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Analytical Book Summaries for Creative Professionals

Here I publish concise summaries and analysis of books that focus on optimizing your life and living more intentionally. Written by Matt C Reynolds.

 

Analytical Book Summaries for Creative Professionals

Here I publish concise summaries and analysis of books that focus on optimizing your life and living more intentionally.

Browse by category: Art & Architecture, Creativity & Habits, Design & Typography, Fiction & Literature, Landscape & Memory, Technology & Society or View All

 
 

On Trails: An Exploration by Robert Moor

 
Get your own copy of    On Trails  .

Get your own copy of On Trails.

 
 

The Book in Three Sentences

There are infinite ways to cross a landscape and the function of a path is to reduce this teeming chaos into an intelligible line. Our many forms of understanding of the world resemble nothing so much as the trail-wise problem-solving of ants: we test multiple theories against the complexity of the world, and then pursue those that work. The better routes last, the worse ones erode, and little by little those that work improve.

Notes on the Book

The prologue and epilogue of the book were my favourite parts—don’t skip over them! These convey Moor’s way of thinking, explain how he thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail, and add a lot to the context of his narrative.

Paths as a Way of Making Sense of the World

To put it as simply as possible, a path is a way of making sense of the world. There are infinite ways to cross a landscape; the opinions are overwhelming, and pitfalls abound. The function of a path is to reduce this teeming chaos into an intelligible line. The ancient prophets and sages—most of whom lived in an era when footpaths provided the primary mode of transport—understood this fact intimately, which is why the foundational texts of nearly every major religion invoke the metaphor of the path. (p14)

Our many forms of understanding of the world resemble nothing so much as the trail-wise problem-solving of ants: We test multiple theories against the complexity of the world, and then pursue those that work. The better routes last, the worse ones erode, and little by little those that work improve. (p332)

Navigating Culture

Anthropologists have a term for the practice of place-listing: topogeny. Topogeny is not simply the listing of place names; it is the summoning in the mind’s eye, of a mental landscape of constructed lines.” For example, according to Thomas Maschio, the Rauto tribe of Papua New Guinea could recite hundreds of place names in a row, and to remember these sites, “elders said they ‘had to walk’ along the various paths” in an imaginary walk in their mind. “Elders would name a place, tell [him] the history, and then say that they could ‘walk to the next place’.” (p182–183)

Many species of mammals are remarkably adept at building trails, and even the simplest animals are experts at finding the most efficient route across the landscape. Our languages have grown to reflect this idea: in Japan, kemonomichi or beast trails; in France, chemin de l’âne or donkey paths; in Holland Olifantenpad, or elephant paths; and in North America cow paths. (p20)

There is a crucial difference between a trail that ‘lies lightly on the land’ and a wide footpath lined with handrails and park benches: the former allows us to experience the complexity and roughness of the world beyond us, while the latter gives us the impression that the world was put there for us. (p241)

Instead of being immersed in an endless continuum of landscapes, we increasingly experience the world as a network of ‘nodes and connectors’: homes and highways, airports and flight routes, websites and links, as anthropologist Tim Ingold points out. (p255)

 
 
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Counter-culture

Impromptu trails, like those cutting across grass in parks and on university campuses, are called desire lines. (p17)

A shortcut is a kind of geographic graffiti, pointing out the authoritarian failure to predict our needs and police our desires. Wise designers sculpt with desire, not against it. (p18)

Conservationist generally fight to protect blocks of land, while historian Lamar Marshall fought to conserve geographic lines (in reference to Native American Cherokee trails). (p165)

One of the the thru hikers Moor met along the way told him: “Most people live in civilization and visit the woods, but when you’re thru-hiking, you’re out in the woods and visiting civilization.” (p234)

Concluding Thoughts

“There are many ways to love a landscape.” (p295)

This book, in its admittedly oblique and winding way, has been a search for the wisdom of trails. It is deeply human, and has tremendous bearing on our personal and collective future. (p331)