Most of us think of walking first and foremost as something physical — something we use our bodies to do that also engages our minds. But a walk can engage all five of our senses if we so choose. And when we do, it gets us out of our stressful lives for a moment and more fully connects us with our world. So, if you’ve been feeling stressed, try taking a sense-ational walk one of these days, and let us know what you discover.
Of course, the most obvious sense we engage on our walks is sight. We look where we’re going, at the people coming towards us, at where our dog is leading us, at the cars when we cross the street. All that is necessary. But are we really seeing?
In her wonderful book, A Natural History of the Senses, Diane Ackerman writes, “Look at your feet. You are standing in the sky. When we think of the sky, we tend to look up, but the sky actually begins at the earth. We walk through it, yell into it, rake leaves, wash the dog, and drive cars in it. We breathe it deep within us. With every breath, we inhale millions of molecules of sky, heat them briefly, and then exhale them back into the world.”
Indeed, on our walks we can choose to make seeing something more than just what’s required of us for safety and direction. We can choose to look more deeply at everything, beginning with the realization that what we are seeing are more than just material objects. We are seeing everything that exists — we really are walking through sky. We take it in and breathe it back out. We are not separate from it. When we start from that premise, then we begin to realize that everything we encounter is connected — from the birds to the clouds to the leaves — to each other and to us — and we to it!
Seen through that lens, we can choose to appreciate what we are seeing in more conscious ways. It’s not just on hikes that we make our way to a spectacular view. Even in your own neighborhood, choosing to look — really look — at your neighbors’ gardens, the way a snail crosses your path, the droplets of water on a branch after the rain, can make you appreciate your walk so much more. So begin your walk with more in-sight and less dutiful seeing. You may be amazed where it takes you.
To listen on your walk — to birds, to the wind in the leaves, to a distant train or a neighbor’s dog — to hear where you are as much as see it, is one of the true glories of walking.
Listening to your environment is something you cannot do in a car —and if you are riding a bike, you hear everything through the whoosh of speed. But walking allows you to take in the world through your ears, and when you do, you feel everything from the vastness of the galaxy to the slightest movement of a branch. Listening connects us to our world — we can hear our own breath, the sound of our own feet on the earth.
Listening lets us hear that the world is always calling to us, as Mary Oliver reminds us in one of her most famous verses:
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.”
So next time you are on a walk, turn off your music and quiet your mind enough to hear the world calling to you, announcing your place in the family of things. Even better — find a quiet place where you feel safe and close your eyes and just hear without seeing. What is the world saying to you?
“Every other sense has an organ you can focus on, but touch is everywhere. Touch is the oldest sense, and the most urgent. If a saber-toothed tiger is touching a paw to your shoulder, you need to know right away. Any first-time touch, or change in touch, sends the brain into a flurry of activity. Any continuous low-level touch becomes background.” – Diane Ackerman
On your walks, do you ever stop to touch some of the things that catch your eye? A smooth stone, a moss-covered branch, a droplet of water on a leaf?
Most of us don’t. The interesting question is why not???? Are we timing our walks and therefore in a hurry? Do we not want to get our shoes muddy or our hands sticky? Or is this just another way we disconnect from the world around us, see ourselves and separate.
We humans love to be touched. Why not hug a tree? Seriously?
Sound crazy. . .give it a try and you might be surprised by the way it makes you feel hugged back!
“Nothing is more memorable than a smell. Still, when we try to describe a smell, words fail us like the fabrications they are. The physiological links between the smell and language centers of the brain are pitifully weak, not so the links between the smell and memory centers. Our sense of smell can be extraordinarily precise, yet it’s almost impossible to describe how something smells to someone who hasn’t smelled it (e.g. a new book, lilac). Smell is the mute sense, the one without words. We use words in terms of other things to describe smells (e.g. floral, fruity, smoky). We tend to describe how they make us feel. Try it. Describe the smell of your lover or your child, or your favorite scent.
“If there are words for all the pastels in a hue—the lavenders, mauves, fuchsias, plums, and lilacs—who will name the tones and tints of a smell? It’s as if we were hypnotized en masse and told to selectively forget. It may be, too, that smells move us so profoundly, in part, because we cannot utter their names. In a world sayable and lush, where marvels offer themselves up readily for verbal dissection, smells are often right on the tip of our tongues—but no closer—and it gives them a kind of magical distance, a mystery, a power without a name, a sacredness.”
Scent and walking are inextricably connected in our experiences. But how often do we really appreciate that? Walking through a city can be like exploring a kaleidoscope of scent — the sweet warmth of a bakery next to the clean bleach of a laundry next to the fumes of a garbage can followed up by a deep dose of wet dog. We take that all in, but often process it as it relates to what we are seeing. And yet, don’t the smells of a place often evoke a far more visceral response than what we can train ourselves not to look at. There’s no denying smell. So why try?
Instead, why not teach yourself about where you live and walk by embracing its smells.
And out in nature, after the first glorious realization that what we smell is clean and fresh, do we dive deeper. Do we remember to smell the sap rising or the waters flowing? Everything has a smell. So on your next walk, try letting what you smell tell you its story — and so help you find a new story underneath the familiar story of sight.
In our modern world, how many of us have had the joy of picking wild berries in the forest? Far too few, I’m guessing. And yet, the world is full of things that taste delicious — if not to us more fearful humans, than to the creatures whom the world fees every day.
As Mary Oliver shows us in her poem
Tasting the Wild Grapes
The red beast
who lives in the side of these hills
won’t come out for anything you have: money or music. Still, there are moments
heavy with light and good luck. Walk
quietly under these tangled vines
and pay attention, and one morning
something will explode underfoot
like a branch of fire; one afternoon
something will flow down the hill
in plain view, a muscled sleeve the color
of all October! And forgetting
everything you will leap to name it
as though for the first time, your lit blood
rushing not to a word but a sound
small-boned, thin-faced, in a hurry,
lively as the dark thorns of the wild grapes
on the unsuspecting tongue!
The fox! The fox!
We can learn to see the world as the smorgasbord for wild creatures that it truly is — AND we can learn what parts of the world are actually edible to us. If you’ve never gone wild berry or wild mushroom picking, or learned about the edible herbs and plants in your area, it is a glorious way to engage with our world on walks.
We hope this blog has perhaps given you a little inspiration for ways to go out on walks that will widen your view by engaging all of your senses.
Take this exhortation from Diane Ackerman as you head out on your sense-national walk: “The great affair, the love affair with life, is to live as variously as possible, to groom one’s curiosity like a high-spirited thoroughbred, climb aboard, and gallop over the thick, sun-struck hills everyday. Where there is no risk, the emotional terrain is flat and unyielding, and despite all its dimensions, valleys, and pinnacles, and detours, life will seem to have none of its magnificent geography, only a length.”