Who is not a fan of nature trails? They provide an opportunity to connect with the natural world, to see, hear, smell and touch the glories of nature, and be surrounded by them. Thoreau famously said, “In wildness is the preservation of mankind.”
There are studies that demonstrate that a walk-in nature sustains us, lowers blood pressure, elevates mood, and is good for our general well-being. So we celebrate these pathways to the natural world: we establish them, and try to expand their networks when possible, we protect them, we prune their borders and generally keep them safe. All to the good…
But there may be a bit of a downside to nature trails as well. There are studies that document that paths through natural areas are not always benign: they tend to compact the soil, add to erosion, attract invasive species, allow for disturbances to wildlife, and create edges that subtly change the original, unbroken, inaccessible ecology.
I am not here arguing against nature trails. I would have more and more of them if it were up to me. The more contact with nature people have the more they care about it and the more they care about it the more they will work (and vote) to save it.
But I do want to talk about a different kind of nature path- not the established trail with signage and maintained borders, but the more natural, unnamed pathways that just seem to exist in the woods. Perhaps you know of one.
I am on one right now. It winds and meanders and follows its own way. It has its own logic. It is not the shortest route to anywhere. There is no to and there is no from. Or, if there was once an origin or a destination, they are long since gone. Perhaps it is a game trail. Perhaps Native Americans established it, or early settlers. I know of one trail in Provincetown’s woods that was originally- a good hundred years ago- a track for carts bringing cranberries back from the dunes. I read that an early exploring party of the Pilgrims got hopelessly lost in the thick forests by East Harbor: the woods were that dense, and there were no trails. Does the little trail I am on have such a lofty lineage?
It twists and turns and skirts the deeper woods and isolated vegetated wetlands. It has bearberry borders and a sandy bottom covered by browning pine needles- a joy to walk on. The trail is only two or three feet wide, trammeled but not tamed. It is organic, for want of a better word, and I feel a part of the natural world that feeds my soul. I hope you too have a trail of your own.