In a 1990 book called “The Experience of Place,” author Tony Hiss advanced a seemingly simple proposition, suggesting that the spaces around us profoundly shape our minds, our moods, our quality of life. While the logic of his premise might have appeared self-evident, Hiss drew upon the best thinking of art, science, and social theory to affirm what many of us suspected we already knew, yet had somehow too often forgotten.
“The Experience of Place” has gone on to become a modern-day classic, widely read among urban planners and general readers alike. It has also been at the forefront of a flowering of literature about the philosophy of man-made landscapes. They include William Leach’s “Country of Exiles: The Destruction of Place in American Life,” as well as several books by William Kunstler: “The Geography of Nowhere,” “Home from Nowhere,” and “The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition.”
In his new book, In Motion: The Experience of Travel, Hiss revisits his earlier technique: Take a proposition that appears intuitive, then slowly tease out its implications for the way we live now, and how we should live going forward.
“Deep Travel” begins with the assumption that when we take a trip, something sublime can change the way we perceive the world. Somehow, our vision tilts, our senses are shaken awake, and we can feel refreshed by what we see. This is, after all, why we travel for pleasure: to see new places that will somehow make us new in the bargain.
But Hiss takes the principle a step further, arguing that this same sense of transformation – what he calls “Deep Travel” – can also be enjoyed in the more modest trips we take every day: running to the store, commuting to work, walking within our own neighborhoods.
The trick, says Hiss, is to appreciate the landscapes that can broaden Deep Travel into a frequent experience, and not merely an indulgence of tourism.
Hiss acknowledges that for much of human history, travel has often been greeted not as a pleasure, but a pain:
“Many writers about travel have noticed that the word itself, in its original Old French form, travaillier, had only harsh meanings, such as ‘toil,’ ‘trouble,’ and ‘torment,’ and seems to trace back to an even older Latin word, tripalium, the name of a three-staked Roman instrument of torture.”
But Hiss argues that when properly embraced – and prudently enabled by an attention to the promise of landscape design and architecture – travel can routinely be something higher, “a catapult for lifting the wings of the human spirit.”
Because daily travel is viewed today largely as a chore, public policy often focuses on the goal of reducing commute times. Hiss acknowledges the potential benefits of living closer to work, but he also notes that for centuries, time spent on commuting has been fairly constant. The Domesday Book, an ambitious census of England compiled in 1086, recorded that those who worked away from home needed “about 20 minutes” to reach their fields or pastures.
Hiss suggests that instead of trying to reduce commute time to some approximation of zero, a prospect that seems unlikely, society should focus on making the more prosaic trips we take every day a richer experience.
Hiss’s prescription for enabling Deep Travel cannot easily be distilled into the Top 10 principles of the typical self-help book, and part of the challenge here, one gathers, is that the author’s concept is more of an art than a science – or perhaps a science still largely unexplored.
“One of the problems of the moment is that many people already know a good deal about Deep Travel but have it filed away in different parts of their minds,” he tells readers.
In search of source material, Hiss embarks on his characteristically ambitious survey of science and the humanities, quoting everyone from Lewis Thomas to Thomas Mann, Henry David Thoreau to E.O. Wilson, Copernicus to “Bugs Bunny” director Chuck Jones.
As in “The Experience of Place,” Hiss uses his home ground of New York City as a personal laboratory for working out his ideas, wondering aloud how certain walks around his Greenwich Village neighborhood, although ostensibly prosaic, can sometimes transcend the ordinary.
Read attentively in a quiet corner, “In Motion” is itself an example of the author’s recurring point – that the mind can even travel deeply when its owner is at rest.