In Sacred Footsteps
Published in Third Way
As soon as we began to settle, more than 15,000 years ago, we have had a need to go to the places where we are not. Bede Jarrett (1911) suggests the origins of walking as spiritual practice lie in “broken tribesmen” returning to the places of their birth to seek the help of local gods, whilst the Australian Aboriginal religions contain “the world’s oldest continuously practised religious rituals” (Salamone, 2004: 39), of which walking is an integral part. Pilgrimage is global. “It is found in all religions. The Egyptians journeyed to Sekket's shrine at Bubastis or to Ammon's oracle at Thebes; the Greeks sought for counsel from Apollo at Delphi and for cures from Asclepius at Epidaurus; the Mexicans gathered at the huge temple of Quetzal; the Peruvians massed in sun-worship at Cuzco and the Bolivians in Titicaca” (Jarrett, 1911). Each of the world’s major religions has its pilgrimage sites. What is it that has moved us as a people, for thousands of years, to undergo immense hardships and travel huge distances, driven only by our legs and by our faith?
Eight months ago I set out to walk from my home in England to Jerusalem. I had been researching pilgrimage for several years, and I set out to explore ideas that a long walk to a destination runs much deeper than simply arriving. I saw the destination as a framework, a crucial part that would distinguish the journey from a directionless wander, in the same way that an artist fixes his ideas within the confines of the canvas. But in engaging with that painting, with that line on the map, spaces are created that allow much deeper ideas and experiences to emerge. In our obsession with arriving I felt that we were severely limiting these spaces, and seeing in them only what we chose to. I wanted to force myself to see everything, the good and the bad, the places I would choose and those that I wouldn't. Much as in a relationship, it's hard to love the world unless we make a commitment to love all of it, in its sickness and its health.
Walking is in a fast and remarkable decline. A 2006 study by the Department of Transport in the UK found that between 1995/97 and 2005 the average number of journeys by foot per person fell by 16%, from 292 to 245 annually, and that 24% of people walk a 20 minute journey less than once a year (National Travel Survey, 2007: 15; 23). ‘Walking distance’ is now considered by town planners to be roughly a quarter of a mile (DeRubertis, 2008). These figures are astounding, yet such a change is not a new phenomenon. As long ago as 1862, Henry David Thoreau bemoaned how we have come to live “as if legs were made for sitting on, not walking” (2004: 3).
There are various things we could dwell on here, but I want to discuss what such a decline might do to our perceptions of the natural world, if we see the landscapes that we journey through as mere barriers to the places that we want to reach. Such dualist thinking is an abstraction which serves as a protection from, and explanation of, a world in constant flux. It is a myth that can be traced as far back as our banishment from Eden, fated never to return. The resulting separation, seeing nature as apart and distinct from us, is what has enabled us to arrive at the point of desecrating the environment guilt-free. But when we walk, wherever we are, we begin once again to value the ground beneath our feet.
Since the 1970s, geography has begun a shift from the traditional conception of seeing space as a blank “container” that can be scientifically abstracted from the events that happen in it, to something fundamental that influences, as much as is influenced by, what occurs in that space (Tilley, 1994). Such a vision does not allow for tidy academic boxes and abstraction of theory, but it does allow for profound connection to specific land, drawn from individual experience. Space is created by those that act there, and we are created by the spaces we have known. Our cities are not built on blank slates. The fields we bulldoze are not vacuous holes waiting for development. The land and the people are iteratively bound, although it is increasingly obscured. We could understand the first stirrings of climate change as the world once again making us aware of those ties.
The Aboriginals of Australia were aware of them. For them, the land was brought into being through walking. In The Spell of The Sensuous (1996), David Abram talks of the Dreamtime of the Aboriginal cultures, when the Ancestors walked across the surface of the earth singing the land into being, creating the landscape. These ‘songlines’ wind their way across Australia, and when on ‘Walkabout’ the Aboriginal person sings these same verses as a kind of auditory map to guide his way. Through his singing he “recreates the Creation” (1996: 168):
“What happened once happens again and again. The Dreaming, the imaginative life of the land itself, must be continually renewed, and as an Aboriginal man walks along his Ancestor’s Dreaming track, singing the country into visibility, he virtually becomes the journeying Ancestor, and thus the storied earth is born afresh” (Abram, 1996: 170).
Walking has tied people to the land since the dawn of time, and we have sculpted that land, but with the gentleness of human feet, rather than the rapaciousness of human hands. I think of the paths I have trodden on this journey, ancient mountain routes and trails across the plains, slowly worn over hundreds of years into the earth. “Through walking, in short, landscapes are woven into life, and lives are woven into the landscape, in a process that is continuous and never-ending” (Tilley, 1994: 29–30).
Such awareness confers deep benefits on the environment. The WWF and ARC report Beyond Belief (2006) looks at the importance of faith in protecting sacred sites, including two case studies looking at the areas crossed by the songlines in Australia, and the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. In relation to Santiago de Compostela they write: “The Way provides a closer relationship with outstanding protected natural areas, significant sacred sites, and centres of spiritual and cultural heritage, as well as close contacts with people from all strands of life, which usually produces, or reinforces, a more conscious and respectful attitude towards the universal values of our common heritage” (2006: 108). Walking gives us time to develop these connections, in a way that faster means of transport do not. It is a speed that the earth is comfortable with. Our legs are the hands of the clock of the earth.
One of the most refreshing parts of my journey has been that it has developed as no more than a string of coincidence and circumstance. My path has been guided by local knowledge and the shape of the landscape, and I have found myself in tiny villages, up mountains, in strangers' houses, where I never would have been had I chosen my destination, and where I will never be again. Yes, it is a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, but more so, it feels like a pilgrimage to everywhere, to walk deeper into the world. The pilgrim sets out to reaffirm his faith and his beliefs, to detach himself from his daily habits and remember what has fundamentally shaped that life. Today, as climate change, habitat destruction and resource depletion make themselves increasingly felt, we critically need to recall how dependent we are upon the world. Maybe it is time to retake our vows to the planet and remember how much it shapes our lives, before it makes us bluntly aware of it on its own terms.
I realise that not everyone can set out tomorrow on a year long walk. I suggest this merely to kindle ideas of what might be possible, and of what we might be losing. Of how the travel and tourism of today might differ from its previous incarnations, and how our planet might suffer as a result. Of what role pilgrimage might have to play in this time of ecological crisis. What if systems were in place to allow people to take a long walk at some time in their life? It is not entirely fanciful. The Camino de Santiago has a system of cheap and free accommodation that allows pilgrims to walk according to their means, and the numbers of those who walk it is increasing exponentially, from 30,000 in 1998 to 118,000 in 2009, and an estimated 250,000 for the Holy Year last year (Camino de Santiago, 2009). Since the 1980s, the Flemish organisation Oikoten has been offering young offenders the chance to walk to Santiago de Compostela from Belgium, with a mentor, as an alternative to being locked in an institution. Pilgrimage was used in much the same way to atone for crimes in the medieval period, and it has a remarkable degree of success (Badone & Roseman, 2004: 107).
A migrant is one who is displaced from his home; he is defined by where he is not. The nomad differs from the migrant in that he has no fixed home, and instead he is at home everywhere. During the course of the journey, the pilgrim moves from seeing himself as a migrant, to seeing himself as a nomad, at home in the world. He who walks the way until he becomes one with it. “By spending his whole life walking and singing his Ancestor’s Songline, a man eventually became the track, the Ancestor and the song” (Chatwin, 1987: 179). He is not only at home in the world, he is the world. The world is at home in him.
Published in Third Way
Abram, D. (1996) The Spell Of The Sensuous. New York: Vintage Books.
Badone, E. & Roseman, S. R. (2004) Intersecting Journeys: The Anthropolgy of Pilgrimage and Tourism. Illinois: The University of Illinois.
Camino De Santiago (2009) Numbers Walking the Caminos [Online]. Available from: [Accessed 3 August 2010]
Chatwin, B. (1987) The Songlines. London: Random House.
Jarrett, B. (1911) ‘Pilgrimages’ in: The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company [Online]. Available from: [Accessed 23 July 2010]
Salamone, F. (2004) Encyclopedia of Religious Rites, Rituals, and Festivals. London: Routledge.
Thoreau, H. D. (2003) Walking. Whitefish: Kessinger Publishing. [First Published 1862]
Tilley, C. (2004) The Phenomenology of Landscape. Oxford: Berg.
World Wildlife Fund & Alliance of Religions and Conservation (2006) Beyond Belief: Linking faiths and protected areas to support biodiversity conservation [Online]. Available from: http://www.arcworld.org/downloads/WWF%20Beyond%20Belief.pdf [Accessed 25 July 2010]