As soon as a path has been built, the natural landscape changes. The path creates the kind of forest that is accessible and friendly to humans. Someone prepared this landscape by choosing the easiest passage and by clearing and widening the walkable surfaces. No tangled roots or fallen trees impede our progress. The runnels and mudflats can be crossed via stones or smoothed out logs and our feet stay clean and dry. The forest has been tamed and is impressive and sweet to our senses: the web of leaves above, the blue ridges in the distance, the scent of mushrooms nearby, the rustle of a towhee in the leaf mold. Nature along the path conforms itself to our bodies perceptual abilities and mobile needs and reinforces a romantic vision of what nature ought to be: ordered, predictable, confined in its niches, grand, sublime, beautiful and almost safe. The peaceable kingdom.
But the trail has its limitations. It is only a few feet wide, and next to it the wilderness starts again. By its very nature the trail cannot tame the whole landscape and it “civilizes” only a small part of it. The nature we see is surrounded by the nature we do not see: the landscape that folds itself into the next ravine, the forest that does its own thing just beyond the horizon of our experiential field. Most of the woods are not traversed by trails. They are still virgin territory. In virgin territory, however, nature is impassable, convoluted, confusing, confounding, muddy, wet, prickly, full of obstacles and indifferent and dangerous to us — as I found out when I got lost in the woods. No trail leads into the wild – it leads only into a wilderness we can bear.
This does not mean that we should not build trails. Trails lead into an altered, humanly arranged, tamed nature, and if we can accept that, trails are wonderful. They allow us to get a glimpse of a world which is not completely ordered, conceptualized, and controlled by humans and they lead past things and beings not human-made. The tamed quality of the nature trail, however, is always dialectically related to the untamed quality of the virgin territory around it. Its sweetness is has faint undertones of bitterness and danger. Beyond the line of influence the trail exerts on the landscape virgin nature still stretches out in all directions. It is not confined to the line, as our path is. It is everywhere. The path is the figure, but the virgin territory is the ground. It is below our feet in the layers of fungi who live as one symbiotic organism throughout the whole forest’s roots; it is in the shale, coal, sandstone, and redbeds hundreds of feet under our city; it is in the wind that blows through the leaf canopy and stirs the flag a mile away; it is in the sunlight which shines on everything and in the shades where things hide from the light and heat; it pushes up the wing feathers of the peregrine as it palpates the invisible air currents above the river valley; it is in the breath I draw into my lungs, and in the sweet raspberry that I found in the brambles, swallowed and took into myself; it is in my blood and my bones because they, too are virgin territory, and one day they will give out and nature will kill me. Our paths can tame it only so far.