“Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson
In the park where we play, there are nicely laid out concrete paths, leading from the swings to the picnic tables, from the castle to the soccer field, from the water fountain to the bridge, from here to there, from A to B.
And then there are the real paths, the dirt ones, the ones that shoot out from the concrete to connect where people really go, to memorialize the real actions of children playing, to acknowledge the real patterns of living, of human purpose, of some honest destination.
Last year, my friend Anita cut an article out of the L.A. Times for me, with a note: “I thought you might like this.” Indeed I did.
The article, Robert Finch’s “Purposefully straying from the path,” was about those paths people make when they cut across a grassy area instead of following the prescribed walkway—those dirt paths that take us where we really want to go.
In the business of landscape architects, it turns out that these impromptu, unofficial, renegade paths have a poetic, wonderful name. They’re called “desire lines”:
“…those well-worn ribbons of dirt that you see cutting across a patch of grass, often with nearby sidewalks ignored—particularly those that offer a less direct route. In winter, desire lines appear spontaneously as tramped down paths in the snow. I love that these paths are never perfectly straight. Instead, like a river, they meander this way and that, as if to prove that desire itself isn’t linear and (literally, in this case) straightforward.” — wordspy.com
Some landscape architects actually design walkways to accommodate these emergent designs, tracking the usage by waiting to see where people prefer to go and then building their official paths there. (Would this create more unofficial paths, I wonder? Is the desire to be outside the lines, to forge our own path, so strong?) Desire lines indicate yearning, according to John La Plante, the chief traffic engineer for T. Y. Lin International, an engineering firm. Indeed they do. A yearning to go our own way, to forge through the brush of life, to make a new path, to ignore the concrete in lieu of the feel of our foot on real earth, to see the results of our own agency through space.
A paper by Carl Myhill examines how companies can be successful by focusing on the desire lines of their products and customers:
“Desire lines are an ultimate expression of human desire or natural purpose. An optimal way to design pathways in accordance with natural human behaviour, is to not design them at all. Simply plant grass seed and let the erosion inform you about where the paths needs to be.”
How hard this is! Don’t we know best? Aren’t we the experts? Shouldn’t we set the path in stone and have them follow us? Perhaps, my friend, the answer is no, no, a thousand times no.
Myhill poetically calls desire lines “the ultimate unbiased expression of natural human purpose—a perfect expression of natural purpose.” Natural human purpose. What is mine? Yours? Maybe if I look at the paths I’ve worn, over and over again, I’ll see that purpose show itself, like corn fields create patterns only when I’m flying over them. Perhaps it takes some distance to see that path; at the very least, it requires a different vantage point.
Marica Sevelj, a blogger from Wellington, New Zealand, goes further to explore if and how desire lines connect to learning:
“Desire lines are linked to urban planning…I immediately started thinking about how this might apply to learning and teaching… Is the curriculum itself an example of a desire line created by a group of experts who wholeheartedly believe this is what the learner needs to know, or is the curriculum an example of a concrete path which learners are expected to use but don’t necessarily want to? Could we take this approach in learning? Would mayhem ensue if we just planted seeds and waited to see what happened?”
When we teach, whose desire line are we teaching to, following, demanding? Mine as teacher, or my students’, as learner? Am I willing to follow them?
As Sevelj notes, The Walking Project is extending the concept behind desire lines to uncover the stories those paths tell.
“The Walking Project uses the paths people make across vacant lots in Detroit and across fields in South Africa — desire lines — as springboards to explore the paths we walk and how they are formed through culture, geography, language, economics and love. It looks at how people make their own paths; how and why people’s paths cross; and how changing patterns of movement can alter perceptions, attitudes and lives.”
Paths crossing, creating patterns and another layer of complexity. This image (I imagine Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and that invisible thread that ties her to friends across London, snapping only when she jolts awake—or falls asleep, one forgets which, they are so alike) creates spider webs of connection, like so much emotional longitude and latitude, except more random, aren’t they? Or not. How insanely random and yet how right, all those paths I’ve crossed around the world, accidental juxtapositions—and yet paths I cannot imagine not having crossed, as if the crossing were the destiny. Patterns I can’t see because I’m not high enough, but there I am as part of it, believing I am forging a new way, but perhaps not. Feeling I am defining my human purpose, but perhaps tracing a pattern already lightly penciled in? Feeling the renegade, but truly just being my own real self—in what kind of world is that being deviant?
(Click each photo to enlarge) In the left photo, look at the curve in the road. You’ll see a thin sliver of footpath connecting the bend in the road to a concrete path that mirrors its curve. The barrier in the second photo was put in place to discourage that desire line. Now, people just walk around the barrier.
Several years ago, Peter Merholz wrote an illustrated essay that demonstrated how
When faced with a bird’s eye view of my own desire lines, measuring in quick paces the decisions I’ve made or not made, do I allow them to become the real path, or do I put up a concrete barrier to redirect myself back to the “official” road? And what is that process of creating our own path? What feelings does it entail, engender, cause?
As Finch said,
“Sometimes, following unknown paths, we find ourselves in a maze of growth, in failing light, unsure where we are, flailing through jungles of stiff, impenetrable shrubs and sharp briars in deceptively benign-looking woods. All at once we realize we are lost, unable to retrace our steps. Then, suddenly, we come out onto a paved highway, far from where we thought we were, feeling a gratefulness and a relief we are ashamed to acknowledge.
But sometimes, just sometimes, we come upon a new and unexpected clearing, a magical place unanticipated in our daily thoughts or even our dreams; and when we do, we are so amazed that we cease even to wonder whether we will be able to find our way back home, or, perchance, whether this might in fact be our new home.”
Why do we stray? Finch asks:
What is it that has pushed me to create this new desire line in my life? More importantly, where is the new line headed? Or do I need to know that now?
~*~ 37 Days: Do it Now Challenge ~*~
Plant grass seed and see what the erosion tells you about where the path should be—where do you keep going? What path are you wearing bare? Take an aerial “photograph” of your desire lines; only with that perspective can we clearly see them.
Where are they coming from and where are they going? Or are these desire lines a representation of your real intention in life, a sturdy setting forth? What landscape are they crisscrossing? Why not make them the real route for your life, since you obviously yearn to go there?
Also, ask yourself the tough question: are those really desire lines, or am I just lazy, looking for the quickest way from here to there, not the real way? Are they just for convenience, or a real marking out in the world? Can I tell the difference between a shortcut and a desire line?
Make your own way. Blaze your own sure path. Find the ultimate expression of your human desire or natural purpose. Leave a trail.