From Jasper Ave.

Being without a car, my walks around my study site always begin in the same place – at Bay Station, from which I emerge into the midst of a bustling downtown. Now, bustling is not a word that most would associate with Edmonton, and perhaps I’ve been unduly influenced towards a use of the word by so many other of the world’s downtowns, but at lunch hour, in the summertime, as all the suits empty out onto the streets and head towards the nearest Tim’s or Starbucks of Second Cup or Subway, I can hear, between animated conversations and clicking heels, the sort of bustle that occurs in grander cities.

It’s amazing how fast that bustle disappears though – walk one block south, and there’s nothing but silent churches, and one more block takes you into the sleepy green neighbourhoods that fit most people’s vision of Edmonton. And with the steep slope down to the river valley, by the time you’re three blocks south of Jasper, any bustle it might contain is out of sight and mind. Though I’m probably completely wrong, the feeling of detachment between the two areas – commercial and residential – convinces me that the heeled suits clicking across concrete plazas could never be the same as those who live in Rossdale’s quiet homes, and tread over the soft grass again and again until a path is formed.

Cartography

When I went to my study area last week, I took a GPS and recorded breadcrumb trails of the desire lines that I walked on, planning to transfer those onto a google map, and later pin multimedia objects to their mapped routes. Since then, I’ve spent hours struggling, without success, to move the data between the GPS and my computer. Even looking at the breadcrumb trails on the GPS, some of the “geographically accurate” records are useless – the margin of error in geolocation puts a desire line in the middle of a street instead of running between the sidewalk and someone’s front door. Today, finally, I took a step back, and thought again about what I was really trying to map.

Desire Lines, while they are physical, geolocatable objects, seem to have an aspect in their nature that resists such classification. They take imprecise, wandering lines, and, I suspect, the path of those lines vary and change over time. My goal in mapping them is not to provide the sort of map you might use to plan a route between two points. That would defeat the desire line entirely – to map it in that way would be to sanction an unsanctioned path, and ultimately, to make it undesirable. But there is something about seeing the shapes and contours of the desire lines that is appealing to me. I want to see where they run straighter, and where they wind in a more playful manner. The photographs that I take will provide some of that. And for the visual whole of the map, instead of unsatisfactory “accurate” markings, I’m going to take my cue from those beautiful words of Bachelard’s:

Thus we cover the universe with drawings we have lived

I’m going to draw the paths. And I’ve found a tool called Scribble Maps that will let me do just that! Now I suppose it’s time to go back to the paths I photographed on the 8th, and map them so that you can see… coming soon!

A Line Made By Walking

I’ve been reading a book by Dieter Roelstraete on one of the artist Richard Long’s most influential works.

A Line Made By Walking. Richard Long, 1967

Naturally, I’m interested in this work because, while Long never used the term “desire line” in his description of it, that is essentially what it is.

The work is essentially known as a straightforward black-and-white photograph of a line of flattened, trampled-upon grass made by repetitively walking up and down an unidentified field in the countryside just outside London

[Roelstrate 2]

There is one primary difference between this work and most desire lines, however. A Line Made By Walking was made by one man. Desire Lines, unlike Long’s work, are collectively created. They have a less deliberate feel to them, more a sense of the coincidental – the coincidence of hundreds of footsteps choosing the same path.

Still, I found relevance and inspiration in reading about this work, perhaps because I’ve been thinking about paths as a sort of art ever since I read Bachelard’s Poetics of Space. In it, he writes of paths, and travelling on them:

Thus we cover the universe with drawings we have lived. [Bachelard 12]

Desire Lines, then, might be seen as a city’s life-drawings, as its most natural form of art. Murals on the ground, if you will.

In considering the trampled-down line of grass that is Long’s work, Roelstraete asks a provocative question:

is (was) the at in the walking, in the line made by walking, or in the photograph made of the line made by walking? Did the work exist for no longer than the twenty minutes it took to make the narrow strip of flattened grass appear, or does the work continue to exist in its ongoing transportation? [Roelstraetke 3]

It’s a question that I might ask of my own work too. Shall I focus on the composition of my photographs, the arc of my sentences? Or are they really just documentation of an art that is already there, in the ground? Or does the real art come in the formation of the lines themselves, must I witness walkers on the paths in order to truly understand them?

Reading, Rivers, and other Paths

I once saw an image of the way that people’s eyes move as they read – not in rows straight across from left to right, but in wandering lines that weave across the page like a drunken river swimming towards some unseen ocean of meaning.

Desire lines look like that – like a reader’s gaze wandering over a page, like rivers stumbling across a map – not like paths. Readers skip over some words, linger on others, and sometimes seem drawn more to blank space than printed letters. Rivers cut through a landscape with their own mysterious logic, turning sometimes for something as small as a pile of stones, and at other times, forcing their way into the wall of a cliff. Paths, we think, must make sense – must lead to somewhere, from somewhere. And they do, just as rivers do, inevitably. We do not need to see their direction, to understand their logic, for it to exist. But if we follow these paths, and, in following, recreate them, then our feet at least may know something of their language, even if that understanding never reaches our minds. I can let my eyes wander over a whole page of text without retaining a word of its meaning, because my wandering eyes give my mind time to think. Space to think. It’s the same with walking – as I wander over meandering paths, my mind is liberated by the motion of my feet.

Here’s a video of a child’s eye movement while reading – can you imagine walking in such a pattern?

It seems to me that this is something like the relationship between the line of a sidewalk (the line of the text) and the desire lines we create.

Field Notes

I called the blog portion of this site Field Notes because it seemed a little more interesting than plain old “blog,” and because I wanted a place to record some of my observations from walking across fields on desire paths. But I’m finding already that I have other notes that I want to write here – things that come to mind spontaneously while watching a movie or reading a book. So perhaps field should be construed in a broader sense – as my field of study.

I’m writing these notes in blog form for a few reasons. First of all, it gives me an excuse to rephrase (read: make intelligible) my notes before I forget what I even wrote. It’s sort of an intermediary ground between my illegible scribbles and a final, polished product. For that reason, it’s valuable to my writing process: it saves me from poring over my disorganized handwritten notes, and it forces me to make a few more connections before I tackle the grand task of pulling all of my research together. It also gives me an opportunity to receive feedback, and it makes my work, and my process, accessible to others: colleagues, friends, funding bodies, desire-path-walkers – anyone who might hold any sort of stake in my work. I like talking to people about what I do, and gaining their insights. This is one way of doing that. So please, continue reading, comment wildly and freely, and share this site with anyone you know who may be interested. And if commenting on a blog isn’t your preferred method of feedback, feel free to send me an email at erika.luckert@gmail.com.

Happy wanderings!

Questions

Since I launched this website on facebook last night, I’ve gotten some interesting feedback and questions. I wanted to talk a bit about them here so that they don’t get lost in the social networking abyss.

Stephen Slemon asked: “Can you find desire lines on stuff that isn’t growing – i.e. on concrete or asphalt?”

And Chalundrai Grant had a related question: “If the lines are not as pronounced does that automatically make them not as desirable?”

It would be pretty easy for me to answer both these questions with “I don’t know.” And it would be an honest answer too. But not a helpful one  – to them, or to me in my research. So, I’m going to speculate a bit.

Can you find desire lines crossing, for example, a concrete plaza? The biggest thing to consider here, I think, is the fact that you can’t see the paths that are made. But that doesn’t mean that habitual paths don’t exist. I can imagine that a diagonal across a square plaza might be a popular path, just as diagonal desire lines are often seen cutting across grassy parks. I also imagine that the sort of miniature-desire-line corner-cutting that I mentioned in my previous post would be seen on such a surface. But I’m less certain about whether more exploratory desire lines might be seen – as Chalundrai asked, is part of the appeal of a certain route the fact of the path itself? Is the visible line what makes the route desirable? Would we think to scramble down a steep slope to the river’s edge if it wasn’t evident that someone else had been there before, that someone else had marked the way as desirable?

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –

I took the one less travelled by

[Robert Frost]

 

Frost’s famous poem highlights the allure of less travelled paths. Is that what we’re following when we leave the sidewalk in favour of a desire line? Or are we in fact opting for a route that’s more visible travelled? Is the allure of a desire line in the fact that it has been travelled, and that we can see that fact? When we leave the sidewalk for a desire path, which road are we taking?

Scott Burnham experimented with desire lines in a way that allowed trails to be left on harder, concrete surfaces. He too is conscious of the importance of the visual nature of desire lines:

As the visitor walks across the space, his path leaves a trail in the grid of LED lights are embedded in the surface of the space. The next visitor to enter the space will see the trail left by the previous visitor, and other recent ones as the ghost of their travels are held by the LED lights in the pavement, each previous path fading slowly with time.

[scottburnham.com]

If you follow the links, you can read more about his project, but I thought I’d share this video, which is a neat illustration of his digital desire lines.

Thanks to Chalundrai and Stephen for asking leading questions, and please, everyone, keep on asking more!

May 8

(this post is a bit belated, as it took me a couple days to get this site up and running. but better late than never!)

I took my first walk around my study area today – the 24 degree weather seemed as good an excuse as any. My plan is to survey the area east of 105 St and south of jasper ave, all the way to the river. It should be in interesting sample of the city, because there’s so much variety within a relatively small area – everything from downtown highrises to groomed residential areas to the wilderness of the river valley. In a way, it’s a cross-section of the city: there’s business developments, homes, and recreational areas. And, as I discovered hiking up the steps by the Chateau Lacombe, there’s quite a big elevation change too, making it somewhat of a vertical cross-section.

planned study area

I find that I’m thinking of the area in terms of three zones: business, residential, and recreational, though I’m not sure if they can be as clearly divided, or if it might be more of a gradient. Still, I imagine that there will be some correlation between the type of land use and the appearance of desire lines, and their tendencies.

The first part of my walk, along Jasper avenue, yielded no evidence of desire lines, as the entire surface was paved. I could see people walking over the wide sidewalks and paved plazas, but their footsteps left nothing behind. I wonder what lines we’d see if there was some way to capture their paths?

paved surfaces along Jasper Avenue

When I turned south off of Jasper ave, I had to walk several blocks before I started to encounter anything that looked like a desire line. The first thing that was anywhere close that I saw was this corner:

a cut corner

As I continued on my walk, I saw many other such junctions. It made me think about the turn of phrase “cutting corners” – it’s in the same vein as “shortcut”, but implies that by taking the shortcut, you miss out on something. The corner? I cut corners when I’m walking all the time – I’d definitely be one to choose this gravelly diagonal over the paved right angle.

As I walked further south, I found a number of clearer desire lines, which I charted with a GPS and photographed too. However, I’m still in the process of figuring out how to move that data onto my computer, so I’ll share those photos and my related speculations when I can show you the map as well!

And yes, that is a beaver. I happened upon him when I was looking for more desire lines! By this point in my walk, I had made it all the way to the river. I took a pretty large loop through the area:

my approximate route

All that walking leaves a lot of time for thinking too, so I’ll finish off this post with a couple of questions that my footsteps led me to:

Do desire lines become undesirous in certain seasons or weather, when the grassless paths get muddy and wet? Could this lead to the formation of new desire lines?

Do all desire paths last through the winter, under the snow, or are some of them formed fresh every year? Will the lines grow clearer as the summer wears on?