Repetition On the Long Walk
Hello Ridgeline subscribers.
Thought: Does metered rhythm and repetition (as opposed to manic inspiration and frenzy) pay out the most durable dividends in art and life? More on this in a second.
This past week has been a busy one.
Thanks to everyone who signed up! I got about fifty emails asking if I forgot to put the image in the text. Fortunately, I’m not yet that frazzled.
As per our “newsletter thesis”:
We’re going to flip the classic image-first, description-second flow. What you’ll get in your inbox is a link in the form of a sentence, the so-called “alt-text” of the image. I will briefly describe the image (a sentence!). You can then choose to click through, or not.
So, tap that text if you want to see the image. And then tap the image and pinch and zoom around if you want to really peek at the details. The shimenawa I mention in huh 01-01 is visible, but only if you really look.
I’m conflicted about adding “instructions” to the huh emails — I feel like there’s something fun about “figuring out” how to see the image. (It’s like the lamest version of “Myst,” in your inbox.) And once the second email arrives in the same way (text only) that should ah-ha! folks into poking around a bit more? Anyway, most everyone seems to have figured it out.
The point of keeping the images on my site is to allow for a more detailed viewing opportunity than on a social network or in an email.
In November 2020 I set out on another one of my giant walks. This time, I walked the Tōkaidō covering some 700km between Tokyo and Kyoto along the coast. As I walked I read John McBride’s excellent (unpublished) guide to the road. In the early 1800s, the famous woodblock printmaster Hiroshige produced the “The Fifty-Three stations of the Tōkaidō.” Fifty-three prints, one for each post-town along the road. John’s book begins each chapter with a very matter-of-fact description of each print.
If you were following along on my November walk via the pop-up Pachinko Road newsletter, you’d have seen many references to (and free copies of!) John’s book. One of the great advantages of a walk that lasts weeks and weeks is that you fall into predictable rhythms. And, as considered above, I think predictable rhythms are the foundation of (a certain kind of (what I consider to be a great kind of!)) creativity and productivity.
So each day on that big walk would start with me reading John’s entry (over breakfast) for the post towns I was about to pass through. I came to look forward to those clear breakdowns of the woodblock prints — “matter-of-fact descriptions.” In fact, I suspect there’s a style of guidebook which could be just closely observing single photographs of neighborhoods throughout a city. “Behold, photograph (a). In this nook of Ebisu, upon rigorous inspection, we discover everything there is to know about this ever-evolving bit of Shibuya-ku. This doorway, for instance …”
The critical point is that I was reading these descriptions daily, usually at the same time. It was this daily rhythm that got me thinking about looking closely, leading to the essay and thinking about the elevation of description itself as art.
Science and art, at least at a high level, have in common intense seeing, bright-eyed observing and deep curiosity.
Someone on a recent members-only Q&A asked (regarding my long walks in general): “Don’t you feel like you’re missing things [photographically] by just spending a day on each section of the road?” To which I have two responses:
- Yes, totally. Which is why I love re-walking. Much like reading (rereading is arguably the only way to “truly” get into a book), rewalking is extremely valuable. It’s why I’ve walked parts of the Kumano Kodo a dozen times. I think there’s a false notion that rewalking is soporific, that you go on auto-pilot; I find just the opposite. If I’m not concerned with route (having done it once), my mind and eyes have the leeway to focus on the details I’d previously missed. So, heck yes, to rewalking and heck yes to missing things the first time through.
- But also: Not really! Because: Details present on both micro and macro scales. Rewalking the same stretch again and again puts you on micro-detail duty. Walking for weeks on end, a new stretch each day, places you in macro-mind. Which is to say that there are rhythms and repetitions between larger stretches than can only be noticed if you’re consistently moving forward.
In the middle of a month of 20+ kilometers days, I enter firmly into macro-mode. The eyes look for visual parallels and rhymes between the days (days as poem stanzas). i.e., the way highway bypasses cut through villages and how the fallout from these violent (and violent they certainly are!) slices present in density of shops and homes. Or how historical mile markers are or aren’t preserved. Or how most barbershops in Japan use similar signage purchased at, one assumes, the national barbershop sign store.
On the flipside, I’ve greatly enjoyed my pandemic loop this past year, watching the same tree in front of the same window of the same old (now abandoned) home change with seasons — from winter-bare before the latticework, to popcorn’d cherry-blossom pink, to summer-green, and then a slow withering through fall into winter. All the while showing or hiding the window, adding or subtracting textures from the view.
As I wrote in the Looking Closely essay, “Looking closely is valuable at every scale. From looking closely at a sentence, a photograph, a building, a government. It scales and it cascades — one cognizant detail begets another and then another. Suddenly you’ve traveled very far from that first little: Huh.”
You can drill down with manic intensity, enacting a Tuftian session of “Intense Seeing,” or you can let the eyes go slack, a little fuzzy, but still observant, enjoying the larger patterns that start to present in the landscape.
Regardless, at the core seems to be the same thing: rhythm and repetition, an acumination of some subconscious mechanism, ever in service to a full and then fuller day.
Until next week,