Birth of a Line

“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.

Cutting Corners

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.

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.


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


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]