On Walking*

*This piece is written in an English/Western European context, the writer knows nothing of other countries and cultures.

*This piece is written from an incredible able-bodied perspective. The writer understands and appreciates that there are many people who are not able to walk as well as they would like, who need aides in order to walk, or who can’t walk at all

That first step, from warm cocoon of blankets onto cold floor

gives a shock to my bare feet.

There is an incredible amount of different ways in which one can walk. To name a few there’s pacing, running, strolling, wandering, sprinting, promenading, shuffling, walking in a protest, walking as a form of protest, walking for a pilgrimage, and walking as a performance. It seems incredibly simple: setting foot A in front of foot B, letting the weight of the body fall on A, contracting the muscles in B to lift it off the ground, and repeating said action until you have gone from point A to point B.

The history of bipedalism is a long and important one. Without it us humans would not (have) come very far. There are many different theories as to why we started walking upright in the first place. One theory argues that it was simply easier to carry objects and children whilst only using two legs, instead of four. Another, called the Peek-A-Boo hypothesis, claims that walking upright meant we could look out across the high desert grass easier. Lastly, and most entertainingly, the trench coat hypothesis assumes that humans started walking all so that they could enjoy some penile displays.

Philosophers, as Great Thinkers ought, often like walking. Wittgenstein, Kant, Nietzsche, they all found solace in the activity. The exercise allowed them not just time to think, but also provided a changing scenery that stimulated, as well as a rhythm on which their thoughts could bounce, one step at a time. Rousseau once remarked that he “could only meditate when walking. When I stop, I cease to think; my mind only works with my legs”. Thomas Hobbes went so far as to have an inkhorn installed in his walking stick, just so he would never have to stop his walking.

I walk from my bed to my virtual class.

Later I will walk back again.

Walking then, in the broadest sense of the word, has been done for millions of years. The walking, however, that we do now, when we say that ‘we’ll be going on a walk’, is something that is surprisingly recent. At the end of the seventeenth century people walked, of course. But back then the walking was more centred around pure exercise for the rich. Long galleries, specifically built for the purpose, were built in castles and it is there that people stretched their legs. (Later, these corridors would be filled with paintings). But in the eighteenth century there were a few changes in rapid succession to each other, which all in turn influenced each other again: the roads became better, which led to less roadside crime, travelling became cheaper, and gardens changed from sights best enjoyed from behind a window to immersive shrubberies and walks. As walking became easier it simultaneously became popular with poets such as Coleridge, Wordsworth, and slightly later Keats. Wordsworth’s poems, in which he sang nothing but praises of his beloved Lake District, especially proved exceptionally popular for the masses. The relationship between literature and walking became closer, and the public started walking en masse.

In the surviving letters between Jane Austen and her family (most notably her sister Cassandra) the author often speaks of walking. She never married, and had, like most women of her class, no recognised occupation to spend her time on, so she walked. In between her strolls? she wrote whenever she could find the time, hiding the loose pages underneath books and needlework. Her characters, young, unmarried women, found their freedom in their walks. What could not be said near the listening ear of an interested mother or sister could be said when walking about. When they were not allowed to use the horses they only had their own legs to rely on, and despite much judgement from other characters, they often used this freedom to its limits.

I have not touched a person in three months, so I download a dating app.

We take a walk through the park, grass still wet, and remain at legal distance.

Nowadays, walking in the broadest sense of the word often serves a different purpose than it did some centuries ago. Theoretically, a person could survive going through a full day without ever setting one foot in front of the other by using technologies such as electronically powered skateboards, escalators, cars, scooters, Segways and hoverboards. Yet, you would be hard-pressed to find such a person. Rather, many of us actively attempt to achieve 10.000 steps a day. Instead of working our body like a horse as we did centuries ago, we now often treat it like a pet. As people attempt to make it to health organisations’ suggested amount of steps each day, they show that, though we still walk, that same walking has often changed from a nice spontaneous stroll to a well-thought out, controlled and structured walk, where the beginning, middle, and end have already been written.

The walk between Marina Abramović and Ulay envisioned in 1983, but ultimately not performed until five years later was called The Lovers. They each started out at one end of the Great Wall of China, Abramović walking Westward, Ulay Eastbound. Initially, the plan was for them to marry once they got to the middle, having finally reached the other. For ninety days they averaged around twenty kilometres a day, but when they finally met, the lovers were no more. Their relationship had not survived those five years it had taken the Chinese government to agree to the trip. Each step they took, one foot in front of the other, brought them closer to their separation. After the walk they took separate planes home and would not see each other again for 22 years.

I manoeuvre my way around other shoppers in the supermarket,

attempt not to hit anyone with my cart as my feet quickly carry me to the exit.

I had never bought much into those 10.000 steps a day. I worked in a popular bar for four nights out of the week and had a busy life besides that; I had the luxury of not really having to pay that much attention to how often I set one foot in front of the other. But then everything changed, and the official government advice was not to leave the house, except to go on a walk. The first week I mainly cleaned, tidied, and cleaned again. The second week I was bored and scared more than anything else. The third week I started walking. It is now the 436th day of Covid-lockdown measures in my country. Of those days, I think there’s about ten on which I have not properly walked in some way or other. Some days the walk was short (my local supermarket is about a 15-minute walk away), other days I meandered around my city, exploring her streets, parks, and alleys in ways I never have before. I took wrong turns on purpose, discovered hidden gardens, and explored the cemetery near my house. Setting one foot in front of the other was different now, as there was no point B to go to. Its uselessness held an incredible calmness for me. The activity allowed me to feel like I had somewhere to go, it gave me the agency to move my body in a way that was still allowed, that was still safe. It stilled some of my anxiety and let me think.

I run for the bus that might be leaving without me, my facemask is already on

and as my feet quicken their pace I struggle to breathe.

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