Paths and Roads

“The difference between a path and a road is not only the obvious one. A path is little more than a habit that comes with knowledge of a place. It is a sort of ritual of familiarity. As a form, it is a form of contact with a known landscape. It is not destructive. It is the perfect adaptation, through experience and familiarity, of movement to place; it obeys the natural contours; such obstacles as it meets it goes around. A road, on the other hand, even the most primitive road, embodies a resistance against the landscape. Its reason is not simply the necessity for movement, but haste. Its wish is to avoid contact with the landscape; it seeks so far as possible to go over the country, rather than through it; its aspiration, as we see clearly in the example of our modern freeways, is to be a bridge; its tendency is to translate place into space in order to traverse it with the least effort. It is destructive, seeking to remove or destroy all obstacles in its way. The primitive road advanced by the destruction of the forest; modern roads advance by the destruction of topography.”

from Wendell Berry’s “A Native Hill”


Habit and place. Contour and topography. Movement and avoidance and advance. Knowledge.

The above quote is drawn from a discussion of early road builders in the forests of Kentucky at the end of the 1700s. Berry speaks to the nature of landscape awareness, of land economy, and of resource use (and misuse), comparing the forest paths of indigenous communities to the roads of the settlers, a people who still, he says, “have not, in any meaningful way, arrived in America.” A people whose solutions became the problems which have produced the culture we endure. Whose disconnect from the land is defined by the pollution which is its excess. The problems created which we must now navigate as the beginnings of our solutions.

It is our dilemma, in its way: how to create, to assert, to understand an indigenous architecture for ourselves, as twenty-first century North American peoples. In other words, how to design ourselves (our lives, our structures, our habits) upon the form (of the land, of our time) that is our home.

Earlier this week, joined by our family of Central Rockies Community Rebuilds interns and builders and homeowners, we were privileged to a few days of talk and experimentation and design led by Joel Glanzberg, active permaculture educator and thinker. We spoke of many things, of the states and aspects of the way we live within our culture today, keeping as our task a self-guided view into what it is that has brought us here as willing workers, and what it is that our work means to us each day we commit to it.

We spoke of how Being shapes Outcome and how Place shapes Being. The Community behind the Rebuilds. Of observation and behavior. How, in the How of laying foundations, is always the Why, though not always apparent and with an ease of visibility.

We ask, in our work, in our attempts to shift thought and design: What help is the bandage to the wound if the body lays prone to those same means of further infliction? It is never enough merely to grow the new skin. When we are hurt, it is not only the revelation of new cells which teaches us; it is our reaching toward the understanding of the cause behind the effect, of the system behind the outcome; the realization that what we endure is a product of our mode of Being, more than the blade itself which happened, in a moment, to cross the boundary of our skin, cutting.

It is not the blade as it is not the dead river. Nor is it the nitrate runoff; nor the chemically fertilized crop of Monsanto’s GMO Terminator seed corn growing upriver. Nor is it the farmer who grows the corn to sell as industry so to feed her family. It is not a number of things, though each lies along the river’s long and meandering path. What we realize as we follow the river to its source, is what it means to be the water, steady and giving, in constant interaction with the changing shore of its shifting path, at once slow and wild, violent and easy. We learn how the river is design and how in our plotting we design upon the waters. Such that it is not until we come to the source of design- our way of thought and approach, our looking at the very systems we enforce- that we realize the room for revolution. That without imagining the whole system (even what precedes the river, what necessitates it, its role as means of exchange in the inevitable moment coursing between functions), without observing first, feeling first, putting sight before vision, we are merely tossing stones into murk supposing a dam.

So imagine the whole and as a system. As the point through which we step, affecting and effecting. If everything is interconnected in mutual design, how do we begin if not by observing what already is? That we may learn to build with and upon, not in stead of, not in lieu of, not without the Why behind the How. Because to admit the Why is to begin to approach the emergence of a pattern-reflective How. We must be ourselves the first strokes of what we draw out of our world, of what we share in the exposed shape of its being.

As we continue our work in this microclimate, while the weather somewhere else batters and shuts down services, it is important to remember that what we have is our intention, the passion and the will behind the work. This example set to shift perspective.

This is a bit of what we spoke about and explored in approaching ideas for design, of our own present home space and of those we are here to help create for others. Because it is never as simple as showing up. Why are you here? There IS an answer. At least an inclination.

As for the build, it is a week for joining pieces. What was two crews has become one. For the remainder of our semester and work we will build together. Firstly: completing the roofing. Setting the gable end siding. Trimming the interior bale face. Installing frame and cobb supports for exposed woodplank windows and shelves. Installing doors and battening the baffle hatches. Of the pieces, there is more to come. But, firstly for us is a week’s time off from our work here to explore our environs. We will be back in mid-October to continue the build as a single crew brought together by unintended and very deliberately designed circumstances.

Enjoy early October. Keep observing. Keep the path.

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