Book Review: On Trails

When Robert Moor thru hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2009, he started thinking about trails.  Not just the logistics of the trail he was on, but the history, purpose, and philosophy of trails, and how humans affect them and are affected by them.  Taking it much further than the usual hiker daydreams, he was awarded a Middlebury College Fellowship in Environmental Journalism with the topic of “Trails — topographical and cognitive — in contemporary society, human culture and the mind.”  His research culminated in the book On Trails, which is gorgeous both inside and out.

Trails can be found in virtually every part of this vast, strange, mercurial, partly tamed, but still shockingly wild world of ours.  Through the history of life on Earth, we have created pathways to guide, our journeys, transmit messages, refine complexity, and preserve wisdom.  At the same time, trails have shaped our bodies, sculpted our landscapes, and transformed our cultures.  In the maze of the modern world, the wisdom of trails is as essential as ever, and with the growth of ever-more labyrinthine technological networks, it will only become more so.  To deftly navigate this world, we will need to understand how we make trails, and how trails make us.

Unlike the typical trail books I read, where the narrative follows the author along one particular trail, this book dove much deeper into philosophy.  Starting out with 565-million-year-old fossil trails in Newfoundland, Moor took the next step up to studying ants and snails and the trails they make, then mammals including wildebeests and elephants and sheep everywhere from New Jersey and Tanzania to Tennessee and Arizona.  Then he switched to studying humans with Native American trails in North Carolina, rough paths and roads built by European colonizers in North America, all the way up to the modern hiking trails we have today like the Long Trail and Appalachian Trail.

How, one must wonder, had a human being – indeed, a whole generation of human beings – become so abstracted from the land … !  The answer, as we’ve seen, stretches back through our ancestral past: through agriculture, which obviated the hunter-gatherer’s need to walk, study, and interact with whole ecosystems; through writing, which replaced the landscape as an archive of communal knowledge; through monotheism, which vanquished the animist spirits and erased their earthly shrines; through urbanization, which concentrated people in built environments; and through a snug pairing of mechanical technology and animal husbandry, which allowed people to travel over the earth at blurring speeds.  Euro-Americans had been working for millennia to forget what an unpeopled planet looked like.  To see it fresh came as a shock.

Moor explores how and why trails are created by humans, and even more, how trails affect our behavior.  He advocates for changing our thoughts around trails and wilderness to make them not some far off abstract, but a part of our daily lives.

On wild land, wild thoughts can flourish.  There, we can feel all the ragged edges of what we do not know, and we make room for other living things to live differently.  Cronon boldly concludes his essay on wilderness by asserting that we must learn to reinfuse this sense of the wild back into the human landscape – for instance, to see even the trees in our backyards as wild things – and to reframe our understanding of the wilderness so that it can contain us within it.  The next great leap in our ecological consciousness, he argues, would be to “discover a common middle ground in which all of these things, from the city to the wilderness, can somehow be encompassed in the word ‘home.'”

For anyone who’s ever been interested in a trail, this is a comprehensive look at their background.  Something to think about next time you are wandering along a well-trodden path in the woods.


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  1. So, I’ve heard a few other hiker friends recommend this book and have had it on my list for awhile. We just downloaded it last week and started listening to it via Audible. We’re about 2.5 hours in and we both are just kind of bored by it. Did you feel that way at all? I’m willing to keep listening a little more, but I don’t know. Maybe we’re missing something???

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