In an essay about walking, Thoreau talks about the origin of the word ‘saunter’. He says “going à la sainte terre” means going to the Holy Land, and also offers ‘Sans terre’ – without land – as another interpretation. Both suggesting to him the idea of pilgrimage. The online etymological dictionary – http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=saunter – has it as a word from the 1660s to mean walking about in a leisurely way, and there’s no agreed history to the word aside from that.
However, poetic interpretation is just as interesting and valid as agreed history, and I like the idea that a saunter is in some way connected to the act of pilgrimage. From a Pagan perspective, it works very well indeed.
In a conventional pilgrimage, the journey is as important as the destination, but still the point of the journey is the place, or places you are going to. A person could not be a dedicated Christian pilgrim by sauntering slowly around a couple of fields unless a saint had left their relics there or some other dramatic event made said fields a religious focal point.
A Pagan pilgrim can saunter anywhere. Moving with less purpose, less intent and more presence changes how we experience a space. It makes it more possible to both see and dwell upon the details of our surroundings. Anywhere you might go, even in the most urban of spaces, there will be tiny signs of life. Or even big ones – it’s surprising how easy it is to miss large manifestations like urban trees if your head is down and you’re mostly thinking about what’s coming next.
A saunter gives us time to see a place afresh. Often the wonder is in the details, and if you want to immediately connect with what’s around you, noticing and rejoicing in the details is a big part of that process. It’s possible to become complacent about and oblivious to the wildest and most officially beautiful or picturesque of landscapes. Sauntering provides an antidote to jaded awareness.
A slow walk encourages us to stop and look more closely. Turn around and see the locality from a different angle. Sit down in it, lie down perhaps – if there’s no hurry and nowhere to be, then these things can all be part of the mix. At a slower pace there’s more scope to chat as well and this is not necessarily a distraction from the spiritual experience of being in a place. Sharing our responses to what we experience can broaden and enrich our perceptions, and this is an idea I’ll be back to again at some other point.
Humans are busy things. We’ve got a hectic schedule to fill, we’ve got to be achieving something. We’ve got to be somewhere else, or we’re running through the landscape for fitness. Slowing down is a magical thing, regardless of where the word ‘saunter’ really comes from. Slowing down opens out what’s in front of us, revealing the gems of water droplets on the intricate spider web, or the brilliance of a toadstool, the fragile beauty of flowers in the grass, or the presence of birds. Occult means ‘hidden’. If you want what’s hidden, slow down, and what was once obscure and unavailable becomes perceptible.
Walk on the ground beneath you as though you are walking on holy land. Every walk can be a journey to the most sacred place, because both you and the earth are present. And at the same time be sans terre – without land. If only we could let go of this mad human urge to own and control the land, everything would change. Be on the land and with the land, move over the land, find ways to explore your intimacy with it. Approaching without a desire to own, to conquer and subdue also opens the land to us in entirely different ways. In not seeking to possess, we make room for respect, and reverence, and create opportunities to be moved and possessed ourselves, instead.