The simple pansy.

Same old same old. Twice a day, I walk up and down the same three blocks on my way to the drug store, grocery store or parking my car.  First day back from Iceland, I started reading On Looking:  A Walker’s Guide to the Art of Observation by Victoria  Horowitz.  It was the following sentences on page 3 that made me realize I was sleepwalking. ” In this book, I aimed to knock myself awake.  I took that walk “around the block” – dozens of times with people who have distinctive, individual, expert ways of seeing all the unattended, perceived ordinary elements I was missing.  Together we became investigators of the ordinary…”

“To find new things, take the path you took yesterday.” John Burroughs from On Looking by Victoria Horowitz

Horowitz was lucky. She had chosen specific “guides” for her walks.  “The result of all this walking is not a master’s degree in the details of any one city or any single block.  It is a tale about what there is to see in any environment urban or rural.” Horowitz

She walks with Sidney Horenstein of the Museum of Natural History.  She walks the “Horensteinian way”.  “Like us, stone is affected by time, its outer layer softened and its veins made more prominent:  event he strongest-looking behemoth of an apartment tower is gradually deteriorating under the persistent, patient forces of wind, water and time.” Horowitz.

“It matters not where or how far you travel – the further commonly the worse – but how much alive you are” Henry David Thoreau from On Looking by Alexandra Horowitz

I had no such guide.  Only a desire, to try to look with fresh eyes.  A lot of people who read this blog are horticulturists and they won’t find much to like in these front gardens.  The plants are ordinary, the combinations prosaic, the containers mundane… but is that what we should be looking at?

“Look, with all your eyes, look!” Jules Verne from On Looking by Alexandra Horowitz.

Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) at least in my neighborhood, is the tree of choice for  brownstone entry ways.  It’s far from a common alternative.  In fact, I think it’s the opposite of a mundane or boring option.  Horticulturists will point out the trees grace and beauty.  The Japanese pastime of viewing autumn foliage, Momijigari, literally means “maple hunting.”  Perhaps my neighbors prefer to walk and not hunt for beauty.

Japanese Maple by Clive James

Your death, near now, is of an easy sort.
So slow a fading out brings no real pain.
Breath growing short
Is just uncomfortable. You feel the drain
Of energy, but thought and sight remain:

Enhanced, in fact. When did you ever see
So much sweet beauty as when fine rain falls
On that small tree
And saturates your brick back garden walls,
So many Amber Rooms and mirror halls?

Ever more lavish as the dusk descends
This glistening illuminates the air.
It never ends.
Whenever the rain comes it will be there,
Beyond my time, but now I take my share.

My daughter’s choice, the maple tree is new.
Come autumn and its leaves will turn to flame.
What I must do
Is live to see that.That will end the game
For me, though life continues all the same:

Filling the double doors to bathe my eyes,
A final flood of colors will live on
As my mind dies,
Burned by my vision of a world that shone
So brightly at the last, and then was gone.

“The only true voyage…would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to see the universe through the eyes of another, of hundred others, to see the hundred universes that each of them sees, that each of them is.” Marcel Proust from On Looking by Alexandra Horowitz

This rose bush reminds of me of the front of my sister’s house in the south of France.  When my sister and her husband,  bought their house 25 years ago, a rose bush sprouted out of the side walk and climbed to the second story of their house.  As gardeners we spend so much time reading and thinking about the care of specific plants and yet here is an example of a delicate plant susceptible to numerous diseases and pests… thriving.

“To see is to forget the name of the thing one sees.” Paul Valery from On Looking by Alexandra Horowitz

Totally surprised to see Heuchera villosa f. purpurea  ‘Bronze Wave’ in the smallest of front gardens.  Garden designers think all heucheras are over-used.  I did a double take when I saw ‘Bronze Wave’. It’s unusual choice.  First because the flowers don’t matter and second because for the ordinary buyer of plants in the city; it’s not that easy to find.

Maria Kalman is one of the people, Alexandra Horowitz takes a walk with in her book, On Looking.  Kalman is the master of turning the ordinary into the extraordinary.

Horowitz walks with Evan Johnson, Director Physical Therapy at the Spine Center, Columbia University Medical Center.  From On Looking: A Hasidic man in too-large shoes flopped by us, prompting Johnson to remember a recent patient:  “… an Orthodox gentlemen who had a gait that was contributing to pain in his back: a tear of his annulus or his disk in his back, which is worse when you’re leaning forward.  So we worked a lot on posture, to get him into a more upright posture. But he refused to do it.  He explained to me that it wasn’t the posture of a humble man.”
Horowitz:  “It was a revelation that gait might reveal religion.”

“You can observe a lot by watching.” Yogi Berra from On Looking by Alexandra Horowitz

“You know my method.  It is founded upon the observation of trifles.”  Sherlock Holmes.  And that sums up this blog.






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