Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Pathways of Desire



Pathways of Desire is an architectural term....

Supposedly, it determines the dominance of the collective will of the shortest distance between two points for walkers, as opposed to the loopy (in more ways than one) studio designs of architects.

Anyone with an Ivy League education understands Pathways of Desire. Frisbees were not invented back in the day when the various quads were laid out....Aerial shots of any Ivy League Quad....or any University Quad anywhere, for that matter.....shows short cuts. The higher the traffic, the more pronounced the Pathway. And, Pathways vary from year to year, based on the scheduling of freshman classes.

There is one huge exception....BYU. Brigham Young University. Utah. Along with various other strictures on college life (3.2 beer, limited flesh exposure, no sex, etc), BYU is very proud of the fact that its students do not cut across the Quad.

"Cougars Don't Cut Corners!"

This is a disturbing metaphor......I am somewhat reassured that the three people who have related this anecdote to me have all been gay.

Then, you start thinking: "Why would a gay person go to BYU....and why would they be proud....thirty years later....of not cutting corners?"

A discussion for another day.

Anyway.....I live in a dictatorship dramatically more profound than anything Brigham Young ever envisioned.

Dogs run my household.

On occasion, deep in winter....it is possible to sleep all the way to eight am. Even so....if one achieves this Olympian standard behind studious amounts of Gruet and Ambien, and one ignores the obvious sounds of breaking glass and pottery....

This is the kind of vision one awakens to:

The dogs somehow know when we have nothing on the books....well, except the books....and demand their rights to a long hike on the mountain before the dew dries.

This is not all bad.....Some people have the gym and the personal trainer. I have the mountain....and some dogs missing some important neuro-transmitters.

Each morning...rain or shine, sleep or no sleep, business or no business....the dogs and I go out onto the mountain for our constitutional.

It is not all bad. Our mountain is at least a 45% grade, so there is plenty of aerobics to burn off the Gruet.

And the day to day check in on what Mother Nature has in store is grounding. There is a reason that all the electrics in your house are tied to a giant iron rod jammed down into the Earth.

Luckily.....one of my duties as a resident on Buck Mountain is to oversee our communal water company. The system serves five houses and an undeveloped lot from a well down on Tularcitos Creek. Two pumps push the water 2500 feet up a canyon to our distribution tanks. My finicky and very well-to-do neighbors insist that the water lines be inspected for leaks at least twice a month. So, my dogs and I dutifully and regularly traipse the length of the system……ignoring the fact that the lines are completely and invisibly buried in the ground, and any leak could be spotted just by looking for water flowing at the foot of the canyon…...

Since the neighbors all live behind high fences and security gates, my “inspection” is of the canyon and the undeveloped piece. It is one of the most serene and beautiful properties around: fourteen acres of mature oaks spread along an old dirt road leading to a rolling meadow The owners live in Marin and I have met them just once in the twenty-five years we have lived on the mountain. They are locked in some personal battle amongst themselves and have turned away dozens of offers to sell.

The old dirt road and meadow give the lie to the “California does not have seasons” canard. In summer it bakes despite being on the north and cooler side of the mountain. The air barely moves under the big oaks and the leaves and grasses dry until they sound like cornflakes being crushed under foot. In fall the poison oak and madrone leaves turn out in a riot of oranges and reds, and cool airs flow down the canyons. The fallen leaves go from corn flakes to mulch. The scent of rot….and life to be…is in the air.

The spring is the miracle season. I have never seen any place with more wildflowers. I take a daily count of the species. Seven, twelve, twenty….finally at the peak more than fifty different flowers pop out everywhere I look. This is without leaving the road, or even looking around very much as I march on my silly mission for the water company.

The wild flower process begins in the winter, what I call the Irish Spring. As soon as there is even a day of warmth and wet the greenery starts appearing underfoot. The California Gold hills opposite us belie a subversive, lurking Kelly Green. I know of the riot of flowers to come and I feel guilty trodding the new starts into the ground……Nature is cruel enough without my contributions.

Even so, at the very start of my Irish Spring there is a trace of a path meandering down the middle of the road. I notice that the old dogs tend to stick to it, and I follow along. Meanwhile the young dogs race around everywhere, clueless and careless.

My early training in quantum physics and statistics tells me that our particular pathway of desire is the mean result of all the tracks of all the critters down this particular road….the sum of all the individual places where just enough feet fell to crush out the new life springing up each year. Even the wild puppies are doing their statistical part by randomly hitting the ground their wiser elders have laid out.

There are a lot of deer on the mountain, and the road is littered with bobcat and lion scat as well. I have seen badgers and skunks and cameo appearances of raccoons and wild boar. On the mountain proper there are traces of paths even through the thickest brush and poison oak. For whatever reasons, the critters have their little roads and highways all through their territory.

Pathways of desire are the bane of landscape architects: people and critters pretty much decide on their own where they will walk on public and private grounds. Some are shortcuts, some meander for no apparent reason. What is odd is that they are almost never a straight line….they curve and wiggle, just like our pathway down the neighbor’s road.

There is even a branch of philosophy and architecture dedicated to pathways of desire: Gaston Bachelard writes about “The Poetics of Space” where he concerns himself not with design itself, but about how the presence of humans affects and fashions space beyond the plans of the designer.

For the dogs and I, our designer is Mother Nature….or the man who carved the road back in the day. I don’t think he had any idea his grading would turn into a wildflower garden.....he was just getting from A to B, with a chunk of land to sell. As for Nature, she was happy to take his road and bury it in flowers. I am not sure how She feels about us tromping right through the middle of it.

Or…almost the middle of it. Why the wiggles and bends? For my part maybe a step around a favorite clump of a favorite flower….but I doubt that the deer have any such concerns and I am following their lead, after all. And why do the old dogs respect the path? It is barely a foot wide, and it requires some attention. Whose desire are we following anyway?

Whatever the case, our little path gets more distinct as each year goes by. It doesn’t get any wider…possibly because I am the only human that ever goes this way, and the critters all seem to be in agreement in our democracy of strollers.

It is sad, because I get great lessons in patience and appreciation as I meander. My beautiful flowers dry and fade...but turn into seed heads that I used to think of as ugly. As the road dries out and the seeds fall by the wayside and blow around I get a sense of anticipation for the coming show: who will be where, and in what numbers, and will there be new kids on the block? This builds after the first rains and the first sprouts appear. The road changes every day in small ways that I am grateful to be able to notice. The silly useless chore for the water company is possibly transformational. God forbid I could take these little lessons and apply them to my “real” life.

Then….last week the dogs and I took an hour out to do our chore in the midst of the busiest part of our catering season. The typical dread of the boredom, and the dread of the climb back up the canyon…..mixed with curiosity as to what is up on the road and meadow.

The property owner made a deal with a local woodcutter. He traded access to any downed oaks on the property for regular grading of the road. We arrived to find a perfectly flat, dusty, sterile……road. Twenty-five years of topsoil gone in an our. A few invader star thistles cling to the sides of the cut. All our old friends are piled and buried in heaps of rock and dust off the road where the bulldozer left them.

A road from nowhere to nowhere, just there because……someone wanted it so. No reason necessary. Even the dogs seem stunned. No scents, no path, no fun at all…..I am pissed. Depressed. Wrecked. Mother Nature must be seriously pissed.

Still, this is someone’s…two someones’…. idea of beauty. And who am I to talk, what with four vans, two trailers and a dump truck glorifying my own property.

The presence of human beings has definitely shaped this space, merci M. Bachelard. I don’t know if I have the patience to wait for Nature to put Her paths back on the map.

Right there is the lesson for me.

Today on our hike, the sterile road is already covered with leaves already mouldering into compost. A few pockets of soil remain that escaped dozer blade, sprouts already starting.

The dogs and I wander all over the road for a change, unbound by local history…..starting our own, new pathway of desire.

2 Comments:

Blogger dave j said...

Brilliant! Love it and "get it". Miss y'all out there!

5:30 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...


I grew up closer to the Village, on the River in the 60s and 70s, did Tularcitos, CMS, and CHS, and just spent what must be a couple of hours off and on at work reading your various writings here and on Zuckerberg's. Thanks for that. As a kid, I always liked looking at all the bare dirt animal paths that are exposed after a wildfire - they remain light against the dark ashes on the land where the vegetation burned. No metaphor intended - just sayin.
I've lived in a city for over 25 years that used to be a lot wilder than it is now, and is quickly pushing it's own brand of vineyard statuary across the old meadows, and the paths are almost all gone.
Anyway - thanks for writing those tales.

3:35 PM  

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