Born to Walk: The Transformative Power of a Pedestrian Act
ECW Press (Canada) 2015
I didn’t just read this book. I lived it.
A couple of months ago, I was offered a “walking copy” of the book by Walk Ottawa, one of the local community groups I met with as part of a new road safety project for the Traffic Injury Research Foundation. The idea is that you read the book, pass it on to another influencer, then let the organization know who you are and who you gave it to.
It has taken me weeks to finish the book, because I read it in short sessions. In between, I started walking to and from my office, Monday to Friday (it takes about 45 minutes each way). Was the book, and the act, transformative? I have to respond with a thundering “YES!”
Dan Rubinstein is an Ottawa writer and journalist, and a former managing editor at Canadian Geographic. In the book, he explores the different aspects of walking: on the body, the mind, society, the economy, politics, creativity, spirit, and family. The book takes you on several foot journeys, from rough treks of spiritual redemption between Aboriginal communities in Quebec, to pilgrimage routes in Wales and Spain, to the streets of New York City, and more exotic paths (for me) in Central Asia, Japan, and even The Hajj. But it begins and ends close to home, in the suburbs of Canada’s capital, where the author lives. His conclusion is a simple three-word manifesto for life change: Walk more. Anywhere.
So I did. By week two, my legs were aching and I realized that I needed a whole new level of comfortable shoe. I lost a few pounds. I arrived at work full of creative ideas and solutions, and I returned home less stressed. As I absorbed each new lesson from the book, I let it marinate my walking mind. I learned that walking really does connect you better with nature (even urban green), the rhythms of your city, and strangers on the street. I learned that walking increases your ability to think divergently, considering several parallel ideas and looking for novel solutions, but does not help with convergent cognition, which is linear logic leading to only one “right answer.” Most importantly, I learned that walking is a process. The destination is not a goal for walking, it is just another reason to walk.
The writing style, as appropriate for a magazine writer, is compact and fast-paced. (Definitely a divergent think piece.) Dan’s easy command of language and storytelling, and charming self-deprecation, reminded me most of Bill Bryson. So it was no surprise when he referenced Bill’s classic hiking journal, A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail.
There are two perspectives missing from the book, however. One obvious one is how people who cannot walk, for physical or other reasons, can benefit from the book’s revelations. It’s not necessarily an albeist book (the author writes lovingly about his nonagenarian grandmother’s declining mobility in Toronto) but it certainly assumes that walking is an option. That might not make it a pleasant read for some.
The other missed perspective is the workplace. How can employers promote more walking, both on the commute, and during the workday? As a writer, now self-employed, Dan Rubinstein enjoys more scheduling flexibility than the average office worker, and much more than someone in industry or the trades. He promotes walking your children to school, but unless you have an enlightened employer (as I do), who lets parents swing their office schedules comfortably around the school bell, it’s easier said than done. Much of the societal change he craves needs to be top-down, not just bottom-up. So there’s a bit of a “creative class” bias as well. I’ll have to follow the Born to Walk blog to see if these are addressed in the ongoing project.
That said, I can’t express how much this book, and this simple change, have benefited my mind, body, and general wellbeing. I used to walk home from work whenever possible, but with headphones on (being extra careful at crosswalks) because I was bored of the route. Now, fully engaged in what’s around me, I see new things every day: a wood duck roosting in a tree across from a 1920s school, the ceremonial guard at the War Memorial (and the police who guard the guards, after the autumn murder of one last fall by a deranged extremist), an adolescent boy gently teaching his girlfriend how to balance on a skateboard in an empty municipal wading pool, the changing seasonal produce on offer at the farmers’ market.
Walk more. (If you are able.) Anywhere. And read this damn book.