Field Notes from Assisi: An Excerpt is a section from a larger multi-genre project that explores women’s connection to land, ecology and history through the places we long to go and the places we have been challenged in. Desire paths are short cuts, crossings, bike routes, and, as British essayist Robert Macfarlane says, ‘paths and tracks made over time by the wishes and feet of walkers’. We explore these paths both as metaphors and as real paths women have desired to walk where their bodies and lived experiences may or may not have been welcome.
Keywords: women, desire paths, environment, navigation, Anthropocene
For the space of three weeks during the summer of 2019, we travelled from our homes in western Canada to London, and from there on to Assisi and Venice. The focus of our trip was a collaborative exploration of the ways in which women move through and experience place, history, and the fulfillment or denial of their desires for path-finding and path-making.
We began exploring the concept of desire paths as unplanned routes after reading The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot by Robert Macfarlane and being inspired by his metaphorical language and physical explorations of ancient routes and desire paths. In navigating his text, we connected with his perception of landscape as offering us ‘keen ways of figuring ourselves to ourselves, strong means of shaping memories and giving form to thought’ (2013: 193). Yet at the same time, as women from different countries and backgrounds, we began to question the relative ease with which Macfarlane moved through space, any time of day or night, without needing to check in at home or question the ease of his travel. We became increasingly interested in the many ways in which navigation along desire paths and remote routes is made more complicated for women.
In this piece, our concept of ‘landscape’ is largely grounded in the medieval paths and lanes of walled Assisi, moving out to address the lands we live on in Alberta’s boreal forest and British Columbia’s Vancouver Island.
Our journey evolved from the following three focal points:
- To examine what it is to follow desire paths through space and time as women, with specific attention to what has changed in the ways in which we navigate our desire paths and how those shifts manifest in our lives;
- To explore rights of access to desire paths in the Anthropocene, considering both carbon footprints and fraught colonial history; and
- To contrast the type of navigation possible on urban versus rural desire paths and the considerations that arise depending on the kind of space we are navigating.
Our intent is not to force a comparison between women and the land that implies any innate connection to nurturance. Instead we wish to interrogate the ways in which a sense of agency has been removed from discussions of women and land, of existence, action, and belonging for our own sakes. In this collaborative text, we explore the rights and experiences of women on the land in the Anthropocene. What follows is a collection of multidisciplinary response-collages taking the form of interviews, miniature essays, and poems that interrogate the ways in which we move through space and across land as women from different ethnic backgrounds.
Desire Paths: An Illumination
We were inspired by Fanny Umphelby’s The Child’s Guide to Knowledge (1825), in which she uses the elucidarium format to open a series of interconnected questions that develop a child’s understanding of the world. We replicate her approach through a Q and A format in which we begin to contemplate women, desire paths, travel, and home. The Q and A are field notes; they are routes into a deep exploration of subject. Field notes are notes on ideas as a kind of evidence that gives meaning and aids in the understanding of a phenomenon.
Q: What are desire paths?
JA: Desire paths are routes across the landscape that make use of instinct and impulse, instead of hardscape and rules.
YA: They are paths to places we want to go. Places that are unmarked, perhaps, or internal. Routes backward, too, through time. To go or to return. Desire paths are also memory paths to locate ourselves in time and physically in space.
JA: Women need to find paths forward from where we have been, to find equality for the female body in the landscape. Also, we are impelled to know the past and find the voices that travel with us. Women are polyphonous on our desire paths. We learn as we travel, exploring, listening, learning to listen.
YA: Learning what we don’t know or what we can’t see on the path ahead.
Pursuing desire paths is also about addressing our place in colonial history as settlers. As settlers, we are missing the going-back part, the ancestral connection that we may have to our place of origin. We lose the cyclical nature of relationship to place, and to memory. Desire paths are as much a movement forward as a looping back to try to find connections to our past and how they relate to our current path. I wonder if, without those connections, or when they are forgotten, it is easier to mark the earth and, over time, to do the damage we’ve done. With changes in our relationship to the environment, I begin to wonder about the right to pursue desire paths and how to negotiate new paths in the natural world on a planet overpopulated by humans.
Q: What is the purpose of desire paths?
JA: The purpose of desire paths is to address an immediate need in regard to navigating space and time, whether out of expediency or curiosity.
YA: Desire paths are not purely functional. In fact, are they more meaningful if they are less functional?
Q: How so?
YA: If we are literally on a path walking somewhere to get from A to B, it’s purely functional. If it’s meandering, it’s more meaningful: journey versus destination. I like both, that there’s a destination, but we’re open to the meandering. I don’t know if I ever just meander. I wonder if it is possible to just meander, or whether the destination is always in mind? I wonder if, in history, men have always had a destination, or whether they have meandered?
Q: How often do we simply meander?
JA: Not often, and we find it tricky to do (all of us, not solely women). I frequently send my creative writing students out on a wandering exercise where they cannot set a route, monitor time, have a destination in mind, or otherwise plan their walk beforehand. They can only navigate through space and interact with the world as they find it, observing throughout their interaction with place, with others, and their emotions along the way. They find it terrifically hard to do this, not having the ability to set borders in time or space. The resulting writing is often beautiful or contemplative, but can at times remain abstract or amorphous; they don’t know how to structure the creative work around a time that is not bounded. They struggle to give the work parameters.
YA: It’s as though, without linear imposition, they (we) lose narrative cohesiveness. That physical destination or destiny creates a way of shaping what we think or how we think. Is this something cultural? I don’t know.
JA: I do think it’s partly cultural; in the West, we seem to fixate on destination and to dislike circling back. (And I will clarify that I mean non-Indigenous cultures here, as most Indigenous cultures possess a strong sense of the importance and presence of the past.) I think of the Western ‘Stages of Grief’ process — it’s linear and narrative, and it moves forward consistently. It doesn’t recognize the need for feedback loops, for retreading the same ground over and over through a life to glean new learnings from those repetitions. If we’re not moving forward, we seem to get paralyzed. Path-making, progress, appears at times to only move in one direction. Recovery isn’t propelled in this sort of way, and neither is learning. I’m sure this translates to our approach to moving through space, too. Especially as women. We have so few opportunities to move forward as we want, let alone loop back over the same ground.
Q: Think back to the other night, when we suddenly found ourselves in an unlit public park around midnight and turned back. Would we feel comfortable if we set off on a path, and we didn’t stop or plan, even if we came to a place where, previously, we’d stopped and changed direction?
YA: In a space where I’m not comfortable and don’t want to continue, I stop because safety trumps curiosity. If we removed the human element, the concern that someone might be sleeping in the dark corners of the park, I still may not want to continue on that path, partly because the ground underfoot has changed. Or perhaps it reminds me of somewhere else.
JA: We are circumscribed on desire paths by past experiences, too. As women, we are alert to situations where we have felt vulnerable in the past, and that necessarily impacts how we navigate through similar spaces in the present.
Q: How do you know when you are on the path?
JA: A cage opens in the heart centre when I’m on the path, and especially when I know men are not nearby. So much of my desire path is tied to men, not to things or animals. I’ve been deeply impacted by men’s desires acting on and compromising my own in the past, and so being on my own desire path is indicated in my body by a shift from head to heart, from the sort of calculation I do on a moment-to-moment basis when navigating the world around men to a relieved openness. I’m so aware of it that I can tell you exactly when it’s happening. It’s a little wild, and it feels like the air has changed. It feels like breathing and moving through space in a different way.
YA: There’s a kind of opening in the centre. My body in space is no longer limited. I feel like it can happen in a library as well, or on a mountaintop. It can happen in my studio. And it’s fleeting. It happens on my bicycle, too. Everything else flying away. Feels like light. But I hear what you are saying about men. To have the path to oneself feels open and free and gives the very act of being a lightness; to encounter a male on the path feels dangerous. As dangerous as a bear, perhaps. I had a recent experience when I was walking and a shirtless man on a bicycle changed direction to speak to me, to be noticed by me. My first thought was, why couldn’t he just sail along in his own space? Why enter mine?
Q: Where are we walking existing desire paths, and where are we cutting new ones?
JA: I wonder if, in an urban area, we are following paths already set, even if they are shortcuts? Where is the room for desire when it comes to navigating urban spaces?
YA: I’m thinking about not leaving a path as I walk from my house to my studio for aesthetic reasons (to not mark the grass), but is that also a way of making my desire path invisible?
JA: I build desire paths at our farm. The path to my memory garden goes out from the front door of the cabin; I chose the route and made the path myself. It is the most important path for me, and I can invite my husband to walk it with me or not.
YA: In not marking the grass and not making a path to my studio, is this also an invitation to my family to stay away, not to follow me there? I try to step in different places each time to not mark a route, like hiding my tracks.
JA: It’s a little different for me at the farm. I created the path to my memory garden with the intent of being the sole user of the path, unless I invite others. Walking that path over a series of years has been a process of healing from the grief of losing my children.
YA: Not making a path is protective — hiding one’s tracks to hide the route and not be seen. Creating a path and taking ownership of it, shaping how that space is used, is a reversal of how we are defining desire paths.
Q: Is a desire path necessarily a physical path, or …
JA: No. It’s any desire path; it could be physical/tangible or abstract/metaphorical, I think. It’s that space or moment when I feel my agency in the world trumps my fear.
Q: What pulls you off the path?
YA: Facebook (laughs). The dailiness of things, though they in themselves are another kind of path. Doubt.
Q: About what?
YA: If I belong on it.
Q: As a woman or as a person in general?
Q: For a woman, how
is might the path be different unique? the experience of finding desire paths be different?
YA & JA: (We just navigated our way into this question and spent as much time perfecting our wording as we’ve spent creating all the other questions together. We are navigating our way into our doubt here [maybe?]. We are navigating how we are received; we’re thinking of an audience and how to ask how it is for us as women.)
After restless nights of work at our residency with our ideas colliding at times, we did some writing to locate ourselves in the landscape of desire paths.
The Trail Forks: Our Mothers and Desire Paths
My mom died two years, four months, and nine, ten, fifteen days ago. Her desire then, though many of her memories were gone, was to leave the path, be finally free of the pull and tug of life and its desires.
I imagine her in her late twenties, her fast shorthand, her 60s dresses, short and patterned in blue daisies, her thick, dark mop of curly brown hair. She worked as a manager for Dunlop Rubber in Rhodesian Bulawayo. Lived with her parents again after a terrible marriage and divorce that would have left her fragile, emotionally abused, and desiring a better path, but wondering if she deserved it.
At some point, she met my dad.
Because of his work, I guess, he’d see her home of an evening, say he’d see her or call the next day, then all but vanish for a week or more at a time.
I know she disliked his disappearing acts, how they must have left her feeling uncertain and fragile. How that feeling rose in resentment when he’d leave for his week-long sailing trips in the 70s and 80s. He worked in sales for Air Liquid, was seemingly always on the road, driving from some small Albertan town or city. She worked part-time in Edmonton. They were raising two girls in Sherwood Park, and he’d flit off to the coast for a week following wind and surf and his own paths of desire.
My dad’s love for my mom was pure and elemental as they neared their 78th year. As her ability to string a thought to its end became more and more difficult, her love for him bloomed in uncomplicated ways. Whatever she desired in her final months and days was on the path leading straight to him — love, familiarity, her memories held in his face and his voice.
She once told me how she left him and travelled by plane and ship back to England before they were married. I believe she visited Spain on her way, bought herself a beautiful Spanish shawl, which I now have, and a figurine of a Flamenco dancer, castanets in her tiny hands, red skirts flaring.
She travelled to Oswestry in England and met Dad’s parents and siblings.
Was she checking where the path might lead, I wonder, gathering some knowledge before stepping onto it with him?
I know she’d wanted to be a doctor. Could diagnose any of our ailments, but something her mother said about women stopped her. I know she did not want to leave the job she loved in Edmonton as secretary to a well-respected lawyer. My parents sold the Sherwood Park house three times, changing their minds back and forth before the final sale and our move to the west coast.
The path forks ahead. Risks and adventures shimmer like fallen stones along it. To choose is to leave one path behind and then to wonder, accept, regret, and grieve. Imagine all the forking paths we desire and leave and leave behind.
She is tall and slender, slim in a way that I will grow out of in my own body when I am 12 and muscular and unable to fit into her old hand-me-downs from her twenties. She is shy and fun when you get her alone or in a small group, fashionable and proud of it as an immigrant woman (or should I say refugee? She and her sister were running; her family was fleeing).
In all the early photos of her, she’s smiling quietly under a mop of 70s hair and oversized sunglasses, dressed impeccably in the kind of bellbottoms that would cause other people some sort of mortal tripping injury, or Marc Jacobs dresses, or platform shoes. She had a good job as a buyer for Marks and Spencer in London, on Baker Street. She was the sort of immigrant woman you could grudgingly admire: yes, she was African and Indian, but she was exotic and beautiful and so, so elegant. How she must have eclipsed my father, a clean-cut British country boy, his rural exuberance pitched against her so-obvious difference. How they would have fallen for one another — like, as my father would say, a ton of bricks.
When she met him, she gave up that life: London, and glamour, and being admired. She met my father, and her own father lost everything in Dar es Salaam around the same time. The remaining family fled the violence of a rapidly changing Tanzania and escaped, finally, to Canada. My mother met my father, and she lost her heart, as well as the chance to finish her education. Perpetual middle child, caught in limbo: her older sister would finish law school, would become a successful estate lawyer while being the single mother of a deaf daughter; my mother’s father would ‘make good’ again in Canada and put her younger brother and sister through university. My mother alone fell, silently and almost unnoticeably, through the cracks. She was forced to leave her education, the labs and lecture halls, unable to afford the ridiculous tuition charged to students from away. She met my father as her life stood on a knife edge. And she gave it all up, her hand forced, to live with him in the-middle-of-nowhere Norfolk, pregnant and coloured and visible as the sun.
For the rest of her life, she would drive two things into her daughters harder than any other. Get an education, at any cost. And never be beholden to a man.
Ghazals from Assisi: A Synthesis
The ghazal is a Persian form of poetry translated and altered into its English form. It came to Canada via American poets such as Adrienne Rich. In both the Persian and English versions, the poets often speak to themselves, and so it appealed as a form for a dialogue between the two of us. We co-wrote these poems, each writing a couplet and then trading pages. Quickly, we began to circle back on each other; we linked in, we were set in the same space and in constant conversation, so we were on the same path, as it were, while writing, at least spatially, and so we could encounter each other on the page. When we return to these pieces, a third voice rises from the page.
Ghazals are a perfect match for trail making and following. In each couplet, we are offering one another a way marker. This is what I’m thinking, one of us writes, and the other follows, and then sees the next object ahead on the path.
Desire paths etch Atlantic sky:
twin contrails heading west.
To fly is to follow a path written
and fast fading. The way laughter echoes.
Under our hands, waxed paper, oil pastel,
the etch and trace of centuries.
Our eyes trace paths: stone archways
now filled in. Electric wires that descend.
Time, too, a kind of road
chasing in on itself, looping, vulpine.
Changing perspective: window, wall, archway.
At home, I circumnavigate a field. Sky falls away.
The way sound clambers these laneways,
their rose-stone walls.
Where is that bell ringing from? Those bells.
Dog’s bark. Child’s wail. Cutlery thrown to tile floor.
Windows shuttered like eyes against the rain.
Evening. Houses fold inward,
yet voices rise. Some never quiet. Some never sleep.
Whatever home is, it beckons. A bell’s chime.
If every path is a flight away — heat rises.
Coo of pigeon. Crow’s dropped thread of song.
Everywhere, the rock doves chirring.
Our voices a threat, come from away.
Along paths between olive groves — sudden silence —
cicada’s brief breath held. We pass.
What clamour, these bells! Jester jangling,
rust rattling in tower sockets.
Potted plants hooked in precarious stone
green this space. We amble-slide down rain-dark paths.
For every plane, what cost?
A rainforest, coastline, species.
Keeping vigil, these pigeons march atop citadel walls.
They know what storms humans bring.
The way a deluge strikes, recedes.
The way humans strike.
And what’s living withdraws,
draws in. Silenced, this world in our wake.
Pigeons recede, bats, cicadas. Evening,
and the wind’s lone breath.
Garbage: rusted tin, flattened bottle,
dropped tissue: my mom left a trail behind her.
How we mine the past for value. Discard
the difficult, artefacts that pry at conscience.
Value – a hard word in this commodified world.
Heron. Flying squirrel. Eggert’s sunflower. Peregrine falcon.
Writing as witness, protest, dirge. Our eyes
pinned open. Our spirits splayed.
There she goes — water drop to river; voice
to woman on trail, not picking flowers, not picking. Debris.
Postscript: A Return
It takes me some time to process coming back, coming home. My emotions are scattered and raw in returning to the land, to my writing work, and to the relationships I hold here.
From Italy in July, I go back to the small organic farm I run with my husband at the very southern skirt of the great boreal forest that skims from northern Alberta up to the Arctic. Through the month of August, I shift my mind from Italy’s shimmering heatwave skies to the cool, dark spruce and the endless rain that has become our climate-changed summer in the north. Where we once had countless days of heat, we now have week after week of heavy rain. Crops that formerly ripened without effort now mould in the fields. All around our farm, neighbours are selling up and moving out. I come home deeply conflicted about air travel and all it means for the rapidly altering climate of our world, and intensely aware of how this change plays out on the land I love.
I come home torn in my own desire paths of work and relationship, too. I am a writer who has never been able to write full time, not even part time, who has always had to carry a 9–5 day job in order to support my husband and help our two families. My husband retired early after three decades of part-time work and parental care, and we cannot survive if I do not work. My desire path for my writing is crammed into the interstices between the work of the day and the work of grading papers — and the work of a body that is often too tired to make best use of the time scraps that remain. For nine months of the year, I surrender my writing and try to weather the pummeling of unsaid words behind my sternum. I wonder if men have this depth of resignation.
The land I love is a place I manage with my husband; my own work is a place circumscribed by the need to support him. I often feel as though I would like to be able to move in the world without needing this connection, but I am aware at each instance of how a coloured female body is impacted, especially in rural Alberta, especially in an isolated farming community. At the same time that I would love to find a balance for myself and my life between teaching and writing, I am also aware of a need to support a partner I care for who keeps me safe. And I am deeply cognizant of how rare it is for a coloured woman to hold a high-paying job, and the depth of privilege that my teaching work gives me over coloured collleagues who have been unable to attain, or have been kept out of, similar positions.
Desire paths circumscribed by my skin, my gender, rerouted by my connection to a white man, to a piece of beautiful wild land in a white conservative county. To a place that frightens me in its inability to award me agency, to a marriage and a day job that do not see the layers of racialised privilege inherent within them.
Two and a half months after returning from Assisi, I sit through the beautiful, intimate wedding ceremont of a former student who is marrying the Ghanaian love of his life and moving back to his small Alberta hometown – the same town near which my husband and I have our farm. She talks with me at the reception about these shared fears of isolation and dependence, joy and circumscription. Radical right-wing farming country and her coloured face, the pressures on a young mixed-race relationship. I tell her she’s always welcome to come and spend some time if she needs a safe place to set things down awhile. That my husband and I are walking the same path, and that we can always offer company.
I hold all of these paths in my mind. I think of all of us women, our desires for agency and safety beyond what our faces afford us.
I come back from Assisi and I fall over these roles, these strategic blocks. They are constantly under my feet, requiring ongoing awareness I am at times too tired to possess. I try to navigate. More often than not, it’s a tipping point between navigating and going down.
‘I’ especially wrestles with gender roles, conjuring the bland duties of adulthood and the stresses of motherhood: ‘Disposable as instrument, / I sings herself hoarse’. Kevin Young quoting Eliza Griswold in The New Yorker, 23 September 2019.
If desire paths have to do with place, then … undulation and patterns on water is the way home, crossing the Salish Sea. Ocean the colour of mottled glass. Sea glass. A blue cork bobbing and rolling on waves is borne by the patterns of tide. Me? Wind-blown, salt-scented.
If desire paths have to do with following your creative work, then … two months after Jenna and I return to our respective homes, after I drive and float my path home, I am away again for the month of October at a residency in central British Columbia. Again, I am literally walking new paths, up roads and trails onto rounded brush-covered hillsides above lakes and dog parks and a small valley-nestled city. Each day, I am working and creating. This time, solo.
I return to the question we asked but did not quite answer, about how the experience of finding desire paths might be different for women. I have a teenaged son with special needs, and I am away to work. To lay on the table two distinct piles: in one, my desires as a writer and the paths I long to explore, and on the other: the path of motherhood, being a wife and daughter, being a member of my community, being present and reliably there for my son and anyone else who might need me. These two cannot be reconciled. All I can do is make a choice to leave and work, and then live in that choice for the time being.
Is this the same for men? I do not know. I wonder if they are as hard on themselves for making the choice to retreat. I wonder if in a new space they are harassed by women as I am by men. Do the men who just speak in passing, who seem to want to be noticed, know they startle me? Do they care? These men’s desire to be noticed may be an act of friendliness. What if it is not? Could they not just leave me to walk and not comment?
I Skype with my husband and son. Both are mostly fine and proud of me for working. But I do not sleep, and inside me is a longing to end the separation and drive home. Late morning, a friend texts to tell me how well my son is doing. Stay, she says, stay.
Near rivers and lakes in the interior, I am checking the horizon for the curve of blue meeting blue. I am following unknown paths to unknown destinations. I am tracking the landscape for approaching human forms on quiet paths above the city. Also, I am sniffing the air for salt and listening for the riggings, a gull’s arching, wicked call, though I am inland. I am looking to navigate land by where the water is, and here, the water is sweet, not the salty Pacific. Where am I? My spine a dousing rod. I am looking to find my place and path. I am attempting to give myself permission to follow it.
Lousley, C 2015 ‘Dionne Brand’s environmental poetics’, TOPIA Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies 34: 39–61
Macfarlane, R 2013 The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, London: Hamish Hamilton
Macfarlane, R 2015 Landmarks, London: Hamish Hamilton
Umphelby, F 1825 The Child’s Guide to Knowledge, London: Simpkin, Marshall