Wandering has often been ascribed an exhilarating, adventurous feeling, a romp and a lark. From the curiosity-seeking Odysseus to the coolness of Jack Kerouac’s dharma bums, the essence of wandering has been the sense that there is no home on earth, no place to go, that the journey is the purpose and the present is the only time. Not the teleology of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey, for wandering does not gather and return, despite the protests that travel is a grand learning experience. Wandering is presented ambiguously. It has no goal but the accumulation of sensory stimuli or the gathering of wisdom — the wide range, indeed.
There are variations of wandering — distinct from historical nomadic peoples. Wandering is deliberate, and the variations based on how circumscribed the wanderings are and how they are justified. Pilgrims from Egeria to Basho pursued a circumscribed mission to visit shrines. Jesus went up and down a circumscribed land with an intention to do so indefinitely, as did the Buddha, sharing wisdom. Even the dharma bums wanted to reach the West Coast, and the Hindu sadhus have their prescribed cycles. Sailors like the narrator of poet John Masefield’s famous “Sea Fever” want to be someplace (however indefinite) when the “long trick is over.”
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.
Wandering is what Whitman calls rebellion, wherein the wanderer will discover “spare diet, poverty, angry enemies, desertions.” Being in place can do the same thing, of course, depending on who and where you are. Wandering is a rebellion against civilization and settling down, emphasizing the individual and that one’s responsibility is to no one in particular. The only motive for the open road is freedom, and having a personality that will not abide structure.
These are romantic views of wandering, but they fit the personas of those who pursue them. Wandering is a solitary profession, for while a ship gathers barnacles regardless of its voyage-places, the wanderer cannot gather objects or possessions, not valuables that must be buried, hoarded away, or consumed with slow and selfish pleasure. The wanderer hearkens to the primitive hunter, not the gatherer who returns to the camp or village with sharings. The wanderer throws away something never had, not being afflicted by insecurity or self-image.
But the wanderer is not always a merry dreamer like the Fool of the Tarot. Over countless centuries, peoples have migrated to other lands in hopes of a better life. Old colonial powers in their dotage worry about the influx of former conquered peoples, the fault of the their own past rapacity. For the present powerful were once wanderers themselves and became conquerors in need of what they lacked in their homelands. Mark a spot on a world map and consider the many peoples gone by whose restlessness overlays one people after another. Historians rightly reckon that migrations have covered the earth with foot and hoof, with blood and iron, and so one might suspect that wandering has a desperate side and a selfish one, a wanting and a taking, but only a giving when the migrant peoples have forgotten their origin and now love their new land. Or love it too much to remember that they were once conquerors.
Thus wandering can be the root of suffering. The narrator of the Old English elegy aptly called “The Wanderer” was one of those Anglo-Saxon souls made exile by war and butchery, sensitive enough to perceive the loss of peoples, but luckless enough to have nothing to hope for in his futile wanderings. “No abode but a house of sorrow,” he laments of a world of chaos and decline.
What we have to share with one another cannot be the fruit of what we have stolen from others or forgotten of our own heritage. To renew the sense of place, for those who do not wander, one must go to nature — neither what we have nor what we have taken — and give to it what we can.
Ultimately we formulate and apply the Taoist notion of non-action, of wu-wei, not as a philosophical abstraction but as a way of relating to the world, to others, and to nature. Non-action is the root of simplicity, and simplicity is the application of thought to how our relationship to nature can be made with the least action, the least intervention and contrivance (for example, the principles of Masanobu Fukuoka in farming).
The seasons give and take but without doing; the sun, moon, and stars rise and fall but without acting. Only our perception joins us with the seasons, with the sun, moon, and stars. Like the koan of the flag moving in the wind: is it the flag, the wind, or our minds that move? What difference, if we are really part of the same thing? Going or coming, a hut or the road, what difference?