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Wednesday, November 20, 2013

In Praise of Aimless Wandering

When is a path more than a path?

What does the word ‘explore’ mean to you? I’ve come to the realization that it means something very different from its standard definitions to me, something rather idiosyncratic. Investigate or examine systematically, for diagnostic or scientific purposes? Me, not so much. Then there’s this etymological stuff about “setting up a loud cry,” as hunters hallooing to other hunters. Again, unh-unh. When I'm out doing what I call exploring, I'm as quiet as I can be, trying to take in my surroundings with all senses.

I look into synonyms and find myself rejecting them all, although ‘question’ and ‘look into’ are getting closer to my feeling for the word 'explore.' If Phil Caputo is right when he writes, “Without a design, a journey becomes aimless wandering” (The Longest Road, 2013), how far from scientific is anything purporting to be exploration if there is no design to the search? Once again, I confirm within myself a bias in favor of “aimless wandering.” How can I set out searching for something in particular if I have no idea what the territory will contain? And yet, if I pass by a bit of terra incognita without looking into it, how much will I miss? All of it, surely!

Our world presents an infinity of aspects to be explored – nature, history, culture, psychology, art, literature, molecular structure, genetics, to start with a very abbreviated list. Some people choose an area and proceed systematically, and that’s not a bad plan. It’s pretty much the basis for university studies, in fact, and preparing for a career demands such an approach. I’ve done it, haven’t you? Don’t you still do it when a situation demands systematic inquiry? My point isn’t that systematic inquiry is bad or should be forsworn but that “aimless wandering,” whether in a library or in the woods or simply in our own minds, can offer rewards of its own.  

Sometimes, without our having seen it coming, a new way beckons. It promises nothing but adventure. Maybe we had a specific agenda in mind for the day, and this alluring path can only pull us off-course. Shall we follow? Is there room in the day for improvisation, for a detour from schedule and well-worn habit? If not that day, will we go back another day and take up the challenge? What is there to lose, and what might we gain? 

Along the unfamiliar way, questions arise. The path is raised, and alongside it, water and autumn leaves are held in earth that seems to have been excavated. Soon we reach a spot along the path that transects a small stream. The water has been guided underneath the path so it can flow freely on to open water nearby, joining the Great Lakes.

Farther along, a clue too obvious to be missed shows amidst fallen leaves. What do you see in the image below? 

An old, rotting bit of trash farther back on the trail takes on new significance in light of this new evidence. It bears further scrutiny. Again, there is no plan other than curiosity. I could more easily find answers by visiting the local historical museum or putting out an inquiry to those who grew up here decades ago. And it isn’t that I am rejecting those avenues, so much as that here, right now, I have a chance to wander back in time by myself, in the very place that still holds that time, to wander and question and search in near-silence to hear what the contours of the land will tell me.

I could be wrong. I could so easily be wrong. But I don’t really care whether I am right or wrong in every detail. I come from a railroad family, and this bit of trash could be (couldn’t it?) an old railroad handcar, the kind my father used out in South Dakota when he went on survey for his employer, the Milwaukee Road. (Follow this link for a history of railroad handcars, especially if you've never heard of them before. One thing I know for sure is that I am exploring an old railroad line. There is no mistake possible about that.

I cannot stumble over old rails or rotting ties without a tug at my heart. Memories come pouring back – a thrilling ride in my grandfather’s steam engine, the move from South Dakota to Illinois, family trips to Ohio and Florida, a school band and orchestra odyssey to the National Music Festival in Enid, Oklahoma – but more truly, I am not living my own past here in the woods: I am living a past that was never mine, exploring life lived by people I never knew, a century before I came upon the scene.

On my second exploring adventure to the old railroad line trail, I see what looks like a branching path off the mainline. Or was the curving line the mainline, the straight path ahead a spur? These questions can be answered another time, with old maps and old books and information from old local people. For now, for this morning, I would not trade the excitement of the questions for any list of answers. 

Ours is a soggy township, clay and sand that drains in all directions, always, eventually, to Lake Michigan, and everywhere along the old rail beds water had to be engineered. 

Are you familiar with the name Errol Morris? This unconventional filmmaker studied philosophy, right on up to the stage of his doctoral dissertation, but at last his committee lost patience, and he was dropped from his program. He “lacked focus,” they said. Indeed, he would begin with a question, but that always led to another question and another and another and another, and he could not resist following every beckoning path that led away from the highway toward his degree. Well, I have my degree (and no fame as a film director or anything else), but I see the curiosity Morris showed as another and different kind of perseverance. His willingness to wander, to let himself be diverted again and again, is what exploration means to me.

Some writers begin with an outline. Others begin with a question. One painter I know sometimes gets herself into a bind with projects that grow out of all proportion to their beginnings. Her husband suggested once that she lay out a plan before starting work. She replied that if she knew ahead of time what the result would be she wouldn't have to do the work. 

It is not uncommon for someone to come a few feet into my bookstore, just far enough in from the door to address me directly, and ask, "Do you have such-and-such?" and if the answer is no, that someone will, nine times out of ten, thank me, turn around and leave -- without so much as glancing at what I do have in stock! I've been a bookseller for over 20 years and am still amazed by this phenomenon. I can understand that someone might want a particular book and be disinclined to buy anything else that day, but not even to look around? To sail right on past my little Treasure Island without exploring so much as a single cove? 

Plans and lists and projects are good ways to get things done, but there's got to be more to life than getting things done. There's got to be time for daydreaming, for exploring, for aimless wandering, for letting life surprise us.

Still green on November 20th
Postscript from elsewhere: I come back to add this link to someone else who thinks the way I do. I wonder what others think about serendipity (one of my nicknames for Sarah!) in science?

It is 10:50 a.m. on Friday morning as I type these lines, and the snow is being driven horizontally past the bookstore windows. Forecast is full of snow, snow, snow from here through the U.P. In case you were wondering....


BB-Idaho said...

There is much to be said for aimless wandering. One may find or discover interesting things not looked for or expected. When I was a tyke, I found dozens of
different routes to and from school...'getting there' was an
adventure and not a chore. It is
a bit sad that as we grow into adults, many of us lose that magical sense of adventure.

P. J. Grath said...

What a coincidence, BB! Only yesterday I was having a conversation with a friend about "trespassing" and how that was just not part of our vocabulary in the Illinois township suburb (outside city limits, with a working farm across the road) where I grew up. I had a very special, "secret" way to school through the backs of lots. There was no alley but space enough between garages and garden gates for wandering cats and an adventurous small girl. I loved the hidden quality of that way to school, so completely different from streets (we had no sidewalks) and house fronts. And it was my own secret and, as you say, magical way of passing unseen -- and seeing so much along the way -- from home to school.