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  • May 17th, 2019

I WENT TO THE WOODS….

By Joel M. Vance

 

Late in life after Robert McNamara began to comprehend the enormity of his responsibility for the stupidity and cruelty of the Vietnam War, he explained it by referring to “The fog of war.” As if the confusion and wrong decisions made in the heat of battle somehow excused or moderated the vast human cost of what he had helped to create. “It was awful foggy out, officer, so I just didn’t see that little kid until I ran over him.”

 

Today, we still are mired in the longest war in American history— a fuddled attempt to bring order to a disordered and barely civilized rockpile named Afghanistan. We still are muddling about in Iraq and Donald Trump, apparently following in the stumbling footsteps of his predecessors, searching for his own war to claim credit for, is making threatening comments about interfering in Venezuela’s increasingly chaotic politics. Or maybe he can goad Iran into lobbing nuclear missiles back and forth.  The fog of war still is upon us and shows no sign of dissipating.

 

What to do then, when the fog of politics is too noxious to endure? Then it is time to go out in the sweet spring air and take a hike. So that’s what I’m doing. Somewhere, Donald Trump is tweeting inanities in his reprehensible, half witted and dangerous style, Sarah Sanders is preparing to echo him as if she were Capt. Hook’s parrot, perched on his doughy shoulder. And Kellyanne Conway, the Wicked Witch of the West Wing no doubt, is lurking in the catacombs of the White House, waiting for Count Trumplia to rise from his 24 carat coffin to dispatch her on yet another bloodsucking political hatchet job.

 

That’s the way it is in the hallowed hotseat of democracy, Washington DC, where duplicity substitutes for common sense. But I am walking across a lush carpet of green. A mini meadow established and meticulously maintained by our son, Eddie. At the far side of this emerald gem is a five acre plot of woods with trails sinuously winding through it. Eddie cleared the trail, carefully maintaining a semblance of remoteness— a marvelous engineering job that gives you the feeling of traversing a long wilderness path when really you’re never more than a few yards from the open meadow.

 

There is a replica coal mine in Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry where you enter an elevator that seemingly drops you 1000 feet into a dimly lit shaft where you can see machines ostensibly extracting coal from solid rock. It’s all illusion and done so marvelously that you would swear at the end of the tour you have just emerged from the depths of a deep coal mine. That’s the kind of magic that Eddie has created in his tiny plot of woods.

 

Henry Thoreau was the spokesperson for the value of isolating oneself in the wilderness. “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately,” Thoreau said but the portion of Walden Woods where he isolated himself was only 14 acres, scarcely larger than Eddie Woods and when Hank felt the need to go to town for a sixpack of Pepsi, he was within walking distance. And he also accidentally once set a forest fire that burned 300 acres of the woods.

 

But Hank got a memorable book out of his time in the 14 acres; I hope to get a website blog out of my time on Eddie’s trail. Eddie’s meadow, lush and green, has been nurtured by the same spring rains that have caused the Mississippi River to go on a rampage not seen in 150 years. As I write, the Missouri River is forecast to rise above 25 feet, some 4 feet beyond flood stage. In 1993, the Missouri achieved an epic flood that saw the stretch from Jefferson City to St. Louis become a massive lake.

 

It was, they said, a 500 year flood, implying that Missouri would not suffer the same fate for another five centuries. The water receded slightly and within days more rain came and the river rose even higher to a second 500 year flood— not 500 years later but about five days later.

 

Engineers have tried for more than a century to tame the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, largely without success. At its birth you can skip across the Mississippi on slippery rocks, risking sliding into cold waters halfway up your shin. The river is no hazard to man there because there are 10,000 lakes in Minnesota to disperse any floodwaters and few people live in the Mississippi headwaters, so few would be affected if there were floodwaters. Between Minneapolis-St. Paul and St. Louis there is a necklace of locks and dams designed to store floodwater and ensure a constant water level for barge traffic. It works fairly well, although the folks in presently flooded Davenport, Iowa, might disagree, but below St. Louis the river does pretty much what it wants to and when heavy rains fall, as they have recently, man’s expensively constructed levees crumble and thousands of acres become temporary lakes.

 

One of those 500 year or perhaps 1000 year or perhaps all eternity years happened in 1927 when the Mississippi River blew out of its banks in the most destructive flood in United States history. Some 27,000 square miles of land adjacent to the river flooded up to 30 feet deep. Most of the flooding was south of Missouri, and the 1927 disaster is what spurred levee building south of St. Louis to New Orleans.

 

The Mississippi River’s largest and most unruly tributary, the Missouri, also had its period of levee construction—not so much to contain floodwaters as to provide a uniform depth for barge traffic. There also is a system of dams beginning with Fort Peck in Montana and ending with Gavin’s Point dam in South Dakota. As far as I can tell, what the dams have done over the years is create a reason for river bordering states to scream at each other over who gets how much water when, where, how and why. Plus, below the dam system, every time we have one of those 500 year floods it blows out levees built ever higher over the years in a futile attempt to constrict the river. It doesn’t take a college educated engineer to figure out what happens when you squeeze a garden hose. The constricted water has more force and if you’re trying to blow that water down a narrower channel, inevitably it erodes what has been built up to try to hold it in place. In a word, levees.

So that’s what I’m thinking about as I squish through the soggy entrance to Eddie’s trail. But it’s not a day for thinking of environmental disaster. So I slog through a carpet of lush lawn grass and dandelions.  A friend shot a turkey gobbler recently, the crop of which was crammed with dandelion greens. I never knew that wild turkeys cherished dandelion greens, the curse of the gardener. Perhaps we can substitute wild turkeys for dangerous herbicides— they certainly are better for your health.

 

The Eddie Trail hike will be a muddy one but a blissful one of perhaps 15 or 20 minutes during which there is the possibility of spooking a deer, turkey or other wildlife. There will be birds, spring wildflowers, and possibly the occasional disease bearing dog tick. As usual I have forgotten to slather myself with insect repellent and probably will pay for it sometime by contracting a tickborne disease. No pleasure exists without threat, including a walk in the woods. Otherwise we would not have original sin.

 

I’m looking at the tracks of a deer now, stomped into the mud. There have been times on this trail when there were so many tracks that it looked as if there had been a cattle stampede. These tracks are so fresh that you’d think the deer still should be standing in them. But he or she has vanished, probably spooked by me just out of sight.

 

My shoes stick in the mud and slurp as I pull them loose. I punctuate the sound with snuffling—the pollen count is sky high from oak, hickory, mulberry. A mole tunneled across the trail in front of me, leaving a tiny levee in its passing. Once, we had a Brittany who was fond of of unearthing moles and retrieving them. Unfortunately, he was not nearly as fond of discovering game birds.

 

I pass an immature honey locust, bristling with lethal looking spines like an arboreal porcupine. Being speared by a honey locust is a painful experience—I swear, those stiletto-like barbs are dipped in acid. Honey locust probably would make good firewood— its cousin, black locust, is among the best burning woods available, but who wants to risk woodland wounding. A neighbor once wanted to use a pasture of ours infested with honey locust saplings which needed to be removed before the grass was usable (cows resist munching on hay laced with vegetative barbed wire). I was more than happy to donate the hay if the neighbor was willing to clean out the honey locust. I never heard directly from the cows but they seemed to smile as we passed them on the road.

 

Although I am less than 100 yards from Eddie’s meadow on one side and a county highway on the other, it is quiet here, as quiet as the bucolic peace Thoreau sought at Walden. “I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude,” Thoreau said, but that makes you wonder about a man who discounts the friendship of his fellow man, preferring to travel life’s trail by himself. I suspect I would have found Thoreau a sour old man, somewhat unlikable, and not nearly as companionable as my hunting buddies. But it is good to be alone for a little while— just not all the time.

 

I didn’t find until after my walk that in ancient Greek mythology, a labyrinth was a structure built originally to hold the Minotaur, a fearsome monster.  The labyrinth which the English call a maze, was so complex that the Minotaur couldn’t figure out how to get out. I hope that I do not encounter a Minotaur on my walk, but did later discover that in modern times labyrinth patterns, inlaid on the floor, are used in hospitals for therapeutic relaxation. They also are used for private meditation, which certainly fits the reason for my excursion into Eddie’s unintentional version of the ancient labyrinth.

 

Minotaurs no, deer possibly. The deer tracks trundle ahead of me on the trail and perhaps the deer himself or herself is standing just outside my vision alongside the trail, waiting for me to pass. There is a small tree shaded pond to my right which dries up in the summer but which, thanks to the rain, now is flush. I spooked a pair of wood ducks off of it on a previous walk. An old stock tank is buried below the pond dam, nearly obscured by lush growth from seepage through the dam. Once, long ago, livestock grazed here but now the only livestock that ever make it this far back in the undergrowth are the cows that periodically break through the neighbor’s fence and trample the garden.

 

Here is a deer track where the animal slipped and nearly fell. The ground is peppered with deer tracks— if it’s just one deer it must be a virtual hoofed Fred Astaire. I come to the smiling piggy, atop a stump. Our daughter and son-in-law acquired a series of miniature figures in a junk shop which they placed along the trail to enliven the experience– a smiling piggy, a bird, and several other meaningless knickknacks. They add personality to Eddie’s trail.

 

The pig’s head is lifted to the sky with a cheerful grin as if it is happy to be there. Piggy is warmed by a shaft of sunlight and we share a moment of optimism. I pass a pair of plastic Scottish terriers nestled together in the crotch of a tree with the word “welcome” inscribed on the base that supports them.

 

I spy Mickey and Minnie Mouse waving cheerfully at me. They are the last of the figurines before the trail ends. It’s as if the two Disney characters are saying “Thanks for enjoying the trail with us and come again!”

 

I leave the trail at the edge of the dam across Eddie’s small pond. Cattails are beginning to sprout and will nearly clog the pond before summer is finished and the water will dry to caked mud. Now the pond belongs to spring peepers which chirp and croak in chorus, a jumbled non-Beethovenish “Ode to Joy.” Who’s to say that little frogs aren’t just as enthralled by spring’s exuberant surge of life as I am?

I leave the trail and the woods and the spring peepers behind and walk slowly toward home in the sunlight.

 

 

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1 Comment

  1. CJ

    May 17th, 2019 at 1:55 pm

    Reply

    HDT is my favorite! And so is Eddie’s Trail! Loved this!



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