Hemingway, Thoreau, Jefferson and the Virtues of a Good Long Walk

Solvitur ambulando — “it is solved by walking.” This phrase refers to the 4th-century-B.C. Greek philosopher Diogenes’s response to the question of whether motion is real — he got up and walked. “It is solved by walking.” As it turns out, there are many other problems and paradoxes to which walking is the solution. For instance: In our culture of overwork, burnout, and exhaustion, in which we’re connected and distracted 24/7 from most things that are truly important in our lives, how do we tap into our creativity, our wisdom, our capacity for wonder, our well-being and our ability to connect with what we really value? Solvitur ambulando.


In my own life, for almost as long as I can remember, walking has frequently been the solution. When I was a girl growing up in Greece, my favorite poem was “Ithaca” by the Greek poet Cavafy. My sister Agapi and I had the poem memorized long before we could actually understand what it really meant. It opens:


When you set out on the voyage to Ithaca,

pray that your journey may be long,

full of adventure, full of knowledge.


Over the years, I came to realize that a journey — one that can also be full of adventure and knowledge — doesn’t have to involve planes and cars and passports. The benefits of a journey are always available simply by walking.


There are, of course, many takes on the virtues of walking. For Thomas Jefferson, the purpose of walking was to clear the mind of thoughts. “The object of walking is to relax the mind,” he wrote. “You should therefore not permit yourself even to think while you walk. But divert your attention by the objects surrounding you.”


For others, like Nietzsche, walking was essential for thinking. “All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking,” he wrote in Twilight of the Idols. For Ernest Hemingway, walking was a way of developing his best thoughts while mulling a problem. “I would walk along the quais when I had finished work or when I was trying to think something out,” he wrote in A Moveable Feast. “It was easier to think if I was walking and doing something or seeing people doing something that they understood.” For Jefferson, walking was also “the best possible exercise,” while for Henry David Thoreau, walking wasn’t just a means to an end, it was the end itself:


…the walking of which I speak has nothing in it akin to taking exercise… but is itself the enterprise and adventure of the day. If you would get exercise, go in search of the springs of life. Think of a man’s swinging dumbbells for his health, when those springs are bubbling up in far-off pastures unsought by him!


Less subjective are the scientific studies that increasingly show the psychological benefits of walking and other forms of exercise to be very tangible. “It’s become clear that this is a good intervention, particularly for mild to moderate depression,” said Jasper Smits, a psychologist at Southern Methodist University. The results are so clear-cut that Smits and a colleague have written a guidebook for mental health professionals with advice on how to actually prescribe exercise for patients. And there is no page-long list of side effects accompanying this prescription. This tool for dealing with depression is no small thing when you consider that, according to the World Health Organization, over 350 million people worldwide suffer from depression, and that since 1988 prescriptions for antidepressants have gone up 400 percent in the U.S.


Psychologist Laurel Lippert Fox has taken the idea one step further (pun slightly intended) and actually has walking sessions with her patients. As she says, “It’s so much more dynamic than sitting in your Eames chair.”


Research has also shown similar benefits to simply being around nature. One study showed that spending time in natural settings makes us more generous and more community-oriented, a conclusion that has “implications not only for city planning but also for indoor design and architecture,” according to the study’s co-author Richard Ryan of the University of Rochester Medical Center. Another study by Dutch researchers showed that those who live within one kilometer of a park or wooded area suffer lower rates of depression and anxiety. Even if we don’t live amidst trees and greenery, we can always take a walk through them. When scaled up, this practice could have real societal consequences. “As health-care costs spiral out of control, it behooves us to think about our green space in terms of preventive health care,” said Dr. Kathryn Kotrla of the Texas A&M College of Medicine. “This highlights very clearly that our Western notion of body-mind duality is entirely false. The study shows that we are a whole organism, and when we get healthy that means our body and our mind get healthy.”


On the flip side, it also turns out that sitting is as bad for us as walking is good for us. Just take a look at this terrifying infographic, entitled, appropriately, “Sitting Is Killing You.” Among the key statistics: Sitting for six or more hours a day makes you 40 percent more likely to die within 15 years than someone who sits for fewer than three hours a day. Sitting is also implicated in weight gain, as sitting down slows down enzymes that help burn fat by 90 percent. After two hours of sitting, your good cholesterol drops 20 percent. And those with sitting jobs have twice the rate of cardiovascular disease as those with standing jobs. Perhaps our prelude to telling someone some bad news should instead be, “Hey, are you standing up?”


But the benefits of getting up and walking go beyond our health. A 2010 study shows that walking three times a week at one’s own natural pace for 40 minutes increases brain connectivity and cognitive performance and helps combat the effects of age. And according to Art Kramer, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois who led the study, higher brain connectivity leads to increased executive control, which we use for things like planning ahead. So it’s not just the ruminative, creative type of thinking that’s enhanced by walking — it’s the focused, get-things-done type, as well.


Even more intriguing is the link between the act of walking and thinking. A study in the European Journal of Developmental Psychology found that cognitive performance was increased when the subject was actually walking. “We conclude that the interaction of walking and cognitive performance is influenced by sharing resources between two tasks,” the report states, “and that performance improvements in cognition may be caused by an exercise-induced activation of resources.”


Though he didn’t have the science to back it up, Henry David Thoreau was onto this truth long before the scientists. “Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow,” he wrote. More recently, in Wanderlust, author Rebecca Solnit noted the connection between the act of walking and how we experience the world. “Walking shares with making and working that crucial element of engagement of the body and the mind with the world,” she wrote, “of knowing the world through the body and the body through the world.”


This touches on a concept I became fascinated with during a trip to Japan this past spring. For someone interested in traditions and spiritual practices that intersect with mindfulness, Japan is, of course, an amazing place — from the elaborate tea ceremonies to the ubiquitous local shrines. But one that I was particularly captivated by was the importance in the Japanese aesthetic of the concept Ma, which can be loosely translated as the essential space or interval between things that exists most fully when it’s experienced.

By walking we move through the world not just physically, but also spiritually. Often by “taking a walk” we mean that we’re not walking to get anywhere in particular. But even when we are walking toward a destination, when we’re walking to connect two places, the in-between — the space, the interval — can be more important.


In The Art of Looking Sideways, Alan Fletcher talks about the idea of space as something more than a void:

Space is substance. Cézanne painted and modeled space. Giacometti sculpted by “taking the fat off space.” Mallarmé conceived poems with absences as well as words. Ralph Richardson asserted that acting lay in pauses… Isaac Stern described music as “that little bit between each note — silences which give the form.”

Walking is how we move through our world; language and writing are how we articulate that experience. “Words inscribe a text in the same way that a walk inscribes space,” writes Geoff Nicholson in The Lost Art of Walking: The History, Science, and Literature of Pedestrianism. “Writing is one way of making the world our own, and… walking is another.”


But to fully experience the world around us, we first have to be able to free ourselves from the distractions that are constantly begging for our attention. Even the supremely focused Henry David Thoreau struggled to stay in the moment:


I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit. In my afternoon walk I would fain forget all my morning occupations and my obligations to Society. But it sometimes happens that I cannot easily shake off the village. The thought of some work will run in my head and I am not where my body is — I am out of my senses…. What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods?


“Shake off the village” — what a great way of expressing a vitally important human need. Since Thoreau’s time, the village has grown exponentially bigger and become more intrusive and seemingly intimate — giving us the semblance of connection without any of the real benefits of connection. Technology has enabled the village to become exceptionally good at not allowing us to shake it off. With the advent of the smartphone, getting away from it all is no longer as easy as simply getting up and walking away. And, increasingly, people are making the choice not to even try to shake off the village — surrendering to a life of distractions, with the result that, as Thoreau put it, we are living much of our lives out of our senses.


Wayne Curtis calls them “the digital dead[,] shuffling slowly, their eyes affixed to a small screen in their hands.” He cites a University of Washington study that focused on a single intersection in Seattle. The study found that one in three pedestrians were distracted, by either typing or talking on a phone or with earbuds in their ears. And it took those who were distracted almost 20 percent longer to cross the street. Another study found that those texting were 33 percent slower getting to a planned destination.

This slowness and distraction can have detrimental effects. According to an article by Jim Gorzelany, “the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission says 1,152 pedestrians were treated in emergency rooms during 2011 after being injured while using a cellphone or some other portable electronic device.”


In trying to lessen the hold of technology on our lives, we need all the help we can get. Some among us are able to switch their devices on and off, go cold turkey for periods of time or go on periodic digital diets. For those without that kind of willpower, technology can sometimes be used to help us deal with technology. Curtis writes about an app called Serendipitor, which, the developers explain, “is an alternative navigation app… that helps you find something by looking for something else.” It does this by introducing “small slippages and minor displacements within an otherwise optimized and efficient route.” Curtis’s verdict: “In an obscure kind of way, it actually helps me stop and pay attention.”


But even better is leaving all technology behind, forgoing ersatz connection for the real thing. “I suspect the greatest mental benefits of walking are explained not by what it is, but by what it isn’t,” writes Oliver Burkeman. “When you go outside, you cease what you’re doing, and stopping trying to achieve something is often key to achieving it.”


When I was living in Los Angeles, many of my best ideas were conceived while hiking. Whenever I could, I would have hiking meetings instead of sit-down meetings. I also had a regular group of friends I hiked with, and our rule was that whoever was in the best shape would do most of the talking on the way up, and the rest would do the talking on the way down. Silicon Valley executive Nilofer Merchant calls this method “walk the talk.” Meaning, if you’ve got to talk to someone in person, why not doing it while walking? “What I love is that you’re literally facing your problem or situation together when you walk side by side with someone,” she said. “I love that people can’t be checking e-mail or Twitter during walking meetings. You’re awake to what’s happening around you, your senses are heightened and you walk away with something office meetings rarely give you — a sense of joy.”


How many times have you had a sense of joy in a stale conference room while half-listening to an endless PowerPoint presentation? Maybe the connection between our minds and our legs is that one of them is going to wander. Sit still and our minds want to ramble — get up and start walking and our minds can slow down and be focused.

Perhaps forcing the brain to process a new environment allows it to engage more fully. In Iconoclast: A Neuroscientist Reveals How to Think Differently, Gregory Berns writes that “new insights come from people and new environments — any circumstance in which the brain has a hard time predicting what will come next.”


So it truly seems like there is no end to the problems that can be solved by walking. It makes us healthier, it makes us fitter, it enhances every kind of cognitive performance, from creativity to planning and scheduling. Best of all, it reconnects us to ourselves. And there is nothing paradoxical about that.

An Open Apology To Dolly Parton 


Dear Dolly,

10040291_300x300I’ll be honest. I used to think you were a bimbo. I used to think you flaunted your big boobs, teased hair, tiny waist, and your syrupy-sweet southern accent to sell yourself and your brand as a country singer. Granted, I was raised in the Midwest and lived as an adult for many years in the Northeast. I didn’t get you, much less the South.

For example, I’d heard about your origins as a poor girl from the hills of East Tennessee, and when I learned you’d created a theme park in your native Sevier County I rolled my eyes. “Really, a theme park?” I thought. “As if rollercoasters will really help the people of rural Appalachia. Why not create something truly useful to give back to your community, like a library.”


You have created a library, actually, and possibly in a bigger and more magical…

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The Most Misread Poem in America

The Most Misread Poem in America

September 11, 2015 | by 

Everyone knows Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”—and almost everyone gets it wrong.

From The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wronga new book by David Orr. 

A young man hiking through a forest is abruptly confronted with a fork in the path. He pauses, his hands in his pockets, and looks back and forth between his options. As he hesitates, images from possible futures flicker past: the young man wading into the ocean, hitchhiking, riding a bus, kissing a beautiful woman, working, laughing, eating, running, weeping. The series resolves at last into a view of a different young man, with his thumb out on the side of a road. As a car slows to pick him up, we realize the driver is the original man from the crossroads, only now he’s accompanied by a lovely woman and a child. The man smiles slightly, as if confident in the life he’s chosen and happy to lend that confidence to a fellow traveler. As the car pulls away and the screen is lit with gold—for it’s a commercial we’ve been watching—the emblem of the Ford Motor Company briefly appears.

The advertisement I’ve just described ran in New Zealand in 2008. And it is, in most respects, a normal piece of smartly assembled and quietly manipulative product promotion. But there is one very unusual aspect to this commercial. Here is what is read by a voice-over artist, in the distinctive vowels of New Zealand, as the young man ponders his choice:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

It is, of course, “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost. In the commercial, this fact is never announced; the audience is expected to recognize the poem unaided. For any mass audience to recognize any poem is (to put it mildly) unusual. For an audience of car buyers in New Zealand to recognize a hundred-year-old poem from a country eight thousand miles away is something else entirely.

But this isn’t just any poem. It’s “The Road Not Taken,” and it plays a unique role not simply in American literature, but in American culture —and in world culture as well. Its signature phrases have become so ubiquitous, so much a part of everything from coffee mugs to refrigerator magnets to graduation speeches, that it’s almost possible to forget the poem is actually a poem. In addition to the Ford commercial, “The Road Not Taken” has been used in advertisements for Mentos, Nicorette, the multibillion-dollar insurance company AIG, and the job-search Web site Monster.com, which deployed the poem during Super Bowl XXXIV to great success. Its lines have been borrowed by musical performers including (among many others) Bruce Hornsby, Melissa Etheridge, George Strait, and Talib Kweli, and it’s provided episode titles for more than a dozen television series, including TaxiThe Twilight Zone, and Battlestar Galactica, as well as lending its name to at least one video game, Spry Fox’s Road Not Taken (“a rogue-like puzzle game about surviving life’s surprises”). As one might expect, the influence of “The Road Not Taken” is even greater on journalists and authors. Over the past thirty-five years alone, language from Frost’s poem has appeared in nearly two thousand news stories worldwide, which yields a rate of more than once a week. In addition, “The Road Not Taken” appears as a title, subtitle, or chapter heading in more than four hundred books by authors other than Robert Frost, on subjects ranging from political theory to the impending zombie apocalypse. At least one of these was a massive international best seller: M. Scott Peck’s self-help book The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth, which was originally published in 1978 and has sold more than seven million copies in the United States and Canada.

Given the pervasiveness of Frost’s lines, it should come as no surprise that the popularity of “The Road Not Taken” appears to exceed that of every other major twentieth-century American poem, including those often considered more central to the modern (and modernist) era. Admittedly, the popularity of poetry is difficult to judge. Poems that are attractive to educators may not be popular with readers, so the appearance of a given poem in anthologies and on syllabi doesn’t necessarily reveal much. And book sales indicate more about the popularity of a particular poet than of any individual poem. But there are at least two reasons to think that “The Road Not Taken” is the most widely read and recalled American poem of the past century (and perhaps the adjective “American” could be discarded). The first is the Favorite Poem Project, which was devised by former poet laureate Robert Pinsky. Pinsky used his public role to ask Americans to submit their favorite poem in various forms; the clear favorite among more than eighteen thousand entries was “The Road Not Taken.”

The second, more persuasive reason comes from Google. Until it was discontinued in late 2012, a tool called Google Insights for Search allowed anyone to see how frequently certain expressions were being searched by users worldwide over time and to compare expressions to one another. Google normalized the data to account for regional differences in population, converted it to a scale of one to one hundred, and displayed the results so that the relative differences in search volume would be obvious. Here is the result that Google provided when “The Road Not Taken” and “Frost” were compared with several of the best-known modern poems and their authors, all of which are often taught alongside Frost’s work in college courses on American poetry of the first half of the twentieth century:


“Road Not Taken” + “Frost” 48
“Waste Land” + “Eliot” 12
“Prufrock ” + “Eliot” 12
“This Is Just to Say” + “Carlos Williams” 4
“Station of the Metro” + “Pound” 2

According to Google, then, “The Road Not Taken” was, as of mid-2012, at least four times as searched as the central text of the modernist era—The Waste Land—and at least twenty-four times as searched as the most anthologized poem by Ezra Pound. By comparison, this is even greater than the margin by which the term “college football ” beats “archery” and “water polo.” Given Frost’s typically prickly relationships with almost all of his peers (he once described Ezra Pound as trying to become original by “imitating somebody that hasn’t been imitated recently”), one can only imagine the pleasure this news would have brought him.

But as everyone knows, poetry itself isn’t especially widely read, so perhaps being the most popular poem is like being the most widely requested salad at a steak house. How did “The Road Not Taken” fare against slightly tougher competition? Better than you might think:


“Road Not Taken” + “Frost” 47
“Like a Rolling Stone” + “Dylan” 19
“Great Gatsby ” + “Fitzgerald” 17
“Death of a Salesman” + “Miller” 14
“Psycho” + “Hitchcock” 14

The results here are even more impressive when you consider that “The Road Not Taken” is routinely misidentified as “The Road Less Traveled,” thereby reducing the search volume under the poem’s actual title. (For instance, a search for “Frost’s poem the road less traveled” produces more than two hundred thousand results, none of which would have been counted above.) Frost once claimed his goal as a poet was “to lodge a few poems where they will be hard to get rid of ”; with “The Road Not Taken,” he appears to have lodged his lines in granite. On a word-for-word basis, it may be the most popular piece of literature ever written by an American.


And almost everyone gets it wrong. This is the most remarkable thing about “The Road Not Taken”—not its immense popularity (which is remarkable enough), but the fact that it is popular for what seem to be the wrong reasons. It’s worth pausing here to underscore a truth so obvious that it is often taken for granted: Most widely celebrated artistic projects are known for being essentially what they purport to be. When we play “White Christmas” in December, we correctly assume that it’s a song about memory and longing centered around the image of snow falling at Christmas. When we read Joyce’s Ulysses, we correctly assume that it’s a complex story about a journey around Dublin as filtered through many voices and styles. A cultural offering may be simple or complex, cooked or raw, but its audience nearly always knows what kind of dish is being served.

Frost’s poem turns this expectation on its head. Most readers consider “The Road Not Taken” to be a paean to triumphant self-assertion (“I took the one less traveled by”), but the literal meaning of the poem’s own lines seems completely at odds with this interpretation. The poem’s speaker tells us he “shall be telling,” at some point in the future, of how he took the road less traveled by, yet he has already admitted that the two paths “equally lay / In leaves” and “the passing there / Had worn them really about the same.” So the road he will later call less traveled is actually the road equally traveled. The two roads are interchangeable.

According to this reading, then, the speaker will be claiming “ages and ages hence” that his decision made “all the difference” only because this is the kind of claim we make when we want to comfort or blame ourselves by assuming that our current position is the product of our own choices (as opposed to what was chosen for us or allotted to us by chance). The poem isn’t a salute to can-do individualism; it’s a commentary on the self-deception we practice when constructing the story of our own lives. “The Road Not Taken” may be, as the critic Frank Lentricchia memorably put it, “the best example in all of American poetry of a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” But we could go further: It may be the best example in all of American culture of a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

In this it strongly resembles its creator. Frost is the only major literary figure in American history with two distinct audiences, one of which regularly assumes that the other has been deceived. The first audience is relatively small and consists of poetry devotees, most of whom inhabit the art form’s academic subculture. For these readers, Frost is a mainstay of syllabi and seminars, and a regular subject of scholarly articles (though he falls well short of inspiring the interest that Ezra Pound and Wallace Stevens enjoy). He’s considered bleak, dark, complex, and manipulative; a genuine poet’s poet, not a historical artifact like Longfellow or a folk balladeer like Carl Sandburg. While Frost isn’t the most esteemed of the early twentieth-century poets, very few dedicated poetry readers talk about him as if he wrote greeting card verse.

Then there is the other audience. This is the great mass of readers at all age levels who can conjure a few lines of “The Road Not Taken” and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” and possibly “Mending Wall ” or “Birches,” and who think of Frost as quintessentially American in the way that “amber waves of grain” are quintessentially American. To these readers (or so the first audience often assumes), he isn’t bleak or sardonic but rather a symbol of Yankee stoicism and countrified wisdom. This audience is large. Indeed, the search patterns of Google users indicate that, in terms of popularity, Frost’s true peers aren’t Pound or Stevens or Eliot, but rather figures like Pablo Picasso and Winston Churchill. Frost is not simply that rare bird, a popular poet; he is one of the best-known personages of the past hundred years in any cultural arena. In all of American history, the only writers who can match or surpass him are Mark Twain and Edgar Allan Poe, and the only poet in the history of English-language verse who commands more attention is William Shakespeare.

This level of recognition makes poetry readers uncomfortable. Poets, we assume, are not popular—at least after 1910 or so. If one becomes popular, then either he must be a second-tier talent catering to mass taste (as Sandburg is often thought to be) or there must be some kind of confusion or deception going on. The latter explanation is generally applied to Frost’s celebrity. As Robert Lowell once put it, “Robert Frost at midnight, the audience gone / to vapor, the great act laid on the shelf in mothballs.” The “great act” is for “the audience” of ordinary readers, but his true admirers know better. He is really a wolf, we say, and it is only the sheep who are fooled. It’s an explanation that Frost himself sometimes encouraged, much as he used to boast about the trickiness of “The Road Not Taken” in private correspondence. (“I’ll bet not half a dozen people can tell who was hit and where he was hit by my Road Not Taken,” he wrote to his friend Louis Untermeyer.) In this sense, the poem is emblematic. Just as millions of people know its language about the road “less traveled” without understanding what that language is actually saying, millions of people recognize its author without understanding what that author was actually doing.

But is this view of “The Road Not Taken” and its creator entirely accurate? Poems, after all, aren’t arguments—they are to be interpreted, not proven, and that process of interpretation admits a range of possibilities, some supported by diction, some by tone, some by quirks of form and structure. Certainly it’s wrong to say that “The Road Not Taken” is a straightforward and sentimental celebration of individualism: this interpretation is contradicted by the poem’s own lines. Yet it’s also not quite right to say that the poem is merely a knowing literary joke disguised as shopworn magazine verse that has somehow managed to fool millions of readers for a hundred years. A role too artfully assumed ceases to become a role and instead becomes a species of identity—an observation equally true of Robert Frost himself. One of Frost’s greatest advocates, the scholar Richard Poirier, has written with regard to Frost’s recognition among ordinary readers that “there is no point trying to explain the popularity away, as if it were a misconception prompted by a pose.” By the same token, there is no point in trying to explain away the general misreadings of “The Road Not Taken,” as if they were a mistake encouraged by a fraud. The poem both is and isn’t about individualism, and it both is and isn’t about rationalization. It isn’t a wolf in sheep’s clothing so much as a wolf that is somehow also a sheep, or a sheep that is also a wolf. It is a poem about the necessity of choosing that somehow, like its author, never makes a choice itself—that instead repeatedly returns us to the same enigmatic, leaf-shadowed crossroads.


From The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong by David Orr. Reprinted by arrangement with The Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2015 by David Orr.

David Orr is the poetry columnist for the New York Times Book Review. He is the winner of the Nona Balakian Prize from the National Book Critics Circle, and his writing has appeared in The New YorkerPoetrySlate, and The Yale Review

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