Sauntering as a form of walking for wellbeing

In this hybrid essay artist and researcher Sarah Scaife reflects on sauntering, the etymology of the word and its possibilities for wellbeing.

In a period of significant ill-health, my existing practice of art walking turned out to be a valuable source of both agency and wellbeing. I walked, sometimes alone and sometimes accompanied, pretty much every day during the year I was receiving treatment for breast cancer (Scaife, 2020). This was not walking for exercise, though it had that benefit too. This was “sauntering”.

Rather than striking out towards an end point, sauntering is a way of entering into respectful though uncertain conversation with the more-than-human. I use David Abram’s (2017) phrase ‘more-than-human’, to recognise that which many humans call ‘nature’ as sensuous, alive and interconnected. This immersive way of walking becomes a form of ceremony; in sauntering, the land I walk on begins to feel holy, beyond any religion, by which I mean an interconnected and dynamic whole. In my lived-experience, sauntering in this way becomes a practice of reconnection which can hold difficulty and contain the holes in my own wellbeing.

Artists have ways of walking for wellbeing

Walking artist and scholar Dee Heddon led Walking Publics/Walking Arts, an investigation into walking and creativity during COVID-19 (Heddon et al, 2022). Billinghirst et al (2020) gives a sense of the breadth and vibrancy of walking as creative practice, with contributions from current practitioners who walk explicitly for wellbeing. Like much in health politics, there are barriers to walking including access to safe local spaces (Billinghirst et al 2020; Heddon et al, 2022), but walking offers rich possibilities too. Art walking for wellbeing has deep roots, entangled in social, communal, climate-activist and personal wellbeing, adventure, challenge, organised protest, pilgrimage and procession – or a blend of several of these.

For many years and in many places, artists of all genders and economic backgrounds have walked for and with their own and others’ wellbeing. Art walks range across urban and rural, suburban and wilderness, solo and collaborative. Walks might be on foot. They might be in the imagination (see for example Wilson’s 2022 Recipe for walking without leaving your home, which she developed during a period of ill health which stopped her going outside).

Before and during the pandemic I made my own art walks to explore and support my relationship with health. At this point in my life, I am fortunate to live in a beautiful part of south-west England, though I haven’t always. Since my year of cancer treatment, and the pandemic soon after, I have continued this walking, sometimes inviting other people to join in.  

Walking can take many forms

Walking art takes various forms, each with its own resonances. The walking artist as ‘flâneur’, a term first used by Baudelaire in the nineteenth century, refers to one who moves with confidence through an urban and cultural milieu (TATE, 2024). This type of walking has attracted critique within a feminist history of art since it centres on the white male gaze. My own art walking practice is entirely different.

In winter/spring 2024, as part of my practice-based research, I offered wellbeing workshops with a small group of people who have also experienced breast cancer treatment. This was in collaboration with Emma Capper, a qualified and experienced Nature and Forest Therapy guide

For some time, I have wondered how to encapsulate the qualities of this particular walking practice in words. Whilst planning our workshop series I was reflecting on this with Emma Capper. We spoke of the range of somewhat specialist walking traditions, including hiking, trekking, forest bathing (her particular practice), promenading, and pilgrimage, as well as the flâneur. As she and I wandered on in conversation, Emma suggested that my intentional walking practice is a form of sauntering. My body felt a surge of recognition.

This mixed-media essay puts forward a description and example of sauntering as a particular from of art walking for wellbeing. The written part of this essay continues with a short journey through entries into dictionaries of etymology, to wander through and find deeper meaning in the word saunter. I then invite you to join me in a sound world as I saunter out from my home and along a local river.

Let’s go for a saunter….

To me ‘sauntering’ initially implies a slow and aimless, perhaps even purposeless walk which goes against the contemporary drive to reach a goal. Words are carriers of stories and cultural shifts. In Middle English, the time of Chaucer’s earliest known manuscript of The Canterbury Tales, there is a word ‘santren’. Rather than walking, it means to hesitate, muse or brood. The etymological dictionary speculates that sauntering is ‘perhaps’ related to an older meaning of babbling and idle chattering; again, the implication is that the saunter is something of a waste of time (Barnhart, 1988).

Let us now consider the word saunter as two syllables: ter- and saunt-.

Ter- is a version of the Middle English verb terren, to tarry a while. Ter is also a version of terre, Latin for land or earth or ground; a relative of tir, ground or earth in Cornish, Bretton, and Old Welsh. This brings us to the eighteenth-century word terrain, in “the sense of a tract of land considered with respect to its natural features” (Chambers dictionary of etymology, 1988).

Saunt- or sant is a version of ‘saint’, with Latin origins. Before 1200, saint was spelled ‘sont’. The older meaning of this word does not reference a particular individual, but rather a general sense of being holy or sacred.

As Emma Capper and I walked and reflected, Emma recalled that there is a folk etymology story concerning John Muir, a 19th-century pioneer of national parks in North America. She shared it with me later. Here is one version:

[Hiking]. I don’t like either the word or the thing. People ought to saunter in the mountains — not hike! Do you know the origin of that word ‘saunter?’ It’s a beautiful word. Away back in the Middle Ages people used to go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and when people in the villages through which they passed asked where they were going, they would reply, ‘A la sainte terre,’ ‘To the Holy Land.’ And so they became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers. Now these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently, not ‘hike’ through them.

(Harer 2019, attributed to John Muir by Albert Palmer in “The Mountain Trail and its Message,” 1911, p.27)

To current ears, there is a friction in this folk etymology which references “the Holy Land”. When capitalised, this phrase refers to a particular region to the east of the Mediterranean Sea with a complex and contested history and geography. Words are loaded, but we need to use them and I am drawn to Muir’s recognition that the land itself is holy wherever we are on earth.

My own practice of walking is not a pilgrimage to reach, to arrive in, or indeed to dominate a particular sacred site. Pilgrimage is not the right term for this form of walking. Sauntering involves wandering a little, listening with care, allowing oneself to be drawn in to the world beyond the self. Sauntering is emergent and engaged, walking in respectful conversation with the more-than-human.

In his classic book on perception and language, David Abram reflects on the dynamic ways in which the languages of a more-than-human world reverberate with our own voices. “We regularly talk of howling winds, and of chattering [or babbling] brooks. Yet these are more than mere metaphors” (Abram, 2017, pp.82). He goes on to propose that “[human] language is not a purely mental phenomenon but a sensuous, bodily activity born of carnal reciprocity and participation” with the more-than-human.

This dialogue involves sensory “tuning and attuning” (Abram, 2017, p.80). For me, sauntering is a way to strengthen my connection to a rooted and local, often sacred sense of place. It is sometimes a form of prayer, mostly a form of medicine.

I return to the Chambers dictionary definition of that word ‘terrain’, referenced above. In the eighteenth century, at a time when a scientific lens filtered western perceptions of nature, terrain was defined as “a tract of land considered with respect to its natural features” (p.1127). In other words, rocky and steep or damp and marshy. By making some playful adjustments, I now define ‘sauntering’ as walking in sensory relationship with a particular tract of land, considered with full respect for its sacred, natural features.

As I said, in my recent research practice, Emma and I sauntered with a group of people who have, like me, experienced breast cancer treatment. These saunters are discreetly and ethically documented, but not fully recorded in a way I can comfortably share here. Returning to Wilson’s idea of walking in the imagination, may I invite you to listen instead to a recording made on 14 April 2024 as I saunter alone, a few minutes away from my home.

I invite you to recall the older and deeper meanings of the word. You will notice that this sauntering is indeed slow and aimless, in some ways purposeless, hesitating, brooding. It involves us in noticing – which may sound like babbling and chattering, musing aloud or internally – as I move about. I feel better for it.

Put on headphones and settle in if you have time. I invite you to tarry a while in this soundscape and saunter along with us.

Interested readers can find another of Sarah Scaife’s hybrid pieces published in the Polyphony here: https://thepolyphony.org/2021/10/29/fluxambol-prototyping-a-medicine-of-uncertainty/

About the author

Sarah Scaife is a practice-based PhD researcher in the Department of Communications, Drama and Film at the University of Exeter. Informed by lived experience of breast cancer treatment, her research explores medicines of uncertainty. This PhD is funded by the AHRC through the South, West and Wales Doctoral Training Partnership and is co-supervised through the University of Bristol.

References

Abram, D. (2017). The Spell of the Sensuous. perception and language in a more-than-human world. (2nd ed.). Penguin Random House.

Barnhart, R. K. (Ed.). (1988). Chambers Dictionary of Etymology. Edinburgh, Chambers Harrap.

Billinghurst, H.,Hind, C. & Smith, P. (Eds.) (2020), Walking Bodies. Papers, Provocations, Actions from Walking’s New Movements, the Conference. Triarchy Press.

Emma Capper, Nature and Forest Therapy guide (2024). https://creativejourneys.org.uk/

Harper, Douglas (2019) https://www.etymonline.com/columns/post/john-muir-and-‘saunter’

Hartoum, Mona 1985, 1995 Performance Still https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/hatoum-performance-still-p80087 Available 13 April 2024

Heddon, D. (PI), Maggie O’Neill, M., Qualmann, C., Rose, M., & Wilson, H. (2022). Understanding walking and creativity during COVID-19 – Walking Publics/Walking Arts Public Report. www.walkcreate.org

Scaife, S. (2021). Fluxambol: Prototyping a Medicine of Uncertainty. The Polyphony. Conversations across Medical Humanities. https://thepolyphony.org/2021/10/29/fluxambol-prototyping-a-medicine-of-uncertainty/

Scaife, S. (2020). Magical aesthetics: walking with eight legs. In H. Billinghurst, C. Hind, & P. Smith (Eds.), Walking Bodies. Papers, Provocations, Actions from Walking’s New Movements, the Conference. (1st ed., pp. 1–10). Triarchy Press.

Stratmann, F. H. (1891). A Middle English Dictionary containing Words used by English Writers from the Twelfth to the Fifteenth Century (1974 printed edition, edited and updated by Henry Bradley). Oxford University press .

TATE art terms glossary: Flâneur (2024) https://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/f/flaneur

TATE Galleries. (n.d.). (2024) TATE Ritual Coursework Guide: What is a ritual? Discover how ritual has been used as a theme in art. In On-line student resources. TATE Galleries, UK.

https://www.tate.org.uk/art/student-resource/exam-help/ritual

Turner, Marion (curator) Chaucer Here and Now exhibition at Weston Library. University of Oxford Bodleian Libraries. https://visit.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/chaucer Visited in person 6 April 2024.

Wilson, Louise Ann (2022) Walks to Remember: ‘With memory I was there’ Memory-Walk Recipe in Heddon et al.,The Walkbook https://walkcreate.gla.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/07/THE-WALKBOOK.pdf

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