When you are in a car driving towards a mountain, with small pools, slopes, rocks, moss and trees zooming past on all sides, life is curtailed; it gets shorter. You don’t notice the wind, the smells, the weather, nor the shifting light. Your feet don’t get sore. Everything becomes one big blur.
And it isn’t only time that grows smaller as one’s pace increases. Your sense of space does too. Suddenly you find yourself at the foot of the mountain. Even your sense of distance has been stunted. Having travelled far, you may be tempted to feel like you’ve experienced quite a bit. I doubt that’s true.
If you were to walk along the same route, however—spending an entire day instead of a half-hour, breathing more easily, listening, feeling the ground beneath your feet, exerting yourself—the day becomes something else entirely. Little by little, the mountain looms up before you and your surroundings seem to grow larger. Becoming acquainted with these surroundings takes time. It’s like building a friendship. The mountain up ahead, which slowly changes as you draw closer, feels like an intimate friend by the time you’ve arrived. Your eyes, ears, nose, shoulders, stomach and legs speak to the mountain, and the mountain replies. Time stretches out, independent of minutes and hours.
And this is precisely the secret held by all those who go by foot: life is prolonged when you walk. Walking expands time rather than collapses it.
Walking sometimes means undertaking an inner voyage of discovery. You are shaped by buildings, faces, signs, weather and the atmosphere. Maybe we were made to walk, also in cities? Walking as a combination of movement, humility, balance, curiosity, smell, sound, light and—if you walk far enough—longing. A feeling which reaches for something, without finding it. The Portuguese and Brazilians have an untranslatable word for this longing: saudade. It is a word that encompasses love, pain and happiness. It can be the thought of something joyful that disturbs you, or something disturbing that brings you plenitude.
There’s no perfect speed for walking through a city; your pace varies according to the complexity of the area, the traffic, the absence or presence of sidewalks, the number of people who cross your path, and how many memories you wish to take home afterwards. Your brain’s cortex sifts out what’s important from what’s unimportant, and then needs time to see and interpret those impressions. It’s like reading a book. What we perceive depends on our attention, which is, after all, a limited resource. If you increase your pace, you automatically begin to concentrate on fewer impressions. In such instances, as the neurologist Kaja Nordengen said you can “see without seeing and hear without hearing.”
The way you walk can also reflect how you feel. Minuscule deviations from your customary gait can tell the surrounding world whether you are having a good or a bad day.
Professor Rory Wilson of Swansea University has researched the degree to which illness, hormones, nutrition and emotions affect the movements of both humans and cockroaches. In the experiments, humans and cockroaches both had measuring instruments attached to their bodies, noting their patterns of movement across three dimensions. The purpose was to show coherent differences in the movements of the two species depending on their moods. To achieve the best results, all the experiments were conducted in the subjects’ daily surroundings and not in laboratories.
According to the research, humans move about differently after watching a movie depending on whether the movie was sad or funny. This is apparent in other situations as well. When I see people before they head out on a walk through the forest, in the mountains or in a park, and then happen to see them again as they head home, I can tell that they have changed. This change is even more obvious than the change after going to the cinema. If people are exhausted after their working day when heading out for a hike, they are exhausted in a completely different way upon their return. Their eyes may be glowing, their step has a spring to it, and their smiles are more relaxed.
The modern world is fashioned so that we sit as often as possible. There are many arguments for sitting. Sitting is about the desire of those in power that we should participate in growing the GDP, as well as the corporate desire that we should consume as much as possible and rest whenever we aren’t doing so. Our movements should be brief and effective. In the Stone Age, an adult human being went through 4,000 calories per day in order to cover the energy required to eat, to make tools and clothing, and to walk. Today, an average human being living in a rich country consumes, directly or indirectly, 228,000 calories a day, on goods such as food, clothing, communication and transport. The consumption of energy has become a full-time occupation, making it difficult to set aside time for walking more than just a few steps in a row.
It is easier for governments and societies to control us as long as we are sitting down. History is full of stories about those who did not remain seated and who thereby changed the course of history. What would happen if world leaders were forced to take daily walks among the people? For those who are in positions of great power, this can be complicated. A nice black car waits to pick them up. Those who are endowed with power separate themselves physically from the daily realities of everyone else, or in Kierkegaard’s words: “…robbers and the elite agree on just one thing—living in hiding.”
There is something undemocratic in distancing yourself from the natural world, the street and the people over whom you rule. In Norway, leading politicians fortunately walk among the electorate. They see us and we see them. They shop where we shop and have their coffee in the same coffee shops as those who put them in power.
Though you might be able to glean a lot of information from reading, listening at meetings, looking out of car windows, and peering down from your skyscraper, everything appears different if you walk along the streets where the citizens are gathering their own food for cooking, opening a shop, checking their phones, loving, reading, conversing and thinking. From far away, the world can seem homogeneous, but your mental map no longer matches the actual terrain.
The greater the physical distance between the decision makers and those affected by the decisions, the less relevant the decisions appear to the people impacted by them.