Perched atop a stone slab underneath a dark, mottled sky, I gaped at the scene around me. From Bethesda Fountain, situated far below and away, bricks swirled in the ground, coming to meet the hefty concrete stairs and walls. The park lamps colored the edges of wet surfaces with a muted silver, their faint glow barely piercing the gloom.
I had climbed up from a step on the stairs, my fingers nearly slipping on the moisture and mold of the sculptural forms adorning the wall. The ascent strained against my exhaustion, my fear, but at last I had made over the summit, stood, and spread out my arms to embrace the misty wind and a staggering view.
Why do my friends and I climb to such places, even when it’s uncomfortable and intimidating? The desire to explore is familiar to us all; experiencing something new adds variety to life. But what exploration means to most adults is a walk around the neighborhood, a hike through the woods, or a vacation to an exotic place.
To me, these activities share a limited, conventional scope: the pursuit of sensations that are new and rich. We seek delicious food, go to concerts that border on deafening while shining bright, colored lights into our eyes, and watch movies that delight us with motion, stories, and sweeping soundscapes. At the same time, we put substances into our bodies which alter our physiological states, often changing how we perceive and think.
While — like most people — I’m fond of finding new sensations and views, particularly those that impart pleasure, as well as taking the opposite road and rendering myself insensate in times of turmoil, there’s another kind of exploration which has taken root in me. It’s a personal exploration; a foray through your immediate surroundings.
What is there to discover that is right here? Not on the other side of an ocean, nor with a new group of people, nor something you have to pay for? How can one view the things around oneself with a new lens, using only the tools one already has?
I think the first step may be to observe and speculate. Take, for example, a park bench. One might consider its construction: what is it made of? How are its parts put together, and for whom does it seem to have been made? Consider its aesthetics; can the bench be considered beautiful? What of its color, texture, and shape? Is it new, freshly constructed in the past year, or older, weathered?
In taking this mental trip over and around the bench, one may begin to feel inclined to touch it, to augment their sight and imagination with sensation. Is it smooth or rough to the touch? What of its temperature? How much does it give in to an applied force? How does it feel to sit on it, or even to stand on it? What emotions does it impart through its touch — feelings of danger and discomfort, or those of familiarity and closeness?
By now, one might feel a bit silly to be looking at a bench and feeling it up. But the point is to pay attention, to explore something right in front of you, even if it seems mundane, boring, something that you pay hardly any heed towards. I’d argue that most of us feel the urge already to do this, to balance on the curb, step on the cracks, pick up an abandoned trinket, or go down a mysterious alleyway–alhough perhaps the lure of posting such whimsical discoveries to social media has overtaken this.
Regardless, exploration of one’s surroundings is a behavior most often associated with children, who haven’t yet come to terms with what’s around them. Adults are expected to know and accept their environment, to take it in stride. A bench is just a bench. It’s meant for sitting, and only someone juvenile would speculate about, climb on, or stand atop one. Handrails are for, well, supporting yourself with your hands if need be. At the playground, stay on the sidelines or risk being labeled immature or creepy. When walking outside, stay on the sidewalk.
In my opinion, we can learn a lot from childrens’ urge to play on things. If you only walk where you’re supposed to, use amenities for what they’re meant, and even avoid playing on things designed to be fooled around with (such as monkey bars), you’re missing out on a constant source of discovery of your environment and the body that interfaces with it.
Some people involve themselves in physical disciplines like parkour for the thrill of overcoming personal challenges. Others do it for the cool factor, to come out with that next video that drips with style, speed, and/or power. Still others enjoy being part of a community. My main motivation is the constant change in perspective that I experience whenever I play, move, and explore. It is a pleasure that requires no plane ticket or car ride, no entry fee or stipulations, that anyone can partake in wherever they go, wherever they are.