“Make your own path”; “pathfinder”; “trailblazer”; “path-breaking”; “the road less travelled” …
Our language has many words and phrases for the notion of navigation, and in particular for the notion of following an existing path or trying a new path, exploring and marking and creating a way to do things.
And often, as I’m walking, that notion is buried in a romantic corner of my brain – the idea that the path I’m walking is new in some way, that I’m the first person that day, that month, that year, or even, ever, who’s walked in that particular place.
It’s naive of course. Over more than 10,000 years of North American habitation, it’s very low odds that I’m the only person who’s stood in a given spot. But I feel it sometimes, that sense of specialness or uniqueness. I want to believe that I’m unique in my connection to a path or a place.
And yet I know that people have been here long before me. Walking about, I see signs of history and settlement. The very path I’m on is often the surest sign – the street or road or old railway line trail is man-made, so clearly I’m just another visitor that place.
Walking in a forest, “off the beaten path” as the saying goes, is perhaps less travelled but is still unlikely to be untravelled. A given scenic view or water course or hill or beach or meadow has probably attracted someone else’s attention at some point – if I think it’s a lovely spot then more than likely someone else has too.
It’s deeply moving for me, however, to imagine myself in the figurative shoes of that person who’s gone before. When, how long ago? What was the weather like? What did this spot look like then? What did the air smell like, what bird song did they hear, was there a tang of woodsmoke or a whiff of wild berries?
My education and upbringing put a far greater emphasis upon the recorded history of habitation – and who wrote the records but the Europeans who came to Canada a few hundred years ago? My schooling had nary a word written by or reflecting the stories and lives of the First Nations who were here thousands of years previously. Today I walk paths named, for the most part, by the late-comers – Cornwallis Street in Lunenburg, the Gaff Point Trail, the Harbour Walk, and sometimes in an aside to the previous inhabitants, names that echo that earlier existence more than acknowledge it.
But I wonder about the users of these paths, this land, before late-comers like me. In who’s footsteps do I walk? What would they say about the world I see now? What would they say about me?