Monday, January 1, 2018

On Trails: An Exploration

On Trails: An ExplorationOn Trails: An Exploration by Robert Moor
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Man is built to walk. Actually, man is built to jog, slowly, speaking from a physiological point of view. However you ambulate, our bones and muscles are constructed to move and keep moving. Sedentary life is no life at all (he says while sitting in a chair, typing up this review). I love to walk. If you have been reading my reviews or blog for long enough, you'll know that. This is part of the reason I was so worried when I blew my back out in late 2014 and was so relieved when my surgery in 2015 was largely successful. The thought of not being able to walk, for me, makes me almost stop breathing.

But Moor is not so concerned with the act of walking itself. He is concerned with what it is we walk on, paths and trails, and how they are formed and, sometimes, conceived and maintained. He starts with the first trails, "traces," really, to be technically correct (trails are, by definition, a place where more than one organism has trodden the same path or where one has traveled repeatedly), made by strange part-plant, part-animal organisms during the Ediacaran period, a time that I did not even know existed when I began the book. These bizarre, almost alien life forms (surely they would seem alien in the current geological age - the descriptions given to these creatures made me think that H.P. Lovecraft might have been revealing more in his fiction than we could have known before the discovery of these weird critters) left traces in mud that petrified some 500 million years ago. Their efforts were spastic, halting, and meandering, but they're the oldest traces we can find of self-propelled mobility.

From this beginning, you might think that this book then goes through subsequent eras of trail-building and use, finally reaching to the modern age.

You'd be wrong.

This book meanders. And it meanders wildly. Personally, I liked that aspect of it, but if you're looking for a concise history of trails from Point A to Point B, this is not that book. If you're looking for a more leisurely wandering through not only the history of trails, but across disciplines such as history, environmental science, technology, and anthropology, then Moor's On Trails is for you. Like any trail, it's not perfect, and the author acknowledges that (giving his personal E-mail address near the end in order to receive readers' feedback, which I think is awesome). Nor is it completely comprehensive. But like any good trail that you might walk, there is really too much to gather in over the course of one journey. I'll be revisiting this one from time to time and am curious to see how future revisions differ from this initial printing.

That stated, there were a few highlights that I found intriguing, sometimes compelling. Please excuse my meandering as I point them out, in no particular order:

Believe it or not, Moor is unafraid to dive into the depths of the philosophy of science. Though this is more of a side-trail of the work, rather than a full-on excursion, he points out some interesting thoughts, particularly those coming from a scientist acquaintance of his. Moor had asked him about the intentional falsification of data by some scientists, some of whom extend bold conjectures in order to claim scientific territory. Apparently it is not out of the ordinary for scientists to extrapolate, from their limited data, views that "reach" for the truth. Moor, in speaking with his friend, called this practice into question. The response is intriguing:

Karl Popper would have said that astrophysics and paleontology are not real science because you can't go out and sample it . . . I think absolutely the opposite. I think this is actually where science is. It's trying to guess what lies over the hill and map terra incognita. When people come in and colonize, that's just technology.

For behaviorists, chapter 2 is a must-read about individual agency vis-a-vis the group hive mind, feedback loops, and amplification mechanisms in the formation of trails. It is a great analysis of group and individual behavior!

Kudos must be given to Moor for not only collating so much theoretical information, but for living his research. For a short time, he worked as a shepherd with a Navajo couple (who spoke no English) for a number of weeks, learning about herding and trails (or, more properly, trying to keep his flock on the trails, mostly unsuccessfully). This section was cringe-inducing in its awkward hilarity. I felt sorry for Moor, who admits he didn't have a clue what he was doing. Luckily for him, none of his flock became casualties as a direct result of his ignorance - a miracle, given the mis-steps he made!

One thing that comes up again and again in this book is the fact that members of western society have a number of misconceptions about cultures and history. I was disabused of a few notions: the idea that America was truly "wild" when Europeans invaded (Native Americans actually carefully-groomed and managed their lands, particularly hunting lands within the forests of the Eastern seaboard, using strategic burning in particular to clear areas of underbrush and mosquitoes), the mistaken idea that Native American trails would, of course, take the path of least resistance (they did not - "A trail might go to great lengths to avoid enemy territory or detour to visit kinfolk; it might gravitate to sacred sites, or bend around haunted ones"), and the "fact" that modern hunting and fishing regulations were primarily an organic outgrowth of conservation efforts (actually, most of them come from medieval English laws meant to protect the local noble's hunting grounds from pesky peasants).

Even the very idea that "Wilderness" is something that pre-exists at all is a judgement error, or at least an error in perspective, according to Moor:

It may sound strange (even sacrilegious) to some, but in a very real way, wilderness is a human creation. We create it in the same sense that we create trails; we do not crate the soil or the plants, the geology or the topology (although we can, and do, shift these things). Instead, we delineate the place, by defining its boundaries, its meaning, and its use.

The author actually does an excellent job of presenting and validating this argument through numerous examples, many associated with the attempted expansion of the Appalachian Trail to the International Appalachian Trail (extending across Greenland to Scotland to Spain and even to Morocco). Far from being a "natural" phenomenon, trails are technology that define and delineate wilderness, rather than cutting "through" it.

Moor gets even further off the path of expected subject matter for this book when he delves into the ways that technology shapes the land around us and forces us to walk on trails that are dictated by the advance of technology. He does not pass a value judgement on this progression, necessarily:

In large part, the continued interest in hiking seems to stem from a desire to cut through the techscape to get to some natural substratum: to borrow MacKaye's phrase, to see the "primeval influence" beneath the "machine influence." But ironically, the act of hiking is also dependent on technology. Many of the earliest hikers relied on trains and automobiles to reach the mountains. Today, some forms of technology (like cell phones or ATVs) are considered obnoxious, while others (like water purifiers, camp stoves, and GPS locators) are excused. In either case, technology inexorably trickles into the wild, allowing hikers to reach new lands, travel in new ways, think in new terms, and optimize to new values.

This melding of technology and the wild is, well, natural. There is no natural barrier between "civilization" and "wilderness". This exclusivity is created in our own minds. Yes, there are some areas left more "natural" than others, but much of the separation is a mental construct. Moor relates the following about Eberhart, a legendary hiker that he spent some time walking with along highways and through "wilderness" areas:

The problem, [Eberhart] said, was that hikers tended to divide their lives into compartments: wilderness over here, civilization over there. "The walls that exist between each of these compartments are not there naturally," he said. "We create them. The guy that has to stand there and look at Mount Olympus to find peace and quiet and solitude and meaning - life has escaped him totally! Because it's down there in Seattle, too,on a damn downtown street. I've tried to break those walls down and de-compartmentalize my life so that I can find just as much peace and joy in that damned homebound rush-hour traffic that we were walking through yesterday."

The irony of me, a walker, sitting here at a computer typing up a review about a physical book I read (I do so prefer physical books as artifacts to e-books, though I've read both) because of my love for being out in "nature" is not lost on me. The irony of you, reading this entry about a book on walking, from the comfort of your home or library or Starbucks or wherever you are (I'm guessing you are not outside walking at the moment, but I could be wrong) shouldn't be lost on you, either!

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