On Looking: Eleven Walks With Expert Eyes

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Amateur Eyes



Minerals and Biomass

Minding Our Qs

Into the Fourth Dimension


Flipping Things Over

The Animals Among Us

A Nice Place (to Walk)

The Suggestiveness of Thumb-nails

, S

Seeing; Not Seeing

The Sound of Parallel Parking

A Dog’s-Nose View

Seeing It



About the Author


to Ogden:


Amateur Eyes

You missed that. Right now, you are missing the vast majority of what is happening around you. You are missing the events unfolding in your body, in the distance, and right in front of you.

By marshaling your attention to these words, helpfully framed in a distinct border of white, you are ignoring an unthinkably large amount of information that continues to bombard all of your senses: the hum of the fluorescent lights, the ambient noise in a large room, the places your chair presses against your legs or back, your tongue touching the roof of your mouth, the tension you are holding in your shoulders or jaw, the map of the cool and warm places on your body, the constant hum of traffic or a distant lawn-mower, the blurred view of your own shoulders and torso in your peripheral vision, a chirp of a bug or whine of a kitchen appliance.

This ignorance is useful: indeed, we compliment it and call it
. Our ignorance/concentration enables us to not just notice the scrawls on the page but also to absorb them as intelligible words, phrases, ideas. Alas, we tend to bring this focus to every activity we do—not just the most complicated but also the
most quotidian. To a surprising extent, time spent going to and fro—walking down the street, traveling to work, heading to the store or a child’s (or one’s own) school—is unremembered. It is forgotten not because nothing of interest happens. It is forgotten because we failed to pay attention to the journey to begin with. On the phone, worrying over dinner, listening to others or to the to-do lists replaying in our own heads, we miss the world making itself available to be observed. And we miss the possibility of being surprised by what is hidden in plain sight right in front of us.

It was my dog who prompted me to consider that these daily journeys could be done . . . better. Bring a well-furred, wide-eyed, sharp-nosed dog into your life, and suddenly you find yourself taking a lot of walks.
Walks around the block,
in particular. Over the last three decades, living with two dogs, my blocks have been classic city blocks—down the street and three right corners and home; they have been along sidewalked small towns and un-sidewalked, hilly villages. But what counted as a “block” was changeable. Heading out for what I imagined would be a quick circumnavigation, I often found myself led elsewhere by my dog: our “blocks” have become tours of city parks, zigzagging meanders through canyons, trots along the sides of highways, and, when we were lucky, down narrow forest paths.

After enough waylaid walks, I began trying to see what my dog was seeing (and smelling) that was taking us far afield. Minor clashes between my dog’s preferences as to where and how a walk should proceed and my own indicated that I was experiencing almost an entirely different block than my dog. I was paying so little attention to most of what was right before us that I had become a sleepwalker on the sidewalk. What I saw and attended to was exactly what I expected to see; what my dog showed me was that my attention invited along attention’s companion: inattention to everything else.

This book attends to that inattention. It is not a book about
how to bring more focus to your reading of Tolstoy or how to listen more carefully to your spouse. It is not about how to avoid falling asleep at a public lecture or at your grandfather’s tales of boyhood misadventures. It will not help you plan dinner for eight as you listen to books-on-tape and as you consult the GPS—all while you are driving.

In this book, I aimed to knock myself awake. I took that walk “around the block”—an ordinary activity engaged in by everyone nearly every day—dozens of times with people who have distinctive, individual, expert ways of seeing all the unattended, perceived ordinary elements I was missing. Together, we became investigators of the ordinary, considering the block—the street and everything on it—as a living being that could be observed.

In this way, the familiar becomes unfamiliar, and the old the new. My method took advantage of two elements. The first is inherent in each of us. We all have the capacity to really see what is in front of us. On moving to a new home, one’s first approach is wide eyed—with senses alert to the various ways that this new block differs from one’s old home: the trees provide more shade, or the cars are more plentiful, or the sidewalks are leaner, or the buildings are more deeply set back from the street. It is only after we have moved in, after we have walked the same street again and again, that we fall asleep to the block. Even the feeling of time passing changes on our walk: with less to notice, time speeds up. The capacity to attend is ours; we just forget how to turn it on.

The second element takes advantage of individual expertise. There is a certain bias in everyone’s perspective that has been named, by the French,
déformation professionnelle
: the tendency to look at every context from the point of view of one’s profession. The psychiatrist sees symptoms of diagnosable conditions in everyone from the grocery checkout cashier to his spouse; the economist views the simple buying of a cup of coffee as an example
of a macroeconomic phenomenon. In the wrong context these experts are merely the people you try to avoid sitting next to at a dinner party. But applied to this project, these people are
able to bring attention to an element of a person’s manner, or to a social interaction, that is often missed.

I live and work in a city—New York City—and thus have a special fascination with the humming life-form that is an urban street. To investigate, I took all the walks for this book in this and other cities, around ordinary blocks. My companions on these walks were people who have a distinct perspective on the world. Often, it was a perspective forged from explicit training, as with a doctor. For others, their sensibility was shaped by their passion—finding insect tracks or studying lettering, for example. Finally, for some, the way they see the world is part of their very constitution, as with a child, a blind person, or a dog. What follows is the record of eleven walks around the block I took with expert seers, who told me what they saw.

 • • • 

walks. I began by walking around the block by myself. I wanted to record what I saw before I was schooled by my walking companions.

The air was already drunk with humidity when I stepped outside on that first morning. I chose to walk the blocks around my home because they are not particularly special blocks; I have a certain fondness for my neighborhood blocks, born of familiarity, but even as they have grown familiar, I realize that I rarely look at them. Nonetheless, I was sure that I would be able to describe them well. My eyes were not altogether amateur: I was knowingly walking to “see what I could see” and, furthermore, professionally I study animal behavior using a method that is, in essence,
looking closely
. On this walk, I set off at a slow pace with a reporter’s
notebook in hand, planning to reconstruct the scene later. Feeling wide eyed, I turned down the block.

My eyes rested first on the bags of trash by our curb. Shredded, formerly private papers were visible in their clear recycling bags. A beagle pulling on a long leash trotted by and unceremoniously defined the corner of the trash pile by urinating on it.

I scribbled down something about flowers in a tree pit. When I looked up, I was at the corner, flanked by two large, somber apartment buildings. I briefly coveted a free parking spot, a gaping space between cars along the curb. There was no decoration in front of the near building save two pipes—one a humble water pipe, the other a mysterious two-headed gnome. I did not investigate. A child scurried by. I was passed by a series of dog-person pairs, headed toward the park that was now at my back.

The walkers trod silently; the dogs said nothing. The only sound was the hum of air conditioners. A pretty, red brownstone, with a gracious, curved stoop, sat between a large stone building and a handful of white- and red-bricked specimens. But I barely looked up. There was too much to see on the ground. Each building on the block was marked by its characteristic pile of bags of trash. Something dribbled from each: a Q-tip (how does a Q-tip escape? I wondered), a chicken bone, sundry crumpled papers. I saw another Q-tip, and started to wonder about the ear health of my neighbors. As I continued, the trash piles grew messier, or the sidewalk narrower, or both. Moving aside to let someone pass, I was nearly seated in a small alcove along a building—perhaps a place to sit, but it was lined with spikes. I did not sit there.

I approached the next intersection, Broadway, a wide avenue with traffic running both directions. An older gentleman was resting in the median, unable to make it across both lanes of traffic in one go. As he resumed, he teetered, and I swung widely around him so as to not knock him off course.

Across the avenue, continuing east, a few commercial stores had escaped onto the side street: a small grocery, a rash of crushed cigarette butts outside its door; a hair salon, with a long awning to its entrance, oddly formal for a haircuttery. A stream of cars reversed its way down the block, some vehicles pulling into parking places and some backing heedlessly onto the avenue. I smelled trash. The sounds of a garbage truck straining to crush its load wafted from up ahead. A spill of spaghetti, cooked and sauced, formed a sunburst at my feet, attended to by a cluster of pigeons.

The garbage truck was out of sight, but it left a path of garbage leavings—marking the meals, cleaning habits, and unwanted memories of the hidden local inhabitants—from sidewalk to street. I took in the impatience of the drivers, all straining to see ahead, as though if they got a clear view of the impediment, it would dissipate. Watching them, I arrived at the building at the end of the block and turned right onto another busy avenue. Traffic came in waves as each scrum of cars caught the lights timed together running uptown. Every building had a storefront on its first floor, and at this early hour most of them were shuttered. Forgettable, indistinguishable signs topped the stores, advertising pizza and cleaners. Walking as I scribbled down notes, I missed whatever was on the next corner as I turned it. But I saw I had turned onto a tree-lined block, with one half providing an assurance of shade. I headed to it. Newly laid asphalt, deep black and glowing proudly in the morning’s heat, gummed the soles of my shoes. Up ahead I saw, and then heard, a film-set truck. The block was taken over by those creating a simulacrum of the block for the day. The truck was a hub of human activity of an unidentifiable nature. Piles of metal rods, racks of poles, and stacked platforms, readied for work, sat on wheeled carts by the truck’s rump. An audience of curious onlookers idled away the morning on brownstone stoops.

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