A child draws a line in the sand – don’t cross it, keep your toes away. We’re taught by nursery rhymes not to step on sidewalk lines; to colour between the lines. Those lines divide us, but these earthen lines bring us together. We converge on the same paths, to build the same paths. We walk the same lines daily – toe the line, work for the bottom line. It’s a fine line between right and wrong, but wide enough to travel on. We choose our own paths, hoping that down the line, we will remember these lines.
Coming home, walk near the hanging chains, the broken chains, but not past them. They have fallen, limp, to the ground, but you stand. Turn. Cross worn concrete with chipped paint – find a new way to reach old stairs. Press your feet deep into the green and let it carry you to the door.
Cities are full of fences and signs; prohibitions. People strain against the chains – against a chain link fence. They say the pen is mightier than the sword, but spray paint writes bolder than ink. Why is their no way through? Why are you keeping us out? The message is futile, or perhaps just misunderstood. Black and blue scrawl does nothing to bend the chain, could never be enough to break it. In preschool, we chanted the solution: can’t go through it, gotta go over it!
I contemplate climbing the fence to see what’s on the other side, but my footwear choice is less than ideal, so I look for another way.
Can’t go over it, gotta go under it!
I wonder if a rabbit or a kitten could scramble underneath the fence, or what other creatures might make their home in the tall grass behind the fence.
Can’t go under it, gotta go around it!
And sure enough, if I turn back a few steps, a path cuts down steeply to the left, finding its way to the road where the walking is clear.
“And how far the word desire goes!” (Bachelard 83)
Desire is an unplanned path – unsure of where it leads, but in no way directionless. It travels far – sometimes hasty, sometimes lingering. It stays close to the ground, and yet, in such simple motions, finds the liberty of flight. Perhaps it is the ground itself that lifts into the air. The path finds its orientation not by a compass rose or a northern star, but by the bending of a blade of grass in the breeze. In each turn, there is the wild intention of wandering feet – feet who will follow the same way over and over again without ever knowing why.
Not all who wander are lost – some are artists. Their feet move over the earth like a wandering paintbrush over a half-finished canvas – adding light in some places, and shadows in others. Their foot-strokes are less calculated, more instinctive – following the contours that are already in place, exploring the features of the landscape, touching a tree here, adding a path there. It is quiet work, as much of painting is – feet tread softly over the textured earth, the woven canvas.
These wanderings will never hang inside a frame – they are not finished enough for that. Rather, they are formed and reformed- painted over again and again, as they sit on the earth’s tilted easel, and spin.
“Where does it start? Muscles tense. One leg a pillar, holding the body upright between the earth and sky. The other a pendulum, swinging from behind. Heel touches down.” (Solnit 3)
Where does it start? Heel touches down, and the blades bow before it. Their tips touch the earth, and they fall into shadow as the foot descends. The sky is not falling; it lowers deliberately, with practiced rhythm. Leaves part in its wake like a crowd for royalty – moving just far enough to make a path, staying close enough to brush against the passing presence. The blades brush up against eachother too, and the sound is a whisper: who’s there? who’s there? The grass gossips.
Some blades are wrested from the earth by the pressure, others merely bent in the instant that the foot travels over them. When it is gone, a few rise again, but most remain bowed, in mourning, or in worship, it is impossible to tell.
“Take any streetful of people buying clothes and groceries, cheering a hero or throwing confetti and blowing tin horns … tell me if the lovers are losers … tell me if any get more than the lovers” (Carl Sandburg)
What makes the heart of a city? A central location, a cluster of tall buildings, a confluence of people? Is it a downtown, a centreville? Is the heart of a city where the city began, or where it’s reached? Is it an emotional centre, where people feel a unity, a sense of belonging, or is it simply a site of function, a vital organ in the city’s body, where traffic comes and goes, depositing people like so many blood cells in red and white?
I walk through the downtown, waiting for something to pull at my heartstrings, but it’s my feet that are pulled – off of the sidewalk, and down a grassy path. At the end, I find nothing: a sign, a cheap slogan, in black, red, and white. I pass it by.
I trip on exposed roots, stumble back in time to my old routes, climbing mountains on tiny tired feet – are we there yet? I would have to ask, because I didn’t know what “there” looked like, only “here.” Here, now, is a two-step forest: two steps and you’ve passed through it, two steps and you see the cars on the other side. For two steps, I’m here, and then I’m there already, past the exposed roots, past the moment of a memory of mountains, back to my well-paved city routes.
The phrase comes from driving, from days of horse-drawn carriages, when cutting the corner on a right hand turn was a risky bid for speed – the curb could tip your cart and slow you down far more than any properly executed turn might. In walking, the same risk isn’t there – straying from the sidewalk isn’t likely to tip you over. The word cut takes on more significance though. We pick a shorter path to cut time off of our daily commute, to cut to the chase, to chase and race our way through the city space. As we cut corners, we literally cut into the landscape, filing it away with our feet, like carving into a steak with a dull knife. Sidewalks are poured, but paths are chiselled – sawed away by the serrated edge that is the tread on our hurried shoes.