Sauntering to the Pole

Ancient Hindus ‘thought that the purpose of religious practice was to release the atman from the prison of the physical body’ (Okumura 2010, 189). Mahayana Buddhism, on the other hand, regards the life of the bodymind is an expression of the buddha-nature. Okumura (2010, 152) says that ‘our bodhisattva practice takes place within the world of desire, walking with all beings.’

Thoreau’s Journal, 10 January 1851:

I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of taking walks daily,—not [to] exercise the legs or body merely, nor barely to recruit the spirits, but positively to exercise both body and spirit, and to succeed to the highest and worthiest ends by the abandonment of all specific ends,—who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering. And this word “saunter,” by the way, is happily derived “from idle people who roved about the country [in the Middle Ages] and asked charity under pretence of going à la Sainte-Terrer,” to the Holy Land, till, perchance, the children exclaimed, “There goes a Sainte-Terrer,” a Holy-Lander. They who never go to the Holy Land in their walks, as they pretend, are indeed mere idlers and vagabonds.

According to OED, the origin of the word saunter remains obscure. But the point of Thoreau’s reference to “the Holy Land” is further developed in his essay ‘Walking,’ (first published a month after he died), which picks up the trail of thought where the Journal entry left off:

… but they who do go there are saunterers in the good sense, such as I mean. Some, however, would derive the word from sans terre, without land or a home, which, therefore, in the good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere. For this is the secret of successful sauntering. He who sits still in a house all the time may be the greatest vagrant of all; but the saunterer, in the good sense, is no more vagrant than the meandering river, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea. But I prefer the first, which, indeed, is the most probable derivation. For every walk is a sort of crusade, preached by some Peter the Hermit in us, to go forth and reconquer this Holy Land from the hands of the Infidels.

Thoreau’s “Holy Land” bears a striking resemblance to the metaphysical “Pole” in Annie Dillard’s striking essay on ‘An Expedition to the Pole’:

The Pole of Relative Inaccessibility is “that imaginary point on the Arctic Ocean farthest from land in any direction.” It is a navigator’s paper point, contrived to console Arctic explorers who, after Peary and Henson reached the North Pole in 1909, had nowhere special to go. There is a Pole of Relative Inaccessibility on the Antarctic continent, also; it is that point of land farthest from salt water in any direction. The Absolute is the Pole of Relative Inaccessibility located in metaphysics. After all, one of the few things we know about the Absolute is that it is relatively inaccessible. It is that point of spirit farthest from every accessible point of spirit in all directions. Like the others, it is a Pole of the Most Trouble. It is also—I take this as given—the Pole of great price.

— Dillard (2009, 22)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.