Several years ago, on a trip to England with friends, we decided to visit Charles Darwin’s home in Downe, some fifteen miles south of London in the Kent countryside.
The home itself proved fascinating, not because of its architecture or historical importance so much as for the dozens and dozens of little collections that filled every available shelf and cranny. Charles and Emma gave birth to ten children, of which seven lived beyond childhood, and every one of them gave evidence of delighting in natural objects. Bird nests, rocks, flowers, insects. weeds, spiderwebs, butterflies, feathers, bones—all became items of intense curiosity and were welcomed into the Darwin home.
Thanks to the generosity of his father, Darwin was spared the need of working for money and instead could concentrate on studying natural processes. Having benefitted enormously from his five years of travel as a naturalist aboard the Beagle, sailing around the world and taking particular note of bird life in the Galapagos Islands, the seeds of his theory of evolution had already begun to take root. Now, happily married to Emma and surrounded with a tribe of lively and loving children, he needed to weave his thoughts into careful focus.
For that, he constructed what he called “the sandwalk.”
The sandwalk was actually built of small-grained gravel, and followed the perimeter of a strip of land at the rear of Darwin’s house. His daily walk of several circuits around the path served both for exercise and for uninterrupted thinking. He set up a number of small stones at one point on the walk so that he could kick a stone to the side each time he passed, to avoid breaking the flow of his thoughts by consciously counting the number of circuits he had made that day. The walk became known as his “thinking path,” and after his day’s efforts were done, served as a playground for the children. Images abound of Darwin walking along, hands clasped behind his back, head lightly bowed, as his mind worked through the various strands and layers of his world-changing theory.
Exploring the premises, including the three-story house with its dozens of collections and displays, the line of greenhouses out back in which countless experiments with plant genetics took place, and the beds of dirt in which Darwin conducted his later studies of earthworms, it grew clear to me that all of his work essentially grew out of his many walks.
Nor was Darwin alone.
Beethoven used to compose while walking every morning. Mozart, in a letter to a friend, said that his favorite time to compose was while walking after a meal. Debussy wrote most of his compositions while pacing around the room.
Mark Twain was an inveterate floor pacer. Goethe obtained most of his poetic rhythms and images during walks. Even a scientist such as Pasteur paced the corridors of the Ecole Normale “meditating the details of his work.” And General Eisenhower, in the days leading up to the invasion of Normandy and the decisive moments of World War II, chose to take long walks alone in order to think.
We normally consider our feet to be quite distant from our brains, but in fact the two might be more closely connected than we think. Some claim that walking is even better stimulation for the mind than for the body. If so, we might want to take steps—literally—to stay mentally fit.