Arts & Culture

On Optimization: The Difference Between Trails and Women

In the mountainous Alaskan tundra, caribou draw trails as they cross landscapes full of low and stubborn brush, the pencil of their hooves tracing over and over the paths of least resistance. Thin lines, just wide enough to accommodate an animal’s athletic build, cut across around the sides of peaks to reach water sources. “A trail sleekens to its end,” writes Robert Moor, author of the philosophical and scientific book On Trails: An Exploration. Over time, these paths adapt, recalibrating according to the goal of the herd as the dirt packs down harder and unwieldy branches are cut down to allow for easier travel, showing caribou the way and limiting their impact on the land.

In Moor’s On Trails, an entomologist says, “All things optimize in nature, to some degree.” This optimization—the process of honing in on goals and maximizing efficiency over time—is simply part of evolution. In the grand graph of things, the earth naturally moves forward, zig-zagging up and down, ultimately headed up towards the top right corner labelled “better.” Following this trend satiates a distaste for aimlessness. “Everyone optimizes,” Moor goes on, “whether we are pioneering or perpetuating, making rules or breaking them, succeeding or screwing up.” We pioneer, perpetuate, make rules, break rules, succeed, and screw up in search of that top right corner. It’s a beautiful process, optimization, when you picture paths working their way through the woods, shape shifting over time so that their home and their users together end up at equilibrium.

Like many people, I have a tendency to turn natural processes into metaphors applicable to my own life. The ideal of optimization, however, got stuck in my throat the moment I read it. This discomfort originates from Jia Tolentino’s essay “Always Be Optimizing,” a seething and self-implicating criticism on the cult of the ideal woman. “She looks like an Instagram,” Tolentino writes, “which is to say, an ordinary woman reproducing the lessons of the marketplace, which is how an ordinary woman evolves into an ideal… This woman is sincerely interested in whatever the market demands of her (good looks, the impression of indefinitely extended youth, advanced skills in self-presentation and self-surveillance).” This optimization allows a woman more ease in moving through the world—smoothing her rough edges into a more palatable version of herself such that, say, the man in charge finds her acceptable enough to hire. 

Brittany Bryant, a second year master’s student in philosophy, offered a fitting metaphor for how society asks women to optimize. Whereas smaller animals can benefit from the trails larger animals create, “with respect to sexism… [optimization] might be more like a path through deep snow… I’ve followed really tall people walking through deep snow before and the width between their footsteps is several feet apart. And then I’m having to do lunges to keep up with them or forge my own path. And then they don’t understand, unless they look back and see what’s happening, why I’m so exhausted. In order to fit in the path that has been blazed before you have to alter everything about your life, what would otherwise be natural.” Optimal paths in nature increase efficiency and allow for greater ease in travel, but the optimal path for women is like one through deep snow. Our lives are made more difficult by the ideals in front of us—we either have to expend energy following the path created by those in power, or we have to expend energy in striking out on our own. 

This is a far cry from the harmonious and mutually beneficial optimization found in the natural world. “One of the big differences is that, in nature, there are no normative claims that exist alongside natural progression,” said Bryant. “But, in the human world, what natural progress is does not always align with what is normatively acceptable… for a lot of people, and what aligns with most people’s intuitions is that those are two separate areas. So I think once we try to apply nature to the human world, we have to start looking at the additional lens of normativity outside of just natural progress or what is evolutionarily beneficial.” Normativity involves judgments like should and ought. Embedded in the concept of Tolentino’s ideal is that this is what a woman should or ought to be. In nature, however, there is no external value system imposed on optimization—it is simply an ordinary march into the future.

The awareness of this phenomenon does not easily dismiss the issue. I’m not finding it easy to steal myself back from the clear messaging I learned from early 2000s rom-coms that don’t pass the Bechdel test, and the detention I got in middle school when my skirt was measured with a physics class meter stick to three and a half instead of three inches above my knees. The inclination towards optimization cannot just return to its natural energy-saving mutually beneficial state. Simone de Beauvoir’s book The Second Sex, according to Bryant, “is laying out how it is easiest for women to consent to their own oppression. And because it is easiest it is rational. She’s not blaming women for consenting, she thinks it’s the rational choice just because to press against it is so exhausting in so many different ways.” Picking between following the trail created by the taller person in deep snow or striking out on one’s own is not a choice so easily made. 

But maybe we can find optimization anew. Trail crew work brings humans into the harmony of the natural world. Emily Quigley, assistant director for campus life at Tufts focusing on outdoor education, said, “I truly believe that we as humans are part of the environment and part of nature and part of this space. We have a responsibility to be a part of it in a way that is harmonious. So when we’re creating trails for ourselves, we’re also creating trails that allow humans to be part of that environment in a mutually beneficial or flourishing way, to use the words from [the book] Braiding Sweetgrass.” In late August, I spent a couple of days helping to realign a trail in southern Vermont. The pre-existing trail ran right alongside the shoreline of a beautiful pond, but the soil was too moist and the shoreline too fragile to bear the effects of constant trampling. Following the professional trail crew’s lead, we worked to build up a new trail grounded with rocks to give hikers a more sustainable path to and around the pond. We create these trails both to care for the environment and to give us the space to exist in nature, and in that creation, we find ourselves as part of a natural, harmonious process of optimization. 

This work, similar to most outdoor education, is often done in small groups that encourage the creation of intentional communities. “When we’re in the outdoors,” said Quigley, “we’re not leaving our identities and our bodies and our experiences behind. But we’re bringing them into a place where there’s a little bit more breathing room to communicate and to practice building the community and a microcosm of the society that we want to create and have together. If we’re out here, in our daily lives, organizing for justice in whatever way, can we practice some of those radical ideas on a smaller scale?” When I’m backpacking, my job is to stay alive and stay (reasonably) happy because that’s the standard I’m working against—not to be some sleek, ideal woman designed for the male gaze. I have no choice but to keep trudging along, no choice but to wait for the water to boil and cook beans and love said beans. I inhabit an environment where I’m free from the exhaustion of fighting back that Beauvoir mentions. Reconfiguring our values to find harmony in community can bring optimization back down to earth—we just need to start small (and outside).