Everything That I Don’t Understand and Is Wonderful About the World

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To find new things, take the path you took yesterday.

John Burroughs

On my Monday morning commute, KALW-FM’s My Mixtape featured a local journalist named Nathanael Johnson who selected “Cantique de Jean Racine, Op. 11” by Gabriel Fauré, a work of Fauré’s that I had never heard. His comments about this gorgeous piece were very brief, just a few sentences. But I was struck that as a young teenager he was attracted to it and especially his turn of phrase that the piece had a deUnseen Cityep mysticism to him and embodied “everything that I don’t understand and is wonderful about the world”.

At a time when nationalism and isolationism are on the rise, I found it reassuring to hear someone praise the attraction of the unknown, the other, the foreign.  When it was mentioned at the end that Johnson is a journalist and author, I looked him up and found that he had just published a book titled Unseen City.  The title alone appealed to me, and when I read the description and viewed the trailer for it I knew I had to have it.

That evening, I dropped by Alley Cat Books to find it.  They were out of it and ordered me a copy. While I was there I saw an On Lookingequally intriguing, similar book called On Looking by Alexandra Horowitz whose Inside of a Dog I really liked.

With another Monday about to roll around I am about half way through the two books that are similar in sensibility but each has its unique perspective. Both argue that there is a lot of nature in our urban environments.  One book share’s the perspective of a woman in New York who engages 11 “experts” — including her 19-month old son and her dog — to go with her on walks around the block.  The other is written by a man initially in San Francisco and then in Berkeley.

Both argue that there is an entire universe in one city block, even a very familiar city block that we walk every day but do not take the time to observe.

I was equally engaged with the book Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from Urban Wilderness by Lyanda Lynn Haupt that I discovered about a year ago as another entry into the world of urban naturalist literature.

But Horowitz goes beyond naturalism to the greater issue of perception or more simply, as the title suggests, looking. Just as individual witnesses to a crime may have different perceptions of what happened, the same is true of even our most familiar environment.

nothing-is-realUntil four years ago, I spent nearly 25 years working in the international field and traveling the U.S. and the world up to half of the year.  It was a deeply enriching experience but ultimately exhausting, and I felt that I was not seeing enough of my own home city or own neighborhood.  That also began to change eight years ago when basenjis entered my life and two or more walks a day are a part of our daily routine.  I see the neighborhood and am seen in a very different light.  I now know all other dog owners in the area, and people who probably never would have talked to me do so because of their interest in my basenjis.

About year and a half ago, the local news outlet Mission Local ran a series called Good Morning Mission in which readers volunteered to take photos of one square block early in the morning just as the neighborhood was waking up.  I participated first by documenting a stretch of my street a few blocks north and then my own block.  The process of capturing details of the familiar required not dismissing things I see every day as boring.  And looking at these images just a little over a year later is surprising to realize that there is drama and beauty in the mundane and the familiar.

In On Looking, Horowitz’s son is intrigued by stand pipes and addresses them by name, patting them on the head.  I have passed by stand pipes countless times in my life and have given them little thought and have also not really known what they do.  Now I do and can see that they do have a certain personality.

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