham might have seen; sometimes they disappear altogether. You never know.
And then when the rains come and the clouds blow across our landscape, in rainboots I walk one day and then the next, watching the mercy of God-sent moisture transform nature into rainbows of flowers and that vibrant Holy-Spirit green Hildegard called viriditas.
I walk because I crave friendship with God.
I walk because, as Maine poet Philip Booth reminds us in “Heading Out,” “Beyond here there’s no map. / How you get there is where you’ll arrive.”
* I have never seen a word that expressed how I feel about walking, so I created the neologism ambuloratory (said “am-byə-ˈlȯr-ə-ˌtȯr-ē”). The word grew from this wisdom: “Per fidem enim ambulamus.” (“We walk by faith.” 2 Corinthians 5:7), and “Sine intermissione orate.” (“Pray without ceasing.” 1 Thessalonians 5:17).
Carmen Acevedo Butcher is a professor of English and scholar-in-residence at Shorter University in Rome, Georgia. She was the Carnegie Foundation professor of the year for Georgia in 2006, and during the 2004-2005 year she and her family lived and learned in Seoul, South Korea, while she taught as a Fulbright Senior Lecturer at Sogang University. She has written books on medieval women mystics and linguistics. More information can be found on these at her website. (Photo credit: Katherine Butcher.)
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