Why I Walk

The serpentine belt broke on my tractor the other day. When that happens, there is a distinct change in the tractor’s rumbling sound. The air conditioning stops blowing cold air. Your battery’s power drops, and the engine’s temperature climbs rapidly. These are all signs that something is indeed wrong. So, I shut the tractor off and climbed down to investigate. That’s when I found the belt shredded and wrapped around pulleys and fan and other parts I can’t name. Another problem was that my truck was parked about a mile and a half away from the orchard I was mowing on the other side of the farm. There was nothing to do but start walking.

               I don’t mind walking. In fact, walking is one of my favorite things in the world. It was a hot, humid day, as summer days tend to be in South Georgia. The sun had risen to its mid-morning height and its intensity began to crank up. Though I normally enjoy it, I was not mentally prepared for walking. The sweat began to pour and soak through my T-shirt and jeans. My boots grew heavy. The gnats began swarming. But, a loggerhead shrike was perched on the power line along the dusty field road. Occasional trees along the roadside offered their intermittent shade and breathed out a little oxygen and water vapor to cool and refresh, however slightly. The bees under the walnut tree buzzed about their hives flying to and fro with their loads of pollen collected from the ocean of cotton blooms surrounding us. You could feel the world alive and I was reminded of what it is I enjoy about walking.

               Ol’ H.D. Thoreau once wrote, “Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow”. My own thoughts began to flow back to childhood as they often do. I became conscious of the joys of walking when I started following my Uncle Bill around, chasing bird dogs at the age of 13. We’d walk for miles through fields and woods, cutover timber, and brush all day long. I loved everything about it.

               Today, much of my walking takes place in the evening after supper. The neighborhood where I live is bound by a long, tree-lined and pond-studded circular loop. Woods still line the roadside in places where houses have not yet cropped up. From my house, a complete loop measure 1.65 miles. I take great pleasure in these evening walks as the world settles into its own quiet.

               Sometimes, when the sky opens-up after a rain, I can look to the West beyond a peanut field in the distance. The remnants of the puffy cumulonimbus towers of water vapor are rimmed in gold and the world lights up like a Bierstadt painting. On such walks the pavement steams from the sudden release of the day’s heat with the cooling rain. Earthworms writhe and crawl on the wet road surface. This phenomenon puzzled me for years. The worms are everywhere after a rain, as if summoned by the water falling from the sky, which it turns out, they are.

               Old timers where I grew up talked about “grunting up worms”. This involved pounding a wooden staub into the ground and rubbing a brick or piece of metal against the rod. The earthworms would then come pouring out of the ground—or at least that’s how it was supposed to work. As it turns out, this bit of folk wisdom actually has a scientific basis and it is the same one that explains the earthworm exodus from the soil following a rain. The vibrations of the rain hitting the ground as well as that of the brick rubbing against the wooden stake are not unlike those which a mole creates digging through the dirt. When they feel the vibrations, the worms head to the surface to avoid being the mole’s next meal.

               There are a few people out walking most evenings, usually in pairs. I wonder if they notice the earthworms too. It is a friendly neighborhood. We wave and smile as we pass and say hello. Frequently up ahead, I see little golf carts and ATV’s full of people who, it seems, would be surprised to learn that walking used to be the primary means by which human beings got around. These neighbors also wave and smile, as do I, while they speed away to make another lap.

               As kids drive by me on tricked-out golf carts, blaring Beyonce’ tunes, their little heads are peeking over the steering wheel to which both hands are gripped. They sit at the front edge of the seat, their feet barely reaching the gas pedal. I want to tell them to slow down, get on a bike, and enjoy childhood. Walking and pedaling a bicycle were ways of life for children of the 80’s like myself. Entire summer days were spent pedaling or walking to town, to the ball field, to each other’s houses, to the pond, to the woods. You are more likely to see a middle-aged man or woman on a bicycle now than you are to see kids riding a bike.

               But, the world is full of surprises. One day I came upon two boys on bicycles. Brothers, obviously, separated in age by three or four years. Fine, strong boys in the spring of their lives. They each carried a five-gallon bucket, dangling from their handlebars. I soon noticed one or the other would occasionally stop, pick something up, put it in his bucket, climb back aboard his bicycle, and continue on. Once, the larger of the two boys helped the other climb back onto his bike. As I approached it became clear they were picking up trash along the roadside. This was during the peak of the pandemic. You remember the gloom and despair that hung over the world in that time. I can imagine their mother sending them outside to get some fresh air and to do something useful. The whole thing caught me by surprise and I was left humbled with the knowledge that despite my own occasional pessimism, the world would be ok with kids like this in it. Perhaps better off under their generation than my own.

               Another time, as I passed one of the local ponds, I saw a bicycle laying on its side at the water’s edge. I heard a splashing in the pond to my left. As I looked over, I saw, standing on the opposite bank, a boy of 12 or 13, shirtless and tan, in a pair of swim trunks, holding a fishing rod bent double. The line, pulled tight, disappeared under the water’s surface, which erupted with a great thrashing. I stopped to watch as the boy, too busy to take notice of me, fought the fish to the water’s edge and dragged it onto the bank. He reached down and thumbed the bass’s lip—a nice four or five pounder—perhaps the largest fish the boy had ever caught. He held it high, the fish’s tail flailing in the sunlight, and a wide grin spread across the boy’s face. I grinned too.

               Though some pretend otherwise, dogs are fond of people who walk and much prefer us to puttering golf carts. We walkers break the monotony of their canine lives. Every neighborhood has its dogs. Some feign attack, charging up just short of the invisible line where their collar comes alive with a signal from the underground fence. There are those dogs who, taking notice of me, come to investigate matters out of pure curiosity and turn away satisfied after a sniff or two. Others, usually overweight Labradors, bark form the front steps of their homes. My favorite neighborhood dogs join me for a length of road until a passing squirrel, another dog, or some mysterious scent beckons to them. These are usually mongrels, rescues from the animal shelter. The lucky ones. They, like me, are just happy to be here.

               Sometimes my daughters will walk with me. The cadence of our steps seems to be powerful enough to call up deeper thoughts than we can muster sharing with each other sitting around the living room staring at screens. These are the times when they will share the little bits and pieces of their lives, which I cherish and which they too often keep to themselves. How they feel about squabbles with friends, the challenges of their schoolwork, their plans and dreams, their thoughts on the sad current events of our time, trivial bits of current pop-culture foreign to me, and all the dramas of childhood life that seem so important at the time. I try to listen intently, knowing that these are fleeting days.

               The air along my neighborhood route is often filled with the smell of grills firing and meat cooking. The smoke wafts from behind houses and blends with the spicy balm of plants and trees, foreign and domestic, that share this landscape. Along a certain stretch, I pass an Eastern Red Cedar tree growing in the edge of the woods. It would remain inconspicuous were it not for the aroma that cuts the thick, fetid air of summer. It is the smell of Christmas out of season. Within view are live oaks, water oaks, post oaks, tulip poplars, sweet gums, Southern magnolia, pecans, elms, and the ever-present loblolly pines.

Down here in the southeastern U.S., trees rule the landscape in a green crown of glory. They fill the woods and ornament and shade our yards, and some we grow as crops. Most people see them as inanimate objects if they notice them at all. But, trees have complex lives on a scale we do not perceive. They engage with the world around them in their own way. Sometimes we are a part of that.

Take the scent of the red cedar, for instance. It comes from terpenes, which are a class of chemicals released by the plant as a defense against insects, disease and other stresses. Other plants may use terpenes to attract pollinators. The fumes of terpenes let loose from the leaves of the Eastern Red Cedar, nice as they may be, are not released for the pleasure of middle-aged men walking by in the heat of a summer evening. The tree has its own reasons. But, as terpenes are released by the plant in response to a beetle attack or drought, we benefit from the anxiety relief these compounds have been shown to induce in our own kind. I breathe them in and walk on.

Its not all pretty on these walks. I come across dead animals—frogs mostly, but also snakes, birds, squirrels, an occasional opossum or armadillo. Most of these have been hit by automobiles, flattened into a dry paste on the pavement. It’s a fallen world out there. Death is all around us. This is life we are experiencing out here and it’s a package deal. You don’t get one without the other. The older I get, the more I think about this. You lose people along the way. People that were with you from the beginning. People who, in youth, you felt would live forever. Just as you figured you would. Yes, I think a lot about this. The brevity of life. It’s why I write. It is also part of the reason I walk.

Walking occurs at an old pace. A pace we’ve all but forgotten. Your body finds its rhythm, which itself finds its own fit with the rest of the breathing world. Heartbeat. Leaves waving, clouds passing. Step. Step. Step. It’s a welcome feeling. A humbling, in which we choose to turn away, for a time, from the hurried, artificial measure at which we have become accustomed to moving. After a few minutes at this pace, the rest of the world seems to welcome us back into the fold as if to say, “Good to see you. How have you been?”

From time to time, the world may even reward us with subtle disclosures in the manner of my daughters on our walks together. The living world shares quiet stories. Glimpses of what we miss when we’re too busy to pay attention. On lone walks, disclosure sometimes comes in the form of deer emerging from the wall of wild muscadine vines. They stand frozen in grace and stare from an empty lot as I walk past, our eyes meeting. I keep a steady pace and they feel comfortable enough to let me pass. The doe on alert as her white-dappled fawns are busy learning their own way in the world.

A brown thrasher darts from a thicket and stabs at an insect in the air between us. Just as quickly, he flies back into cover and is gone. A barred owl swoops in silently and lands on a pine branch above me. I stop, and watch for several minutes until he shakes out his feathers, spreads his wings and takes a heavy leap from the limb on which he’s perched, leaving as silently as he came. Cottontail rabbits and their kits venture from the brambles to feed on the tender grass, green and lush in the yards and along the road edges. They seem creatures almost too vulnerable for this harsh world. As I pass they stand stock-still like the deer in obligation to that instinct which tells them predators search for movement. The grass around them is tall. Not tall enough to hide them. But from their perspective, so low to the ground, this shelter is enough. There is a lesson here about the fallacy of our own sense of security. Hard times can come pouncing out of nowhere just when we feel safe. Like an owl slamming down silently on a rabbit who thinks she’s hidden in the weeds. But, the tall, lush, green grass is out there in the open and sometimes we have to step out of the safety of the brambles anyway.

Whether I am walking through the neighborhood, on a dusty farm road, on a beach, or down a trail in the mountains somewhere, I enjoy walking because it makes me feel alive. I like the feel of warm sun and cool shade. I like the way the world smells in the rank growth of summer after a rain. I like to feel the strength in my own legs and I like to use that strength while its there. I like the way getting out and moving without any real purpose allows my mind to wander and think and observe. I like feeling a part of that portion of the world which doesn’t care about politics, the economy, borders, making America great, Brexit, or the broken serpentine belts of my tractor. Some call those things “the real world”. But, the real world, the one ruled by climate and chemistry, and physics, and life and death, was here before all that and it will be here long after those things are gone. Long after you and I are gone.

The day my tractor’s serpentine belt broke I had been intent on mowing my orchard. I went for a walk instead. It slowed me down. Made me think. What I came up with is that maybe, what I enjoy most about walking is that it reminds me this world from which we so desperately try to isolate ourselves is out there waiting. I can’t help but believe things would be a little better if we didn’t try quite so hard all the time to be separate from it.

3 thoughts on “Why I Walk

  1. This piece is so beautiful! I walk each and every day. I experience nature just as it’s written and described in this essay.
    Walking creates its own pace. No headset full of music is necessary or wanted. How would I hear the awakening of the birds to sing me on my way?
    Because I walk each day during the wee hours, I am most aware of the visible bodies in the heavens. It’s Cyclical, which is part of the beauty of the walk. I go on binges taking pictures of the sky.
    The sky repeatedly convinces me of a higher power and the possibility of life elsewhere in the heavens. If we can exist, who’s to say, with total conviction, no other life exists, except here on earth?
    I can spend more than an hour pondering our lives, giving thanks for our lives, praying for those who for whatever reason will not pray for themselves.
    Each day is new with hours before me. Each day begins filled with promise. I do believe this. God cannot answer our prayers on people time. He does so on His time. Thus, we must remain true in our hearts and faithful to the natural world. All will be answered if we remain honest and true.


  2. Very enjoyable read. I also love to walk despite an aging pair of knees. It puts my mind in a meditative trance where thoughts come and go unbidden.
    In particular, I took three things from your essay:
    An explanation of why worms rise to the surface in profusion after a heavy rain,
    Your mention of Bierstadt that caused me to check out his landscapes with their massive light-flecked shimmering clouds,
    And your point that kid aren’t riding bikes much these days, which is surely true in my area in suburban Maryland.
    Thank you for sharing your interesting thoughts.


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