In 1911, in his book The Mountain Trail and Its Message, Albert Palmer spoke of a conversation he had had with John Muir that went like this: I said to him, “Mr. Muir, someone told me you did not approve of the word hike. Is that so?” His blue eyes flashed, and with his Scotch accent he replied, “I don’t like either the word or the thing. People ought to saunter in the mountains – not hike!”
Muir went on to explain to Palmer the origin of the word saunter. “It’s a beautiful word. Away back in the Middle Ages people used to go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and when people in the villages through which they passed asked where they were going, they would reply à la sainte terre – to the Holy Land. And so they became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers. Now, these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently, not hike through them.”
There are many narrow roads through the landscapes of Sonoma County that have no shoulders, and so are unsafe for walking; still they are to be enjoyed, rather than simply gotten through. These heritage roads curve and climb to fit themselves to the contours of the land, and are not designed for convenient commutes. Occasional bicyclists remind us to drop back behind them and accompany their leisurely pace, to share their pleasure in the views that we discover together as we move along. Sometimes I’ll pull off the road and get out of the car to have a personal conversation with the world – becoming present in the present, leaving the past behind and ignoring the future. Sometimes I will write a few words in the journal that I carry.
I feel the same way about writing – sauntering as I go. When I was very young I would sit across the table from my older brother as he did his school homework, and make marks on paper with my crayon, the way he was. The family would be amused at my backwards and upside down writing, but I liked making my own marks on paper the way I did. I still do. Word processing software may be convenient for getting things done, but the intimate connection of the mind with the crayon, pencil, or pen as it moves across the paper is much more satisfying. There is a pleasant art to the strokes and pokes that stir the contents of the mind and spill them out for others to someday read.
Jack London was famous for writing a thousand words each morning before working on his Beauty Ranch. It’s also fairly well known that he would not ride in a car – that he much preferred riding shank’s mare, or going by buggy or horseback. Quick travel, it has been said, will leave the soul far behind; it takes as long for your soul to catch up as it takes to walk to get to where you happen to be. I awaken each morning to make notes on a clipboard kept by my bed, writing a few words, just enough to capture my first thoughts. I may spread a wide net, but only over the immediate portion of the sea of my sensibilities. It doesn’t matter how many words I write, how far I may travel, but instead how deeply – occupying my sojourn rather than simply enduring it.
The Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku is deeply nourishing, bathing our senses in the forest through which we walk in contemplation. And yet it can be as much a devotion as it is a discipline, in which we give as much as we receive in an intimate communion with the world in which we live. It is a conversation with the world that establishes our path through it as we go, contributing as much to the landscape as does nature’s flora and fauna that accompany our meandering. We are, after all, an integral part of this sentient cosmos – and without our active participation it would be less complete.
Mouldering slowly in my cabin, as it settles upon its foundation in a gentle, gradual descent to the stream below, is a large facsimile of William Blake’s prophetic poem Vala, from my undergraduate years at Berkeley a half century ago. The 18th-century poet and artist wrote most of his works by painstakingly etching them into copper plates – in reverse, backwards, and sometimes upside down – and illustrating them with stunning human figures. I trace the path he took, study his strokes, his words and his images, and appreciate the care with which he worked and wrote. My favorite was Blake’s most enigmatic poem “The Mental Traveller,” which details his pilgrimage through the realm of the mind to find and plumb the enormous depths of this very human condition.
Pope Benedict XVI has said the purpose of a pilgrimage – from Blake’s inner journey to the celebrated outer journey of the Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain, is “to step out of ourselves in order to encounter God where He has revealed Himself.” I take this to mean a direct experience and mutual exchange with fundamental reality, by means of an inner journey that is at once occasioned by and represented by an outer journey. This is my sojourn – the poignant, paradoxical condition of resting in a temporary stay.
My writing is like my walking, and my journal is like my journey. These strokes that I make on paper that will someday be read by you are like the steps that I take upon my path. It’s what I do – as I explore, experience, and express. When I was young I yearned to know what I would know when I was older. Over time I came to understand that it’s always been better to learn where I am rather than want to go someplace else – occupying this sojourn.
Jim Shere is a local writer with a private practice as a counselor in Glen Ellen. You are invited to explore his website at jimshere.com, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org