The Path — Animal and Human Bodies

The paths that we walk or ride or drive have a history. They were made because someone found the easiest way to move human bodies through the landscape, and other bodies have followed and widened the path or built it into a road. A paper street, on the other hand, was designed in a completely conceptual way, on someone’s drafting table, “as if it still stood in the brain” (to use a phrase from Rilke’s Seventh Duino Elegy): nobody found it useful as a street, and it did not accommodate the true lay-out of the Western Pennsylvania landscape, which resists straight lines and geometric grids. A path has to fit into a landscape; but it also has to fit human anatomy, motility, and intentionality in order to be useful and maintained.

Understanding the path begins with understanding the human body and its Umwelt. Bodies, be they human or animal, have a particular relationship to their environment which is specific to their species. The biologist Jacob von Uexküll taught us that the same landscape has a different meaning to a human being than to a dog or a tick. He called this semiotic field the animal’s Umwelt. The dog lives in a complex scentscape which tells it who has been in this place and which way they went. Its grasp of scented layered events within one place is completely alien and only partly imaginable to humans. The dogscape has different locations of meaning in it that differ from the significant events the tick waits for, as it sits on its leave above the trail. The tick perceives only the chemical signature of warm skin passing under its bush so that it can drop down and feed. That is all the pleasure it needs, and birdsong, the color of wildflowers, the blue vista of mountains in the background do not exist: they have no meaning in the tick’s world, and the tick lacks organs of perception for them.

Human bodies perceive and use the landscape in species specific ways as well. Most of our perceptual organs, like eyes, nose, and mouth, are arranged at the front of our head and point in one direction. Our shoulders and pelvis emphasize this directionality and provide a framework for our arms and legs to be perfectly positioned to reach forward. Our senses attend to what’s ahead, and our limbs carry us towards it. Only our ears, on the sides and in stereo, are attuned to the sound that surrounds us. But walking we walk forward, seeing we look ahead.

The body determines the basic grammar of our spatial prepositions: before (ahead/in front) is the open perceptual field which calls and beckons our hands and feet; behind (back) is what we do not see, the perceptual field that is only vaguely attended and mysterious; above (up) is the sky with its shifting light-shows and weather patterns, and below (down, under) is the ground upon which we move. With our ears we can swivel around and change the perceptual field to the horizon which surrounds us, but as soon as we move we give up the round and commit ourselves to the ahead. We walk backwards only when we avoid something that threatens from in front. Our legs are not made to walk that way, and we can flee only by choosing a new forward direction away from the threat.

It is startling to realize that movement is mostly movement “a-head”, and that the space in front of the body has a different significance than the space behind the body. Ahead is a different semiotic space than behind. Ahead are the perceptions and projects we are looking for, the experiences not yet here but maybe already announcing themselves; behind is the space already traversed but left behind and only there as a memory — it is known but also soon forgotten because it falls out of the beam of attention. Ahead is the future: what is possible. Behind is the past: what is remembered. Future and past are intricately tied to the motility of the human body.

On a very fundamental level the path is an expression of the semiotic field of the body. Bodies, animal and human, are always situated and mobile. To be situated means that we are tied to a particular time and place; to be mobile means that when we move we move through a particular space at this time and not through others. The deer path snaking along the hillside is a testimony to the deer’s body-space: elegant, narrow, sinuous, surprising at times in its trajectory. It is also a trace of the animal’s history with this particular landscape. Once chosen, the deer path becomes an easy and favorite route through the landscape and it beckons the deer to follow it because it has been shaped by the deer’s gestures and conforms to the deer’s needs. It is not so very different from human built paths. Why move through the brush when the path is free of vegetation? Why find a new path when this one already leads to the water or the favorite berry patch? The history of deer-life is inscribed into the paths crossing the landscape. Deer paths are a trace of non-human beings and their history with and segmentation of the landscape.

The path, deer or human, shows the commitment that living beings have made to a landscape: here have we walked, here has been the best place for our bodies to move through this place, here have we traversed again and again. The path is an inscription of intentionality and history – deer or human – in the visible and tangible landscape which houses our bodies.

Filed under: Eva-Maria Simms, Nature, Prose