Leaving Footsteps Behind: An Ode to Wandering in the Woods

To stroll and wander, whether around the city fringe or in the countryside is a pleasure celebrated by many cultures. The French, Italian and Japanese even invented words to describe such rambles. For creative types – scientists and poets alike – taking long walks in quiet places is central to the creative process. So central, that some have chosen to abandon the cares of the world for their pursuit of the sublime.

The Travels of Mingliaotse written by Tu Lung in the 16th century, recounts the story of the eponymous government official who decided one day to give it all up and become a rambler, a gentleman of the road seeking nourishment in wandering. “I am going to emancipate my heart and release my spirit and travel in the country of the northeast.” He finds solace in his wanderings; everyone he meets is enchanted by his wit, and he writes poetry reminiscent of Wordsworth:

I tread along the sandy bank
Where clouds are golden, the water clear.
The startled fairy hounds go barking
Into the peach grove,
Then disappear.

Speaking of Wordsworth, both he and Coleridge were great walkers. They ambled all over the coast of North Devon and Somerset and later, into the belly of the Lake District. For them, rural rambles were central to their poetic inspiration. Says Coleridge in his Biographia Literaria (1817):

“My walks were almost daily on top Quantock, and among its sloping combs. With my pencil and memorandum book in my hand, I was making studies … and often moulding my thoughts into verse, with the objects and imagery immediately before my senses.”

Inspired by these eminent poets, I travelled with a group of friends to Kamikochi, a remote alpine region in Japan’s Nagano Prefecture, for a 15 km hike through pristine forests. Here’s what we found:

Photo: Rachel Chung
Photo: Rachel Chung

I have no poems to show at the end of the hike. But I rediscovered the pleasure of rambling through the woods, grateful for a day of tranquillity and beauty in a place the Japanese call “the place where the gods descend.”

Leave nothing but footsteps,
Capture nothing but moments
.

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