Thursday, October 23, 2008

A Spring Walk


by John Kieran

Simple honesty compels the warning that reading these words may possibly do you good and, therefore, you had better give some thought to the matter of dropping it right here. From this point you continue reading only at your own risk and peril.

Henry Thoreau, the American essayist and philosopher, once said: "If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life." Quite right, too, but don't start running immediately because I herewith disclaim any conscious design of doing anybody any good.

I am merely setting down some reflections on a habit I have formed of walking at least two miles, if possible, every day. However, walking has been highly spoken of as a healthful exercise. In fact, many sedentary physicians prescribe it for patients, alleging that "a walk will do you good." Now, I view the matter in an entirely different light. I walk because I like to walk. I enjoy the exercise and I am entertained by what I see and hear along the way. It may be that the doctors are right in saying that "walking is good for you," but the only opinion I have to offer from a medical standpoint is that I have been taking daily walks for some thirty years and I conclude that, though habit-forming, the practice is not quickly fatal. If amiable mention of some of the enjoyments of walking stirs a reader to going for a walk which, as the weight of medical opinion has it, "will do him good," the blame lies on his own head and I wash my hands of it.

One thing about walking is that it costs practically nothing, which is an important item these days. It is also a highly respectable diversion--especially in the springtime--and often looked upon with admiration if the walker wears tweeds and carries a blackthorn stick, though that isn't the way I take to the road myself. Old clothes and a pair of field glasses with which to spy on birds are my equipment.

Walking is time-honored, hallowed by footprints famous in history. Plato expounded his philosophy while walking up and down an olive grove in an Athens park some 2,300 years ago. Peter the Hermit went on a walking tour of France and Germany in A.D.1095 and stirred up the First Crusade, which eventually led to the others and a vast amount of long-distance walking.

There is no reason for boasting of walking as though it were a special talent or virtue possessed by an endowed few. Everybody who isn't bedridden walks to some extent every day. But to set out deliberately for a walk is another matter, and any discussion of it must include mention of relevant matters such as time, place, distance and weather conditions. Edward Payson Weston walked all the way across the United States. Dr. Livingstone walked across Africa. Admiral Peary finally reached the North Pole on foot, and Roald Amundsen arrived at the South Pole in similar plodding fashion which, I think, was going to extremes. I merely hope to get in my modest two miles or more a day, preferably over open and friendly country.

Often it takes me some hours because I so frequently stand around watching birds through my field glasses or stop to peer through a pocket magnifying glass at buds, leaves, flowers, seed pods, insects or other interesting items encountered en route. If it is good country, I never tire of going over the same ground and heartily concur in the opinion of the naturalist John Burroughs: "To learn something new, take the path today that you took yesterday."

There is a neighborhood swamp that I have been visiting since boyhood, and it still keeps turning up something new for me. There the skunk cabbages, brazenly poking their noses up through the snow and frozen ground in January, start the spring push. There the early birds from the South arrive in late February and the spring "peepers" sound off in March. It's in the swamp that the fresh greenery of the young year first catches the eye. Here is the home of the wood duck and the bittern, the spicebush and the marsh marigold, the speckled alder and the red maple.

Since I walk at all seasons. I encounter all sorts of weather, some of which I do not approve. I like walking in the spring rain when I am properly dressed for the occasion hut I never met a man woman or beast who ready enjoyed walking in a drenching downpour. Personally, I'm against high winds, too, by land or sea, especially at low temperatures when they cut like a knife. Tennyson moodily mentions "blasts that blow the poplar white" and such strong winds that "rooks are blown about the skies." Picturesque and poetical, to be sure, but Aeolus can put those winds back in the bag so far as I am concerned. Rain needn't bother a walker unless it is overdone, in which case it makes hard going. A curious thing that soon becomes apparent to one who is not easily balked of a daily walk is that, whether it is raining or blowing, the weather is never as bad outside as it looks through a living-room window.

I have good friends who share my liking for cross-country work and they double the enjoyment of a fine walk. But even if I start out alone, I meet many friends along the way. Eyebrows may be raised, or there may be some significant tapping of the forehead, when I mention some of these friends. One is a red-tailed hawk that I have come to know because it has several primary feathers permanently missing from its right wing.

Other friends are an assortment of painted turtles that sun themselves on a half-submerged log in my favorite swamp. Before we became well acquainted they would slide off into the water at my approach, but now that we know one another they acknowledge the friendship by remaining undisturbed as I go by. On several occasions, indeed, one or two have winked at me. Other firm friends are three tall tulip trees that stand on a roadside above a river, their great trunks looming up like Greek columns. Every time I meet these trees I feel the better for it.

Comfortable footwear is at the bottom of every enjoyable step along the road. If the shoe doesn't fit, no sensible walker would think of wearing it. Woolen socks are best. Dress optional, depending upon the weather. When in doubt, play it safe.

Take to the woods on windy days. It’s quieter there. Keep your ears open. You can always hear more birds than you can see. Keep your eyes open. There are flowers in bloom through most months of the year, and trees are as interesting even in early spring as they are in summer. These are not sinister suggestions to stir up nonwalkers but merely my own rules of conduct. I have a few more. Take the sun over your shoulder for the best views. Avoid slippery footing as you would the plague, and don't sit on damp ground. Keep walking.

Copyright (c) 1953 by the author


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