86. Erling Kagge, Walking: One Step at a Time

by breavman99

erling kagge

Ironically, I read about Erling Kagge’s Walking: One Step at a Time during our recent walking holiday, in a review essay by Michael Lapointe that concludes with some skepticism (to say the least) about the liberating or critical possibilities of walking. Lapointe’s skepticism is well-taken, but I wanted to follow up on his sources, so I ordered a copy of Kagge’s book, which was waiting for me when we returned home.

Walking: One Step at a Time is a collection of stories about and meditations on walking. Its fragmentary structure means that every summary of the text—every attempt at identifying what’s worth thinking about in it—is going to be very different. I found a couple of key themes during my reading, which would probably be different were I to read it again. One of those themes is the idea that walking is part of being human. “Placing one foot in front of the other, investigating and overcoming are intrinsic to our nature. Journeys of discovery are not something you start doing, but something you gradually stop doing,” Kagge writes (5). He is thinking about his grandmother, who, he says started to die the day she could no longer walk, and his daughter learning to walk and thereby explore her world. Although we all have different reasons for walking, it is “one of the most important things we do,” he writes (9). The book ends on a similar note, but on a grander evolutionary scale:

Homo sapiens didn’t invent bipedalism. It was the other way around. Australopithecus, our forefathers, had already been walking for over two million years when our particular species came into being. Everything that we do today, that which separates us from other species, can be traced back to our origins of walking. 

The ability to walk, to put one foot in front of the other, invented us. (157)

Certainly there are other defining elements of being human, and the ability to walk is by no means universal, but walking upright is one of the characteristics of our species.

Another theme is Kagge’s own walking; in a way, this book is a walking autobiography. Near the beginning of the book, he writes,

I have no idea how many walks I’ve been on. 

I’ve been on short walks; I’ve been on long walks. I’ve walked from villages and to cities. I’ve walked through the day and through the night, from lovers and to friends. I have walked in deep forests and over big mountains, across snow-covered plains and through urban jungles. I have walked bored and euphoric and I have tried to walk away from problems. I have walked in pain and in happiness. But no matter where and why, I have walked and walked. I have walked to the ends of the world—literally. 

All my walks have been different, but looking back I see one common denominator: inner silence. Walking and silence belong together. Silence is as abstract as walking is concrete. (8)

Not surprisingly, Kagge’s first book was called Silence. His suggestion that walking and silence go together indicates that he is primarily interested in walking alone; if he were walking with others, those walks would be defined by conversation rather than silence, I think.

Kagge is particularly interested in what happens when he walks, in his experience of walking, particularly the tricks he finds walking playing with his experience of time:

Everything moves more slowly when I walk, the world seems softer and for a short while I am not doing household chores, having meetings or reading manuscripts. A free man possesses time. The opinions, expectations and moods of family, colleagues and friends all become unimportant for a few minutes or a few hours. Walking, I become the centre of my own life, while completely forgetting myself shortly afterwards. (15)

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that one saves time travelling only two hours from one point to another instead of spending eight hours on the same journey,” he continues. “While this holds up mathematically, my experience is the opposite: time passes more quickly when I increase the speed of travel. My speed and time accelerate in parallel. It is as if the duration of a single hour becomes less than a clock-hour. When I am in a rush, I hardly pay attention to anything at all” (15). He compares driving to a mountain with walking to a mountain: “If you were to walk along the same route, however—spending an entire day instead of a half-hour, breathing more easily, listening, feeling the ground beneath your feet, exerting yourself—the day becomes something else entirely”—that is, something other than “one big blur”:

Little by little, the mountain looms up before you and your surroundings seem to grow larger. Becoming acquainted with these surroundings takes time. It’s like building a friendship. The mountain up ahead, which slowly changes as you draw closer, feels like an intimate friend by the time you’ve arrived. Your eyes, ears, nose, shoulders, stomach and legs speak to the mountain, and the mountain replies. Time stretches out, independent of minutes and hours. 

And this is precisely the secret held by all those who go on foot: life is prolonged when you walk. Walking expands time rather than collapses it. (16-17)

I’ve had similar experiences walking toward grain elevators (which indicate a town or village where I might be able to get a cold drink), but for me, it’s often an experience of frustration rather than anticipation—perhaps because I really want to get that cold drink and find a place to sit and rest. Kagge points out that in Robert Wilson’s performance piece, Walking, he and his audience take five hours to cross a Dutch island, Terschelling, a walk that typically would only take 45 minutes, and as a result, they become more aware of their surroundings; their slow speed alters their perceptions (77). “So much in our lives is fast-paced,” Kagge writes. “Walking is a slow undertaking. It is among the most radical things you can do” (19). Perhaps it’s that kind of claim that irritates Lapointe; however, it strikes me that the deliberate slowness of walking does interrupt our culture’s belief in efficiency and time management, and that therefore it is, or can be thought of, as a radical act.

Kagge is also interested in the cognitive effects of walking—the way it helps him think, and more generally, the connection between walking and thinking. “Walking sometimes means undertaking an inner voyage of discovery,” he writes. “You are shaped by buildings, faces, signs, weather and the atmosphere. . . . Walking as a combination of movement, humility, balance, curiosity, smell, sound, light and—if you walk far enough—longing. A feeling which reaches for something, without finding it” (28). Walking is both anarchic and ordering:

Walking, I can stop whenever I feel like it. Take a look around. And then continue on. It’s a small-scale anarchy: the thoughts that stream through my mind or the anxieties that I sense in my body shift and clear up as I walk. Chaos is king when I first strike out on my walk, but as I arrive, things have become more orderly, even when I haven’t given a thought to the chaos as I’ve walked along. (29)

Moreover, because walking involves the body, it becomes an opportunity for a kind of embodied cognition: 

The feet are in dialogue with your eyes, nose, arms, torso, and with your emotions, This dialogue often takes place so fast that the mind is unable to keep up. Our feet help us to proceed with precision. They can read the terrain, and also what hits them from underneath the soles; they process each impression, in order to take one step forward or one to the side. (58)

This leads Kagge to Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s contention, from The Phenomenology of Perception: “You think with your entire self” (74-75). According to Kagge, Merleau-Ponty 

started with the assumption that the body is not merely a collection of atoms made of flesh and bone. We are able to perceive and care for our memories and reflections with our toes, feet, legs, arms, stomachs, chests and shoulders. . . . Merleau-Ponty understood something that neurologists and psychologists have since begun to study: everything around us is something with which the whole of you and I are able to have a running dialogue. . . . When we see, smell and listen, we are—in order to understand our experience—using the information that has already been stored inside our bodies. (75)

The Phenomenology of Perception is on my reading list, and Kagge’s brief discussion of that text reaffirms my need to read it.

Kagge also argues that walking helps him (and others) think. He attributes the phrase “solvitur ambulando,” “it is solved by walking,” to Diogenes, not St. Augustine (86), and provides a list of people who have used walking as an aid to thinking: Darwin, Kierkegaard, Einstein, Steve Jobs, Thoreau (86-87). “When I walk my thoughts are set free,” he writes. “My blood circulates and, if I choose a faster pace, my body takes in more oxygen. My head clears” (87). As a result, he argues that one can actually walk away from one’s problems—or, at least, that he does:

I walk away from my problems. Not all of them, but as many as possible. Don’t we all? Some of my problems fade away as I walk. They might vanish within an hour, or a few days. Perhaps they weren’t as big as I had imagined? It’s often like that. Something that I view as problematic, that stirs me up, turns out not to be so troublesome or important, after all, once I have gained some distance from it. (109)

The idea that walking helps people think is relatively common, and psychologists have experimental data that suggest the connection isn’t just anecdotal.

Walking, for Kagge, is also about discomfort—but discomfort as something to be embraced rather than avoided. He reports that, in her book RAIN: Four Walks in English Weather, Melissa Harrison tells a story about her father, who encouraged her to rise above bad weather and exhaustion: that advice wasn’t meant to be “macho,” Kagge argues, but was “lovingly bestowed” in the hope that she “would have the chance to experience as many wonderful things in the wild as they themselves had. Our need for comfort not only implies that we avoid uncomfortable experiences but it also means that we lose out on many good ones” (96-97). He reflects on his expeditions to the Poles and to Mount Everest—Kagge is (at least sometimes) an epic or heroic walker, although he would probably reject such terms; he says that he was never a great athlete but able “to complete long walking trips on skis”—therefore skiing trips?—because he prepared well and he tried (155)—and the pleasure of making do with as little as possible, which could be considered an embracing of discomfort: 

It’s possible to leave behind a whole slew of habits when you go for a long hike. There is pleasure in considering what you actually need. In having to decide between the things that you must bring along and those that you only want to bring because they might constitute a comfort. I have the impression that most people underestimate the amount of time that they would be able to make do with nothing more than a sleeping bag, an extra warm jacket, a small pan, a stove, matches and enough food. If you say it’s impossible to survive with so little, and I say that it is possible, we are both probably right. (99)

Some of his greatest pleasures have involved getting warm after being cold (99). He also likes the way that long walks change his relation to the world: “If a walk lasts for many hours or days, it takes on a different character than one that lasts for only half an hour. Your dependence on external stimuli decreases, you are torn away from the expectations of others, and your walk takes on a more internal character” (119).

In fact, he enjoys walking until he has exhausted himself: 

What I like most of all is to walk until I nearly collapse. To sense the pleasure, the exhaustion and the absurdity of walking all blending together, until I can no longer tell what is what. My head changes. I don’t care what time it is, my head is devoid of all thought, and I become a part of the grass, the stones, the moss, the flowers and the horizon. (134-36)

Breaking himself down physically is “a nice change from everyday life”: “To concentrate and to be disrupted are not opposites. Both are always present to various degrees, but if you have been broken down, you no longer have the same strength to be disrupted” (136). Exhaustion changes his perception of his surroundings: “When my strength is reduced, I no longer have the resources to think about much, and that’s when the smells, the sounds and the ground seem to draw much closer to my experience. It’s as if my senses open to their surroundings. Nature is transformed” (136). “The longer I walk,” he continues, “the less I differentiate between my body, my mind and my surroundings. The external and internal worlds overlap. I am no longer an observer looking at nature, but the entirety of my body is involved” (137). This takes him back to Merleau-Ponty, I think, and the notion that one’s entire body is engaged in the thinking that happens during a walk. For my part, I don’t like walking until I’m exhausted, but I have noticed that sometimes, when I’m getting tired–in the second half of a long hike, for instance–my mind becomes quiet and the experience of the walk changes, becoming more meditative or sensory. There is a transformation, I think, similar to the one Kagge describes here.

Is Kagge’s book useful for my project? I’m not sure. The reminder about the importance of Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology was helpful, and the fact that Kagge is proudly an epic or heroic walker, interested in what happens during walks that cover long distances and take place over long durations, might be important if I ever do write an essay entitled “In Defence of Epic Walking.” His claims about the radical nature of walking, despite Lapointe’s skepticism about them, are probably worth exploring further. So yes, I think it was worth reading, and I’m happy I ran across Lapointe’s review essay, because I might not have learned about Walking: One Step at a Time otherwise.

Work Cited

Kagge, Erling. Walking: One Step at a Time, translated by Becky L. Crook, Pantheon, 2019.

Lapointe, Michael. “The Unbearable Smugness of Walking.” The Atlantic, August 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/08/how-walking-became-pedestrian-duncan-minshull-erling-kagge-walking/592792/. Accessed 4 August 2019.