Going A-Walking by James Runciman

Story type: Essay

One of the most pestilent of all social nuisances is the athlete who must be eternally performing “feats,” and then talking about them. He goes to the Alps, and, instead of looking at the riot of sunset colour or the immortal calm of the slumbering peaks, he attempts performances which might be amusing in a circus of unlimited size, but which are not in the least interesting when brought off on the mighty declivities of the great hills. One of these gentlemen takes up a quarter of a volume in telling us how he first of all climbed up a terrible peak, then fell backwards and slid down a slope of eight hundred feet, cutting his head to the bone, and losing enough blood to make him feel faint The same gentleman had seen two of his companions fly into eternity down the grim sides of the same mountain; but he must needs climb to the top, not in order to serve any scientific purpose, or even to secure a striking view, but merely to say he had been there. After an hour on the summit of the enormous mass of stone, he came down; and I should have liked to ask him what he reckoned to be the net profit accruing to him for his little exploit. Wise men do not want to clamber up immense and dangerous Alps; there is a kind of heroic lunacy about the business, but it is not useful, and it certainly is not inviting. If a thoughtful man goes even in winter among the mountains, their vast repose sinks on his soul; his love of them never slackens, and he returns again and again to his haunts until time has stiffened his joints and dulled his eyes, and he prepares to go down into the dust of death. But the wise man has a salutary dislike of break-neck situations; he cannot let his sweet or melancholy fancies free while he is hanging on for dear life to some inhospitable crag, so he prefers a little moderate exercise of the muscles, and a good deal of placid gazing on scenes that ennoble his thoughts and make his imagination more lofty. One of the mountain-climbing enthusiasts could not contrive to break his neck in Europe, so, with a gallantry worthy of a better cause, he went to South America and scaled Chimborazo. He could not quite break his neck even in the Andes, but he no doubt turned many athletic friends yellow with envy. Yet another went to the Caucasus, and found so many charming and almost deadly perils there that he wants numbers of people to go out and share his raptures.

The same barren competitive spirit breaks out in other directions. Men will run across the North Sea in a five-ton boat, though there are scores of big and comfortable steamers to carry them: they are cramped in their tiny craft; they can get no exercise; their limbs are pained; they undergo a few days of cruel privation–and all in order that they may tell how they bore a drenching in a cockboat. On the roads in our own England we see the same disposition made manifest. The bicyclist tears along with his head low and his eyes fixed just ahead of the tyre of his front wheel; he does not enjoy the lovely panorama that flits past him, he has no definite thought, he only wants to cover so many miles before dark; save for the fresh air that will whistle past him, thrilling his blood, he might as well be rolling round on a cinder track in some running-ground. But the walker–the long-distance walker–is the most trying of all to the average leisurely and meditative citizen. He fits himself out with elaborate boots and ribbed stockings; he carries resin and other medicaments for use in case his feet should give way; his knapsack is unspeakably stylish, and he posts off like a spirited thoroughbred running a trial. His one thought is of distances; he gloats over a milestone which informs him that he is going well up to five and a half miles per hour, and he fills up his evening by giving spirited but somewhat trying accounts of the pace at which he did each stage of his pilgrimage. In the early morning he is astir, not because he likes to see the diamond dew on the lovely trees or hear the chant of the birds as they sing of love and thanksgiving–he wants to make a good start, so that he may devour even more of the way than he did the day before. In any one lane that he passes through there are scores of sights that offer a harvest to the quiet eye; but our insatiable athlete does not want to see anything in particular until the sight of his evening steak fills him with rapture. If the most patient and urbane of men were shut up with one of these tremendous fellows during a storm of rain, he would pray for deliverance before a couple of hours went by; for the competitive athlete’s intelligence seems to settle in his calves, and he refers to his legs for all topics which he kindly conceives to possess human interest. Of course the swift walker may become a useful citizen should we ever have war; he will display the same qualities that were shown by the sturdy Bavarians and Brandenburgers who bore those terrible marches in 1870 and swept MacMahon into a deadly trap by sheer endurance and speed of foot; but he is not the ideal companion.

Persons who are wise proceed on a different plan; they wish to make the most of every moment, and, while they value exercise, they like to make the quickened currents of their blood feed a receptive and perhaps somewhat epicurean brain. To the judicious man our lovely country affords a veritable harvest of delights–and the delights can be gained with very little trouble. I let the swift muscular men hurry away to the Tyrol or the Caucasus or the Rocky Mountains, or whithersoever else they care to go, and I turn to our own windy seashore or quiet lanes or flushed purple moorlands. I do not much care for the babble of talk at my elbow; but one good companion who has cultivated the art of keeping silent is a boon. Suppose that you follow me on a roundabout journey. Say we run northward in the train and resolve to work to the south on foot; we start by the sea, and foot it on some fine gaudy morning over the springy links where the grass grows gaily and the steel-coloured bent-grass gleams like the bayonets of some vast host. The fresh wind sings from the sea and flies through the lungs and into the pores with an exhilarating effect like that of wine; the waves dance shoreward, glittering as if diamonds were being pelted down from the blue arch above; the sea-swallows sweep over the bubbling crests like flights of silver arrows. It is very joyous. You have set off early, of course, and the rabbits have not yet turned into their holes for their day-long snooze. Watch quietly, and you may perhaps see how they make their fairy rings on the grass. One frolicsome brown rogue whisks up his white tail, and begins careering round and round; another is fired by emulation and joins; another and another follow, and soon there is a flying ring of merry little creatures who seem quite demented with the very pleasure of living. One bounds into the air with a comic curvet, and comes down with a thud; the others copy him, and there is a wild maze of coiling bodies and gleaming white tails. But let the treacherous wind carry the scent of you down on the little rascals and you will see a change. An old fellow sits up like a kangaroo for an instant, looking extremely wise and vigilant; he drops and kicks the ground with a sharp thud that can be heard a long way off; the terror of man asserts itself in the midst of that pure, peaceful beauty, and the whole flock dart off in agitated fashion till they reach their holes; then they seem to look round with a sarcastic air, for they know that you could not even raise a gun to your shoulder in time to catch one of them before he made his lightning dive into the darksome depths of the sand-hill. How strange it is that meditative men like to watch the ways of wild things! White of Selborne did not care much for killing anything in particular; he enjoyed himself in a beautiful way for years, merely because he had learned to love the pretty creatures of fen and meadow and woodland. Mr. Russell Lowell can spend a happy day in watching through his glass the habits of the birds that haunt his great garden; he does not want a gun; he only cares to observe the instincts which God has implanted in the harmless children of the air. On our walking tour we have hundreds of chances to see the mystic mode of life pursued by the creatures that swarm even in our crowded England; and if we use our eyes we may see a score of genuine miracles every day.

On the pleasant “links” there is always something new to draw the eye. Out on the flashing sea a ship rolls bravely away to north or south; her sails are snowy in certain lights, and then in an instant she stands up in raiment of sooty black. You may make up a story about her if you are fanciful. Perhaps she is trailing her way into the deep quiet harbour which you have just left, and the women are waiting until the rough bearded fellows come lumbering up the quay. Perhaps she was careering over the rushing mountain waves to the southward of the desolate Horn only a few weeks ago, and the men were counting the days wearily, while the lasses and wives at home sighed as the wind scourged the sea in the dreary night and set all the rocks thundering with the charges of mad surges. A little indulgence of the fancy does you no harm even though you may be all wrong; very likely the skipper of the glad-looking vessel is tipsy, maybe he has just been rope’s-ending his cabin-boy or engaging in some equally unpoetic pursuit; still no one is harmed by idealizing a little, and so, by your leave, we will not alter our crude romance of the sailor-men. Meantime, as you go on framing poetic fancies, there is a school of other poets up above you, and they are composing their fantasies at a pretty rate. The modest brown lark sits quietly amid the sheltering grass, and will hardly stir, no matter how near her you may go; but her mate, the glorious singer, is far away up toward the sun, and he shouts in his joyous ecstasy until the heaven is full of his exquisite joyance. Imagine how he puts his heart into his carol! He is at least a mile above you, and you can hear him over a radius of half a mile, measured from the place where he will drop. The little poets chant one against the other, and yet there is no discord, for the magic of distance seems to harmonize song with song, and the tumult soothes instead of exciting you. Who is the poet who talks of “drawing a thread of honey through your heart”? It is a quaint, conceited phrase, and yet somehow it gives with absurd felicity some idea of the lark’s song. They massacre these innocents of the holy choir by thousands, and put them in puddings for Cockneys to eat. The mere memory of one of those beatified mornings makes you want to take the blood of the first poulterer whom you find exposing a piteous string of the exquisite darlings. But we must not think of blood, or taxes, or German bands, or political speeches, or any other abomination, for our walk takes us through flowery regions of peace.

Your muscles tighten rarely as you stump on over the elastic herbage; two miles an hour is quite enough for your modest desires, especially as you know you can quicken to four or five whenever you choose. As the day wears on, the glorious open-air confusion takes possession of your senses, your pulses beat with spirit, and you pass amid floating visions of keen colour, soft greenery, comforting shades. The corn rustles on the margin where the sandy soil ceases; the sleepy farmhouses seem to ‘give you a lazy greeting, and the figures of the labourers are like natural features of the landscape. Everything appears friendly; it may be that the feeling of kindness and security arises from your physical well-being, but it is there all the same, and what can you do more than enjoy? Perhaps in the midst of your confused happiness your mind begins acting on its own account, and quite disregards its humble companion, the body. Xavier de Maistre’s mind always did so, and left what Xavier called the poor bete of a carcass to take care of itself; and all of us have to experience this double existence at times. Then you find the advantages of knowing a great deal of poetry. I would not give a rush for a man who merely pores over his poets in order to make notes or comments on them; you ought to have them as beloved companions to be near you night and day, to take up the parable when your own independent thought is hazy with delight or even with sorrow. As you tramp along the whistling stretches amid the blaze of the ragworts and the tender passing glances of the wild veronica, you can take in all their loveliness with the eye, while the brain goes on adding to your pleasure by recalling the music of the poets. Perhaps you fall into step with the quiver and beat of our British Homer’s rushing rhymes, and Marmion thunders over the brown hills of the Border, or Clara lingers where mingles war’s rattle with groans of the dying. Perhaps the wilful brain persists in crooning over the “Belle Dame Sans Merci;” your mood flutters and changes with every minute, and you derive equal satisfaction from the organ-roll of Milton or the silvery flageolet tones of Thomas Moore. If culture consists in learning the grammar an etymologies of a poet’s song, then no cultured man will ever get any pleasure from poetry while he is on a walking tour; but, if you absorb your poets into your being, you have spells of rare and unexpected delight.

The halt is always pleasant. On our sand-hills the brackens grow to an immense height, and, if you lie down among them, you are surrounded by a pale green gleam, as if you had dived beneath some lucent sun-smitten water. The ground-lark sways on a frond above you; the stonechat lights for an instant, utters his cracking cry, and is off with a whisk; you have fair, quiet, and sweet rest, and you start up ready to jog along again. You come to a slow clear stream that winds seaward, lilting to itself in low whispered cadences. Over some broad shallow pool paven with brown stones the little trout fly hither and thither, making a weft and woof of dark streaks as they travel; the minnows poise themselves, and shiver and dart convulsively; the leisurely eel undulates along, and perhaps gives you a glint of his wicked eye; you begin to understand the angler’s fascination, for the most restive of men might be lulled by the light moan of that wimpling current. Cruel? Alas, yes!

That quaint old cruel coxcomb in his gullet
Should have a hook, with a small trout to pull it.

That was the little punishment which Byron devised for Izaak Walton. But of course, if you once begin to be supersensitive about cruelty, you find your way blocked at every cross-road of life, and existence ceases to be worth having.

On, as the sun slopes, and his beams fall slant over solemn mounds of cool gray hue and woody fields all pranked in gold. Look to the north, and you see the far-away hills in their sunset livery of white and purple and rose. On the clear summits the snow sometimes lies; and, as the royal orb sinks, you will see the snow blush for a minute with throbbing carnation tints that shift and faint off slowly into cold pallid green. The heart is too full of ecstasy to allow even of thought. You live–that is all! You may continue your wanderings among all the mystic sounds and sights of the night, but it is better to rest long and well when you can. Let the village innkeeper put down for you the coarsest fare that can be conceived, and you will be content; for, as a matter of fact, any food and drink appeal gratefully to the palate of a man who has been inhaling the raciest air at every pore for eight or ten hours. If the fare does not happen to be coarse–if, for example, the landlord has a dish of trout–so much the better; you do not envy any crowned personage in Christendom or elsewhere. And how much does your day of Paradise cost you? At the utmost, half-a-crown. Had you been away on the Rhine or in Switzerland or in some German home of brigands, you would have been bleeding at the purse all day, while in our own matchless land you have had merriment, wild nature, air that is like the essence of life–and all for thirty pence. When night falls heavily, you pass your last hour in listening to the under-song of the sea and the whisper of the roaming winds among the grass. Then, if you are wise and grateful, you thank the Giver of all, and go to sleep.

In the jolly greenwoods of the Midlands you may have enjoyment of another kind. Some men prefer the sleepy settled villages, the sweeping fens with their bickering windmills, the hush and placidity of old market-towns that brood under the looming majesty of the castle. The truth is that you cannot go anywhere in England outside of the blighted hideous manufacturing districts without finding beauty and peace. In the first instance you seek health and physical well-being–that goes without saying; but the walking epicure must also have dainty thoughts, full banquets of the mind, quiet hours wherein resolutions may be framed in solitude and left in the soul to ripen. When the epicure returns to the din of towns, he has a safeguard in his own breast which tends to keep him alike from folly and melancholy. Furthermore, as he passes the reeking dens where human beings crowd who never see flower or tree, he feels all churlishness depart from him, and he is ready to pity and help his less happy brethren. After he has settled to labour again, his hours of rest are made calmly contented by the chance visions that come to him and show him the blown sea, the rustling whiteness of fretted surges, the painted meadows, and the solemn colours of the dying day. And all this talk we have got only through letting our minds go wandering away on the subject of going a-walking. I have always said that the sweetest pleasures are almost costless. The placid “look of the bay mare” took all the silliness out of Walt Whitman; and there is more in his queer phrase than meets the eye. One word. When you go a-walking, do not try to be obtrusively merry. Meet a group of tramping gentlemen who have been beer-drinking at noon; they are surprisingly vivacious until the gaze of the sun becomes importunate; they even sing as they go, and their hearty laughter resounds far and near. See them in the afternoon, and ask where the merriment is; their eyes are glazed, their nerves crave slumber, their steps are by no mean sprightly, and they probably form a doleful company, ready to quarrel or think pessimistic thoughts. Be calm, placid, even; do not expect too much, and your reward will be rich.

June, 1888.

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