Human beings are nomadic creatures. For 99% 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.
When the world shut down in March 2020, that's exactly what we got.
For many, the sudden inability to travel beyond our own neighbourhoods brought with it a very real, very natural sense of claustrophobia. But while obviously limiting our experience in some respects, it also opened up possibilities for experiencing the things around us in new, perhaps more intense ways that channel our nomadic impulse in directions we might never previously have thought to explore.
Too often - and not necessarily through any fault of our own - our engagement with our surroundings consists merely in getting from A to B and back again. 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 prefer to get around on foot tend to find ourselves treading the same familiar routes, consciously or unconsciously, day in, day out. “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 — 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 urban wandering can open up “a whole toy box full of playful, inventive strategies for exploring cities… 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 (and machines) with whom you share your social space.
Any opportunity to disrupt the predictable linearity of our everyday 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. Sometimes these 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 tune us into 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.
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 well-worn mantra of activist politics for years. But it’s not possible to “act local” without first having learned to think local. With our minds too often now preoccupied with planetary-scale issues, this is something we’re forgetting how to do.
The details of everyday existence that become apparent simply by looking more closely and deliberately around one’s own neighbourhood reveal things that can be neither seen nor understood by abstract “global” thought. Numbers and statistics can only tell you so much. 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 motorised 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 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.
About the Creator
Freelance editor, writer and translator. Policy analyst at a nonprofit think tank based in Southern California, mainly working on environment and sustainability issues. I sometimes write things, usually about nature and the outdoors.