Six walks: In the Footsteps of Henry David Thoreau by Ben Shattuck

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REVIEW by Rebecca M. Alvin

Walking has long been used as more than just a means of getting from place to place. People walk to think. People walk for exercise. People engage in walking meditations or for other spiritually guided reasons. Buddhist spiritual leader Thich Nhat Han said “When we take mindful steps on the earth, our body and mind unite, and we unite with the earth.” Filmmaker Werner Herzog once walked from Munich to Paris to see his dying friend and mentor film historian Lotte Eisner, in the belief that the walk itself could somehow cure her. (She did live 9 more years after that… just sayin’). And of course, Henry David Thoreau famously wrote about his epic journeys on foot including those undertaken right here on Cape Cod.

Writer Ben Shattuck took Thoreau’s Cape Cod writings as a jumping off point for his own walking meditation, a project that had him on foot on the Outer Cape, up in Mount Ktahdin and Mount Wachusett, and in the woods of Maine. The book Six walks: In the Footsteps of Henry David Thoreau begins with Shattuck walking on Cape Cod after a recent break-up, lost and heartbroken, but fully self-aware. He encounters characters that will seem familiar to us as he traverses the landscape in Wellfleet and Truro, and even finds his way to Commercial Street in Provincetown. Both a memoir and a work of nature writing, Shattuck’s prose flows effortlessly, and you will find yourself reading the whole book in perhaps two or three sittings. But the ease of the vocabulary and comfortable pacing do not diminish the depth of ideas in this book.

The second part of the book is written much later than the first, when Shattuck has met and married actress Jenny Slate, with whom he has a child. This structure provides a nice contrast, inviting us to share his experiences walking through despair and in times of joy. All the while, Shattuck acknowledges his privilege to walk carefree, as a man, and to walk without the burden of racial profiling, as a white man. These two aspects of his identity make it safer to take the kind of journey he (and Thoreau and Herzog, for that matter) takes, and it is wonderful to see the awareness of privilege acknowledged in nature writing such as this.

If you don’t already use walking as a way to clear your mind, expand your horizons, and get in touch with this extraordinary environment, Shattuck’s writing will likely inspire you to do so. And if you do already walk for sanity and clarity, it will be a moving experience to see your thoughts reflected through someone else’s lens in Six Walks. In any case, Six Walks is a joy to read.

Ben Shattuck will be in conversation with Julia Glass at the Fine Arts Work Center, 24 Pearl St., Provincetown, Thursday, May 26, 7 p.m. as part of a collaboration with Twenty Summers. For tickets ($20 suggested donation) and information on the event, call 508.487.9960 or visit fawc.org. Six Walks: In the Footsteps of Henry David Thoreau is available at booksellers such as East End Books Ptown, 389 Commercial St., eastendbooksptown.com.