Saturday, December 28, 2013

Lost in the Woods

     I wasn't dressed for a hike and neither was my son, Carmine:  shorts, t-shirt, flimsy shoes.  But he wanted to go for a walk.
     Carmine's neurological apparatus is so aberrant, afflicted by autism, that he hasn't ever been able to communicate.  He gives the impression of understanding, because he repeats what he hears, a condition called "echolalia."  Over the past six months I've developed a rudimentary system for him to convey preferences.  I write a list of options on a legal pad, he copies the list, then circles one.  Yesterday I wrote:  Cook Dinner, Take a Nap, Go to a Movie, Take a Walk, Paint, Pull Weeds in the Garden, and Vacuum.  "What do you want to do?" I asked.  Without hesitation he circled Take a Walk.
     We live on 424 acres surrounded by Plum Creek's piney woods, which is leased by local hunters who belong to the Star Lake Hunt Club.  From November through March there are pre-dawn raucous disturbances of gunshots and maniacal dogs in packs, tearing through the acreage.  (Deer make no sound:  that's their defense.)
     Sometimes I chase the dogs down in my little Toyota in an effort to run them off the property and protect our wildlife habitat, which is part of the Florida Stewardship Program.  We haven't ventured off the beaten track much, on our walks, but I've begun to resent the the hunt-club's gun-toting intimidation and its encroachment onto this land.  It's my woods, too.  
     Carmine and I were hiking where trucks loaded with freshly killed deer usually trundle, when I had the idea of veering onto the smaller footpaths blazed by hunters, and even smaller ones, probably trodden by deer.  Then, like pioneers, we went into the depths of the forest, where there are no paths at all.
     Before long, we were lost.  We crawled through dense pawpaws and wax myrtles and got crisscrossed with scratches from rampant blackberry brambles.  Dusk had settled in the woods and it was getting darker by the minute.
     "Where are we?"  I asked.
     "Where are we?" Carmine echoed.
     "We're lost," I said.
     "We're lost," Carmine answered.
     He was following close behind as I searched the sky for linear clearings in the treetops, thinking that open sky would signify an unarbored area below, therefore a path pointing the way home.  But no path emerged.  We found ourselves traversing the same places over and over, making wide, futile circles.
     "Let's follow the sky where the sunset was," I said.
     "Sunset," Carmine said, woodenly.
     "That's west, which will take us to the highway sooner or later."
     My plan to use the westerly brightness of the fallen sun was promising until we found ourselves in a collusion of bony cypress knees--first a few, then a huge assemblage of them rising like goblins from the murky waters of old Florida swamp.  I used a branch to measure the water:  four feet.  Too deep to cross.
     "Whoa, the water table's really coming up," I said, like a scientist.
     "Really coming up," Carmine replied.  His brow was furrowed, and I realized that getting us lost at night in the woods was not an example of good caregiving.
     I wasn't perturbed by worry, however.  The instrument of fear that has evolved in the amygdala to protect us from danger wasn't functioning, I noted, in me.  I tested it by conjuring up potential hazards:   bears, coyotes, ticks, snakes, rain, cold.  A twisted ankle, a broken leg.  (I had thrown out my cell phone last year, and therefore couldn't call for rescue.)   We might feel hunger--but not thirst.  I figured we could drink that swamp water, since it percolated up from a crystalline aquifer.
     "So what?" I answered to every threat.  Not one felt serious.
     I remembered the news headlines twenty years ago, when I first moved to Florida with my four boys.  An autistic girl had been alone and lost in the woods for three days--cold, hungry, mute, unclothed and indifferent--when she was discovered.  She ended up in foster care, and ten years later became my patient.  I loved being her doctor because she was so gentle, uncomplicated by dark intentions.  Ever since her lonely meanderings in the woods, I had regarded her as a hero.  Like Carmine, her mind was impenetrable, but not empty.
     If I had been lost in the woods five or ten years ago, I would have been frightened.
     But frightened of what?  The fear would have been generic and global, gripping me like a terrible nightmare.  Fear surfaces from unknown places in the psyche, and transforms the outer world--nature, night, venomous and carnivorous creatures, the woods, the swamp--into dangerous terrain.  It's the effect of the dark underpinnings of consciousness.  But now I wasn't feeling any of that fear, not in these woods.  Nature seemed benign, in comparison to human despicableness.  The unconscious demons in my depths had risen from their shadows in the past three years, and taken shape in the physical reality of my prosecutors.
     The government's attack on me has reset my fear-threshold.  The moment those twin behemoths of government and bureaucracy entered the scene, the little titmice I used to dread--night sounds, dark water, alligators, forty-degree weather--became mere trivia.
     "Each one of us will be faced with genuine evil at some time in our lives," said a friend to me this week.  She and her husband have had to face their own demons in the form of institutionalized villainy at the University of Florida, this year.  "How we confront evil calls into the foreground the deepest elements of our characters," she added, to give me courage.
     To what extent is the government, or any unfeeling giant of civilization, a force of evil?  And is evil itself and our willingness to confront it the instrument of transcendence?  Or is our fear, and the capacity to negotiate it, which lead us on the path to higher consciousness?
     In the woods I was reckoning the likelihood that Carmine and I, however discomfited, might be in real danger.  The risk was small.  I saw grassy places where we could lie down and sleep without getting wet.  I had noted that the swamp water was alive and trickling, and therefore drinkable.  I figured we might huddle under a mass of pine straw and share warmth until morning.  I even gathered wads of Spanish moss to use as pillows.
     And as we went on hiking, slapped by branches and tangled in the dense vegetation of an understory that is never thwarted by deep freezes, I whispered, "Help."  I didn't want Carmine to hear and, perhaps, be assailed by his own quiet demons.
     "Help," I said to myself.
     And all at once, there in the distance appeared the wide path that had been our starting-point.  Overhead, a pearly pre-moon sky, unfettered by the boughs of pines or the fronds of tall cabbage palms, confirmed that there was a clear truck-path below, and signaled a return to our old life.
     "Whew," I said.  "We made it."
     "We made it," answered Carmine.  It was 10 pm.
     "We need a compass, next time."
     "Compass, next time."
     "That was lucky."
     Was it luck?  I wondered, as we trudged home with wet shoes and the seeds from creeping beggar weed all over our clothes.  I guess it was.

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