A Cape Cod Notebook 2/7/06

listen Desire Lines

By Robert Finch

A friend recently told me about an intriguing concept called "desire lines." It seems that when landscape architects lay out walking paths in parks and other public spaces, they invariably find that people soon begin to make their own informal paths. Such paths cut across from one walkway to another, or go off in a new direction entirely. Sometimes these new paths are accepted and given official status. Sometimes they are roped or fenced off, though this rarely discourages their use for long. More often they are simply ignored and remain rough, unofficial tracks. Whatever becomes of them, these unauthorized paths are formally known in the profession as "desire lines."

I was struck by the unintentional poetry of the phrase. It's one of those delightful expressions that professional jargon occasionally spawns - like the so-called "charmed" sub-atomic particles and "strange attractors" in quantum physics. Like them, "desire lines" seems one of those rare moments when metaphor and science rhyme. I was also intrigued to learn that almost always men and boys create these unauthorized paths, though women and girls will use them without hesitation once they're established.

What is it that urges us to create, or follow, desire lines in our own lives? To forego or depart from the approved or laid-out tracks in our landscape? To stray not only from the straight and narrow, but often from the broad and winding as well? I sometimes think these unexplained, and often abortive, departures from existing paths spring from a kind of ingrained restlessness in the human race, a desire simply to see what may be there, with no specific destination or expectations. Western culture has always celebrated and mythologized this trait in mythic figures like Ulysses or Columbus.

This perpetual unrest is also something we seem to share with other species, such as the young of many birds. For example, first-year terns exhibit something called "dispersal behavior" at the end of the breeding season. It's a kind of wanderlust that sends the young birds fanning out for considerable distances in all directions for several weeks, before they finally gather in staging areas for their first migration south. Ornithologists believe that such behavior may contribute to the discovery of new and unexploited nesting or feeding sites that the terns can use in future seasons. Like terns, perhaps we also have an inborn need to see new places, new possibilities, that we may someday inhabit or take nourishment from. And, like those birds, that need may have developed in our species for reasons of survival, for finding us new and wider homes in the world.

Whatever the source of this impulse to follow desire lines in our own lives, it is not without risk. Sometimes, following unknown paths, we find ourselves in a maze of growth, in failing light, unsure where we are. We flail through jungles of stiff, impenetrable shrubs and sharp briars in deceptively benign-looking woods. All at once we realize we are lost, unable to retrace our steps. Then, suddenly, we come out onto a paved highway, far from where we thought we were, and head home, feeling a gratefulness and a relief we are ashamed to acknowledge. But sometimes, just sometimes, we come upon a new and unexpected clearing, a magical place unanticipated in our daily thoughts or even our dreams. And when we do, we are so amazed that we cease even to wonder whether we will be able to find our way back home, or whether, in fact, this might be our new home.

Broadcast February 7, 2006