book cover imageOn Looking: A Walker’s Guide to the Art of Observation
by Alexandra Horowitz.
New York: Scribner 2011.
Paperback, 320 pages, $16.

“We walk the same block as dogs yet see different things. We walk alongside rats though each of us lives in the dusk of the other. We walk alongside other people and do not see what each of us knows, what each of us is doing—captured instead by the inside of our own heads.”

—Alexandra Horowitz, On Looking: A Walker’s Guide to the Art of Observation.

Several years ago, knowing my proclivities, Anne Burleigh, for Christmas, gave me Alexandra Horowitz’s book on walking and looking or looking while walking. I have written a number of books that, in some sense, can be called “walking books”—Idylls & Rambles, The Sum Total of Human Happiness, and The Classical Moment. But for me, the great introduction to walking is found in the essays of Belloc. Of course, Belloc was also a sailor, as his Cruise of the Nona reminds us. But sailing is nothing else but a continuation of walking only on water with the help of a boat. I tried to capture some of this almost mystical sense of how walking looks into everything in my book, Remembering Belloc.

Somewhere, I remember reading a story about a couple, they might have been English, who had made some sort of vow to walk the streets of the great and not-so-great cities on every continent of the world. They did not seem to have written any journal or reflections about what they saw. Somehow that bothered me, that walking without seeing, or, at least, not telling us what was seen. Yet, as C. S. Lewis said, if we tried to record everything that happened to us and about us in strict detail during any twenty-four hour period of our lives, we would fill volumes and volumes with little time for the events of another day. Only if we do not see or hear everything can we see and hear something. For us, the reality of everything can only begin with the reality of a something. This human inability to name everything is probably one of the proofs for the divine existence. When it is due to lack of time, we call it eternity.

So it was with some pleasure that I read this charming book of Alexandra Horowitz. I must confess, though, that I am not much of a dog lover. When walking in strange parts, I follow that sage advice attributed to Theodore Roosevelt for politicians, to “walk softly but carry a big stick.” I learned from sad experience that, when an owner of a barking hound says in a friendly voice, “Oh, my Fido does not bite!”—to be prepared for action. A large, long walking stick is as good as an atom bomb when it comes to deterring hungry bulldogs who confuse your left leg with their daily portion of Purina Chow. Though they are reputed to be man’s best friend, and may well be, I prefer dogs out in the jungle somewhere hunting rabbits or being hunted by bears. “Love me, love my dog” I have always considered an immoral aphorism, though, I confess, you lose a lot of friends questioning its worthiness.

So it was also with some trepidation when I read that Horowitz “teaches animal behavior and canine cognition at Barnard College.” I always wondered what the young ladies studied there. She has a previous book entitled Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know. My confidence in the special status of mankind among the other denizens of this earth was considerably reassured when I learned that only human beings took this aforementioned course at Barnard. Though I do recall the story of some students—at the University of California at Berkeley, I think—who, to prove a point about the nature of bureaucracy, registered a dog as a freshman, went to all his classes, wrote all his papers, and saw him graduate cum laude four years later. That is one dog that I should have enjoyed meeting without my usual walking stick.

The present book is indeed about walking, walking in cities, especially in New York, though we see Philadelphia also. Indeed, this is a teaching book. We do not have to move to Manhattan, where Horowitz lives, to practice what she preaches, which is, basically, that much is to be seen on your very own block, your very own street. In some ten accounts of walking around a single city block, often beginning from her own front door, Horowitz circles, or squares, or rectangles a city block. On each turn around the block, she is accompanied by someone else who teaches her by example, word, or gesture what to see that she might have otherwise missed.

Horowitz begins by walking with her little toddler son. What is it that little kids see and hear? If you walk around a city block with a child and let him look at or walk over to what interests him, you will see all sorts of things that you otherwise would have missed. “A ‘walk’, according to my toddler, is regularly about not walking. It has nothing to do with points A, B, or the getting from one to the other. It barely has anything to do with planting one’s feet in a straight line. A walk is instead an investigatory exercise that begins with energy and ends when (and only when) exhausted” (21). This passage reminds me of an article I once read about a highly trained and conditioned athlete who submitted himself to an experiment. He was required to stay with a very young child and imitate every motion that the child made with his hands, legs, head, and body. It turned out the athlete was completely “pooped out,” as they say, before the day was half over.

Horowitz is systematic. She walks with a blind lady who taps her way around the block, who hears when an awning is over her head as she passes under it. Horowitz walks with a man who is a specialist in rocks and geology. She ends up realizing that the rocks, cement, and stones she walks over or around every day come from quarries all over New England, even Italy. They go back thousands and millions of years to reveal the remnants of ancient shellfish. She then walks with a doctor and next with a physical therapist. Just by looking at the gait of an old man, or the complexion of a lady, or the speed of other walkers that they meet, one notices people who need a hip replacement or display other disorders.

Horowitz manages to find a gentleman who specializes in bugs. If we take a walk around the block on Manhattan, of all places, we find slugs, lady bugs, beetles, various leaf insects, worms, cockroaches, heaven knows what. She tells of a man who wrote a paper about the many different kinds of ants found in a mile of a New York street. Too, many kinds of animals besides the human variety are found on the island. Rats, the rodent kind, seem to enjoy living and flourishing among men. Even raccoons are prevalent. While no bears or mountain lions have been sighted in recent decades, evidently coyotes have been spotted; and, if not in Manhattan, certainly in other cities numberless protected deer enjoy dining on the local flowers and plants.

With other companions, Horowitz goes into private public places like homes for the aged. She does not do any shopping on these jaunts, but windows are noticed. They do go into one church. They notice the flow of traffic and the walkers, especially the more recent menace of cell-phone users who are prone to bump into trees and other pedestrians. The busy cell-phoners have taken the place of the man who walked down the street reading a newspaper or book.

I particularly enjoyed the chapter on sounds that we hear outside in streets. Horowitz cites the composer John Cage. I recall being struck with Cage’s book Silence, in which he notes that there is really no such thing as silence. There are always sounds of one form or another, including the sounds within our own bodies. Doctors listen to our internal sounds with stethoscopes or other listening devices. The last chapter is on the smells of the city, a walk with her dog. We all know about K-9 Corps and drug-sniffing dogs.

But a city is filled with all sorts of things—bugs, rocks, plants, sounds, smells, sights—things to touch and feel with our hands, wind on our cheeks, the sound of rain on an umbrella, the smell of a lawn after a rain. The sense of smell is probably more important than we realize. Much of our eating has more to do with smell than taste. We identify people with certain smells. Smell seems instantaneous. Like the sound of a voice, smell can transcend time. A certain perfume will remind us of our grandmother if we catch it on someone else later in life. The unforgettable stench of my uncle’s hog lot, now long turned into a cornfield, comes back when I happen to run across hogs in some farm lot.

When we look at what Horowitz has done in this very good book, it is to go through our five senses. Sometimes I had the impression that Horowitz thinks it is our brain that knows instead of we ourselves knowing in the way we do because our souls are forms of bodies with highly organized parts. It reminds me of the chapters in Leon Kass’s book The Hungry Soul, in which he explains why each sense organ—eye, nose, ears, mouth—is placed where it is precisely so that we do know what is not ourselvesin all its details. Reflecting on the book, I kept thinking of the passage in Psalm 94: “Does not he who made the ear hear? Does not he who made the eye see?” A walk around a city block should also, I think, cause us to wonder why we see, hear, smell, taste, or think at all.

The walk, alas, did not include stops at local New York delis. Horowitz did not walk around the block with her local rabbi. New York in many ways is a Jewish city. A rabbi would easily recall the songs, the smells, the bricks, the sounds of the Hebrew Bible as they walked these streets. Nor did she walk with a policeman or fireman. With each, she could have looked at the locks, bars of windows, alarms, emergency phones, as well as being mindful of the darker side of human existence. Amusingly, she does mention the fire hydrants, but these mostly in the context of dogs.

Each of these possible companions, plus numerous others, I am sure Alexandra Horowitz knows and realizes that her rounds could always add a new nuance to her seeing. But she accomplishes her purpose with the walks that she does take. It is simply that there is so much to know in the very place that we are, that we have, probably not just from “evolution,” the coordinated mind and senses whereby we can know what we encounter about us.

In the end, what we are left with is simply the delight of knowing, indeed, of being taught or reminded of an ever new way to know what we think we already know. This “Walker’s Guide to the Art of Observation” is, I think, a happy treatise on what it entitles itself, “On Looking”—and also on smelling, touching, tasting, and hearing, on bodiesendowed with senses and minds that enable each of us to know that we know—know that smelling is not hearing, that observing is not tasting, that seeing is also believing. For it is we ourselves who see and look and wonder at what is, even on a given block in New York City where we happen to live.  

Father Schall enjoys Alexandra Horowitz’s book on walking and paying attention to what you encounter.