Torbjørn Ekelund is a writer, author, and co-founder of Harvest, an online magazine documenting wilderness adventures, environmental issues, and our relationship with nature. He lives in Oslo, Norway.
We know that epilepsy is what forced you to hang up your car keys and start walking as your main mode of transportation, but what inspired you to share your story, or your journey along the paths you write about, with others?
Three years ago, I was asked by Norwegian National Broadcasting (NRK) to write a long piece that I would read and present on the radio. When I was considering what topic to choose, I decided to talk about my epilepsy and how it made me rediscover walking. When it was broadcasted, I got an overwhelming response from all kinds of people. They told me about how much walking meant to them, and it made me realize that this was a topic many were interested in, and to a much greater extent than I first thought. I also realized that there was a lot more to say about this topic, and that’s how I came up with the idea for In Praise of Paths.
Walking as your sole means of transportation must have been a big transition, although you said it only took a matter of days. What was the biggest adjustment for you?
The biggest adjustment for me was that I needed to establish a new conception of time. It only took me a few days to get used to not being able to drive a car, but my decision to walk everywhere, even when I could take the bus or the subway, forced me to create a whole new schedule for myself. I needed to start everything earlier: start walking an hour before a scheduled meeting, if it took place on the other side of town, for example. And I always had to make sure I carried a backpack for grocery shopping, etcetera. Now, if I don’t have a backpack, I feel like I’m missing an important part of my body. And when I see people that drive their cars to the supermarket (which almost everybody does), it seems almost absurd to me.
What has been the biggest benefit that walking has added to your life?
Exercise, of course, the feeling of being in motion, another conception of distance, and the opportunity to think undisturbed. It is like I have created a private space for myself that didn’t exist earlier. I can solve problems, find solutions, get inspired, get new ideas. And I can look around me and really see the world, notice the details, independent of where I am, in the city or somewhere in nature.
You reference humans’ history as walkers—as nomads. Why was this an important element to include in your book?
This was important to include because it contains an important story, and a reminder. Our evolution is the story of movement, discovery as we search for new land, and our bodies are made for walking and running. Today we live our lives in a totally opposite way. We sit down most of the time, at the office, in our cars, in front of the TV. That’s perfectly fine, it is the way our societies are constructed, and I am not suggesting that we all should leave our houses and become nomads again, but I want to inspire people to remember this inheritance and walk as much as possible, because it feels meaningful in a very simple and fundamental way.
Can you tell us what the “art of walking” means to you?
To me the art of walking is synonymous with the art of seeing. It is synonymous with thinking, with mental harmony, a kind of small-scale enlightenment. When we walk, we move at a pace that is natural for us. We can observe details in the landscape we pass through, see how it changes as we think about the most trivial things in our lives. For me, almost all the ideas I come up with, come when I am walking (especially the good ones).
The book comes full circle when you venture back to your family’s cabin, with the path—which you so clearly pictured and painted for readers—gone. Can you talk about the significance of this, in terms of how paths are always changing and evolving?
Paths are stories. The small path behind my family’s cabin was only walked by us: my mother and father, and my two sisters. When we grew older, we stopped walking it, and when we stopped, the path disappeared. To me, the little path came to represent the story of my family. When I walked it again during the writing of In Praise of Paths, I noticed the remains of it, and I was transported 40 years back in time; I could clearly picture my family—they were all younger—my mother and father in their forties, my sisters only five-to-six years old. The path and the landscape that surrounds it told a story that was both personal and collective, and when I walked it, I realized that—hopefully—many years from now, when I no longer exist, the path will no longer exist in somebody’s memory, in the same way that the most detailed and intimate parts of my family’s story will be gone forever. These thoughts did not make me sad, but they gave me a strong sense of time, and the fact that nothing remains forever, not even a family, not even a path.