I’ve been reading Wendell Berry’s excellent book, The World-Ending Fire, in particular the bit about how a bunch of 18th century Americans made a new road as a replacement for an ancient, meandering native Indian path. And it’s made me think about the differences between paths and roads, between getting places quickly, and dawdling. And about how that might relate to the way we connect with each other in this fast-paced world of ours.
Berry writes very eloquently about paths. And he’s very scathing about roads…
A path, says Berry, is the perfect way to travel across country at human speed. If the path encounters obstacles, it goes around them; it follows the contours of the land, and by travelling along the path you can take in and enjoy all the wonderful sights and sounds of the countryside. It is an experience that ‘grounds’ you in the landscape. And you often want to stop and admire the view on a path. Or squeeze under a barbed wire fence to go and see the bluebells.
A road or motorway, on the other hand, is purely a means of getting from A to B, in the shortest possible time. It ‘shrinks’ the landscape; it doesn’t encourage dawdling; it’s only purpose is haste and efficiency.
Berry describes a road as something that ‘serves the needs of anxiety, and destroys anything that gets in the way, be that trees, hills, or even sometimes farms and homes’. They are, in his words, the ‘ultimate in engineering sophistication’, but the ‘crudest possible evaluation of life in this world’.
I told you he has strong views!
So where does connection and communication come into all this?
Well, if we’re thinking about how we communicate with each other today, you could say that all of our digital platforms are like roads or motorways. You definitely don’t dawdle or meander on a motorway; you have to be fast — ideally as fast as everyone else. And like motorways, digital messages are written fast and sent quickly and are usually replied to quickly as well.
Older forms of communication on the other hand, like the letter, have many similarities to footpaths. The technology behind them hasn’t changed for thousands of years; you often meander from topic to topic in a letter; they are slow to get to their destination, and replies come only when the writer is ready, sometimes weeks later.
But like footpaths, these characteristics are what I think give letters their incredible richness. The fact that, like on a footpath, you can easily go ‘off-piste’ when you’re writing one — even if you start out trying to convey a certain idea or message to your friend, you almost always end up taking a weird (and often funny) detour or two, because you are writing at a much slower, human speed than you would on a phone. Your train of thought wanders just like your brain wanders.
All this dawdling, diverting and stopping-and-starting are what make letters one of the most satisfying forms of communication we have today. Even with all of our incredible technical wizardry, we haven’t been able to better the experience. They are so satisfying; they are often read many times (who reads a Facebook post more than once?); and when you’ve read them, they are rarely thrown away, but stored in cardboard boxes in attics to be pored over by future generations.
In our fast-paced, no-dawdling culture, we do well to remember the value of slowing down and taking the old ways — on footpaths through the woods, and with our communication. Because that’s where unexpected joy and real connection lie.