Genuine discovery is possible in the nearby unknown.
--Robert L. McCullough
Does being on a bicycle affect how one sees the landscape? That’s one of the big questions posed by Robert L. McCullough in his fascinating new book Old Wheelways: Traces of Bicycle History on the Land (MIT Press, 2015). McCullough, a landscape historian at the University of Vermont, looks at the influences of bicycles on the land and how the bicycle changed how people thought about landscape between about 1880 and 1910 in the northeastern United States. And his answer to that question above is yes, at least for some.
McCullough argues that certain cyclists in this first generation of cycle travel were what he calls “landseeërs,” a variation of seers, as in those gifted with a kind of special, mystical insight. When a rare perceptive power is applied to landscapes, McCullough suggests, you get landseeërs, those with a “heightened awareness of surroundings.” He argues that in the final decades of the nineteenth century, some cyclists not only exhibited this power but also wrote about and/or sketched or photographed what they saw. (I should say that McCullough’s landseeërs thesis is only a small part of his book; I will offer an overall review the book another day.)
McCullough celebrates the way cycling’s landseeërs of the nineteenth century transformed their (already well-travelled) local environs into places worthy of discovery. The cyclists he’s talking about weren’t necessarily venturing around the world or across the country; rather, they explored territory close to home, finding the strange and new amidst the ostensibly familiar, along rural roads and country lanes, often just miles from Baltimore or Springfield or Philadelphia.
I love this landseeërs idea and not just because I’m a sucker for an umlaut. There’s a mythical, romantic resonance to the word, and the approach to cycling it conveys fits nicely with just the philosophy we advocate here at the Dusty Müsette: exploring one’s own backyard from the unique vantage point of a bike saddle. And many of the things I write about on this blog—a new gravel road, a strange tree, an old church, a dilapidated barn, a charming outhouse—are little wonders I’ve noticed while out riding in the “nearby unknown.”
One big assumption in McCullough’s argument, of course, is that most of us rarely ever really see the landscape around us. Sure, we think we are seeing things out the car window, but it’s a flawed if not false kind of perception, hindered by the speed and isolation (as in, separated by a pane of glass from the world we see) of auto travel (or train travel, in the late nineteenth century). Being on a bike, however, allows for a different way of seeing altogether—one that is at a more human pace, more immersive, connected and alive to the surroundings.
This is a thesis that most semi-serious cyclists will be familiar with, that the pace of bicycle travel is optimal for noticing things one might otherwise miss, recording features of landscape and, as McCullough says, “recalling and connecting them in creative ways and forming visual prospects that remain invisible to others.”
It’s an appealing idea, but is it true? I recently read Dan Rubinstein’s fine book Born to Walk, in which he surveys similar arguments for how walking changes the way people see the world around them. I imagine that similar claims might be made by Nordic skiiers and longboarders, by horse folks and motorcyclists. McCullough’s argument probably isn’t as unique to cycling as he makes it sound—but that doesn’t mean there isn’t something to it.
(Not for everyone, of course. This a key qualification: not all cyclists in the 1880s and 90s would have qualified as landseeërs, McCullough says. Actually, few would. It’s a rare gift, in fact, this landscapey special sight. Then, as now, a lot of uber-serious cyclists were so intent on going fast (“scorchers,” they were called) that they didn’t notice much of anything around them.)
I do believe that my being on a bicycle influences my ability to see my surroundings. I’d go one step further, in fact, and argue that being on a bicycle affects how I understand the world around me. As one of the original landseeërs Charles Pratt wrote in 1880, in a passage quoted by McCullough, “Ten to one you, Reader, unless you be a wheelman, do not know your own country.”