Getting There on Foot

(Becoming a Naturalist, part 13.)

Not by car, or by plane,

not haysled

nor old clunker

— not by Elijah’s chariot of fire!

You won’t get any farther than Basho.

He got there on foot.

                                         (Olav Hauge, “Not by Car” in Luminous Spaces.)

While sauntering, we came upon a dead basswood that had been sculpted by pileated woodpeckers. We reached it by walking on an old camp road and then for a little while on an old spring-fed brook, made frozen by the impoundment that now includes it. Tributary springs stayed open, and here and there in the frosted ice of the pond, a circle of open water hovered above a spring buried by captive water and mud. Despite a series of dams, the brook still holds fast to an ancient spirit that we now hope to find in our meandering.

So we walk, trying to recover something within ourselves as the wildness of that brook still tries to find its way. The brook still flows, but has been robbed of destiny. Where it meandered in bygone days it now moves vertically in a column of current, revealed in interrupted ice. That brook is an ancient traveler forced to stand still, or to make slow progress where it wants to rush and babble.

The whole ecosystem is trying to find ways to be wilder. Pileated woodpeckers, that now and again make a comeback in a breeding pair or two, are boxed in like that brook. Here they pounded and called and made themselves proud in former times. Now they lurk as ghosts in the shadows of a former forest of massive cherries and oaks. The spit of habitat that now remains is surrounded by fields of cash crops and a flood plain, once the braids and brakes of the Missouri River, which has itself become tame and sluggish where it formerly swelled and raged.

The restoration and preservation of wild places requires that nature expands beyond the limits we have placed upon her and flows with more freedom. A wild brook follows the lay of the land and is shaped by it. Likewise, we will recover our ancient wildness and wisdom by becoming more brooklike.

Our colleague Robert quoted the ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes by proclaiming (in Latin, not Greek) the phrase: solvitur ambulando: “it is solved by walking.” In the tradition of poets, naturalists, and poet-naturalists, something vital is found by walking in wild places. Olav Hauge, a 20th-century Norwegian poet-farmer and avid walker through birch and heath, made this observation: “sitting down to write poetry is no use; this is ancient wisdom.” In search of nature, poets and naturalists get there on foot.

The most famous Zen poet and writer of haiku did not sit down to write, but composed with his feet. After his home burned, Matsuo Basho began to wander alone, for months at a time, through the wild interior of 17th-century Japan. His poetry is the poetry of walking that became the watershed of nature verse to our day. The clear lines of Basho ring true in the winter woods:

I am a wanderer,

so let that be my name.

The first winter rain.

After admiring the pileated sculpture and watching our shadows on the frozen pond and listening for pileated calls, we gingerly walked out onto the ice. With great care we approached a liquid pool, a perfect circle of spring water rising from below. A few bright lime duckweeds, fluorescent against the clear darkness, wandered in the captive current.


Saunterers on a frozen brook. (Photo by Sarah Berkeley.)

Winter workshops and saunters, click here.