a la sainte terre


Thoreau writes about the art of walking or “sauntering” and says that the word is “beautifully derived from ‘idle people who roved about the country, in the Middle Ages and asked charity, under pretense of going a la Sainte-Terre’, to the Holy Land, till the children exclaimed ‘There goes a Sainte-Terrer’ a Saunterer, a Holy Lander.” He goes on to say that “They who never go to the Holy Land in their walks, as they pretend, are indeed mere idlers and vagabonds; but they who do go there are saunterers in the good sense, such as I mean…he who sits still in a house all the time may be the greatest vagrant of all; but the saunterer, in the good sense, is no more vagrant than the meandering river, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea.”

Our town’s meandering river, formerly a marsh and estuary, has been legally declared a river by an act of congress. Like congress can change what is—and what is, in this case, is the largest intact salt water marsh in the continental united states, flowing into the Bay from here. The dredgers come out every few years to take out the mud from the petaluma river and make a channel that boats can come through. The coursing water doesn’t know it’s a river now though and still likes to flow over its floodplain sometimes. It has come very close to overflowing the banks downtown and regularly gushes onto roads, into neighborhoods and auto plazas, parking lots and retail stores, as if they were never built.

There is a walking (or sauntering) and biking trail following the petaluma river and its feeder creeks along all the way across town. Not everyone knows about it, and some people write on the flood control walls. These walls have been engineered at great expense to protect the adjacent neighborhoods from this relentless water—neighborhoods built before people realized that a flood plain sometimes floods, even if you call it a river instead. To get to the lynch creek river trail you have to find the beginning, which is behind the clover plant off lakeville. Eventually the trail will lead all the way into downtown, but until then, behind the clover plant you go.

It is surprising how fast you cross town on foot and even faster on a bike. From lakeville to mcdowell in 20 leisurely minutes on foot. The thing I like about this trail is that there are no cars in sight until you go under the freeway, which is a treat in and of itself. The natural world abounds all around you: lynch creek rushing by, rain pouring down, tall fennel plants growing around you, birds conversing madly, a stretching meadow with oaks in the distance. And at the same time you are juxtaposed against the fast freeway right above, cars barreling by at 80 miles per hour as you stand quietly, invisibly under their wheels. And there you are, a la sainte terre.

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2 thoughts on “a la sainte terre

  1. I love Thoreau’s account of saunterers, and your account of sauntering. I’ll be off to Sainte-Terre myself, I think.

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