The Land Trust's January Nature Night shines a light on trails—their design and construction, and our love of them. To prepare for the talk, our guest writer, Andrew Goldstein, offers his thoughts on a book about trails and nature written by author Robert Moor, titled, On Trails.
by Andrew Goldstein
It didn’t take long for me to realize that this wasn’t the book that I thought it would be. But that is no knock on Robert Moor’s “On Trails.” Quite the contrary.
While reading Moor’s book, I found myself contemplating the purpose and nature of essays. This book is really a series of well-crafted essays that may be read alone, but are richer when taken together. A good essay wanders, but does so consciously and thoughtfully, like, perhaps, a good trail. Moor frequently draws us into a specific world—of ants and elephants, hikers and highways—but he does so with the freedom of a walker. Moor’s writing retains enough structure to be coherent and enough playfulness and open air to be enjoyable. On Trails takes advantage of its opportunities to roam, to follow asides and side trails to secret nooks of the human mind, while always returning us—with a mind full of thoughtful analysis, facts, and science—to the matter originally at hand.
What makes Moor’s book successful—as with many successful works of non-fiction—is his blending of cold, hard facts and personalized details. Moor begins the book with his own journey along the Appalachian Trail, which created the idea for this book, then moves on to the scientific world of prehistoric life forms and fossils. Moor reworks elements of timeless themes into a new vision. Part philosophical musing, part scientific inquiry, part travelogue, and part history lesson, we delve into trails both seen and unseen, to gain a broader appreciation for what constitutes a trail. Moor is full of curiosity and he translates his curiosity into a literary forest of ideas that continually reach out to the reader. “To put it as simply as possible,” says Moor, “a path is a way of making sense of the world. There are infinite ways to cross a landscape; the options are overwhelming, and pitfalls abound. The function of a path is to reduce this teeming chaos into an intelligible line.” This is made abundantly clear when Moor strikes out in the Canadian wilderness and quickly loses the trail, his pace slowing to a crawl and his mind second-guessing every decision.
I am first and foremost a reader of novels. If I found the book to be at times dry, it is because I find most such naturalist narratives so. If you like scientific tomes on unexplored aspects of the world, you will like this book. If you like seeking, personal narratives, there are elements of this book that will woo you as well.
Ultimately, the allegory of trails as ways through life is reflected in the book itself. “This book, in its admittedly oblique and winding way, has been a search for the wisdom of trails,” writes Moor. “It is the wisdom required to reach one’s ends while making one’s way across an unknown landscape…” In that sense, it is up to the reader to carry the thread that Moor creates out into the world. We are all on a trail through life, trying to determine the best path. Do we go the way others have, or try to blaze a new trail with possibly greater rewards?
Moor is undoubtedly thorough. He has done his research and it is apparent that he has taken ample time to bring his ideas to maturity. By the end of the book, one is left with the feeling that it had to be like this. Moor begins at the beginning because, as human beings in the world (and in time), we are at the mercy of circumstance. Moor shows that our trail building does not stand alone. Trails intersect, they join, they branch off to form newer, more efficient and more beautiful paths. Ours is a journey that is woven together with the world’s many other trail builders. Moor paints a world where the web is made visible, and thankfully, explained. His is a wisdom we need.
This is Robert Moor’s first book, and bearing that in mind, it is an impressive success. One can only hope to bring a little of Moor’s intelligence, curiosity, and attention to detail on one’s next journey, whether it be on the trail or out in the greater world at large.
Andrew Goldstein volunteers for the Deschutes Land Trust and is an avid user of trails in Central Oregon.