Our Saturday afternoon walk in the country had already surpassed the time I’d thought we were going to spend. It was OK though, the winter sky was beautiful, we didn’t have anywhere else to be, and I was discovering a new landscape. We arrived at a the edge of the vast quarry we had just crossed, slipping around at times in the wet, red mud. My companion suggested that we loop around, to avoid retracing our steps back to the house. It would take a bit longer than returning the way we’d come, but he seemed confident so I figured “why not?”. He pointed down a slope and towards some grassy cow pastures through which a brook was meandering this way and that.
I followed. We immediately arrived at a small effluent of the aforementioned brook. It appeared to be pure mud. We would need to find a way across to reach the pasture. I followed my friend around for a while, while he tested different spots, estimating the effluent’s depth. Though I’d been waiting for barely two minutes, I became impatient, convinced he was thinking too much and not trusting his gut. I decided to leave him to his occupations and follow my instincts to a good crossing point.
I walked down the stream of mud to the left, while my friend was investigating off to the right. Rather quickly, I arrived at a place, slightly hidden by some tall reeds, that looked to be just a one-meter jump to the other side. A childish “ha ha to you!” thought crossed my mind as I anticipated standing victoriously on the grassy slope opposite, waiting for my companion to finally find his way over.
I leapt confidently, and my first foot touched down exactly where I had aimed for: a patch of broken reeds that was surely a bit wobbly but nonetheless solid. What I would have given for wobbly! As soon as my foot touched down, I just kept sinking, my rubber boot and half of my leg suddenly swallowed up. A whimper escaped my lips, my boot filling with brown liquid and my victory evaporating in one fell swoop. In order to extract myself from the mire, I had to say goodbye to the last remnants of pride I was still clutching to. I lowered myself to a reptilian position, using a technique learned at Mont-Saint-Michel for getting out of quicksand alive. Within twenty seconds I had dragged myself to shore.
My doubled-over walking companion, whose interminable investigations had proved successful, was happy that I had thought to bring a pocket-sized camera. And so was I, for despite the wet, the cold and the discomfort of the mud-filled boot, I find these opportunities to laugh at oneself to be absolutely precious. Especially when there is no actual harm done. The silliness of my unfounded, anticipatory pride, the pathetic nature of my whimper and the naked feeling of standing in all of my brown glory in front of someone howling with laughter at the sight of me … these are all to be noticed, laughed at, remembered, learned from, and this all became instantly clear to me.
However, the gods and goddesses watching over my mortal comedy apparently heard me giving thanks for this opportunity to give my pride a mudbath. They apparently thought I might like to have another shot at it, sooner rather than later.
It turned out that our Herculean efforts to reach the opposite pasture had been futile. The field we had arrived in was closed in on three sides by the effluent and the brook (the latter being deep and wide enough to intimidate us both after inspection). The fourth side was open and led to a country highway, but it was the opposite direction from where we needed to go.
So, back to the mire. Not surprisingly, I was determined to find a safe passage this time, and of course not the same one my friend was taking. Now I needed to prove to the world that I was capable of doing this on my own. I followed the muddy stream, leaving my first leaping site behind, and was secretly relieved to find a much easier spot on the edge of a patch of sand-colored, bamboo-like reeds. I crossed in several hops, and was back on the quarry side.
However I was also in uncharted territory, having walked dozens of meters downstream from where it had all started. It turned out that the plentiful reeds, twice as high as me, presented a challenge of their own. Walking though them required parting them forcefully each time, and then marching through with very high, John Cleese-style soldier-steps. I kept one eye on the ground, not wishing to sink into another pseudo-puddle. The other eye served to guide the parting and straddling of reeds. Sensing ground moisture on what would have been the shortest path to join my companion, I decided to keep moving straight through the reeds and then cut across, once I was farther from this soggy earth.
There was something claustrophobic about being in such a thick patch of tall, not-particularly-yielding, wooden rods. My breath had quickened and become slightly panicked as I stumbled over and out of the last bunch of them. I was now at the base of the steep slope leading to the quarry. The wide path we had descended to get here in the first place was farther down, and my friend was no doubt strolling up it right now. Catching my breath, I couldn’t figure out whether to laugh or to cry. Straight ahead of me, covering the slope, were heaps and heaps of purple-tinted brambles. To my left, no access to the quarry. To my right, more brambles. Behind me, the reeds, the mud, the pasture and the brook. I opted for ploughing straight ahead.
My new challenge became climbing the slope diagonally, while trying to navigate the prolific thorns. The semblance of speed that I had felt while pushing impatiently through the reeds now vanished and in order to get through, I was forced – by the thorns and the awkwardness of the slope – to take half a minute for each step forward. This was three times slower than the Buddhist walking meditation I occasionally practice. There was absolutely no point even thinking about speeding up. No point in craning my neck to see if the way out was near. No point in thinking about the next step. Now, this very instant, this very step, was the only one I could possibly fathom.
More knee-hoisting was in order, so as to come down with a crushing action on these navel-high, robust, rigid ropes covered from root to tip with hundreds of hooks. Holding down two or three brambles with one boot was enough to allow me to advance two feet or so. And then the other leg swung into action. Meanwhile, silence. No inquiring calls or whistles from my friend. No traffic, no phones ringing, no birds singing. No one watching. Just me, my breathing, and one laborious step after another. I gave thanks for the jeans that were providing an essential layer of protection to the skin of my thighs. And to my resistant jacket that also kept me from being ripped open little by little. Thanks to these articles of clothing, and my boots, my body was safe from danger. This thorny traipse turned out to be quite like the mire, rather than anything actually painful. No matter which direction I moved in, my body became prisoner again and again of reams of grabbing arms, holding me there, begging me to stay.
As desperately as I wanted to run, or escape this place, I could not. As much as I would have preferred to have some company in this torturous place, I was alone. As satisfying as I knew it would be to take bigger steps, or move faster, I could only advance one single step at a time, once I had ripped away the hooks that were continually taking hold of my person from all angles.
Time stopped. Struggling was of no use. I would only become more entangled. The way out was through. I had not come here by chance. Rather, I had somehow led myself here. I recognized the feeling of trying in vain to move gracefully in a great basin of molasses. I knew about the kind of forks in the road where every possible path reserves challenges that seem overwhelming, that you would do anything to bypass. When faced with the choice, each option seems unthinkable, but when the forces that be plop you down in the thick of it, you have no choice but to find a way out. Solutions present themselves.
Moving on despite the thorns that plead with you to stay and scratch at you when you say you cannot. Bending and leaping when the reeds that surround you won’t yield. Lifting yourself laboriously out of deep, fetid mud, and finally leaving your dignity behind, in exchange for remaining whole. When we aren’t seeing clearly enough, the mysterious forces of Mother Earth are always there to hold up a looking glass. Everything we see through it contains a message for us. What we understand of these messages simply depends on what we are ready to receive.