By Susan Hand Shetterly
Henry David Thoreau’s great essay “Walking” was published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1862. He defined his manner of walking as sauntering. I used to walk, and that seemed fine to me. Now, under his guidance, I’m teaching myself to saunter.
What’s the difference? When I walked, I concentrated on pace, on getting somewhere. I’d go over what I had to do that day. But when I saunter, I pause. I look around and listen. I give time for what might happen next. It’s a long, slow thank-you for the day ahead.
Thoreau writes that the word saunter might have originated with those who took pilgrimages to the Holy Land, the sainted land: sainte terre. Or perhaps from the idea of being without land ownership — sans terre — which, for him, meant having no particular home but being “equally at home everywhere.”
“This is the secret,” he announces, “of successful sauntering.”
Never mind that the word’s actual etymology is unknown — I saunter as if I have come home to a landscape after a long time away and found everything here has a holy shimmer.
On my first deliberate attempt to saunter, it was mid-July, and I walked a little less than 2 miles to the osprey nest at Patten Bay and back. The female was firmly planted in her nest, tending the young, and the male came soaring in with a fish the size of an alewife. He carried it into the bowl of the nest, did some snaps and twists with his beak, as if opening a can of beans, then left. The female took over the fileting and serving, the young so small that I could just see the tops of their downy heads. On the way back, I found a pair of carrion beetles mating along the shoulder of the road and came to a gully filled with swamp candles, their yellow flowers blooming with summer light. Then, a right turn up the hill, past the cemetery, where crow fledglings flapped among the gravestones, squawking for food. I remembered that the master saunterer wrote, “All good things are wild and free.”
He warns us not to saunter when the day is nearly done, for you’ve already missed the best part. In late summer, start early, when the dew’s wet and chilly, and head down a narrow trail. The one across the road from my house, for instance, leads to a cove. If it’s low tide, wading birds are beginning to fly in from the north. Their sharp calls sound like pure distance, as if they’ve already come and gone and their voices are mere echoes. If the tide’s high, in the rules of the saunter, there’s always time to jump in.
I am dedicated to this odd art taught by this odd man because I want to hold close the wildness left in my town. I want to know the details of native lives and land. The trick, according to Thoreau, is not to take your inside life out but to go present and empty. Things will come: an eagle flying over a field of goldenrod, perhaps, or a red-bellied snake resting on the warmth of the tarred road (gently, you pick it up and set it into the bordering field), or the sun filtering through the dancing leaves of a maple. Everything counts.
“Walking” is the essay in which Thoreau wrote, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” He meant not only the wild in the land but also what’s left of the wild in ourselves. If we saunter out to meet wildness, it can show us exactly where we are and may keep us whole in a broken time.