Paths for solitary restoration and reflection

“A path displays usage; it’s something that requires time, even a certain slowness. That, for instance, was what Wittgenstein needed for reflecting while forever following the same route, the trace of which remains to this day on the lawn of the fellows’ garden of Trinity College at Cambridge.”

—Gilles A. Tiberghien, Hodologique

 

Well furnished walled gardens, like this one at Rousham, provide ideal settings for solitary strolls.

Well furnished walled gardens, like this one at Rousham, provide ideal settings for solitary strolls.

One way to categorize kinds of strolling uses the number of people involved: Are we walking alone, with a colleague or two, or with a crowd of others? Today, with this type of categorization in mind, I’ll take up walking alone.

The purpose of solitary walks tends to be either restorative or meditative, for calming down or thinking up new ideas. To these ends, a person usually seeks a garden or a natural area apart from others. The cloistered, limited-access scholars’ gardens at Cambridge University colleges, where Wittgenstein found his solace, are ideal for this kind of stroll.

Trinity, like other Cambridge colleges, sequesters its courtyards and gardens behind walls, dormitories, and classroom buildings fronting a public street. A concierge at the main entry controls access to all inner spaces. Scholars like Wittgenstein are given keys to their own gated and locked gardens, the innermost sanctum of each Cambridge campus.

From his quarters as a college fellow, Wittgenstein could reach his strolling garden along level, gravel paths between manicured lawns and plantings without encountering distractions. His route, time outside, and solitude were assured, freeing his mind for sustained, reflective thinking.

The scholar's pavilion in the Sun Yat Sen garden in Vancouver contains miniature gardens to contemplate in framed wall niches.

The scholar’s pavilion in the Sun Yat Sen garden in Vancouver contains miniature gardens to contemplate in framed wall niches.

Contemplative gardens derive, of course, from ancient traditions. In China, for instance, scholars’ gardens have been constructed for millennia and contain a variety of elements—ponds, crossed by zigzag or arched bridges, water plants, trees, and shrubs, weathered rocks, a courtyard, and pavilions, at least one of which is intended for painting, calligraphy, or composing poetry. This inner pavilion is placed to offer particular views of the garden or of carefully composed miniature scenes built into the pavilion’s walls.

“Enclosing walls keep the worldly uproars outside;” a classical writer commented, “seclusion makes the inside of the house resemble a country villa; branches of date trees are heavy with fruit over the house; the p

ond surface is decorated with green duckweed and red lotus.”

Walking as a contemplative enterprise took on an entirely new dimension in the early nineteenth century when the Romantics overturned the taste for the formal and the built in favor of the informal and the natural, from the walled in garden to the wide open landscape. That freed Wordsworth, Coleridge, and their colleagues to tramp the countryside for the first time as a cultural act, a source of inspiration, a fine art, to be the first, as Christopher Morley wrote, “to employ their legs as an instrument of philosophy.”

And to the extent that nature now contained and expressed the transcendent, walking became an encounter with the divine, as Thoreau would make explicit in the next generation. That thinking came nearly full circle back to another ancient practice, the walk for spiritual growth or enlightenment. It too can occur within walls as in the cloister garden or the labyrinth, or out across the countryside as the pilgrimage. In either case, even when others are nearby, it is the personal journey that matters, the individual’s reflections that count.

In each kind of solitary stroll, the desired setting, enclosed or open, small or wide, has the same characteristics: it is an apparently extensive world apart, little peopled, green, and harmonious.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *