On walking and structure

I live in a very walkable neighborhood in Chicago, and have walked almost everywhere I need to go daily for more than a decade. I’ve been thinking more about the meaning of all this walking in the last few years, mostly by building a reading list on the topic and informally going through it. One of the best I’ve read is Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust: A History of Walking.

The book came out more than twenty years ago, in 2000, but I see no evidence that advances in technology or changes in society have dated it. Walking has had the status of a gratuitously simple, stubbornly un-innovative way of getting around for at least 100 years. Because it is so obvious that walking is behind the times, whenever there is a desire to return to basics, or a burst of nostalgia for simple things–at that point the topic of walking will be due for a revival. I think we had one last year, during the pandemic.

What I have taken from Solnit’s book is that walking is one of those subtle, mostly deniable ways in which people express a disdain for hierarchy, routine and structure. The authorities that offer an alternative to walking–businesses, governments–do it because they think everyone wants to eliminate downtime between the appointed parts of that day; people insist on that time. The walker is neither here nor there, in a liminal state (51), dropped off the official record. Walking remains one of the best ways to disguise doing nothing (5). Walking “connects different interiors” which would otherwise remain unconnected (9). The spaces between, for example, the gym and the workplace, can have meaning if a person is in a position to look at them. And finally, because walking is too ordinary to be interesting, it has no true experts (ix), only amateurs who use it for their own reasons.


Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking. New York: Penguin, 2000.

Tags hierarchy authority imagination freedom


A tree that shines on its way out


The Honey Locusts outside my front window are turning yellow. These trees can be found on many city streets in Chicago. And they are hardy: lines of them thrive a few feet from the lakefront on the South Side. For most of the year I find them less than attractive; something about their long rows of small leaves give me the impression of a tree-sized weed.

And some have thorns.

W.J. Bean was more enthusiastic about the species, Gleditsia triacanthos. It’s native to North America, and the Englishman wrote approvingly of the prospect of importing it to the U.K. It has “beautiful fern-like foliage,” he noted, “which turns a clear bright yellow in autumn. (291, Trees and Shrubs, Volume II)”

On this I can agree. The tree is more beautiful when it’s shutting down for the season, cycling through a predictable, cascading bright yellow phase for a final few weeks.


W.J. Bean and George Taylor, Trees and Shrubs Hardy in the British Isles, 8th Edition, Volume II. J. Murray, 1970-1980

Tags plants naturalist city tree


Fear ecology

I was riveted by this long-form article in the New York Times about the rise of white sharks (aka great white sharks) off the coast of Cape Cod. It may seem like a sensational topic, but that wasn’t how I took it. One has to understand that white sharks were basically unknown in the area until 15-20 years ago. Now they are so numerous during the warm season that, if you know where and how to look, they are everywhere. So the piece is really about how dread creeps onto the surface of a beautiful place, changing how people experience it. Chivers writes that

Risk of attack remains low. But the quantity of large sharks, and fears that have accompanied them, have caused a cultural trauma, reshaping how people experience the ocean and forcing coastal communities into a period of reckoning and adaptation.

I think about fear every day while out in public during this pandemic that is rapidly sliding into status quo. The article discusses what scientists call “fear ecology, a “concept describing the effects predators have on members of a prey species that do not get eaten but whose predator-avoidance strategies carry costs.” That mindset of avoidance, says a doctor who tried unsuccessfully to save a Cape Cod shark attack victim, “hovers over the region: the fear that sharks are going to ruin this idyllic place.”

I don’t avoid some places, people, or situations–bars, for example–because I fear them. It’s more simple than that: I just don’t go to those places. I spare myself the psychic costs of even fear. But what might be worse than fear is forgetting what a place looked like before the fear set in.


C.J. Chivers, “Fear on Cape Cod as Sharks Hunt Again.” The New York Times Magazine. October 21, 2021.

Tags danger uncertainty dread pandemic