“Every road is a story of striving: for profit, for victory in battle, for discovery and adventure, for survival and growth, or simply for livability. Each path reflects our desire to move and connect. Anyone who has benefited from a better road — a shorter route, a smoother and safer drive — can testify to the importance of good roads. But when humans strive, we also err, and it is hard to build without destroying.” — Ted Conover, from The Routes of Man.
Memorial Day weekend has traditionally been one of the busiest on our nation’s highways. Lots of us will have vacation destinations on our minds, but it’s worthwhile thinking about that ribbon of blacktop you’re cruising over. Roads make our socities hum, but they are also one of the most significant marks man leaves on the natural landscape.
Ted Conover’s The Routes of Man: Travels in the Paved World is a wonderful book that explores human byways in Peru, East Africa, China, Nigeria, the Himalayas, and along the West Bank. As one reviewer commented, “Conover thoughtfully explores how roads, especially in rapidly changing countries, are contested boundary lines where the demands of the environment, traditional cultures…and industrial progress collide.”
For a historic perspective from the States, we can also recommend a new popular history of the American Interstate system from the past century: Earl Swift’s The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways (pictured above) — a breeze of a read that describes the conflicting emotions and mixed blessings of the greatest public works project in our history.
Roads really are a fascinating nuanced topic, and the Land Library is lucky to have more books such as these!
Driven Wild: How the Fight Against Automobiles Launched the Modern Wilderness Movement by Paul S. Sutter (roads & the automobile as prime motivators for early Wilderness advocates such as Robert Marshall, Aldo Leopold, and Benton MacKaye), Roadless Rules: The Struggle for the Last Wild Forests by Tom Turner (the back-and-forth saga of roadless areas in our National Forests).
And lastly, on the not so subtle differences between a path and a road:
The Land Library’s Book Club is currently reading a selection of essays from Wendell Berry’s The Art of the Commonplace. We loved this surprising and insightful passage!
“The difference between a path and a road is not only the obvious one. A path is little more than a habit that comes with knowledge of a place. It is a sort of ritual of familiarity. As a form, it is a form of contact with a known landscape. It is not destructive. It is the perfect adaptation, through experience and familiarity, of movement to place; it obeys the natural contours; such obstacles as it meets it goes around. A road on the other hand, even the most primitive road, embodies a resistance against the landscape. Its reason is not simply the necessity for movement, but haste. Its wish is to avoid contact with the landscape; it seeks so far as possible to go over the country, rather than through it; its aspiration, as we see clearly in the example of our modern freeways, is to be a bridge; its tendency is to translate place into space in order to traverse it with the least effort. It is destructive, seeking to remove or destroy all obstacles in its way.” — Wendell Berry, from his essay A Native Hill.