I’ve been using the one daily hour the Spanish government has allotted for walking during this stage 0 of Covid-19 lockdown de-escalation (for adults, from 6h to 10h or 20h to 23h only, and in a 1-km radius around one’s residence) to discover my neighbourhood: its streets, vistas, buildings, nooks and crannies, trees.
This has always been something I’ve been aesthetically drawn to — finding interest in the proximate, wonderment in the nearby.
I think, for instance, of Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places, when, inspired by his daughter’s “intense scrutiny of a snail, or a mushroom or a patch of briar”, he gives up on seeking amazement in the monumental and remote wilderness of the “vast wild spaces of Scotland” and starts seeking it instead in “backyards, roadsides, hedges, field boundaries or spinnies”, nearby places to which he had been “all but blind”.
Or of Thoreau’s reflection that “A single farmhouse which I had not seen before is sometimes as good as the dominions of the King of Dahomey”.
And, of course, of Joachim du Bellay’s homage to his familial landscapes of Anjou in sonnet XXXI of Les Regrets:
Plus me plaist le sejour qu’ont basty mes ayeux,
Que des palais Romains le front audacieux ;
Plus que le marbre dur me plaist l’ardoise fine,
Plus mon Loyre Gaulois, que le Tibre Latin,
Plus mon petit Lyré, que le mont Palatin,
Et plus que l’air marin la douceur Angevine.
3 loose notes:
- Discovery. From a pre-existing interest, one is moved to exploration; through it, one acquires knowledge and experiences (in the sense of “events lived”: Erlebnisse, not Erfahrung); these kindle (i) an inherent satisfaction and (ii) a sense of wonderment at what remains to be discovered, which generate a yearning to know and see more and more deeply; therefore, one is moved to additional discovery. Knowledge and interest beget each other.
- Me. I used to have a deep, sub-conscious knowledge of Lisboa. I could name hundreds of its streets, could locate and orient myself effortlessly in it; when seeing a random photograph taken anywhere in the city, I would almost certainly be able to recognize the neighbourhood, and quite probably the specific spot, where it was taken. It’s not something I ever did, but I imagine that I would have been able to spend something like an entire day imagining myself moving through it, and picturing buildings/gardens/vistas with exactitude.
- Place. I think I see the level of interest that a place can provoke less as an intrinsic characteristic of it than as something like a property emerging from the interaction between observer-environment, or even just a function of the observer’s ability to evoke something interesting from within themself inspired by their environment. Certainly, in the literature of “observation” (Sinclair, Sebald, or Jon Day’s cyclogeography), the observer-writer can extract interest from a priori uninteresting settings.