On Walking by Annette Snyckers

We have come a long way. We no longer swing from branch to branch like our primate cousins (although we might like to some days). The thing we strive for as 10 to 14 month old babies, the thing we fall down for and get up for again and again, the thing we crow about in delight when we finally master it, is the feat of walking. It gets us places – physically and mentally. It is good for the heart as well as the head.

Today I am not thinking of the heart pumping in my breast that might benefit from regular walking on a treadmill at the gym. I am thinking of the heart that skips a beat when I walk into the arms of my beloved after a long absence, the heart that expands when I open the door to the roar of the sea, smell the salt air and take the footpath over the dune to the beach – the heart that becomes calm when I walk under tall trees or through the veld.

I picture people walking all over our world and I think of them as ants seen from a great height – walking in cities, through fields and forests, by the sea and on mountains. They either walk by choice or through necessity. Sometimes they walk with joy, sometimes in desperation. It can be an exhausting daily slog to fetch firewood or water or an uphill walk to a place of work or to school. Lately for many, walking has become a long, dangerous trek in search of safety – the only way to a new life in far-off countries. And then there are those who would give anything just to be able to take a few steps.

We take walking for granted – the chatty walks with friends or family where you don’t really see, smell and listen to your surroundings, but find joy in exercising your body while enjoying company. Then there is slow walking. You take a small child by the hand and as you go carefully over tree roots and around rocks, you point out small things that make their eyes grow big with wonder. What a fascinating way to share in their discovery of the world! A slow walk with a very old person can be a sad walk of farewell. I recently accompanied someone who craved to stroll just once more on that beach where memories of youth and vitality still lingered.

Walking can fire us up when we feel depressed, it can put a blush on our cheeks and a sparkle in our eyes. But it can also cool us down when our minds are overheated, anxious or angry. It can re-set our heads, bring clarity and perspective. Walking grants us the time when the head can outrun the feet in finding solutions for ourselves and for our problematic lives.

When I come into the flow and rhythm of a brisk walk or a slow meander, that is when I imagine snippets of the paintings I could start, when I hear a phrase I could use in a poem, when I see words in the whorls of clouds or colours and designs in the sand before my feet. But for creativity to come out of hiding and walk with you, you have to walk alone.

We all know the tale of Red Riding Hood who walked through the forest and met the wolf. I think of Hansel and Gretel and the witch – there are countless myths and stories that warn of threat and danger to children and women out walking, but those are fairy tales, and very hard to keep in mind when you pull on your jeans and lace up your Nikes. Laughable, when the sun sits high in the sky on a weekday afternoon and a girl goes to the forest after school with her mother and sister to walk their dog – in that place at the foot of a mountain where other people are out walking, where dogs run free and chase squirrels up trees. Had any young man walked past sporting a tee shirt with the slogan “Big bad wolf” written across his chest, people would have only smiled to themselves at the wit and the cockiness. On that hot, early autumn afternoon however, the wolves were waiting – not only one, but three – high on testosterone, drugs and entitlement. Broken men wanting to break… and they did – thoroughly. The girl did not survive. A family’s life was shattered, broken. After months, all that remains of the flower bouquets stunned people placed in sorrowful memory of her, are the coloured ribbons flapping on the fence. The place is deserted.

I no longer walk under those tall trees or along the stream. It is not fear – I cannot bring myself to tread on the ground where she was violated, her life erased. The rains have washed the earth, the stream is gushing and the fynbos has started flowering. Nature will cleanse the desecrated place. Someday soon I will walk to reclaim it. But I shall not forget.

 Blind and deaf, the afternoon