Walking With Open Eyes

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bee on flower

My commute is the best part of my day.

I know this is not normal. I live in the Northeast megalopolis. Commuting means drivers who are great at texting but unfamiliar with turn signals. Commuting means listening to people paid to be “funny” on drive-time radio. Commuting means waiting on a crowded platform for a train that might come and might have air conditioning.

When I started a full-time job three months ago, I decided to try walking to work. My office is in the next suburb up, one metro stop away; it takes me 15 minutes on public transportation, or 35 on foot.

I start by crossing the entrance to the metro station—a little awkward, going perpendicular to the inward flow of business-dressed people. I pass pretty houses and unremarkable apartment buildings. The way continues along the rail lines, where weeds grow wild and you can tell if a kid with a can of blue spray paint came through last night. I walk past a community college and a community garden, past a row of body shops, then finish in a low-rise stretch of restaurants and car rental agencies.

Now I walk most mornings and take the train most afternoons. I decided early on to stay off my smartphone during the commute, whether I walk or ride; I spend the majority of my waking hours looking at a glowing screen, so I might as well mark off one little segment of my day without one. (Ok, sometimes I sneak a look while I wait for a light, but it’s never worth it.)

I thought it might get boring, walking the same route every day. But this is never a problem. If you actually put away the smartphone and look, the world is fascinating. I see a lot of bees. I’m learning the plants. There’s a boxelder tree, which is a species of maple—who knew?—endowed with massive clumps of helicopter seeds. Once a sad-looking bumblebee was curled up inside a beautiful bindweed flower. For a few days last month, the innards of an upright piano were leaning against a tree in front of one of the car repair places. (I plunked out a major scale.)

do re mi fa so la ti do

Almost every day I find something new to be excited about. Last week one clump of leaves turned bright red while everything nearby was still green. Earlier this week a plant I’d noticed before, with bright red berries, put out a new spray of flowers—and outed itself as a honeysuckle. On one of the first days I walked, I spotted a cicada that had just molted and was still resting on the vertical part of the curb next to its old exoskeleton.

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Science, it turns out, backs up my love for the walking commute. For a study published earlier this year in the journal Preventive Medicine, researchers in the United Kingdom analyzed data from a study of nearly 18,000 British commuters. They found that those who walked to work were, psychologically speaking, better off than those who drove. People who took public transportation had more psychological wellbeing than drivers, too, although not as much as walkers.

I notice the plants and bugs of my walk, because that’s how my brain works, but maybe someone with a different mindset could learn from the other people–the guy who looks like that guy from Lost, the international crowd of kids heading to college classes–or the architecture–Victorian houses, blocky storage units–or the rocks, or the litter, or the sky. I don’t know. Whatever other people notice.

Maybe the walk will start getting boring once the transition to winter is complete. But then spring will come, and summer, and fall. The cycle continues and I hope to walk on.

photos: Helen Fields

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3 thoughts on “Walking With Open Eyes

  1. Loved this article.
    Made me think of a project created by photographer Stephanie Rogers, that happened in Minneapolis last year as part of the “Arts On Chicago” a neighborhood community-engaging arts initiative along Chicago Avenue in South Minneapolis, that commissioned 20 arts projects in ten blocks in one year (and is still ongoing!)

    Rogers photographed the natural environment that exists along this urban avenue, then created and installed 30 different signs incorporating those photos and descriptive text, in the manner of signage at a state park. She also led public nature walks along the avenue, and printed guide maps so that people could take self-guided trips as well.

    Here’s to slowing down and seeing all the environment in our environments!

    http://www.artsonchicago.org/portfolio/urban-environment/

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