Commentary

My Mind Is Meandering

Thirty-seven years ago, when I first drove into the valley I now call home, I said to myself, “Now, this is a place for meandering!”

Meandering is a word we don’t use enough today. We certainly don’t do the actual act of meandering enough anymore. To “meander” is to “flow in a winding course.” It comes from Maiandros, the Greek name of a river in Turkey (also known as the Büyük Menderes) known for its sinuous path. This is perhaps what brought the word to mind when I drove into Western Canada’s Okanagan Valley. This is a valley formed by water, either in flowing or frozen form.

I have always loved the word meander. Even the sound of it is like a journey; you scale the heights of the hard “e,” pausing for a minute to rest against the soft “a”, after which you descend into the lush vale that is formed by its remaining syllable. The aquatic origins of the word are appropriate, because to meander is to be in a state of flow but with no purpose in mind. Meandering allows the mind to freewheel, to pick its own path.

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You know what’s another great word? Saunter.

My favorite story about sauntering is that told by Albert Palmer in his 1919 book, The Mountain Trail and Its Message. He tells of an exchange with John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club, who was called the Father of America’s National Parks. In the exchange, Muir explains why he finds the word “saunter” far more to his taste than “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."

According to Google’s Ngram viewer, literary usage of the word “saunter”  hit Its peak in the 1800s and was in decline for most of the following century. That timeline makes sense. Sauntering would definitely be popular with the Romantic movement of the late 1800s. This was a movement back to appreciate the charms of nature and would have been an open invitation to “saunter” in Muir’s “Holy Land.”

For some reason, the word seems to be enjoying a bit of a resurgence in usage in the last 20 years.

Meander is a different story. It only started to really appear in books towards the end of the 1800s and continued to be used through the 20th century, although usage dropped during times of tribulation, notably World War I, the Great Depression of the 1930s and throughout World War II. Again, that’s not surprising. It’s hard to meander when you’re in a constant state of anxiety.

As my mind meandered down this path, I wondered if there is a digital equivalent to meandering or sauntering. Take scrolling through Facebook, for example. It is navigating without any specific destination in mind, so perhaps it qualifies as meandering. There is no direct line to connect A to B.

But I wouldn’t call social media scrolling sauntering. There’s a distinction between ”meandering” and “sauntering.” I think saunter implies that you know where you’re going, but there is no rigid schedule set to get there. You can take as much time as you like to smell the flowers on your way.

Also, as John Muir mentioned, sauntering requires a certain sense of place. The setting in which you saunter is of critical importance. However you would define your own “Holy Land,” that’s  the place where you should saunter. It should be grounded in some gravitas.

That’s why I don’t think you can really saunter through social media. To me, Facebook, Instagram or TikTok are a far cry from being considered hallowed ground.

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