Following Brick Roads: An Observation of Desire Paths on the William & Mary Campus

By: Evelyn Hall

Dorothea and her friends take an infamous journey to The Emerald City in the classic story of “The Wizard of Oz”. They have a whole musical number about following brick roads and they face negative externalities when the statement gets ignored. I never knew just how important this motto was until I saw the impact that straying from the brick paths of William & Mary had on the natural environment.

Location 4, photo by author

LINGERING LEAVE NO TRACE LESSONS

This past summer, I spent two weeks in New Mexico with a group of very outdoors-focused individuals, and something that was a common theme in their practices was the concept of Leave No Trace. I have grown up with the 7 principles of Leave No Trace, but one action that these people took was one I had never thought to consider. When crossing areas with no established path, they spread out in order to avoid marking the land. After this experience, I am a lot more conscious of my footprints on the earth, and I began noticing areas on campus that were prone to damage. This study is to observe how the William & Mary community interacts with pathways. 

I think that kindergarten teachers and enthusiastic parents should be careful as to what they are preaching to the malleable minds of youth because when society was collectively taught to “forge their own path”, we apparently took it to heart. I spent the greater part of a Monday afternoon sitting in various odd locations in order to gather data about the paths that William & Mary occupants are creating. It was a bit of a chilly day and most of the passersby were in a hurry to get out of the wind.  A study done by Lawhon on national parks in Wyoming showed that many people admitted to understanding basic principles of Leave No Trace, but would not follow through if they were too difficult or had to go out of their way to make it happen (Lawhon). I suspect that in the case of these walkers, they would have taken the shortcut regardless of their knowledge. As I scouted out my information, I found myself in several strange locations, which made me feel as though perhaps I was being observed by the walkers more than they were being observed by me. 

“I found myself in several strange locations, which made me feel as though perhaps I was being observed by the walkers more than they were being observed by me”

WALKERS AND WILDLIFE

I chose four separate locations where I have actively ignored paths, seen others ignore paths, or seen resulting desire paths to observe. There was a scale of wear and tear on the landscaping that these locations spread across. The least of the damage was a complete lack of a visible path, whereas the other end of the spectrum was a very apparent slash across the surrounding landscaping- all vegetation being stripped away, leaving only hard-packed dirt and footprints. Not only is this habit of cutting across brush harmful to the vegetation, Westekemper states that it has an impact on the animal life surrounding where the trails are forced into the earth. She speaks about deer near hiking trails and how their behaviors are adjusted when there are new paths formed (Westekemper).  I know that we do not often see animal life on the brick paths, but are we affecting wildlife by cutting corners? Does this confuse squirrels? Scare away chipmunks? Harm insects? The gravity of this situation is definitely more that it seems on the surface. 

A VARIETY OF VARIABLES

The main thing that was unplanned for in this study was the extensive list of variables impacting the data that I did not consider. For instance, what time of day are people traveling?, what does the weather look like?, how crowded are the sidewalks?, where are people heading?, what kind of landscaping currently exists in these areas? These factors all have a large play in who is walking where. During class changes, there was a rush of foot traffic, and therefore more grass-walkers. When it is currently raining or post-rain, odds are travelers will stick to the sidewalk to avoid soggy shoes. The Williamsburg weather was a large obstacle in this study as someone who is extremely averse to the cold, and I oddly enough, have a hypothesis that it may be the reason so many people choose to walk in the grass. It’s quicker, and the goal is to get inside as quickly as possible. As I sat in these locations, I related to many characters scurrying by, swaddled in clothing, hunched over to keep themselves warm. Lastly, when the landscape is perfectly manicured grass, passersby are likely to be more cautious as to where they are stepping.

“The main thing that was unplanned for in this study was the extensive list of variables impacting the data that I did not consider.”

My most successful observation location was location 2- outside of the dorms. This was most likely because it was by far the most highly trafficked area. I was able to get a decent grasp on the ratio of grass-walkers to path-trotters. One thing that made the exact count difficult was the amount of people that were continuing straight along the path instead of turning. If they had no reason to cross the grass due to walking in the opposite direction, I could not reasonably count them as path-trotters. There were a grand total of 26 people who walked at an angle, contradicting the perpendicular brick paths. 

Drawings of Observation Locations with Red Line Marking Desire Path and Star Marking Sitting Spot
Drawings of Observation Locations by author

While location 2 gave me a wonderful data set to work with and many people to observe, location 1 did not give me hardly any data. It is an area that is chock-full of oddly placed paths that cut through manicured grass in sweeping circles-making it the least effective walking area possible. This led me to believe that I would see many people walking the radius of the circle as opposed to the circumference, but I was there for half-an-hour and did not see one. 

OBSERVATIONS AND EMOTIONS

One of the main reasons that I found this study interesting was that I felt it hard not to look at those who cut across the landscaping in a negative light. I felt as though I sat and mentally made a comment every time they strayed from the path, but I had to keep reminding myself that I walk on the grass probably once a day, and after finishing at one of the locations, without even thinking, I cut across the grass on my way to the next sitting spot. I was the fastest way across and it was my natural instinct, which makes me wonder if people walking have any sort of consciousness about their position in the environment or if they are just walking mindlessly. This leads me to emphasize a point that I have heard many times which is: the first step to every solution is knowing there is a problem. If more walkers knew that walking across these paths is a bad habit, would fewer do it? I would like to think yes, but I also acknowledge that I often cut corners both intentionally and unconsciously, and I am, obviously, very aware of the issue. I would say that maybe if I taught these people who are walking on the sidewalk about Leave No Trace and the importance that it provides it would have a bit of an impact. Lawson’s study, mentioned previously, suggests that the best way to prevent the wear and tear is with strict regulation, but my personal experience with college students suggests that this would in fact have the opposite effect.

“I felt it hard not to look at those who cut across the landscaping in a negative light.”

There were several odd feelings that accompanied these observations. For starters, watching people and making note of their actions feels extremely odd. I even saw many people that I recognized during these observations and for one specific case, my friend waved at me and then walked across the landscaping, which I tallied in my observations. Several big names on campus (like the corgi lady!- a fan favorite who brings her 5 corgis to the library for student stress relief) also walked right past me and on the grass, which I made a mental note of before realizing that it really does not have any big significance in the grand scheme of things. I think that I would not have cared if it were not for this project, but for some reason, after doing the experiment there is a resulting layer of judgment that I wish had not occurred. 

Location 3, photo by author

Another question that can be posed is: Is this straying from the path really damaging on the William & Mary campus? Am I making a big deal over something small? It is proven that humans repeatedly walking in the same areas creates a visible mark in the land and that this can have an impact on wildlife, but does the campus count as a natural environment? There are already paths everywhere, so what is one more? What qualifies as wilderness? Cronon defines the term Wilderness as  something that mankind created, and to be by nature: false. He states, “If we allow ourselves to believe that nature, to be true, must also be wild, then our very presence in nature represents its fall” (Cronon 17) Does this mean that by only classifying the areas that lack premade paths as nature mean that we already have failed at preserving it when we walk there? He challenges this concept of an untouched landscape being true nature, so perhaps we are still in the clear. I do not have a specific answer to this question, but it is definitely something to consider. 

“If more walkers knew that walking across these paths is a bad habit, would fewer do it?”

After two very chilly hours well-spent out on the William & Mary campus only resulted in 53 grass-walkers, I at first felt a little disappointed, but it is important to understand that this ethnography really was not about the numbers, but instead about the habits of humans and the thought behind our actions. It is important to wonder about how our actions impact the environment and after looking at the mindless wanderers, it makes me think about this consciousness on a broader scope. How can being more aware help the conservation movement?

SOURCES

Borneman, Elizabeth. “What Are Desire Paths?” Geography Realm, 29 Nov. 2021, https://www.geographyrealm.com/what-are-desire-paths/. 

Cronon, William. “The Trouble with Wilderness: A Response.” Environmental History, vol. 1, no. 1, 1996, pp. 47–55., https://doi.org/10.2307/3985063. 

Lawhon, Ben, et al. “Understanding and Influencing State Park Visitors’ Leave No Trace Behavioral Intent.” Journal of Interpretation Research, vol. 22, no. 1, 2017, pp. 53–71., https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/109258721702200104.

“The 7 Principles – Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics.” Leave No Trace, 15 Nov. 2022, https://lnt.org/why/7-principles/. 

Westekemper, Katharina, et al. “Stay on Trails – Effects of Human Recreation on the Spatiotemporal Behavior of Red Deer  Cervus Elaphus in a German National Park.” Wildlife Biology, vol. 2018, no. 1, 2018, pp. 1–9., https://doi.org/10.2981/wlb.00403.

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