Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places, by John R. Stilgoe

Cover of first U. S. edition of 'Outside Lies Magic'
“Get out now,” John R. Stilgoe urges us at the start of Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places. “Not just outside, but beyond the trap of the programmed electronic age so gently closing around so many people at the end of our century.”

Stilgoe is not advocating an escape back to a simpler form of life or a time before electronics. Instead, Outside Lies Magic is a call for us to step outside … and pay attention. In particular, to pay attention to all the aspects of our environment that we quickly learn to take for granted, that thereby become invisible, particularly if we are accustomed to travel through this environment inside the cocoon of a car.

Stilgoe calls it “a straightforward guidebook to exploring.” By exploring, he means venturing into our ordinary landscapes at a slower pace–by foot or bicycle–and taking the time to notice: “to widen his or her angle of vision, to ste sideways and look at something seemingly familiar, to walk a few paces and see something utterly new.”

Stilgoe, a professor in the History of Landscape at Harvard, is not exactly a neglected figure. His classes are among the most popular and best-regarded at Harvard, and he was the subject of a story on CBS’s “60 Minutes” back in 2009. Outside Lies Magic is still available in Kindle format, but it’s been out of print in paper form for the last decade.
Landscape–whether natural or man-made–is not meant to be interpreted, Stilgoe points out. It’s meant, in most cases, simply to serve some purpose, whether obvious or obscure. And since most of our voyages through our landscape are also purposeful, we tend to neglect anything not directly related to our purposes.

Exploring, for Stilgoe, starts with abandoning purpose. “Ordinary exploration begins in casual indirection, in the juiciest sort of indecision….” This is not aimless wandering, however. Although the term doesn’t appear in the book, Outside Lies Magic is about mindfulness applied to the everyday world around us.

Stilgoe leads the reader through this world along a variety of paths, starting with “Lines”–literally, the electric, telephone and cable lines strung over our heads or lying buried beneath our streets and sidewalks. From these physical networks he then takes us into the virtual network of the U.S. mail system, tracing its evolution from post offices run out of general stores to the age of railroad post offices, during which service among major cities probably exceeded that of today, to the introduction of Rural Free Delivery (R.F.D.). He goes on to reveal the past, present and possible future of railroad routes, many of which still run through our neighborhoods, whether active, abandoned, or transformed into bike and walking paths.

Outside Lies Magic is not a formal guidebook, however. Although Stilgoe does stick to a set theme in each chapter, he deliberately avoids becoming too purposeful in this guide to purposeless discovery. This is not a book you’d take in hand to help you navigate and interpret what you might encounter.
More than anything, it’s a prose poem. By that, I don’t mean that Stilgoe’s is a particularly poetic prose style. Instead, it’s full of passages that use patterns and rhythms akin to the poetic. Take, for example, this little ode to what lies beneath a freeway overpass:

Beneath the elevated interstate highway lie the lots to which dented tow trucks tow illegally parked cars, lots filled with piles of sand, great stacks of concrete lane barriers, heaps upon heaps of shattered asphalt and concrete and rusted reinforcing rod surrounded by derelict construction machines. Beneath the elevated highway stand disused construction-site trailers, long-parked trailer-truck trailers, dozens of buses with every window long smashed. Beneath the elevated highway march the four-foot-high piles of dirt and litter emptied in perfect rows from three-wheeled street-sweeping machines, piles awaiting pickup by loaders and dump trucks that seem never to arrive. Everywhere beneath elevated highways blossom makeshift dumps, great clutches of abandoned cars and burned-out cars, the former often occupied as homes by the homeless, the latter serving as unofficial Dumpsters and toilets. Beneath the elevated highway the exploring bicyclist finds the homes never visited by the United States Census, the clusters of cardboard cartons, sheet-metal boxes, construction-timber lean-tos, and automobile hoods that comprise the turn-of-the-millennium American jungle.

This could easily be re-formatted into a five-line work of free verse.

Stilgoe can find poetry even in such mundane things as a Motel 6 at night:

Out on the bypass, out by the interstate highway, the motel owns the night, its many lights shining down over both its parking lots, its handful of old-fashioned outdoor post and wall lanterns sparkling by its main entrance, its dozens or hundreds of smaller, single-bulb lights flicked on, one beside each room door.

Outside Lies Magic is also a small work of practical philosophy. Stilgoe argues passionately for the need for unstructured time, unstructured thoughts, unstructured experiences as a means to keep ourselves fully engaged with our world. Speaking with Steve Kroft on “60 Minutes,” he observed of his Harvard students, “I think they’ve missed a kind of self-guided, non-organized activity, non-sports activity growing up. Wandering around, getting into things. And the assumption seems to be nowadays is if a child isn’t in an organized activity, the child is a criminal.”

“But as far as I can understand,” he continued, “most of my colleagues I work with seem to have found their careers by being slightly disorganized. Lucking into something, you know.” His observation reminds me of something that appears in Jacques Hadamard’s The Psychology of Invention in the Mathematical Field (republished as The Mathematician’s Mind): “A problem . . . reveals itself suddenly when it is no longer investigated, probably because it is no longer investigated and when one only expects, for a short time, to rest and relax….”

“A person is more than separated mind and body,” Stilgoe writes at the conclusion of Outside Lies Magic,

… and the body exists as much to carry the mind as the mind exists to direct the body. Outdoors, away from things experts have already explained, the slightly thoughtful person willing to look around carefully for a few minutes, to scrutinize things about which he or she knows nothing in particular, begins to be aware, to notice, to explore. And almost always, that person starts to understand, to see great cultural and social and economic and political patterns unnoticed by journalists and other experts.

Exploring, finally, is a way of reclaiming one’s senses and encountering the world in a different way. “Whoever owns the real estate and its constituents,” Stilgoe writes, “the explorer owns the landscape.”

So what’s keeping you? Get out now.

Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places, by John R. Stilgoe
New York: Walker and Company, 1998

2 thoughts on “Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places, by John R. Stilgoe

  1. And the reading list grows. I suppose it’s in keeping with the spirit of the book that some of the best books are the ones recommended by strangers, who recommend them to me when I’m not looking for recommendations. All those “recommendation engines” don’t hold a candle.

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