Ivor Gurney was the first mad poet in my life, a man of dubious mental health long before the First World War (although I can’t imagine being a soldier helped him!). He wandered my native Gloucestershire, taking epic long walks. Laurie Lee’s mad walk across Spain inspired me greatly as a young person. John Clare, another poet who went mad was also a walker, including an epic walk after he escaped from an asylum, and ended up eating grass. Tennyson clearly spent a lot of time out in nature and was seriously depressed, Wordsworth wandered lonely as a cloud (although in practice was walking with his sister and cribbing from her diary). I read a thing a while ago about the frequency of creative people suffering from depression, and I notice that ludicrous walking shows up as an issue for a few of them.
There is something about the rhythm of walking, when you’ve done it for hours, that takes the troubled mind into a trance-like state. Step by step, it knocks destructive rage out of the body. If poetry is one of your vices, then hours of rhythm, moving through landscape, can influence the pattern of your thoughts and align words with movement.
Lunatic walking, as I am increasingly inclined to describe the process, is about going far beyond your comfort zone, in terms of distance, time, energy used, conditions endured and so forth. That’s very personal and so a little restorative lunacy is probably available at whatever level you can just about cope with. For me there is something profoundly spiritual about stepping out of my normal life habits to walk and walk until my mind is entranced and my body exhausted. Moving through landscape, moving with it, affected by its every curve and contour, its every texture and surface, encountering what lives there, learning and speculating about its life and history.
In terms of feeling insane, drowning in stress or depression, thoughts tangled or overworked to incoherence, walking is a balm. It brings life down to one step after another, and after long enough, when tired enough there’s only enough space left in the head for where to put the next foot. This can bring considerable relief. With sun, wind, hills, water and birdsong for company, perspective shifts, everything slows to walking pace and it becomes possible to breathe again. All I have to do is outwalk my own mind, walk it beyond what it can overthink, beyond what it can stress over until I am seeing the trees, the views, feeling the ground at each footfall and not lost inside my own mind. I usually come back calmer, and inspired.
For me, the whole process of excessive and unreasonable walking raises questions about the mad poets. The cause and effect isn’t simple, and what looks like madness – walking ludicrous distances, may in fact be a solution to problems that are less visible. Perhaps there is something in some of us at least, that needs to be pushed to its limits, and that lunatic walking expeditions answer something in that. I have been drunk on an excess of landscape, and the chemistry of a body pushed beyond its limits. I have staggered onwards, thinking about Baudelaire’s instruction to always be drunk, with wine, with poetry or with virtue as you choose. In a mind too trashed for poetry, too angry for virtue and too prone to addiction for wine, being drunk with sky, with exhaustion, and with the rhythm of moving seems like a viable array of good alternatives.