Both in response to the long-awaited warm weather, and in preparation for a workshop I’ll be teaching this summer at the Sarah Lawrence Writing Institute about walking and writing, I’ve been revisiting the gorgeous literature of, well, walking and writing—everything from Henry Thoreau’s “Walking” and Virginia Wolfe’s “Street Haunting: A London Adventure,” to books by Bill Bryson, Colin Thubron, and Rebecca Solnit.
Add now to this archive On Looking, by Alexandra Horowitz, in which she invites assorted companions to accompany her on an assortment of urban walks. Among what she calls “experts eyes” are those of a typographer, an illustrator, a geologist, and an urban planner.
“People walk faster by banks,” she learns from urban planner Fred Kent. And Horowitz’s definition of space changes when she walks with artist and illustrator Maira Kalman, who “walked straight off the sidewalks. I don’t mean she floated in her blue canvas sneakers, hovering inches off the ground…. Instead, she veered, she abandoned the course. She left the route and wandered into buildings that interested her.”
And then there’s her walk with Dr. Bennett Lorber, who seems capable of finding life histories in the people they pass on the street who “inadvertently reveal their life histories in their bodies, in their steps, in the hunch of their shoulders or the set of their jaw.”
All of which puts me in mind of those with whom I might like to walk in my rural neighborhood in the Hudson Valley. Who might I imagine to be in my parade of tutors? I would invite, I think, the man who built our house in 1792 and who managed the local iron ore mine. Along with some of his farming neighbors, he might be able to tell me something of how the land here was put to use two centuries ago, who dammed the pond and who built the old stone walls. And I would ask my friend Peter to come with me. A deer hunter, he is attuned to gradations of time, light, sounds of this landscape in a way I am not. And certainly I might hope to invite a poet, possibly Wendell Berry, who has spoken about coming “into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.” I would look for a forester, too, who could speak to the health of the giant sycamore in the field down the road and perhaps give me some timeline for the imminent intrusions of the hemlock woolly adelgid. And a painter, of course, of landscape, though I would be just as tempted by Agnes Martin, whose quiet graphs of color speak to how we perceive space.
Among Horowitz’s companion in On Looking is her dog, but given the opportunity, I would likely invite one of the coyotes I hear at night up the mountain to learn something about how the woods and meadows reveal themselves through aroma. But it is a seminar on attentiveness and, I know, that is unlikely to take place. If it occurs at all, it will be in my imagination. Which, I imagine, is the purpose of a walk in the country anyway.
Akiko Busch is the author of The Incidental Steward: Reflections on Citizen Science, and lives in the Hudson Valley. Her piece in the March/April 2014 issue of Orion, “The Unseen River,” appears in the issue’s Lay of the Land department.