The Path Least Taken

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In his essay, A Native Hill, Wendell Berry writes of his forefathers in Kentucky who find a worn path used by the American Indians in the area for eons before the Europeans landed in the Americas.  He writes, “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.” (pg. 12, Common Places).  His story continues with his forefathers cutting down whole trees for fire while constructing a road over the ageless path through the woods.  Why, he asks.

“Roads”, Wendell writes, “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” (pg. 12, Common Places).  When our paths become roads we have often paved over that which is most important to our selves, and often to others: time.  We do not live our lives on the roads that we follow, but rather we rush through them not taking time to smell not the roses, but the life that we live.  In fact, such a life is not a life lived; it is a life of avoidance through haste.

 

Why pave over a well-worn path with cement and oil?  Why pass the landscape with the windows rolled up or cut down whole trees for a fire that could easily be made with some dead limbs?  At some point in time we must address what it is that motivates us; we must address our reason for living, for following the path that we are on or constructing a road over a well-worn habit.  If we say “my children”, then we are cheating those very children that we love by giving them nothing to look up to, no path to follow.  If we say “my wife” or “my husband” we are cheating them of shared experiences and conversation about the paths that we are on.  We will spend our life avoiding the very thing we are searching for.  I believe that we owe those we travel with something to talk about, and we owe the path that we are on our respect.

 

And so, by paving over the very thing that we search all of our lives for we lose the very thing that gives us what we are searching for: that path through the woods that has been pounded with the past, and meanders through unknown woods and forests becomes a black streak through a wilderness that it is alien to.  I would suggest that we pull up the concrete and wire, the asphalt and rock that we have so hurriedly laid.  I would suggest that we look for that path through the woods that we have often forgotten about.  I suggest that we take the time to take the path least taken.  Because, what we do today will be the gift or the errors that become the features of our lives.*

*My people’s errors have become the features of my country. (Berry, pg. 15)

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2 comments

  1. Wendell Berry is a remarkable writer and philosopher in the tradition of Thoreau, though I’m not sure he’d necessarily agree with that comparison. I make it because he triggers a similar kind of recognition in me by the way he manages to subvert conventional thinking. He writes with ringing clarity, so in that sense, he’s not like most philosophers (!), and his idiom is American soil, forest, wildlife, and people. There’s a practicality in his view of the world that is as admirable is it is hard to practice—though if one manages to put it into practice, there are great rewards. I’m deeply pleased to know you’re reading Berry.

    1. I have considered Wendell Berry’s writings for quite some time, and have just gotten around to reading him. The collection of essays that I am reading from now is called “Common Places”. What I like best about his writings is that he does not refrain from the anger he feels about the actions of people who do not think, but at the same time he is able to keep his thoughts on point. I am finding that his writings are applicable no matter the path we are on.

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