I would like to be a tree, if it weren’t for the fact that they can’t walk. Trees are majestic, can live longer than us, are more intelligent than we can even fathom and might even be able to feel happiness; but they can’t walk. Humanity would never have got as far without those appendages on our bodies we call feet. Bipedalism, so decisive for human evolution, has provided us with hands which have become an icon for our species, but our feet should not be overlooked. They support us, help us to move and, just as importantly if not more so, to walk.
Feet are what hold us up and keep us in direct contact with the ground, with reality. And walking makes the space we tread on momentarily ours. We know when we walk that it is not the same on tarmac as on a polished wooden floor, on grass, on sand or in water on the sea shore. And we are much more aware of these different sensations when we do it barefoot, when we allow the surface we tread on to be what directly touches our skin.
Sometimes we think that walking is just a way of getting to where we want to go, but it is a lot more than that. When we walk we feel everything which is around us as we move, something which we would not experience in the same way if we used other means of locomotion. Walking is knowledge; with it we relate to the world which surrounds us. And walking is also reflection. When we walk, thoughts come to us almost without our having to summon them. Nietzsche advised us not to trust any thought which had not been born when walking in the open air.
Walking is so important for us that, directly or indirectly, literally or metaphorically, it often pops up in daily speech: “leave a footprint”, “take your first steps”, “tread a fine line”... But it also has a language of its own. In non-verbal language a great significance is given to legs, feet and therefore to walking because while we are very aware of the gestures and movements we make with our faces and hands, which we can adjust when necessary, movements we make with our legs escape our control more easily. According to the experts, short steps are a sign of more introverted people, while big steps are taken by more outgoing people. A heavy step is considered to belong to somebody with a strong personality. It is easy to see that there are very different types of walks.
Some are more heavy, athletic and brusque, while others have a more light, delicate and elegant air. Some are more masculine, others more feminine; some more phlegmatic and calm while others are more lively and impulsive. These different ways of walking give us a window into the personality and state of mind of the walker. But we must also bear in mind that walking, just like sitting or swimming, is a body technique and it is therefore also moulded by culture. It is something which is unconsciously learned from early infancy and it does not therefore depend solely on personality. In Japan, for example, tradition dictates that women walk with short steps and with the ends of their feet pointing inwards, and in many rural areas of Africa, people walk with their bodies completely upright, relaxed and with quite long steps. Generally, in cities people walk more quickly than in rural areas. While in some South Asian and North African countries two men can walk along holding hands, in others this form of walking is considered wholly inappropriate behaviour. And when we talk of walking, we are not just referring to the intrinsic movements our bodies make, but also to how we manage the space around us when we do it.
When we walk around a city we calculate the space between pedestrians, changing our pace or our length of stride accordingly; we measure distances, we avoid coming between people who are walking together... We are skilled enough to not collide with the other bodies, to avoid brushing against anyone or even looking pedestrians we come across directly in the eyes.
But while walking can follow personality or cultural patterns, we also adopt forms of walking which are more consciously expressive and deliberate for particular situations. There are, for example, those walks we use to attract attention: The solemn walk of the person in authority showing off in certain ceremonies, the ostentatious walk of someone wanting people to look at them, the slow and sure walk of the police officer patrolling the streets, the humble walk of the person approaching people to beg, the sensual walk which combines a studied movement of the legs and hips, the completely professional walk of the model on a catwalk...
The expressive value of a walk also makes it an integral element of a good number of rituals in multiple cultures. One of the best known of these is the religious processions or pilgrimages to places of worship. But walking in a group is not only a way of showing devotion or homage; it can also be a way to protest or assert a claim, such as can be seen in the numerous demonstrations which take place everywhere.
Walking is a symbol of humanity; so much so that in the 18th century, when the Europeans became aware of the orangutans of Borneo and Sumatra, one bright spark labelled them human beings because, among other things, they walked in a similar way to us. The history of humanity has been largely made by walking. Indeed, that is how continents were colonised; on foot, through large-scale migration, after homo sapiens emerged from the African savannahs. Walking is decidedly human.
Text: Josep Martí
Photography: Adobe Stock / Francisco Fonteyne