On Loafing

<This essay originally appeared at 3QuarksDaily, where I have a monthly column>

Between the trailhead and where we stood, my son and I, there was a vast expanse of time and a very small amount of space. I’d carried him, with the dog’s leash on one wrist, from the parking lot, up through a small thicket of brambles to where an old railroad must have run, past the bridge, and steeply down the hill to the flat banks of the river where the path began. Here, thirty feet down from where the rest of the landscape lay, the water, in moments of heavy flooding, would rise up and wash out all the foliage on which we were now standing, leaving fertile silt behind as if in repentance. This periodic effect might have been part of the reason that this flat of land beside the water was so open and uncrowded by the thick of trees that dominated the landscape at higher grounds. With the land so leveled by the water’s irregular rising, and the foliage thin and unobtrusive, it was the perfect place to explore.
I had set my son, River, down on the cleared out space upon which we were supposed to walk and went ahead in an attempt to coax him more quickly down the trail. I half wanted to wear him out so that he’d take a good nap, but I also had hoped that by letting him walk on his own, he’d at least try to keep up so that we could do together what I love doing so much alone: walking through the woods. Of course, the same thing happened that always happens when I take him along on a walk without carrying him. That is, we ended up spending a significant amount of time milling around while he explored and pointed at things I didn’t immediately see.
In this particular instance, we spent about fifteen minutes near the trailhead. I had our Malinois’ leash in my hand, and a diaper bag strapped across my back, walking along the ground where other walkers feet had beat a path. I went back and forth, slowly, and sought a goad to move River along the water’s edge, against the current that was moving lazily in the cold, snowless and rainless drought of January. I could see where we’d “started” our walk, could get back there in a moment if I wanted, and couldn’t shake the feeling that we were wasting our time. Our goal, I thought, was to get as far into the woods as we could, in the shortest amount of time. Moving quickly away from the parking lot, the Sunday afternoon volunteers clearing out Buckthorn growth, the dogs that hikers let wander through the preserve at their discretion, all of this was, to me, a necessary precondition for taking a satisfying and fulfilling walk.
Of course, writing about it now, this seems like a ridiculous goal. Not only the vague ideal of somehow getting away from society and hiking into the woods for a communion with nature, but more practically, the unrealistic goal of doing so at the pace of a fifteen month old toddler. If you have ever tried walking with a small child, you’ll know what I mean. With a kid so young, you have two options. Either you admit defeat and pick them up, carrying them down the trail, or you let them do their own thing, and end up habituating yourself to their unique engagement with temporality and space.
The former option is entirely legitimate, of course. Going for a walk seems to mean, after all, moving along and not just staying in one place. But why do we want this out of a walk in the first place? Isn’t it because a walk forces us to engage thoroughly with our environment? Isn’t part of the reason we find walking therapeutic that this particular act affords us the capacity to remove ourselves from what we ought to be doing — i.e. working, making progress, generating value, etc. — and instead just enjoy the feeling of our body in a world? If this is what constitutes a “good walk,” then isn’t milling about in the first fifteen feet of a trail an exceptionally good example of a “good walk?”
After all, what is a better way to get to know the immediate environment than to move slowly and without purpose over a small amount of dirt for an extended period of time? Walking over a small patch of land day in and day out is how the agriculturist learns to work her land more knowingly. Perhaps the same thing was at work here. I’ve been writing about the different words we use to describe the ways we walk for a while now, and for a long time I thought that the one attribute that gave them a family resemblance was that they described moving from one point to another. These walks with River, though, give me reason to pause. We are clearly “on a walk,” but not really going anywhere. We’re moving around in space, deliberately, by means of our legs, but not walking to any place. Among the prose pieces Walt Whitman published late in life is a fragment that gives a name to this kind of movement: loafing.

On March 8th, 1880, under the title “Loafing in the Woods,” Whitman writes:

I write this down in the country again, but in a new spot, seated on a log in the woods, warm, sunny, midday. Have been loafing here deep among the trees, shafts of tall pines, oak, hickory, with a thick undergrowth of laurels and grapevines — the ground cover’d with debris, dead leaves, breakage, moss — everything solitary, ancient, grim. Paths (such as they are) leading hither and yon — (how made I know not, for nobody seems to come here, nor man nor cattle-kind.) Temperature today around 60, the wind through the pine-tops; I sit and listen to its hoarse sighing above (and to the stillness) long and long, varied by aimless rambles in the old roads and paths, and by exercise-pulls at the young saplings, to keep my joints from getting stiff. Blue-birds, robins, meadow-larks begin to appear.

And then the next day, under the same heading, he continues:

A snow-storm in the morning, and continuing most of the day. But I took a walk over two hours, the same woods and paths, amid the falling flakes. No wind, yet the musical low murmur through the pines, quite pronounced, curious, like waterfalls, now still’d, now pouring again. All the senses, sight, sound, smell, delicately gratified. Every snowflake lay where it fell on the evergreens, holly-trees, laurels, &c., the multitudinous leaves and branches piled, bulging-white, defined by edge-lines of emerald — the tall straight columns of the plentiful bronze-topt pines — a slight resinous odor blending with that of the snow. (For there is a scent to everything, even the snow, if you can only detect it — no two places, hardly any two hours, anywhere, exactly alike. How different the odor of noon from midnight, or winter from summer, or a windy spell from a still one.)

Whitman describes a comportment that lies somewhere between walking and some other form of activity. He describes the day in which he loafes as alternating between sitting and rambling, suggesting that he thinks of loafing as something that encompasses both. His “loafings” take him through the woods, in time, but they also involve a significant amount of sitting, reading, smelling, thinking, and listening “long and long.” Like River and I, Whitman’s loafings make him familiar with his environment because of the immense amount of time he spends in each place.
With these exquisitely beautiful lines, Whitman seeks to turn around the fortunes of this term. The word “loafing” was introduced in America in roughly the 1830s. Unlike literary terms, it was almost certainly born in the vernacular, so dating it precisely is difficult. It comes from the noun “loafer,” meaning a lay-about, a good-for-nothing, basically anyone that we would call “unproductive.” It was a derogatory term associated with a certain class of people who, as Whitman biographer David Reynolds writes, “were mainly young working-class men and women who had been impelled by hard times to reject normal capitalist pursuits and find other means of gratification and amusement.” It was used by Whig politicians in the 1840s and 50s as a pejorative term for the supporters of their main political rivals, the Democrats, whom they associated with rowdyism and rascalhood (never forget that the 19th century had a lot of fun words).
“Loafer” ultimately comes from the German landlaufer, a word roughly equivalent to “tramp.” This term, a contraction of land (land) and laufen (to run, or to walk) served to mark certain individuals as “living on the land,” passing through estates and not respecting property lines, and by extension, the institution of private property itself. It was likely this sense that the American language picked up, as the Whig party of the United States was largely made up of capitalists, lawyers, bankers, and factory owners of the North. That is, of those who have the greatest stake in the preservation of the concept of private property. By calling their enemies “loafers,” the Whigs and their supporters meant not only to slander their opponents as lazy, but to frame them as threatening the very institutions that they believed made America noble.
When he was heavily involved in Democratic politics in the 1840s and 50s, Whitman sought to turn the sense of this work to good use. In 1840, he writes: “I have sometimes amused myself with picturing out a nation of loafers,” and argues that “All the old philosophers were loafers. Take Diogenes for instance. He lived in a tub, and demeaned himself like a true child of the great loafer family. Or go back farther, if you like, even to the very beginning. What was Adam, I should like to know, but a loafer? Did he do any thing but loaf? Who is foolish enough to say that Adam was a working man? Who dare aver that he dealt in stocks, or was busy in the sugar line?” He reveres the word and all that it entails so deeply that after he announces his intention to “celebrate” himself at the beginning of his masterpiece, “Song of Myself,” he goes on to introduce himself and the scene of the poem by writing: “I loafe and invite my soul/ I lean and loafe at my ease, observing a spear of summer grass.”
For Whitman, there is something deeply democratic about loafing. In “Song of Myself,” he mentions the act in the same breath as the first mention of the central image of his paean to democracy: the single spear of summer grass. The leaves of grass to which he refers carry a wealth of democratic symbolism; from the fact that it grows “among black folks as among white,/ Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff,” to the possibility that it is “the uncut hair of graves,” signalling the fact that everyone dies, to the simple insight that grass almost never exists in isolation, but only as a mass, a whole. In the same 1840 essay from above, he declares loaferism an anarchic, democratic, leaderless movement, writing:

I hope you will not so far expose yourself as to ask, who was the founder of loafers. Know you not, ignorance, that there never was such a thing as the origin of loaferism? We don’t acknowledge any founder. There have always been loafers, as they were in the beginning, are now, and ever shall be—having no material difference. Without any doubt, when Chaos had his acquaintance cut, and the morning stars sang together, and the little rivers danced a cotillion for pure fun—there were loafers somewhere about, enjoying the scene in all their accustomed philosophick quietude.

As with most ways of walking, loafing is satisfying because it gives us a deep sense of autonomy. Walks that are undertaken simply for the sake of walking nearly never have a predetermined end or purpose. We are free, when walking, if only for a moment, to move our bodies through space in whatever way we feel most liberating at the time. What I’ve found, in writing about the ways we walk, is that each mode of moving conceives of this freedom in a unique way. In these passages, Whitman draws our attention to the way that loafing takes this freedom to an extreme, uncoupling the walk even from the otherwise minimal requirement of moving from point A to point B.
In what sense, then, is loafing even “walking” at all? We could say that it involves a lot of standing still, but this misses the fact that any mode of walking does the same thing: we have to stop at crosswalks when trudging through the snow-crowded streets, we stop at vistas when hiking to take in the sights, the ambling flaneur even stops from time to time to peruse shop windows or trace the winding of morning-glory vines up a trellis. Nor can we say that loafing is not “walking” because of the non-linearity of the activity, since many walks—nearly all of them—begin and end in the same place.
No, any reticence to include “loafing” in a list of words for walking perhaps simply reveals the nature of some of our prejudices about what we ‘ought’ to be doing when we walk. When we get over them, we find that loafing in fact reveals aspects of this simplest of locomotion that we might have otherwise overlooked. And it is perhaps the way that loafing—the word and the act—makes us pay attention to these overlooked details, the small and insignificant parts of our environment, that make it most valuable to us.

Once, I took River out in front of our apartment building when giving the dog an opportunity to use the bathroom. We made it down to the end of the block, holding hands as we went, and then turned around to head back in for afternoon snack. At the end of the street, however, we found a tree whose bark had been stripped away by growth or some other damage. We looked at the bark, and counted all the shades of green we could find in the mosses growing on it. We loafed around for nearly ten minutes, playing hide and go seek around the trunk, moving back and forth between the tree and a sapling nearby. He pointed out a small patch of grass that had grown in the divot caused by the stripped bark. We’d missed it, dead and browned from the January cold, for all the time we’d been there. I stuck my finger in, and stood it up, and asked him if he knew what it was (even though he can’t quite talk yet), and as we loafed there, it seemed to me “A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropped,/ Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we may see and remark, and say Whose?”

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