In Praise of Paths: Walking through Time and Nature

In Praise of Paths: Walking through Time and Nature

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Overview

“What [Ekelund is] addressing is the intention to walk one’s way to meaning: the walk as spiritual exercise, a kind of vision quest... A key strategy for finding ourselves, then, is to first get lost.”—The New York Times Book Review

An ode to paths and the journeys we take through nature, as told by a gifted writer who stopped driving and rediscovered the joys of traveling by foot.

Torbjørn Ekelund started to walk—everywhere—after an epilepsy diagnosis affected his ability to drive. The more he ventured out, the more he came to love the act of walking, and an interest in paths emerged. In this poignant, meandering book, Ekelund interweaves the literature and history of paths with his own stories from the trail. As he walks with shoes on and barefoot, through forest creeks and across urban streets, he contemplates the early tracks made by ancient snails and traces the wanderings of Romantic poets, amongst other musings. If we still “understand ourselves in relation to the landscape,” Ekelund asks, then what do we lose in an era of car travel and navigation apps? And what will we gain from taking to paths once again?

“A charming read, celebrating the relationship between humans and their bodies, their landscapes, and one another.”
The Washington Post

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781771644952
Publisher: Greystone Books
Publication date: 05/05/2020
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 85,750
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 7.60(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Torbjørn Ekelund is a writer, author, and co-founder of Harvest, an online magazine documenting wilderness adventures, environmental issues, and our relationship with nature. He lives in Oslo, Norway.

Geoff Nicholson is the author of multiple books including The Lost Art of Walking. His writings have appeared in the New York Times and the Guardian, amongst others, and he is a contributing editor to the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Read an Excerpt

We were nomads once. We migrated, never remaining for long in a single location. The world lay open and undiscovered, borderless. We could walk in any direction, follow our will, explore new lands.

Now we are sedentary. We live our lives sitting down. Drive the car to the store. Fly if traveling longer distances. Call to have the pizza delivered to our door and purchase automatic lawn mowers, robots to do the work for us while we sit sunning and thinking about more pressing matters than mowing the lawn.

The journey has lost its original purpose. It is no longer an essential undertaking to sustain our lives; rather, it has become a form of amusement and recreation. We board an airplane in one corner of the world and disembark in another. We have the ability to put enormous distances behind us without expending any of our own energy or gaining any knowledge about the paths and landscapes that lie unfurled beneath the cloud cover several thousand feet below. A lot has changed and a lot has been lost when checking in at the airport is the most energy-intensive stage of a journey that relocates us from one side of the globe to the other.

Our ability to read a landscape used to be indispensable for survival. Now we no longer require any knowledge of navigation and orienteering to get where we want to go. The path is displayed on our smartphones, our GPS, and as we walk we stare down at a lit screen instead of up at the place where we are and the path we are on. Our sense of place has become an aptitude we would prefer to do without. The same is true for our sense of distance.

Paths were the first main thoroughfares, and the way in which they meander and wind through the landscape tells us something very fundamental about the people who created them. A path’s line is never accidental. It is not the shortest distance between two points; it is the simplest. It is a result of the intrinsic human inclination to choose the path of least resistance, because conserving energy used to be so critical for survival.

Messengers traveled by foot on paths or carriage roads. The time it took to walk the path was secondary to the energy it required. Upon arrival, the message may already have become outdated and possibly even untrue. “Everyone is doing fine,” the letter may have said, read by a European immigrant to America from relatives back home, though in the months that had passed since the letter was posted, many of those relatives, perhaps even the letter-writer, may have died of hunger, tuberculosis, scarlet fever, or in childbirth.

The premise for all travel was that it took time. The war might well be over by the time the messenger arrived to say it had just broken out.

The history of paths is also the history of a world on the verge of disappearing. First, paths transformed into roads, feet became wagons and horse carriages, dirt was replaced with asphalt and concrete. More recently, wagons and horse carriages have been switched out for cars and heavy transport vehicles, roads have been widened, swamps drained, mountains blown up, and plains leveled with a layer of crushed gravel. The duration of a journey used to be determined by the path. Today it is possible to adapt and reconfigure the landscape. Mountains can be blasted, wetlands drained, rivers diverted into pipes. We have all but eliminated the barriers of physical space in travel. Time, however, has now become the most important factor.

Table of Contents

Foreword Geoff Nicholson ix

The beginning 3

The measure of all paths 15

Part I

Humans have always wandered 23

Hiking trails 28

The trek over the high mountain 53

Part II

The path as I remember it 71

Into the wild 81

Part III

Tracks 119

Mental detours 132

Inner landscapes 154

Part IV

Back where I started 169

You can't walk the same path twice 206

Discovery at the journeys end 215

On writing this book 219

Gratitude 221

Notes 223

Sources 228

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