Solnit weaves a wide ranging survey of an activity most of us take for granted from about the age of two on. She writes about walking as a historic activity from Greek philosophers to Romantic poets to urban nature seekers to spiritual pilgrims. Walking is movement which allows for visual pleasure, sensory delight and makes possible and easy, thought, reflection and creativity. She says walking is, “endlessly fertile: it is both means and end, travel and destination”. Solnit writes about walking as a leisure activity that developed into labyrinths and mazes, organized treks and tours, courting rituals, elite fashion parades and a chance for industrial workers to get clean air and exercise.
She tells us, most revealingly, “It was nuclear weapons that first lead me to walking history”. She writes about the power of people walking – speaking with their feet as they resist war and weaponry. She sees walking as a force that unifies people breaking through the abstraction and isolation of their resistance. Walking becomes, when it is an act of defiance, the power of many who occupy the public landscape and move through it, creating change and hope. This presents a contrast to the isolated acts of many lives – occupying rooms, offices shops, and vehicles in a world of disconnected spaces. She says, “On foot everything stays connected, for while walking one occupies the space between these interiors…one lives in the whole world rather than in interiors built up against it.”
Walking as an integral part of art and creativity still flourishes in this time of mechanized travel. “Walking as art calls attention to the simplest aspects of the act…to the way each act reflects and reinvents the culture in which it takes place.” This reminds me that I was told if I wanted to meet the great Uruguayan historian, Eduardo Galeano, I could just walk the beach of Montevideo in the morning and I would find it. There seems to be a correlation between moving feet and whirling brain cells.
Her research soon leads her to realize that solitary walking, walking freely and easily, walking at night is almost always the prerogative of the male. Indeed, a woman walking alone at night is widely known still as a streetwalker, a seller of sex. Women walk in safety mainly with companions in religious procession or in clubs and protests.
To walk alone is seen as an invitation; blaming the victim is often the rule. Others may also suffer assault and attack when walking – gays and racial minorities, for example, but Solnit says these are contextualized attacks, understood to be based on the nonconformity of the male victims. But thousands of women are killed and injured every year while trying to claim their place in the commons; their fates are not contextualized as specific to gender and seemingly, “do not require social reform or national soul–searching”. Certainly the death of over seventy women in the Vancouver area, taken one by one from the streets, has not resulted in widespread uproar in Canada. “Take Back the Night” and “Reclaim the Streets” are acts of resistance that will have to continue until the commons of open space is safe for all who travel on foot. Solnit sees this freedom as vital and ends her treatise on a poetic and hopeful note. “…walking has been one of the constellations in the starry sky of human culture, a constellation whose three stars are the body, the imagination and the wide–open world…walking has a history, the history trod out by all those poets and philosophers and insurrectionaries, by jaywalkers, streetwalkers, pilgrims, tourists, hikers, mountaineers.” We have a public responsibility to maintain the universality of this movement; to tread the footpaths of the globe.
The right to walk and connect with the world is a right we must exercise, cherish and protect. Walking is nothing less than the ultimate democratic freedom.