Pedestrian thoughts

Late afternoon at the place of pines

Today after running errands and attending a meeting on campus, I came home and walked Toivo to the place of pines and back. You won’t find the place of pines on any map: it’s my name for a segment of the Cochituate Aqueduct that snakes behind suburban backyards, with a trail that follows a shady ravine carpeted with pine needles.

I started calling this particular segment of footpath “the place of pines” when I used to walk Reggie there on hot summer days. We’d walk to a place where the trail climbs up the ravine, then we’d return on a path that skirts its upper ledge.

It’s a short walk there and back; the whole time, you can see houses, garages, and treehouses in neighboring yards, and you can hear passing cars and planes overhead. The appeal of the place of pines isn’t that it’s wild and remote, but that it’s near and handy. During a spare half hour, you can walk to a place with tall trees, indulging in a brief break on a day without much time for breaking.

Ready to go outside

As Reggie grew older, our trips to the place of pines changed. First, he struggled to climb the ravine, so we’d walk the level part of the trail and then retrace our steps when the way got steep. Eventually, Reggie couldn’t walk even that far: our walks got shorter and slower, and eventually he couldn’t walk at all.

Walking Toivo to the place of pines today, there was a thought at the corner of my mind: someday, this spunky girl who tugs at her leash, eager to sniff and chase after squirrels, will be too old to make it this far. But today the way is smooth and easy, and it would be a shame to stay inside.

Frozen lagoon

Today J and I took the T into Boston, where we had lunch at Quincy Market then walked the Greenway to Chinatown, through Chinatown to Boston Common and the Public Garden, then through the Public Garden and down Newbury Street to Mass Ave, where we caught the T for home.

Mehdi Ghadyanloo, Spaces Of Hope

It was good to be out walking on a gray and warm day. Nearly all the snow has melted, so the earth looks bare and barren–just muddy, as if the landscape were under construction, caught between seasons. Plenty of people were out, Boston living up to its reputation as a pedestrian city. One of these days, we’ll keep track of the various languages we hear on a typical trip downtown and back: today we heard Spanish several times and Chinese at least once.

Holocaust memorial

At Haymarket, we walked through the weekly farmers’ market, with stalls selling produce and fresh fish arranged under long tents. Not all the food for sale is local: there were bags of out-of-state oranges piled into pyramids next to flattened skids of emptied cardboard boxes. Whether from near or far, the food was hawked by farmers, fishermen, and wholesalers who seemed eager to haggle. Yes, you could buy similar fruit, fish, or vegetables at your neighborhood grocery store, but would you have an actual conversation with your grocer before heading for home?

Chinatown gate

In Chinatown, there were red paper lanterns hanging from utility wires in advance of next weekend’s Chinese New Year’s celebration along with even more open-air merchants selling fruit and firecrackers out of trucks and car trunks. Everywhere, people were walking and trying to do business: merchants in Haymarket and Chinatown, panhandlers outside of T stations, and buskers in the Public Garden.

In case you forget where you are

At City Hall, there were families skating on a rink leftover from Christmas; at the Public Garden, small throngs of twenty-somethings were out on the ice, walking where the Swan Boats and ducks float in summer time. The ice was porous with puddles–I wouldn’t have trusted it–but more enticing than the chance to walk on water was the promise of the yellowing willows that fringe the lagoon. If the willows are brimming with yellowing buds, spring can’t be far behind.

View from footbridge over Leverett Pond

Today J and I took a trolley to Longwood, where we walked the Emerald Necklace to Jamaica Pond and back, stopping for lunch along the way. It was a perfect day for walking–partly cloudy, warm, and windy–with bare ground and long, stark shadows.

Muddy River at Longwood

All along the way, there were scattered throngs of pedestrians, Lycra-clad joggers, dog-walkers, families with strollers, and one rollerblader in shorts, taking advantage of the weather. In January, any day above freezing is a delight, so a day in the 50’s felt like spring, even with a brisk wind.

Sailboats in winter

The stretch of Emerald Necklace J and I walked today–a woodsy stretch of path connecting the Back Bay Fens, Olmsted Park, and Jamaica Pond–follows the Muddy River and runs through otherwise busy Boston neighborhoods, snaking along Brookline Avenue, crossing Route 9, and running parallel to the Jamaicaway with its constant stream of vehicular traffic. There is, in other words, no denying you are in the heart of a busy city.

Yellowing willow

But the genius of Frederick Law Olmsted is this: when he designed the Emerald Necklace, he knew natural landscapes needn’t be distant and untamed to refresh the human heart and mind. At no point today were J and I more than a literal stone’s throw away from traffic and densely populated urban neighborhoods, but we enjoyed the placidity of walking among trees and geese and flowing water all the same.

Leverett Pond

Olmsted believed that city-dwellers need green spaces to help soothe the stresses of urban life, and I think he was right. After we’d had lunch and were retracing our steps back toward Longwood, J and I saw an elderly couple sitting on a park bench overlooking Everett Pond. The woman had a walker and the man fingered a well-worn rosary as they sat chatting in Russian. How good it must have been for their bodies and souls to sit outside on a sunny January day, and how good it was for us, as well.

Long shadows at Longwood

Once we’d returned to Longwood, J and I boarded a crowded trolley headed toward home. Standing alongside fellow strap-hangers didn’t feel any more stressful than walking alongside dog-walkers, runners, and baby-strollers. During the hour or so J and I had been walking, our daily lives felt very far away. At a time of year when cabin fever is endemic, it’s a welcome gift to spend an afternoon outside.

Bulletin board

I teach early until late on Tuesdays and Thursdays this semester, with my first class starting at 8:30 am and my last class ending at 6:30 pm. This means I have a big chunk of time between my morning and afternoon classes, and I typically spend that time in my office grading papers, prepping classes, and meeting with students. On any given Tuesday or Thursday, I spend the entire day in May Hall, all my classes and office being located there.

This isn't me, but I kind of wish it was.

My Fitbit has an activity reminder that buzzes near the end of any daytime hour I haven’t logged 250 steps. When I’m teaching, there’s no need for reminders, as I pace and gesticulate, walking around the classroom and trying to keep my students awake. But during that big chunk of time between my morning and afternoon classes, when I’m in my office tending to sedentary tasks, I appreciate an occasional nudge (or buzz) to get moving.

Wire sculpture

There’s no telling how many miles I’ve walked in May Hall this semester. My office is on the second floor, and I’ve learned I can log 250 steps by going upstairs, walking through the History department on the third floor, walking through the Art department on the fourth floor, and then retracing my steps through History and back to English. If I get tired of that route, I can walk downstairs and past the first floor classrooms, through the basement with its ceramic studios and kilns, and back, taking quick peeks into the rooms I pass.

When the weather’s nicer, I’ll probably venture outside to walk around campus, but in winter time, walking laps through May Hall does the trick: it pulls me away from my desk and gets my blood moving, and it gives me an excuse to check out the art exhibits on display in the hallways and in quiet corners.

Art department stairwell

This week I heard a radio story about a former inmate who ran his first marathon in prison, logging 26.2 miles on a treadmill last April 18: Marathon Monday. This year, he’s out of prison and is running the actual Boston Marathon: same mileage, but a far more interesting route. I’ve never run a marathon, but if you can do it on a treadmill, I suppose there’s nothing stopping me from racking up 26.2 miles (eventually) in May Hall.

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.


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.


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.


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

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