Yesterday I was out for a hike in Arkansas when a huge butterfly fluttered into my face. It startled me, and I waved it away, barely brushing the tip of its wing with my hand.
And then I really looked, and even though it was early afternoon, gorgeous sunlight all around, that was no butterfly. It was a small reddish-brown bat.
Touching a daytime bat: that’s a gift to a writer. Heck, I’d buy a book of poetry with that title. It’s a real thing that happened, and it’s just begging to be forged into a metaphor for something. Sometimes we do this—we brush against the daytime bat, that thing we had no reason to look for, right there beside our hand ….
But this time around, I’ll keep the bat instead as a mere diary entry, as a thing that happened one beautiful spring day, in that state where almost anywhere you step, there might be a stone chamber beneath us.
Writing forces me to sit at a desk quite a bit, but I love to get out into the woods to renew myself. It’s a family thing; if the weather is reasonable, my whole crew tromps along a dirt path together.
When I walk, I’m always looking downward. I’m fond of snakes, and I’m always hoping to see one. Snakes belong to two worlds, and when they reveal themselves, they bring news of that other place, the one beneath the surface.
I almost never see them, for all my looking. I don’t have that kind of vision. My friend Sherri does. She knows how to look when she’s in nature, and she finds the most astonishing creatures, even though most are designed to stay hidden. I lived in the same town as Sherri for a long time, but I forgot to ask her to help me learn to see. I live in southern Missouri now, and I clomp through the woods all the time. There are snakes everywhere, and lizards, and salamanders, and fabulous bugs. Once, and possibly twice, I did see a tarantula, skittering off the path. Astonishing, this—when I moved here, I never would have dreamed they were all around me, better able to spot me than I them. Sherri would see them. I wish I had her gift.
I don’t walk to exercise, although it’s fine for that. In this, I’m like Henry David Thoreau, who wrote, “The walking of which I speak has nothing in it akin to taking exercise, as it is called, as the sick take medicine at stated hours … but is itself the enterprise and adventure of the day.” Thoreau was a big proponent of walking as a tool for improving our capacity for reflection—exercise being a bonus but not the aim of the activity.
Mind you, I’m no Thoreau. Rain keeps me in. So does a chill in the air. So, sometimes, does laziness. I don’t walk every day, although I’d like to be the kind of person who does.
What I know about walking is that its rhythms lull us into meditation, more quickly and naturally and surely than focusing on our breath can do. And as we walk, we see things—we add to our catalog of reference points and memories in a way we can only do outdoors, away from the familiar. I can stay inside and watch classic TV and have an enjoyable time, but the downside is that no bat will stare into my face, and no tarantula will hide from my feet. Neither will I spot a celt or spear tip—other things I undoubtedly walk over and miss almost 100 percent of the time. (I’ve only ever found one arrowhead, and it was chipped at the tip, blunted, I don’t know when. Maybe it snapped in the ground, or maybe it was discarded by its creator, more annoying than deadly if launched. These are the notions the walker considers.)
Unlike time spent in our interior spaces, which become quickly and permanently familiar, walks—even along accustomed paths—always take us somewhere new. Thoreau knew this, too. He wrote, “An absolutely new prospect is a great happiness, and I can still get this any afternoon. Two or three hours’ walking will carry me to as strange a country as I expect to see.”
It’s true. Last week I was walking and found odd, closed, white lilies everywhere around me. I hadn’t seen anything like them before; it was a strange country, and I found it by training my eyes downward. (My friends helped me to identify them as white toad lilies, but I’m pretty sure, having seen yellow ones yesterday, that this isn’t quite right. The blossoms I saw were smaller, more singular, and more frail. I think it’s most probable that these were my very own flowers, scattered along my path by some benevolent creator just for me.)
Walking is restorative for anyone, but it has special benefits for writers, who seek at times both rhythm and disruption—both part of any amble—and who require a library of adventures and reference points if they are to have anything to commit to the page.
Walking gives these to me every day. Yesterday reminded me of how a breeze moving over water cools, how a collapsed cave roof can look newly fallen even after the passage of a millennium, or how a sturdy-looking stepstone sometimes sits atop a fulcrum in a stream.
And it taught me something new about bats, which, I just read, sometimes hunt during the daytime in the spring, when nights are cold and bugs are scarce. Have you ever seen a bat nearly snatch a moth from midair? I have. I’ve been that moth, and every single day I am that bat.