Willder Trails

Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment —Buddha

For Hunter

Preamble Island Earth is – much like any other intact landscape in these parts – threaded through with forest paths laid down by the trowel-like hooves of Mule and lately also White-tailed Deer coming and going; Willder Trails I call them: the most Buddhistic linkages possible between any two corners of Island Earth you could name. More than that, and going way back, Willder Trails are the original highway and byways followed by all manner of animals, not least by humans who have followed them forever: first out of the trees and into the savannah, and then much later, now erect, out of Africa itself; the rest being history.

So here are two claims that come from long practice of following Willder Trails: first, that this practice can put one in touch with deep ancestral memories of respect for the Living World – likely a hallmark of Homo sapiens for most of our evolutionary history; and second, that it can also carry one into close alignment with world views often associated with Traditional Peoples. And yes, those are big claims indeed

First Approximation


ou can bushwhack your way across Island Earth; indeed you can bushwhack your way across the face of the entire globe, ear to ear, ocean crossings excepted. It won’t be much fun, and certainly it won’t be the way our far distant ancestors went about it, migrating across the globe I mean. For while bushwhacking can get you from A to B, one thing it can’t get you, and never will, is a proper fix on where on Earth you happen to be at any point along the way. I’m serious.

Island Earth trail by Jason Hollinger 2009

What They’re Saying

Not even the latest and bestest georeferencing device will help you. Try as it might, a GPS unit can never do more than situate you on some externalizing map that is simply never the territory it represents, never the place where you are. As long as it’s bushwhacking that you’re about, there’s always an important sense in which you’re perennially lost to place. To really find yourself, you really need to find and follow a Willder Trail.

I speak from experience. It was more than twenty years ago that I began to teach myself to follow the forest paths laid down by deer and routinely travelled by just about every other sizable forest wayfarer, not least including our own human ancestors going back to the dawn of human history.

This last bit is only a hunch of course, call it a wild guess, but how really could it be otherwise? It’s true that the forest paths first followed by the first colonial explorers, Thompson and his ilk, were said to be “Indian trails;” and in a very real sense this too is true, since they’d been followed – and maintained – by Traditional Peoples time out of mind. And still there’s this: that if deer have necessarily been resident in these valleys and mountains longer than the stalkers of the deer, then it follows that the Indian trails, in their original instantiation anyhow, were first laid down by those self-same deer.

To say it simply, Willder Trails are the world’s first overland ways; they’re its first highways and byways, compared with which any modern country lane, paved road or multi-lane highway is Johnny-come-lately; though it’s well to remember that some of these, perhaps most of these, as is well known, trace back to the first Willder Trails first travelled by the First Peoples who ever walked this land.

Not that I mean to imply that all Willder Trails everywhere were necessarily laid down by deer; for bear make Willder Trails too, for example. Yet I rather suspect that the best delineated ones, the ones most travelled by to this day have their origin in the trowel-like hooves of deer in particular and ungulates in general, these furrowing the soil more deeply and cleanly per unit weight than a padded foot ever could. Hence Willder Trails over Deer Trails and, for that matter, Willder Trails over Game Trails – the latter term more apt, perhaps, in the Time Before than in the Pandoracene, when human framings are no longer to be understood as the final word.

So enough about Willder Trails, what they are. What I’m aiming at in this little essay is what Willder Trails can do, if we let them; and here we come to a big idea that may or may not be bogus, you decide. Here it is: there is something in the act of following Willder Trails that over time can link us far ancestral memories about as deep, give or take, as ancestral memories go.

Again, I couldn’t be more serious, though the sense of what I mean by this is hard to render into words. Put it this way. For me, there’s a profound sense of rightness that associates with the act of following a Willder Trail – a feeling like I’m truly home, settled in the place at the centre of myself. Unlike bushwhacking, which is about A to B, following a Willder Trail is already in itself the place I’m headed to.

Nor to I believe – not for a moment – that the feeling I’m reporting on here is in any way peculiar to myself; for it were, then it would hard to explain how Homo sapiens, lone among primates, wandered – and still do compulsively wanders – the surface of the Earth until finally no place is left unmapped, if not quite left unknown. What is the source of this spatial compulsion? Chimps don’t have it, at least not to the same degree, and neither to bonobos. And neither do elephants, giraffes, wombats, or hippopotami.

Actually only a small number of large mammals compulsively follow Willder Trails; and of these just about all hunt the deer (or equivalent) who make them – notably the wolf and notably the human who still consorts with the four-legged creature the wolf has in part become, our canine companion, the dog.

But I digress. In a word, my thesis is twofold: first, that Willder Trails lead us back to a heartfelt sense of place, of being home; and second, that the world presented to us by Willder Trails is qualitatively a very different world from the one we experience walking a sidewalk or sitting behind a steering wheel.

Here I’m talking not only, or so much, about a difference in scenery, rather I’m talking about a different in relation to topography. For the mind of deer and the mind of the engineer operate in very different ways. To round out to my conclusion, it’s my belief that a people who experience geographic space above all through the mind of the deer will necessarily be a very different people than those who experience it through the mind of a human engineer. If there’s a bridge to be built between peoples of urbanized cultures and peoples of Indigenous cultures, then it’s to be found through apprenticeship to the minds of the deer in the paths of the Elders. Either there or nowhere I fear.

Next up: Gaian Reconciliation?