The Starry Night. Vincent van Gogh.
‘The hour should be the evening and the season winter, for in winter the champagne brightness of the air and the sociability of the streets are grateful. We are not then taunted as in the summer by the longing for shade and solitude and sweet airs from the hayfields. The evening hour, too, gives us the irresponsibility which darkness and lamplight bestow. We are no longer quite ourselves. As we step out of the house on a fine evening between four and six, we shed the self our friends know us by and become part of the vast republican army of anonymous trampers, whose society is so agreeable after the solitude of one’s own room.’
Street Haunting: A London Adventure. Virginia Woolf.
Does walking influence our thinking? Conversely, might thinking affect our walking? Virginia Woolf speaks of a kind of transformation of the self as one leaves the house to go for a walk. She is walking though London, but still finds the city experiences inspiring.
Couple in the Park at Arles. Vincent Van Gogh.
Many artists, writers and poets have used walking through the countryside as their theme, pointing to the fact that such walking inspires us, feeds the soul, enhances and encourages creativity.
I have chosen to illustrate this post with some beautiful Van Gogh paintings, as he captures so wonderfully the magic qualities of the external world around us, the spiritual, reflective and transformative aspects of the universe as we walk.
’No matter what people say; we painters work better in the country, everything there speaks more clearly, everything holds firm, everything explains itself…’
For Van Gogh, then, the surroundings actually speak, communicating something of their clarity and solidity. They appear to function as a container; that is, a safe, holding environment for this troubled artistic soul. It is as if the external merges with the internal, confirming the existence of a holistic world where everything functions as part of a whole.
Thomas Traherne, in his poem Walking, emphasises how crucial is the thinking process to walking. Without this facility, we might as well be made of wood, immune to the joyful inspiration of the countryside.
‘To walk abroad is, not with eyes,
But thoughts, the fields to see and prize;
Else may the silent feet,
Like logs of wood,
Move up and down, and see no good
Nor joy nor glory meet. ‘
Again, there is a reference to this connection between outer and inner. It is as if the surroundings express something of our inner world, speaking to us and for us, helping us think and feel, mystically nourishing our imagination and our soul.
Wordsworth, a great walker, also speaks of his deep bond with nature in his sonnet Sweet Was the Walk:
Now, too, on melancholy’s idle dreams
Musing, the lone spot with my soul agrees,
Quiet and dark; for through the thick wove trees
Scarce peeps the curious star till solemn gleams
The clouded moon, and calls me forth to stray
Thro’ tall, green, silent woods and ruins gray.
The ‘lone spot’ communes with him, affirming his own, sad mind-wanderings. The moon itself calls to him from behind the clouds, urging him to wander on through the woods. Nature appeals to all our senses, stimulating us mentally and physically through colour, temperature, tone, sound, scent, movement, form and texture. Van Gogh seems to capture all these aspects in his painting of olive trees.
Olive trees with yellow sky and sun. Vincent van Gogh
The painted landscape seems to vibrate with life and tremble in the shimmering heat as we ‘walk’ through it. We can gaze longingly beyond the trees to the pale and distant hill, the triangle of perspective in the painting drawing us in. Van Gogh’s statement that, in the countryside ‘everything explains itself,’ is dynamically reflected here; Nature mystically helps us understand itself and ourselves.
This painting connects for me with Rilke’s poem A Walk, in which he speaks of the power of the landscape to alter us.
My eyes already touch the sunny hill.
going far ahead of the road I have begun.
So we are grasped by what we cannot grasp;
it has inner light, even from a distance-
and changes us, even if we do not reach it,
into something else, which, hardly sensing it,
we already are; a gesture waves us on
answering our own wave…
but what we feel is the wind in our faces.
Seeing the distant hill transforms the poet, although he cannot reach it. It is also interesting that Rilke talks of being changed into what he already is, without knowing it. The change brought about by the sight of the hill is, he is saying, a greater self- awareness. So the hill changes our thinking only to the extent that it releases something hitherto hidden from our consciousness.
This notion of the far off and somewhat unreachable hill is reminiscent of experiences of being inspired by another person, perhaps a therapist, teacher or lecturer. Sometimes, a way of thinking, an idea, is put forward that is just outside our full understanding and it is not quite grasped in its entirety.
However, despite the unreachability of the thought, there can still be learning and change, even if, like Rilke’s hill, it goes mostly over one’s head. Some kind of process occurs in which the idea, although on the horizon of our comprehension, is still inspirational, even if not fully grasped in the moment. Perhaps, at some unconscious level, some aspect of the distant truth, a fragment of this half-digested idea, has entered our mind.
As we walk, as we focus on our surroundings, the act of walking appears to increase our knowledge. Many different cultures have recognised this fact.
‘To the Thcho people of North-Western Canada, walking and knowing are barely divisible activities: their term for knowledge and their term for footprint can be used interchangeably.’ (The Old Ways. Robert Macfarlane.)
Macfarlane further comments on the idea that ‘walking might be thinking or that feet might know.’ Most interestingly, he points out that, etymologically, thinking and walking are inextricably linked, in that the verb to learn originally meant ‘to follow a track.’
Questions remain. What is this magical link between thinking and walking, which has the power to change our mindset as we walk? How does walking inspire us to reflect, write, paint, dream? Is there an evidence-base to explain and confirm our thoughts about the intricate connection between the physical and the psychological?
In the next post, we will find some answers, as we develop and explore these issues yet further.