On a map of our planet there are scarcely more than half a dozen great invious patches remaining, some at the polar edges, others splotched across the middle: Amazon, Sahara, perhaps Tibet. Slightly smaller but still formidable swaths number only in the few dozen. Well less than ten percent of the land on Earth is more than six straight kilometres from the nearest road.
Think of times when you have been in roadless places. How far in have you gone? An overnight hike the Rockies, perhaps? I did a few of those in my youth. You feel you could be in the dawn of days, surrounded by nothing but mountains, trees, birds, small animals, and traces of bigger beasts. But you are on a trail, and even on foot you are just a few hours from a main highway; climb a peak and you may see it. One time, on a day hike alone to Kindersley Ridge, on windswept scree above the trees, I could not find the trail to go on and then could not find it to go back, and I was as far from human company as I can remember ever feeling. And yet, while I frantically sought traces of human passage, as the crow flies I was all of about four kilometres from where my parents’ car was parked by the highway having its hatchback broken into and its gas siphoned.
Imagine being a hundred – two hundred, three hundred – kilometres from the nearest road. Imagine being on a road and coming to the end of it, and seeing ahead of you an expanse with no roads at all: desert sand, or tundra, or glacier, or mountain, all as invious as the undriven snow. What do you feel? Daunted? Or curious? Or envious?
The invious – the roadless, the places you can’t drive to, from via ‘road’ and -ous for an adjective and in- meaning ‘not’ (as in you can’t get in) – is both a threat and an invitation. It’s not that you can’t get places without taking the road; it’s just that it’s much more difficult. I have been bushwhacking through mountainside trees, scrambling up scrubby slopes, snowshoeing across open plains and frozen ponds, and no road or trail was required, but I less quickly got anywhere and more quickly got tired. But I went because I wanted to see.
There’s a term for footworn paths in grass from pavements to doors: desire lines. They show where we want to go. Paths, and then pavements, are the expression and enablement of desire. Where we can’t take our cars, or at least walk easily, we can still want to see, and we can be envious. So we add more roads. So much of the world as we know it is the world as seen from car windows. Our viae are our positional positivism, our empirical empire, determining what we see and how.
And away from them is the via negativa. It is not empty space; it is the space that can be filled with anything other than roads. As Max A.E. Rossberg writes for the European Wilderness Society, “the Earth’s surface is shattered by roads”; they interrupt ecosystems, introduce invasive species (notable among them being you and me), make it easier to take things away, and lead to the construction of still more roads. See this map, made by the Roadless Initiative, of global roadless areas, and this map representing the actual roads on the planet. Evidence of an overriding drive – but one that still meets the end of the road.
It is not that we can’t get to these invious places, of course. It’s just harder. Most of them are occupied – by plants and animals, but also by humans, though in low concentration and travelling by means other than motor vehicle. Feet, horses, dogs, airplanes, and – at the land edges – boats, all make travel across the invious regions possible. And most of that travel follows worn paths as well.
Roads are, in their way, the vocabulary of the world. In any language we divide up concepts in different ways, somewhat as roads divide up the land, though those boundaries are not always as hard as an interstate. And words help us to establish routes into areas of thought, and determine for us what we can see and keep in mind: just what stays in perspective from the car windows. There may be – there surely are – large areas that are lexically invious, without words to make inroads on them, and if we become aware of them we will be daunted or envious or both. If we once build a road, that will become how we think of the topic, and then we may build further roads off it, and further roads off those.
But if we build these new word roads, we will have to maintain them. The word invious has not seen much use of late, for example, so I’m refreshing the pavement. And at the same time, we need to remember that there will always be the unpaved places, the unbuilt lands where even paths disappear. They’re still there. And we can still go to them. But first, to find them, we need to take the via negativa: not this, not that. You can go off road with your vehicle, at risk of damage, or you can put on your hiking boots and find what has always been there, as other people have already seen.