Down Time: The Art of the Commute

Posted on Fri, May 9 2014 9:00 am by Ted Mathys

CC: Nicholas A. Tonelli

While in graduate school in Iowa City, I lived 260 miles away in Saint Louis, Missouri. Each Monday morning I drove north for four hours, parallel to the Mississippi River, through Mark Twain’s hometown of Hannibal, past discount fireworks warehouses that dot the border, and over the Des Moines river into Iowa, where the home stretch is punishingly flat and glutted with corn. Each Tuesday evening I did the reverse.

Watching trees and fields whiz by on these drives, I often wondered what Henry David Thoreau, the patron saint of slowness and observation, would make of the modern commute. In Walden, Thoreau compares the locomotive that thunders by his beloved pond, carrying businessmen and cargo into and out of Boston, to a snorting iron horse that breathes fire and smoke from its nostrils. While the train moves through the landscape in service of commerce and set apart from nature, Thoreau preferred sauntering through landscapes on foot in service of reflection, integrating himself into nature.

Thoreau developed these thoughts further in “Walking,” an essay that has become a staple text of the environmental movement. He describes an “art of Walking” in which the solitary walker roves over fields and woodlands without a fixed destination or the guidance of roads, and “absolutely free from all worldly engagements.” Walking provides Thoreau with occasion for observation, intellectual development, and an interaction with the elements that cultivates a “roughness of character.” He bills the walk as an antidote to church, school, state, commerce, agriculture, and politics—those institutions that occupy the brunt of his contemporaries’ time. He goes on to make an impassioned argument for the preservation of wild American landscapes against the devouring forces of nineteenth century economic development, pronouncing that “Wildness is the preservation of the World.”

As a writer and environmentalist, I feel kinship with this essay. But the curious thing about Thoreau’s art of walking is that it requires quitting one’s job. As a man of means and education, Thoreau walked four hours per day. He acknowledges that to be a walker of his sort, one must “leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again.” You are not ready for a walk until “you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man.” Thoreau scolds men who confine themselves to offices, and women who are (he surmises in one of his odder moments) at home sleeping away the afternoon. Commuters who move through landscape to get to work, regardless of economic situation or personal circumstances, are for Thoreau hopelessly conditioned or simply missing out. He would’ve looked upon my commute with skepticism.  

The term “commuter” emerged to describe a class of workers that was new in Thoreau’s time. Nick Paumgarten explains that in the 1840s, “the men who rode the railways each day from newly established suburbs to work in the cities did so at a reduced rate. The railroad, in other words commuted their fares, in exchange for reliable ridership. […] In time, the commuted became commuters.” Fast-forward a century and a half, and this specialized class has become pretty much all of us. In major cities like New York commuters flood the subways. In most other areas, trends in suburbanization, real estate values, and the rise of automobiles have resulted in the daily car commute. Nine out of ten Americans commute by car, with an average daily commute that is just shy of an hour.

I’ve come to think of commuting as neither traveling nor exploring, but as a transitional corridor between the private space of home and public spaces of work and school. It is a temporal dead zone that most people rush to fill—with phone calls, books on tape, radio, road rage, or in the case of public transportation, with a novel or awkwardly folded newspaper.

But for writers it can be golden. The writer is held hostage by the commute, but is also paradoxically free of other “worldly engagements” on a regular basis—the classic writer’s dream. Like most commuters, I quickly learned every mile of my route. I discovered which Flying J truck stop sold decent fruit; which mile marker would bring the fuzz-out of St. Louis Public Radio; and which exit had the best spot for my dog to go barreling off into a field when I brought him along. I watched the daily and seasonal fluctuations in sky color and collected images that I might later incorporate into my writing, like hawks perched on phone wires; tall fields of summer corn giving way in winter to sheared corn stalks peeking up like periscopes through snow; a giant wind turbine blade strapped to a flatbed truck; a pickup hauling roosters in cages open to the wind. But mostly, I talked out loud to myself, composing and revising poems over and over.

The art of the commute shares some unexpected similarities with the art of walking. The commute often forces us to unplug, and can thus be harnessed as space of reflection. The regularity builds discipline into this reflective space. And while Thoreau was right that speeding through a landscape creates a kind of myopic relationship to nature, some images and perspectives can only be gained at great speed—like the way that crops planted in rows appear to open like a Chinese fan at high speeds. On purely environmental grounds, the car commute is certainly worse than the train, and both are worse than biking or walking. But they may provide writers an opportunity for the repeated evacuation of the mind of its daily concerns, and give time for, as Thoreau would have it, a strange sort of “nourishment.”


Ted Mathys is teaching "Writing the Natural World" this summer at the Loft. He the author of two books of poetry, The Spoils and Forge, both published by Coffee House Press. A new collection, Woodland Pattern, is forthcoming in 2015. The recipient of literary fellowships and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York Foundation for the Arts, and the Poetry Society of America, his poems, essays and criticism have appeared in American Poetry Review, BOMB, Boston Review, Colorado Review, Conjunctions, Critical Quarterly, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. He has worked in international policy and environmental advocacy in Berlin, New Delhi, New York, and St. Louis for groups such as Chintan Environmental Action and Research Group and Environment Missouri. He holds a master’s degree in international environmental policy from the Fletcher School at Tufts University and an MFA in creative writing from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he was a Teaching-Writing Fellow.