Sunday, 4 March 2012

Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit

An expansive, exhilarating history of walking, Rebecca Solnit's book encompasses walking as transport, as pastime, as pilgrimage and as protest.  She moves between her own experience of walking, theories of the evolution of walking and philosophies of walking, stopping off to look at the key thinkers and writers who have shaped our understanding of this everyday activity.  Inevitably, a history of walking also becomes a history of the places we walk, and the people who did (and didn't) walk there.

The breadth and depth of her research is remarkable and she pays close, critical attention to the theories she reviews, drawing out some of the ironies of trying to think about walking as well as presenting her own theories of the symbolism of walking.  She describes artists who have used walking to form their works, as well as writers who have relied upon walking to drive their literary endeavours, with a whole chapter devoted to The Legs of William Wordsworth.  Walking in streets, parks, gardens and the wider countryside are all considered.  Walking can seem elemental and free, but has of course been as much constrained as any type of activity; Solnit tells the story of the struggle for access to the countryside and the struggle to preserve urban environments that can be walked.  She also links the act of walking very strongly to the notion of narrative, and to the narrative of human history in particular: "Part of what makes roads, trails and paths so unique as built structures is that they cannot be perceived as a whole all at once by a sedentary onlooker.  They unfold in time as one travels along them, just as a story does as one listens and reads, and a hairpin turn is like a plot twist [...] Roads are  a record of those who have gone before, and to follow them is to follow people who are no longer there."

This notion connects walking intimately to the idea of creativity, and the book reiterates its insistence on the psychological value of walking as a means of producing contentment, understanding, creative energy and new ideas.  "Musing" she writes, "takes place in a kind of meadowlands of the imagination, a part of the imagination that has not yet been ploughed, developed or put to any immediately practical use.  Environmentalists are always arguing that those butterflies, those grasslands, those watershed woodlands, have an utterly necessary function in the grand scheme of things, even if they don't produce a market crop.  The same is true of the meadowlands of the imagination; time spent there is not work time, yet without that time the mind becomes sterile, dull, domesticated.  The fight for free space - for wilderness and for public space - must be accompanied by a fight for free time to spend wandering in that space." Solnit does not over-stress her argument, but her passing references to unwalkable places - towns that have no pavements or no road crossings, or places that have lost their walkers and are perceived as dangerous as a result - show us the consequences of marginalising such a fundamental activity.

Solnit's prose is elegant and her arguments compelling.  I enjoyed this book hugely, and found I was quite envious of her for having written it, for being able to combine a pleasurable activity with a fascinating research process.  Any admirers of Roger Deakin or Robert MacFarlane's books on similar themes will get a lot out of this book.  Solnit has written several other books which I look forward to exploring.

No comments:

Post a comment