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Footpaths: Memory Lanes

Updated on July 9, 2019
Deepa damodaran profile image

Deepa is a freelance researcher and journalist. She writes and makes documentaries and videos.

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Memory Lanes

Footpaths have a fascinating way of teaching us where we belong. They always remind me that so many people have walked the same path I am walking now, the path made by all those footmarks and that I am not an isolated individual, but a tiny drop in this majestic flow of humanity. The human presence reflected in the wear and tear of those paths, their elongated narrowness reflecting certain kind of intimacy and privacy, and the different kinds of vegetation that often border them have a certain charm that is felt, if not fully understood, by anyone who walks through them.

A footpath is a thing closely connected to memories. Everyone has walked them in their childhood, especially those who had a rural upbringing. They have close associations with each stage of an individual’s life, for example, one’s neighborhood, the school in which one studied, the evenings spent with friends, and the cycling and walking explorations one ever had.

In my village homestead, there is a footpath that leads to our family pond. As a child, my first memory of walking it is with my grandmother who used to wake up at 5 0’ clock in the morning and go to the pond to take a bath, not worrying about the pitch darkness and the strange sounds of the night and holding a hanging kerosene lamp in her hand. I would also wake up with her and as I walked beside her, I would look at the light from the lamp dancing on the bushes bordering the footpath. That remained my first memory ever.

When I started going to school, another footpath caught my fancy. It was the one that led from our gate to the main road. During the monsoon rains, this footpath, which was one uphill, will turn into a muddy red, fierce and roaring stream. I and my mother (who taught at the same school) would then have to literally swim our way against the current to reach the main road. The water would reach up to my chest and I would be holding the school bag above my head with both hands, and fighting the fury of the aggressive water flow.

I started regularly walking the footpath that crosses the paddy field near my house and leads to the nearest bus stop when I entered high school. This is the same footpath that can be seen from the veranda of my house and which I used to look over eagerly as a smaller kid to see if any guests were arriving with sweets in their hands as gifts for us.

The footpath that leads to my college, from the bus stop where we would get down, was never empty. Boys used to hang around there more than girls. The college election processions and rival group fighting happened over there.

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Evolution

How does a footpath come into being? There is no preplanning involved in it. The first person who walked that path might have just walked over the foliage in an attempt to explore some unknown landscape or to find a shortcut or a way to a newly found place. However, it is a matter of human psychology or social behavior that became decisive in the second person choosing the same path the first person went, detecting it from the footprints or disturbed foliage. So is the way with us, humans. We often behave like cow herds where every second cow would follow the first one without giving a thought to a possible alternative path.

The plants, especially the creepers, seem to have some instinct to avoid treading on human-made footpaths and get crushed under a human foot. They mostly keep themselves to the fringes of it. Gradually, a footpath distinguishes itself by way of its complete lack of foliage and the hardening of the soil caused by a thousand footmarks.

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Made, lost, regained

There are footpaths of trade, pilgrimage, and adventure. There are footpaths that meander through forests, mountains and grasslands and even those that cross rivers and deep gorges. The footpaths of England are supposed to have originated as very ancient pathways of iron age civilization, Roman occupation and trade routes, and Anglo-Saxon migratory paths.

There are public-right-of-way issues emerging all around the world in connection with footpaths as they are often encroached, closed sooner or later, if on private land and simply lost when people stop using them. This is also an outcome of the growth of automated transportation, which rendered walking redundant and promoted a fast life in which there is no time for walking. Robert Frost had immortalized the disappearing of a footpath so heart-warmingly in his poem, Ghost House,

O’er ruined fences the grape-vines shield

The woods come back to the mowing field;

The orchard tree has grown one copse

Of new wood and old where the woodpecker chops;

The footpath down to the well is healed.

Organizations like Open Spaces Society of England function to protect footpaths and the people’s right to walk them. A footpath always has a place in the perceived charm of the English countryside. The Guardian newspaper even launched a public campaign to share people’s memories of lost footpaths. However, other countries do not seem to catch up with the English enthusiasm for footpaths.

© 2019 Deepa

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