One activity that can be of great help in the process of renewing our stories is walking. Sage adults have long sung the praises of walking as a means of self-understanding. "It is a great art to saunter," wrote Henry David Thoreau. Walking is obviously one of the most natural of all human activities and as such, it connects us in a deep way to the natural rhythms of humanity.
This isn't to say that walking is the only way to make such connections; obviously, there are many ways to reconnect to the world around us and recall our stories. Still, many people find the activity of walking and talking to be more natural than sitting and writing. Indeed, there is a great tradition of this: The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, for example, made it a habit of doing his philosophizing while walking. Our word peripatetic comes from peripatos, the covered garden where Aristotle and his followers strolled while discussing philosophy.
Richard recalls contemplating the age-old existential questions while hiking, miles from any town, on the edge of the Serengeti Plain. But he's not exactly alone. A large community of wildebeest surrounds him, poised as if ready for conversation, looking directly at him. These are quiet, unassuming friends, whom he's known for years and he's ready to do some catching up with his bearded companions. In fact, that's why he's there. Africa is a sanctuary when he needs solitude, when he wants to recall his own story.
I walk in silence. I recall poet Emily Dickinson describing herself as having an "appetite for silence." In my case, I would say that the appetite is large. To me, incessant societal noise is a disease that can be cured only by going back to the rhythm of silence. These vast, windy hills and plains are a good place to go back to the rhythm. The nothingness fills me. Looking across the Serengeti, I can feel the rhythm. I can feel the Earth inhale and exhale with every breath of mine. The air is heavy with silence, my medicine.
The air is moist and cool. Hiking in the early morning is the best strategy to avoid the intense midday sun and heat. My other friends, the impala, share hillsides with umbrella acacia trees, a classic African scene. Wildlife flourishes around me, both in diversity of species and size of populations. Guinea fowl explode from beneath almost every thorny bush. Thomson's gazelles and zebras are too numerous to count. Hyenas yup and yodel from dusk until dawn. Here, some predatory voice is always calling.
Hiking between the Serengeti and the great Rift Valley, I can imagine hunter-gatherers exploring the same route, foraging seasonally among food resources on the vast savanna. The path ahead is unclear. There are no trails, only animal paths. This is good, since real trails attract people. Not only in location but in attitude, this place is a world away from most places on Earth. Here, evolutionary history floods the senses. One feels the heartbeat of a thousand generations. It's natural to ponder the thought that we all live on the same blue marble that circles the same orbit and subjects each of us to the same gravitational pulls.
The freedom of being off trail sharpens my evolutionary senses and makes me alert. It allows me to discern the sense and essence of my story. It reawakens the instincts that were, at one time, critical to our survival. In the hunter-gatherer world, inattention to small movements and sounds could get you eaten. In the natural world, the story of the universe speaks clearly.
I ponder the recent discovery of skull bones of the earliest known ancestor of humankind in the desert of Northern Chad—a fossil nearly seven million years old that will revolutionize our understanding of our beginnings. The discovery—a nearly complete skull, two lower jaw fragments, and three teeth—is three million years older than any other hominid skull discovered to date. The fossils suggest an evolutionary complexity and diversity in human origins that seem to defy description by the family trees of the past. It plays havoc with the current model of human origins where I'm hiking and because the fossils were found so far from here, long considered the cradle of humanity, scientists conclude that these first primitive hominids ranged much more widely than researchers had expected. It is a stunning find.
As I try to wrap my thoughts around this discovery, I realize that everything in life is natural and an evolutionary part of the story. While I may view life's challenges as an abnormality, an unnatural state, hunter-gatherers hold life's challenges differently. The hunter-gatherer story might suggest that it is normal to have challenges; suffering and death are part of life. This acceptance does not imply powerlessness or disinterest in a meaningful life. What is implicit is the belief that one can enjoy life in spite of adversity. In fact, it is precisely because of our challenges that we can evolve. It is through our challenges that we become more.
I hear a small, still voice within myself. Although I'm walking on terra firma, I feel a shifting of the underlying tectonic plates. It tugs at my story—my beliefs about the origin, nature, and destiny of humankind. This voice speaks to me through centuries of human existence. This voice has been with us since we all were hunter-gatherers, a universal ageless voice. This sense has allowed us, as humans, to survive as a species. I'm convinced that we survived because we recalled our stories here on Earth.