Sidewalks To Nowhere

Keep Off The Grass!It was a course in cultural anthropology, and the first question on the final exam was, “What is culture?”

My answer was brief:

Culture is an assemblage of behavior patterns based on beliefs which are assembled from ideals abstracted (hopefully) from some original experience…which then become more sophisticated through accumulations of merged abstractions further up the hierarchic chain. For example, few people will urinate in a glass of water they are about to drink, but many will piss in the pond from which it was drawn.

Judging from the professor’s note scribbled in the margin (“What the f**k is this?!”), it was not well received. But the question reminded me of an experience on the day I registered a few months earlier.

It was a brand new campus. All the major buildings had been constructed, and the lawns had been recently seeded, fertilized, and were being continuously watered with a fine mist. And for protection, the landscapers had meticulously strung twine around the perimeter of each lawn, about a foot off the ground, and from it had periodically suspended little signs saying “PLEASE USE SIDEWALKS!” Within days the stakes, twine and little signs had been pounded into the mud as thousands of feet trampled over them getting hither and yon in the most direct way. And by the day of that test the many carefully ‘plotted’ sidewalks still looked just as new as when they were first poured…except where they happened to intersect one of the many deepening paths that had been worn through what was left of those newly planted lawns.

Ideals, beliefs, and expectations derived therefrom…resulted in a labyrinth of broad, largely unused sidewalks that were to become a lasting monument to how people should go their way. It would have been much better to wait, I thought, until the ‘paths’ had formed–as they would anyway–and then pour the concrete,* and then plant the lawns. It would have then put an end to all those muddy paths, and eliminated those many (ideally conceived?) sidewalks to nowhere.

*Some would say stones are better; they rise and fall with the earth and weather, and look no worse for wear. ;-)


10 comments on “Sidewalks To Nowhere

    • Among other things the ‘parable of the pond’ is an oblique reference to the flushing of toilets (“Gee, I wonder where that water goes?”). In much the same regard, one might also be concerned about the air we breathe. After all, imagine all the places its been! The copious ‘passing of wind’ (from both ends) at the recent party conventions, for example. Where do you suppose all that ‘idio-logical’ flatulence has gone? (He says, as he rushes to the the store to buy a box of surgical masks! ;-)


  1. Oh, this is good. I like your idea of seeing what people do naturally and incorporating the reality of behavior into the landscape. At least it seems a good idea with sidewalks. With other behaviors, maybe we need some “sidewalks” in place already? Or do you think it is safe to allow humans to follow their own instincts about best paths in life? I think some blend of the two approaches could be ideal. In a perfect world, maybe most people would make good choices. But I haven’t seen that world in a while. Just a thought! :) ~ Sheila


    • Good point! Actually, the ‘generalization’ expressed here relates mostly to the cultural tendency to replace dictates from the real world with increasingly ‘abstracted’ variations thereof. (Otherwise known as “La La Land.” ;-)


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