Category Archives: Writing About Walking

Mike Collier, Prints and Billboard



“Part of Mike Collier’s practice involves curating walks for groups of people, often with the natural historian Keith Bowey; walks that are also collaborations – slow-moving, meandering explorations of urban ‘edgelands’, those marginal and often unsung places where rural and urban coincide. The shared information recorded when ‘botanizing on the streets’ with participants is layered intuitively into the fabric of his abstract paintings and drawings constructed back in the studio. Text is important in the architecture of Collier’s work; the familiar unfamiliarity of vernacular names, dialects of birds and plants once known but fleetingly remembered, hinting back to the specificity of places and their ecological frameworks.

Recently, Collier has embarked on a collab­oration with the Wordsworth Trust, working closely with the manuscripts of William and Dorothy Wordsworth (both inveterate walkers, whose walking is often vividly portrayed in these manuscripts). In the prints here (Daffodils 1 & 2 and Good Friday 1 & 2), he works simply, directly and intuitively over the image/text from the journals of Dorothy Wordsworth, responding not only to the words on the page, but to the place the words describe. He has walked these landscapes she describes many times over and understands them well.

MS JJ is a key ‘text’ in the history of Romanticism. The manuscript looks ahead to William Wordsworth’s “Two Part Prelude”, a poem with many references to Wordsworth’s extensive habit of walking and its importance in helping him to make sense of his life and art – indeed, it could be argued that this is where the West’s culture of walking began.”

Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin 1928

Walter Benjamin 1928

General info

“Walter Benjamin’s [1892-1940] importance as a philosopher and critical theorist can be gauged by the diversity of his intellectual influence and the continuing productivity of his thought. Primarily regarded as a literary critic and essayist, the philosophical basis of Benjamin’s writings is increasingly acknowledged. They were a decisive influence upon Theodor W. Adorno’s conception of philosophy’s actuality or adequacy to the present (Adorno 1931). In the 1930s, Benjamin’s efforts to develop a politically oriented, materialist aesthetic theory proved an important stimulus for both the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory and the Marxist poet and dramatist Bertolt Brecht.” (credit – Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

Flânerie-specific info

“In the twentieth-century Walter Benjamin returned to the concept of the flâneur in his seminal work, The Arcades Project.  This weighty, but uncompleted, study used Baudelaire’s flâneur as a starting point for an exploration of the impact of modern city life upon the human psyche.” …

“In The Arcades Project, Benjamin puts forward two complementary concepts to explain our human response to modern city life.  Erlebnis can be characterised as the shock-induced anaesthesia brought about by the overwhelming sensory bombardment of life in a modern city, somewhat akin to the alienated subjectivity experienced by a worker bound to his regime of labour.  Erfahrung is a more positive response and refers to the mobility, wandering or cruising of the flâneur; the unmediated experience of the wealth of sights, sounds and smells the city has to offer.  Benjamin was interested in the dialectic between these two concepts and cited Baudelaure’s poetry as a successful medium for turning erlebnis into erfahrung.  As Benjamin wrote in his section of Illuminations entitled On Some Motifs in Baudelaire:

The greater the share of the shock factor in particular impressions, the more constantly consciousness has to be alert as a screen against stimuli; the more efficiently it does so, the less do these impressions enter experience (Erfahrung), tending to remain in the sphere of a certain hour in one’s life (Erlebnis).

Walter Benjamin, ‘Illuminations’

For Benjamin, the environment of the city, in particular the arcades of Paris, provided the means to provoke lost memories of times past:

it is the material culture of the city, rather than the psyche, that provides the shared collective spaces where consciousness and the unconscious, past and present, meet.

Susan Buck-Morss, ‘The Flâneur, the Sandwichman and the Whore: The Politics of Loitering’

“What we can be clear about is that Benjamin does not just write about the flâneur but, in The Arcades Project, he writes as a flâneur.  As noted earlier, he metaphorises his textual practice into ragpicking, unearthing ‘the rags, the refuse’ from his extensive reading, his cutting and pasting from all manner of sources, into the text of this, his best known work.  The origins of The Arcades Project are in the textual detritus of Benjamin’s research; a method that echoes Baudelaire’s ragpicker and which he refers to when he writes that:

poets find the refuse of society on their street and derive their heroic subject from this very refuse. This means that a common type is, as it were, superimposed upon their illustrious type. … Ragpicker or poet — the refuse concerns both.

Walter Benjamin, ‘Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism’

The ragpicker is recurring motif in Benjamin’s writing and offers a useful metaphor for his textual methodology.  Benjamin focuses on the margins of the modern city, scavenging amongst the texts and oral histories that have been omitted or neglected. Literary ragpicking resurrects discarded texts, forming them into new texts.  Benjamin was interested not just in what is, but in what was and what might be.  He is looking for where the imagined city meets the material one.”


Charles Baudelaire

Étienne Carjat, Portrait of Charles Baudelaire, circa 1862

Étienne Carjat, Portrait of Charles Baudelaire, circa 1862

General Info

“Charles Baudelaire was a French poet born on April 9, 1821, in Paris, France. In 1845, he published his first work. Baudelaire gained notoriety for his 1857 volume of poems, Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil). His themes of sex, death, lesbianism, metamorphosis, depression, urban corruption, lost innocence and alcohol not only gained him loyal followers, but also garnered controversy. The courts punished Baudelaire, his publisher and the book’s printer for offending public morality, and as such, suppressed six of the poems. Baudelaire died on August 31, 1867 in Paris.” (credit)

Flânerie specific info

“The concept of the flâneur, the casual wanderer, observer and reporter of street-life in the modern city, was first explored, at length, in the writings of Baudelaire.  Baudelaire’s flâneur, an aesthete and dandy, wandered the streets and arcades of nineteenth-century Paris looking at and listening to the kaleidoscopic manifestations of the life of a modern city.  The flâneur’s method and the meaning of his activities were bound together, one with the other. ” (credit)

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Samuel Taylor Coleridge by Peter Vandyke © National Portrait Gallery, London

Samuel Taylor Coleridge by Peter Vandyke © National Portrait Gallery, London

Information source from the British Library: “One of the most influential and controversial figures of the Romantic period, Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born in 1772 the son of a clergyman in Ottery St Mary, Devon. His career as a poet and writer was established after he befriended Wordsworth and together they produced Lyrical Ballads in 1798.

For most of his adult life he suffered through addiction to laudanum and opium. His most famous works – ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner‘, ‘Kubla Khan‘ and ‘Christabel’ – all featured supernatural themes and exotic images, perhaps affected by his use of the drugs.

Coleridge was as much a prose and theoretical writer as he was a poet, as revealed in his major work, Biographia Literaria, published in 1817. Coleridge’s legacy has been tainted with accusations of plagiarism, both in his poetry and critical essays. He also had a propensity for leaving projects unfinished and suffered from large debts. But, such was the originality of his early work, that his place and influence within the Romantic period is undisputed.

Further information about the life of Samuel Taylor Coleridge can be found via the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.”

Sketch map & notes of the Lake District from Notebook (Vol II)

Sketch map & notes of the Lake District from Notebook (Vol II)

“In August 1802, Samuel Taylor Coleridge set out from his home at Greta Hall, Keswick, for a week’s solo walking-tour in the nearby Cumbrian mountains, a feat that required both daring and physical stamina. His circular route took in Scafell, England’s highest mountain. He kept detailed notes of the landscape around him, drawing rough sketches and maps as well as describing in words what he saw. These notes and sketches are in Notebook No 2, one of 64 notebooks Coleridge kept between 1794 and his death. 55 of them are now in the British Library. Together, these form a fascinating record of his random thoughts and observations, with drafts of poems and extracts from the books he was reading.” (credit)

More resources:

Blog post analyzing Coleridge’s walk(s), including maps, and photographs from present day.

Wiki post analyzing Coleridge’s friendship with Wordsworth, includes further links

Henry David Thoreau

“Henry David Thoreau, the naturalist, philosopher, and author of such classics as Walden (a reflection upon simple living in natural surroundings) and “Civil Disobedience,” contributed a number of writings to The Atlantic in its early years. The month after his death from tuberculosis, in May 1862, the magazine published “Walking,” one of his most famous essays, which extolled the virtues of immersing oneself in nature and lamented the inevitable encroachment of private ownership upon the wilderness.” (credit)

“Walking” is an essay by Henry David Thoreau based on a lecture originally delivered at the Concord Lyceum on April 23, 1851. Within it, Thoreau carefully explores the important relationship between nature and [human]kind. Thoreau considered it to be one of his best works, and repeatedly rewrote it during the 1850s.” (credit)

Thoreau Walking PDF

Dorothy and William Wordsworth

a handwritten page

Dorothy Wordsworth’s “ambitious walking practices established women’s walking as an accepted practice in the Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey families [and beyond]. Robert Southey, for instance, describes the delight which his daughter, Edith, and niece, Sara Coleridge, took from a young age in scrambling about on the fells around their home in Keswick, and Sara herself – not without some self-mockery – labelled them ‘expert mountaineers’.” …

“Wordsworth’s account of the ascent of Scafell Pike was later included – without attribution, possibly at her own request – in William Wordsworth’s Guide to the District of the Lakes. The implication was that it was William who had undertaken the ascent. As a result, Wordsworth’s legacy in climbing Scafell Pike [on October 7, 1818] is blurred into William’s, and many of the people who followed in her footsteps were unaware that it was her they were emulating.”

“The letter in which Wordsworth describes this feat draws attention to different ways of reading the mountain. In one moment she describes a landscape that stretches out for miles from the summit on which she stands. But at the next, when she looks down, Dorothy realises that though the summit seemed lifeless at first glance, in fact beauty could be found clinging to the rocks if one looked closely enough:

I ought to have described the last part of our ascent to Scaw Fell pike. There, not a blade of grass was to be seen – hardly a cushion of moss, & that was parched & brown; and only growing rarely between the huge blocks & stones which cover the summit & lie in heaps all round to a great distance, like Skeletons or bones of the earth not wanted at the creation, & here left to be covered with never-dying lichens, which the Clouds and dews nourish; and adorn with colours of the most vivid and exquisite beauty, and endless in variety (quoted with permission from The Wordsworth Trust).

In focusing on these details close to hand, rather than rhapsodising on the distant prospect, Dorothy anticipates writers like Nan Shepherd: these women propose an alternative to more familiar accounts of mountaineering exploits that emphasise a victory over a feminised Mother Nature when the climber conquers the summit. Instead, Dorothy recognises that paying close attention reveals unexpected features even on a barren mountaintop.”


Matsuo Bashō

Matsuo Basho - Narrow Road Map

Matsuo Basho – Narrow Road Map (credit)

“The best way to discover a place, and oneself, is to walk, as Japanese haiku master Matsuo Basho set out to do in the spring of 1689. His Oku-no-hosomichi (Narrow Road to the Deep North), a travelogue in poetry and prose, charts his 2,400km journey, mostly on foot, from Edo (modern-day Tokyo) to the Tohoku region. For five months, Basho trekked from countryside to coast and forest, spending nights at temples and inns, and imbibing the simple beauty around him.” (credit)

In one of its most memorable passages, Bashō suggests that “every day is a journey, and the journey itself home.”…”Today thousands of people pilgrimage to Basho’s birthplace and burial shrine and travel parts of Bashos Trail. After three centuries his Narrow Road, in print in English and many other languages, still speaks to readers around the world.” … “

Whatever its source–Basho lived a turbulent life in a changing Japan–his melancholy was an intensifying element in much of his writing and an important part of what, in the end, propelled him on his journeys.

Few details are known about Basho’s early life, but he is thought to have been born in 1644 in the castle town of Ueno, southeast of Kyoto. His father, a minor samurai, may have earned his keep teaching children to write. Many of Basho’s siblings probably became farmers.

Basho, however, acquired a taste for literature, perhaps from the son of the local lord, whose service he joined. He learned the craft of poetry from Kigin, a prominent Kyoto poet, and early in his life was exposed to two lasting influences: Chinese poetry and the tenets of Taoism. After his master died, Basho began spending time in Kyoto, practicing a form called haikai, consisting of linked verses.

In Bashos time, the first verse in haikai was evolving into a poetic idiom of its own–haiku, whose unrhymed phrases of five, seven, and five syllables are meant to capture the essence of nature. Basho published his first haiku under various names, each having some personal significance. One, Tosei, or “green peach,” was an homage to the Chinese poet Li Po (“white plum”).

In his late 20s Basho moved to Edo (now old Tokyo), a newly established city in great social flux, with a fast-growing population, robust trade, and, for Basho, literary opportunity. Within a few years he had gathered the coterie of students and patrons who formed what came to be known as the Basho School.

In 1680 one of his students built the poet a small house near the River Sumida, and soon after, when another presented him with a stock of basho tree (a species of banana), the poet started writing under the name that has endured: Basho. Credible accounts of his life hold that during this period he was plagued with spiritual doubt and took up the study of Zen Buddhism. His despair only deepened in 1682, when his house burned to the ground in a fire that obliterated much of Edo.”… ”

In 1684 Basho made a months-long journey westward from Edo, which occasioned his first travel account, Journal of a Weather-Beaten Skeleton. In Basho’s day travel was by foot and lodging was primitive. But despite these rigors he set out again in 1687 and a third time in 1687-1688, journeys recounted in Kashima Journal and Manuscript in a Knapsack. Both were written in a genre that Basho profoundly refined–haibun, a mixture of haiku and prose. The poetic travel works and the strenuous sojourns that inspired them added luster to Basho’s reputation.

Yet in the autumn of 1688, in his mid-40s, Basho confided to friends that he still felt the world was too much with him. Exhausted from the incessant demands of students and of his literary celebrity, he said that he “felt the breezes from the afterlife cross his face.” He began planning a pilgrimage to sites important for their literary, religious, or military history–places he wanted to see before he died. He intended to leave that winter, but his friends, worried about his frail health, begged him to wait until spring. Finally, in May 1689, accompanied by his friend and disciple Sora and carrying only a backpack, writing materials, and changes of clothing, Basho set out, determined yet again to become a hyohakusha–“one who moves without direction.” He walked for five months through the uplands and lowlands, villages, and mountains north of Edo and along the shores of the Sea of Japan. It was this wonderfully episodic sojourning that produced his masterwork, Narrow Road to a Far Province. “It was as if the very soul of Japan had itself written it,” said the early 20th-century Buddhist poet Miyazawa Kenji.

The book is a spiritual journey, synonymous with taking a Buddhist path, shedding all worldly belongings and casting fate to the winds. But the physical journey had a practical side: Basho made his living in part as a teacher, and as he traveled, any number of far-flung disciples were happy to host the master and receive lessons in poetry.”… “In the intervening centuries, Basho has become many things to many people–bohemian sage, outsider artist, consummate wayfarer, beatific saint, and above all a poet for the ages. In his Narrow Road, Basho seamlessly plaits together self-deprecating humor, logistical detail, Buddhist compliance, painterly description, and even raunchy complaint (“Fleas and lice biting; / Awake all night / A horse pissing close to my ear”). At the same time, his book provides a kind of timeless spiritual map for the traveler. Helen Tanizaki once characterized Basho this way: “He’s like a quirky philosopher tour-guide who pretty much leaves readers alone to experience traveling in those remote places for themselves. Rather than trying to account for things, he just feels the obligation to take note of them, a vast striving for connection.””

Credit for above: Norman, Howard. “On the Trail of a Ghost.” National Geographic 213, no. 2 (February 2008): 136–49. //

Rebecca Solnit

Best known in walking circles for her text, Wanderlust (2001). From the book’s description: “Drawing together many histories–of anatomical evolution and city design, of treadmills and labyrinths, of walking clubs and sexual mores–Rebecca Solnit creates a fascinating portrait of the range of possibilities presented by walking. Arguing that the history of walking includes walking for pleasure as well as for political, aesthetic, and social meaning, Solnit focuses on the walkers whose everyday and extreme acts have shaped our culture, from philosophers to poets to mountaineers. She profiles some of the most significant walkers in history and fiction–from Wordsworth to Gary Snyder, from Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet to Andre Breton’s Nadja–finding a profound relationship between walking and thinking and walking and culture. Solnit argues for the necessity of preserving the time and space in which to walk in our ever more car-dependent and accelerated world.”

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

I can only meditate when I am walking. When I stop I cease to think; my mind only works with my legs.
—Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Les Reveries of the Solitary Walker (French: Les rêveries du Promeneur Solitaire) is an unfinished book by Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, written between 1776 and 1778. It was the last of a number of works composed toward the end of his life which were deeply autobiographical in nature. …

The book is divided into ten chapters called “Walks” (“Promenades” in the original French). Walks One to Seven are complete, the Eighth and Ninth Walks were completed but not revised by Rousseau, while the Tenth Walk was incomplete at the author’s death. The first publication was in 1782.

The content of the book is a mix of autobiographical anecdote, descriptions of the sights, especially plants, that Rousseau saw in his walks on the outskirts of Paris, and elaborations and extensions of arguments previously made by Rousseau in fields like education and political philosophy.

The work is in large parts marked by serenity and resignation, but also bears witness to Rousseau’s awareness of the ill-effects of persecution towards the end of his life.” (credit)