Rebecca Solnit’s Serenade to the City & the Solitary Stroller

“What is the great attraction in cities?” Henry David Thoreau wrote in his journal in 1845, “It is universally admitted that human beings invariably degenerate there and do not propagate their kind.”  As the Industrial Revolution alienated laborers from their labor and gobbled up countrysides, transcendentalists lamented we lost a deep connection both with ourselves and with nature.  For Thoreau, it was only amid the autumn quietude of the New England woods, the soothing sounds of a tranquil brook, the idyllic charm of a French countryside that man could finally be free of the corrupting influence of civilization.  To him, the modern metropolis was a Dante’s inferno of debauchery and decadence, a netherworld where— as James Shergold Boone so poetically said— “the appetites, the passions, the carnal corruptions of man are forced, as in a hotbed, into a rank and foul luxuriance.”  

This strict dichotomy between city and country has almost always existed.  Since Shakespeare, artists have romanticized the rural as a paradise of purity and goodness and condemned the urban as an inescapable cesspit.  In transcendentalist thought, the city stomped out individuality, transforming human beings into an automated assembly line of soulless factory workers.  Displaced and alienated, the solitary city stroller was just another cog in the capitalist machine, another stranger in a sea of anonymity.

But for our era’s poet of politics Rebecca Solnit, whose prose is both lyrical and luminous, the city is neither a gutter of vice nor the slaughterer of the human spirit— it’s an inspirer of wonderment.  In her endlessly edifying Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Solnit contemplates cities as much as she contemplates transporting herself by two feet.  In the chapter “The Solitary Stroller and the City,” she recalls returning home to San Francisco and rediscovering her love for the city.  With exquisite elegance and understated poetry, she portrays urban life as a multitude of experience.  A leisurely stroll through Golden Gate Park, an hour of window-shopping along Haight Street: each person she passes is a potential friend, each doorway, a portal of possibility: 

“Every building, every storefront, seemed to open onto a different world, compressing all variety of human life into a jumble of possibilities made all the richer by the conjunctions.  Just as a bookshelf can jam together Japanese poetry, Mexican history, and Russian novels, so the buildings of my city contained Zen centers, Pentecostal churches, tattoo parlors, produce stores, burrito places, movie palaces, dim sum shops.  Even the most ordinary things struck me with wonder, and the people on the street offered a thousand glimpses of lives like and utterly unlike mine.”  

vintage san francisco

I’ve always been entranced by the excitement of the city: the art galleries, the plays, the museums, the concerts, the cafes, the exhilarating sense that there was always something going on no matter the time of day.  When I lived in Berkeley, the ordinary act of walking down the street to the corner store took on the grand dimensions of a Homeric odyssey.  Wandering down Telegraph Ave, past Amoeba Music and Moe’s Books, the exotic smells of Burmese food and incense mingling with the scent of salt water from the bay, I was a hero on a quest who had to navigate the many obstacles in my way (mostly one too many runaway hippie kids pestering me for a cigarette or spare change).  Strolling through the city was always eventful.  If I didn’t discover a delightful gem of a coffee shop hidden along a side street or a charming second-hand bookstore, I almost always witnessed something entertaining: a rapper free-styling on the corner of Telegraph and Channing, a dapper young man in horn-rimmed glasses and loafers charging 25 cents for a poem, an anarchist shouting his manifesto into a megaphone while standing on a milk crate.

For Solnit, the charm of urban life is this novelty and variety, the thrill of not knowing what’s going happen when you leave your apartment and step onto the street.  In a city, there’s still room for surprise and spontaneity— unlike in a suburb, where the rhythm of life is as predictable as a song playing on repeat.  To stroll through a city is to be enchanted by a sense of endless possibility: you never know what you’re going to see or who you’re going to meet.  For my fellow Bay Area native Ms. Solnit, San Francisco remains the quintessential city.  Unlike in many modern metropolises, which have become larger-scale suburbs where residents are cordoned off in their own private vehicles and rarely interact in public space, in San Francisco, it’s still possible to socialize with strangers on the street:

“Cities have always offered anonymity, variety, and conjunction, qualities best basked in while walking: one does not have to go into the bakery or fortune-teller’s, only to know that one might.  A city always contains more than any inhabitant can know, and a great city always makes the unknown and the possible spurs to the imagination.  San Francisco has long been called the most European of American cities, a comment more often made than explained.  What I think its speakers mean is that San Francisco, in its scale and street life, keeps alive the idea of the city as a place of unmediated encounters, while most American cities are becoming more and more like enlarged suburbs, scrupulously controlled and segregated, designed for non-interactions of motorists shuttling between private places rather than the interactions of pedestrians in public ones.” 

Grant Avenue, Chinatown, San Francisco, California

For more from Wanderlust: A History of Walking, delight in Solnit on the power of walking to replenish the soul and reinvigorate the mind.  Or if you want to see Solnit bring her perceptive intellect to sauntering, cities and politics, visit walking as a political act and the streets as the realm of radical change, revolution & democracy.

Rebecca Solnit on Walking as a Political Act & the Streets as the Realm of Radical Change, Revolution & Democracy

love not warFor most of us, the “streets” connote inner-city squalor and moral decay.  The toughest streets of San Francisco represent humanity at its bleakest: homeless people mumbling to themselves in the piss-scented Tenderloin district; dilapidated slums littered with broken glass, used needles, and garbage; gun shots and switchblades.  But for poet of politics Rebecca Solnit, author of Wanderlust: A History of Walking, the streets are less a cesspit of danger and destitution than an amphitheater where the drama of democracy is staged.  Parades, protests, rebellions, revolutions, riots: the seed of every history-making social movement begins, Margaret Mead reassured us, with “a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens.”  For Ms. Solnit, the streets are the birthing place for these movements.  In her lexicon, the “street” carries a more hopeful connotation: democratic in the purest sense, streets are where organizations of common citizens can directly participate in their own governance and make their voices heard simply through their physical presence.  Walking, then, can be a political act, a profound way of making a real, lasting difference:

“This is the highest ideal of democracy— that everyone can participate in making their own life and the life of the community— and the street is democracy’s greatest arena, the place where ordinary people can speak, unsegregated by walls, unmediated by those with more power.  It’s not a coincidence that media and mediate have the same root; direct political action in real public space may be the only way to engage in unmediated communication with strangers, as well as a way to reach media audiences by literally making news…Parades, demonstrations, protests, uprisings, and urban revolutions are all about the members of the public moving through public space for expressive and political rather than purely practical reasons.  In this, they are a part of the cultural history of walking.”  

Though we usually understand walking in the most literal terms and commonplace definitions, walking in many ways is a figure of speech.  When we walk as a form of protest, we’re giving expression to our beliefs.  The civil rights activists who marched on Washington on August 28, 1963, the hundreds of thousands who banded together against the Trump administration on January 21, 2017: they weren’t just mechanically putting one foot in front of the other— they were using one of the most powerful words in the political dictionary, their bodies, to write history.  In both cases, they composed the poetry of history with the stanzas of their feet:

“On ordinary days we each walk alone or with a companion or two on the sidewalks, and the streets are used for transit and for commerce.  On extraordinary days—on the holidays that are anniversaries of historic and religious events and on the days we make history ourselves— we walk together, and the whole street is stamping out the meaning of the day.  Walking, which can be prayer, sex, communion with the land, or musing, becomes speech in the these demonstrations and uprisings, and a lot of history has been written with the feet of citizens walking through their cities.  Such walking is a bodily demonstration of political or cultural conditions and one of the most universally available forms of public expression.  It could be called marching, in that it is common movement toward a common goal, but the participants have not surrendered their individuality as have those soldiers whose lockstep signifies that they have become interchangeable units under an absolute authority.  Instead they signify the possibility of common ground between people who have not ceased to be different from each other, people who have at last become the public.  When bodily movement becomes a form of speech then the distinctions between words and deeds, between representations and actions, begin to blur, and so marches can themselves be liminal, another form of walking into the realm of the representational and symbolic— and sometimes, into history.”  

march on washington

But in order for the public to peacefully assemble and effectively protest, it must have public space.  As chain restaurants and strip malls steamroll our cities into suburban wastelands of cookie-cutter conformity, our cities lose more than just their distinctive character— they lose crucial civic space.  Without streets to march on, without squares where we can gather, we can’t directly participate in our democracy.  For the ever-eloqent Solnit, a city’s design can either promote civic engagement or make it impossible for citizens to meaningfully demonstrate:

“Only citizens familiar with their city as both symbolic and practical territory, able to come together on foot and accustomed to walking about their city, can revolt.  Few remember that “the right of the people peaceably to assemble” is listed in the First Amendement of the U.S. Constitution, along with the freedom of the press, of speech and of religion, as critical to democracy.  While the other rights are easily recognized, the elimination of the possibility of such assemblies through urban design, automotive dependence, and other factors is hard to trace and seldom framed as a civil rights issue.  But when public spaces are eliminated, so ultimately is the public; the individual has ceased to be a citizen capable of experiencing and acting in common with fellow citizens.  Citizenship is predicated on the sense of having something in common with strangers, just as democracy is built upon trust in strangers.  And public space is the space we share with strangers, the unsegregated zone.  In these communal events, that abstraction the public becomes real and tangible.  Los Angeles has had tremendous riots— Watts in 1965 and the Rodney King uprising in 1992— but little effective history of protest.  It is so diffuse, so centerless, that it possesses neither symbolic space in which to act, nor a pedestrian scale in which to participate as the public…San Francisco, on the other hand, has functioned like the “Paris of the West” it was once called, breeding a regular menu of parades, processions, protests, demonstrations, marches and other public activities in its central spaces.”

Solnit’s Wanderlust will transform the way you look at walking.  For more poetic and soul-expanding meditations on sauntering, read Solnit on the power of walking to replenish the soul and reinvigorate the mind.

Rebecca Solnit on the Power of Walking to Replenish the Soul & Reinvigorate the Mind

wanderlustIs there any occupation as prosaic as walking?  We walk from our bed to the kitchen to make our morning coffee, out the front door to go to work, to the corner store to grab groceries.  Sometimes we stride along the beach joined hand-in-hand with our partner, the coastline melting into a pink-orange sunset; other times, we amble through our local park going nowhere in particular; still other times, we trek through groves of redwoods and Douglas fir to witness breathtaking panoramic views from the top of a bluff.  Ever since we evolved from the quadruped crawling of our toddler years, we’ve been putting one foot in front of the other.  But though walking serves the practical function of getting us from one point to another, it also possesses a profounder power to reinvigorate the mind and replenish the soul.  Thinkers throughout time have been avid walkers, from William Wordsworth (“The act of walking is indivisible from the act of making poetry: one begets the other,” he argued) to Henry David Thoreau (“The moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow,” he wrote in a journal entry dated August 19, 1851).  Something about the mechanical motion of lifting one foot and extending it front of the other makes it easier to hear the divine whisperings of inspiration.  After all, how many artists have met the muse on a meandering walk?  Beethoven took long, leisurely strolls with a pen and sheet music handy (excursions his biographer Anton Schindler believed “resembled the swarming of the bee to gather honey”) whereas Mozart noted that is was during promenades in the park that his ideas flowed most “abundantly.”  Throughout time, it seems, quiet country roads have been the site of revelation and epiphany.

A writer who can find holiness and exquisite beauty in the most overlooked, ordinary activities, Rebecca Solnit explores the creative, intellectual and spiritual benefits of walking in her 2000 masterpiece Wanderlust.  She begins by describing the mechanics of marching:  

“Where does it start?  Muscles tense.  One leg a pillar, holding the body upright between the earth and sky.  The other a pendulum, swinging from behind.  Heel touches down.  The whole weight of the body rolls forward onto the ball of the foot.  The big toe pushes off, and the delicately balanced weight of the body shifts again.  The legs reverse position.  It starts with a step and then another step and then another that add up like taps on a drum to a rhythm, the rhythm of walking.  The most obvious and the most obscure thing in the world, this walking that wanders so readily into religion, philosophy, landscape, urban policy, anatomy, allegory, and heartbreak.”

Though in our practicality-preoccupied world, we measure a thing’s worth by its ability to perform a certain function (a coffee mug is only valuable, for instance, if it successfully fulfills its purpose of holding our bold black coffee— not if it delights us aesthetically), walking is valuable for reasons other than the purely practical.  While walking is useful in that it permits us to travel from point a to point b, it can take on more poetic, philosophical connotations if we sanctify our midnight strolls and saunter mindfully:

“Most of the time walking is merely practical, the unconsidered locomotive means between two sites. To make walking into an investigation, a ritual, a meditation, is a special subset of walking, physiologically like and philosophically unlike the way the mail carrier brings the mail and the office worker reaches the train.  Which is to say that the subject of walking is, in some sense, about how we invest universal acts with particular meanings.  Like eating or breathing, it can be invested with wildly different cultural meanings, from the erotic to the spiritual, from the revolutionary to the artistic.  Here this history begins to become part of the history of the imagination and the culture, of what kind of pleasure, freedom, and meaning are pursued at different times by different kinds of walks and walkers.”

“As one’s body wanders, so does one’s mind,” naturalist Walt McLaughlin once wrote, “The wilderness of the mind and the wilderness of oceans, forests, mountains, and deserts are inextricably entwined.”  Solnit agrees the landscape is less a literal place than a reflection of our own minds.  Strolling in the sultry heat of a summer twilight, we may traverse the exterior world, but we traverse our interior world as well.  As we walk away from the everyday familiarity of home, we walk into the uncharted, the unknown.  In strange lands, our thoughts take on strange new forms (even when this “strange” land is just around the block).  Suddenly we can abandon the linear route of rationality and follow the more winding path of instinct and free associative thought:  

“Walking, ideally, is a state in which the mind, the body, and the world are aligned, as though they were three characters finally in conversation together, three notes suddenly making a chord.  Walking allows us to be in our bodies and in the world without being made busy by them.  It leaves us free to think without being wholly lost in our thoughts.

[…]

The rhythm of walking generates a kind of rhythm of thinking, and the passage through a landscape echoes or stimulates the passage through a series of thoughts.  This creates an odd consonance between internal and external passage, one that suggests that the mind is also a landscape of sorts and that walking is one way to traverse it.  A new thought often seems like a feature of the landscape that was there all along, as though thinking were traveling rather than making.  And so one aspect of the history of walking is the history of thinking made concrete — for the motions of the mind cannot be traced, but those of the feet can.  Walking can also be imagined as a visual activity, every walk a tour leisurely enough both to see and think over the sights, to assimilate the new into the known.  Perhaps this is where walking’s peculiar utility for thinkers comes from.  The surprises, liberations, and clarifications of travel can sometimes be garnered by going around the block as well as going around the world, and walking travels both near and far.  Or perhaps walking should be called movement, not travel, for one can walk in circles or travel around the world immobilized in a seat, and a certain kind of wanderlust can only be assuaged by the acts of the body itself in motion, not the motion of the car, boat, or plane.  It is the movement as well as the sights going by that seems to make things happen in the mind, and this is what makes walking ambiguous and endlessly fertile: it is both means and end, travel and destination.”

rebecca solnit

Later in Wanderlust, Solnit’s friend Sono’s truck is stolen from outside her West Oakland studio.  Though most people would call losing your car a catastrophe of the highest order, Sono views it as a blessing: forced to rely on her own two feet for transportation, she develops a more intimate relationship with her surroundings.  No longer alienated in the sterile leather interiors of an automobile, she feels connected to her vibrant Bay Area neighborhood like never before: 

“There was a joy, she said, to finding that her body was adequate to get her where she was going, and it was a gift to develop a more tangible, concrete relationship to her neighborhood and its residents.  We talked about the more stately sense of time one has afoot and on public transit, where things must be planned and scheduled beforehand, rather than rushed through at the last minute, and about the sense of place that can only be gained on foot.  Many people nowadays live in a series of interiors — home, car, gym, office, shops — disconnected from each other.  On foot everything stays connected, for while walking one occupies the spaces between those interiors in the same way one occupies those interiors.  One lives in the whole world rather than in interiors built up against it.”

We live in an era obsessed with speed and efficiency.  Blockbuster bestsellers have titles such as “The One Minute Manager” and “The Checklist Manifesto”; magazine covers shout with headlines like “21 Tips to Become the Most Productive Person You Know!” and “Get More Done in 2 Days Than Most People Get Done in 2 Weeks!”; hundreds of apps offer systems for streamlining our schedules and monitoring every aspect of our lives from our diet to our sleep.  Ours is an age of life hacks and get-rich-quick schemes.  The worth of our days, we believe, is directly proportional to how much we achieve.  Time is money and an hour well spent is an hour in which we maximize our output to input.

The result?  We dart through our days at speeds that would shock men a mere century ago.  But why does it matter if we hurry at an accelerated pace?  Don’t we at least get more work done?  The problem with the hurried rate of modern life is we sacrifice idle moments for introspection.  “Good ideas come slowly,” Brenda Ueland reminds us in her soul-enlarging classic If You Want to Write.  Hyper-efficient, we’re so concerned with crossing items off our to-do lists that we leave virtually no time for good ideas to gestate and form:

“The multiplication of technologies in the name of efficiency is actually eradicating free time by making it possible to maximize the time and place for production and minimize the unstructured travel time in between.  New timesaving technologies make most workers more productive, not more free, in a world that seems to be accelerating around them.  Too, the rhetoric of efficiency around these technologies suggests that what cannot be quantified cannot be valued — that that vast array of pleasures which fall into the category of doing nothing in particular, of woolgathering, cloud-gazing, wandering, window-shopping, are nothing but voids to be filled by something more definite, more productive, or faster paced.  Even on this headland route going nowhere useful, this route that could only be walked for pleasure, people had trodden shortcuts between the switchbacks as though efficiency was a habit they couldn’t shake.  The indeterminacy of a ramble, on which much may be discovered, is being replaced by the determinate shortest distance to be traversed with all possible speed, as well as by the electronic transmissions that make real travel less necessary.  As a member of the self-employed whose time saved by technology can be lavished on daydreams and meanders, I know these things have their uses, and use them — a truck, a computer, a modem — myself, but I fear their false urgency, their call to speed, their insistence that travel is less important than arrival.  I like walking because it is slow, and I suspect that the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour.  If this is so, then modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought, or thoughtfulness.”

In an endearing moment of optimism and understated poetry, Solnit refutes the common misconception that city streets are grimy cesspools of violence and moral decay.  Instead of fish-netted prostitutes and switch blades, walking the streets of San Francisco, she most often meets old friends, amiable neighbors, and a magical white moon over the bay.  To walk a city street is to encounter many lovely little serendipities: you might chance upon a poster for an underground punk band you’ve been meaning to see or be handed a flier for a panel discussion on prison reform at U.C. Berkeley.  In our increasingly regimented lives, we become stagnant pools— suffocated by our regular schedule’s dull monotony.  Walking helps us rejoin the flow of life, the exhilarating stream of the unplanned and unpredictable:

“I have been threatened and mugged on the street, long ago, but I have a thousand times more encountered friends passing by, a sought-for book in a store window, compliments and greetings from my loquacious neighbors, architectural delights, posters for music and ironic political commentary on walls and telephone polls, fortune-tellers, the moon coming up between buildings, glimpses of other lives and other homes, and streets noisy with songbirds.  The random, the unscreened, allows you to find what you don’t know you are looking for, and you don’t know a place until it surprises you.  Walking is one way of maintaining a bulwark against this erosion of the mind, the body, the landscape, and the city, and every walker is a guard on patrol to protect the ineffable.”

vintage sf street

Solnit ends the introduction by returning to an earlier description of her own walk along a Sausalito hiking trail.  Much like Beethoven and Mozart, she finds the answers she seeks on long solitary strolls.  In this way, walking is both a pilgrimage of the body and a pilgrimage of the soul:

Suddenly I came out of my thoughts to notice everything around me again-the catkins on the willows, the lapping of the water, the leafy patterns of the shadows across the path.  And then myself, walking with the alignment that only comes after miles, the loose diagonal rhythm of arms swinging in synchronization with legs in a body that felt long and stretched out, almost as sinuous as a snake.  My circuit was almost finished, and at the end of it I knew what my subject was and how to address it in a way I had not six miles before.  It had not come in a sudden epiphany but with a gradual sureness, a sense of meaning like a sense of place.  When you give yourself to places, they give you yourself back; the more one comes to know them, the more one seeds them with the invisible crop of memories and associations that will be waiting for when you come back, while new places offer up new thoughts, new possibilities.  Exploring the world is one the best ways to explore the mind, and walking travels both terrains.”