First Steps

It happened again. A patron led me down a long and twisty path, simply by requesting a DVD. 

"Do you have Nomad?"

I figured he meant the Oscar-winning film Nomadland, but a catalog search came up with a match, a film I'd never heard of -- and, it turns out, one that I was keenly interested in. It's about the peripatetic writer Bruce Chatwin, and was written and directed by his old friend and fellow wanderer, Werner Herzog. Talk about the dynamic duo. After the patron checked out Nomad, I put it on hold for myself.

Watching Nomad of course sent me back to Chatwin's books, especially The Songlines  and The Anatomy of Restlessness. Early in his globe-trotting career, Chatwin felt his magnum opus would be an excursion into the deep history of nomads. He even concludes The Songlines (which follows Australian Aborigines around the Outback to learn about their mysterious "dreaming tracks") with a long and quite fascinating collection of anecdotes and aphorisms on walking and nomadic culture. It's loaded with informative, profound, and sometimes shocking nuggets, and exposes as well Chatwin's particular genius.

Chatwin's thoughts have remained with me, and many books have sent me back to them. The latest is a look at how upright walking made us human, Jeremy DeSilva's First Steps. DeSilva is a paleoanthropologist at Dartmouth College who specializes in ancient primate ankles. Somebody's got to do it. I've gone through a backpack full of books and DVDs on human evolution and migration, and I think First Steps is one of the most readable -- informative, engaging, up-to-date, and sprinkled with photos and illustrations.

The first pages of First Steps find DeSilva following in Chatwin's footsteps, reminding us that our ancient ancestors were not "the hunters" -- they were the hunted. How we know this and what it means to walk upright takes up much of the first part of the book, intriguing reading harking back to the early days of the hunter-hunted debate nearly 60 years ago. Recent high-tech discoveries, from DNA tracing of fossilized gunk between our ancestors' teeth and the dirt around their hearths, to using Google Earth to search for possible dig sites in Africa, have moved us forward by leaps and bounds. DeSilva spends a lot of time undoing the tropes we think make us scientifically literate, as these amazing advances in paleoanthropology really are adding new parts to the story.

Such tools are also rewriting our thinking about how Homo walked over the world. Speaking of an early Australopithecine species, DeSilva writes, "Two million years ago, sediba walked in the woods" in what is now South Africa. Then, "just a blink of an eye ago... early humans shared a planet with Homo naledi, Neandertals, Denisovans, and the island Hobbits. 

Soon there was only us."

Before you know it, we big-brained sapiens moved from hoofing it across continents to sitting around reading and writing about it, still trying to figure out what we did.

Which shouldn't be too hard if we would just get up and move around, like Charles Darwin cogitating on the Sandwalk, round and round his "thinking path." Or the poet Basho, on the narrow road to the deep north. DeSilva cites a movement study in First Steps that concludes, "walkers had significantly improved connectivity in regions of the brain understood to play an important role in our ability to think creatively." 

The eminently creative Rebecca Solnit, in her book Wanderlust, writes of "the mind at three miles an hour." One of the most powerful experiences in my life was when, after a week backpacking in the Rockies, I got in my car and drove toward home. In seconds my mind went from three miles an hour to twenty times that. It was weird, to say the least, and not especially conducive to deep thought and reflection. Solnit's first real book (she has used words to that effect), Savage Dreams, was the result of her time walking in the desert, which she says taught her how to write. 

Just as serendipity got me started on this journey, so too I’ll let it wrap things up: Shelving library books recently, I discovered the award-winner by Frederic Gros called A Philosophy of Walking. He covers a lot of ground, but reminds us, “You need to get up and take a stroll… so that in sympathy with the body’s surge the mind too will start moving again.

-Jake Vail is an Information Services Assistant at Lawrence Public Library.