A glimpse of the world at large

Sunday, September 27, 1998

Outside Lies Magic
by John R. Stilgoe. Walker & Co. 187 pages. $21.


     John R. Stilgoe, a professor of landscape architecture at Harvard, writes with the infectious enthusiasm of a teacher sharing the subject he loves. Reading "Outside Lies Magic," one senses that this is the book that he has always wanted to write, the book that explains just why his interests should interest the world at large. He writes persuasively, encouraging us to notice our surroundings, to ask questions, and to explore. As he puts it, "Learning to look around sparks curiosity, encourages serendipity. Amazing connections get made that way; questions are raised - and sometimes answered - that never would be otherwise."
     Stilgoe makes many such connections in "Outside Lies Magic." In the chapter called "Enclosures," he notices the speed at which a picket fence becomes invisible. Although this figure may vary depending on the spacing of the pickets, 11 miles per hour, "the explorer can see through the fence almost as though the fence had disappeared."
     In that same chapter, he investigates the origins of American fences and discovers the root of the word "sheriff." In Colonial New England, people "fenced in livestock and elected hog reeves - a reeve is a gatherer - to capture wandering animals and intern them in outdoor pounds until owners paid fines." In a parenthetical aside, he adds, "While the ancient shire reeve is now contracted to sheriff, rural New Englanders still elect livestock reeves."
     If these seem to you like the kinds of trivial "facts" that Cliff Clavin would tell his drinking buddies at Cheers, you'd be correct in the sense that such knowledge seems like trivia. But, unlike Cliff's "facts," Stilgoe's are true and Stilgoe never presents himself as a know-it-all. Throughout the book, his tone encourages us to explore. When discussing what he's learned from his explorations, he uses the word "the explorer" (not "I") and puts verbs into a future tense - as in "the explorer will find" - in order to draw the reader into the position of explorer. He emphasizes not the fact that he has done it in the past, but the fact that we can do it in the present and in the future.
     In this sense, the book is much more than collection of arcane facts; instead, it offers a way of living one's life. Stilgoe wants to shake us out of our habits of perception, so that we may re-experience the world in which we live, paying attention to that which we took for granted. He's a historian with the zeal of a transcendentalist: Thoreau walked into the woods, reaching toward the divine in nature; Stilgoe walks along abandoned railroad tracks, uncovering the histories of commuting patterns, mail delivery, power lines, and American main street.
     "History is on the wall," he writes, "but only those willing to look up from newspaper or laptop computer glimpse it and ponder."
(Phil Nel is adjunct professor of English at the College of Charleston.)




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