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Of Frisbees, Physarum, and Cow Paths
a creative code
published in Ecotone Spring 2013
All semester long I had something gnawing at the back of my mind, each time I entered our classroom. Mulling it over. Looking for the way.
As spring finds Missoula (at last), I amble across the quad, my attention on a game of frisbee that has appeared between the squared-off walkways and melting berms of snow. Coltish youngsters disport themselves on the green and my heart is gladdened. I am the Visiting Writer, at liberty for gladness: not lugging a hundred undergraduate essays, as I have done for too much of my life, I teach but one tiny graduate seminar to nine young worthies in the Environmental Writing Program. I observe their work. I reflect, I suggest. They are hard workers, eager for crit, for challenge. And yet – inevitably – just a bit homogenized by academia. They’ve been obedient for so long. So many grammatical sentences. So many semicolons.
A crimson frisbee floats up into the bright spring sky. From across the quad a barefoot redhead canters toward me, looking up, Mickey Mantle of windage and distance – lunges in a last speedy burst, makes the catch, and somehow also avoids the gimpy and all-too-breakable Visiting Writer. Impish grin fringed in a soft beardlet. I am charmed.
The speed, the color, the float. Where are they? That’s what I’ve been wanting to ask my correct young writers.
* * *
Funny thing is, each week in that classroom I’ve eyed this handbill posted I suppose by a vigilant grounds crew: “Don’t Make Cowpaths!” The renegade-cow imagery is mildly amusing. But it’s the exhortation to our already-mannerly students that obscurely bothers me. Against straying. Against cavorting, even.
Landscape architects call them desire paths, these spontaneous tracks – these adventitious angles and trodden rhomboids, crissing and crossing the architect’s neat squares. Practical unruliness. Redesign by motion and desire.
It’s what I have been trying to say in class: Follow the desire path.
Maybe you’ve read recently (as I have) about the work of Toshiyuki Nakagaki, who discovered that Physarum polycephalum, a slime mold, is quite talented at solving problems. If you hide little mounds of tempting oat flakes within a maze, Physarum will discover the pathways that most efficiently link them. In a cunning experiment, later researchers laid the piles upon a map of the U.S., just where our major cities are. And voilà, Physarum drew the Interstate Freeway system, with uncanny exactness. Really. You can look it up.
This is intelligence of the Gregory Bateson kind: living process that marshals information and shapes solutions – no big brain needed. Desire paths. And Donald Griffin, a founder of the behaviorist-defying discipline of cognitive ethology, brought us to understand that it is pleasure that shapes us all: nature’s shortcut, drawing us to adaptive behavior because it feels good.
Desire paths. For how many thousands of millennia have hominids been tracing just-right tracks – following the inner/outer logic of slope, goal, exertion – making foot-sense of the world? Perfectly, thoughtlessly rational. The very paths that become, in time, roads or even freeways. Originating nonetheless in a logic of desire.
A desire path is what every good piece of imagining follows. It might be a very smart piece – an experiment, an essay, a painting; it might be full of information and intellect and cold logic. But I guarantee that it comes to be born – like all living things – from a burst of pleasure. Sheer randy pleasure. Hooking up. Finding pattern that feels right, that has trueness and beauty at once. Seated in front of my blank pages, I tell myself Follow the path of binding emotion. Sometimes it works.
* * *
Here be danger, though. All of us are (secretly) sophomore-hearted, wishing the world into fantasy and hogwash. It is a learned vigilance to prefer reality. Beside my copy of Nakagaki sits a sadly beautiful book about mushrooms – an important book, pointing toward mycological restoration of our poor violated planet – grounded in the author’s encyclopedic knowledge and total commitment. But “sadly” because a frantic, hand-waving enthusiasm oversteers this Mycelium tome (to name it would be unkind) into a smash-up of hippy overreach – cosmic leaps, shamanic baloney, analogies taken literally. And a desperate conclusion, utterly unsuppported, that the mushroom is not only (like all life) a remarkable information-user, but is also conscious. Sentient. Woo woo.
When reality is fabulous (as it always is!), why lard it with fables?
It’s a breathtaking world down there, in the mycological Other Kingdom. Perhaps it will offer solutions to our global mess. But to find them, we’ll need that winsome humility of scientists, their chaste obedience to fact – to the difference between what we know, what we suspect, and what we (wildly) might hope for.
* * *
So it was no small thing to watch my young writers learning to follow the glimmerings of pleasure, while staying grounded in the facts. In weekly crit, in earnest conferences, in moments of midnight revision, a shapeliness emerged when we allowed it to. Not a grid, usually. But a beautiful surprise, an unlikely balancing asymmetry. It made us laugh, and then revolved a long time in the mind. It expressed something about the way this world is put together – spare, strange, original. A thing that flies, or works in secret, or emerges from chaos to offer order and solace.
A word floats in the back of my mind. I sense it, know it’s there, can’t quite grasp it yet. A pleasure in waiting for it, sweet like the moment before love-making. An idea is coming and it will be beautiful – someone will catch it, and all will be glad.