An Apology for the Constitutional

A thing I very much enjoy, and of which I am an advocate, is what the British perceptively call the constitutional — that shortish but brisk daily neighbourhood perambulation which sets the foundation of one’s well-being.

It’s a simple matter, the walkabout, but of seeming rarity. I have visited a number of towns and cities in which I have noted the absence of sidewalks, especially in the United States and most acutely of all in California. In our age, the automobile not only dominates, but extirpates its rival modes of transportation. How much, and in what manners we suffer as a result of this fact I am unable to say, but at the very least there is the lost benefit of the mind having been cleared by a quick going around of the block. One always feels mentally better after a walk, but rarely is this the case when driving.

Needless to say there are the physical benefits also. It is curious that something as simple, natural, and cost-free as walking has been so easily displaced, and by something which is expensive, stressful, and often a matter of complication. Only last month, my car (which I use infrequently, as I walk to work each day) cost me over $1,200 to maintain. This cost includes the payment, insurance, gasoline, snow tires, yearly registration and license renewals, new wiper blades, and a Winter tune-up. Nor do I enjoy either the owning or the using of an automobile, but there you have it. It remains for my family a thing of necessity. When I use it, I find that construction, weather, and above all the driving habits of the many folks also on the roads, make for an unpleasant experience. I would stop short of saying that the car is a necessary evil, since it is neither absolutely necessary nor evil. However, its many drawbacks probably recommend it for a less vaulted place in our society and lives.

It happens also that there are good parks and paths both in and outside the city where I live. This is a very good thing, but it does lead to the curious and increasingly common habit of driving a car to some semi-remote place for the purpose of walking. Once there the would-be hiker encounters, at the mouth of the woods, the filled parking lot and the great crowds of nature seekers. While nothing quite matches, as an all-round health benefit, a walk through the woods, I am of the view that it is usually better to keep to one’s neighbourhood than to make the car part of the business of “getting away.” The constitutional, which requires only a decent pair of shoes, keeps matters simple.

The chief point of the thing is to get some bloody exercise, but this is only one of the constitutional’s benefits. There is the mental benefit I have mentioned, and then there are less obvious side benefits such as keeping up with neighbours and with what is going on in the area in which one lives and having time to think or not to think, as one’s inclinations go. There are also the Romantic arguments, which claim our happiness is better served by a close association to nature, meaning in this case trees and rocks and squirrels and perhaps rivers and so forth. However in a city what interests me especially are buildings and the clothing which people choose to wear and the smells and sounds of neighbourhoods that are populated by a diversity of persons. These things are endlessly fascinating to me and are a good part of the experience of walking in a city.

It is not of course that I am not fond of nature. Relatively unspoiled areas are both necessary and good. A city dweller, when in the woods, can’t help but be reflective in a manner that is peculiar to that environment. When he goes to them — the woods, that is — he is more likely to think about the way in which he lives. In this sense, a walk among nature is a radical excursion in the sense that one finds only the material circumstances existing at the beginning, or root, of modern civilization. Rocks and dirt and bugs: that is what human beings had about them, more or less constantly, before the lovely climate controlled shopping malls and so forth. Each, nature and shopping mall, has its own particular charm, and each is conducive to certain kinds of thoughts and mental dispositions, and so I enjoy walking in both and for different reasons. But as I have suggested, best of all for one’s overall health is the daily constitutional in one’s neighbourhood. That is the foundational stuff of the good life.

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