Walk With Me

a figure walking

Mark Riechers/Midjourney (TTBOOK)

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Original Air Date: 
July 30, 2022

We all know we should walk more. The evidence just keeps accumulating – walking makes us healthier, happier, smarter, more relaxed, more resilient – not to mention longer-lived. But even with the best of intentions, sometimes we all need a little push to get out the door.

women walking

After a health scare, Annabel Abbs promised herself she'd make a real effort to walk every day. She fell in love with walking, even began taking multi-week walking vacations. And then she discovered she wasn't the only one — there's a hidden history of great women walkers from the past. So she decided to tell their stories.

a drawing of human foot bones

Six million years ago – give or take – the first early humans stood upright and started walking. Thanks to a new look at the fossil record, paleoanthropologist Jeremy DeSilva has some new theories about how and why humans took those first steps.

a silent walking figure

John Francis, the "planetwalker," walked all over the country in silence for nearly 20 years. Steve and Anne met John a few years ago at the Geography of Hope Conference in Point Reyes, California – back where his journey began.

Show Details 📻
July 30, 2022
February 18, 2023
October 14, 2023
Full Transcript 📄

Anne Strainchamps (00:00):

It's To The Best Of Our Knowledge. I'm Anne Strainchamps. Walking is something you can do every day, something so simple, it's easy to take for granted.

Annabel Abbs (00:22):

About eight years ago, I was at London Book Fair and I was walking home carrying lots and lots of books from the book fair. Something started to happen in my head. It was very strange. I just feel very dizzy and some part of my vision was doing very strange things. I couldn't recognize any of the landmarks and I didn't know where I was and I was feeling very frightened. I couldn't find my house on my own street. I was walking in and out of all the houses of my neighbors and I kept getting to the front door and thinking, this isn't my door. Where am I? Why can't I find my house? By this stage, I was feeling very, very faint. Then the next thing I knew, I was in an ambulance. I had collapsed fairly close to my house. One of my neighbors found me lying on the pavement.

Annabel Abbs (01:50):

I spent about eight days in intensive care because I'd cracked my skull. I still couldn't move because the crack on my head had affected my vestibular system, my system of balance. Whenever I moved, I felt as though I was on a rocking ship, that I was very drunk at the same time, so everything just swayed round and round and round. While I was lying there very, very still on all of these drips and wires, I couldn't do anything except watch what was happening around me. There are all these people walking and they don't realize how lucky they are. Of course, I then realized that I had not realized how lucky I was. I had just taken that ability to move my legs, taken it completely for granted. Why have I just been sitting around for years as we do sitting on laptops and sitting at desks and just sitting, sitting, sitting? The other thing was in the past, I'd always hated my legs. I hated the way they looked. As I lay at this hospital bed, I just had this epiphany where I thought, right, this is it. From now on, I'm just walking.

Anne Strainchamps (03:27):

Annabel Abbs kept the promise she made to herself in the hospital. When she got out, she made a real effort to walk every day and it turned out to be addictive. She started walking longer and farther and faster, walking for days, sometimes weeks. Then she started to wonder, who else walked like her? She wrote about what she discovered in a book called Windswept.

Annabel Abbs (03:59):

I like to do very long distances. I quite like some of the more hardcore elements. I quite like to carry a backpack. I like to walk quite quickly. It just becomes more and more meditative really. You move into a slightly different state of consciousness and you don't want it to stop. You just want to keep going and going, so I suppose my style is fast and-

Anne Strainchamps (04:24):

Fast and intense.

Annabel Abbs (04:25):

Fast and intense.

Anne Strainchamps (04:27):

You like to push yourself. That's great. You wound up getting really interested in the history of women walkers and you discovered all these stories, forgotten stories of women who had walked huge, epic distances. How did you even begin discovering them?

Annabel Abbs (04:48):

Well, I was reading lots and lots of books about walking and they were all by men or by men about men, or even sometimes by women, but about men. I thought this is very strange because if walking had such a profound effect on me and my state of mind, then surely, it must have done that for women in the past, so where are they? So I just started literally scouring libraries. I just started digging through very old accounts of my time in the Alps, 1865, or my trip over the Pyrenees, 1830 written by women. They were never ever acknowledged by that cannon of male walkers, so they just got more and more lost.

Anne Strainchamps (05:40):

What's fascinating, I think, is that if you don't know that there has been this history of women who have walked vast distances, it constrains your sense of your own possibilities.

Annabel Abbs (05:53):

Absolutely. It's very empowering once you know that women have not only done these routes, but they did them with no mobile phone, no GPS. They didn't have bras. They didn't have waterproof trousers. They didn't have rehydratable meals you can eat straight from a bag. They didn't have lightweight backpacks. They didn't have any of these things and yet, they were there walking 20 or 30 miles a day, often day after day after day. The other interesting thing is I did discover, there are also a lot of women who are quite well-known, but again, if you look at someone like Georgia O'Keeffe or Simone de Beauvoir, everybody knows who they are and they know O'Keeffe for her paintings and they know Simone de Beauvoir for her writings, but they don't know either woman for these incredible long distance walks that they did.

Anne Strainchamps (06:43):

Give me a sense of the range of women whose stories you began collecting. Do you have favorites?

Annabel Abbs (06:49):

One of them is a woman called Katharine Trevelyan. She walked right across Canada when she was 23, literally from one side of Canada to the other on her own,-

Anne Strainchamps (07:01):


Annabel Abbs (07:02):

... with a tent on her back and a gun. Her father made her take a revolver. She would pitch her tent up in Canadian forest. She wrote about it all later on in this account, which again, is completely forgotten.

Anne Strainchamps (07:16):

Wow. This is what, 100 years ago?

Annabel Abbs (07:19):

Oh, she did that in 1933.

Anne Strainchamps (07:21):


Annabel Abbs (07:23):

So almost a hundred years ago.

Anne Strainchamps (07:25):


Annabel Abbs (07:26):

Alone, yeah, at 23. She was a favorite of mine. I do love Simone de Beauvoir because of the way in which she walks. She's a military walker. She's clocking up these miles and she walks really fast, trying to see whether she could go further or higher or faster in a way that we take for granted now. But women back in the 1920s and '30s just didn't do that.

Anne Strainchamps (07:52):

Yeah. I wanted to focus a bit on Simone de Beauvoir because we think of her as this creature of Paris cafes. We imagine her smoking cigarettes with Jean-Paul Sartre wearing a turban, the chic feminist philosopher, but not a backpacker.

Annabel Abbs (08:08):

Well, she discovered walking when she got her first job as a teacher, a philosophy teacher in the south of France. It was the first time she'd left Paris, the first time she'd left home. She started by pushing herself with the walking and then she would start taking on trails where she was having to clamber and literally climb over rocks. She has a lot of accidents where she falls into ravines and quite often, she thinks she's about to die.

Anne Strainchamps (08:36):


Annabel Abbs (08:37):


Anne Strainchamps (08:38):

Was she really endangered?

Annabel Abbs (08:40):

Well, there was one particular incidence where she fell into a ravine and she couldn't get back out. She lay there for hours screaming and calling for help and no one came, but then she does somehow manage to climb out eventually. Because also, she's going to places that nobody walks. It's not your usual Sunday afternoon trail. There's no one else there, and yet she travels with a water bottle full of red wine. I love that.

Anne Strainchamps (09:06):

That's very French. What would be a normal walk for Simone de Beauvoir?

Annabel Abbs (09:11):

Oh, she would do 25 to 30 miles a day and sometimes she would sleep rough. She talks about sleeping on benches, sleeping in barns, sleeping out in fields. She plots these routes herself. She's not following trails. She's plotting the routes with army maps that she gets hold of, but she'll spend whole evenings just working out her route and working out which way she's going to go.

Anne Strainchamps (09:35):

This is obsessive.

Annabel Abbs (09:37):


Anne Strainchamps (09:38):


Annabel Abbs (09:39):

And she uses that very word.

Anne Strainchamps (09:41):

So what was driving her?

Annabel Abbs (09:43):

She looks back later from midlife and she says, "That was my crazy obsessive fanatical walking."

Anne Strainchamps (09:51):

What was going on?

Annabel Abbs (09:52):

I suppose the great thing about walking is that you are not only walking away from something physically and literally, but you're also walking towards something. I think she was walking away from Jean-Paul Sartre and his infidelities because the time of her huge obsessive walking is absolutely the time that he is saying, we must have an open relationship and he's having lots and lots of affairs. She really, really loves him and she doesn't really want to have this open relationship, but she knows it to be a true existentialist, she has to have this very open mind. So the walking is partly her walking away from him and she's partly testing her ability to be on her own. She takes a lot of risks. She often hitches rides to and from the start points of her walks. She has a lot of really lucky escapes from men who sometimes have knives and often want her to sleep with them or to roll with them in a ditch. They were assaulting her and she would jump out of moving cars.

Anne Strainchamps (11:03):


Annabel Abbs (11:04):

Every time she escaped from one of these encounters, she was quite extraordinary, she would say, "Right, that's it. I'm invincible. I'm even more invincible."

Anne Strainchamps (11:12):

Wasn't she, at one point, some truck driver beat her up and dumped her body in a ravine?

Annabel Abbs (11:18):

Yeah. Absolutely. She was like, "I've survived that, so I can survive again."

Anne Strainchamps (11:24):

That seems like, I don't know what, like some kind of reveling in physical strength as though it's a marker, a signpost of something else, some other kind of strength that she wants.

Annabel Abbs (11:39):

Yeah. The freedom that she finds with this new body of hers, she starts discovering her body can do all these things. She also starts to find that freedom to think, to find her own voice. It's no coincidence really that the first thing she really writes at the end of all this walking is The Second Sex. Definitely, her philosophy of feminism is shaped by this confidence that she finds walking.

Anne Strainchamps (12:06):

The women you profile in this book are some of the most creative in history, Georgia O'Keeffe, the painter, Gwen John is another painter, Nan Shepherd, Simone de Beauvoir. Do you think there's a connection between walking and creativity?

Annabel Abbs (12:21):

Yeah, I do. Some of it, I think, is very basic biology. When you're walking outdoors, you have got this oxygen coming into your lungs and your brain is just being reoxygenated the whole time. The brain works much better if it's got oxygen. Every part of your body is working, but at a very low level, so it's not like running. Your brain is able to go another place. You're not having to think at all. Walking really lends itself to a more mindful state that I don't think you could do with any other form of physical movement.

Anne Strainchamps (12:57):

It's interesting. The women you profiled all felt so compelled to walk, but the walking itself seemed to change them. Today, we know there are reasons why walking can change you.

Annabel Abbs (13:11):

Yeah. One of the things that I really love, and it's very, very simple, is this idea of panoramic vision. If you think of your eyes always on your laptop, on your phone hour after hour, your eyes are really like two fists. They're focusing hard. All the muscles are clenched without you really realizing it because it's the norm, isn't it? But what happens when you move outside and you extend your gaze, say up to the sky or even to the trees or to the stars if it's at night or whatever? Your eyes completely change and you switch into this panoramic vision and your stress levels completely fall. It's such a simple thing. I think the other thing we have to remember is that our ancestors have been walking for millennia. In fact, walking made us human, really. It was walking that enabled us to move on from being an ape or a primate and become a human being, a Homo sapiens. So it's partly that it's so much in our DNA. In the last, what is it, 20 years really, we've just walked less and less and less.

Anne Strainchamps (14:19):


Annabel Abbs (14:20):

The last two decades, we've walked less than ever.

Anne Strainchamps (14:22):

Annabel Abbs has written two books about walking, Windswept: Walking the Paths of Trailblazing Women, and under the name Annabel Streets, 52 Ways to Walk. Coming up. We'll take a trip back in time to figure out how our ancient ancestors learned to walk.

Jeremy DeSilva (15:02):

The first time I went to the rain forest to study chimpanzees, a chimpanzee climbed a tree right in front of me. It was able to press its foot. The top of its foot was flexible enough to touch the front of its shinbone. Think about that for a second, that you can pull the top of your foot against your shin and then twist the foot almost like you can your hand. The first motion would've snapped my Achilles tendon. The second motion would've sprained my ankle terribly, and yet here's this chimpanzee climbing a tree right in front of me with the same general bones that I have, the same 26 bones in its foot that I have, and yet it's able to perform a motion that I can't. I was fascinated and I needed to know how is it able to do that.

Anne Strainchamps (16:25):

I would so love to be able to climb trees like a chimpanzee, but our feet were made for walking. Paleoanthropologist Jerry DeSilva explains how and why after this. I'm Anne Strainchamps. It's To The Best Of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX. Six million years ago, give or take, the first early humans stood upright and started walking. The world has never been the same, but how and why we traded scampering around in trees for walking on two legs is still a mystery. Steve Paulson tracked down a guy who is reinterpreting the fossil record and has some new theories about how humans learn to walk.

Jeremy DeSilva (17:22):

My name is Jeremy DeSilva. I'm a paleoanthropologist at Dartmouth College. I'm interested in the very beginnings of the human lineage and what set us off on our path. What we can tell from studying these fossils is that bipedalism, moving on two legs, is the most ancient human adaptation. It's what happened first. It set the stage for all of the things that happened later, from our language and our dietary flexibility, to our reliance on technology and tools, the way we give birth and we raise our children. All of these things really have their roots in how we move. Here, I'll show you.

Steve Paulson (18:01):


Jeremy DeSilva (18:10):

This fossil is from a creature Sahelanthropus that lived between six and seven million years ago.

Steve Paulson (18:16):

So that's right around the time that our branch of evolution diverged from the ancestors of chimps, right?

Jeremy DeSilva (18:23):

Exactly, which is why this is such an exciting fossil. It's a magnificent skull. Now, if we flip the skull over and look at the hole at the very bottom, this is where your spinal cord exits the brain in your neck. It's positioned at the very bottom of the skull, which is different from what we've seen something moving on all fours. This is tantalizing evidence and not surprisingly, it's really controversial.

Steve Paulson (18:50):

One of the reasons why it's so important from an evolutionary perspective to try to figure out when we branched off from chimpanzees is that chimps and gorillas are not actually bipedal. They don't walk like we do.

Jeremy DeSilva (19:03):

No, they don't. They don't. They can. They can get up on two legs, but it's not a very efficient form of locomotion for them. Their knees are bent. They can't support their bodies on a single leg, so they fall over and they wobble.

Steve Paulson (19:18):

And they knuckle walk. Usually, when they're getting around, they're on all fours, but the knuckles on the front arms are down on the ground.

Jeremy DeSilva (19:26):

That's exactly right. One of the hypotheses for years and years and years, and this is something that your listeners are probably familiar with, they've seen it on T-shirts and bumper stickers and coffee cups, is that the common ancestor we shared with chimpanzees would've been a knuckle walker and that bipedalism evolved from something that was moving on its knuckles.

Steve Paulson (19:47):


Jeremy DeSilva (19:47):

Now we can test this idea by looking at fossils that are from that time period, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, million years ago. We don't have many, but what fossils we do have are not from knuckle walkers. They're from these apes that many of them living in Southern Europe, living in France, in Italy, in Spain,-

Steve Paulson (20:10):


Jeremy DeSilva (20:10):

... Greece, Turkey, Germany, the forests of Africa at this time period, had spread north and hugged the, what is today, the Mediterranean. And apes love forests. They love trees that are producing fruit, but what we're finding are these apes that tend to be somewhat upright in the trees, moving on the tops of branches, holding on to branches above them and moving bipedally, moving on two legs in the trees.

Steve Paulson (20:39):

Can I just say that sounds really counterintuitive to be standing upright in trees.

Jeremy DeSilva (20:44):


Steve Paulson (20:44):

It seems like there'd be a better way to live in trees than do standing on two legs.

Jeremy DeSilva (20:49):

Yeah. It certainly does. For a long time, it was thought that once bipedalism evolve, once we started walking around on two legs, that everyone is doing it in the same kind of way. But there was a discovery a couple of years ago in South Africa of what's called Australopithecus sediba. I'll take you over-

Steve Paulson (21:07):

Okay, sure.

Jeremy DeSilva (21:07):

... to Australopithecus sediba.

Steve Paulson (21:07):


Jeremy DeSilva (21:07):

This is a composite skeleton discovered in 2008. We can tell from her bones that she moved on two legs, but in each of those places, whether it's the hip or the lower back or the knee or the ankle, her bones were strange. They didn't quite look like they should. What do I mean by that? What should they look like? Well, she's what we call an Australopithecus. We already had a skeleton of an Australopithecus, the very famous Lucy.

Steve Paulson (21:41):

Right, right.

Jeremy DeSilva (21:42):

But they look so different from one another. What we ended up concluding was that this is evidence that they actually walked differently. So even with upright walking, there were these different experiments going on.

Steve Paulson (21:55):

Can you describe that then? If we were looking at them each walk, what would be different about that?

Jeremy DeSilva (22:00):

Yeah. With Lucy, not only do we have her skeleton, but we have bones of lots of other individuals that were found near her and her species even left us footprints-

Steve Paulson (22:11):

Oh, wow.

Jeremy DeSilva (22:12):

... in Tanzania, these extraordinary footprints known as the Laetoli footprints. From the footprints and from the skeletons, we can infer that their gait, how they walked, was a lot like ours. They landed with a heel strike. They transferred a lot of their weight to their big toe like we do. They had a slightly flatter foot than we do, so they couldn't quite push off as we do today, but if you could see Lucy at a distance, just walking along, you wouldn't really notice a difference.

Steve Paulson (22:43):

Oh, really? Wow.

Jeremy DeSilva (22:43):

Yeah. She would walk a lot like us. She wasn't hunched over.

Steve Paulson (22:47):


Jeremy DeSilva (22:48):

She wasn't bent hip and knee. She didn't walk like an upright chimpanzee. She walked a lot like us.

Steve Paulson (22:53):

And this was what? Like 3.2 million years ago?

Jeremy DeSilva (22:55):

Exactly. Exactly. By three million years ago, you have a very human-like gait that had evolved in Australopithecus, what we call Australopithecus afarensis, Lucy and her kind.

Steve Paulson (23:06):

Now, one of the fascinating things that I was reading when I was reading your book was you said that if you could magically go back in time to any period, you'd go back to the time of Lucy.

Jeremy DeSilva (23:34):

I would.

Steve Paulson (23:35):


Jeremy DeSilva (23:37):

Lucy is an icon of our science. Everyone's heard of Lucy, still, and yet, we still have many questions about her. We still don't entirely know how her species is related to ours, if it's an extinct side branch or if it's a direct ancestor. We still have questions about diet. We still have questions about the everyday life of our extinct ancestors.

Steve Paulson (24:12):

Describe as much as you can what Lucy looked like and what her life was like. She was little, wasn't she? Like three and a half feet tall or something?

Jeremy DeSilva (24:21):

That's right. She was tiny, tiny, tiny, and yet we know she was a full grown adult.

Steve Paulson (24:26):

Three and a half to four feet tall, they would be sitting ducks for the big carnivores out there, I would think.

Jeremy DeSilva (24:32):

I'll show you one of those carnivores.

Steve Paulson (24:33):


Jeremy DeSilva (24:34):

This is called a Homotherium. This is one of these large cats-

Steve Paulson (24:39):


Jeremy DeSilva (24:40):

... that we find fossils of.

Steve Paulson (24:42):

This looks like, I don't know, a tiger or a lion, something leopard maybe, I don't know, with huge incisors. My God.

Jeremy DeSilva (24:49):

That's right, and bigger than a modern lion. Not only did you have these large cats, but you had enormous hyenas living on the same environment.

Steve Paulson (24:56):

So we were the hunted, not the hunters.

Jeremy DeSilva (24:59):

That's exactly right. A lot of folks think that the origins of our lineage, this goes back to Darwin's time, but then was really celebrated and popularized in the 1950s and 1960s, this idea that we only survived because we were wielding weapons and bipedalism happened because we could free the hands for tools and weaponry and that we were a violent, blood-thirsty ape. Instead, right, we were the hunted. We weren't the hunters.

Steve Paulson (25:26):

I'm still trying to figure out how we survived.

Jeremy DeSilva (25:29):

Okay. I'm going to make it even worse on you. Not only are we slow in the landscape, but we are easily injured. So now you're moving on two legs and what if you break one of those legs? If you're moving on all four and you break one of those legs, well, you still have three. You still can get away. What if you break a leg? We have fossil evidence that that happened. Here is a femur from Kenya. It was discovered in the 1970s. Not only is this a fractured femur, it's a healed fractured femur. So this individual broke their leg and then survived.

Steve Paulson (26:12):

Survived, wow.

Jeremy DeSilva (26:12):

Survived. Now I think the pieces are beginning to come together.

Steve Paulson (26:16):

So it must have been cared for.

Jeremy DeSilva (26:18):

Exactly. Exactly. How did a slow biped surrounded by predators on a dangerous landscape, how did we survive? How did our ancestors survive? They looked out for each other. They took care of each other. When somebody was injured, they didn't leave them for dead. They brought them to a tree where they could heal and they probably brought them food and kept watch over them. Look, one of the things that we can and should celebrate about being human is our cooperative nature and our compassion for one another. We can be awful to each other. We all know that. We see plenty of news to know that we can be awful to each other, but we often overlook how good we can be to each other as well.

Steve Paulson (27:02):

One thing that you mentioned in passing is that these were slow, these creatures, and walking in two legs has some serious disadvantages. You cannot outrun a lion or a cheetah. You're toast if you get into a foot race there.

Jeremy DeSilva (27:18):

That's right.

Steve Paulson (27:19):

Again, an argument for why walking upright, bipedalism, doesn't seem like such a great idea.

Jeremy DeSilva (27:25):

No. We don't even have to go back in time to talk about how slow we are. The fastest human being on the planet, the fastest human who's ever existed as far as we know, Usain Bolt, the fastest he ever ran in his 100-meter world record setting race was 28 miles an hour. That's half the speed, half the speed of a galloping zebra or antelope. It's half the speed of a leopard or a lion.

Steve Paulson (27:51):

And of course, Usain Bolt can only do that for 10 seconds.

Jeremy DeSilva (27:54):

That's exactly right. Exactly. So one of the other things that we infer is a shift in activity patterns in our early ancestors. When the lions and leopards go out to hunt, well, it's usually dawn and dusk. So were Australopithecines out there collecting their food at dawn and dusk? I don't think so. I think that's exactly when they were up in their trees making a nest for the night. It was only in the heat of the day that they would be able to come down safely in order to collect food. The heat of the day, lions and leopards, they're asleep. They're underneath trees. They're trying to get shade. Whereas that's exactly when humans today are their most active and I think that's exactly when our ancestors probably were active as well. But they couldn't be picky out there in their landscape, so they have to gather up and eat whatever they can.

Jeremy DeSilva (28:48):

What we can tell from Lucy and her kind by studying the isotopes of their teeth is that right around that time, three, three and a half million years ago, they went from eating forest foods, very fruit-heavy diet to eating everything. That's exactly what we see in humans today. We collectively eat everything. If it has DNA in it, we've tried it as a species. Again, I think it goes back to being bipedal, being vulnerable on a dangerous landscape and not being able to afford to be a picky eater.

Steve Paulson (29:23):

Can I just say, this is a story about our very humble origins. Our ancestors, Lucy and her kind, were not kings of the Savannah, anything but.

Jeremy DeSilva (29:34):

Absolutely. One of the things that has struck me as I study these fossils that are 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 million years old of our ancestors in Eastern and South Africa, I am amazed that they survived. Of course, many of them went extinct, but enough of them survived that here we are. So the resilience, the ingenuity, the creativity, the ability of these ancestors of ours to survive despite all of the odds stacked against them is pretty remarkable. Makes me want to celebrate them beyond just in the shapes of the bones. They were extraordinary.

Steve Paulson (30:34):

There is a kind of bird that is an interesting counterexample to the bipedalism of humans, and that's the ostrich or the emu, who on two legs, can run very fast. Why are they so much better at running than we are?

Jeremy DeSilva (30:55):

A couple of reasons. Their legs are all bone and tendon. All the muscles are up in the body of the animal and what that helps them do, it puts the weight farther away from the thing that's moving and it allows their legs to go with much more frequency, to go faster, faster, faster, faster. Ostriches can run 45 miles an hour or so. If you look at a human foot, a human foot has 26 individual bones in it.

Steve Paulson (31:27):

26, that's a lot.

Jeremy DeSilva (31:28):

26 individual bones and you have two feet. So you have 52 foot bones and that means a quarter of your skeleton is made of foot bones.

Steve Paulson (31:39):

Wait, that's crazy, right?

Jeremy DeSilva (31:41):

Tons and tons and tons of foot bones. Okay. Why is that? Well, we descend from apes. We are primates and primates live in trees and you need in trees to have a mobile foot. Think about an orangutans' foot or a chimpanzee's foot. They can use their foot in the same way that I use my hand.

Steve Paulson (32:00):


Jeremy DeSilva (32:00):

They can grab onto things. Well, the bones that we have in our foot, those are the exact same 26 bones that a chimpanzee has. They're just tweaked a little bit and that converts our foot from a grasping organ like a chimp has into one that can push off the ground. It can act as more of a lever, but we still have those 26 individual bones and they still want to move relative to each other. Well, what results? Well, you get plantar fasciitis or you get an ankle sprain.

Steve Paulson (32:31):

So you're saying-

Jeremy DeSilva (32:31):

You get bunions or-

Steve Paulson (32:31):

... this is actually a badly designed foot.

Jeremy DeSilva (32:33):

Oh, it's a disaster. Yeah. Look, evolution works with what it has, with whatever preexisting form it has. It tweaks and it tinkers and it modifies, and it doesn't create perfection. It creates just good enough to survive.

Steve Paulson (32:48):

So by contrast, what about an ostrich foot?

Jeremy DeSilva (32:51):

The ostrich foot, again, think about an ostrich's lineage. It doesn't come from an ape or a primate. It has descended from bipedal dinosaurs. An ostrich foot, what has happened is that many of the bones of their ancestors' feet have fused together into a single rigid column called a tarsometatarsus. They've reduced the number of digits. They only have eight bones in their feet, so less capacity for motion, and instead, their foot looks a lot like the paralympic prosthetic blade that athletes will use, that single rigid structure that can hit the ground, store elastic energy, and then push off the ground and propel them into their next step.

Steve Paulson (33:39):

Which raises some fascinating questions. One is, might we evolve if we survive for millions more years to have a better foot? Could some of those 26 bones fuse together so that we'd have more of an ostrich foot? I guess the other question is just given technology, would we be better off if there was some intervention to make a better human foot?

Jeremy DeSilva (34:00):

Sure. I can absolutely imagine that there could be technology that could improve the anatomy of the human foot.

Steve Paulson (34:08):

But what would your ideal human foot look like?

Jeremy DeSilva (34:10):

Oh, it'd be an ostrich foot. Oh, I'd totally have an ostrich foot and leg, so you run 45 miles an hour with that kind of setup. But if we could go a million years in the future, I don't think we'd have a dramatically different kind of foot. One of the reasons for that is because we solve some of these problems that we have. We solve them culturally, that if somebody has foot problems, we bring them to the doctor. We take care of them. We wrap them up in a bandage. We give them ice to control swelling and ibuprofen. We are a biocultural animal, ostriches aren't.

Steve Paulson (34:46):

Yeah. Do you think of humans as being essentially a walking species? I'm partly asking that because it's considered very good for our health to walk.

Jeremy DeSilva (34:56):

It is. It is incredibly good for you. Physiologically, when your muscles contract, they release something called myokines into the bloodstream, and there are many different kinds of them. There are over 100 different myokines that have been identified. They target different tissues of the body, including the brain. These myokines have been associated with general cardiovascular health, reduction in cancer risk, reduction in diabetes risk, reduction in early onset dementia. There are all of these things that are these general health benefits. There was a meta study that was done that showed that just a 20-minute walk a day can add three to five years to your life.

Steve Paulson (35:36):


Jeremy DeSilva (35:37):

Just going for a walk.

Steve Paulson (35:39):


Jeremy DeSilva (35:39):

So you don't have to do anything crazy, just go for a walk.

Steve Paulson (35:43):


Anne Strainchamps (35:54):

That's Jerry DeSilva, a paleoanthropologist at Dartmouth College and the author of First Steps: How Upright Walking Made Us Human. He was talking with Steve Paulson. Coming up, walking isn't just good for you. It's also good for the planet.

Speaker 6 (36:20):

Well, first of all, what I've heard is two oil tankers crashed. I go down there, I see all this oil. It's just sick.

John Francis (36:30):

In 1971, I saw an oil spill in San Francisco Bay.

Speaker 8 (36:35):

The ducks, we clean their eyes off, clean their nostrils, then clean them out there, so they don't swallow anything.

John Francis (36:44):

I decided to do something about the oil that washed up on the beach. Beside clean it, I gave up riding in cars.

Speaker 3 (37:06):


John Francis (37:11):

That was a big shock for a lot of people in this little community. We argued about whether one person could make a difference. On my 27th birthday, I decided I was going to take a break from speaking because I was arguing all the time. For one day, I decided I wasn't going to speak and that day lasted 17 years. The walking lasted 22 years.

Anne Strainchamps (37:52):

The Planetwalker, John Francis, tells his story next right here on to The Best Of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX. One of the most inspiring walkers I've ever met is John Francis. A lot of people know him as the Planetwalker. His story begins in 1971 with the famous oil spill in the San Francisco Bay. John was living nearby in a small town called Inverness on the Point Reyes coast. He decided he could not stand contributing to fossil fuel consumption anymore, so he stopped riding in cars. Then he went a step further and stopped talking, and this lasted for nearly 20 years, during which time, he walked all over the country and somehow also earned a PhD in environmental studies. Steve and I met John a few years ago at the Geography of Hope Conference in Point Reyes, California, where it all began.

Speaker 11 (38:59):

Save our earth. Save our earth. Save our earth. Save our earth. Save our earth. Save our earth.

Speaker 9 (39:10):

On this Earth Day, millions of Americans in the communities which got this map have taken the first step to survival.

John Francis (39:18):

I was actually walking first and that's when people wanted to argue with me and I argued that one person could make a difference. I wasn't sure, and so when people came to argue with me about what I was doing, instead, I listened. In this little village, of course everyone knew when I was walking and we knew what everyone was doing in this little village. Well, John just stopped riding in cars because of the oil spill and now he stopped talking because he's decided that it's better to listen. That got around. Hey, John Francis will listen to you. Let's go talk to him. The thing about this large Black man walking not saying anything is that I carried a banjo. I played music all the time. I played music walking up and down the road into where people start to recognize. They could hear me coming and they said, "Oh, here comes John."

John Francis (40:57):

If you're moving at that pace, there are people driving back and forth all the time and they're talking about that guy who's walking and they go, "Oh, yeah, that guy. Well, you know about him, don't you?" "Yeah. He's the guy from Inverness and he doesn't ride in cars. He just walks. He doesn't talk." "He doesn't talk. Come on, let's go over and try and get him to talk." So they would pull over and try to get me to say something or I'd play the banjo and they'd drive off. "See, that guy didn't talk. He really doesn't talk." They tell the next people in the next town, and so I think your reputation precedes you moving at a human pace like that.

John Francis (41:42):

When I started actually getting from my leaving my community, I thought of it as really a sacred journey and here I was more in touch with native people, the First Nation, thinking about journeying from one place to another. My first journey was from Inverness to the Siskiyou Mountains in Oregon and the county office's wilderness. I have to say, not speaking and walking so much put me in an altered state. Things became alive and things became really different for me that I would never have understood hadn't I embarked on this journey. When I say spiritual, it's almost like to say spiritual and something that's invisible, but you know it's there. It's like the wind. The wind is invisible, but you know it's there. I felt the wind a lot.

John Francis (43:30):

I had some experiences with people, actually only one experience with an off-duty deputy sheriff. They pointed a gun to my... It was like, this is Mr. Death. This is Mr. Death and I was thinking, so this is the time and I didn't do my painting for the day, because I painted every day a watercolor. When they said something about we don't like, and they didn't use a particularly nice word, these two off-duty sheriffs, deputy sheriffs, and they pointed a gun to my... 44 caliber. I could look down there. I remember Dirty Harry. I said, "Oh, yeah, that's what that is." I just motioned with my fingers that I was walking south. They said, "Well, you get going." I could see myself in the back of their pickup truck being put somewhere and that didn't happen. I turned around and they were gone.

John Francis (44:53):

So I sat right down and took out my watercolors and started painting because I wanted to get my watercolor done before Mr. Death came around again. Well, I got down to the Russian River and I camped at the Russian River. Then I got scared. I said, "Oh, my God." I could die doing this. I could die. But then I said to myself, I listened to the call of a loon. You know these loons, they, "Woo woo woo woo woo woo woo. Woo woo woo woo woo woo woo." That was healing to me. In the morning, I got up and I said, well, I could hitchhike or get in a car or any of those things, but I'm going to keep walking because death's going to find me soon enough, so I'm just going to keep walking and that's what I did. I just kept walking.

Steve Paulson (46:09):

Why did you start talking again?

John Francis (46:14):

Well, that's a really good question. I'm glad you asked that because after walking all across the United States and listening to so many people, people that had flags that were Confederate flags that had brought me into their homes to stay, they took care of me, after I got to the other side of the United States, I realized that environment was about human-made ugliness, pollution. It was about loss of species and habitat and climate change. All those things, environment was about, but the most important thing was it was about people and how we treated each other and so I had something to say.

Speaker 10 (47:00):

All right. Happy Earth Day. You look fantastic.

John Francis (47:12):

On the 20th anniversary of Earth Day, I chose that day to remind myself that I was going to speak for the environment.

Speaker 12 (47:17):

20 years ago, students in this country led the fight to stop a war, the war in Vietnam. Well, today, we must stop an even bigger war. We must stop the war against the earth. Will you help? Will you say it? Say, stop the war.

Steve Paulson (47:53):

Did your life go back to the way it had been before? Had it changed irrevocably because of all these years of doing what you did?

John Francis (48:03):

No. You can't get rid of all the other parts. You can't get rid of the journey. I realized that no matter what I was doing, I was still on this journey. Now in the little town that I live in on the other side of here, West Cape May, New Jersey, I'm an elected official. I'm a commissioner. I put my hand on my head and go, "What a long, strange trip this has been," to take the words of someone very famous from Marin County. I still believe that I am on a journey, not necessarily to a physical place, but a sacred space. I believe this land where we are right now, this Point Reyes is where the spirit began speaking to me and is why I'm on this journey and it's why I've come back. I always come back because this is where it all began for me.

Anne Strainchamps (49:50):

That was John Francis, the Planetwalker, at the Geography of Hope Conference in Point Reyes California. A big thank you to the wonderful group of people who made it all happen. Plus a shout out to our sound designer, Joe Harkey, who managed to make footsteps, one of the oldest sonic cliches in public radio sound like music as they are. To The Best Of Our Knowledge comes to you from the studios of Wisconsin Public Radio in Madison, Wisconsin. Thanks to the rest of our production team, Angelo Bautista, Shannon Henry Kleiber, Charles Monroe-Kane, Mark Riechers, and Steve Paulson. I'm Anne Strainchamps. Wherever you walk today, be well. Thanks for listening.

Last modified: 
October 13, 2023