Narrative paths are stories told in passing. They’re everywhere, but can they be read?

“There is a resemblance … between every path and every story. Part of what makes roads, trails, and paths so unique as built structures is that they cannot be perceived as a whole all at once by a sedentary onlooker. They unfold in time as one travels along them, just as a story does as one listens or reads, and a hairpin turn is like a plot twist, a steep ascent a building of suspense to the view at the summit, a fork in the road an introduction of a new storyline, arrival the end of the story.

Naval re-enactors help celebrate the 300th anniversary of Dighton, Mass.,  along one of the town's earliest roads. a way to vivify the route's narrative for a new generation.

Naval re-enactors help celebrate the 300th anniversary of Dighton, Mass., along one of the town’s earliest roads offering a means to vivify the route’s narrative for a new generation. (Photo by David Demelia of Taunton Press)

   “Just as writing allows one to read the words of someone who is absent, so roads make it possible to trace the route of the absent.… This is what is behind the special relationship between tale and travel, and, perhaps, the reason why narrative writing is so closely bound up with walking.”

—Rebecca Solnit. Wanderlust

Narrative paths form a fifth distinct type of walkway, after destination, strolling, exercise, and display paths.

A narrative is—as Solnit suggests and the dictionary makes explicit—“designed to represent a connected succession of happenings.” Walking any path is the encountering of spaces and features in a particular sequence. The same is true of a narrative or a story, so walking indeed correlates with reading a story.

Landscapes have served as intentional narratives since time immemorial, often over unimaginable distances. Native Australians direct themselves across hundreds of miles of apparently trackless interior by singing out the name of everything that crosses their nomadic paths— changes in terrain, plants, rocks, waterholes.

“The songlines are tools of navigation across the deep desert,” Solnit explains, “while the landscape is a mnemonic device for remembering the stories: in other words, the story is a map, the landscape a narrative.”

In the United States, paths mark the progress of armies across historic battlefields, pioneers across the Western states.

Life itself is routinely conceived of as time and distance, as story and journey, and to proceed on its journey, one follows an experiential path over time. In writing “two roads divided in a yellow wood, and I, I took the one less traveled by,” Robert Frost was referring to his life’s story, his taking the fork that led to his life’s less chosen journey as a poet.

The idea of a physical path as a story still resonates so strongly that entire books have been devoted to it, like Matthew Potteiger and Jamie Purinton’s Landscape Narratives: Design Practices for Telling Stories and Anne Whiston Spirn’s The Language of Landscape.

A trail up Mutton Mountain, Washington, has ecological and cultural narratives, but how many visitors can read it? (Photo by pfly@flicker)

A trail up Mutton Mountain, Washington, has ecological and cultural narratives, but how many visitors can read it? (Photo by pfly@flicker)

Some designers interpret the path/narrative linkage literally. For instance, Frank Waugh, landscape architect, teacher, and author, in the Natural Style of Landscape Gardening (1917) expressly linked paths—“the true backbone of the garden structure”—to a landscape narrative.

For him, path segments were paragraphs developing a theme, or “motive,” related to terrain, trees, history, or literature. The paragraphs should culminate in focal points, “paragraphic points,” offering views of special features—seat, stone, or structure—related to the theme.

Any element composing a path and its surroundings—tread, shoulder, borders, adjacencies—can support a narrative. Buildings or rooms along the path can echo history or reflect eras or protagonists; gateways can demark where one story section ends and another begins; colors and plant forms can represent different emotional states.

Sequencing and meaning are the two critical attributes of a narrative. Thus, not all sequences are narratives. They may lack meaning.

For instance, Gertrude Jekyll elaborated a precise sequence of colors for her long perennial borders, not to tell any story but for the illusory purpose of making the borders appear longer when seen from the starting point.

Conversely, all paths have meaningful cultural/historical and ecological stories to tell. We often sense them, if only subliminally, as we walk from city center through suburbia to countryside or from hill down into floodplain.

But most paths are not designed to tell any of the stories. Even preserved and interpreted historical sites tend to have paths that can be traversed in any direction without explicit or understood narratives.

Similarly, few walkers can “read” the landscape they’re traversing without explicit signage or expert help. That’s why Manitoga’s paths stand out. With a powerful ecological thrust, Russel Wright shaped roomy openings at Manitoga’s different elevations to clearly express each vegetative zone of his land above the Hudson River by thinning to concentrate a meadow of grasses at the lowest elevation, then a fern glade in the woods higher up, and a rocky clearing of mountain laurel above that. They are vivid when encountered and long remembered.

Overall, narratives can be thought of as an intermediate path type, containing both destination and stroll elements. Like destination routes, they are purposeful and have intermediate goals, where “chapters of the story” are told. Like stroll routes, the path and its surroundings are critical, designed to attract attention and slow the walker. Indeed, strollers with more time to observe appreciate landscape narratives more than exercisers focused on their doing or goal-seekers focused on going elsewhere.

In coming blogs, I’ll consider narratives’ varied relationships to path creation, the networks that support them, who can read them, what purposes they serve, and how they can be vivified.

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