Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about paths, by which I mean the ways that we follow to get from one place to another. The more I reflect on what a path really is, the more I see them everywhere, both in their presence and in their disappearance. At this point, I’m wondering what isn’t a path. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
It’s not that I have some abiding interest in maps, roads, and geography. I can hardly navigate Nashville’s interstate system. My interest lies less in the quick engineering of roads and cities than in the paths that spring up slowly as passages of memory, more entrenched with every footfall.
And now I’m sounding like Robert Macfarlane, whose book The Old Ways has gotten me down this road in the first place (pun earnestly intended). In this book, Macfarlane adventures down the many ancient paths that crisscross the British landscape and beyond, recording his travels and observations about how these paths came to be and what they mean. Let’s set the tone with some of his philosophizing.
Paths are the habits of a landscape. They are acts of consensual making. It’s hard to create a footpath on your own. . . They relate places in a literal sense, and by extension they relate people.Macfarlane, p. 17
The literature of wayfaring is long, existing as poems, songs, stories, treatises and route guides, maps, novels and essays. . . A walk is only a step away from a story, and every path tells.Macfarlane, p. 18
As the pen rises from the page between words, so the walker’s feet rise and fall between paces, and as the deer continues to run as it bounds from the earth, and the dolphin continues to swim even as it leaps again and again from the sea, so writing and wayfaring are continuous activities, a running stitch, a persistence of the same seam or stream.Macfarlane, p. 105
Now, consider this simple definition of path that I offered earlier: “The ways that we follow to get from one place to another.” Following Macfarlane’s footsteps, allow yourself to imagine the meaning of place less concretely. With this expanded definition, can you think of some examples of paths that exist in realms untraversable by feet?
Here are some observations I’ve made while thinking on this question:
Aren’t stories like paths, made and remade in their telling and retelling? When I pick up an old favorite novel and reread, aren’t I retracing my steps and the steps of many others before me?
How about songs? Or even melodies, for that matter? Take “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and imagine every note as another step. What is that beautiful melody but a beloved, well-trod path? How can we remember it but by singing it again?
If the Lord's Prayer is a footpath, then there must be a massive tree at its entrance with names upon names etched on it—the names of saints and sinners, rulers and martyrs, priests and confessors throughout the ages.Drew Miller
And maybe most compelling of all, prayers and liturgies. If the Lord’s Prayer is a footpath, then there must be a massive tree at its entrance with names upon names etched on it—the names of saints and sinners, rulers and martyrs, priests and confessors throughout the ages. And if each word is a foothold, then these words are nearly inextricable from the earth itself, fixtures that have become one with the landscape. How can we walk this path—thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven—without sensing, palpable in the air, the great company that has gone before us?
We could go the scientific route, too. Our bodies follow familiar paths every day, like the path from waking to sleeping, from hunger to satiation, as well as the more sophisticated paths that we call “habits”—I write this at the conclusion of my morning coffee, for instance, which can claim no small amount of responsibility for this post. More subtle still are “neural pathways,” traveled by nerve impulses from neuron to neuron. Those can claim full responsibility!
So maybe you can begin to see why I can’t stop seeing the world in terms of paths. Hopefully, I’ve passed this problem on to you, as well. And as long as I’m at it, I’ll pass along another problem: the disappearance of these paths.
Ready for a massive overgeneralization? Every new piece of technology outsources our pathmaking. History’s trend is to pave our paths, reducing the cultural memory required of us to navigate the world.
Here’s what I mean. Long, long, long ago, stories only existed in people’s memories. They were transmitted through the spoken word. With each retelling, the story both solidified in the memory of the teller and made its imprint on the memory of the listener.
Then, long, long ago, we invented writing, and gone was the need to remember our stories in the same way. They were written down and preserved, word for word.
And then, long ago, there came the printing press, allowing stories to be shared and circulated with even less expense of memory.
You could replay a similar story in music, with the introduction of notation, then our ability to record and reproduce sound, and then, well, Spotify.
Let me be clear: I am a huge fan of the written word. And the printing press, and recording studios, and (with some reservations) streaming services. Not all outsourcing of pathmaking is bad. My concern surfaces when we privilege sheer accessibility over sustained, shared knowledge. And I get the sense that our relentless quest for this accessibility has taken a toll on us, in the form of a sort of willful forgetfulness.
If we want to replace the many winding paths from point A to point B with one straight, paved road, we will have to be willing to forget the accumulated memory of those paths. If we want to replace encyclopedias with quick Google searches, we will have to be willing to forget the slow, painstaking work of human knowledge. If we want to replace communities with consumer markets, we will have to be willing to forget that we belong to one another.
I find it all too fitting that in describing such a leveled-out world, Wendell Berry uses the metaphor of severed paths in the search for home:
. . . Nobody who wanted to go home would ever get there now,
for every remembered place had been displaced;
every love unloved,
every vow unsworn,
every word unmeant
to make way for the passage of the crowd of the individuated. . .
Having never known where they were going,Berry, “The Objective”
having never known where they came from.
A dire picture indeed.
The implicit question in such a dire picture is, “What is the way forward?”
Two popular answers to that question are aggressively advertised to us on a daily basis. The first is to forge our own path. Forget the old ones—they were riddled with the many evils of injustice—and let’s start from scratch with our newly enlightened perspective.
This answer isn’t entirely wrong. Any way forward must reckon with the failures of what lies behind. But we can’t do that reckoning by just obliterating the old.
The second popular answer is to entirely forsake the new in order to reinstitute the treasures of the old. This option would have us believe that innovation is never to be trusted, it’s only ever safe to go where we have already gone, and the way forward is in fact backward.
And the instinct behind this perspective isn’t entirely wrong, either. But it goes very wrong when it succumbs to untempered nostalgia, replaying the “halcyon days” at the expense of the present. In fact, in a strange twist of irony, all its zeal for remembering the past lands it in another kind of forgetfulness altogether—forgetfulness of the future, and consequently, forgetfulness of hope.
The best answer I’ve found is at once under-publicized, mundane, and miraculous. You’re probably already doing it, but it always helps to remember what it is you’re doing and why.
Tell stories. Sing songs. Cook and share meals with your friends. Remember and proclaim. The beautiful thing about these treasured paths is that they are made and re-made in the very act of walking, and Sara Groves is absolutely right that “the path is worn, but to us it’s new.” The miracle that happens in these mundane creative acts is that our lives are stitched back together even as we turn around to glimpse the potentiality of healing. Grace works that way, and it imbues our memories and imaginations just as much as our hearts and souls. With the very first faithful step down the path of a treasured story, we are making that story realer to ourselves and to one another. Is this not what we’re doing when we worship, partake of the sacraments, and practice communion itself?
So go out and listen in the old for intimations of the new, and in the new for intimations of the old. Be open to surprise from any direction. Join your own voice in the resounding, inextricably woven, vast memory and anticipation of creation. Etch your name on the tree that marks the path.