There are points when one can hear the loud *K’-CHUNK* signifying one of the teeth in the cogs behind the great wheel of the seasons advancing forward another notch, and over the last two nights, that loud sound has been in the form of winds that whip up after the sun has gone down. It’s still been very hot during the days lately, but the nights are getting colder.
I was just out in that night, and when I set out, it was still fairly light, but once I arrived at my first destination, it was already dark. I had a second destination, and then walked onwards from there home again, and noticed what I’ve always noticed on any walk anywhere in this part of the world: the streets are not made for pedestrians. Suddenly, as one walks, the sidewalk will suddenly end (thanks a lot, Shel Silverstein–this is all your doing!), and will either toss one into a ditch, onto the paved street, or there may be a fence or hedge or some other obstruction in one’s way. There are not adequate street lights for someone like me, who despite being light-sensitive, still does need some illumination to make out the hidden depths of the roads, the heights of the sidewalks, and so forth. It is not particularly safe for people to be out walking in this town at night, not because someone might mug them or anything, but because you might fall down. As a result, I was one of only two people I saw out on the street this evening. Everyone else was either in cars if they were out, or indoors. (And whether or not there is a deliberate lack of sidewalks, streetlights, and so forth in order to deter people from walking the relatively short distances that I traversed tonight so that auto makers and oil companies can eat that much more of the world’s income and resources, I’ll leave aside for the moment…but, needless to say, I suspect that may be the case pretty damned strongly.)
However, last week, I was also thinking about roads, paths, and road safety when I was walking somewhere during the day. My destination was about another half mile to a mile further than where I went tonight, and I walked the whole way there (but not the way back–luckily, there were buses to be had at that hour of the day). It was slightly uphill the whole way, and extremely hot, and the destination itself was just past what most people would call “the edge of town.” As a result, no sidewalks. I could have taken one route, which has a sidewalk for about 1/4 of the distance, but the overall distance was greater, so in the hot sun and with waning energies, I took the more direct route, along the main highway in and out of town, which has no sidewalks, and only a small bit of a shoulder. As I was walking along it, I noticed that not only was the non-paved part of the road rough, but it pretty much lead down a steep embankment. I skirted the shoulder as closely as I could, still allowing plenty of room should a huge semi go barreling through, and yet if I were to veer another two feet to my left, I’d have probably tripped on the sideways ground and gone tumbling down into the brambles.
Luckily, I didn’t, but anyway…
All of this, though, got me thinking about roads and paths, in the literal sense initially. Even outside of the excesses of the modern automobile and petroleum industries, roads have been an important piece of technology that has been around for thousands of years. All of the big empires decided roads were a good idea so that they could more easily travel long distances, not only as messengers and for transportation of goods, but also to move armies quickly and efficiently.
Certainly, the Romans are very well-known for having been road builders in Europe. Hadrian did not build the principal roads of Roman Britain, but he used them in eventually getting up north and building Hadrian’s Wall. Likewise, he build a major road to connect the Red Sea to the rest of Egypt that had as its starting-point Antinoöpolis, Antinous’ holy city. He was part of a long legacy of creating infrastructure that can be used for all sorts of things. The interstate highway system of the United States is also a part of this long tradition, and it wasn’t built so that it is easier to take road trips to Disneyland for the whole family, it was built toward the beginning of the Cold War so that the Army could be mobilized anywhere easily in the event of nuclear (and other) attacks on U.S. soil. No matter the technologies of warfare, some things never change. It’s hard to forget this, at least for me, because when I was younger, we’d travel to Eastern Washington to see my grandparents and other relatives in Spokane. And, about seven out of ten times making those trips, as we’d be going over Snoqualmie Pass, we’d see a military convoy, either on its way to or from Joint Base Lewis-McChord (a.k.a. JBLM), an Army-Air Force base south of Tacoma, WA. That, and not family vacations, or trucks carrying tomatoes from Mexico to Canada on I-5, is what got Eisenhower to convince Congress that an interstate highway system was a good idea. But since not a lot of people see military convoys these days, or have any contact with such things, this fact has entirely slipped by most people.
However, an indictment of the military-industrial complex is also not what I’m intent upon doing here (though, you can cover the appropriate spots on your Bingo sheets if you are playing the home game along with us!), so we’ll leave that aside for the moment.
On a more metaphorical level, the images of “ways,” of “paths,” of “bridges” (which are needed for roads to function properly in most cases), and less frequently, of “roads” specifically, are all used to describe religious practices and ways of life. Taoism is, itself, a practice that is known as “The Way,” and the first verse of the Tao Te Ching says “The Tao that can be trodden is not the eternal and unchanging Tao” (and various variations in translation). Zen practice as well partakes of these notions directly from Taoism, and in fact short-circuits some of those by suggesting that Zen isn’t “The Way,” but is only “the way to The Way.” And even Christianity called itself “The Way” before it was known as Christianity. Jainism’s tirthankaras are “ford-builders/finders,” which is to say, people who make a difficult part of one’s path to cross that much easier and safer. So, ways and paths are pretty endemic to how we think about religious practices generally speaking. One doesn’t go very far in paganism, either, without hearing people talk about “my path” and so forth. Also, think about how often people refer to the phrase of “walking one’s talk,” which is to say, walking the path, and walking in a particular style on that path, that one discusses all the time. Needless to say, it’s very difficult to separate the notion of a spiritual practice from thinking in terms of paths, ways, and ultimately of roads.
People in paganism do like the term “path,” though…and I wonder why that is. Often, a kind of “forest path” is what is envisioned, a path up a mountain, something that is rough, that perhaps a few people have traveled before, but something which isn’t paved or signposted very well, perhaps. It seems that much more “natural” to think of it in these terms than it does to think about what the reality of it is where some pagan paths are concerned. Wicca is a path only insofar as a superhighway with lots of exits and on-ramps lined with fast food joints and Wal-Marts on them is also “a path,” and comparatively speaking, when put next to a number of other forms of modern paganism, that is what Wicca looks like when some other paths practiced by individuals or very small groups still resemble a barely-discernible way through the underbrush of a forest.
And polytheism is another story altogether…
But, the thing about “paths,” no matter how small they are or how few people follow them, is that one is only a pathfinder once. After that, one isn’t a pathfinder unless one is still looking for other destinations or avenues, so to speak, of getting from one place to another; after that, one is a path-follower, or perhaps even a leader of others down a particular path, but not a pathfinder.
Religiously speaking, once a pathfinder has found the path in question, and has cleared parts of it and trodden bits of it, and hence has “founded” a religious practice in addition to finding the path, then they may find that others want amenities along the path. A little cleared-out spot for resting, a wayside area where a shrine can be built next to an impressive tree stump, perhaps a bench here and there or a lamppost, or maybe line this part of the path here with stones so that it looks nicer. All of those things that result from people traveling a path and having their own input on it helps to improve the path, make it more accessible and aesthetically appealing to others, and hopefully facilitates people using it and getting to their intended destinations. I think you can see where I’m going with that…
However, there will eventually come a time when someone might say, “Yes, I know that our ancestors and the pathfinders went this particular way, and it kind of meanders back and forth through this gully and over that small hill, but why not just make a more direct path through here? It will be shorter that way.” Then one gets road-builders. There are often a variety of good reasons for wanting to get to a destination much more directly, efficiently, and quickly. But in doing so, what ends up happening is that two processes have to occur: 1) the lower bits of the terrain have to be raised; 2) the higher bits of the terrain have to be flattened. Yes, it is always possible to build a road so that it doesn’t flatten or raise the terrain, or that it at least follows it, but try telling that to the people who say “Pavement costs this much per mile for a two-lane road, and routing the traffic around an extra ten miles when we could just cut through two miles makes better business sense,” and what you end up with is a motorway through the vicinity of the Hill of Tara in Ireland. (Cut back to the discussion above about industrial capitalism and so forth…)
And yet, even if one is not a road-builder, and just remains a humble and simple pathfinder, let’s be honest: you’re not going to lead the path down into a swampy pond where people can get stuck and drown, nor are you going to lead it up to a sheer rock face and expect people to climb to get to the next part, especially if you haven’t told them to bring special safety equipment, or to have left every bit of baggage they’re carrying with them behind before embarking on the path. Take that both metaphorically and literally if you like, it works either way…
There are choices to be made in pathfinding as much as there is in road-building, and ultimately one is a species of the other.
What really becomes interesting, though, is that one is the pathfinder only once. When one is the pathfinder and travels that path again and again, one might remember all of the things that happened when that path was found the first time–the birds singing in that glade over there, the deer who were followed for some distance along those particular stretches of the path, the turtle who turned up on this rock that the path goes right by, and so on; and, in later travels on the path, other things might happen as well: this tree blew over since the last time we came down this way, a particularly beautiful sunset was visible through these trees on this occasion, someone left a paisley tie on this low-hanging branch, we met these other people who were taking a different path and going elsewhere but we shared part of the path with them, and so forth. THat is the experience of the pathfinder on their own, every time they travel that path.
If another person or group of people who are closely involved with the pathfinder then travel the path soon after, their experience of the path is going to be very different indeed. They’re not going to know about the deer or the birds or the turtle, but if the pathfinder tells them about them, then they might put a little informational plaque there about it, or perhaps even commission an artist from among them to make a little turtle statue to put there, or write a song about the birds in that glade, and so on. The path is always going to look a lot more path-like to those who come on it later than the pathfinder themselves the first time they find it. It may still appear to be a dirt path to the pathfinder after traveling it twenty or thirty times, but the first time someone else comes along it, it’s going to look paved and better sign-posted.
After those further path walkers have been doing it for a while, and another one joins them, they’re not going to see a forest path at all, they’re going to see a proper paved road, which will get much more directly to its intended locations without going up or down in elevation, nor taking any longer scenic routes to pass by certain places (when instead a straight line will just get them wherever, and exits will be conveniently sign-posted), and their road might course in both directions to accommodate traffic coming and going, while also having intersections with other paths, and it will even have amenities sited along it at various places. The turtle sculpture installation is not going to be an interesting wayside art piece to them, it’s going to be Turtle-Land, a place where a festival occurs once a year, with songs and people dressed as turtles and special games that take place only there and only then. And so on and so forth. They will not have to go down and get dirty on the rocks near where the turtle originally walked, they’ll just have to join the queue, and perhaps pay the admission fee, to go visit Turtle-Land.
If the original pathfinder is around to hear all of this, they might be very surprised that someone just goes to Turtle-Land and think they know all about it, when they may in fact have no idea why Turtle-Land is in the place it is or when it is, or what really happened all those years ago with the turtle. They may be upset that the particular features of their original path have become flattened out and raised up in certain places, and that what perhaps took them days to travel the first time now only takes others a few hours at most.
Do you see what I mean with all of this?
One of the things we talk about in modern polytheism is that we hate to see things flattened out, not only in our literal landscapes, but also in our approaches to walking a path with our Deities, Ancestors, and other Divine Beings in mind–whether in pursuit of them, or in company with them, or sometimes both, or sometimes neither. What is difficult and unusual shouldn’t be flattened out, we tend to think, because there is something useful in negotiating those high places, and going over or around them as needs be, and having the choice about doing so when such places are approached. Not having the choice about it due to flattening it out seems a great disgrace to the place itself, or to the experience itself in many of our eyes. And, most of us have not had too many problems thus far (though I certainly have) of things being raised up instead of flattened out. In my extended conceit here, if the flattening out actions that we fear are the streamlining and decontextualizing of important divine experiences (the “peaks,” if you like) that have nothing to do with us, then what the raising up of the low areas might in fact be are the things that we experience that may be more of our own human experiences and dimensions that occur in this process, that have lead us into “low” places and valleys of shadow and uncertainty, and perhaps even on occasion stagnation as much as fertility, but they’re much more on the human side of the equation than the specifically divine side. When those parts become raised in road-building, the very real human experiences that lead to and through them are often forgotten; the long conversations, the difficult situations, the strange negotiations and experiments–successful as well as disastrous–that lead to arriving at a particular solution or position or insight are forgotten or downplayed, are made just as equal to those things that come from direct divine contacts (the “peaks,” remember!), and since those parts are raised just as the peaks are flattened out, the entirety becomes one rather similar path of a roughly congruent overall elevation, and what is human and what is divine in origins all becomes a median between them which those in the future follow in order to get to their destinations.
Now, you may be asking: “But PSVL, isn’t the most important thing that people get to their destinations?” Perhaps, yes. But, likewise, there is a great deal to be said for the journey itself. And that being the case, those peaks and valleys are important. If all of those peaks and valleys simply begin to look like “just the highway” to those who come later, then has something very important been lost, rather than the path leading through the valleys and up to the peaks?
It would be very easy to read the above and think, “Okay, so the answer is obviously to just throw out all the books, close down this (and all other) blogs, never read someone else’s devotional poetry or rituals or anything again, and get out there building one’s own path!” is what I’m suggesting. Let me be clear: I’m not. And, in saying so, I’m not saying either that some people are born or made pathfinders, and some people are constitutionally path-followers or road-travelers instead, and that one is better or worse than the others. Sometimes, it is better to get where one is going quickly than it is to hack through the underbrush to find the path; and very often, it is fucking crazy to hack through that underbrush, too, when one doesn’t know whether this part of the forest has the potential to become a path, or what–if anything–might occur there on the way…one never knows if instead of a nice deer or birds or turtles are going to cross the path, that instead there will be a rattlesnake there, and after one bite and being too far out in the woods, our intrepid pathfinder is never heard from again.
I’m taken back to my early college class on Asian mysticism–mostly Zen–by N. Robert Glass. We talked about “ways” as being good methods established by religious practices to do things, which covers the entire range of religious phenomena, from meditation techniques and ethics to theology and so forth. We also talked about “traces,” which in certain forms of Zen are thought of as patterns of thought (!?!) that leave their marks in memory or emotions, and which may in fact obscure the pure experience of whatever-it-is that might be in front of one at a given time, and thus may be impediments to an experience of satori at any given moment. At a certain point I asked Dr. Glass if there was any difference, therefore, between “a way” and “a trace,” and he said, after a moment’s pause, “I don’t think there probably is.” Or, to put it a different way, via Lin Chi, “if you see the Buddha on the side of the road, kill him.”
As someone who has been in the position–for good or ill–of having been a pathfinder in many different contexts, I’m very aware that this is the case, and that peaks get flattened and valleys get elevated; but, since most of the people who have been around and have trodden those paths with me have done so soon after they were originally trodden, or in some cases they came with me in finding the new parts of the path, we’re not quite to the place where those who also decide to tread these paths see a road rather than a path, and yet the flattening and the elevating can and does happen in small ways here and there. I try to make it known when I think someone is going too far in the direction of flattening or elevating, and I have done my very best to do neither of those myself…and yet, it is unavoidable to a degree.
I wasn’t sure that I’d be writing this tonight, or at all, but I did talk some of this over with Sarenth last week after the not-at-night walking incident occurred, and so I think it’s about time to just throw this out there as a potential thought piece. It has gone much longer than I had expected it to (big surprise–this is me, isn’t it?!?), and has taken some turns that I was also not anticipating, but I think it is all fair enough to look at and think about. As long as those of us who are in the position of being pathfinders keep some of these things in mind, we can hopefully avoid some of the worst excesses that can result from the flattening or the raising; but, we can only do so much.
I’ll be very interested in hearing your own thoughts on these matters, folks. :)