Walking Home

reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker

Footpaths

September 23rd, 2015

Footpaths

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First writing is done by feet. When we walk, we make marks and we make meaning. A path is deep writing. It is a material surface that over time becomes worn and accommodating, but it is also indexical, pointing out a direction–actually two. In addition, paths are communal: formed and maintained by community while at the same time forming and maintaining those very communities. They enable movement and embody memory. For children, at least those who are able to experience childhood outdoors (not on flooring, pavement or artificial turf), paths are possibility. Each day they start yet another adventure. Their windings are a wild writing, leading not to places of labor or commerce, but instead to the hidden which is also the imaginative.

Writing takes many forms, but the classic scene is a steel-nibbed pen scratching the surface of thick paper with the ink leaving a dark line modulated by the faintest lateral threads, liquid drawn out infinitesimally by capillary action of the paper’s fibers. The direction of the mark is, at a glance, obvious, but the possibilities of divergence are framed by those faint lateral marks. Drawn lines and footpaths–diagrams–have direction, but like their childlike wild counterparts also signal other possibilities.

Footpaths and words can take you places or get you lost, which is just a word for a place unknown. Through use, paths enforce a certain directionality. They are habituated to the feet that speak their direction, discourage divergence, dampen wildness. Even walking in blankness is all about making and possibly following marks. Ninety Mile Beach is flat, often 30+ meters wide, and can be walked comfortably anywhere in a wide section, but I still found myself following paths defined by earlier walkers or car tracks. On other beaches (I’ve followed many a beach track on the Te Araroa which is Maori for “The Long Path”) where the sand is often too soft to walk, my feet seek out a thin trace of shells that form a tide line and mark out firm footing. But paths are not just directors, they can be aesthetic, as in Richard Long’s famous 1967 “Line Made by Walking.” They remember passersby, and, for example, express grief as in Rider’s walk down his dead wife Mannie’s weekly pathway in William Faulkner’s “Pantaloon in Black,” or they express and embody love, lovingly demonstrated in Eudora Welty’s “Worn Path” or the footpath of my own youth which led through an orchard to a girlfriend’s house.

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On the other hand, a long-distance footpath must be precisely legible, so they tend to be multimediated. There is, of course the path itself, the reminder of where to step, step by step. Long-distance trails are, almost by definition, unfamiliar. The childlike pleasure of the wild path is, in long-distance hiking, overwhelmed by uncertainty and the physically high stakes of mistakes. A wrong turn can take the trekker many miles from intention. When crossed by another path, the trail needs further indication, often supplied by signs (made of wood or other ponderous material, but which can still be taken as wonders). Theirs is a writing that supplements the first pathwriting. Trail anxiety is also alleviated by other visual marks, usually some form of blazing. On the Appalachian Trail, these are white vertical rectangles (approximately 2 1/2″ x 6″) painted on a tree or rock, usually at eye height. Change in direction is signaled by the turn of the path itself, and reinforced by double blazes, often slightly staggered to indicate direction. In addition, the AT has blue blazes which point out secondary or supplementary trails, usually those which cannot be recognized by the differential width and wear of the path itself.

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The Te Araroa is blazed by orange plastic triangles nailed to trees and posts at something that approaches eye height. Change in direction is indicated by doubling the blazes but also by tipping the triangle in that direction. Such indices are important on the TA, not just to alleviate anxiety, but also to embody the path which often, particularly in the Northland, can be more-or-less non-existent. In steep areas of, for example, the Herekino Forest, the slope can be completely washed out, giving no indication from the ground where to put feet. There the orange triangles become the path. But blazes also transform the experience of the pathway, moving it from feet and downcast eyes to scanning vision at human height, something that seems unimportant but is nevertheless phenomenologically significant.

Even with paths and blazes, it is still easy to lose trail direction. Often in the deep bush there is that heartsinking moment when you realize you have lost the trail. Usually, rather than returning to the last meaningful place (obvious path or blaze), a slight change in perspective, a simple shifting of head and eyes, reveals the obvious–Oh, there it is! Further mediation often takes the form of maps, usually topographical but also terrain profiles. I found that the Appalachian Trail itself was so well-worn and well-blazed that traditional topo maps were not necessary, though profile maps were useful in gauging the overall difficulty of the day. The most recent media form to layer over these others is GPS, which on smart phones takes the form of many useful apps that can obviate the need for all other writing except the path itself, which remains, as always, the first writing.

In a somewhat neglected essay, “The Biology of Cognition,” Humberto Maturana makes a distinction between connotative and denotative language. He does not appeal to traditional definitions of these terms, instead using “denotative” to mean the careful representation of concepts or ideas (in spoken or written language) to another person– almost like tokens passed from one person to another. In his schema, “connotative” then means the use of language to orient interlocutors to each other. When I ask someone how they are, I really do not expect bits of information about their health or financial status, nor am I directly interested in their mood. Rather, I am initiating an interaction where our mutual interests and concerns might in some way become aligned.

Maturana goes on to imply (as I recall) that a majority of language use is connotative, seeking orientation. Humans and other animals, fish, birds, insects, and microbes all orient themselves to each other through pathwriting. It is impossible not to marvel at the subtle communication within a formation of birds whose wings write currents in the air, leading those who follow to shift ever so slightly direction and speed. In Moby-Dick, Melville describes with fascination the watery paths leviathans follow in their migrations. Paths may not be denotative unless they are part of a highly ritualized set of symbolic gestures (e.g., The Stations of the Cross), but without doubt, they are connotative, serving to orient all motile beings to each other, their umwelt, livelihood, and selves. The hills of New Zealand are an intricate patterning of lines, a corduroy of paths and ledges made by generations of cattle and sheep, all finding a home in a steep and difficult place.

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Footpaths and writing often come together (witness Wordsworth), and paths can be a model for thought, from Gerald Edelman’s notion of neural pathways to Martin Heidegger’s holzwege. The latter saw the path as thinking itself. One was never in a particular place or thought, but instead was always on the way toward it. To write is first and foremost to experience the open. To be on a footpath is never to arrive.

 

T. Hugh Crawford

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