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When ‘The Mind, the Body, and the World Are Aligned’: What the History of Hiking Can Teach Us Today

Inspired by Northlands, this month’s Ignite story explores the invention of hiking. The historical roots of this now popular pastime can tell us a lot about the human need to reconnect with nature.

“Most of the time, walking is merely practical,” writes Rebecca Solnit in Wanderlust: A History of Walking. But, she quickly notes, walking can also serve as “an investigation, a ritual, a meditation. … Like eating or breathing, [walking] can be invested with wildly different cultural meanings, from the erotic to the spiritual, from the revolutionary to the artistic.”1 We all know what Solnit means: Walking to the subway to catch a train to the office is a wholly different experience than taking a slow and serene hike through a dense and brilliant forest.


Saugatuck, United States. Source: Aaron Burden on Unsplash


Yet hiking, for all its current popularity, is a relatively modern invention. Sure, humans have been walking through forests, navigating the grasslands, and blazing trails through mountainous terrain practically since the dawn of our species — but the idea of intentionally choosing to head outside as a form of recreation and rejuvenation didn’t arise until the 18th century, and was largely a Western phenomenon.



Yearning to Return



For most of human history, people came into close contact with nature on a daily basis. It was where life took place. We had to hunt, farm, or forage for sustenance. You couldn’t hit the hardware store if you needed wood — you had to chop that tree down yourself. Early human religions were largely organized around the natural world, and the earliest human art — cave paintings — often depicted natural scenes.2

But starting in 1760, the Industrial Revolution changed that. With the arrival of industrial production, a new form of society emerged in the West, one in which vast swaths of the population left the countryside to seek work in the urban factories. These Western cities were often devoid of any kind of green space, and many city dwellers soon found themselves yearning for a chance to escape back into the wild, at least for a little while. Unlike their predecessors — and many of their contemporaries in other cultures — Westerners began to see nature as a distinct location, rather than an integral part of everyday life.3


Aerial view of Lake Windermere in the Lake District. Source: Unesco


Perhaps the first person to espouse the benefits of simply walking through the natural landscape as a specific pastime was Thomas West, a Jesuit priest and champion of North West England’s Lake District. (It’s little coincidence that an Englishman would be the father of modern hiking; the Industrial Revolution and its repercussions began in England, so it makes sense that English people would be among the first to feel that urge to return to the natural world.) In 1778, West published A Guide to the Lakes, in which he described in detail the forests, mountains, and eponymous lakes of the district. West’s book served as an instruction manual of sorts, outlining route suggestions and making note of particularly spectacular viewpoints for other travelers to enjoy.4 Being one of the first English texts to celebrate the Lake District instead of painting it as a wild and foreboding place, West’s book gained immense popularity and served as a major source of inspiration for the Lake Poets, a group of 18th century Romantic writers including William and Dorothy Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Robert Southey.5

“While many Indigenous peoples of the continent practiced lifeways grounded in deep relationships with nature, American settlers followed their European counterparts in trading the natural world for industrialization.”


Like the pioneering scientist Alexander Von Humboldt and other adherents of Romantic philosophy, the Lake Poets believed humans could learn a lot about how to live a good life by paying closer attention to the natural world. It was in part through the influence of the Lake Poets that hiking came to America. While many Indigenous peoples of the continent practiced lifeways grounded in deep relationships with nature,6 American settlers followed their European counterparts in trading the natural world for industrialization. It was against this backdrop that the American Transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, heavily inspired by the English Romantics, began to publicly propound on the benefits of walking through the woods.


Henry David Thoreau is perhaps most famous as the author of Walden, a book reflecting on his time spent living in a cabin near Walden Pond in Massachusetts, pictured above. Source: Wikipedia


In 1861, Thoreau published Walking, a brief discourse on the art of what he called “sauntering”:

    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.7



According to Thoreau, going for a walk allows us to “regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society.” Those who hike are “equally at home everywhere.” The “leisure, freedom, and independence” of this act is so vital in Thoreau’s eyes that he recommends spending at least four hours a day walking through the woods.8


“Seeking solace, he [Claude-François Denecour] began to wander the forest he admired so much — and soon discovered it could soothe his aching soul.”


Finally, no discussion of the birth of hiking would be complete without mention of Claude-François Denecour, considered by many to be the inventor of modern nature tourism. A French soldier serving as the concierge of a barracks in the forest of Fontainebleau outside of Paris, Denecour experienced a deep depression when he was dismissed from his post in 1832. Seeking solace, he began to wander the forest he admired so much — and soon discovered it could soothe his aching soul. Wanting to share this joy with others, Denecour became the forest’s unofficial promoter and caretaker. He established trails for visitors to wander, carved stairways and fountains out of local rocks, and entertained daytrippers with legends of the forest — many of which he made up himself.9

It worked: People began flocking to Fontainebleau, and in 1861, it became the world’s first formally recognized nature preserve.10


A topographical map of Fontainebleau, circa 1895. Source: Wikipedia


The Holistic Hiker



As the Industrial Revolution continued to transform the world well into the 19th and 20th centuries, hiking only grew in popularity as more and more people took up urban and suburban lifestyles.

As scholar Silas Chamberlain notes in On the Trail: A History of American Hiking, hiking experienced three notable bumps in popularity in the U.S.: after the Civil War, after World War I, and after World War II. Partly, this is because the markets were flooded with surplus military equipment like tents, boots, and backpacks, which meant more people had access to the proper accessories for a good hike.11

But hiking’s post-war popularity may have another cause as well. As Thoreau, West, and Denecourt all noted in their early advocacy of the pastime, hiking can be an intensely rejuvenating experience, perfect not only for combating the dreary realities of early urban life, but also for finding joy again after periods of intense civilizational distress. A hike can be grounding, a way of putting ourselves back in touch with a world that seems distant and strange. Perhaps Solnit put it best in Wanderlust:

    Walking, ideally, is a state in which the mind, the body, and the world are aligned, as though they were three characters finally in conversation together, three notes suddenly making a chord. Walking allows us to be in our bodies and in the world without being made busy by them. It leaves us free to think without being wholly lost in our thoughts.12

The Babizon school of painters, named for a village at the edge of Fontainebleau, were fond of painting scenes from the forest. Above is Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot’s View of the Forest of Fontainebleau (1830). Source: Wikipedia


Yet despite the revitalizing benefits of hiking — despite the simplicity of the act and the common claim all humankind has on the natural world — hiking has not always been available to all, and it still isn’t today.



This Land Is Your Land



While hiking and other contemporary forms of outdoor recreation were spurred in part by the average working person’s desire to find respite from the difficulties of urban life, hiking was almost exclusively the province of the wealthier set in the 18th and 19th centuries. Before World War I, the average American worked six days a week for meager wages, and paid time off was unheard of. The lack of disposable income and free time kept most workers out of the woods until labor reforms in the early 20th century established the five-day workweek, boosted wages, and introduced the concept of paid holidays.13

Yet wealth gaps still persist in America, and those wealth gaps often break down along racial lines. In 2016, the median net worth of white households was $162,770, compared to $21,360 for Hispanic households and $16,300 for Black households.14 It should come as no surprise, then, that white Americans are utilizing outdoor recreation spaces more than people of color: Data from the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, and Fish and Wildlife Service shows that non-Hispanic white Americans account for 88-95 percent of all visitors to public lands, even though they only comprise 63 percent of the U.S. population. Black Americans, in contrast, account for only 1-1.2 percent of visitors, while Hispanic and Latinx Americans account for 3.8-6.7 percent.15

“It should come as no surprise, then, that white Americans are utilizing outdoor recreation spaces more than people of color.”

Montreal, Canada; Source: Unsplash


Black and Hispanic people in America are more likely to be working lower-waged jobs than white people, which in turn means they’re more likely to lack the time off or disposable income to enjoy hiking or camping. Some activists also believe there is a vicious cycle at work: Because fewer children of color in America grow up hiking and camping, fewer people of color (POC) partake in those activities as adults. That, in turn, means those POC who do enjoy outdoor recreation often feel the scene is a White-dominated space in which they are unwelcome. The legacy of segregation is another factor at work, as many public outdoor spaces outright banned the presence of Black Americans prior to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.16

Yet there is good reason to be optimistic: As Reyna Askew and Margaret A. Walls write for Resources Magazine, a new generation of activists is intentionally working to reclaim outdoor space for POC in America. For example, Ambreen Tariq’s Instagram account @BrownPeopleCamping aims to “diversify public lands” and help POC find a community in the outdoors. Similarly, Rue Mapp founded the nonprofit Outdoor Afro to connect Black Americans with opportunities in outdoor recreation and conservation.17

Askew and Walls also have proposals of their own: increased funding for state and local parks — which would make more public lands available to more people — and a more targeted effort to get grants into the hands of organizations that support outdoor activities for low-income youth and youth of color.18

Wilderness; Source: Unsplash


The natural world is our common human heritage. That means everyone should have equal access to enjoying it. It also means we all have a common duty to take care of that world for one another. As the conscious camper’s slogan goes, it’s our responsibility to “leave no trace.”

In addition to helping us reconnect with the natural world and remind ourselves of our place in the grand interconnected scheme of things, hiking can also remind us of what is at stake if we don’t take that commandment to heart. The natural ecosystems of this Earth have allowed humans to not just survive, but thrive, even during dark times. If we want that thriving to continue, we need to take care of this land and treat it as the public good it really is.

— The Keap Team



The Ignite Series

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