Monday, April 11, 2011

The Lightning Forest Chapter 3: Nobody's Dog

Nobody’s Dog

      It had never really sunk in with me that we live in a peculiar place not of for the tastes of most people. It always seemed logical to me that everyone actually wants to live in the country and it was only by misfortune and the necessity of nearby work that most people confined themselves to the cities. The ease of getting to a grocery store and theater seemed a bad trade-off for the street lights, the noise, the neighbors at arm’s reach, the tiny sterile plot of grass, and the dearth of life. But of course, like many things, I had it all wrong.

      I learned that lesson one day while walking down the road to the mailbox about a mile away. The ground was covered with blooming thistle, scrub buttercups, and waving garberia. The ponies leapt in their paddocks. The sun was vibrant and withering. The buzzards soared high overhead. The towhee whistled. Scrub jays tussled in the brush. To the west runs a long sandy road that passes through Blackwater Swamp. When it hasn’t rained too much, this road is the shortcut to Paisley and Altoona. I was surprised to see a big new truck pulling out of the dirt road towing the finest horse trailer I have ever seen. An air conditioner hummed on top of the trailer. The windows were tinted and the edges where chromed. A custom paint job covered the sides. The air-brushed painting showed rolling hills, live oaks, and stampeding horses. The blurry sky shone with every color of the rainbow. A frog hung in mid-air, legs outstretched behind him, as he launched over a lily pad. It was the very image of our collective understanding of the word pastoral.

      The horseman leapt out of the driver’s seat holding a fistful of maps and a wild look in his eye. No sooner had said hello when his angry wife jumped out screaming at me at the top of her lungs, “Where in the Hell do you people live out here?” It was an accidentally brilliant combination of “Where in the Hell is this” and “Why in Hell do you people live out here?”  She had been crying. Her face was red and her make-up ran down her cheeks. She cursed at me some more. She was so distraught her sentences made little sense, although I think her intentions were clear. Unable to blame her husband for whatever predicament they were in, I was the lightning rod for her frustration.

      The horseman explained that they were on their way to a show and the online maps took them through the forest. They had spent hours slowly bumping along horrible dirt roads. Their prize horse was probably ill from the rough ride and their children were crying in the back. They owned a big horse breeding ranch up near Jacksonville. They hadn’t seen another person this whole time. They were all formally dressed for the afternoon’s events. I looked like I just crawled out of the hammock, all dirt and flip-flops. I smiled and explained that they weren’t very far off their mark. I couldn’t explain why the map company advised them to take the back roads, but if they just drove down this road for awhile and took a right, they would come to the highway they were looking for (just past a great vegetable stand) and arrive at their show in 20 minutes or so. The expression of panic erased from their faces. They became polite again, and appreciative. It was if civilization had been returned to them and I was some sort of redneck Prometheus. They thanked me and drove off spitting dust out behind them.

      Where the Hell do I live, anyway?

      I had just watched a bad movie about some adventurous college students driving a remote road into the hills thinking it was a shortcut to a party. During the next hour they were systematically hunted down, flayed, and cannibalized by mutated country folk that inbred their way into the 21st century. It is a mythic, high stakes cultural battle between the air-brushed pastoral as portrayed on the horse trailer, and the backward land of mutant cannibals as portrayed in countless movies. Either way, the country is a special place ruled by its own secret set of laws that do not apply to city dwellers.

      Maybe that is why people drop their unwanted dogs off out here. They drive out in vans and trucks, pulling over to the side of the road until they are sure no one is watching. Their doors swing open and the dogs are pushed out. In the country, their shepherds run free and happy through the fields.  Their poodles can bark all day and bother no one. Their terriers can flush out the cotton rats and dig for pocket gophers with no punishment for destroying lawns or flower beds. The country welcomes home their lost wolves. Not a week goes by where I don’t see another new dog or two roaming gleefully through the scrub.

      One morning a golden mutt was galloping along the roadside toward the sun, ears flopping with every stride, too much loose skin for lips, a tail raised high over his head. His eyes were brimming with optimism and joy. Those dogs suddenly-alone will not believe the truth. Surely there had been a mistake. Surely, he was forgotten for just a second. Soon, around the corner or just up ahead, a truck will pull over and he’ll hear his name ring out with relief. I slowed my car and called to him. “Come here Boy!” He didn’t lose a step. I whistled. A gob of drool trailed out behind him. He didn’t even turn his head, so assuredly he ran forth. I paused and considered the situation. Cars sped by on their way to work. I looked at my clock. He kept running. I wish I could propel so completely, so honestly into my own disasters. For a mile I poked along beside him and he never gave any sign that I even existed. I thought about pulling over and getting out, but I had appointments that seemed important at the time. I eased my foot deeper onto the accelerator.

      An old relative of mine, Edward Rowe Snow, used to fly a plane out over the rugged islands along the coast of Maine. He was airlifting mail, food, and gifts to the lighthouse keepers who lived on the remote rocky knobs, surf-pounded islands, and inaccessible cliffs. Some of the keepers had families out there with them, or wives. But most of them lived alone with only my great uncle’s airdrops to sustain them. Having no distractions, they were bare lives laid bare. Only the artifice of work, of polishing enormous Fresnel lenses and whitewashing clapboards, kept them moored to humanity. Often, that wasn’t enough. They lost all courtesy and patience. They lost the desire to speak and groom. As it was, Snow would often drop out of the misty clouds to find a man dangling limp from the upper rail, or not there at all.

      For years, the boats pass anonymously by. You watch the seals on the rocks below. How they depart in the morning with a shout. How the pups suckle. How they flop and yelp. You creep in until they accept you. You learn their words and prefer them. You eat only the raw fish bellies. You dream. You marry. Then, one sunrise, you swim.

      And they must send out a new body to polish glass and whitewash.

      Snow wrote books that told their stories because they couldn’t, or wouldn’t. His stories were sanitized and romantic, but the progression was clear. Cut loose from society, the human consciousness loses its identity. It reaches out, twirls like a tendril, searches for a fast. This is the Stockholm syndrome. This is how cults happen. The cult of isolation. And cabin fever. The brain fascinates itself for awhile. But it isn’t enough. It attaches to any little thing. The brain changes color. It chameleons to its surroundings. Some people paint quaint pictures of cedar shingles, geraniums bursting red, and children running along clean lighthouse lawns. Some people kill themselves.

      This Florida scrub I live on is an island, as ancient as any island my great-uncle airlifted to. First, an island in the Pamlico Sea, now surrounded by swamps and rivers and pavement, the scrub is a cut-off scrap struggling to keep its identity in an antagonistic world. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings described the scrub as a ‘vast wall, keeping out the timid and the alien. …The scrub, as a matter of fact, has defeated civilization.”  She told stories of its inhabitants because they couldn’t, or wouldn’t. Even though scrubs are small in acreage as wildernesses go, they feel like another planet. Scrub is a mental island. The Florida Keys are islands of relaxation and recreation. The scrub is an island of anguish.

      Those that live out here, out in the few scrubs that haven’t been plowed under and tamed, are at its mercy. It is greater than us and more powerful. It isolates us, even from each other. We must think like scrub to survive. We don’t have much choice. There is no life except the life of the deep root, the thick root, and that grown in the hot glowing sand. Foreigners drive through and panic. They see us in our hard scrabble lawns, picking through the dry grasses. They see our old cars. They see how wild the weeds grow. How the glass is hung on the trees and polished. How our fenced yards are filled with their old, barking dogs. And to us what feels perfectly natural and incredibly comforting, the crying in the trees, the screams coming from the tortoise holes, sends them hurtling down the highway turning up their air conditioners and stereos. We let the scorpion cross our foot. We say hello to the bear wandering through the yard. We bury the dead and deadly coral snake, its rings of fantastic red and yellow and black, in the vegetable garden. For every nutrient we can eke out, we eke out.

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