Pedestrian thoughts


Double arch stone bridge

I spent the weekend with A (not her real initial) in Great Barrington: a weekend visit to last until summer, when traveling to see one another is easier. On Saturday, we did a great deal of walking–along the Keystone Arch Bridges trail in Chester in the morning, and along the trolley trail in Housatonic in the evening before dark. On Sunday we spent the day on more contemplative pursuits: writing, reading, and sipping tea over long conversations.

One of the things we talked about was ideation: A’s temperamental proclivity toward big ideas. It turns out that A and I see the world in different ways, or at least from different angles, and this might be the secret to our friendship: our personalities are complementary, not merely compatible.

Waterfall

A is sustained by ideas; she is a woman of concepts and cognition. I, on the other hand, am a person of experience and actions, preferring tangible things to thoughts. It’s not that I dislike ideas, but I need to come upon them indirectly: I need to sense a thing in order to conceptualize it. I am a person who lives and dies by William Carlos Williams’ dictum “No ideas but in things”: to understand an idea, I need to somehow touch it.

This is, perhaps, another way of saying I’m a modern-day Transcendentalist. In Nature, Ralph Waldo Emerson argued that every idea has its antecedent in nature, the natural world being a grand dictionary of symbols. For Emerson, human language is an abstraction rooted in nature: words are powerful only if they are tightly tied to the tangible phenomena that exemplify them.

We missed this clearly marked turn

Emersonian idealism tends to minimize nature, reducing the natural world to set of signs that exists primarily to satisfy humanity’s cognitive needs. But in my mind (and in, I’d argue, Thoreau’s), there is another sort of idealism that gives nature the ultimate primacy. The natural world can survive (and probably would be better off) without humans, but humans need the tangible stuff of nature to make intellectual sense of the world.

The Keystone Arch Bridges trail wends along the West Branch of the Westfield River, and the dirt road A and I followed was alternatively icy and muddy, a ridge of hard-pack snow sliced by muddy tire ruts. We had to pay close attention to the ground underfoot as we walked, at one point focusing so intently on our footfalls, we missed a clearly marked trail junction.

Waterfall

The mind is elusive, but the body undeniable. The best ideas, in my opinion, aren’t rooted in the fragile neurochemistry of the brain but in the muscular strength of the gut, the rising and falling diaphragm, and the perpetually beating heart. Or, as the character of Japhy Ryder said in Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, “The closer you get to real matter, rock air fire and wood, boy, the more spiritual the world is.”

A keystone arch bridge is as material as it gets, each block of stone weighty and substantial. The railroad bridges in Chester were constructed in the 1830s without the use of mortar. Marvels of engineering, keystone arches are pieced together so that the pull of gravity holds each stone in place, weight being distributed across the arch and down its legs. Locking this structure in place is the keystone at the arch’s apex: the last stone set is the one that holds everything together.

Double arch stone bridge

When you are hiking on treacherous trails, you have little time to think; with so many things to pay attention to, you have little energy for discursive thought. This is one of the things I like about hiking: whereas walking down a smooth, level path is an invitation to thought, the literal balancing act required when you walk a treacherous trail pulls you out of your head and back into your body. Hiking isn’t a spur to thinking, but an antidote to it.

Like Whitman, I’m not interested in ideas that “prove well in lecture-rooms, yet not prove at all under the spacious clouds, and along the landscape and flowing currents.” The mind is a creature that wanders into illusionary realms, but the body is a concrete thing that exists nowhere other than here and now, in the tactile world of water, rocks, and trees.

Waterfall

In The Dharma Bums, Ray Smith falters while hiking the Matterhorn because he fears the things that might happen: he might fall, he might get hurt, he might fail to make it to the top. Japhy, on the other hand, is as unselfconscious as a mountain goat, hopping from boulder to boulder without a thought of risk or danger.

“The secret of this kind of climbing,” said Japhy, “is like Zen. Don’t think. Just dance along. It’s the easiest thing in the world, actually easier than walking on flat ground which is monotonous. The cute little problems present themselves at each step and yet you never hesitate and you find yourself on some other boulder you picked out for no special reason at all, just like Zen.”

Double arch stone bridge

This weekend, A and I took turns being Japhy, one of us staying stable and upright whenever the other wavered or wobbled. This is one of the benefits of befriending one’s complement: you have a buddy to back you up.

The dictum “No ideas but in things” is itself an idea, and any one of us alternates between ideation and action, these two modes working best when they move hand-in-hand. Ideas are the right foot; tangible objects the left. Step by step, each in turn, is how we move forward, whether slow and faltering or steady and sure.

Beneath Echo Bridge

Yesterday was a brisk and brilliant October day, so J and I walked from our house to Hemlock Gorge and back.  Nestled along the Charles River near the junction of Routes 9 and 128, Hemlock Gorge is a hidden jewel that offers a pocket of wildness is an otherwise suburban setting.  I drive past Hemlock Gorge five days a week on my way to teach, so it’s a delight to spend a sunny Sunday afternoon walking there, soaking in the golden light of autumn.

Leaf-strewn stairs

Shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing,” is a Japanese term for the restorative practice of spending time in nature.  We’ve reached the point of the semester where my students are submitting essay drafts faster than I can grade them, so I welcome any excuse to step away from my paper-piles and into the woods, even for a short time.  An afternoon walk along a river fringed with trees is therapeutic, the natural world going about its business in blithe disregard of human tasks and to-do lists.  For the brief time you’re outside, walking, the obligations awaiting you at home don’t exist, and all that matters is the whisper of wind through the trees and the dapple of sunlight on water.

Autumn reflections

Many turns

This afternoon on my way home from an errand, I stopped at Boston College to walk the memorial labyrinth there. I’ve blogged about this labyrinth before: as someone who loves both walking and walking meditation, I’m fascinated by labyrinths, which are designed to contain an entire pilgrimage–there and back–in a single constrained space. Of the various labyrinths I’ve walked over the years, the one at BC is probably my favorite with its smooth stones and fringe of green grass. Why go on pilgrimage when the earth underfoot is so clearly holy?

Labyrinth green

When I taught at BC for a semester two years ago, I had high hopes of walking the labyrinth there frequently: how simple would be, I thought, to take a quick pilgrimage every day after class? In reality, though, I walked the labyrinth only once that semester, on September 11. The BC labyrinth is a memorial to alumni who died during the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the anniversary of that tragedy pushed me out of my office and onto the labyrinth’s curvy course. Apart from that one day, however, I repeatedly told myself I didn’t have time to take a detour toward the labyrinth on the way from my office to my car. While teaching at BC three days a week for an entire semester, I repeatedly told myself I was too busy to take even a few extra minutes for a leisurely stroll.

You are here

Now that I’m not teaching at BC, I see each of the times I didn’t walk the labyrinth after class as being a missed opportunity. The fact that I felt I didn’t have time for a contemplative stroll meant I most definitely needed to take one: whenever you’re too busy to meditate, of course, is when you need meditation the most. As soon as I started walking the labyrinth today, I remembered a curious fact: when you’re walking a labyrinth, time seems to stand still. Whereas moments before you were checking your watch and ticking through your to-do list, the moment you start walking a labyrinth, time slows as you carefully attend the step underfoot, trusting the way There will eventually bring you back Here.

Afternoon light

Two pumpkins

Thanksgiving Day is one of the few times you can say that downtown Boston has ample free parking. On a typical weekend, it’s easier to take the T than to drive into the city from the suburbs, but today J and I chose to drive down Beacon Street from Newton into the Back Bay, where we knew we’d easily find a (free) metered parking space.

Albania soccer scarf

On Thanksgiving, downtown residents tend to head elsewhere for the holiday, so it’s a rare opportunity to wander the usual sites without having to face throngs of traffic, pedestrian or otherwise. On the Commonwealth Mall, only a few locals were walking dogs; at the Public Garden, only a few tourists posed on the bridge for pictures. On Boston Common, one woman encouraged a squirrel to climb onto her lap while her friend snapped pictures; nearby, a mother photographed her daughter feeding a writhing throng of pigeons, including two that landed directly on her hand.

Central Burying Ground

“This is the emptiest you’ll ever see Newbury Street,” I remarked as J and I crossed an almost-empty street, only a handful of people strolling down the typically packed sidewalks. Only at the Central Burying Ground, a historic cemetery at one corner of Boston Common, did the deserted vibe seem natural, not atypical. Whereas I’m used to Boston being bustling, things are always quiet at the Central Burying Ground, regardless of whether it’s Thanksgiving or any other day.

This is my Day Twenty-Seven contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

Changing leaves

Today between classes at Framingham State, I took a quick walk around campus, venturing no further than a block from my office, where I now sit typing these words. Normally, taking a walk around the block is no big deal: normally, my midday walks are limited by time rather than distance, with at least one alarm to let me know when I need to stop wandering and resume working. But today is the first day since I’ve been sick that I’ve had enough extra energy to take even a short stroll, so walking around the block feels like a momentous occasion.

Changing leaves

This time last week, I was so exhausted from constant coughing, I had to stop and rest whenever I climbed a flight of stairs. This time last week, I ran out of breath on my way from my doctor’s parking lot to the reception desk: a distance of only a hundred yards. This time last week, walking wasn’t a relaxing, mind-clearing pastime: it was a strenuous, seemingly impossible activity that triggered coughing fits and crippling waves of exhaustion. This time last week, walking was an ordeal to be endured only when absolutely necessary.

Changing leaves

Today I had the strength to take a walk, and although it was a very short one, it feels good to be among pedestrians again. Your world grows very small when you’re unable to move under your own power. Instead of admiring the scenery, you focus myopically on distances, shortcuts, and the number of tiring steps between Here and There. When you’re too sick to walk, your body becomes an impediment: something to be dragged along rather than the source of self-sufficient power. Every day, I feel my body strengthen. On Monday, I was so desperate for a nap between classes, I laid my head on the café table where I hold impromptu office hours, not caring who saw me snoozing and drooling on my folded hands. Yesterday, I taught three classes without napping in between, and today, I took a walk.

This is my Day Thirteen contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

Aqueduct trail

Not far from our house, a pair of paths comes close to crossing, their two courses running along a pair of underground aqueducts that once brought water from the outlying suburbs of Boston into the thirsty city. During the proverbial dog days, the aqueduct trail nearest our house offers a welcome spot of shade, and year round, it provides a green corridor for the wild creatures who find shelter in the suburbs: the turkeys who stride through backyards, the hawks who perch over parking lots, and the raccoons that doze in the forks of fat pine boughs, visible only to the folks who look up and into the trees.

Red-tailed hawk

I used to walk Reggie religiously on the segment of trail nearest our house, using it to circle our block: a quiet place for an elderly dog to sniff and pee. I still walk this trail several times a week, either with J or with our beagle, Melony: it’s a shady shortcut to other places, or a green detour around the block. I’m sure we have neighbors who have never set foot on this trail, which wends through backyards and occasionally skirts quiet driveways, the trail seemingly ending at a stranger’s house. But the path predates any of these backyards, driveways, or houses: the path continues on, further than I’ve ever walked on it, ending at a reservoir several miles from our house, a lingering sign of urban thirst.

Red-tailed hawk

Whenever I walk along the aqueducts, I encounter people I seldom see elsewhere in our neighborhood: dog-walkers, joggers, mothers walking their backpack-laden children to school, and pairs of women pumping their arms as they walk-and-talk their daily workout. One morning while I was walking Reggie, who was old and arthritic at the time, we passed an elderly woman wearing a neck brace sitting on a log, as if her caretaker had planted her there to rest a while. “You’re so patient with him,” the woman said, nodding toward Reggie: one old soul recognizing another. “What other choice do I have,” I thought but didn’t say, returning her silent nod instead.

Red-tailed hawk

We live in an age where most of us don’t know where our water comes from. We turn the tap and water magically appears, or we buy water in plastic bottles at the store, our empties choking the ocean for all eternity. In our neighborhood, household water coolers are popular, so we see a steady stream of trucks delivering large jugs of spring water for home consumption. Water from one state is trucked into another to perpetuate an illusion of purity: if you can’t see where your water comes from, you don’t have to worry about where it’s been.

Molting

I seldom think about the old aqueduct while I’m walking the path that marks its course, but sometimes I do stop in my tracks, imagining the pipes that still lie buried like a bony spine beneath my feet. My walks trace an abandoned way of water, but does the water itself remember how it once flowed?

Several years ago, a catastrophic leak in the present-day water supply for the greater Boston area forced local officials to draw water from the Chestnut Hill Reservoir, which was formerly fed water from Framingham sent along one of these old aqueducts. I’ve walked past the reservoir in Framingham, I’ve walked along the old aqueducts here in Newton, and I’ve walked around the reservoir in Chestnut Hill, my feet tracing the ways that water once wended to quench the thirst and douse the fires of Boston. Now that the western suburbs suck water from even more westerly communities, we drink the water in our own backyard only in an emergency.

Red-tailed hawk

In the natural world, water carves its own channels, finding the lowest course and following centuries-old paths. In the natural world, water has a memory so long and strong, Native Americans made promises intended to last as long as the grass grows and river flows. The way of water is steady and resilient, effortlessly returning to its accustomed flow. We humans are the ones who forget the way of water: we humans are the ones who don’t know where to quench our thirst or how to wend our way home.

Although I did indeed walk on the aqueduct trail today, I didn’t take any photos. The picture at the top of today’s post comes from last October, and the other photos are from July, 2011.

Halcyon Lake

I didn’t take any pictures at Mount Auburn Cemetery yesterday, when Seon Joon and I walked there. But I’d taken pictures when A (not her real initial) and I walked at Mount Auburn this time last year, and I’d taken pictures when Leslee and I walked at Mount Auburn the year before that. I’m in the habit, it seems, of meeting friends for cemetery strolls in July, when it’s hot and the shade beckons.

Woman and child

I’m not alone in this regard. Yesterday at Mount Auburn, Seon Joon and I saw a steady stream of visitors exploring the cemetery on foot and in slow-coasting cars, and as we enjoyed conversation and a brisk breeze atop Washington Tower, we were joined by a quiet queue of other visitors enjoying panoramic views of Cambridge, Watertown, and a hazy Boston skyline.

I’ve written before about my history at Mount Auburn, a place I started visiting when I lived at the Cambridge Zen Center in the mid-1990s. That means I’ve been going to Mount Auburn to walk, birdwatch, sketch, and simply unwind for nearly twenty years. Seon Joon had never been to Mount Auburn, so now that she’s moved to Cambridge, I felt an odd obligation to introduce her to one of my favorite places. I know from experience that if you’re going to weather the urban intensity of Central and Harvard Squares, you need to know where to find quiet pockets of green serenity.

Beloved daughter Maria

Mount Auburn, like any cemetery, is intended as a final resting place for the dearly departed…but for nearly twenty years, it’s served me as an interim resting place, a green oasis where I’ve returned, repeatedly. Seon Joon used the image of a compass point to describe Mount Auburn: here is a known place in a sea of unfamiliar places, somewhere to plant a figurative map-pin as she navigates a new city. I like to think of Mount Auburn as being a kind of secular Mecca: a compass-point that wields a magnetic pull, the faces of its faithful turning and re-turning to this spot that beckons like a green beacon.

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