Minimal footprints on the sands of time

'If you want to leave your footprints on the sands of time, be sure you're wearing work shoes." This little bit of folk wisdom has been stuck in my consciousness like a bit of lint for a few years now. The Web page I found to confirm my memory of the proverb described it as "anonymous Italian." Other sources had variations ascribed to "anonymous American" or "anonymous African" sages.

All these are allusions to a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, which includes the lines:

Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time.

Footprints have been on my mind for a couple of weeks now, ever since a colleague posed the question: How do you express the idea of having less of a footprint?

"Footprint" had been used metaphorically in a story we were working on; The reference was to aid organizations providing tsunami relief in Asia. They were trying to ensure that their presence did not skew the local economy, as for instance by driving prices up. They were thinking about their "footprint," to use a term often used among environmentalists, in the local community. They wanted to have less of one.

So is that a smaller footprint? A dissolving one? A diminishing one?

If you're talking about actual human footprints on the beach, for instance, they can be said to disappear or dissolve with each crash of the incoming surf. Similarly, footprints on a dusty trail are subject to wind and rain. But neither kind exactly gets "smaller."

What's happened here is that what I think of as the "literal" meaning of "footprint" is becoming the quaint, old-fashioned meaning. The computer world's use of "footprint" ("this computer has a footprint of 10 by 16 inches") and the telecommunications world's usage (the area a satellite covers is its "footprint") are becoming concrete, primary meanings of the word - which then opens up further as a source of metaphor.

When Longfellow (to say nothing of the anonymous American, African, and Italian) used "footprints" to talk about leaving one's mark, making a difference in the world, making a contribution, the idea was, the more the better.

In satellite land, coverage is good, so a wider footprint is better. In computerland, a wider footprint means more of your (literal) desktop taken up with computer hardware. Not good.

"Footprint" is used by environmentalists trying to measure the demand human beings put on their environment. An outfit called the Global Footprint Network has developed what it calls the Ecological Footprint tool as a means to this end. From their perspective, narrower is better.

The aid organizations in Asia are taking this specialized usage and adapting it to a local economy which is, after all, a sort of ecosystem, one that they want not to damage further but to support with their presence.

As our story noted, " 'Afghanistan was the first major international operation designed on the principle of the small footprint,' says Douglas Keh, spokesman for UN Development Program (UNDP) in Banda Aceh. 'Since then, we have sought to minimize our presence.' "

They have sought, in other words, to leave a minimal footprint.

Footprints have come a long way since Longfellow.

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