Human beings are nomadic creatures. For 99 percent of our existence as a species, anthropologists believe, we’ve been on the move. Some scientists have argued that a propensity for travel, novelty and adventure is actually encoded in our DNA. Either way, we don’t take well to confinement.
Confinement, however, is precisely what’s defined our shared experience of the last twelve months. For many, the sudden inability to travel much beyond our own neighborhoods brought with it a very real, very natural sense of claustrophobia. But being forced to stay close to home, while obviously limiting our experience in certain respects, also opens up possibilities for experiencing the things around us in a new, perhaps more intense way, channeling our desire for novelty towards experiences that may be close at hand, but which we’ve never previously thought to explore.
At worst, the places we live can become little more than places we drive away from in the morning and back to at night. Even those of us who do get about on foot tend to find ourselves treading the same familiar routes, consciously or unconsciously, day in, day out. In any case, all too often our engagement with our surroundings consists merely in getting from A to B, and back again. “If you track your own path through a typical day,” writes Joseph Hart, “you’ll soon discover that your journey is habitual, that you’re slowly wearing a canyon through the same streets, the same sidewalks, day after day.”
Stepping even a short distance off our usual path, a familiar scene can be completely transformed. We notice slivers of green space we might not normally notice; nature persevering through the cracks in the asphalt; street art and graffiti, tags signifying whatever they signify (in most big cities, a single spray-painted symbol on a wall can instantly alter your understanding of a neighborhood and the tensions and power dynamics at work within it). By consciously seeking out new itineraries — footpaths, alleys, boardwalks and edgelands it might never have occurred to us to explore before — we gain a new perspective on our surroundings.
It’s hardly a new idea. Think of Walter Benjamin’s flâneur, or Debord and his followers, for whom purposeful urban wandering can open up “a whole toy box full of playful, inventive strategies for exploring cities… just about anything that takes pedestrians off their predictable paths and jolts them into a new awareness of the urban landscape.” Parkour, l’art du déplacement — not walking per se, but an equally immersive form of self-propelled urban exploration — is similarly a way of reimagining the city free from the normal constraints of its physical architecture. Get on a skateboard or a bike and you’ll soon notice the cracks in the sidewalk, inclines and gradients and textures you never knew existed, unexpected obstacles, and a heightened awareness of the people with whom you share your social space.
Any opportunity to disrupt the predictable linearity of our daily routines is an opportunity we should embrace, as far as I’m concerned, if only for the sake of our own sanity — even the unwelcome ones, of which 2020 produced many. Because sometimes moments of upheaval yield new insights, helping us see things normally obscured to us by the tyranny of habit and the atrophying of the imagination it engenders.
We humans have a tendency to see the world through the lens of what Henri Bergson called ‘habit-memory’ — our automatic reflex to make use of the ‘ready-made’ and to fall back into mechanical repetition of the same actions and ideas. Learning to listen to our imagination and to understand the places we live in a more intimate way can enable us to become attentive to the detail and complexity of the world around us that often get lost in our propensity for abstract thinking and the simplification of the world it entails. And this opens us up to new ways of thinking about problems, including global ones.
As Wendell Berry writes: “Global thinking can only do to the globe what a space satellite does to it: reduce it, make a bauble of it. Look at one of those photographs of half the earth taken from outer space, and see if you recognize your neighborhood. If you want to see where you are, you will have to get out of your space vehicle, out of your car, off your horse, and walk over the ground. On foot you will find that the earth is still satisfyingly large, and full of beguiling nooks and crannies.”
‘Think global, act local’ has been a mantra of grassroots politics for years. But it’s hard to see how one can act local without first having learned to think local. In our rapidly globalizing world, with our minds too often preoccupied with planetary-scale issues, this is something we’re increasingly forgetting how to do. After all, the way things actually change is on the ground, and the details of everyday existence one observes by looking closely around one’s neighborhood reveal what’s actually happening in a way that’s just as true, maybe even more so, than abstract “global” thought. Statistics and demographics can tell you a lot about a place. A couple of spray-painted letters on a wall can tell you a lot more.
Getting out and about on foot — to paraphrase Edward Abbey — makes the world a much larger place, and thus a more interesting one. It also gives us time — time to ‘see where we are’, as Berry puts it; to notice details normally no less invisible to us ‘foot people’ on our daily rounds than to the motorized commuters on theirs. Getting from A to B is all well and good, but there are spaces in between, as mundane and seemingly unremarkable as they might be. By consciously seeking out new itineraries, getting to know these places, and actively engaging with our surroundings, we can find meaning even in the most ordinary of things, and in so doing, step outside the confinement of our taken-for-granted notions of the world we inhabit.