Desire Trails: Experiments in Reading the Land

This is the continuation of my story of coming into relationship with place (the first part can be found here). I moved from Mexico City to northern California earlier this year, and have been experimenting daily with new ways to converse , to experience and be experienced, by non-human forms of life. During the pandemic, homeward bound, silencing human voices, I have been infinitely graced by these encounters. I now cannot imagine my life without them.

I share this narrative with the hope that it can encourage you to do this for yourself, and share ways to discover exciting and intriguing new possibilities of how to walk into nature and observe the world around you.

Desire Trails: Experiments in Reading the Land

I slink like a bobcat through the roots. Barely perceptible, a glistening drop of sap hovers from a baby pine. It beckons to me with beady succulence. I wander over, warming to its nectar, touching it softy to the roof of my mouth.

I become intimate with the trees.

My first spring in these lands. Just when I thought I was becoming acquainted with the moods and textures of Oak and Douglas fir, there you’ll find me, stopped dead in my tracks, my perception broken open to yet another wondrous story. I had been stealing delighted nibbles of ripe citric fir tips right off the branches with my teeth when something firmly asked me to please look up.

I stared at a gigantic oak that stooped with contorted, scraggly arms. In just a few days, everything about it had changed. Its desolate and barren branches had suddenly sprouted into a magnificence of leprechaun green shoots that lit up the entire mountain. I looked around. Almost every oak in sight was engaged in this disrobing, this undressing of glossy luxurious proportions.

Tricksters! Your gnarled branches were secretly devising to give way into this? I hadn’t seen that one coming. The tender baby leaves shone silken and proud, basking in their first ever spring mornings, still draped in spindly epiphytic beards of Spanish moss, the most unlikely pair to ever share a tree, intergenerational intermingling.

I’m told to keep looking.

Oak’s slight of springtime hand

Like a close-up magic trick, air becomes solid and trunk becomes liquid. The secret choices that each oak elbow took to twist and turn, in a dance perceivable only to photosynthetic time, flips rods and cones in my eyes and now it’s the air around the branches that is dictating the flow of wood, their trajectory carved by hydrogen riverbanks. The whole forest flips. Shadows morph into shapes onto themselves, not just patches on the ground but now filling the entire realm that exists between a creature in the land and the forest floor. Shady sentience. I walk through them gingerly, entirely aware that my beginner’s mind is seeing all anew.

What a roundabout way to start talking about desire. Just as the forest would have it.

You’ll likely have spotted desire paths in cities — those winding tracks made over time by the wishes and feet of walkers, defying official roads as they work out new and easier ways to get from A to B. We’d be fooled to think that desire paths are a phenomenon reserved only to human adventurings. That we are the only creatures on the planet whose longings are traced visibly onto a landscape.

Reading the poetics of desire trails when I’m out in the woods is one of the many changes in my experience of nature, and that I offer here as tool to begin listening more closely to the stories all around.

A hiker could follow the trampled grasses of a trail for many a mile before realizing that there was nothing remotely human about moving through the undergrowth in this manner. Enlightenment strikes. They were on a deer trail. This of course happened to me, and as I turned to head back to a more officially designated path, it dawned on me that this trail was not just ‘a deer trail’. It was a bizarre twist on a human desire trail, one of hoofed ruminants. I had been walking in the footsteps of the deer and their foal as they moved through the land, and thus walking through their secret stories, through their experience of the forest from a perspective uniquely theirs.

The whole way home, I contemplated this. What other non-human desire trails could I spy?

From the quivering shoots of baby saplings to the mighty trunks decomposing on the ground, I discerned infinite desire trails, those of tree life cycles. Surely one could be drawn here, if I was to stop seeing the forest in static time, and imagined the eventual trajectory that a tree’s uppermost branches would take to reunite once again with the soil’s embrace centuries from now. It felt right to believe that these lofty leaves would yearn for darkness and thick wet soil after having had their fill of sky high living, and that the community of the forest’s biome would be all too happy to welcome back their kin.

That space in between — a desire to reunite.

So try this for yourself. Look out the window of your home and imagine the longings of beings for each other, for other states of their own being.

What about the pollenated honeyed wafts that seduce bumblebees into the enveloping lips of wild hyacinths? If I were a bee, I’d be tracing straight through the land towards these fleshy temptations. I imagined too the desire trails of the fox hunt at night, and that of a spider as spun headfirst across worlds before my eyes, weaving its web, laying gossamer tracks on the wind. I heard sparks of desire like pheromone candy in the chorus of birdsong at dawn, birds as synapses, waking up the forest mind with flickering arboreal dendrites.

All these spaces in between suffused with hymns of desire, trails of longings, the sensuous engorgement of the forest. The songlines of the land.

What a reduction, what a loss of meaning, to ascribe only a mechanistic explanation to the paths all creatures take throughout their lives, and well into death and rebirth. Couldn’t we instead choose to read and understand these liminal, sometimes invisible paths as the ways that each creature takes to fulfill its desires and proclivities? To imagine them as psyche and Eros in utter interdependence, every empty space filled with relational potential, reaching, sensing, calling, across seasons and species, expressed as the poetics of space?

Reaching, sensing, calling

Evolution holds clues to other forms of desire trails. This deserves an entire tome onto itself, and so for now I offer just this glimpse.

Suspending our northern Californian ecosystem for a brief second, imagine yourself in a lush jungle. Picture an owl’s beady eye stare looking at you from a branch, and as you adjust to the darkness, realize you are indeed staring not at an owl but at a butterfly’s wing pattern. You identify it as the caligo butterfly. A rascal who likes to suck on fermented fruit in Bacchanalian orgies. A rascal, and a genius being, part of the staggering intelligence of our planet where the eye of a predator has been adopted over millennia as disguise by its prey, a ruse to camouflage and deceive. It was as if pigments have been tugged from the owl’s iris and beamed onto the butterfly’s soft papery wings — another desire trail, this time the desire for survival, and a strange Stockholm syndrome where predator and prey are forever bound on each other’s skin.

Painted wings

These are but few of the many whispers that make themselves known to us when we listen to the land. When we change our perception and experience the living wild world as an ocean of desires whose longings can be traced and witnessed. To have our imagination awakened, and to pay a certain unique tribute to the vast living intelligence that contains and engenders our own.

(For the first part of this story : Becoming Landscape)

Learning Journeys | Ecological Literacy | Author, poet, wilderness guide | Investor | Co-founder Atlas Unbound, Ground Effect (alexafirmenich.com)