Outside Lies Magic

For Christmas, I got an amazing book:  Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places by John R. Stilgoe, professor at Harvard.  He has written a number of books on coastal communities, railroads, and the American landscape.  Outside Lies Magic explores exploration -- the now uncommon practice of going for a walk and observing what you see.  Stilgoe is a big fan of alleys, railroad tracks, forgotten rights-of-way, and the meandering urban streams that pay little attention to man-made distinctions of property.  He is fascinated by many of the same things that have animated my own interests in architecture and the city -- the gaps and seams in the urban space, forgotten snatches of landscape, straitjacketed remnants of the wild world, and the resilient hand of nature reclaiming ground.

In the first chapter, by way of introduction, Stilgoe writes: "Bicycling and walking offer unique entry into exploration itself.  Landscape, the built environment, ordinary space that surrounds the adult explorer, is something not meant to be interpreted, to be read, to be understood.  It is neither a museum gallery nor a television show.  Unlike almost everything else to which adults turn their attention, the concatenation of natural and built form surrounding the explorer is fundamentally mysterious and often maddeningly complex.  Exploring it first awakens the dormant resiliency of youth, the easy willingness to admit to making a wrong turn and going back a block, the comfortable understanding that some explorations may take more than an afternoon, the certain knowledge that lots of things in the wide world just down the street make no immediate sense. . . . It sharpens the skills and makes explorers realize that all the skills acquired in the probing and poking at ordinary space, everything from noticing nuances in house paint to seeing great geographical patterns from a hilltop almost no one bothers to climb, are cross-training for dealing with the vicissitudes of life." [p 11]

A slightly better cover design than the edition I have.

The book's chapters are as follows:  Lines, Mail, Strips, Interstate, Enclosures, Main Street, Stops, and Endings.  Each takes a meandering path through a set of basic urban conditions that we may or may not have noticed before.  Stilgoe charts the evolution of overhead lines, for instance -- for the transmission of electricity, then telephone conversations, and now cable TV and internet.  At some point, most major cities had systems of overhead lines for trolley and cable cars, now mostly abandoned.  This leads to a digression on how modern and early 20th-century electrical systems were grounded, the reasons we now use Nikola Tesla's alternating current instead of Thomas Edison's favored DC (the first standard war, a la VHS vs. BetaMax), and so on.  In a way, the book reads likes the good walks that Stilgoe advocates, tripping upon discoveries and wandering down promising, if overgrown,  paths.  

Overhead wires for the Muni trolleys in San Francisco, courtesy of Telstar Logistic's photostream.
We, in the U.S., have overhead wires because our country is so big and timber so cheap.  When it came time to string telegraph cable across the country, it was much easier to throw it up on disposable poles than trench it into the ground.  As electricity transmission evolved, and began to cover greater and greater distances, it led to dedicated high-tension wire right-of-ways across vast distances, tiptoe-ing across private land, roads, and natural obstacles.  Stilgoe writes "The great swaths plunge through any kind of built fabric, even cities, but where property values are very high, the pylons stand higher, raising the juice-filled cables a hundred feet above shopping-mall parking lots, around factories, alongside interstate highways. . . . Nothing tall, nothing that might fall across, stands near the high-tension wires, and nothing more than stubby, nothing that might reach up, stands beneath them."  [pp 32-33]  

I remember these rights-of-way well from hiking the Appalachian Trail in my younger days.  The insect hum of the woods would gradually be replaced by a steadier-pitched, more insidious mechanical buzz.  A wall of light would gradually break through the protective shoulders of the trees.  The thin hairs on my forearms would prick up.  Then, we would break into a brush-hogged, treeless gap, crackling wires overhead, two thin tire-tracks wending off into some backwoods substation.  If we were on a ridgeline, the rights-of-way cut through the trees so we could get a view out, seeing the gridded towns and serpentine rivers in the valleys.  

Rights-of-way, in general, figure prominently in the book.  America's industrial history is a story of infrastructure.  It started with rivers and canals, graduated to the railroad, and then the interstate highways.  All of these meta-systems have enabled commerce and industry, but also have served, physically and metaphorically, as stitches that sew up private interests into a greater societal fabric.  Eminent domain, a peculiar institution of the law, has been able to take people's land and turn it to the greater good, however ill-defined and vaguely planned.  What many a railroad- and canal-builder did not anticipate was the eventual obsolescence of their masterworks.  

My paternal grandfather, Yerby Holman, worked for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad for many years.  They owned, at least for a time, the Ma and Pa line, between Baltimore and York, Pennsylvania -- thus the name, MA, short for Maryland, and PA, short for Pennsylvania.    It ran right through downtown Towson, where I grew up, and ceased operating in 1958, leaving the stone abutments for the rail road bridge over York Road right by the public library.

The Ma and Pa over York Road in the 1950s.
A screen grab from Google Street View showing the abutments today, sans bridge, from roughly the same perspective.
Of these remnants, Stilgoe writes: "Now and then stepping gingerly over a few creosoted ties somehow left behind to rot imperceptibly over the decades, once in a while rolling over a massive, permanent culvert standing strong against spring freshets, more rarely seeing the poison-ivy covered signal mast staring eyeless into the woods behind, the contemporary explorer strains to see ahead into the brush, into the past.  Bridges remain as well, sometimes wood trestles secure in creosote and so isolated that no arson-minded vandals know of them . . . Rusted and toppled, broken windowed and half-burned, always dilapidated but somehow enduring in its nineteenth-century built-forever corporate capitalist way, the abandoned railway corridor rewards any explorer at all intrigued by industrial archaeology, linear ecology, historical geography, and it rewards any explorer anxious to shortcut well-used highways . . ." [pp 46-47]

As a boy, I followed the Ma and Pa right-of-way down into Ruxton, the Baltimore neighborhood where my father grew up.  The railroad came right by their house, and my grandfather would sometimes drive a railcar -- a regular car that had both railroad wheels and road tires -- home from work.  Now, tracks gone, the curiously flat paths wound through woods and backyards, past athletic fields and parks, alongside corralled streams, into the heart of town.  Back then, I was thrilled with my ability to ferret out the forgotten trace, to read the palimpsest obscured by asphalt and indifference.  

The rest of the book is filled with more fascinating pieces on the evolution of our suburban and urban landscapes, finding and following little threads until they unravel greater truths.  In reading it, I was transported back to my childhood, and the joys of discovery.  

I have a lot of walks to take this year . . .

Professor Stilgoe, courtesy of the Harvard Crimson.  

1 comment:

  1. Lovely idea and a great way to awaken a feel for history and a sense of place in young people. I no longer live in the US, but if I did I would definitely be interested in buying to book (I am anyway, but it would be much more relevant). I wonder about transferring some of his ideas for exploration into the much less complex world where I live (Cyprus in the Eastern Med). Thanks for a good post. I have been enjoying your blog for a while -- picked it up from Root Simple... All the best :)