John Stilgoe on the Magic Outdoors: Get Outside!

Why is walking and wandering through the physical world so important?

While the architecture of the digital world is equally fascinating--we're all increasingly inhabiting spaces that don't have correlating spatial and locational constraints, and the architectural design of online communities, internet spaces, and experiences is an art in an of itself,--there is a beauty and magic to exploring the physical world.

Embedded within the world around us are clues and pieces of magic that tell us how it was formed, where it came from, and what the layered stories of space are. We inhabit the spaces built by generations, and I often think in my city wanderings that walking through an old city is like walking through a collection of brains from times' past. The best of invention (or communication or understanding) turn into creation, and those creations tell us a story about the discoveries that happened. Tall buildings rose when elevator shafts were made possible and concrete, rebar, and steel upended the limitations to how many bricks we could pile atop each other. Better air quality mechanisms and water infrastructure (particularly the removal of thousands of pounds of liquid shit, made by humans), allowed us to put more humans into smaller spaces without the same adverse repercussions. The invention of air conditioning is credited with unlocking the southern states and making them habitable for "real" industry and office work in the middle of the 20th century.

John R. Stilgoe, a professor at Harvard, leads a lecture seminar and philosophy that advocates adventure and exploration, including wandering. If you pick up a book and you skip directly to the end (just to see how many pages it is), and annotate your progress along the way... perhaps it's time to take a lesson or two in wandering for the sheer exploration of it all. With regards to education, he writes:

"Education ought to work outdoors, in the rain and the sleet, in the knife-like heat of a summertime Nebraska wheat field, along a half-abandoned railroad track on a dark autumn afternoon, on the North Atlantic in winter. All that I do is urge my students and my readers to look around, to realize how wonderfully rich is the built environment, even if the environment is only a lifeboat close-hauled in a chiaroscuro sea."

I picked up his book "Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Practice," (1998) last year and have loved it.

From the first chapter, "Beginnings"

Get out now. Not just outside, but beyond the trap of the programmed electronic age so gently closing around so many people at the end of our century. Go outside, move deliberately, then relax, slow down, look around. Do not jog. Do not run. Forget about blood pressure and arthritis, cardiovascular rejuvenation and weight reduction. Instead pay attention to everything that abuts the rural road, the city street, the suburban boulevard. Walk. Stroll. Saunter. Ride a bike, and coast along a lot. Explore. Abandon, even momentarily, the sleek modern technology that consumes so much time and money now, and seek out the resting place of a technology almost forgotten. Go outside and walk a bit, long enough to forget programming, long enough to take in and record new surroundings.

Flex the mind, a little at first, then a lot. Savor something special. Enjoy the best-kept secret around—the ordinary, everyday landscape that rewards any explorer, that touches any explorer with magic.

The whole concatenation of wild and artificial things, the natural ecosystem as modified by people over the centuries, the built environment layered over layers, the eerie mix of sounds and smells and glimpses neither natural or crafted—all of it is free for the taking, for the taking in. Take it, take it in, take in more every weekend, every day, and quickly it becomes the theater that intrigues, relaxes, fascinates, seduces, and above all expands any mind focused on it. Outside lies ordinary space  open to any casual explorer willing to find the extraordinary. Outside lies unprogrammed awareness that at times becomes directed serendipity.

Outside lies magic.

When was the last time you went outside and wandered? Took off and looked at the world with your eyes, hands and feet? Forgot about time?

Let's go outside and play!


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