In her new book, the fearless Australian author who transformed so many lives and diets around the world with I Quit Sugar, then grappled with her chronic anxiety in First, We Make the Beast Beautiful, unravels what feel like all the other problems plaguing the modern world: climate change, malignant capitalism, Internet addiction, spiritual emptiness. In she dives, interviewing over 100 experts in a range of fields and interspersing some very personal details, emerging with what her father refers to as “Sarah’s Book of Everything.” This One Wild and Precious Life: The Path Back to Connection in a Fractured World, like the Mary Oliver poem from which its title is derived, is poignant and unfettered, serving as both a wake-up call and a spiritual guide.
Wilson’s answer to anxiety and loneliness — her way to reconnect both with the world and with herself — is to fling herself into nature and, simply, to walk. Her chapters alternate with a series of hikes around the world, from the Julian Alps to Cradle Mountain in Tasmania—walks which also appear on her website. For the former journalist and TV presenter and cultural lighting rod, who last year rumbled openly with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison for the politically motivated negligence that fueled their country’s devastating bushfires, putting one foot in front of the other might just be the best solution to our problems. Read this excerpt, from the chapter titled “Hike. Just Hike,” and you’ll agree.
What’s the most direct way to connect to life, to our big bold true nature, to ourselves? Being in nature. More specifically, walking in nature.
We emerged into humanhood walking in nature. Our brain evolved because we got upright and walked. Our sentience and awareness – the stunning and special stuff that sets us apart in the animal kingdom – evolved to the rhythms of walking and in response to the patterns in nature we saw when we quit schlepping around on all fours and began looking upward.
Hiking brings us back to our nature because hiking is how we know our nature.
The joy of walking in nature – biophilia as it’s sometimes called – also reminds of us what we’re fighting for. The life of this planet, the life from which we emerge and that brings us sunrises with god fingers that splay through sea mist, moons that smile at us and birds that deliver us to group soul. As an eco-activist tool, little beats it.
The other boon is that walking goes in the opposite direction to neoliberalism. It always has, ever since the inception of the more-more-more model in the 19th century. Witness Nietzsche and Heidi in the Swiss Alps, the Wordsworths in the Lake District. In Paris, the intellectual elite took to walking in public parks. In the States, there were the naturalists Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman and John Muir, who were also vocally anti-capitalist.
In a system that disconnects us from ourselves, each other and what matters, that reduces us to small productive units, cogs in a machine, and goes at a madly, pointless, distracted pace that has us running down a hill too fast for our legs to connect to earth, then walking sticks two fingers up to the whole damn destructive, conformist lot. In fact, thinking about it just now with you, to walk is to commit a most deviant act.
While we’re out walking, particularly in nature, we don’t consume. We choose our own way to use our leisure time. The billboards, the targeted text messages and the Facebook ads don’t reach us out in the woods, where more often than not there is no reception. The faux baked-bread scents that pump through malls have no pull on us.
The Cynics of ancient Greece walked as a way to scorn conventions and the status quo. You could say Western thought is rooted in deviant thinking developed in motion.
When you walk instead of drive, you are also, very visibly, not buying into the all-supreme imperative of the car and all the isolation, disconnect and ecological travesty that comes with it. You take to the streets. You pass traffic jams, you weave your way, your feet moving to beats in your headphones or to your own jibe, naturally. You arrive on foot and you are already in your body, vibrant and present and really quite defiant.
When you think about it, to walk has always been a mode of protest. Jesus walked across a desert. Gandhi walked roughly 18 kilometers a day, twice around the Earth in his lifetime, often as a form of protest. Dr Martin Luther King Jr. marched to get legislation changed.
Walkers disrupt. We take over the streets – significant modes of cog-ish productivity. And we get heard. In London, street protests saw the United Kingdom declare a climate emergency in September 2019, and more than six million people in 160-plus countries joined Greta Thunberg and the students in their global climate strike, which finally put the emergency on front pages and political agendas, while the Black Lives Matter marches triggered significant symbolic and legislative shifts.
Walking, despite being vagrant, is generally respected. I know when I walk in sneakers to a fancy dinner and sit in the gutter out front to swap into fancy shoes, the vibe from the security guard standing nearby is distinctly “bravo.” Everyone likes the primal good sense that walking makes, and the freedom it denotes. In Japan on the various pilgrimage trails, and on Spain’s Camino de Santiago, locals still give coins to the hundreds of pilgrims who pass through their villages each day. It’s good luck to respect what a walker is doing — which, in the case of pilgrimage, is moving toward bigger moral and spiritual goals that can’t be reached with the mind. As Rebecca Solnit writes in Wanderlust: A History of Walking: “[Walking] unites belief with action … We are eternally perplexed by how to move toward forgiveness or healing or truth, but we know how to walk from here to there.”
And so – and perhaps this is a slightly esoteric leap – to walk is also moral.
When we walk, we have the emotional space to discern where the hell right and wrong land for us. Also – and I just adore this factlet – the rhythm of walking is the same as the theta brainwaves that govern intuition and our “gut judgment.” Theta cranks up when we walk because it is needed for spatial positioning. Once cranked, the parts of our being that steer us to good, to better, to love, they all attune. Walking is a forward motion. Love, yearning, and all the optimistic endeavors of the human experience are also forward motions. When we walk, we attune to these positive forces.
I think it can also be convincingly argued that walking in nature generally makes us nicer humans. I’m certainly more pleasant after I’ve thrashed out my impatience and hypocrisies in some rocks and dirt. Sometimes I hike before a party. Seriously. So that I’m less awkward company.
“The human being is, relatively speaking, the most bungled of all the animals, the sickliest, the one most dangerously strayed from its instincts,” wrote Nietzsche in the late 1800s. The only cure “for the disease called man” is a “return to nature.”
In roughly the same era – and also suffering from chronic ill health and torment – Robert Louis Stevenson wrote of walking in nature: “You sink into yourself, and the birds come round and look at you.”
It’s true, they do.
Let’s talk about the anatomy of a hike. A hike should have flow right from the start. I will find my perfect walk via hike apps and Googling. I look for circuit tracks or tracks that are point-to-point, where I catch a train to the start and finish at another station or two along the line. The flowy satisfaction of pulling off a train-hike-train maneuver is huge. I’ll get a takeaway coffee in a jar, which then becomes my water vessel. I drink my coffee sitting on the sunny side of a train carriage winding out of a city and off into the bush and arrive already planted in a meditative, open space.
Packing lighter than humanly possible is also stupidly satisfying. On a day hike I don’t take a bag. I shove my credit card, train card and phone down my bra. Often a bit of paper and a pencil, too. You might have activewear with pockets. Great. (Or you could just take a bag!) If the walk is less than two hours, I will drink a liter or two of water before heading off, then leave my drink bottle or glass jar in a bush to collect on my return (in the case of a loop track). I get my water from garden taps in front yards near the train.
For me, packing light is almost an existentialist pursuit. It’s not about the physical weight, it’s the psychological weight. Feeling unencumbered adds to the flow. Nomad and travel writer Bruce Chatwin claimed all he needed was a Mont Blanc fountain pen and a bag of muesli when he meandered. American essayist Pico Iyer, who’s lived peripatetically and minimally for many years (while writing a wonderful book, The Art of Stillness, paradoxically enough), says, “I spend more time thinking about what I don’t want to take with me: assumptions, iPods, cameras, plans, friends, laptops, headphones, suntan lotion, resumes, expectations.”
If you’re doing a multi-day hike, I recommend Googling videos of people’s packing techniques. There is a sub-world out there for those seeking ludicrous satisfaction from achieving next- level camping minimalism. There is always something you can drop from your load, which is a motto for life, really.
What about a map? Well, it’s worth asking if you really need one of those, too. I download a route onto my phone. I do screen grabs, too, just in case. Or I don’t use one at all. Finding where you are helps you find yourself, according to a study from Sweden’s Karolinska Institute. Navigating without Google Maps or Navman sees us exerting ourselves spatially, extending ourselves to have a better sense of our relationship to the world, and thus connects us with the part of the brain that craves to know where we are and, thus, who we are. How perfect.
I love Robert Louis Stevenson’s take on the freedom of not having a map while hiking: “You should be able to stop and go on, and follow this way or that, as the freak takes you.”
As the freak takes you!
I also love the concept of “desire lines,” paths that are formed when we abandon the map and go off-piste. They’re the single trails that cut a scarring line across a park or go off on their own through a forest. They appear where people wanted to walk, where the freak took them. And of course, someone has studied them. A team at the University of Wollongong in Australia says they “record collective disobedience.” I love this, too.
Next, I switch my phone to airplane mode. Partly because having my phone spinning to find a signal chews up battery and is probably not an ideal EMF situation so close to my organs. But also because it sanctifies the experience. No calls, no texts, and no imperative to post photos. I might take photos as I go but upload them later.
Then I start walking. At a “slow, steady trot of keenness with no speed.” I resist a little at first. My bones are wobbly in their joints, stones get stuck in my sock. I can be a bit shitty if I’ve gotten away late or am sleep-deprived, or if inflammation has rendered me hot and prickly. But I start walking – in dirt or by the ocean or just on my way to somewhere – and after about 20 minutes the hotness and itchiness drains from my head, my feet and my fingers.
Studies (albeit not overly robust ones) show that walking in nature literally grounds us. Abundant free electrons on the Earth’s surface enter our bodies and act as antioxidants, neutralizing free radicals (goes the theory). Other studies show negative ions in water – at the beach or near waterfalls – can improve mood and well-being.
After 40 to 60 minutes, the thoughts stop swirling and fizzle out into the atmosphere. In their place, wild daydreamy thoughts drift in. And out. There is no structure to them. Sometimes I like to play a game where I backtrack through the sequence of trippy, daydreamy thoughts. What made me think of that? Then what made me think of that? It’s fun to witness the childlike stuff that comes up when the clangy, fretty stuff clears away. With nothing to distract you, you can reconnect with yourself.
It’s around this point that a work or family dilemma might waft into view. Or an emotional or moral issue. In my case, it’s often a quandary about whatever I’m writing at the time. The answer to said stuck point will just start surfacing like little bubbles from down deep. They get bigger as they approach the surface. Then pop! The through line or the perfect sentence lands front of mind.
Creatives hike to solve creative problems. A 2014 Stanford study shows that people are 60 percent more creative when walking than when sitting still. In one of the tests, volunteers had to come up with atypical uses for everyday objects, such as a button or a tire. On average, the students thought of between four and six more novel uses for the objects while they were walking than when they were seated. Various studies also show the effect is greatest when walking near trees. There we go!
I can use my walking speed to temper my mood and thinking. Strolling naturally oscillates with our moods and the cadence of our inner speech. When I need to lift my spirits, I walk briskly.
After a while – at the two-hour mark, sometimes a little later – even the daydream thoughts drop to earth and fizzle out. You are but an empty vessel. Hunger or tiredness or some crappy thinking can try to kick back in. But here’s the fun bit: Because you are now an ego-less, peaceful, empty vessel, the crappy, clutching thoughts float in and you can actually do that thing that epic meditators bang on about – observe them and let them go.
There’s no feeling like returning from a hike. I love to lie on the ground and just let the whole lot sink into my viscera. Hiking guidelines should always come with the instruction: “Allow to marinate for at least an hour.” I almost feel drunk as the joy and peace swirl around my body.
Then I eat. I have a ritual on train day hikes. I don’t carry food, I front-load before I head off, along with the water. But at the end I indulge in a packet of potato chips from the vending machine at the station. And I’ll eat them lying on my back on the platform and feel the fat and salt swirl around my body, too. I think I remember almost every meal I’ve eaten after a big hike: stews on my camp stove, or meals eaten in auberges or gostilja around the world. I’ve developed recipes based on these meals and put them in my cookbooks. You remember and describe food in this kind of post-coital space in the most alive detail.
Lastly, I land. It’s a feeling of being filled to the edges with completion. A sense that all is right. A proper exchange of work and reward has taken place and it creates a sturdy, morally reset foundation in me that I’m able to pivot from in a considered, connected way for at least a few days afterward.
I like this line from Sylvain Tesson, who stayed in a cabin in a forest in Siberia for a year and passed the time walking. His conclusion from the experience:
“In life, three ingredients are necessary: sunshine, a commanding view and legs aching with remembered effort.”
Excerpted from This One Wild and Precious Life by Sarah Wilson, by arrangements with Dey Street. Copyright ©2020 by Sarah Wilson.
Sarah Wilson is an Australian journalist, television presenter, blogger, media consultant and author of the best-selling I Quit Sugar book. She was the editor of Australian Cosmopolitan magazine until 2008, and the host of the first season of the cooking show, MasterChef Australia in 2009.