…By the Road Less Traveled

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The road lay like a green carpet through yellow corn […] so empty that the solitude could be seen a mile ahead, and so silent that only a chiff-chaff spoke, repeating an untranslatable proposition from the topmost branch of a September tree. […T]he broad belt of turf curved like a question-mark that had long ago given up hope of receiving an answer.
—J. H. B. Peel, Along the Green Roads of Britain

Such roads still exist. Old roads; green roads; turf roads empty of automobiles and open to birdsong, to solitude and seasons, to contours and questions. Whether vestiges of agricultural activities, once well-travelled routes of trades now diminished or dead, or half-forgotten routes of past pilgrimage, their windings follow the inseparable contours of cultural and natural histories, of rivers forded, hills surmounted, fields skirted, towns encountered. They are not so much the forgotten and abandoned byways of progress as vivid reminders that progress is not inevitable, linear, nor a matter of continual improvement over the past; they bear witness to economic, political and ecological discontinuities, to life’s unpredictability.

In his account of the ancient Icknield Way in southern England, the poet Edward Thomas remarks that we “still say that a road ‘goes’ [… somewhere] as we ‘go’ ourselves.”[1] We attribute a kind of life to it: “It is always going: it has never gone right away, and no man is too late.”[2] The road always awaits our steps. It should not, Thomas says, be regarded as a “passive means to an end.”[3] Rather, if we understand the road as a “way,” then it becomes a material, phenomenal, and imaginative opening on life’s possibilities, its affordances and its obstacles. We are each, in our own ways, way-farers. Our very existence is a wayfaring through the world, a being-(t)here that is never static, a journey that ends only because we are mortal. As such, we also have the possibility of faring better or worse, more widely or more closely to home, in company and alone.[4]

To speak of a (the) “way” has an almost religious ring to it, but green roads are not a matter of straight lines or narrow thoughts. They wander and wind, encouraging us to stray, abetting as well as forgiving our trespassing. As Thomas puts it, “Some roads creep, some continue merely; some advance with majesty. Some mount a hill in curves like a soaring sea-gull.”[5] A road can have a character, a spirit—dangerous, twisting, exhilarating or tranquil. And if they do have religious connotations, then these too are often more closely associated with spiritus, with the life-giving breath(ing) of fresh air, with the airy breeze and with songs exhaled from birds’ beaks. Thomas writes, “the winding of the road would be no disadvantage to men […] to whom time was not money.”[6] And to this Baudrillard adds, “The straight road, except over level and open country, can only be made by those whom in extreme haste and forethought have destroyed the power of joy.”[7]

We are not here, at this place of understanding, yet. For the modern road exemplifies both linear thinking and the thoughtless obliteration of natural and cultural history. Taking the shortest route between geometrically defined points, the road cuts through hills, uproots forests, drains swamps, demolishes dwellings, and pours asphalt over soils that might otherwise yield corn. Those who plan road “systems” to efficiently transfer commodities and wage laborers to and from sites of production and sites of consumption also eradicate any non-commercializable traces that (still) stand in the way. For ideologues and economists alike, the widening highway epitomizes an unquestioned notion of endless and continuous “growth.” Only an environmentalist could be so naïve as to ask, “where is this road going?”

The question of what transportation is “for” is, as Mumford noted half a century ago, is all too rarely asked.[8] In his words, “To increase the number of cars, to enable motorists to go longer distances, to more places, at higher speeds, has become an end in itself.”[9] To even suggest that roads might be something more or other than this seems bizarre and anachronistic, for Thoreau could never have sauntered along a six lane highway. The pace of today’s travel is dictated by “traffic conditions,” the modern equivalent of fate and a term that includes everything the driver needs to know about their environs—a road closure here, a four car pile-up or overturned truck there. To roam like Thoreau would be deemed dangerous in more than one sense, for as Baudrillard remarks, “if you get out of your car in this centrifugal metropolis [Los Angeles] you immediately become a delinquent; as soon as you start walking you are a threat to public order, like a dog wandering in the road.”[10] Who but Thoreau’s ideological progeny could possibly be against the (anti)social fabric of a car culture co-extensive with ugly suburban sprawl, box stores, oil dependence, and global warming (to mention just a few aspects of the new “normality” to which we must conform)? Who could resist this new-world-ordering and immensely profitable technology even if it does threaten to turn us all into roadkill?

Of course there is always the freedom of the “open road,” a myth ubiquitously employed by advertisers, even as those who buy their products sit in massed ranks enveloped in smog. But drivers’ only freedom is to engage in filmic fantasies of unattainable and illegal speeds, to partake in a kind of individualized mass delusion where each inhabits an identical fantasy world. Here, sitting strapped to their seats in air-conditioned isolation on the daily repeated route to and from work, making ten yards on their chosen “opponents” or picking the right line of traffic somehow confirms (if only in their own eyes) their “superhero” status. Meanwhile, they are enlisted in a space that is increasingly regulated, managed, and subject to constant surveillance. Even those technologies that foster illusions of freedom and control over the automobile’s environment (like hands-free phones, in-car entertainment, and GPS) are, ironically, “achieved by a more intensely mediated set of perceptions […] that also allows drivers to be continuously monitored and controlled,”[11] through, for example, remote sensing of the speed and location of vehicles. These same technologies also facilitate drivers’ and passengers’ incorporation into a virtual world of constantly updated communication that further separates them from the places en route.

By contrast, to speak of a “way” recalls the entangled ecologies of roads and lives, recognizing a strange (but seldom estranging) complicity between the sense of past and passing time and our living “presence,” a complicity evoked in the quickening appearance of wayside flowers or the rough touch of a dry-stone wall encrusted with lichens. Such roads weave through the land and weave lives, and time, and place together. They are ways of encountering, in however attenuated a fashion, the past’s part in composing the present and the present need to sustain, and draw sustenance from, something of the (natural and cultural) history of the past. To travel the road less traveled is to experience gratitude for this “provision” rather than regard every trace of the past as an obstacle to progress.

This understanding may seem nostalgic or “Old(e) World.” It is not. It is not to straightforwardly assert that people once fared better, that those who built and re-built the stone walls, who laid flagstones or cobbles, mowed grass and sowed crops, existed in some kind of rustic arcadia. Rather, it is to find time to consider our evolving relations to others, to experience a sense of ecological community rather than be relentlessly driven by a senseless commuting. And as we walk, freed from the requirement to keep our eyes on the road ahead, to stop and go at traffic lights, to follow arrows and change lanes when directed, our mind can wander off in entirely unregulated directions. To lose concentration driving an automobile is to risk mangled metal and death. The walker’s reveries, on the other hand, wind and wander with their feet, fostered by a formal and material imagination.[12] We can choose to go along with the road, feel the gentle gravity of its pull, the ebb, flow, and eddies that both provide affordances for our steps and recompose time and place around each one, as if we too might leave traces that will, in their turn, affect those that follow.

[1] Edward Thomas, The Icknield Way (London: Constable and Co., 1913), 1.

[2] Ibid, 2.

[3] Ibid, 2.

[4] This is not an attempt to provide a philosophical definition of humanity; it merely recognizes the temporality and emplacement of any meaningful mortal existence.

[5] Thomas, The Icknield Way, 2.

[6] Ibid, 3.

[7] Jean Baudrillard, America (London: Verso, 1988), 5.

[8] Lewis Mumford, The Highway and the City (New York: Harcourt & Brace, 1963), 235.

[9] Ibid., 236.

[10] Baudrillard, America, 58.

[11] Nigel Thrift in Matthew Patterson, Automobile Politics: Ecology and Cultural Political Economy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 142.

[12] Gaston Bachelard writes of the ways in which “feelings and the heart” may give rise to verbal imaginative forms (the formal imagination) and of images that “stem directly from matter” (the material imagination) which, although they might be assigned names, “only the hand truly knows them. A dynamic joy touches, moulds and refines them.” When verbal forms are put aside, these “images of matter are dreamt substantially and intimately. They have weight; they constitute a heart.” Water and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Matter (Dallas: Pegasus Foundation, 1983). To walk the road less travelled is to exercise the material imagination; to write about it is an exercise in formal imagination. But like the natural and cultural history of the road (in a way), the two are inseparable.

Featured image credit: Cliff -top footpath, Shanklin, Isle of Wright, UK. By Ronald Saunders courtesy of Flickr. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 DEED.

  • Mick Smith

    Mick Smith is associate professor and Queen's National Scholar in the Department of Philosophy and School of Environmental Studies at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario.

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