Walking: One Step At A Time by Erling Kagge

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Walking: One Step At A Time by Erling Kagge

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Category: Lifestyle
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: A beautiful and gentle exploration of the art of walking: philosophical, personal, curious, scientific, covering the walk round the block to exploration of the arctic landscapes and, most importantly, catching the connection between the two. If you walk, wished you walked, used to walk or want to walk: read this. If you don't, this might make you want to.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 192 Date: March 2020
Publisher: Penguin
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0241357705

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Those who have read my reviews before will know that how much I loved a book is evidenced by the number of pages with corners turned, so let me start this one with an apology to the Norfolk Library Service: sorry! I forgot it was your book not mine. In my defence, I will say that as a reader of this type of book there is something connective about noting where prior readers were inspired (provided it is subtle – I'll allow creased corners, but not scribbles – for the latter we must buy our own copy – which I am about to do as soon as I have finished telling you why).

Erling Kagge is a Norwegian explorer who has walked to the South Pole, the North Pole and the summit of Everest. He knows a thing or two about walking. However, this isn't a travelogue about any of those epic journeys, it is instead a thoughtful exploration of what it means to walk. It is a plenitude of unnumbered essays about walking. There is no 'contents' page and I haven't counted. In small format paperback, each essay is only a few pages long. Perhaps then, better thought of as a meditation rather than an essay.

Although by its nature informed by Kagge's own experience of walking – in the remote places of the Arctics and the unexpected places of subterranean New York and the byways of Los Angeles – it is primarily a justification for the art of doing so in more close-to-home scenarios. He talks engagingly of his walks in his local woods and how they differ from his walks in the city. He quotes extensively from other walkers from ancient Greek philosophers to modern authors and poets and astronauts.

He comments on the serial killer who identified potential victims by the way they walked. I don't know how much truth there is in that particular story, but a friend of a friend recounts his own experience of walking to work through London every day (in those pre-lockdown days). His commute took him past the same people every day, including street hustlers and beggars. He was seldom directly approached. Then one day he injured his arm and shoulder. With his arm strapped across his body, his gait was immediately more 'closed in' and signalling of vulnerability. Many of those hustlers and beggars who had left him alone, now directly approached and impeded his progress with their demands. This isn't to criticise any of those people on the streets of London (echoes of Ralph McTell!) but to underline that how we walk sends out signals that are read either overtly or subliminally by those we meet.

In a less threatening environment we meet a theatre director who focuses on how his actors/characters walk and move as embodying more than the movement, a conversation which brings Kagge back to one of his themes which relates to speed and time. The more slowly we go, the more time we have, would be a reasonably summation. We notice more when we go slow. And time seems to expand in order to enable us to do so. We experience time in fractions of seconds, and the more we experience within those fractions the more expansive time becomes.

We meet shepherds and those reviving the art. We meet scientists examining the moods of cockroaches. And we consider the possibility that maybe we are human BECAUSE we walk rather than the other way around – and as we are walking less and less, he asks the question, what are we on the way to becoming?

There are the scientific bases for the ways in which walking and forest-bathing and similar pursuits are proven to affect our human well-being, but I suspect that Kagge is with me in that the real benefit is from the ineffable, the beauty, the contact with ages past and eons to come, the transience of modernity, that become inescapable when you walk.

There are a few illustrations, which I found succinct to-the-point and helpful it trying to relocate a particular piece of text in the un-annotated chapters. The lack of chapter numbering and naming is apposite. This is a wandering kind of a book. It's a dip-in-and-out-of book…except it's the kind of dip that might just have you swimming for the rest of the day. It is beautifully written. Stories are gently told, leaving the reader and walker to take from them what they will and can.

I agree with Rosamund Young's assessment quoted on the cover of the paperback that this book should be 'required reading' for everyone who either walks, wishes they walked, or dreams of walking. As the man says early on…

Journeys of discovery are not something you start doing but something you gradually stop doing

We are the poorer for the stopping, so I'll end with a couple of poem extracts that Kagge quotes. Lines quoted from a Norwegian poet and a Spanish one, which say the same thing…

This is your path
only you will
take it. And there's
no turning back.

(Olav H. Hauge)

As you walk, your way closes,
and when you look back
you see the path which your feet
never more will tread

(Antonio Machado)

The point of including these poetic extracts is to underline that it is impossible to take the same walk twice…no matter how close to home, no matter how mundane, if we open ourselves to the very act of walking and look closely at what we encounter upon the way, it is always, ALWAYS, a journey of discovery.

If you don't believe me (and more especially if you do) buy the book. It's a treasure to be returned to on the very few days that you don't feel like going outside.

As a wonderful companion piece to this one, I also loved A Philosophy of Walking by Frederic Gros. For other walking muses The Bookbag also recommends While Wandering - A Walking Companion by Duncan Minshull.

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