Book Review: Thinking while Walking

Thinking while Walking: Reflections on the Pacific Crest Trail

Martin Bunzl

Penny Street Press, New York, 180 Pages

Paperback £4.37 | ISBN: 978-0-578-88222-2 

Review by Simon Leadbeater

Purpose

I started my last ECOS book review – Joe Gray’s Thirteen Paces by Four – by asking what is the point of this book? I think I have come to understand the purpose behind emeritus philosophy professor, Martin Bunzl’s, Thinking while Walking, from the last few pages. If that reads critically, I emphatically don’t mean it to. At the end of the book, as Bunzl concludes his journey, it is perhaps appropriate that is when all is revealed, the author having walked the entire Pacific Crest Trail:

There is something poignant about this ending… its very mundaneness underscores that hiking the Trail is less about what you see, but more about what you do… only by that doing … you get to fully experience the natural world’s vastness in a way that no panoramic view… can offer… It is the walking that makes the difference… the only way to experience our insignificance in that vastness. When you hike… you are on your own in nature. It is that that allows you to sense the radically different timescale of yourself and your surroundings, and from that to sense the different timescale of Homo Sapiens and the history of life on Earth.1

Now, that might be a good ending. But, and I suggest this is where Bunzl’s purpose comes in, he brings us down to earth with the proverbial bump to our sensibilities:

The emptiness that you occupy as a lone hiker is not accidental or natural. For the Trail, it began with the conceit of John Muir that the nature he wanted people to experience in Yosemite left no room for the indigenous (Miwok) people who lived there to stay. In facilitating their removal, Muir was part of a larger 19th century conception that placed “man” outside nature… as good and the unnatural as bad.2

And he does this repeatedly – putting forward a proposition, which on the face of it sounds reasonable, or, as in this case, edifying, profound even, then interrogates that proposition’s underlying meaning and assumptions, and more often than not demolishes it with ruthless and meticulously forensic argument. In this case Bunzl banishes not only visions of vast vistas and our place within the universe, but a much loved icon of the conservation movement. So, what is Bunzl’s purpose? The clue, I believe, is in the title. To make us think. And in such vein I believe my review should reflect on how well he succeeds in making us think, as we vicariously walk that Trail with the philosopher, imaging having a conversation with him as we slowly progress.

To describe Bunzl’s writing as insightful would be to detract from the overall meter of the work, as his acute observations are just too many to mention; the whole book is full of ‘takes’ and interpretations, which should cause us to pause and rethink our position. He starts early in his book as he means to go on: “To be in nature is in part to indulge in the conceit that we can experience a world without us. I say ‘conceit’ because the world we are in bears the marks of our presence at almost every level…” hunting and fishing, agriculture, industrialization and urbanization. “But above all, we have done so by our sheer numbers.”  Central to this ‘conceit’ is an ‘act of imagination.’3 More challenging still, Bunzl claims that “hiking consumes the self. It blots out everything else… Strolling is the exact opposite. It demands nothing – you can meander, and, as you meander, the mind does the same.”4 I have often thought that lycra-clad cyclists hurtling down the lanes where we live do not experience nature; what they experience are roads with light traffic enabling them to exercise at full pelt. To what extent do hikers walking at pace experience nature?  According to Bunzl not very much. To him, only by taking our time, which enables us to imagine nature, can we be said to experience it. I hope Bunzl won’t be disappointed to learn, therefore, that the parts of his book I enjoyed the most were the descriptions of his walk, and his reflections on walking itself:

This is nature in which the uniformity of the flora restrains the variation of the geology and allows you to be sensitive to minor differences in your surroundings. The effect over time is memorising. I stop, overwhelmed, moved to tears… It is at once both wild and intimate at the same time.5

Concerning Bunzl’s cerebral reflections, I have two reactions, and the first one is a little conflicted. Either they are way above my brain-grade or I just lack the patience to see each argument through. So, for example, when he discusses animal rights or whether nature should have intrinsic value, I try to follow closely, but somehow find my stamina waning as I proceed through each respective chapter, despite being very engaged with both issues. But I feel, as I have said on other book reviews, this may be a reflection on me not the author. And I suspect I will come back to these chapters in particular.

Secondly, however unassailable the arguments themselves may be, I wonder if their premises are always as robust. Bunzl covers a lot of ground; perhaps he should be more careful about areas he may not be wholly familiar with. So, for example, he argues that lobsters, lacking a central nervous system, do not “have the brain capacity to experience pain as we do.”6 Authors writing for Stevan Harnad’s Animal Sentience Journal might challenge that. And what about Bunzl’s claim that “things may not be valuable to plants, since they lack sentience.”7 Tell that to Monica Gagliano. And what about Bunzl’s references to Muir. These may derive from the woke renaissance seemingly toppling even our most revered historical figures by judging them as if they were alive today. Muir has also fallen victim to this inverted McCarthyism with the executive director of the conservation organisation he founded, the Sierra Club, suggesting he was a racist. That is gratitude for you. Bruce A Byers argues in the Ecological Citizen, however, that this charge is easily refuted by a thorough and fair reading of his work.8 So, in short, while Bunzl’s logic appears to be impeccable, I wonder about some of the assumptions upon which he bases his arguments. And there may be some things I am not sure Bunzl has thought about enough; all this walking/thinking about “global warming”9 relied on the “convenience of Southwest Airlines”10 to join up with different parts of the trail…

Has this book helped me to think. Undoubtedly. But Bunzl’s is not a book for the faint-hearted; Thinking while Walking is not a leisurely read even if Bunzl advocates leisurely walking. It is a good book, the product of a fine mind, and a repository of knowledge framed concisely and elegantly by a very long stroll. And I am certain that when I find myself pondering the intellectual integrity of some of the causes closest to my heart, such as animal rights and the intrinsic value of nature, I will return to Bunzl. His clarity of thought is both rare and invaluable.


References

1 Bunzl, M., (2021), Walking while Thinking; Reflections on the Pacific Crest Trail, Penny Street Press, New York, pp. 166-7.

2 Bunzl, Op.cit., p. 167.

3 Bunzl, Op.cit., pp. 8-9

4 Bunzl, Op.cit., p. ix.

5 Bunzl, Op.cit., p. 148.

6 Bunzl, Op.cit., p. 134.

7 Bunzl, Op.cit., p. 152.

8 Byers, B.A., (2021) Criticizing Muir and misunderstanding the foundation of American nature conservation. The Ecological Citizen 5(1): epub-047

9 Bunzl, Op.cit., p. 69.

10 Bunzl, Op.cit., p. xi.


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Cite:

Leadbeater, Simon “Book Review: Thinking while Walking” ECOS vol. 2021, , British Association of Nature Conservationists, www.ecos.org.uk/book-review-thinking-while-walking/.

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