Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Bipeds on the South Plains

This will come as no revelation--in fact, the sort of insight to which Dharmonia responds "Thank you, Captain Obvious"--but transport by foot, particularly in as obese and technology-dependent culture as our own, is not only a prosaic physical act but also a political, philiosphical, perpetual experience.

In today's Ireland seminar (still in the 3rd week), we were talking about maps and landscapes, and the ways that maps (including and focusing upon Tim Robinson's extraordinary cartographic meditations on Aran, Connemara, and the Burren in his various books) reveal or depict or even "fictionalize" landscapes: not only of topography, but also of experience, and even perception.

Early on in Henry Glassie's magisterial Passing the Time in Ballymenone, about which I've blogged before, he provides a set of sketched overlays of his fictionalized South Fermanagh community: terrain, work patterns, kinship, marriage, and the routes that individuals follow when they go to "make a ceili". They're fascinating and revealing, not only of movement but also of perception and of lifestyle--and virtually every one portrays routes of, at maximum, 6-7 miles in a single direction. The reason? Because that is the distance that you could travel, and travel back, on foot, across the rough South Fermanagh landscape, in a single day's light.

Here in West Texas (as, I infer, in large chunks of metropolitan Southern California), to walk somewhere, in order to actually get somewhere--as opposed to the lemming walking around-and-around-and-around the Student Rec Center track or the local yuppie parks--is a highly suspicious activity, and elicits presumptions: you're either too poor to travel by car, or too eccentric: there's one "Walking Guy" in town who I think might cover 7-8 miles per day--I see him, striding along through the traffic, all over town, always carrying his gym bag (Tom Waits: "what's he doing in there?").

Or too radical. The other people in West Texas who walk, or maybe bicycle, extensively, tend to be the cafe-society, American Spirit-smoking, multiply-tattooed and -pierced 20-Somethings. And, of course, though I'm an old fart, I've found far more fellow-feeling from such young'uns than from the Buffies in their SUVs (texting while they careen through campus), the Tylers and Trevors and Byrons in their pickups (blasting hip-hop, pretending to be black, and laying rubber through the residential neighborhoods), and so on.

But walking is still different than that. It's the very oldest ambulation of homo sapiens--after all, one of the things that distinguished our first direct ancestors from the other primates was a bipedal, upright, stance--and it reconnects us to very old modes of not only transport but also perception, and even of time.

And it's what the body is engineered to do: the cardio specialists say the ideal minimum number of steps each human such clock each day is 10,000. Which, figuring a 24" stride (long, I know, but I'm 6'4") or about 2600 strides/mile, is a little less than 4 miles. How many people do any of us know who walk 4 miles/day?

Now, I'm an absolute nightmare for a cardio doc: my life is high-stress, low-exercise, entails anywhere between 10 and 14 hours/day sitting on my ass staring at a computer screen, with only my hands and arms getting much workout (I probably type, on average, nearly as many words per day as I'm supposed to take strides per day). And, on top of that, I'm a workaholic who resists "wasting" time for things like exercise.

So it's a conscious act of will to step away from the computer, stand up, and take an extra 14-16 minutes to walk home, or walk from the school to the grocery store to the radio station and home. 14-16 minutes is nothing--I spend more time than that farting around on the Internet between actual work, and thus it represents no actual "waste" of time--but it still requires a recalibration of one's sense of priorities and time-scale.

It also changes your perception of the landscapes you inhabit, and your experience of those landscapes. For the impact it has on fundamental perceptions: heat/cold, up/down, wind, rough/smooth terrain, but also of the time it takes to move through those landscapes, and the experience of the details of those landscapes: the birds, the shape and color of the clouds, on this day--Imbolc, the opening of lambing season, Brigid's day, the moment of transition from Winter to Spring--the faintest green showing through the gray of the swelling buds.

I need to remember how to be a biped.


Texas Tech Theory Department said...

Speaking as someone who rode his bike today--not because I'm poor or capitalizing on the trendiness of bikes--thank you for this. I ride my bike in the nastiest of weather precisely for political reasons. It can be done, even in this town, which is very pedestrian and bike un-friendly.

I agree too, about the changing perception of the landscape. In the past few years, I suspect I've logged more miles on a bike than I have on my car. I think I see the city very differently than most.

CJS said...

Really good point. I have a friend in Seattle (about 1000 times more bike-friendly a town) who counts it a "good year" when he logs more miles on the bike's odometer than on his car's.

'Course, in my case, it's 'cause I'm a sedentary ex-bouncer with bad knees :-)


Kim said...

I could definitely be the president of Slacker University (Go Lardsmen!) and have no trouble shutting off my brain to relax. But I also resent the time taken to go exercise. Which is why I force myself to take longer walks with the dog, even some wind sprints in the park with two leashes hooked together so the dog can cut loose, and ride my bike to and from campus and on other errands around town. But when I do hit the gym and am not slamming bodies around playing basketball, I engage in foreign language study with my MP3 player. The odd looks when I forget I'm in public and blurt our something random that people don't understand is worth the time and energy spent getting *to* the exercise place.

When I worked in a giant university teaching hospital I wore a pedometer and frequently logged 4 miles per day just doing "administrative" work. If not for that I'd be well over 300 pounds.