I’m here to put in a good word for the benefits of ‘sauntering’ the Bruce Trail. I know many of you are ‘hikers’, but walking slowly, stopping often, and observing even the ordinary things you’re passing on the trail can be a memorable experience too. Even a short walk quickly gets filled with things of interest.
John Muir is often mistakenly given credit as the source of this idea. In an oft-quoted reference, Albert Palmer, a member of the Sierra Club who hiked with Muir, reported a conversation with the great conservationist in which Muir declared: “People ought to saunter in the mountains – not hike!” Muir had gone on to say that ‘we ought to saunter through the mountains reverently’, as if we were on a “pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Indeed, the mountains are our Holy Land”.
The Bighead River in Trout Hollow where John Muir lived and worked, 1864-66.
In fact, the credit for the use of the word in this context should go not to Muir, but to Henry David Thoreau, whose writings Muir had undoubtedly read. Over a decade before Muir began his locally celebrated time in Trout Hollow, on the outskirts of Meaford, Thoreau first delivered his famous lecture Walking, later published as an essay. Thoreau claimed to “speak a word for nature”, and went on to write:
“I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks—who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering, which word is beautifully derived “from idle people who roved about the country, in the Middle Ages, and asked charity, under pretense of going a la SainteTerre,” to the Holy Land, till the children exclaimed, “There goes a Sainte-Terrer,” a Saunterer, a Holy-Lander.”
Muir loved the mountains; Thoreau loved the woods.
For Thoreau, and for Muir, a walk in the woods or the mountains was a spiritual experience. All through their writings you find descriptions that emphasize this. And they spent a lot of their effort in getting others to recognize the beauty of nature.
I think it was my mother who instilled this in me. Endlessly curious and interested, she started taking us for walks in the woods as early as I can remember. A walk with a young child is by nature a slow process, as children are distracted by everything they see. And I think I’ve been distracted ever since.
When I saunter the Bruce Trail I’m first drawn to the trees which compose the forest I’m walking through. From planted White Pine to majestic Sugar Maples, we’re surrounded by living, growing things. Those leaves in the canopy aren’t just fluttering bits of green, they’re tiny little factories generating sugars which are the fuel for life, and oxygen that we depend on to breathe. On every walk you are surrounded by a living, pulsing group of other organisms – in other words, a natural ecosystem.
For years I’ve taught people to recognize trees, and thereby to recognize the type of forest they are walking through. Somehow, knowing the other beings I’m sharing my walk with connects me to the nature around me more deeply. Nowadays I talk to the trees, and sometime I hug them, feeling a oneness with the forest.
One of my Sugar Maple friends, ready to hug me back.
Of course there are many more things to notice along the trail than trees. From rocks to butterflies, from frogs to ferns, there are many more reasons to stop and look than I have time for. I take note of the exposed layers of the rocks, trying to understand where they fit in the Niagara Escarpment sequence. I snap pictures of plants, insects, amphibians, hoping to identify them later on if I can’t already do so. I make mental notes of what I’m seeing just so that I can remember the experience, and perhaps write about it.
Long ago I developed a personal interest in ferns. I think it came from early trips up the Bruce Peninsula first with my mother, and later on my own. As a teenager I had the chance to wander the trails at Dorcas Bay in the company of great naturalists like Fred Bodsworth and Mac Kirk. I read Sherwood Fox’s The Bruce Beckons, and then I started out to find the ferns he described. His description of the hunt to find Hart’s Tongue Fern still resonates with me, and now I know that it grows throughout the valley on talus slopes along the trail.
Hart’s Tongue Fern on the trail, just east of the 7th Line.
The change of seasons adds an entire new dimension to ‘sauntering’ down the trail. From the bright greens of spring through the birds of early summer, to the fall colours and then the white blanket that lets me get out the snowshoes, the constant change makes it worthwhile to saunter the same trail again and again. Even the changing weather brings new experiences.
In the winter you get a sense that the forest is sleeping, which in a very real sense it is. Photosynthesis has stopped, leaves have fallen, many animals are hibernating. The pace of life slows and you have to listen more carefully. But there is still plenty of beauty to be found along the trail.
The Anonymous but beautiful waterfall south of Johnson’s Sideroad.
Both Thoreau and Muir claimed over 150 years ago that being in nature is a spiritual experience. The walking, the fresh air, and the other life around you all contribute to feeling better, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually. Their message is reflected in today’s idea of ‘forest therapy’ or ‘forest bathing’. And it’s reflected in the concern for nature deficit syndrome among today’s children.
As Richard Louv writes, there is “a growing body of research indicating that direct exposure to nature is essential for healthy childhood development and for the physical and emotional health of children and adults.” Scientific evidence is accumulating that simply being outdoors in nature is good for you. I think most Bruce Trail users know that intuitively.
Referred to in Japanese as ‘Shinrin-Yoku’, it is "the medicine of simply being in the forest". It reflects a belief that “a slow, deliberate, meditative walk in the woods can offer a host of mental, emotional and physical benefits”. Sounds like ‘sauntering down the trail’ to me, and I urge you to try it.