I bumped into a friend recently at a coffee shop who asked, “Did you recognize me waving at you from my car” last week? I had to admit I didn’t recognize her or her car. But thinking about it later, I remembered a remark by the social critic Lewis Mumford, who suggested that it’s hard to have a conversation with someone when you’re traveling more than three miles an hour.
I had a similar thought last summer when I was looking out the window of a friend’s house in Provence in the South of France. In the distance, two ancient villages clung to the hillside a few kilometers apart, connected by a modern road where tiny cars flitted by like brightly colored bugs. Once the ” province” of Rome, Provence is now a high tech center of European research and development centered in the vicinity of Aix en Provence. The landscape I saw from the window — olive trees, wheat fields, and vineyards surrounding villages built of stone and tile — has changed very little since the time of the ancient Romans. Yet the old farms and vineyards are giving way to vacation homes and superstores. Some of the farmers have converted their farms into equestrian centers, where the sons and daughters of European scientists can ride horses on weekends. I saw a horse and rider that afternoon, slowly cantering along a trail between the two villages. Both seemed perfectly at ease in the landscape.
Why did the gait of the horse and rider seem so natural in the landscape while the speeding cars did not? I was startled by the contrast. The Provencal landscape was originally scaled to the speed of a horse. For over two thousand years, people could travel no faster than a horse could gallop. Distances between villages were based on what a horse or a human could walk in an hour or two. Fields were sized according to what a horse and plow could cover in a day. That is why the young woman riding the horse in the distance fit so comfortably in the landscape, whereas the red and blue cars zipping along the road seemed independent of this particular, ancient landscape.
We can find similar, slower landscapes in this country. One of the most beautiful roads in America, for example, is the Blue Ridge Parkway, which winds through the Appalachian Mountains. The speed limit on the parkway is 45 mph. Drive faster and you miss the views (and risk a speeding ticket) because the designers of the parkway shaped the road for a slower pace.
And In rural parts of North Carolina where roads are small, it’s possible to see the face of a farmer coming towards you in his truck because you are both driving slowly. As often as not he will wave. (Imagine doing that on an interstate highway or a six-lane suburban throughway.) In the two hundred or so years before automobiles came to North Carolina, our counties were sized based on the distance a farmer could travel on horseback in a day to pay his taxes at the county courthouse or sell his crops at market.
Throughout North Carolina, you also can find remnants of pre-automobile culture: country stores, now usually shuttered, spaced every few miles within walking distance of farmsteads; and country churches like Olive Chapel and Mount Pisgah Church, where steeple bells rang at a quarter to eleven on Sunday morning to remind folks they had 15 minutes to walk to service. High-speed roads have liberated these older landscapes. People no longer walk to the store or to church. And on the whole, this is better. But as my friend Jim Schlosser, who writes about architecture for the Greensboro Daily News, observed, architecture began to go downhill with the construction of the Interstate highway system. Since people no longer slowed down to drive through cities, architects designed buildings to be viewed at 65 miles per hour, with a consequent loss of scale, texture, and detail.
So as we cruise along our wide highways, it’s good to remember that, as a civilization, we have been walking and riding horses far longer than we have been riding in cars. Perhaps some of our discomfort with modern settlements is due to the fact they are sized for the speed of cars and not for the pace of humans. And certainly it’s hard to recognize a friend passing by in her car.