Hermit’s Walk

The eminent Japanese philosopher Kitaro Nishida (1870-1945) spent much of his life in Kyoto, teaching at the university there and, after retirement in 1927, writing. He used to take breaks to walk along a quiet tree-lined path from the university along a canal, with several shrines and temples along the way. In those days, the path was doubtless solitary and restful, but since then it is populated with tourists, visitors, and small vendor stands catering to them. The path is called “Philsopher’s Walk” or “Path of the Philosopher,” retaining a sense of what it may have been like a century earlier when Nishida walked it.

In a parallel vein, philosopher’s walks are named walkways in Heidelberg, Germany — along the Neckar River, a scenic path popularized by Romantic-era writers and thinkers — and in Toronto, Canada — between the University of Toronto and a quiet old residential area. The Heidelberg area has plaques and signage, being close to old shops and a church. The Toronto path was a deliberate plan for pedestrian access to and from certain academic buildings and beyond.

A walking path conceived as a nature trail near Ripton, Vermont, is named for the American poet Robert Frost, who, however, did not walk this route during his lifetime but lectured and taught nearby for a while later in life. The US National Park Service maintains this interpretive trail, as it is called, and has put up placards of Frost poems along the trail.

(As an aside concerning Kyoto: the city of Kyoto was a priority target site for nuclear bombing for the United States Targeting Committee in World War II. The Secretary of War Henry Stimson intervened to suggest that post-war relations with Japan would suffer if Kyoto was destroyed. But the art historian and archaeologist Langdon Warner may have been the more influential voice, arguing forcefully concerning preservation of the cultural jewel of Japan that housed thousands of shrines, temples, a university, and other historically significant sites.)

The philosopher’s paths suggest a counterpart: a “hermit’s walk” or “hermit’s path.” Perhaps they exist already for some, in a deep forest somewhere, unmarked and unintended, pr in a public park, with placards of hermit quotations or sayings carried in the walker’s mind. Such sayings would probably include poems of Chinese wilderness poets, a passage from a Hindu or Buddhist sage, a saying of Paul of Thebes, a passage from Rousseau, Thoreau, or Muir. There are many possibilities, slanted toward nature versus society, toward the mystical or spiritual versus the formal and engaged. And perhaps a little composition book to read and reflect upon, filled with favorite sayings collected over years of reading, while taking a moment to sit on a boulder or mound, taking a break from walking. The latter, empty and meditative, a quiet state of mind in nature, is the ideal. The experience may a nearby destination or a planned visit to a nearby park, a frequent practice or an occasional vacation. Nature bathing with a little thoughtfulness is a salutary experience.