Author Quotes: Wendell Berry On Paths And Roads


“The difference between a path and a road is not only the obvious one. A path is little more than a habit that comes with knowledge of a place. It is a sort of ritual of familiarity. As a form, it is a form of contact with a known landscape. It is not destructive. It is the perfect adaptation, through experience and familiarity, of movement to place; it obeys the natural contours; such obstacles as it meets it goes around. A road, on the other hand, even the most primitive road, embodies a resistance against the landscape. Its reason is not simply the necessity for movement, but haste. Its wish is to avoid contact with the landscape; it seeks so far as possible to go over the country, rather than through it; its aspiration, as we see clearly in the example of our modern freeways, is to be a bridge; its tendency is to translate place into space in order to traverse it with the least effort. It is destructive, seeking to remove or destroy all obstacles in its way. The primitive road advanced by the destruction of the forest; modern roads advance by the destruction of topography.

That first road from the site of New Castle to the mouth of the Kentucky River–lost now by obsolescence or metamorphosis–is now being crossed and to some extent replaced by its modern decendant known as I-71, and I have no wish to disturb the question of whether or not this road was needed. I only want to observe that it bears no relation whatever to the country it passes through. It is a pure abstraction, built to serve the two abstractions that are the poles of our national life: commerce and expensive pleasure. It was built, not according to the lay of the land, but according to a blueprint. Such homes and farmland and woodlands as happened to be in its way are now buried under it. A part of a hill near here that would have caused it to turn aside was simply cut down and disposed of as thoughtlessly as the pioneer road builders would have disposed of a tree. It’s form is the form of speed, dissatisfaction, and anxiety. It represents the ultimate in engineering sophistication, but the crudest possible valuation of life in this world. It is as adequate a symbol of our relation to our country now as that first road was of our relation to it in 1797.”

– Wendell Berry, excerpt from A Native Hill
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Berry’s words are potent, but they carry an extra weight for those have grown up on I-71 and can visualize its toll on the land. It’s true that the principle remains the same anywhere, but part of his point lies in relating to the land itself, and I can picture the very landscapes he has in mind.

A Native Hill is a wonderful and expansive essay covering Berry’s own flight from and eventual enlightened return to the Kentucky hillside his forefathers had long farmed.

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