Walking Home

reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker

In Patagonia Day 37

March 26th, 2018

In Patagonia Day 37

Eduardo Kohn has me thinking about paths, cognition, and temporality. The other day I wrote a bit about walking as both depending on and enacting a future. The regularity of rhythm depends on the possibility of continuing, obviously with constant ongoing adjustment—walking is both difference and repetition as well as a necessary creative advance into and constructing of a future. But when you get lost, even if only for a moment, it (the path + walker) marks out a past—many feet maintaining its status as path, uniting you with others, confounding the idea of a solitary walker.

Kohn had me further puzzling about how paths think, how they relate to distributed cognition (e.g., Edwin Hutchins), and since I was out walking myself, that somehow brought me to the often poorly read Robert Frost poem “The Road Not Taken.” Throughout he uses the verb “took” rather than “chose.” To draw a simple moral from the poem (something all those high school graduation speakers feel necessary), the emphasis tends to be on chosen, on personal agency and responsibility, something an active sense of “took” can bring (particularly is the tones of meaning tend toward possession) but took also brings as sense of collaboration (took and taken), spreading responsibility not just to person but also in this case to path, that path which, while currently empty, is inhabited by hordes of past walkers, taking their leave because of the affordances of surface, inclination, and general habitability of the way. Paths manifest innumerable steps, countless choices, and present walkers with choices constrained by human and nonhuman multiplicities. Cognition, agency, choice—infinitely complex. That puzzling about time took me back to this—Footpaths—which does a better job of articulating these ideas than these current musings do.

T. Hugh Crawford