Glossary: Wildpfad / animal trail
The Wildpfad (animal trail, literally "wild path") is an underrated metaphor,
first detailed in Trails as Archetypes of Intentionality (pdf) and notably
mentioned as herbivore trail in Sarah Perry's Cartographic Compression.
It interprets visible paths through territories as maps and in this way
captures succinctly and precisely the interrelation between map and territory
in cases the map is actually used by someone in that territory.
* Paths that promise food are carved into the forest by animals - these are the
original animal trails.
* Borders and streets planned on maps become features of the landscape and show
up in other maps. (mentioned in the original paper)
* Language gains new words where it is used heavily (technical vocabulary), and
other words change in meaning through usage. (also mentioned in the original
* Memories, when accessed, are strengthened, often shadowing related ones.
The process of recall itself consolidates memories.
* Narratives, used to make history legible and palatable, guide future action:
The bank robber, when under stress, will do what they saw in the movies and
take a hostage even though it may be a bad idea in their situation. The
jihadist will blow themselves up even though there are more effective methods
A decision one is already familiar with through stories is one that is easier
made (one of the guiding principles of meme magic). And for some reason,
society tends to replay the predictions of science fiction authors much more
accurately than they had any right to predict.
The metaphor holds up well under extension: Shortcuts and treasures may remain
hidden in the underbrush until a curious explorer beats a new path and find
them. Then, over time, the path way falls out of use and grows over while the
new one becomes broad and well-trodden. This is indeed a thing that happens all
the time in science and especially didactics whenever an explanation that makes
more sense is found.
Why the German word Wildpfad and not animal trail? First of all, Wildpfad is
one word, not two. Second, it's not an overloaded word in English, third it's a
pun in German that accentuates its nature: Constantly changing through
interaction with its environment, it's wild and not tame like a sidewalk.
And if you don't like how all this rolls off the tongue, try "pen groove": A
line that, once drawn, subtly guides further strokes of the pen.
Sep 28 2018 update:
Unsurprisingly, occultists do have a term for this after all: Dion Fortune
seems to have called it a track in space.
published: Feb 12 2017.
last edited: Sep 28 2018.
epistemic status: explorative.