Commentary – Solvitur ambulando

Joe McWilliams

This will sound corny, but there’s something inspiring about a trail through the bush. A trail through open country is just fine. A trail in an urban setting is a lot better than a sidewalk and a sidewalk is a lot better than sharing the road with vehicular traffic. But a trail through forest beats anything else in that line.

I’m not sure why that is, or rather why I feel that way. You would think I’d have grown out of it by now, the way I’ve grown out of so many other things. But no, this one sticks. I might forget about it for a while, but a small reminder such as I had the other day brings it back, full force.

This was nothing more than a stroll of a few hundred metres on a trail in a certain provincial park. Wild roses bloomed. Birds sang. The breeze off a certain lake gently blew. The fact the trail was officially off limits may or may not have added to the fun. I could feel myself getting happier as I walked. This was not really a surprise. I’ve had similar experiences often enough. I had pretty much put it down to a sentimental association with fun childhood experiences. Recently I’ve started thinking it might be more than that, prompted by some writing by people a lot smarter than me.

Solvitur ambulando is a Latin phrase meaning, ‘It is solved by walking.’ The travel writer Paul Theroux used it as a chapter title in his book ‘The Tao of Travel,’ quoting various other writers on the topic. One of them was Bruce Chatwin, noted for his book ‘The Songlines.’ It’s about the Australian Aborigines’ outlook on life, which needless to say is very, very different than the one the colonizers brought with them. Their worldview involves a lot of walking, and singing as a way of navigating through the endless landscape. I can’t explain it, but it is enchanting. Also, obviously, utterly incompatible with modern ‘western’ society as it has evolved.

It has been noted, though, by many members of that modern society, that walking helps, and not just as a mild form of exercise.

One’s mental and emotional condition can greatly benefit. Chatwin might have taken the philosophy to extremes, believing walking to be ‘the sovereign remedy for every mental travail,’ (thanks, Wikipedia).

He worshipped at the altar of Patrick Leigh Fermor, the great travel writer who took solvitur ambulando to a new level by setting off from London at Christmas, 1933 at the age of 18 because he didn’t know what else to do with his life. On such a whim a whole history turned.

Most others don’t think so big, and of course there’s no need. I asked a regular walker in Slave Lake the other day if she had some philosophy about it. ‘No,’ she said. ‘I just like it.’

There you go.


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