Academic journal article Cultural Analysis

The Tactical Trail: Sense of Place and Place of Practice

Academic journal article Cultural Analysis

The Tactical Trail: Sense of Place and Place of Practice

Article excerpt

Abstract

In the early 1980s, Michel de Certeau distinguished between the "strategies" and "tactics" utilized by the walker in a modern cityscape: the prescribed bounds for action within an environment and the resistive, independent movements of the individual. This essay complicates the distinction by recognizing folk practice as a category between strategies and tactics, both culturally guided and spontaneously innovative. Building from fieldwork conducted on nature/wilderness trails, it considers walkers not as independent nodes but as spontaneous communities, and promotes further understanding of the ever-recycling, mutual relationship between the sense of a place and the actions taken within it.

The American nature preserve is a place of reverence for the natural environment where visitors can pass carefully through a space preserved from development and construction, reflect on the beauty or value of the natural world, and, in moving through with a careful, temporary, and non-invasive gait, play a personal role in protecting and respecting the Earth and its ecosystems. The trails that pass through nature parks and preserves, conservancies, and arboretums invite visitors to view and appreciate the plants, animals, waterways, and terrain by curving gently around fragile elements of the landscape and animal habitats. They choreograph visitor movement through the space in a continuous line of motion from visitor center or parking lot to specific viewing platforms or educational plaques, then back again. Trailhead markers, signs, and visitor guides instruct visitors to attend to specific features in the environment and often explicitly prohibit actions that could harm the plants, animals, or broader ecosystem. The majority of visitors to such parks and preserves approach the trails in a similar way, with reverence and appreciation and a similar sense of the place and its worth. They follow the trails marked by maps and signs and Park Service instructions, knowing that to follow these trails is to perform their own respect for ecology and environmental preservation. And yet, at the site of a fallen log blocking movement along the sanctioned path, at a particularly muddy spot in the morning after a summer rain, or, perhaps, at a point where the parking lot or toilet facility in view lies just beyond an acre of open prairie, foot-worn dirt lines routinely divert from the sanctioned paths and cut across the preserved environment, adapting and compromising the sense of place as one of reverent preservation. "Desire paths," "social trails," or "goat tracks"--those improvised footpaths running alongside or explicitly apart from official avenues for movement--exist in a place of nature preservation, at once infringing on the sense of place and allowing movement through it. And yet, the individual who walks along such a trail is not exactly breaking interdiction, wantonly tossing aside preservation for personal ease; rather, he or she is taking part in a communal performance of place, even in the absence of a shared community. That is, the visitor's transgressive, non-sanctioned movement along such a trail is excused because others have visibly moved in the same way through the environment before.

The uniquely visible case of the nature preserve social trail demonstrates how practice both adheres to social precedent and, in adhering, perpetuates it through performance. In selecting a path of movement by following the visible trace in the grass, snow, or ground left by others passing through at an earlier time, the visitor adheres to social conventions; by walking that path, though, s/he also literally carves the path more deeply, making it more visible and inviting to those who will in the future follow. This case gives observable, material form to a key concept in practice theory: structuration, the reproduction or, conversely, subversion of structures through individual acts of repetition (Giddens 1984). …

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