There are some things that we can trust, even in dreams. One of these is the dream version of a real place. Little as they resemble the places they represent, in the dream we recognize them, and across dreams we return to them, and find them as we left them. Often they are on a larger scale than their models. For places known in childhood this is explicable. Imagination magnifies and interpolates the facts until they match the impression we retain from when we were small in a place and looked up to it. But all my dream places are magnified, whenever I knew them. Perhaps cinematography is to blame. Many who grow up watching black and white dream in shades of gray; perhaps my dreams are wound up to the geographical key of New Zealand. True, I return to dream places which are born of dream stuff, and have no anchor in experience; but dream places, when they are born of real places, retain a cord of connection with them. The change that a place undergoes in becoming a dream place is not lawless: there is a topology, with invariants. The shape of a coast or the path of a river may change, but the waters remain. The dream place has the same palette as its model; no new colors appear. Trees never appear singly, always in stands. New buildings are found, and new features of old buildings, but always of the same stuff as the real ones. Roads widen and narrow, but never change their course, nor whether they turn or go straight. In order of instability the elements of dreams are events, things, people and places. This is a lesson in the mechanics of imagination: even when anything can happen to anyone at any time, it must still happen somewhere.
The far-voyaging French explorers of North America kept running into one another. One explorer could hardly enter a village without finding another in residence or having just left. They could leave one another letters and expect them to be delivered. In Paris a man could disappear; in the wilderness he had to guard his reputation.
Think of traffic as a force. The canal is the artificial version of something natural – the river; likewise, the road is the artificial version of the path. Roads are permanent; paths, unless anchored by permanent settlements or fenced off by property lines, shift freely. The paradox of the wilderness is that the more open and unobstructed it is, the more traffic can converge along optima conditioned by the difficulty of the terrain, the availability of resources, and the use of waterways. In the wilderness all ways are highways.
When we consider ancient or prehistoric peoples and their connections we should not imagine of a web of short links between evenly spaced nodes, news and goods moseying from village to village; we should imagine them swept up into a handful of gigantic, continental paths: stable in their broad geographic sweep, changeful in their fine, local structure. Call them fractal: at ten thousand feet, there is one path; lower there are ten paths; on the ground there are hundreds of paths, routes and reroutes circumventing any obstacle with the ingenuity of flowing water.
The existence of paths on a continental scale does not imply a continental consciousness. In their scale these great paths would have been invisible to those who used them: like the Silk Road (the last great path), each path would have been cut up by jealous middlemen, until one end of the road was a myth to the other.
One can imagine, if not document, a vision of universal history hanging on a set of Great Paths, where it is not migrations that leave paths behind them, but paths that educe migrations. Paths have always been before us: from the beginning, the human race spread not by spilling over from one valley to the next, but by processes that, pacing the lines of least resistance, became the salients of our advance. The ascent of man was not just something that happened; it was a single phenomenon, having its own structure – structured in paths.
I decided, before I began the Ruricolist, that four years would be a good place to stop. Beyond that, I feared, I would be protracting something that belonged to a certain moment in my life beyond its natural term. But I was making the rare mistake of overestimating the prospect of change. All my reasons for writing the Ruricolist stand. Now that I come to it, four years is not enough.
On the net, an effective April Fools’ joke works like contrast dye – you discover, by following its path, who does and does not read the stories they pass along. April 2nd is a good day to unsubscribe, unfollow, and defriend. We owe to April Fools’ Day some great moments: say, table syrup or the spaghetti harvest. But surely there is already enough deceit and treachery in the world. Why dedicate a holiday to it? Perhaps it has the significance of certain seeming-perverse religious performances, honoring the hostile gods of death and ruin, recognizing them in turn lest they obtrude themselves out of turn. If we must be fools, if some god of fools will not be spurned, then, indeed, let us dedicate a day to his honor. And perhaps the holiday inoculates us: being an April fool is painful, but it forearms us for when we are made fools out of season.