Wanderlust: A History of Walking, by Rebecca Solnit

“A solitary walker is in the world, but apart from it, with the detachment of the traveller rather than the ties of the worker, the dweller, the member of a group.” – Rebecca Solnit

Why do we walk? For some of us, walking is a normal part of our everyday transport. The walk to school, or to work, or down to the pub. We might go for a walk on the weekend, for fresh air or to spend time with friends. There are others for whom “walking” has become compartmentalised – there is a wonderful section in Wanderlust where Rebecca Solnit describes outdoor enthusiasts driving from the car park of one equipment store to the other, even though they are basically on the same street, in order to compare prices on the high tech equipment that they will need to take to the hills. It is not necessarily that these people are being lazy, saving their legs for the part of the week designated as time set aside for hiking in the nearest national park, but because even if you wanted to, this particular city has been made so unfriendly to the pedestrian that to walk from one clothing store to the other would be to put oneself in harm’s way.

The book explores walking in all its forms, from the first unsteady steps of our ancestors through to the first mountaineers and the flaneurs of the city, for whom walking had become something more than just a means of getting from A to B. The book discovers the extent to which human development and advancement can be put down to the fact that we could move about on two limbs, leaving the others free to develop tools and thus our brains. There are chapters on the philosophy of walking, literary walkers and walking in literature, the growth of walking clubs and on land rights and protest marches, and a superb section on walking, women and public space that was so powerful and persuasively argued that I was still thinking about the consequences of that particular chapter for days after I had finally, and regretful that it was finished, put the book down.

The book is beautifully written and often complex arguments are skilfully made, and there was another theme that came up throughout the book that made me think a lot about myself, about this website, and the different contributions to Under a Grey Sky since we launched about six weeks ago. It involves the distinction between the countryside walker, and his or her cousin in the city:

“The average rural walker looks at the general – the view, the beauty – and the landscape moves by as a gently modulated continuity, a crest long in view is reached, a forest thins out to become a meadow. The urbanite is on the lookout for particulars, for opportunities, individuals and supplies, and the changes are abrupt.” – Rebecca Solnit

I think there is a lot of truth in this, and I would like to illustrate it with a couple of examples from my own walks in the past year. Last spring, Katrin and I walked in the Cabo de Gata National Park in Andalucia. The first half was along the cliffs, before we headed inland through the park and back towards the small seaside resort where we started. It was a walk of undoubted beauty, but each view was there for us for quite a while, changing of course with every step but most definitely a “gently modulated continuity,” to borrow Solnit’s words once more.

Walking in the city, most specifically here in Berlin, it is the “abrupt changes” that are often of most interest. The shift between neighbourhoods, from rich to poor, from the seemingly homogenous to the multicultural, and in Berlin – still, after twenty-odd years – from east to west and back again. To go for a walk in the country seems to be something that even most non-walkers can understand, and perhaps even imagine the appeal of. To tell somebody that you are going “for a walk” in the city, perhaps with no destination in mind, is an invitation to be branded as ever so slightly odd.

But it is through walking through a city, and especially along those neighbourhood borders or to those hidden, underexplored corners of the city that would feature in no guidebook or on any group tour of the city, that you can discover so much about a place, and even the place in which you live. By simply walking and, perhaps crucially, taking the time to look and to observe the people and places around you, you soon start to see even your home city in a different way. It is a form of travelling without leaving home, and this book inspires you to lace up your shoes or your boots and head out to explore your surroundings, whether in the town, city or country.

If you would like to buy Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust: A History of Walking, you can order it from our good friends at Dialogue Books here in Berlin, and they will deliver it to wherever you may be.

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6 thoughts on “Wanderlust: A History of Walking, by Rebecca Solnit

  1. paul

    Thanks Dandy Lion.

    And the picture from the cover of the book is: Roger Fenton, The Long Walk, Windsor, c. 1858

    Thanks for the comments guys.

  2. Pingback: The London Perambulator and Deep Topography | Under a Grey Sky

  3. Pingback: A Potsdam Rambler – Access denied along the Griebnitzsee | Traces of a Border

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