By Ben Cosgrove
For the last year, I’ve worked as the Artist-in-Residence for the New England National Scenic Trail (NET), a footpath that runs for over two hundred miles from the Massachusetts-New Hampshire border all the way to Long Island Sound. Along the way, it passes through state parks and small towns, traverses towering ridgelines, crosses over rivers, roads, and traprock ledges, and winds beneath bridges and interstate highways. It parades hikers through a diverse and remarkable array of southern New England’s impressively various environments, connecting them visually and physically with the region’s unique and overlapping natural and cultural histories. The NET was stitched together from preexisting footpaths through the New England upland – the Metacomet-Monadnock, Mattabesett, and Menunkatuck Trails – and formally designated as a National Scenic Trail in 2009, an honor celebrating this environment’s continuing role in shaping our national understanding of the American landscape.
Prior to my residency with the trail, I had spent some years preoccupied with the concept of movement in general: for a long time, I’ve been very interested in thinking about how our understanding and conception of a place is so deeply tied to the manners in which we can or cannot move through it. So much of what a place means to us is tied to our ability to observe and process changes in a landscape over time and space, and one thing that my residency has affirmed for me is that the ways we move across that landscape determine the limits of this ability.
This is why pathways ranging from traces to highways – all of the varied and numerous corridors along which the vast majority of our movement is consolidated – exert such a powerful influence on our knowledge of the world. In most cases, it is physically very difficult to travel across a landscape without the aid of a road, or a river, or a trail, and without an instrument like this to guide us through it, the world is a wild, unstructured place, unpatterned and unworn by the friction of movement. Narrative is a critical element in the construction of place, and there’s hardly a better source for that than a pathway.
In places like New England, trails are particularly important for a larger reason: in a sense they are how the landscape is organized. In a gnarled, forested, intimate environment like ours, where one can never see too far past the next hill or the next river bend, roads, trails, and other pathways are how directions are given, how our mental maps are organized, and how we understand – even roughly – where things lie in relation to one another. This town, we’ll say, is off of Route 2, between Gardner and Templeton; that store is on 128, just beyond the 95 split; the storm tonight should result a lot of snow outside of 495, but will fall as freezing rain inside of it.
This residency has compelled me to think a lot about how we conceive of and construct place in relation to things like footpaths, rivers, and roads: long, thin lines that may change dramatically along their route but that fundamentally affect our experience of the world by causing us to form conceptual links between one place and another. I’d written music before about lots of very different landscapes, but until this residency I had never been led to think about what it means to be in a place that’s 215 miles long and five feet wide. The NET has provided the first opportunity I’ve had to write about a linear pathway that moves through a sequence of places, and I decided to meet that challenge in part by writing a set of interrelated pieces that each reflect different moments along the trail. My intention was that the songs should be able to stand independently of one another – like day hikes, you might say – but I also worked hard to ensure that several aspects of each song’s composition were informed by their relationships to each other and to all the places they are each written about. Hopefully, the result is that – like the NET itself – they can be taken in in or out of sequence and each contribute a little bit to the listener’s understanding not only of the whole suite but of each of the other component songs that make it up as well.
I wrote the songs this way to try and deal with the question with which I wrestled the most during this residency: understanding the extent to which we do in fact think of trails as long chains of discrete places – distinct geographical moments strung on a line like beads on a necklace – or as one long, thin place itself, whose character is shaded a little bit by each of the different landscapes it transects.
I think the answer is that both explanations are true. A trail provides novel points of entry into a chain of otherwise disconnected locales, but it also highlights the ways in which those places are similar, and those attributes become the best way to describe the trail itself. These places are connected by the things they have in common – a certain type of tree, or rock, or accent – but it sometimes takes the imposition of a conceptual line drawn between them for us to make those connections; to think about what Guilford, Connecticut has in common with Royalston, Massachusetts, or what the city of Holyoke has in common with Hanging Hills or Farley Ledges. That this conceptual line is also a physical one affords us the opportunity to continually uncover new commonalities between places that might previously have seemed to us unrelated. Take, for example, a list of towns as different as Bemidji, Minneapolis, Hannibal, and New Orleans: these places may not initially seem to have much in common with one another, but their identities and interests are intimately bound together by their relationship with the Mississippi River – and that also influences the way we imagine and remember those places. The same might be said of the mountaintops, riverbeds, neighborhoods, playing fields, salt marshes, urban outskirts, state forests, backyards, rural communities, and basalt cliffs that are all improbably threaded together along the NET. The trail illuminates the ways in which those different landscapes are literally connected to each other.
Characterizing a trail as a line connecting a series of discrete spots also overlooks one of a pathway’s most valuable characteristics, namely, that it doesn’t only include a series of exceptional landscapes strung together; it also includes all the places in between. In writing this music, I tried to devote attention to both categories – not just the highlights of the trail, but the sections that we might otherwise be inclined to forget about or ignore. And those places, the ones which aren’t as easily noticed or celebrated, are the ones that are most vulnerable: “a place that is not evocatively described,” the author Robert Macfarlane has written, “becomes easier to destroy.” If an artist residency is good for anything, it seems, it should be to help protect a landscape against a fate like that. Most of the landscapes along the NET are not in such imminent danger of destruction, of course, but perhaps some run the risk of being taken for granted. For every basalt mountain the trail passes over, there are at least as many town greens, little roads, forested paths, highway underpasses – all markers of the vernacular landscape of interior New England, so common as to be invisible unless one’s attention is directed to them.
A favorite experience that I’ve frequently had during my time exploring the trail is of talking to dayhikers who know where they are locally but not that they’re on the NET. Invariably, when they’re told that the trail runs all the way from New Hampshire to Long Island Sound, they are surprised and impressed; some are even a little confused, frowning into the middle distance for a second as if to think about just how such a line could be drawn, and all it would have to go over or around. It’s fun to watch them come to terms with the notion that the path they’re on goes all the way to the ocean if they go one way, and to Mount Monadnock if they go the other – and that further footpaths carry it on from there if they wanted to keep going. They could wind up in Quebec or Minnesota. In this way, the barest facts of the trail’s dimensions provide invaluable and edifying context for whatever part of it a visitor might be walking along that day. Walking through the woods feels somehow different with the knowledge of what’s just beyond those woods, what’s just beyond that, and all that lies between there and the ocean. It makes the geography of New England feel less abstract and therefore more finite and precious.
In his essay “Walking,” Henry David Thoreau wrote of his wish “to regard man as an inhabitant, or as a part and parcel of nature, rather than as a member of society.” I’ve been grateful for the opportunity this artist residency has given me to try and highlight the remarkable power of this long, winding footpath to do just that: to draw people out across this landscape and make them feel more fully a part of the environment that holds them. The NET and trails like it are a way for us to interact with and roam over the land, to get to know its size and contour by moving ourselves across it, and in so doing, to better understand where and who we are.
Ben Cosgrove is a writer and traveling musician whose work explores themes of landscape, place, and environment. He has composed music in collaboration with institutions including Acadia National Park, White Mountain National Forest, Isle Royale National Park, and the Schmidt Ocean Institute, and throughout 2018, he has served as the Artist-in-Residence for the New England National Scenic Trail. His most recent album is called Salt. For more about Ben and his music, please visit his website.