Two Roads

you may recognize some of the ideas in this narrative from earlier blog posts – proof that my blogging strategy is working!

Is part of the appeal of a certain route the fact of the path itself? Is it the visible line that 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 worthwhile?

 

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –

I took the one less travelled by

-Robert Frost

 

The allure of less travelled paths. Is that what we’re following when we leave the sidewalk in favour of a desire line? The one less travelled by? Or are we in fact opting for a route that’s more visibly travelled? Are desire lines attractive because they are travelled by, and because we can see that fact? When we leave the sidewalk for a desire path, which road are we taking?

 

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

        

 

Why, here, do we see two roads? Why did we build the second, more primitive one, with all the labour of passing footsteps? Or, if the second was the first, then why the paved path?

 

Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

        

 

In route, the two ways are equivalent. What then, draws a passerby to one path or the other?

 

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

        

 

Is there a special intrigue in the grassy way, in the knowledge that by walking it, you are building it as well?

 

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

– Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken

 

 

 

As the Bird Flies

another narrative line:

I walk at right angles in this city – zigzagging along north-bound streets and east-bound avenues, returning home in reverse: two blocks south, three blocks west, one block south. As the bird flies, I would soar north-east in the mornings, and come home to nest south-west.

They say that birds have a built-in compass, but I can’t imagine that it works quite the same as ours. What would be the use of four cardinal points when there are so many other directions to fly? We like to say that the birds fly south, but really it’s more like south-south-west, or east-south-east. If a bird were to migrate due south from alaska, it wouldn’t see land ’til it hit the south pole. The sky isn’t gridded, and neither is the ground, really. Sure, there are squares of streets, and avenues, and houses, and sidewalks, and sometimes we start to forget that there’s space in between – that the streets are not tightropes, that we can step off of them and we won’t fall. We can step off, and take flight with our feet on the ground, carving with winged shoes through open green.

Today, I walk two blocks south, on block west, and find a patch of grass. I turn west-south-west and fly home.

Concrete

Here’s my latest addition to the evolving map. As before, I’ve posted it in blog form for easy reading, and also included the map embedded. You’ll find this placemark at Jasper Avenue and 103 street.

Footsteps cross a concrete plaza, and their shadows flicker briefly – bodies stretched long by the sun before they disappear, leaving nothing. Can we capture their footsteps as the grass does, in lines? Do they really leave no trace? Can we wear ink in our shoes, let it seep into the ground so that our feet write a poem on the city’s empty stage? Can we step with such purpose that our toes leave impressions, change others’ impressions of the ground where they walk? If you stand in one place long enough, will it remember you?

Take only photographs, leave only footprints – the national parks adage. But in the concrete city, what can we leave behind?

Only the memories of shadows, briefly darkening the pale grey ground.


View larger map

Walking

I’ve been reading Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust, and finding great inspiration in it. I wanted to share a passage that resonates particularly with my work on desire lines. It’s true that walking isn’t the only way desire lines are formed – bikes certainly make their contributions, as do animals in the river valley. But walking seems to me to be the primary medium – the pen, if you will, were we to thinking of the lines as writing. Sure, some write with pencil or marker or crayon or chalk, but the pen still seems to characterize the art form. Likewise, walking seems inextricably linked to paths.

Walking returns the body to its original limits again, to something supple, sensitive, and vulnerable, but walking itself extends into the world as do the tools that augment the body. The path is an extension of walking, the places set aside for walking are monuments to that pursuit, and walking is a mode of making the world as well as being in it. Thus the walking body can be traced in the places it has made; paths, parks, and sidewalks are traces of the acting out of imagination and desire; walking sticks, shoes, maps, canteens, and backpacks are further material results of that desire. Walking shares with making and working that crucial element of engagement of the body and the mind with the world, of knowing the world through the body and the body through the world.

[Solnit 29]

Where the Sidewalk Ends, A Path Begins

Here’s one of my first attempts at writing a desire line. I’ve pasted the text and images here, but I’ll include the map at the bottom as well, so you can see how the writing fits into the geography.

 

from the poem by Shel Silverstein:

There is a place where the sidewalk ends

And before the street begins,

And there the grass grows soft and white,

And there the sun burns crimson bright,

And there the moon-bird rests from his flight

To cool in the peppermint wind.

 

I can picture the anthology of Silverstein’s work that contains the poem – a white dust cover, frayed around the edged from being pulled and replaced so many times in my bookshelf. The drawing on the front shows a sidewalk, quite literally, ending. It’s an end of the world type of picture, or rather, edge of the world – if the world were as flat as these concrete slabs. In the picture, at the end of the sidewalk, there’s a child, peering over the edge, as if trying to see what’s holding it up. In the illustration, there’s nothing. Just white space. The child has nowhere to go.

When I reach the end of the sidewalk here, I pause. There’s a backhoe half a block down, digging up more concrete, but it’s left plenty of earth to stand on. I consider walking through the rubble, but then I see, on the other side of the road, where there’s no concrete at all – the signs of footsteps. Where the sidewalk ends, a path begins.

We shall walk with a walk that is measured and slow,

And watch where the chalk-white arrows go

To the place where the sidewalk ends.

– Shel Silverstein

A path begins where the sidewalk ends – tenuous at first, staying close to the comfortable concrete of the curb, but gradually it wanders, widens, and fills the full space between the road and the trees. The grass fades, seems almost to retreat back into the earth, and the soil is packed down,  dried, hardened to the colour of concrete. And still, the earth moves with the passing of feet, and the ground allows itself to be formed.

There is a place where the sidewalk ends

And before the street begins,

And there the grass grows soft and white,

And there the sun burns crimson bright,

And there the moon-bird rests from his flight

To cool in the peppermint wind.

You’ll find this desire line on the left hand side of the map frame – along 105 street, from 98 – 99 Ave. You can click on the photos and on the line itself to reveal the narrative.

Returning

I’ve spent a lot of time out of the country this past month, which has meant more time thinking about desire lines than actually walking them. Still, I wanted to share this image, from an archeological interpretive site in northern France. For an unexplained reason, they had decorated an expanse of grass with these patterns. It made me think of desire lines.

There will be more posts coming soon, as I put some of my thoughts from the past month into words.