Thoreau declares in the first sentence of "Walking":
I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture
merely civil, — to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society.
The entire essay is an expansion upon the ideas expressed in this opening sentence.
Thoreau explores the
etymology of the word "saunter," which he believes may come from the French "
" (Holy Land) or
from the French "
" (without land). Either derivation applies to walking as he knows it, but he prefers
the former. True
walking is not directionless wandering about the countryside, nor is it physical exercise. It is a
crusade "to go forth and reconquer this Holy Land from the hands of the Infidels."
Although he admits that his
own walks bring him back to home and hearth at the end of the day, the walking to which he aspires demands
that the walker leave his life behind in the "spirit of undying adventure, never to return." The "Walker, Errant"
is in a category by himself, "a sort of fourth estate, outside of Church and State and People." But
Thoreau's townsmen are too tied to society and daily life to walk in the proper spirit. Walking leads naturally to
the fields and woods, and away from the village — scene of much busy coming and going, accessed by
established roads, which Thoreau avoids. He suggests the degeneracy of the village by exploring the etymology
of the word "village," connecting it to the Latin words for "road" and for "vile."
Thoreau's neighborhood offers the possibility of good walks, which he has not yet exhausted. He refers to the
new perspective that even a familiar walk can provide.
He deplores man's attempts to bound the landscape with
fences and stakes, placed by the "Prince of Darkness" as surveyor.
He contrasts the hurried walking undertaken
in conducting the business of life with that made "out into a Nature such as the old prophets and poets, Menu,
Moses, Homer, Chaucer, walked in" — a kind of exploration very different from that of Vespucci or Columbus.
Thoreau's walking explores a territory better expressed by mythology than history. He conveys some urgency to
walk by stating that, although the landscape is not owned at present, he foresees a time when property
ownership may prevail over it.
Thoreau refers to the difficulty of choosing the direction of a walk, asserting that there is a "right way" but that
we often choose the wrong.
The walk we should take "is perfectly symbolical of the path which we love to
travel in the interior and ideal world" — a path difficult to determine because it does not yet "exist distinctly in
Thoreau's own natural tendency is to head west, where the earth is "more unexhausted and richer,"
toward wildness and freedom. The east leads to the past — the history, art, and literature of the Old World; the
west to the forest and to the future, to enterprise and the adventure of the New World. As a nation, we tend