Sherlock Holmes said “The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes.” As anyone who has walked from work to the subway in a daze, you know that the famous fictional detective is right. When we walk through our city streets, we often miss most of what we pass.
Alexandra Horowitz tackles this “attention blindness” in an ingenious way. She enlists eleven experts in observation as her walking companions through New York City: a geologist, a typographer, an illustrator, a field naturalist, an urban wildlife expert, a blind person, a sound designer, and her own toddler and dog, among others. Horowitz’s astounding and delightful On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes (public library) will inspire you to see your own paths through NYC in an entirely new way.
Finding the Sea Graveyard
When Horowitz walks her city block with the geologist Sidney Horenstein, he introduces a fascinating idea about the asphalt under our feet: “there are only two things on earth: minerals and biomass (plants and animals). Everything that we have got here has to be natural to begin with – so asphalt is one of those things.”
Horowitz describes the epiphany of re-conceiving the city, not as man-made objects, but as naturally occurring materials that have been recombined. Even the stone of our buildings soften and erode from water, wind, and time. “Eventually, this town – all towns – will dissolve and become fodder for another generation’s construction.”
The geologist and Horowitz take a closer look at the limestone of a building. Limestone rock was once sediment on the sea floor, and ancient sea worms burrowed through it. Horowitz describes seeing the sea worms paths on a building limestone façade for the first time:
Suddenly I saw them everywhere. The worm traces read like ancient graffiti down the length of the building. My view of the street was entirely changed: no longer passive rock; it was a sea graveyard. I was nearly speechless.
The Art of Seeing of NYC
Horowitz’s book touches on a myriad of ways of seeing New York City, from the insect world to urban wildlife to an artist’s view of a common street scene. Throughout her many walks with experts, Horowitz, a cognitive scientist, weaves in the latest research on neuroscience. It’s an engaging way to learn more about our everyday surroundings.
If you feel like your own daily walks through NYC have become stale, On Looking is a wonderful encouragement to look more deeply. It’s a perfect inspiration when trying new experiments in attention.
For more inspiration to notice nature, check out these other worthwhile books.