Posture, movement, the body, mood, and creativity. Perception of time. Subconscious problem solving. Connections. Increased blood flow, allowing seemingly divergent parts of the brain to connect.
I’ve written this over the course of a couple of weeks in response to the chapter from Shane O’Mara’s In Praise of Walking on ‘Creative Walking’.
What follows is a personal reflection on some of those ideas, seeing how walking during lockdown can help unlock a little creative potential, and what relationship I had with these strolls during this period.
I was struggling to write, so I went for a stroll. Only around the park. And it’s the park I’ve seen the most during Lockdown. Nonetheless, as Quincy Jones’ arrangement of Black Orpheus came to mind, I started to make a few different connections.
I saw someone wearing a turquoise t-shirt with yellow letters spelling out ‘MI AMI’. You love me. Though on second thoughts, it was relating to the city in Florida.
As Black Orpheus linked seamlessly into Yankee Doodle – I would have preferred Black Orpheus to stay there too – I began to reflect on O’Mara’s summation of the relationship of creativity and walking.
On how the flow of blood encouraged by walking can literally enable the flow of connections in the brain that otherwise may not be made. The etymological origins of peripatetic being to walking – peri as in peristalsis, not Perry Como.
How walking can help us forge connections between our different selves, which are always us but with different tracks faded up and down on the mixing desk of our minds. And how better acquaintance with these different parts allows us to better map ourselves, enhancing our inner cartography.
Ordinarily my walks tend to be somewhat longer – Seaford to Eastbourne say - or with a more direct purpose – I need to get to the tube in 20 minutes. It’s been quite different since March to know I’m not really going anywhere with these walks. Consequently, I’m not sure I’ve enjoyed them quite as much, but nonetheless I’ve felt them necessary. Sure it gets me out of the house, but it can also be good to walk things off. How else will I take work cancellations in my stride. In order not to get too worked up, I can reconnect with the soil and keep the ground under my feet.
It’s important to take one step at a time. One of many sayings my dad would often repeat to me was ‘Fools leap where angels fear to tread’, as well as ‘Walk before you run’. Clearly I must have often got carried away with things as a kid. Often I still do…
Was Black Orpheus there because it happened to be at the pace of my walking, or was the pace of my walking dictated by Black Orpheus? What else is on my mind at the moment? Black Lives Matter, and the demonstration at Hyde Park tomorrow is pretty near the front of my mind. How do I contribute to a positive change, whilst not adding to a crowd which could clearly be quite dangerous in terms of the spread of the corona virus? But are the issues of systemic racism more urgent than the spread of the virus? To enact real and meaningful change to enhance the quality of life for so many people in the community around me, we need to strike while the iron is hot. Whilst the government’s incompetence is at its clearest.
And why Orpheus? Was I making connections to Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Woman on Fire, a retelling of the Orpheus myth. How many similarities are there between the Black Lives Matter movement and feminism? Both are trying to affect positive change in the world by changing the status quo. Both are looking for equality. Both are long overdue upheavals to overcome the hegemony of the white male. Both need as many allies as possible, and a clear and unanimous voice.
Was Black Orpheus a convergence of these two different but related things? Has walking allowed me creatively to invent that narrative now that I’m back at home?
Does this relate to my hippocampal function? Are different moments of my episodic memory coming together, to try and navigate the world around me? I can’t really get lost in the park, though I saw the volleyball courts there for the first time today and a small fenced off area with wildflowers, hopefully here to help support the insect population and thus the bats which congregate in the park at dusk. But what about feeling lost more generally? Can walking help me connect other parts of my life, which feel disparate and discorporate?
A few days later…
It’s great to feel the rain on my skin; to feel a slight softness to the ground; to see the colour returning to the grass, with varying shades of green, brown and yellow. It would almost feel autumnal with a little extra red. There’s a little corner of the park, just by the volleyball courts, where wildflowers are protected. I could spot dandelions, cow parsley and thistles. The height of the grass there reminds me of walking from Buxton train station to the YHA Ravenstor with a good friend. I think it was a July, as he’d fallen in love in Italy. What could be better? Walking in the Peak District. Obviously.
I think we both needed a little walking time – I certainly did. Time to process. Time to think. Time to breathe and let things sink.
That was one of the first times I came across Oliver Sacks, as we explored different ideas together. What did music mean to us? What can it mean in general? Can it be a mental salve? What does it mean to have a tune in your head? None of this related to any of our immediate concerns, romantic or otherwise. But sometimes we need to ramble. To explore paths, to allow ourselves to feel whatever is immediately there, right in that moment. Sometimes the BIG STUFF haunting every waking moment is what we feel most pressingly, but allowing yourself to be distracted from that can be immensely helpful because it immerses you in the inescapability of the present. Why not contemplate whether rams in the peak district look particularly aggressive, while they chase you in a small holding?
Why not wonder if it's a real phenomenon for a robin to look a bit dustier in the summer? Its feathers looked so slicked and honed. Nothing was wasted. It emphasised just how far back its lateral eyes were. Even in the rain today, it looked like a desert robin somehow. The weather helped it to find a worm right by my feet, flying away almost immediately into a bush back in the direction of the wildflowers. Do robins also know that sometimes you feel so ravenous that you want to make a mess when you eat?
Walking by yourself in the local park on a Sunday afternoon is obviously different to walking in a national park on a near-impromptu midweek break – we were students. The nature of reflection is different in isolation. It’s harder to encounter totally different ideas to what you expected – to enjoy tangential convergence through conversation.
There can be a comfort to walking alone though. When walking a familiar paths, thoughts are likely to follow familiar pathways. When I regularly walked on the South Downs, I came to expect Frank Zappa to lead into various tunes from Mozart's The Magic Flute, which could then go back into other Frank Zappa – usually ‘Oh No’ going into ‘The Orange County Lumber Truck’ from Weasels Ripped My Flesh – or sometimes hymn tunes, and that would somehow reflect my thought process at the time. Tunes in the head can be maddening of course, and that might be worth reflecting on another time, but the fact that it was the same tunes coming back to me assured me that thoughts were being processed in a familiar way. That I would feel more relaxed that evening, and that it wouldn’t just be because of the delicious taste of Harvey’s Best.
Solitary walking and walking with company both allowed new connections to be made. Both can lead to new, creative thought processes. Familiar and unfamiliar territory can also have a similar effect. As O’Mara quotes Nietzsche, ‘Only thoughts reached by walking have value’. Walking allows our thought to be rooted in the world around us. Walking makes our inner gaze look outward, and to see if what we think has any relevance to the world around us. To make sense of the lives we’re living, even in a world which would have been inconceivable to me in 2006 – when I first started to really enjoy walking. The slow pace of walking means that you have no choice but to take in the world around you. Different perspectives are unavoidable as you see the same ridge from different angles through the day, or as the light reflects differently off the loch as the sun begins its long descent in summer. As we see the same land and water look different with the passing of time, so can our thoughts suddenly make sense: they can come together again after a long separation, or they can separate and then percolate through the ground into a new spring. Some degree of creativity is inescapable, even if the path is hard to see, because through the physical act of walking, we are making new connections with the world around us.