For a couple of months I’ve been ruminating (as in philosophical cud chewing) about blog posts, essays, and writing in general. Been paying attention to how the good writers I am reading go about it. There’s an element of the personal in the writing that affects me the most. Not so much deep confessional telling of all, but a revealing of the narrator as a human being. Reading a paragraph or two of the personal in the context of a larger story connects me with my own imperfect humanity. Reminds me that there are times when we are all trying to find our way through the thickets.
Sometimes we’re climbing a hill with the goal of getting to the top of the ridge where we can see for a long way. Those vantage points are exhilarating once we’ve caught our breath. I love lookout spots in high places. But the trail of life moves on, and I don’t know of anyone who gets to stay on top. Something makes us keep going. The trail can follow the ridge, it can descend, it can fork. Inevitably, we find ourselves in a place where it’s difficult to pass, and the visibility is obscured.
I’m no stranger to thickets, having grown up in a tangled woodsy part of the world. I remember crawling through the Himalaya blackberries with Dad’s machete, with my brother and sister right behind me. When I saw the cat skull on the ground in front of me, we turned around. Very creepy! Which one of our barn cats had crawled in there to die? As a young forestry technician in Idaho, thickets took on new significance when we had to follow a straight compass line to get to the next plot to measure trees. Compass always pointed through the thickest brush. Often the fool’s huckleberry and alder were taller than I was. Often on a steep slope or through a swamp. My shins were bruised all summer. If we were lucky, there would be a faint elk trail that coincided with the compass line. These days, I rarely navigate by compass since I work on established trails. But thickets are still part of my world because plants keep growing, especially in clearcuts. Brush is cut to make for easier passage when we have time. Sometimes we have to bash through, being watchful for devil’s club and salmonberry and other stickery things that shred skin and clothing.
So I find myself in a thicket. It’s midwinter, and I can’t see very far ahead. I know spring will come, but I wonder where I want to be. Do I want to do the same thing I have been doing for the past 21 summers? Or do I want to make a change? It’s the old existential crisis that rears up from time to time–What am I doing with my life?! The young forestry technician that once was me was certain I’d have it all figured out by now. Things would be settled into place without much to worry about. I’m still waiting for that, and have a suspicion that having it figured out is a fantasy. Nobody gets it figured out for very long, and nobody gets out alive. The trail keeps us moving, and that question about my life can make me laugh at myself.
So here is what I have learned about navigating thickets:
1. Don’t panic!
2. The only way out is through. Be patient.
3. Be prepared. Don’t wear shorts and a tank top unless you want to get scratched.
4. Hold still and notice the thicket. Where are the worst tangles and pitfalls? These can be studied, and their intricacies learned.
5. Watch for tracks of others who have passed through.
6. Trust your compass and altimeter. Your mind can play tricks on you, but your instruments have no reason to mislead.
7. Watch where you put your feet, one step at a time.
8. If you trip, pick yourself up and keep going.
9. If you’re being snagged by stickers, slow down. Squirm your way through deliberately. Crawl on your hands and knees if you have to.
10. There might be huckleberries, or some other sweet surprise.
11. Thickets are not endless, they only seem like it. Sooner or later you will come out with bruised shins and sticks in your hair. There are worse things, like boredom and inertia and never getting to go outside.
Here I sit in my current thicket, waiting for the compass needle to settle down. I know I will find my way. I know there are other ridges to climb and catch a view from. I’ll poke around in here and see what I can find. Maybe a haiku about tangles…
Post Script 1/28/12: Another thing about thickets is that sometimes big animals are in them. Bears for example, or moose. For this reason, it’s a good idea to make some noise as you approach. And listen. If you see that rack of antlers floating above the leaves, or a brown butt running away, that’s good. Thickets can be scary. Or in the case of snowshoe hares, a thicket is a good place to seek shelter from the storm. So be careful, but also recognize opportunity.