The Walk by William DeBuys

The%20Walk.jpgI was recently trying to describe William DeBuys’ The Walk to a friend and realized that the book wasn’t easy to categorize or summarize. Here is the book description from Amazon (which is a portion of the book flap):

Set, like River of Traps, on a small farm in a New Mexican mountain valley that the author has tended since 1977, The Walk explores the illuminating ways in which personal and natural history interweave in a familiar environment. A kind of love story about a landscape, the book consists of three interrelated essays — “The Walk,” “Geranium,” and “Paradiso.” These pieces move from a period of strife and conflict in the author’s life to a place of limbo, to a place of peace — or, as the author says — from “inferno to purgatorio, and finally to paradiso.” DeBuys takes the same walk each morning, through the woods near his farm, and arrives at a clarity that comes from observing life carefully from the same vantage point for years. DeBuys, one of the country’s premier nature writers, is revered for his compassionate, clarifying prose. The Walk only reinforces that reputation.

The difficulty comes in seeking simple descriptions. In fiction we relate the plot, in non-fiction an argument or thesis or historical person/event. The Walk doesn’t fit easily into these categories. It is a sort of memoir in that it describes events in DeBuys life, but it is more of a meditation on the land then it is a description of events or personalities (but those are weaved in as well). I guess “explores the illuminating ways in which personal and natural history interweave in a familiar environment” captures things pretty well. It reads like a sort of extended conversation; as if you were walking around DeBuys farm while he talked about his life on the property over the years.

Donna Seaman, reviewing The Walk for Booklist, had this to say

These days the meditative art of nature writing is often overshadowed by works of environmental concern and warning. Therefore what bliss it is to encounter deBuys beautifully crafted musings on the history and spirit of land he has long walked and cherished. On a small farm in northern New Mexico, deBuys has married, raised children, cared lovingly for horses, and learned the ways of water and earth, grass and elk. He has also studied evidence of the errors of our ways in the “testimony of the landscape.” DeBuys contemplates the follies of pesticide use and wildfire policies, and takes measure of his painful solitude after the demise of his marriage and the death of friends. What is there to do, but to walk the land as he has for 27 years? After all, “walking helps the mind go out and the world come in, and brings us to our senses.” A supple and silvery book, The Walk defines hope in terms of mountain and sky, river and pine, mindfulness and love.

Some might find this boring, but I found that Debuys’ writing was strong enough and his thoughts and insights interesting enough to make it worth while. It is by no means exciting or suspenseful, but it is enjoyable in a relaxed and thoughtful way. It is not the kind of book you can’t put down, but rather one you will enjoy picking up and dipping into for a few minutes. Seeing how the book is only 176 pages, it won’t take to long to finish.

For a few examples of passages I found worth highlighting, see below.

– On what it means to “saunter”:

To saunter is to exercise the first of all freedoms, which is mobility, and to do so well one must go out with a mind as unfettered as the body. One goes forth limber in every aspect, legs swinging easily, arms loose and free. One’s eyes are alive to color, pattern, and movement, one’s ears alert to birdcall and wind song. The nose and tongue are gladdened by the taste of the day, and the chest fills not just with good rich air but also with exultation, or at least a sense of its possibility. The world seems open and generous, and the mind enters it, wandering as freely as the feet. Often a kind of marvelous mystery of how walking lubricates the connections of thought, loosens the bonds of subconscious, and allows unknown and unexpected ideas and feelings to surface – often the very idea or insight we have been seeking for weeks. It is the mystery of how walking helps the mind go out and the world come in, and brings us to our senses.

– On walking in a forest:

We non-heroes may not risk possession by demons or deities, but few among us are so obdurate, especially in the shadowy grace of a forest, that we do not admit the possibility of revelation. Entering the depths of a forest, we feel a shift in the mood of the land; the sound of the wind, of stillness, or our own footsteps comes to us in new language. Perhaps a display of beauty unfolds before us – snow falling like jewels through dawn light. Perhaps and owl hoots or a hermit thrush pipes its lament in a way that opens us to the uncommon, so that something within us releases. To stop and consciously open one’s senses in the course of a walk is to pose a kind of question, which may or may not receive an answer. And when a reply appears, whether manifesting in the landscape or welling up from within, it may be so partial or inscrutable that it may seem to count for nothing. The solidity of the answer, however, is not the point. The point lies in making oneself available to the numinous, opening to see what comes. One time in twenty, or a hundred, or a thousand, something does. Every walk and every landscape carries the potential for unexpected revelation, and so, siste viator, one stops, looks, and listens. And what comes, comes.

– Comparing the river to a late night state of mind:

The high-water eddy of the Swimming Hole may be the truest namesake of the River of Traps. Anything caught in it could be caught a very long time, drowning in repetition, circling round and round, observed only by the lidless eyes of a hungry trout, which finally with a swirl of fins and lightening bite gives the eddying morsel its deliverance. A 3 A.M. mind prays for deliverance of any kind. It whips back and forth between the bleak desire for destructive surcease and the frail hope that somehow, kicking and flailing, it might pierce the border of the eddy and shoot free into the violent, ocean-bound flow that roars through the pool and crashes downstream toward a future. Even that, however, is an imperfect balm for a mind inclined toward melancholy. Pursuing a future mean releasing the past, which then becomes final and irrevocable. its regrets beyond repair.

If these passages strike your fancy or pique your interest, be sure to check out The Walk. In all the loudness, violence, and chaos around us these days sometimes it is nice to enjoy a simple quiet book.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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