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18 Aug 2022

AN COLUN: The flourishing of walking in Offaly during lockdown

The flourishing of walking in Offaly during lockdown

For many of us the benefits of walking have been one of the positive things to emerge in our lives during the pandemic. Over the years I have often waxed lyrical to others about the benefits of shank's mare but I'm afraid to say my sound advice has frequently fallen on deaf ears. Now, people are regularly walking who scoffed at it before. This is so good to see and hear about.

On one of my walks recently I was chatting to a friend who told me he's regularly walking three or four times a day. Another friend, who has lost his job because of the pandemic, exclaimed, “There's b***** all else to do except walk,” which, strictly speaking, wasn't exactly true but I knew what he meant.

Shank's mare, like swimming or cycling, has the attraction of being a gentle pastime but it still does an excellent job in exercising one's body including the all important ticker. More strenuous ways of working out, such as road running, are more likely to bring injuries and pain into your life (if you are large, like myself, or getting on a bit, also like myself, it's best to avoid pounding the asphalt).

A lot of people also talk about the mental positives of walking. I like to refer to this as the spiritual rewards. There's a rich body of literature out there dealing with the spiritual rewards of going shank's mare and I've read many of these books. There's also a rich tradition of many writers and artists regularly walking and being assisted in their creativity by this good habit.

I recently came across a Scottish mountaineer and poet whom I hadn't heard of and whose writing I like very much. This is Nan Shepherd, who lived from 1893 to 1981 and wrote exquisitely about the interconnectedness of people and nature. She pointed out that when we place one foot in front of the other in a steady rhythm the self and the world cohere in a positive way, and the mind is illuminated by a sense of detachment and inspiration. As she beautifully wrote,

“The body is not made negligible, but paramount. Flesh is not annihilated but fulfilled. One is not bodiless, but essential body.”

As we walk mental suffering eases, as do our lacklustre moods. It suffuses us with energy and transforms. For some people there's a sense of holiness as we walk; Thoreau expressed this well when he pointed out that to walk is to engage in “a sort of crusade”. Artist Maira Kalman agreed, calling the activity “the glory of life”. In 1913 Kenneth Grahame wrote a much-loved piece about walking, nature and creativity. “Nature's particular gift to the walker,” he wrote, “is to set the mind jogging, to make it garrulous, exalted, a little mad maybe – certainly creative and suprasensitive.”

In her book “The Living Mountain” Shepherd writes perceptively about the good things and the bad things when alone or with others as we hike in the hills. As a regular hillwalker I often find myself alone in the mountains, frequently because my friends and relations don't have the time to join me. Usually I am content with my own company. This is because I normally feel I am not alone but am in the presence of divinity. Sometimes, however, divinity seems distant and I ache for human companionship. At such moments I don't linger pleasantly in the uplands but instead walk as swiftly as my legs will take me back to my car and drive homewards, my thoughts focussed on meeting friends in bars or sitting down to a lovely meal with my wife.

I have found companions in the hills to be a mixed blessing. I can enjoy the chat but equally there are moments when I am looking forward to the next steep slope so we'll get out of breath and the conversation will stop! Over the years I've frequently guided clients in the hills and most of the time they have gone home in a good mood, happy to have parted with their hard-earned cash for the experience; but there have been a few curmudgeons who gazed severely out at the universe and didn't seem to take much pleasure in anything.One time a friend with a drinking problem accompanied me on a two day hiking and camping trip in the Mourne Mountains. We had to find space for bottles of booze in our rucksacks long with the tents, food, sleeping bags, etc! There was a crate of beer in the car for the end of the trip.

Shepherd talks about the “ideal hill companion”. This person's identity, she says, is for the time being merged in that of the mountains, as you feel your own to be. In this peaceful, contemplative state such speech as arises is part of a common life and isn't alien. Shepherd criticised many of those who walked with her because they didn't have this sense of calm and merging. She said their conversation was “ruinous” because their speaking was superfluous to the deep experience of the beauty around them. “I have it from a gaunt elderly man,” she writes, “a 'lang tangle of a chiel,' with high cheekbones and hollow cheeks, product of a hill farm though himself a civil servant, that when he goes on the hill with chatterers, he 'could see them to an ill place.' I have walked myself with brilliant young people whose talk, entertaining, witty and incessant, yet left me weary and dispirited, because the hill did not speak. This does not imply that the only good talk on a hill is about the hill. All sorts of themes may be lit up from within by contact with it, as they are by contact with another mind, and so discussion may be salted. Yet to listen is better than to speak. The talking tribe, I find, want sensation from the mountain – not in Keats' sense. Beginners, not unnaturally, do the same – I did myself. They want the startling view, the horrid pinnacle – sips of beer and tea instead of milk. Yet often the mountain gives itself most completely when I have no destination, when I reach nowhere in particular, but have gone out merely to be with the mountain as one visits a friend with no intention but to be with him.”

Other writers on a similar wavelength to Shepherd include Robert Walser (who wrote about walking's connection with creativity), and Rebecca Solnit (who wrote about how walking vitalizes the mind). They would understand what Shepherd meant when she wrote, “Walking thus, hour after hour, the senses keyed, one walks the flesh transparent. But no metaphor, transparent, or light as air, is adequate....It is therefore when the body is keyed to its highest potential and controlled to a profound harmony deepening into something that resembles trance, that I discover most nearly what it is to be. I have walked out of the body and into the mountain. I am a manifestation of its total life, as is the starry saxifrage or the white-winged ptarmigan.”

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