Purposefully straying from the path

NOT long ago, a friend told me about an intriguing concept called "desire lines." It seems that when landscape architects lay out walking paths and trails in parks and other public spaces, they invariably find that people soon begin to make their own informal paths, cutting across from one walkway to another or going off in a new direction entirely. Sometimes these new paths are accepted and given official status. Sometimes they are roped or fenced off, though this rarely discourages their use for long. More often they are simply ignored and remain rough unofficial tracks. Whatever becomes of them, these unauthorized paths are formally known in the profession as "desire lines."

I was struck by the unintentional poetry of the phrase, one of those delightful expressions that professional jargon occasionally spawns -- like the "charmed" subatomic particles and "strange attractors" of quantum physics -- a rare moment when metaphor and science rhyme. I was also intrigued to learn that it's almost always men and boys who create these unauthorized paths, though women and girls will use them without hesitation once they are established.

I found myself thinking of desire lines the other day when I was walking through a large area of woods in the eastern part of my town on Cape Cod. This area, locally known as the Maze, is almost a square mile. It is undistinguished in its flora and fauna, being mostly a young forest of scrub oak and pitch pine that is gradually taking over remaining patches of bearberry heath. What does distinguish it is that the entire area is roadless. There are no paved roads, no gravel or dirt fire roads, not even any of the old woodlot cart roads that run through nearly every other tract of the adjoining forest. Despite the lack of roads, the Maze contains a labyrinth of unofficial and unsanctioned trails that snake their way around its perimeter, along its ridges and down the steep sides of its many dry kettle holes. These trails form an extensive system of desire lines. They are not, however, as I thought when I first discovered them, a historic network of old foot trails created over generations of use. In fact, only one of the existing trails shows up on the 1972 U.S. Geological Survey map of this quadrangle. These trails are much more recent in origin, the result of late 20th century technology. Most were created by local boys riding dirt bikes.

This system of bike trails is obviously not officially sanctioned, but neither have the paths been blocked off nor their use actively prohibited. Rather, authorities seem to have taken a policy of "selective unenforcement" regarding them -- at least until recently when an untended campfire or discarded cigarette sparked a small fire. Firefighters reached the blaze with the help of a brush-breaker, creating a half-mile-long swath of dead plants that now winds like the scorched path of a comet into the green heart of this "roadless wilderness."

In the wake of this event, I found myself wondering: What is it that urges us to create, or follow, desire lines in our own lives? To forgo or depart from the approved or laid-out tracks in our landscape? To stray not only from the straight and narrow, but often from the broad and winding as well -- though taking such paths can, on occasion, lead to destructive conflagrations?

Etymologically, the roots of "desire" are seemingly noble. The word comes from the Latin desidare, which breaks down into de, to obtain from, and sidus, a star. Desire, then, means literally reaching for a star. But "star" also derives from the Latin astrum, from which we get aster, asterisks, asteroid, astronomy, astronaut and -- dis-aster. A fallen star. Fire in the sky.

Ad astra, ad disastra. Desire lines go both ways.

Sometimes, of course, it is merely a desire for convenience, to make a shortcut, say, from one known path to another -- in which case the desire is trivial, involving no vision or risk. Sometimes it is a desire to get to a place we can see -- a pond, a clearing, a ridge, a new life -- but to which there is no visible path. This is desire with intent and can involve striving and even adventure but not necessarily risk. We may be willing to depart from known ways for a visible goal, though we know that we can always turn back, if the obstacles or effort prove too much, and return to the established path.

More unusual, and less understandable, are those desire lines that seem to be made for their own sake -- stabs into the unknown for which there is no apparent goal or expected outcome, or one only vaguely sensed.

Sometimes one comes upon such lines in the woods, trails that veer off from the main path and then peter out after a few hundred yards. What was the walker seeking? A view? Solitude? Mystery? Why did he stop? Did he become boredor discouraged? Or did his desire simply run out?

I sometimes think these unexplained, and often abortive, departures from existing paths spring from a kind of ingrained restlessness in the human race, a desire simply to see what may be there, with no specific expectations. Western culture has always celebrated and mythologized this trait in such figures as Ulysses.

This perpetual unrest is something we seem to share with other species, such as the young of many birds. First-year terns, for example, exhibit something called "dispersal behavior" at the end of a breeding season, a kind of wanderlust that sends them fanning out for considerable distances in all directions for several weeks, before they finally gather in staging areas for their first migration south.

Ornithologists believe that such behavior may contribute to the discovery of new and unexploited nesting or feeding sites that the terns can use in future seasons, thus helping to maintain a diversity of potential breeding habitats and food supplies.

Like terns, we may also have an inborn need to see new places, new possibilities, that we may someday inhabit. It may have developed in our species for reasons of survival, finding us new and wider homes in the world. Whatever the source of this impulse, it is not without risk.

Sometimes, following unknown paths, we find ourselves in a maze of growth, in failing light, unsure where we are, flailing through jungles of stiff, impenetrable shrubs and sharp briars in deceptively benign-looking woods. All at once we realize we are lost, unable to retrace our steps. Then, suddenly, we come out onto a paved highway, far from where we thought we were, feeling a gratefulness and a relief we are ashamed to acknowledge.

But sometimes, just sometimes, we come upon a new and unexpected clearing, a magical place unanticipated in our daily thoughts or even our dreams; and when we do, we are so amazed that we cease even to wonder whether we will be able to find our way back home, or, perchance, whether this might in fact be our new home.

Robert Finch is the author of "Death of a Hornet and Other Cape Cod Essays" and co-edited "The Norton Book of Nature Writing."

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