This Thing Called Courage

Friday, November 28, 2008

The Benefits of Getting Lost

MY GRANDMOTHER MOLLY AHERN was a deeply and Catholically religious woman, who nevertheless believed in Na Sean Nos, the Old Ways. This concept is easier to understand than it is to explain. One of the Na Sean Nos might be what we call sixth sense, or premonition; for it seems I have a certain premonition at times when it comes to rescuing, or finding, animals in danger-- lost dogs, turtles too near the highways and busy streets around her, etc. One of the things Molly used to say to me was, "If you lean into the world, the world leans into you." I was never quite sure what she meant by that, but I think I'm beginning to.

Last Monday night was the last night of the semester for the Irish Class I teach at the Cambridge Center. We usually celebrate by having food-- most everyone brings in something. I usually make Irish soda bread (not the white stuff, but a heartier, whole wheat peasant bread, crusty on the outside and soft and pully in the middle-- delicious!) and/or I stop at 'Bits and Bites of Ireland,' an Irish bakery on Main Street in Melrose (one town east) that has fabulous breads and pastries. I did so last Monday. As I was driving back, I came to the intersection of the Fellsway East and Ravine Road. I suppose it was 1:30 in the afternoon. Ordinarily I go straight at this intersection, as it's the fastest way home-- but something told me to take a left, which is almost the exact direction away from my home. I like to follow my instincts, so I did. I was driving up the hill, along this parkway that cuts through the eastern part of the Fells, a lovely winding road with soaring woods and cliffs on both sides. Suddenly up ahead, about 200 yards away, I saw something running toward me-- straddling the yellow line in the middle of the road. As we got closer to each other, I saw that it was a young, somewhat tall Boston Terrier, running down the road. He was dragging his leash behind him as he ran. There wasn't a human in sight. Clearly the poor creature had gotten away from his or her owner, and was pretty panicked. Cars were kind of whizzing by from both sides and I was outraged at this. I stopped my car in the middle of the road, at an angle so I was (hopefully) blocking traffic, put on my flashers, then hopped out of the car. As I did so the the dog stopped, and regarded me. I regarded him. I was maybe twenty feet away by now. I should have squatted, and taken off my sunglasses, and cooed softly, and pretended I had some kind of doggie treat--but instead I approached him, and he bolted into the woods to my right.

I got back into the car. Fionn was with me and hadn't been walked yet. There was a small dirt car park on the right just ahead, so we pulled into that and gave chase, following a trail that quickly became steeper. We kept climbing and climbing, stopping periodically to look for the dog-- but there was no sign of him. I was on this trail swatched with blue blazes, called the Cross Fells Trail, which happens to be the longest trail in the Fells. But where I was now was a part of the Fells I'm not very familiar with. But I thought, as long as I stay on the trail, we won't get lost.

But it's a rather circuitious trail, and at some point I evidently missed a turn. Before long we were lost (though Fionn didn't think so!) and we kept going and going, seemingly heading in the same direction and looking for a cross trail, but then the cross trails inevitably bringing us back, ultimately, to where we had been before. And everything began to look the same.

Every year, alas, I read in the Boston Globe about 'Hiker Still Missing' or 'Hopes Fading for Couple Lost in White Mountains,' about people who get lost in the woods of New England. When one does get lost, it's really easy to understand how quickly people can get disoriented. But it's also an interesting feeling, and a very (I suspect) primal one, in that this sort of thing must have happened all the time to our ancestors-- so I tried to savor the feeling, as it were, as one that modern man and woman very seldom get to experience: the runnels we travel daily are well greased indeed-- in fact most of us go out of our way to avoid getting lost, or trying different things, or breaking out of the daily routine. So in that sense I think it's really good to get lost once in a while. Plus, once you do get lost, and then find your way out-- you're left with a new part of the world that you're familiar with now, because of your experience. You won't get lost in there again most likely, especially if it's a relatively small area, like the Fells is: 2500 acres, big enough to get lost in without necessitating a headline in The Globe.

I made one really delightful discovery. At the top of a steep hill, I came across a high, old and rusty chainlink fence; someone had cut a hole in this and so I went through it, to see what I might see. There was a big, horseshoe-shaped reservoir beyond, and I suppose the hole-cutter was a young person anxious for a cooling swim on a hot summer night, and more power to him or her. But beside the reservoir was a very large high meadow, a large field of waist high grass, now dry and yellowed and curling in the wind. At the edges of this meadow were woods, and thickets, and I thought-- Aha! The perfect habitat for the American Woodcock, one of my favorite native birds, who carries spring on his back each year with his dazzling nocturnal mating display. It's really not spring until I see the woodcock dance. And then I thought-- I must come back with my drum, and sain this place.

Sain is an interesting word, archaic according to most dictionaries. I first came across it when I read Crossing the Circle at the Holy Wells of Ireland, a really fascinating book written by Walter and Mary Brennerman, a pair of PHd's from America who studied the holy wells of Ireland for several years. It's a decidely academic book, and yet very enjoyable for the layperson who might be interested in such things. Briefly, there are about 5000 wells (or small pools) scattered throughout Ireland; about 2000 of these are deemed, and have been deemed for millennia, to be 'holy,' and to possess curative powers. There are eye wells, and back wells, and fertility wells, etc, and each well has its 'patron,' or pattern, that is to be performed at the well. Many of these rituals include perambulating around the well, three, or nine, times; and always 'a soleil,' or 'king-wise,' meaning starting in the east, moving south, then into the west and north and finally back to the east again. You mustn't ever do it the other way, they say. At any rate the Brennermans, properly skeptical as we expect our Phd people to be, admit early on in their book: "We have felt the power at these places." Oi!

But I digress. In another place in the book, the authors talk about how, according to legend, Saint Patrick, while he was converting Ireland, visited each well, and 'sained' it, that is, blessed it or sanctified it, and took it from the realm of the pagan Tuatha de Daneann (People of the Goddess Danu) and brought it into the realm of Christianity. To this day, while most of the wells were rededicated 1600 years ago to Our Lady, or to various saints, some wells remain pagan in name.

Anyway, about two years ago, I, like Banana-rama, heard a rumor-- which was that woodcock were inhabiting Greenwood Park, a field down the street from me, about 400 yards as the crow flies. This, of course, titillated-- here I had been travelling up hill and down dale to observe the woodcock all over Middlesex and Essex and Worcester counties, when he was (practically) in my own backyard. So I went down there each evening, to Greenwood Park, and waited-- often in the cold, sometimes in the rain-- all in vain. There were no woodcocks there. Later that fall, or perhaps the next winter, I was walking across the street from Greenwood Park, and I was inspired--(literally-- in-spiro, from the Latin, infused with spirit, with the breath of spirit-- or Spirit, if you will--) and I crossed the street to Greenwood Park and something told me that if I wanted to attract woodcock to this place, semi-urban or at least suburban as it was, I must first sain it.

Well, why not? As the Bard noted, There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. Or, to drag Joseph Campbell into it (a favorite writer of mine) he says that what modern man misses most is ritual and mystery. (And yet-- my God!-- what is life, if not mystery?) He talks about this old African chief who was found one day by the side of the road, weeping. His country had been colonized and 'civilized' by the British some twenty years beforehand. A white man stopped and asked him why he was weeping. "Because the local British magistrate knows everything!" the man sobbed. In other words his gods, and his wonder, were gone forever. Dear ones, trust me-- you'll never catch me crying by the side of the road. So, a-saining we went. I went home and got my drum, marched back down to Greenwood Park, and began walking around and across and over the field, beating on my drum and calling out that I was officially saining this place for the woodcock, inviting the woodcock, as it were, to come here and make it home. (I should add that Fionn the Dog is usually (but not always!) a patient (if bemused) witness to these...experiments.) Now, I can't tell you really how to sain a place-- but you'll learn as you do it. Solvitur ambulando, as Saint Augustine said, It is solved by walking, i.e., do it and you'll know.

Anyway-- ahem-- the woodcock returned to Greenwood Park the next spring. So, I guess I better get my drum out again, and get to that newly discovered field, which I never would have found if I hadn't got lost, nor if the little Boston Terrier hadn't got separated from his/her master/mistress.

I really do hope he or she found their way home. Or maybe, like me, he's still looking.


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