Walking by ghosts

Walking composition

“That brain of mine is something more than merely mortal; as time will show.” —Ada Lovelace, 1815-1852

I am reading a tremendously good book, one of those books that reminds you (or me at least) why books exist—Windswept: Walking the Paths of Trailblazing Woman, by Annabel Abbs.*

I’ve been creakily writing about walking for Medium, with some essays getting ready to come out in the next 4-6 weeks, and reading Windswept reminded me what I found so compelling about walking to begin with. Abbs follows the trails and stories of several women who were regular walkers or did long-distance walks (like Frieda Lawrence, who had left her husband and three children to join D.H. Lawrence as his lover and muse; Simone de Beauvoir, and others I’d never heard of like painter Gwen John), interspersing her own walks with their stories, and weaving in neuroscience and evolution with understated deftness. It’s a compelling, wonderfully written book that has reminded me of the integral role this miraculous, falling-forward act of motion plays in human freedom, independence, sense of self, creativity, and belonging.

It’s good to be reminded of why you loved something to begin with.

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The photo above is of what looks like an old root cellar—I thought dugout at first, but it might be too small for that and too solidly built for an old kid’s fort. It sits on a little hill just off an in-town path that I’ve tromped hundreds of times. I’ve never noticed that building before. That door. It feels eerie, somehow, to have walked by something so many times, even picked some of those ash berries along with thimble berries growing closer to the ground, and never registered its existence. Like living with a ghost.

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It’s also good to be reminded of why I didn’t want my book on walking to be about the usual subjects: the Stoics, Beethoven, Darwin, and Rousseau (Abbs writes so well of Rousseau, and the five children he forced his partner to abandon). Walking is so central to human evolution, to our existence, that I wanted to know what it means for the rest of us. It’s easy to say that Tchaikovsky walked for forty-five minutes before working and for two hours afterward and that practice was central to his genius and output—I’m more interested in what would happen if we all had that opportunity. Everyone, everywhere. If we could all walk safely and without hurry wherever we needed to go. Would anything shift within us?

I loved reading of these women, who walked where and when and how they weren’t meant to go. It reminds me not just of walking, but of how many women throughout thousands of years of history have been unable to suppress their brilliant minds, or their yearning for independence. What walking and art and thought could give them that society couldn’t. And of what else is waiting out there under structures of constraint that bind us.

*Windswept was sent to me by the author’s publisher. It will be released September 7th. I will join Annabel Abbs, fingers crossed, for a Zoom launch event for Windswept on September 8th with Madison Street Books in Chicago—I only say “fingers crossed” because it’s something I agreed to immediately after reading some about Windswept, but I’m also on deck for possible jury duty locally for “sometime in the next six months” starting September 1. I’ll post a link on the newsletter when the event details are finalized.

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Some stuff to read or listen to:

  • Building Local Power had an intriguing interview about the importance of small-scale manufacturing to towns and cities, how it’s been zoned out of cities and how we can reintegrate it.

  • Manos Tsakiris writing in Psyche at the loss of touch during the pandemic and what that means for our emotional health and societal acceptance of one another: “What if the threat of COVID-19 infection comes under control, but a significant number of people refuse to go back to the carefree tactile habits of our pre-pandemic world?” (Kudos for a reference to Lakoff and Johnson’s book Metaphors We Live By, which is a bit of a touchstone book for me.)

  • Perri Klass writing in The American Scholar on what we can learn from past cholera pandemics: “At this pandemic moment, we need to remember what we have learned from past pandemics: that humans everywhere, in the 21st century as in the 19th, are more closely connected than they sometimes want to believe.” (This is a long-ish piece but very well-written—cholera sounds absolutely awful, and I hadn’t noticed before that its actual symptoms aren’t usually described.)

  • I think I shared this when it came out, but I came across David Sloan Wilson’s essay “I Have Come to Bury Ayn Rand” in Nautilus again recently and enjoyed it just as much as I did the first time around: “Something happened around the middle of the 20th century that resulted in a sea change of thinking, from ‘society as an organism’ to Margaret Thatcher’s famous quip ‘there is no such thing as society’ in 1987. When I encountered it as a budding ecologist in the early 1970s, it offended my sensibilities.”

  • In Science News: 15 years after Pluto’s planetary status was downgraded, the question over what defines “planet” is still far from settled: “Ceres and other asteroids were considered planets, sometimes dubbed ‘minor planets,’ well into the 20th century. A 1951 article in Science News Letter declared that ‘thousands of planets are known to circle our sun,’ although ‘most are small fry.’ These ‘baby planets’ can be as small as a city block or as wide as Pennsylvania.”