We’re bang in the middle of the cabbage harvest – well, not me personally, but as I live surrounded by miles and miles of cabbage, it’s a noticeable event. The fields are alive with the sound of music. No, really: the cabbage harvesting units play the radio at earsplitting volume, and they start working at the crack of a sparrow’s fart. That’s not their most intrusive aspect, though. The most annoying thing about them is that they read ‘my’ space wrong and keep getting in my way.
I get out there as early as I can to walk the dogs, stumbling around in a precaffeinated state… and next thing I know I’m having to tapdance through a bunch of bags piled in the middle of ‘my’ footpath, or having to climb halfway down a ditch to get past a trailer blocking ‘my’ field entrance. It used to annoy the bejesus out of me, until I realised that it wasn’t a deliberate slight. The cabbage workers see a gap in a hedge and shove their bags there out of the way of working people and vehicles, which makes perfect sense. There is no reason why they should know that they are plonking those bags right in the way of everyone to whom that gap is an access point. They are busy doing their thing while I’m busy doing mine. Because our use of our shared space is so completely different, we’re looking at it with completely different eyes.
This reminded me of the good/bad old days, when I used to spend more time on the street than is advisable. In particular, it reminded me of how different a city can be in daytime and nighttime. Cityscapes can change radically after all good people are tucked up in their beds. Features that mean something to the daytime denizens often have a completely different set of affordances at night. If you look at a nighttime city with your daytime eyes on, you may miss a lot of opportunities and you can also end up putting yourself into a lot of danger. What is a lovely shelter during the day may be an ideal ambush site at night. Conversely, what is dead space during the day may make an ideal shelter at night. You just need to know how to look at things. Often your needs will shape what you look for, which will shape what you see and eventually how you see.
I find it staggering that some people never develop the right set of eyes – or, rather, they only develop one set of eyes, and can’t look at places any other way. It’s really weird, because it’s hardly an esoteric skill to develop. Anyone who’s had a toddler or a puppy learns the need to look at the world through their eyes before they discover that the bookshelf makes an ideal stepladder, or decide to see what happens when you pull that loose thread in the carpet.
Yet what you’ve never needed to see is often invisible, until you change your point of view. At last November’s Violence Dynamics clinic, Kasey taught a class on how a sniper sees and uses spaces. I realised that my spatial awareness has been hugely affected by the fact that I have lived most of my life in countries with strict firearm legislation (and I have always avoided getting embroiled with the type of local criminals who use firearms, too). I’ve never had to consider the possibility of someone attacking me from the third storey of a car park while I’m walking along the street below. Compared to Kasey’s, my world is virtually two-dimensional and infinitely smaller. When I am in areas where firearms could come into play, I need to remind myself that there is a whole other dimension, and that things could come at me from a much longer range. If I don’t make a conscious effort, my awareness shrinks back to the smaller world I’m used to. Even when I remember, I have to run through the process consciously, because none of this is ingrained yet. It will most likely take a few repetitions of that same exercise for me to develop a set of eyes able to reliably work in that kind of setting.
Then again, sometimes repetitions don’t work. Even repeated failures don’t seem to make an impact. When I worked in local government, I spent countless hours getting frustrated and frustrating others by pointing out the flaws in certain plans. It’s not that the plans were necessarily bad; the problem was that nobody had looked at them with a different set of affordances. Our landscape architects saw beautiful landscape features and amenities; I saw hiding places and ambush sites. I routinely had to spell out to them what could be made of the lovely facilities they were planning, and the impact that would have on those facilities, their users, and the community at large. They thought I was twisted and hyper-negative. When my predictions turned into realities, there’d be a mad scramble to deal with the consequences, often including steps that made the entire project completely worthless. And this failure was routinely treated as the tragic impact of a few problem people, rather than the result of a deliberate case of tunnel vision.
And I betcha that a whole bunch of people who rail against this kind of stupidity at an institutional level have fallen into the same trap in their personal lives. So many people seem more attached to preserving their unique, restricted view of the world than to make that world work for them.