On Trails by Robert Moor
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Moor opens his book On Trails by recalling the five months he spent walking the Appalachian Trail (AT) from Georgia to Maine. His timing was unidyllic as that particular summer turned out to be freakishly cold and wet, and he spent day after day with nothing to do but “study the trail beneath my nose with Talmudic intensity.” Moor’s Appalachian Trail thru-hike had been a lifetime in the making however, and he was not to be deterred.
He’d actually been on a part of the AT when, at the age of ten, “a child of the concretized prairies of suburban Illinois,” he’d spent a summer at a camp in Maine. Moor had found that hiking suited him; it was a contemplative, solitary escape for a kid who spent much of his youth feeling like an outsider. He found refuge in books as well – particularly in the works of John Muir, Robyn Davidson, Bruce Chatwin, and the like.
During his five months on the AT, practicing what Jack Kerouac in The Dharma Bums called “the meditation of the trail,” and what Moor describes as “an earthy, stripped down, American form of walking meditation,” he occupied his mind considering the nature of trails – how a trail reduces an overwhelming array of paths across a landscape to a single line, and how a trail alters the hiker as much as the hiker alters the trail.
Moor was unequivocally altered. He returned to New York with the eyes of an Appalachian Trail thru-hiker and saw trails everywhere: “a desire line winding through a tiny park beside the East River, a line of ants inching along my windowsill. I noticed how the shoes of passing commuters wore greasy lines into the concrete of the subway platform…” He read voraciously about trails in works of literature, history, ecology, psychology and philosophy, and he spoke with individuals from a similar medley of occupations. The result is this book, On Trails, in which Robert Moor, weaving an interdisciplinary melange along the way, dives deeply into the wisdom of trails.
In a world in which, “Humans are neither the earth’s original nor its foremost trail-blazers,” where does one begin to tell the story of trails and their blazers? Moor travels to Newfoundland to join the team of an Oxford researcher who has discovered the oldest trails on Earth, those of the ediacarans, the oldest known forms of animal life who inexplicably uprooted themselves and began dragging their tiny, bodies across the ocean floor, creating trails with their suction cup-like feet. And while the paleontological search for a centimeter-wide trace that looks like nothing so much as though “someone had lightly dragged a pencil eraser through drying concrete” may not seem like compelling reading, Moor brings an element of gonzo to every story in On Trails and veritably transports his readers to the shores of Newfoundland island where, with him as our guide, we remove our shoes, slip on our polyester booties, and descend into the fossil bed to wonder at these Precambrian trail builders and what might have made them decide to go for a walk one day.
From the ediacarans, Moor proceeds to discuss trails as one of the animal kingdom’s earliest form of communication or binary language – go this way, not that way – or “a kind of proto-Internet.” He approaches notions of internalized and externalized intelligence by contrasting images of a mountain hermit whose thoughts turn inward and single-cell slime molds which, while “stupid as an organism can be,” are able to solve complex problems in the communal creation of trails. The work of E.O. Wilson and the nuanced chemical communication that takes place among fire ants becomes the basis for understanding feedback loops, and why ant algorithms may be informing the field of swarm robotics and the future of driverless cars.
Moor ranges far and wide in On Trails. I cracked this book’s covers expecting to immerse myself in wilderness, the love of which I share with the author, but fell through the looking glass into a Wonderland of ideas. Moor branches down myriad tributaries, not so much digressions but explorations that build upon his central theme. Along the way we learn why elephants are ideally suited for creating trails, the role that trails played in the colonization of America, how landscape is encoded into the Cherokee language, and why the technology that allowed us to build and improve trails has separated us from them. Expansive in its scope, On Trails is, ironically, a book you will get lost in.
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