Take a walk

When we walk we stop killing. We take our place in nature and restore our humanity.

Topics: Environment, Science

There is only one way humans are made to move. They are made to walk. There are many other ways to get around. You can canoe, for instance. Or paraglide. Or jog. But these modes of transportation are not the staple of human mobility. Walking is unavoidable, a necessity for those with two working legs.

The entire scheme of nature, and the human’s place within it, is built around the understanding that humans use their legs to move. It’s a great unspoken assumption. The earth expects humans to walk.

Wildlife expects humans to walk, and it has trouble with other forms of transport. North American drivers kill 1 million animals each day, nearly 12 animals per second. Four hundred million animals are killed by drivers in North America each year. Almost 2 million deer are killed on North American roads yearly.

According to the National Institute for Urban Wildlife and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 50 to 100 million birds are killed each year by vehicles. Research reports that roadkill is a significant factor in the decline of amphibians. Motorized transport dramatically reduces insect populations.

Though humans invented vehicles, we have trouble understanding them, too. The 210 million vehicles on North America’s 4.5 million miles of roads cause 47,000 human deaths a year. But, how many mammals, birds, amphibians and humans would be hurt or killed if humans only walked?

A walker is not likely to “run over” a gopher when she walks. If she waded into a stream, she’s unlikely to step on a fish. All creatures, in this sense, understand walking. Walking is a primal transport, expected by the world’s animals and the land itself, evidence of an ancient arrangement between humans and their world.

Walking serves as a bridge between other humans and other animals. Humans tend to walk between 2 and 5 miles per hour — an average of around 3 miles per hour. Dogs walk at speeds between 2 and 4 miles per hour. Camels walk an average speed of 3 miles per hour. Horses and mules, when walking, operate at speeds of 3 to 4 miles per hour. Elephant walk at 4 miles per hour. The old friendships between humans and some animals partly depend on a shared walking speed. A walking pace is the speed of community.

Though we don’t walk with many other animals, we could. Many other animals share a similar pace: bears, mice, ants, snakes, cats, aardvarks. The ordinary human can keep pace with a puma, a zebra, a rhinoceros or an American president.

Yet, humans are obsessed with the top speeds of each living thing. Many sources announce, for example, that the elk has a top speed of 25 mph. Very few note the walking speed: between 3 and five 5 mph.

As part of that obsession, humans find ways to travel faster every year. Usain Bolt’s recent Olympic sprint averaged 23 mph. When he sprints, he is unique, and alone. When he walks, any walking human can keep pace. Top speed emphasizes difference.

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Mechanically assisted types of transport alienate humans from their planet, and from one another. The fastest humans, currently, ride in the space shuttle traveling at 18,685 mph in orbit; 18,685 mph is an unearthly speed. Top speeds separate us from one another and alienate us from the earth. Lower speeds unify us and bind us to our planet.

For those who like speed, there is a price to pay. One cost is tension. The mind, when you drive, is consumed, for the most part in the exercise of managing extra speed, paying attention, watching for potholes and pedestrians. Even jogging requires more attention than walking.

Researchers report that the faster you travel the more tension you experience. A number of studies report, for example, that when speed increases, negative emotions intensify. This factor alone plays a large role in what has been termed “road rage.”

Another cost is a diminished sense of context. When you walk, your field of vision is nearly 180 degrees, 140 degrees of which feeds your awareness. The Optometrists Association of Australia reports that human field of vision “is reduced with increasing speed.” For example, at 62 mph, field of vision contracts to 40 degrees.

Higher speeds cause peripheral vision to “smudge,” which hampers object recognition, and lowers response times. Motorists traveling 25 mph or faster have more difficulty determining whether a pedestrian is ready to cross a street, and in consequence have more difficulty deciding whether they should slow down.

In other words, speed impedes thinking and decision-making. Thought depends on perception, but speed impairs it. Things “come out of nowhere.” Collisions become inevitable. So walk.

Begin. Choose a walk of a reasonable length. Start with once a week. A 5-minute drive from your home, at average city speeds, amounts to a 25-minute walk, one way. Select a quiet route, as thought speaks with a quiet voice. You should be able to hear the sound of your own steps as you walk. Connect it to a light errand of some kind — picking up a quart of milk or meeting someone for joe. Plan some extra time, if you can. It’s great to walk, but walking slowly is delicious. Choose a beautiful day. Dress in layers, so you can adjust your body temperature with your step. Wear comfortable footwear. And walk.

Because walking is a cure. When we walk we take our place in nature. We untie our minds and improve thought. We restore our humanity. So, walk. After all, it’s what we were designed to do.

Bill Bunn lives in Calgary, Alberta. He writes occasionally and teaches composition at Mount Royal College, a 23-minute walk from his home.

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