Sometimes predetermined paths aren’t direct enough, or they fail to connect to a desirable destination. Over time “desire lines” appear as pedestrians wear away groundcover to make improvisational footpaths, making maps of longing and fulfillment as they go. Landscape architects occasionally honor the democracy of desire lines, waiting to place paths until they have observed how people have chosen, again and again, to make their own way across a site—how they have voted with their feet.
But beyond landscape design, desire lines offer rich territory for artists and writers interested in how people, or even animals or water, travel. Each trajectory tells us something about how we relate to an environment and, often, to each other.
Going His Own Way
In 1967, artist Richard Long walked a straight path in suburban England, going back and forth across a field until his steps flattened the grass. Since A Line Made by Walking, Long has traveled all over the world, leaving his mark in formally precise lines and circles. Walking between fixed distances, points in time, landmarks, or weather or cosmological events, Long chooses origins and destinations that distinguish his ambles from typical desire lines.
And whereas most desire lines map group behavior, making visible a shared will to diverge, Richard Long’s walks are largely solo journeys. In his 1949 book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the influential American mythology scholar Joseph Campbell delineates the archetypal hero’s journey: the would-be hero leaves the common world to venture into the unknown, returning, finally, transformed from his experiences and with gifts to bestow on those he left behind. Long’s practice is similar to Campbell’s model. We see the artist’s special, individual encounter with the world outside the everyday as he eschews the well-trodden paths of ordinary routine.
Campbell’s universalizing model has been criticized for stripping myths of their connections to local people and places. Similarly, in his emphasis on unique experiences in what appears again and again as an unpeopled nature, Long mostly ignores how local people traverse their environments. His walks are private aesthetic experiences absent cultural engagement. His 1977 A Straight Hundred Mile Walk in Australia, for example, had him striding the same length back and forth in a desirous pursuit of a rigorous linear geometry. Meanwhile, Long ignored the songlines that indigenous Australians have used for thousands of years to name and navigate their continent.
Collective Desire and Songlines
Bruce Chatwin, like his contemporary Richard Long, was an English adventurer. In his 1987 book The Songlines, Chatwin searches the Australian Outback for the labyrinthine pathways made by the indigenous people there. These songlines crisscross the continent but are invisible to most Western eyes. Reading Chatwin, we learn about the creation myths of the Dreamtime, when totemic ancestors made themselves from clay and then walked, singing the world into being by naming animals, plants, waterholes and rocks along the way. We learn how each clan inherits a different song and territory, navigating its natural features by walking and singing; how songlines function as trade networks and how contemporary Aboriginal paintings—though they often appear abstract—record these songlines.
Richard Long’s desire lines—formally beautiful as they are—are those of a solitary, intrepid sightseer. The songlines Chatwin presents map a deep-rooted, though threatened, collective existence. Each offers a different model of making your way in the world.
Landscapes of Desire
Long and Chatwin present desire lines forged by people, but animals and even water can make them too. Sarah Bergmann’s Pollinator Pathway, begun in late 2007, will eventually stretch between Nora’s Woods, the campus of Seattle University and Volunteer Park in central Seattle. Sited in median planting strips, its gardens attract pollinators—birds, bees, beetles and others—whose populations are declining. Working with scientists, designers, residents and volunteers, Bergmann is connecting fragmented green spaces with a ribbon of landscape 12 feet wide. She’s using her Seattle design as a model for a national network of gardens, invitational infrastructure for pollinators navigating from one repast to another. The trajectories visiting pollinators take through the air will constitute the project’s desire lines.
North of the Pollinator Pathway, at Seattle’s Henry Art Gallery, German artist Katinka Bock recently mentioned desire lines during a public talk. In her 2008 piece Je te tiens (I Hold You), two parallel panes of glass leaned against the back of a chair. A funnel brought in rainwater, which dripped between the glass, its streams coalescing and dispersing before collecting in a puddle on the floor. Bock had choreographed rain, connecting weather with the space of the gallery. As the individual drops gathered into trailing streams, they created wandering desire lines that bridged outside to inside and travelled through the air like Bergmann’s busy pollinators.
And four years ago, for an exhibition at the Henry, University of Washington graduate Maggie Carson Romano presented an installation called (what made the wound, wound the thread). Responding to noises in the gallery, a latex balloon took in and let out both helium and saltwater. The balloon was a breathing, swaying, secreting body, and the salty drips that fell from it did not course like Bock’s watery desire lines but pooled, straight away, on a large concrete slab, building a terrain of frosty white crystals. Romano foregrounded the variables of noise, density and gravity to create desire lines of chance and circumstance that resulted in the trajectories of water dripping from the shifting balloon onto a low, flat expanse. Like Bock’s rainwater, Romano’s drips traveled from high to low.
Each of these three authors has surrendered tight control by creating in response to her environment, be it the precarious situation of pollinators, precipitation or sound. Bergmann, Bock and Romano’s desire lines are not made directly by people but are, instead, the yields of sensitive systems where animals or water travel and coalesce as conditions allow. Each facilitates that process but never wields absolute control. In that way, their works help us recognize our own capacities to act with inquisitiveness and care. They encourage us to see correspondences between ourselves and other things in the world—pollinators need to eat, and water responds to gravity, as do we.
Smell and Memory
Rock Creek begins in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, crisscrossing the Montana-Wyoming border before it flows into my Dad’s hometown of Red Lodge, Montana, and then into the Yellowstone River. The “crick,” as my father calls it, has a distinct scent, a cool sweetness, which I notice sometimes in the boggy lowlands near Seattle’s Laurelhurst neighborhood.
Rock Creek is like a larger, ancient version of Katinka Bock’s rainy, coursing desire lines, winding its way down from high mountain passes to lower elevations. But its smell, when I encounter it elsewhere, also forms an involuntary, distinctly individual desire line, conveying me from my present moment and location. That deep, redolent scent triggers a shortcut across time and place to one of the happiest landscapes of my childhood.
I remember, there, my father’s long strides as we walked along the creek’s grassy bank and his two feet in front of mine, charting a path for us.