The first thing I usually do when researching a pamphlet is go for a walk.
Sometimes I’m not quite sure where to go or why I am there; sometimes I am a little uncomfortable because I don’t know where I am exactly. Sometimes I’m just walking. I think part of the reason I started writing about neighborhoods was I wanted an excuse to explore different places, and spend time walking and biking in places, and being able to justify it as work.
(Is walking work though? Does everything have to be productive?Maybe I’m wrong about that, maybe walking is just walking.)
I like the pace of walking, slower than biking, much slower than in a car or bus or train. Slowing down time to the pace of a human. I like the unfolding of a path at eye level, the way the path changes as you move, the way your experience in a place gets layered on top of the noise in your head, the thoughts you sort through, the sound of your surroundings. I ruminate while walking, I sort out knots in my head while walking. I like that even in places I walk through on an almost daily basis, my perception of the landscape changes each time I walk through it.
Walking in green spaces is something many of us are doing more of this year; it might be the only good thing about our apocalyptic reality. Many people have been finding new routes or times of day when they like to walk, and exploring new parks they haven’t been to before. Nerdy hobbies like birding are more popular where I live this year; people are spending more time paying attention to the details. Birding is about paying attention, usually while staying still, and listening. Walking is about paying attention in motion, slow motion. One leads to another quite naturally.
I walk to think, and to calm my brain, and to see what has changed and what is the same and because it is soothing. I write in my head before I type it out, and walking is part of the process. (So is running. So is biking. Writing is easier in motion).
In this way walking is like reading, like the lapses in time that reading creates, the landscape passing in time and space, the thoughts in your head passing in a parallel way. You can dip in and out back and forth between these two modes, being present in a landscape, being caught up in your thoughts. Time passes without you noticing, until the light begins to fade or the temperature dips and you realize it’s time to go.
I’m working on a new pamphlet that I hope to have mostly wound up by the end of the year; it’s on Canarsie, and the pier and the parks and the single-family mid-century housing and the marshes of Jamaica Bay and all of the shifts that have happened over the last three hundred years. So in doing that, I’ve been walking in Canarsie Park and the nearby pier. That’s where these videos are from. I like to think about those layers when walking in a place, in the back and forth between the present and the past, between the nature and the culture.
Earlier this year I decided that the walks I have been doing for subscribers in person were going to have to be online due to the pandemic. (Are you tired of that phrase due to the pandemic? I am). This spring in New York City, it just didn’t seen right to gather in person, even outdoors. Over the summer it seemed like outdoors was safer than we thought at first, and I think I could have done in-person walks at this point, but the problem that then occurred to me was that the places I wanted to walk in were relatively far from the beaten path, at the end of the subway line, and far from the neighborhoods where most people who would come to the walk live. Which meant taking transit, something that most people were/are nervous about. I didn’t want to ask people to do something they were uncomfortable with to join me on something that’s supposed to make us feel better.
Was that the right choice? At this point I think so, and in any case what I’m doing instead is creating a record of walks, which people can enjoy at a distance, and which can engage way more people in all likelihood than would be willing to come with me out to Canarsie on a November afternoon. More people can see what this place looks like. It was warm this Saturday and a beautiful day. While I was walking in Canarsie many others walked in the neighborhood parks and green spaces. Others walked to do errands and pick up groceries. My walks mirror all the other walks people are taking.
Does recording while walking change how I walk? I think it does, I think I am more present than usual, though I spend too much time paying attention to the camera more that the landscape, thinking about the recording of the landscape instead of losing myself in it. And I walk much, much slower than usual, trying not to bump the camera too much, looking around me for what is visual, what is interesting. It changes my experience of my walk, but it also makes it possible to bring it to others. Other people I pass on a walk notice me more, and register I am filming, sometimes veer away from me, sometimes nod.
And of course this is all about walking alone. What about with others? Remember walking with others? How to do that? More soon.