Walking, Limping, Sitting
What might Thoreau have thought of my knee replacement?
Image: Dawn on Monhegan Island, Maine – 7 Oct 2022
My 64-year-old right knee was reborn this autumn. And to get every last mile from the old joint before knee replacement surgery, I hobbled for two weeks around an island in the Gulf of Maine. While watching seals, whales, birds and wildflowers, I found time to draft an elegy to my decrepit knee and a philosophy of sorts about the privilege and virtues of walking — and of not walking.
Walking and reflection go well together, of course, and this essay is more personal than what I usually offer here on the blog or elsewhere. Nonetheless, the elegy and philosophy, which I hope resonate beyond my own knee, seem to converge on three ideas:
Because it’s there. On my old knee I was fortunate enough to have climbed Mt. Rainer (14,411 feet above sea level), sauntered to Rock Reef Pass (3 feet above sea level) in Everglades National Park, and reached countless altitudes in between. For work and play, I chased rare birds, insects and plants from treeless regions above the Arctic Circle to the tropical rainforests of Central America. Most this amounted to walking with ambition, determination and purpose. Lots of us move like this through life (whether or not we’re walking).
For no particular reason. On my knee I hiked, one foot in front of the other for a month, the length of my home state of Vermont between Canada and Massachusetts on the famed Long Trail — twice. I hiked through 1.5 billion years of geological time, rim to river to rim, in the Grand Canyon more times than I can recall. These are long walks of awareness. Carrying on your back only what is necessary, which isn’t much, you can know nature as you know our own body. You can smell when a moose is near. Or sense when the rain will come. Or discern an American Toad from a White-throated Sparrow from a Red Squirrel not by looking at them, but merely by the sound of their fussing in the leaf litter as you pass by. You walk, therefore you know.
Not walking. On my old knee, I sat a lot outside. I sat for hours with orchids. I sat with sparrows. I sat with elfin butterflies in deserts. I sat beside rivers. I sat in forests. I sat in prairies. And I sat in bogs, which are my most favorite places in the world to sit. This is an enduring way of being. Almost anywhere that I sit outdoors, I sit with purpose. Or without. Most times I’m not sure. But it doesn’t really matter. Slowing down is among the benefits of a bad knee.
Ten miles out to sea before surgery on Monhegan Island, Maine, seated on a high cliff most afternoons with my notebook and pencil, I got to know three Gray Seals and a pup frolicking in the froth and surf beating the headlands below me. One day one of the three, more sharply mottled on his throat and chest than the others, was floating on his back, gently kicking his tail flippers, his soft underbelly (if seals indeed have a soft underbelly) exposed and vulnerable to the world — or maybe instead trusting the world, open to its possibilities.
Being sedentary in nature is nothing if not replete with possibility. It might come in something as simple as the ocean’s taking deep, heaving breaths below you on a cliff. Or watching a sunset while holding the hand of the person you love more than living itself. Or sitting quietly alone beneath a tamarack in autumn, sanctified in its gentle rain of golden needles.
In these moments outdoors, any of us might discover, however fleeting, an absence of self or distraction, of worry or want. I suppose this is what Emerson and Thoreau and the other intellectuals meant by transcendence. To my mind, however, a better word for my own walking, limping, and in particular sitting in nature would be equanimity.
Maybe that kind of composure was what I had been seeking on Monhegan Island before the knee replacement, which, after all, is never a sure thing. I’ll admit that finding peace of mind was tough. Beyond my fear of surgery and pain, even failure of the whole endeavor, is not a total knee replacement another form of privilege and consumerism, which in large part are killing nature on the planet?
During my 64 years, I’ve used up a knee enjoying and working outdoors. Like too many products we use and throw away, a knee is now a first-world consumer good. Is not that kind of entitlement antithetical to equanimity? Is not sitting enough? I wonder what Thoreau might have thought about total knee replacement.
I have no easy answers, of course. Along with big brains and opposable thumbs, upright walking was an essential step in the evolution of what ultimately became Homo sapiens. And yet we need not walk in order to be human with lives of meaning.
Now, nearly three weeks after my surgery, I am gingerly walking a bit more each day on this new knee — an exercise in patience (and pain). From my backyard I envision new routes to come on life’s long, green path. And like that Gray Seal, open to possibility, I intend to spend many more of my days not walking — and simply sitting in nature with an open mind.
An early draft of this dispatch featured Thoreau’s essay “Walking.” Not until I read it for the third and fourth time this autumn did I truly understand how much his essay is not about walking. Oh sure, Thoreau says wonderful things about the practice. “I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements,” he writes.
Even so, in this manifesto of sorts, published in its entirety a month after his death in 1862, walking is more so a rhetorical device for Thoreau’s dissertation on civil society — a genuinely more perfect union, bound less to the state and to commerce than to justice and the natural world. With his views on slavery, the Mexican-American War, and imperialism already well established, in “Walking” Thoreau develops a utopian brand of Manifest Destiny (although he never uses the term). He writes amply of turning and walking westward, away from Europe and the offenses of the American East and South, toward the light, toward progress, to where the White Pine’s flowers, high on the tree, blossom “as well over the heads of Nature’s red children as of her white ones.”
In the metaphor of walking westward, and in actual nature, Thoreau, no fan of the state, nonetheless maintains his idealism and hope for a relatively new nation — and for lands and people beyond. “The West of which I speak is but another name for the Wild,” he writes, “and what I have been preparing to say is, that in Wildness is the preservation of the World.”
I only wish it had turned out better for the world and its people.