The Secret of From Here to There: Part II

Apologies, I’ve been gone a while, off to Vienna. Sounds exotic, right…? Nope, I’m in Vienna, VA doing consulting work for a few weeks. I’m not east of the Danube, but of the stinky Potomac River. There’s no Beethoven, Mozart, or Freud here, just a continual onslaught of car horns honky, brakes screeching, and trams whoosing… Here’s Part II, aka the Girl WHo Cried Stephenwolf

Part II: I continued my dialogue with nature as I stumbled through the woods. In hindsight, I should have concentrated on practicalities, since I’d brought no overnight camping gear, had limited fresh water, and both my dog and I wanted to sleep in our warm bed. The sun began its descent. I kept it to my right, and looked for signs I was marching out of this dense, old growth area and into younger woods, where other visitors had passed. My dog did not wander far from me, and enthusiastically accepted the crunchy treats I offered. I slipped and slid down another hillside. My boots kicked up dirt trying to gain a purchase, and left skid marks, revealing black, rich soil underneath. I’d also unearthed part of a rack of antlers, buried under the leaves. I counted seven points, and took it as a good sign. The deer had been my father’s totem; he had introduced me to the woods, to hiking, hunting, camping, and fishing.

Time moves slowly here. A fallen tree may take fifty years or more to crumble and disappear.

Out of habit, I composed a mental letter. This one bears no postage stamp. And as the woods were growing darker by the moment, it was just as well the words were only in my head. Dear Smoky Mountains: I want to know you better. Share with me your secret titles, and the places you keep hidden—your caves and waterfalls. I know the names of your trees, streams, and birds. I’ve read myths about the Alarkas that guard the unknown place where the Cherokee first emerged, and I’ve relished tales about witches who offer water from springs and promise eternal youth—for a steep price—one soaked in blood. I’ve walked along your stony spine, and massaged you with both boots and bare feet. I admire the relationships you’ve formed, how your boulders collect water, which slowly trickles down, and feeds nursling trees nestled in moss and the soil of dead things. You co exist so nicely. I wish we humans could learn that ability, but we’re fearful creatures. Dark forests are scary. Our instinct, too often, is to destroy, control, or tame what we fear. We forget we were once part of nature, and not so very long ago, we crawled from the ooze.

Some of us understand the damage we’ve done. In the 60’s, ecology groups and environmentalists led efforts to clean up the mess. Since 1970, we’ve held an Earth Day yearly (though it should be held daily), and are finally paying attention to global warming. We celebrate Arbor Day, and there’s an entire new branch of science called eco-psychology, which examines the synergistic relationship between us and earth. We are tapping into the power of wind and water, and many of us recycle, compost, and conserve precious resources. Some of us remain cynical that we can or should make a difference. As comedian George Carlin reminded us, “we haven’t learned how to care for ourselves or each other.” He said even the most ardent ecologists are concerned only about their own back yard, and that the worst damage we cause is in putting Styrofoam and plastic into our landfills, which don’t easily biodegrade. He warns if nature ever gets its fill of us, it will simply create a virus to wipe us out, and throw in an earthquake or two, and a few volcanic eruptions.

It’s been easy to open myself up to our planets diversity and mystery, first as a wild girl child, who had to be coaxed inside to do homework or chores, then as a 60’s hippie, and now as a woman who’s journeyed to standing circles, henges, cairns and sacred sites in Europe, Ireland, the British Isles, Australia, the Caribbean, and throughout North America to learn about connections we’ve had with nature, but no longer understand, and to awaken the spirits that dwell there. But I stray from the intent of my letter, which was simply to introduce myself and let you know I’m thinking about you. I care. Your fate is our fate. So thank you venerable mountains, land of blue and purple mists, home to over 130 species of trees, and over 4000 different types of plants–Sincerely, Hilltop Wanderer. PS: I’m a bit unsure how to exit your forest. Also, I’d prefer not to circle round the same area three times, though I know nature is fond of circles and repeating patterns. Lead me somewhere please.

Eight or nine hours into my journey, and several hours after I’d consciously decided I should reacquaint myself with civilization, I had the distinct feeling I was writing my obituary with each wrong step I took. My feet had left no footprints on the mossy ground. I couldn’t find broken limbs of trees or shrubs that marked the way I’d traveled earlier in the day, and I’d left no litter, unless you counted the tin wind chime and the wine bottle. As the sun took a nosedive over the horizon (for as the Indians say ‘day and night can not dwell together in peace’), the wind, which had been quiet, was blowing on the landscape, manipulating leaves and loose debris like a crafty puppet master. I shielded my eyes, turned against the wind, and walked sideways, crablike, to the top of the next mound. My westerly path was blocked by an enormous tree that had fallen, a hemlock. I can try to climb over it or go around. I yell for my dog and we find a way through, and I’m now headed south, a direction my dog seems to favor.

I suspected this trip would be made more complicated because my dog, off the leash, has a strong desire to lead—and penetrate to the heart of unknown terrain—to find its center. Typically, during a foray into the hills, he would circle back every fifteen minutes, beg for a sweet potato treat or jerky, and bark his impatience at my inability to keep up. Two or three hours of running, sniffing, and peeing was his usual limit, then it was time to find the car and take a long nap in the back seat. I could tell he was done trail blazing, and even his dauntless nature couldn’t penetrate the heart of these 500,000 acres. He walked close to me now. He’d missed his naps, and his nose was overloaded with scents. Yes, it’s time to go home. We aren’t equipped to stay out all night, I remind him. I don’t blame you for leading me astray. I gladly followed you. Find the car fellow. When he stood flush against my right leg a few minutes later, almost knocking me over, my internal intruder alert buzzer rang.

The dishwater dull light remaining filtered through a patch of sky cleared by the tumbled hemlock. It fell on a ginger and gold carpet of leaves—being pawed by a very plump Ursus Americannus—a black bear. For a second, the forest panorama swirled round me, as if I were standing in the center of a target—as its bullseye. My dog’s hackles rose, though he was oddly mute. The bear’s nose sniffed the air, then it returned to rooting. We remain very still. Finally the bear rumbled off, and headed downhill.  I take stock of our situation. Should we stay here, build a fire while there’s still some light, and establish a camp? I can make do with the supplies I’ve brought and build some semblance of a survival shelter. The fallen tree could serve as a back wall. My dog is restless. He wants to go home. After feeding him another piece of jerky, I pop a handful of trail mix, squirt water into my mouth, assemble a few s’mores, and eat them cold as we head westward. Wearily, I wondered why the first letter of the four compass directions spelled NEWS? I could use some good news right now.

How do you tell when you are lost? An hour after darkness descended like an avalanche of boulders sealing the mouth of a cave, I questioned whether my inability to find my way out of these deep woods was because I didn’t know exactly what had lured me here. Was it the brochure that said ‘over 100,000 species of life are visible to the naked eyes in these majestic hills,’ or the informative pamphlet that warned that 2/3’s of the Smokies have been compromised—little virgin forest remained—and acres were disappearing daily?  Did East Tennessee have its very own Bermuda Triangle, and was I trapped in it? Or was it the mountain lore that captured my interest—tales of dastardly deeds, lost treasures, and wandering tribes of medicine men, dog soldiers, and restless spirits? Perhaps it was simply my desire to have unimpeded communication with nature? Whatever the reason, I was now the girl who cried Steppenwolf. I wasn’t born to be wild, despite being a product of the ‘hug a tree’ 60’s. What was I thinking? Where was my pioneering spirit? Had I drunk it hours ago?

More bad metaphors rattled round my skull. So many have lost their way, forgotten what it was to live in harmony with nature. In America, we’ve gone from trying to conquer nature to bludgeoning it to death—with industrial waste, car fumes, and my personal favorite, animal burps and farts. The keening howl that pierced the now nippy air reminded me there were other creatures besides bears in these hills. There was also Canis Lupus—the grey wolf, and Canis Rufus—the red wolf. This wolf’s cry may have been alerting others in its pack that it would soon begin to rain. They should seek the shelter of their den. Another bit of Indian wisdom reminds that ‘wisdom sits in places.’ Perhaps it was time for us to find shelter—to sit still and wait out the night.

The air smelled of ozone and a dense woodsy perfume, while my own scent resembled o’de despair, or should that be oud, named after the dehn al-oud, a rare Asian oil used in incense and perfume, extracted from the trunks of 300 year old trees contaminated by a strange bacteria? There was a pleasant nutty, aromatic scent issuing from the hollow cavity of a tree my dog discovered. The tree looked dead or dying, but it stood tall, offering us shelter—and a temporary home. We squeezed into it just as the skies pelted the forest with stinging rain, which quickly turned into icy crystals of snow. It was beautiful, even though it made me think of a famous Jack London short story To Build a Fire, about a seasoned woodsman who sets off across the tundra with his dog, steps in frigid water and attempts to build a fire so he can warm himself and dry his frozen clothes and boots. The story doesn’t end well, not for the man, and not for his faithful dog.

My dog shivered. Awkwardly, I removed my backpack, massaged my sore bones, and draped the thin silver space blanket around us. Rooting inside the bag, I found a cotton/wool blend top, and without any fuss, my dog let me pull it over his head and two front legs. His stubby tail wiggled. A quick examination of fingers, faces, and paws convinced me we didn’t have hyperthermia or frostbite. At least I had dressed for the season and wore the best gear my money could buy. We shared the last slice of brown bread and trail mix crumbs. From my vest pocket, I removed a nubby candle and matches, put the candle on my upturned tin cup, and marveled at the shadows and heat the tiny light generated. The shadows guarded the entrance of our hideaway. I took a long swig from my flask and a short one from the bladder, then offered squirts of water to my companion, who soon fell asleep across my legs. I dozed for a few hours, and woke to see that an inch of snow had fallen. The sky was clearing though few stars were visible; the wind was again quiet.

It was very still. Nature had sent us an early winter greeting card, which made the forest appear luminous. I felt suspended, neither cold nor warm, neither perturbed nor peaceful—just a watcher—with no appointments to keep, no bills to pay. I could become part of this tree, one with the elements. It was tempting, and I dozed again, dreaming of cows and snakes sharing water from a mountain spring. The cow processed the water and produced milk, the snake produced venom, each fulfilled a need.

My dog stirred, stretched, and quickly concluded this cramped shelter wasn’t where he wanted to spend the night. He cocked his leg and watered a tree, and ran in spiraling circles, barking for me to follow him. He seemed to know where he was going—at least—he wanted to lead. I folded the blanket, adjusted the backpack, and looked skyward. “PSS,” I said aloud. “The snow might be helpful, or it might make walking more treacherous. Are we nearly out of the deep woods? Send a sign care of yours truly. A rainbow would be nice, or a pair of playful otters. Thanks.”

A few hours later, the reflection of a fat round disc mirrored in a tree stump brimming with icy water showed me a nearly full moon rising. The sun rose in the east and set in the west. I vaguely recalled the moon rises in the west. If that was true, we were still heading in a westward direction. The moon slipped behind clouds; the forest looked like a film noir set. It forced me to resort to tree and limb hugging as I stumbled my way around. Writer Louis L’Amour warned the trail out looks much different than the trail in. The snow was dissolving. I was bone weary, hungry, thirsty and frustrated, done with mountain missives—and beginning to think I wasn’t on nature’s wavelength at all. I was only hearing static. It’s humbling how the enormity of night and the muteness of trees can make one feel. There was only the sound of our breathing, the crunching noise we made crushing leaves and tree fragments, and the occasional echo of an owl.  I was close to crying, but realized any tears would freeze. Nature is complex; ergo its language is complex. Somehow, I had to find a translator. I stumbled on.

The moon arose once more, searchlight bright—to guide me from these cold woods. I showed my gratitude by reciting what poems I could remember about the moon. My dog flushed some pheasants from the underbrush, and they flew into a luster illuminated horizon. There was a clearing below us—a manmade clearing. We were back in civilized territory. That almost made me sad. I thought of Heminway’s The Snows of Kilimanjaro, which I’d been lugging around in my backpack. As his character lies dying, he realizes how very little of his life he’s written down or captured. He dies realizing what he didn’t do—and never will. I’d been in these woods for an entire day and night. I didn’t take one picture, draw a single pastel impression, or write any words in my journal. This experience wouldn’t fit inside a series of digital pictures or between pages. Thoreau once said ‘wisdom doesn’t inspect—it beholds.’ We’d been in the thick of things, so to speak, beholding nature and its unfolding. Can one be both wise and lost?

There’s a medieval form of Irish poetry called Conachlann, where the last word of each line of the poem becomes the first word in the next line. That’s how I felt. Each sensory experience built on the last, linking everything together somehow. A part of me now understood the how of the wolf’s howls, and the when of the will of the wind, which you either bowed to and into, or shrank from. Thoughts expressed via language were useless. I simply stood there and grinned like a silly goose, wondering if I could summon the fortitude of the Lakota Indians that would climb to the top of a mountain, and sit and fast for four days to communicate with the unconscious. They called it ‘hanbleceya,’ to ‘cry’ for a vision. Would I get the chance to tell others about my experience?

A second bear sighting just before dawn elicited a drawing in of breath; I didn’t need another Kodiak moment—so to speak and I shuttered at the size of the bear’s aperture. Still, it was beautiful. Perhaps it was my over stimulated, overly tired mind playing a trick. It seemed the bear, before lumbering off, recognized me as I recognized it—as a work in progress, a partially untamed being out for a stroll, or a forage—it for food and me for food for thought. The mountain is a repository of all our endeavors, good and bad. Two thirds of all species makes homes in or near our forests—in harmony—in freedom. Chief Seattle’s words resounded again, “What we do to the web—we do to ourselves.” The whirling sound of wings and the quack of ducks overhead made me suspect we were near water. My dog found the stream first, and took a long guzzle. I shared the last of the trail mix and found part of a dog treat in a vest pocket. We began following the stream. However, we weren’t yet ‘out of the woods.’

How did we find our way home—and into a warm, cozy bed? More than thirty hours after we embarked on this great adventure, we arrived home. I peeled off outer clothes, left it all in a pile in the garage, and flipped on light switches everywhere. I inspected toes, paws and fingers again and found everything intact. We raided the fridge and I drank deeply right from the sink faucet. I saluted whoever the gods of technology might be. While I took a hot shower, my dog napped. I turned on the TV and glanced at the paper—same old news. Within seconds, I was soundly asleep.

We still venture off trail, though I never forget the compass and cell phone, and have added a few flares to my backpack. And unlike Hemingway’s character, nature didn’t kill me. Perhaps the hills will kill me tomorrow, but not today. I’m trailblazing, finding ways to write about what’s important, finding ways to respect nature’s secrets. Writer Laura Moncur said “if you live your life without secrets, the wind will become bored, even the trees will stop listening.” That would be awful, especially now that nature’s opened up and I finally understand a few of her words, a few of her many hieroglyphs. So I’ll keep its secret for now. Here’s a secret I will share with you: If you can absolutely understand the meaning of just one place, you can understand the meaning of all places. You’ll be able to find your way from here to there and back to the place you call home, the place that grounds you. If you approach home slowly, perhaps by skipping sideways or by jumping on just one foot, out of the corner of your eye you might also observe that home is the other place where the rainbow has hidden a treasure.

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