A long and winding road

Eassay: Meandering paths drove Roman emperors around the bend, but Old World cities remained blissfully out of line. And today come signs from the American suburbs that the dictatorial grid no longer holds sway.

February 15, 1999|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SUN STAFF

A group of good citizens planted about 30 young trees in Stony Run Park, near where we live. They were put in the ground in such a way as to form a grove, with enough space between them to give each room to grow and expand, but close enough to eventually form a nice canopy.

Such unrequested benefactions from strangers are welcomed by people such as myself, who worry a lot that the mortar of cooperation that holds our civilization together is eroding, has been eroding for years, and may by now be nearly all gone. Once or twice I strolled by the trees with my dog, and each time felt reassured that a stout prop had been put in place against absolute collapse. Silently, I cheered them on. The dog did what dogs do.

Before long the trees were thoroughly rooted; all had sprouted new leaves, and only one had been vandalized. That seemed promising, though a problem was evident: The designers of this arcadia had sought to reroute the path through the park, which ran more or less straight along the stream bank.

They had planted one of the larger saplings on the edge of the old path to mark a detour that veered away from the stream. The new trail followed a wide, gentle arc through the trees, then came back to the original trajectory. This new path they covered with wood chips not only to define it, but to make it more inviting. Wood chips absorb rainwater and retard mud and puddling.

To further encourage people to take the meandering path, they rolled a thick tree trunk over the old path. I think that's where they went wrong. Maybe some found that a bit authoritarian.

Being of a cooperative, maybe even conformist, nature, I immediately took to the new route, lured by the promise of future delight. One day when the trees had grown it would direct us through a dappled bower, one of the things people go into parks and woods to experience.

The curve suggests leisure, the momentary abandonment of schedules and agendas. The straight line, the direct path? Well, it's not at all hard to say what that suggests. Ambition? Purposefulness?

And yet, through the winter it became evident that we - Trevor and I - walked alone. Most of my neighbors, and possibly their dogs as well, continued to plod directly forward. They simply went around the trunk, or climbed over it. One could see the old path grow deeper, the puddles expand, ridges solidifying in the drying mud thrown up by the squish of Reeboks and Nikes and the occasional pair of practical Wellingtons. My neighbors for the most part, I concluded, were goal-oriented, and as a group probably did well in the world.

Everybody's heard the theory of the cow's role in early urban planning. Long, long ago, in some sylvan place inhabited by a race of people not yet aware of who they were, a cow is drawn into a wood by the scent of a far water hole, or fragrant grass in a clearing beyond. Trundling along, the cow snaps off obtruding branches, breaks the loam with its sharp hooves. Later the cow is pursued by his minder who follows its faint path, thereby widening it, deepening it. Once or twice this happens and the route to the water hole or grazing spot is established.

Possibly the water hole becomes a ceremonial grove, or some such. Eventually a town begins as the rustics decide that safety is more easily secured by becoming a community. The erratic path through the wood becomes the town's, and later the city's, principal thoroughfare, its marketplace, its souk, its public space, sacred and secular.

This helps explain why in the older parts of the older cities of Europe and other places where urban civilization had its beginnings, it is hard to find a street that runs straight for any appreciable distance. Paris, London, Barcelona - in these old towns, if you don't know your way you can get lost. In fact, tourists from America often delight in getting briefly disoriented in the twisting, turning older neighborhoods of Europe's cities, neighborhoods such as The City (financial district) of London, the Gothic section of Barcelona, the Latin Quarter of Paris.

In cities much older still than even these venerable connurbations - places like Damascus, in Syria, where people have lived continuously for about 8,000 years - a straight street is so rare it calls attention to itself. The principal thoroughfare in the old city of Damascus is The Street Called Straight, because that's what it is. Straight.

The Romans liked straight streets. Imperialists and tyrants tend to. They are perfect for military parades. They offer a field of fire. Poets have different tastes. The nostalgic English essayist, Hilaire Belloc wrote, with relief, that ``the curse of the Straight Street'' never fell upon the City of London, ``so that it is to this day a labyrinth of little lanes.''

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