Dan Rubinstein’s Born to Walk: The Transformative Power of a Pedestrian Act is both a memoir–the story of a middle-aged magazine editor, unhappy with his job, who takes up walking as a compensation and, ultimately, a new career–and an overview of walking’s potential to transform our lives. His thesis is that our species sole evolutionary advantage is our ability to walk upright, and the further we get from this primordial activity, the more messed up we become, individually and collectively. For that reason, Born to Walk examines not only the effect of walking on our bodies, minds, creativity, and spirit, but also its impact on society, economics, and politics.
Born to Walk introduces us to a variety of walkers, including Stanley Vollant, an Innu surgeon from northern Quebec, who is leading healing walks between every Aboriginal community in Quebec and Labrador; Rory Stewart, a Tory MP from northwestern England who is famous for having walked from the Middle East to Nepal, including a trek across Afghanistan shortly after the NATO-led invasion of that country in 2001; and geographer Dave Sawchyn, who navigates Regina’s pedestrian-unfriendly streets on his way to work every day. We also accompany Rubinstein on a variety of walking journeys: on a pilgrimage along the Welsh Coastal Path to Bardsey Island, an ancient Christian site that’s reputed to be the burial place of 20,000 saints; across North Philadelphia with rookie cops assigned to walk a beat in one of that city’s roughest neighbourhoods; and on a mission to make his own Ottawa neighbourhood safer for pedestrians. The last is probably his most difficult and least successful effort. It’s hard to get city hall to pay attention to the needs of people who walk; it’s more concerned with what people who drive want.
Rubinstein isn’t content to talk about walking in an impressionistic way. He discusses the hard sociological and psychological and economic data about the benefits of walking. He discusses something Japanese researchers call shirin-yoku, or “forest bathing”: the effect of phytoncides–compounds released by trees–on the physical and mental health of humans. He describes WIAT, Woods In and Around Towns, a research program in Scotland that’s trying to figure out whether contact with nature helps Scots who are confronting economic or domestic difficulties. In fact, we learn about so many research studies that it’s hard to keep them all straight. It doesn’t really matter, because they all send a similar message: walking is good for us, and we’d all be better off, individually and collectively, if we walked more.
For me, the most interesting parts of the book were Rubinstein’s original research–his stories about Vollant and Stewart and the scientists working on WIAT, and about his own walks in Canada and elsewhere. The literature review was less interesting, partly because his heavy reliance on writers like Rebecca Solnit and on Internet sources. Not that there’s anything wrong with Rebecca Solnit, or the Internet–I just got a sense that Rubinstein wasn’t adding much to what Solnit and others have to say, and that his use of Internet sources was somewhat uncritical. Nonetheless, Born to Walk is a good book–a worthwhile introduction to pedestrianism from a Canadian perspective and a useful overview of the ongoing research about walking. I particularly liked the way he put walking into a social and economic context. If you’re interested in walking, it’s definitely worth a look.
You can find the Born to Walk web page here.