Sunday, October 13, 2013

It is right in front of your eyes

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, observation

Do you remember getting your first car? Maybe you shopped and dithered for a while, before settling on this model of that make, at a price you could (barely) afford. Maybe it was a nice, affordable Honda Civic. After that, for weeks, it seems every second car you see on the road is a Civic, "just like mine!" You got eyes for it.

I remember another experience of getting eyes for something. On a field trip, some classmates enticed me to take a side trip to collect trilobites. I rode along, imagining the iconic "oversize pillbugs" that seem to define the notion of "fossil." We stopped at a road cut, and everyone got out. I looked at an expanse of light gray rock with a peppery texture, asking, "Where are the trilobites?" Someone said, "Right here," pointing at a dark double-speck. I looked closely, seeing two dots with a couple of lines between them. It was a trilobite, all right, no more than a centimeter in length.

It was similar to this Perenopsis (cropped from a photo found at Stepping back, I saw that the texture of the rock face was peppered with thousands of them! I now had eyes for them.

Sometimes we look and look, and finally see. Sometimes we just need someone to point out what was there all along. Alexandra Horowitz sought about a dozen someones to help her see what she had been missing on the 3-times-daily walks she took with her dog, around her block in New York City. Now she kindly brings us along on those walks in her new book On Looking: Eleven Walks With Expert Eyes.

Not all the walks were around her own block. Sometimes she went to the block where her expert lived or worked. The first and last of the book's 13 chapters are walks she took alone. First, she walked on her own, observing her very familiar block, and finally, on another solo walk, remarked on all the things she now has eyes (and ears and nose) for.

Her first expert was her toddler son, Ogden. To a tiny child, all is new, all nearly equally absorbing. A block you can walk in 5 minutes can take a couple of hours with a toddler…I almost wrote "with a toddler in tow," but of course, Ms Horowitz did her best to be "in tow" to her son. After all, he was the expert on this occasion. The infant brain seems to hoover up everything, struggling to make sense, to discern what is important. Young Ogden had a wide array of interests. Triangles at one point (the bracing in a railing), at others dump trucks (particularly their unique sounds), an insect, or a weed growing in a crack. All could stop him in his tracks. It seems little ones either haven't learned to make quick observations while moving along, or just prefer to stop still for long enough to fully appreciate what has just caught their attention. There's this thing about toddlers, though. They aren't specialists yet.

Geologist Sidney Horenstein is a specialist, and a walk with him shows the author that there is a great lot of geology to specialize in.  From the crinoids and brachiopods that decorate the foundation stones of her apartment building, and that she'd never noticed, to the various colors and textures of the limestone, marble, sandstone, granite and so forth that formed their structures. Urban geology is a history of the distances people were willing to go to get building stone. Then a walk with type designer Paul Shaw opened her eyes, not to the signage with which a city is festooned, but to the shapes and forms of the letters used. Crinoids in the stones, and Garamond or Helvetica on the signs. Did the signmaker create text that faithfully evokes the character of a business? To Shaw, many were too slapdash to do a proper job. And artist Maira Kalman opens a world of observation, to expand what we think of as aesthetic. To some people, most things are ugly or at best commonplace, and it takes an uncommonly lovely scene to evoke any positive feeling in them. Not Ms Kalman. Maybe she doesn't quite find everything lovely, but she does her best to come close. A discarded couch on the sidewalk catches her attention, and prompts a painting (found before page 87).

Entomologist Charley Eiseman ought to be named "Wiseman", for he makes Ms Horowitz wise in the ways of the little animals that outnumber us, even in our most crowded cities. Probably, just the sidewalk ants outnumber human residents. The next time you sweep for cobwebs, think that there are probably a dozen nearly invisible spiders (and maybe some that are all too visible!) sharing your rooms. Outside, there are even more. Funnel webs abound in a city, tucked into inside corners or at the roots of bushes, or where railings attach to walls. And every spider needs many insect "clients". I learned something I'd never thought of. City trees come in two varieties: those with many signs of insect damage, and those that appear pristine and unchewed. The unchewed are the imports. Insects (and mites and other eaters) in the local environment are not specialized to eat them, as they are the native plants. This is why "invasive" imports invade so well. They are free of enemies to slow down their spread. Larger animals are the province of naturalist John Hadidian, with whom the author walked in Washington, D.C. In a city, they may not outnumber us (well, maybe the squirrels and pigeons do), but they are surprisingly ubiquitous. (I don't know as much about cities, but my suburban yard houses squirrels, rabbits, mice, voles, shrews, frogs, toads and a dozen or more kinds of songbirds, and we've seen visiting foxes, raccoons, vultures, hawks, crows and deer.)

Fred Kent of Project for Public Spaces is an urban planner of another sort. He and his colleagues study the way people interact in cities. They discern how an apparent obstacle can facilitate foot traffic, and which kinds of spaces make a place more or less friendly-seeming. He is a fan of food vendors' carts and restaurants with outdoor tables, for their ability to foster interaction. He is in favor of social streets.

Take a walk with a doctor, and you get eyes for something else entirely, particularly with a classical diagnostician like Dr. Bennett Lorber. He, like my uncle's father, diagnoses first based on what he sees, hears and smells when he first meets a patient; then he listens closely to the patient's story. On a walk, taking someone's story isn't possible, but by seeing how people walk, Dr. Lorber can tell that this man will soon need a hip replaced (or suffer badly if he doesn't) and that young woman is pregnant and probably doesn't know it yet. Ridges on fingernails can indicate a number of conditions (when I was on chemotherapy, ridges on my thumbnails chronicled every treatment). This chapter takes a long digression with Dr. Evan Johnson, the author's back surgeon. Sometimes, your walk reveals problems in your back, and sometimes, problems in your walk cause problems in your back.

To really learn about seeing, take a walk with a blind person. Arlene Gordon, sighted for about 40 years, then blind for another 40 or more, was the perfect companion for a different kind of walk. Our visual cortex occupies 1/4 to 1/3 of our brain's capacity. When the eyes aren't keeping it busy, it finds a way to help out other senses. By helping out hearing, for example, it enables many blind people to echolocate, seeing the way bats do. I've seen a TV program about a blind man who can ride a bicycle, all the while clicking with his tongue. Ms Gordon uses a cane and her ears. The cane has two functions. It is a feeler, but it also clicks when it touches down, and the blind wielder learns to build up a visual image from the return echoes, even if born blind. The ambient sound changes with our surroundings also. Ms Gordon knew when the walk took them under an awning or past the edge of a building at a corner. Walking with a sound engineer exposed the author to another dimension of sound. Scott Lehrer helps us understand the different sounds of auto tires on pavement that is wet or dry, or, more subtly, macadam or concrete. He finds charming a much wider array of city noises. After a walk with him, the author is less offended by "noise", having become attuned to a greater variety of aesthetic qualities. She also learned more about protecting her hearing. Don't be shy about putting your fingers in your ears when a shrieking motorcycle screams by. It may just save you from partial deafness or tinnitus later.

The last expert is a dog, Finnegan. His world is a world of smells, though dogs' vision is as keen as our own (but less richly colored). It is a pity to see someone dragging a dog along on a brisk walk, when the dog would much rather first check the pee-decorated fireplug and curb corner, and then briskly trot to the next signpost. The author's walk with Finn almost wasn't a walk at all. Rather than prompt him to go right or left, she stopped on the stoop to see where he would go. He was content to sit there and take in the smells as the passersby passed by. Dogs expect us to take the lead, when they are on a leash, so she had to lead out. Once on the move, the dog had plenty of opinions about where to go and when to stop or start. Would it surprise you to learn, that the way most of us make a visual map in our brain, is mirrored in the brains of bats and blind people by an auditory map, and in the brains of dogs and many other animals by a scent map?

The map is the thing. The more richly we learn to experience the world, the more rich and detailed our mental map will be, and the more ways we can continue to build it. These walks were, for Ms Horowitz, an education you cannot obtain in any classroom or from any lecture. To learn how to observe as you walk, you need to get out and walk.

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