Arthur, Chris, Contemporary Review
THE first step we take unaided is one of those epochal moments in a life when the individual's story seems suddenly to break through the surface of the mundane and tap into a reservoir of elemental happenings. From there come resonances which can re-kindle the sense of wonder which is so easily dulled by the routines of everyday existence. Walking shares with birth, our first smile, first word, first passionate kiss, with our mating and dying, a sense of communion with the ancient and totemic, a feeling of participation in something primal, which holds the promise of meaning beyond the horizons of our own lonely individual existences. The first unsteady moment of independent walking is, of course, an event which falls outside all but the most unusual of memories. Like conception, foetal existence, birth and babyhood, our first steps, for all their importance to us, happen beyond the territory of conscious recall. To find out about them we must ask or imagine, though there are a few fascinating cases where individuals claim direct knowledge of almost their entire life-span (what are we to make of claimed remembrance of what it was like to be in the womb?). For the vast majority, though, these moments belong not to us but to our parents. We are nothing if not social creatures, dependent on others to hold safely in their memories crucial parts of our identity.
According to my mother, I took my first steps on the soft lush lawn of the secluded Irish garden which has seen three generations of us come and go. My father's final crutch-assisted steps were taken by the roses which he planted, edging the lawn with exotic colours, and his unmet grandson first tottered upright here, as if gently mimicking old age's frailty. Sometimes I imagine our footprints leaving trails like snails, and picture the garden glittering like glass or silver, its green obscured by a multitude of steps, our whorling tattoos of movement finely dotted into the ground which bore us. Such marks would cluster deeply round the house and garden, marking out the territory of home. And, on the grand scale, mirroring this well trodden place, the world seen from space would appear criss-crossed with steps, peppered with the spoor of our passing, bearing on it the multitude of tracks which our tribe has left in all its centuries of walking, marking out this shimmering blue-green planet as home.
The ability to walk upright is one of the key characteristics which separates us from our nearest evolutionary cousins. Looking at those charts which show how humans evolved from a chain of hunched and swarthy hominids -- australopithecus, pithecanthropus, neanderthaler and so on -- our path follows a line of increasing uprightness, as if seeking out the posture of the walker. In the last frame, where homo sapiens has finally emerged, naked, tall, unhairy, recognizable as us, it is as if we had stood up straight and walked away from hunched, uncertain beginnings, a long hatching from some unimaginable egg, slow progress from a string of crawling, crouching, scampering metamorphoses. What a weight of history has been carried forward on our steps! We may be clumsy beside the grace of a gazelle, slow when compared to the speed of a sabre-toothed tiger's spring, feeble if measured against the massive tread of dinosaurs or mammoths (or of elephants and rhinos), but our walking has outpaced them all. We have walked our way across the world and beyond it; our steps have led to civilizations, commerce, art, science, warfare.
Perhaps it is because of the burden of events which walking has borne that there is always something alluring about a footprint. Who has not been struck by a sense of curiosity and kinship -- a desire to follow -- when we stumble on a line of unknown footprints freshly made in the sand, snow or mud of some deserted place? Shod feet can stir our interest, but they lack something of the potency with which a barefoot trail seems so heavily imbued. …