Henry David Thoreau On The Art Of Walking

“I think that I cannot preserve my heath and spirits unless I spend four hours a day at least, — and it is commonly more than that, — sauntering through the woods…”

R. C. Abbott
4 min readJul 29, 2021


Screen shot from Badlands 1973, by Terrence Malick. A man stands in the desert at night with his arms draped lazily over a stick. The moon behind him is full and the subtitle reads: We lived in utter loneliness, neither here nor there.
Photo credit: CriterionBabe. Badlands 1973, Terrence Malick.

In his essay Walking, Henry David Thoreau discusses the subtle art of wandering in nature and the healing effects and spiritual rejuvenation that arise when one manages it.

Early on in the essay, he spends a fair few words dissecting the idea of sauntering. He claims the word originated in the Middle Ages when idle folk wandered throughout the countryside, sustaining themselves with charity, claiming that they were on their way to à la Sainte Terre. (To the Holy Land).

… till the children exclaimed, “There goes a Sainte-Terre,” a Saunterer, a Holy-Lander.

He offers up an alternative origin of the word drawing from sans terre, meaning without land or home.

…which, therefore, in the good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere.

Thoreau claims that the true aim of the saunterer is to be home in the midst of one’s wander, to find the wilderness his or her natural setting.

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.

He speaks of the soothing, spiritual, ineffable part of walking in nature and the draw of the less common path:

Oil on canvas painting of thick, crooked trees being illuminated by streams of early morning light.
Asher Brown Durand. Forest in the Morning Light, c. 1855.

I believe that there is a subtle magnetism in Nature, which, if we unconsciously yield…