Underbrush

Every time I go hiking in the Ozarks I think about the Civil War. There were a bunch of Civil War battles fought around here, including at Wilson’s Creek, the site of the second major battle of the Civil War and the first battle west of the Mississippi. The vast majority of my Civil War knowledge comes from one middle school field trip I went on to Wilson’s Creek, which is just outside Springfield.

When I lived in Montana I was always amazed by the forests. Beyond the mountain views and crystal-clear glacial lakes, what most amazed me about Montana forests was the lack of underbrush. I could look up from the forest floor straight through to the pines above. If I wanted I could have walked off the trail and straight into the forest, with nothing to block my way.

This is not the case in the Missouri Ozarks. The forest underbrush here is thick with roots and bushes and small trees. Some of the underbrush is poisonous: poison ivy and poison oak are endemic to this area. Ticks are rampant, as are mosquitoes and chiggers. Even if I wanted to fight my way off the trail, the itching that would surely result would discourage future attempts.

It’s the underbrush that gets me thinking about the Civil War. It must have been so miserable for the Civil War soldiers. Imagine hundreds of young men tripping their way through an Ozarks forest, getting scratched up by thorns, wearing terrible boots with no arch support, stopping occasionally to eat hardtack. Their experience feels most visceral to me when I’m walking along a smooth mulched trail, looking out at all that underbrush.

The problem is that my knowledge of the Civil War barely extends beyond hardtack. My hiking thoughts track the same familiar circuit: I notice the underbrush, I think about how hard it would be to hike without a trail in Missouri, I feel awed by the physicality of the Civil War era. By the end of each hike I’m frustrated with my stupid brain, wishing I could think of something, anything besides the physical realities of the Civil War.

There are two solutions to this problem, as far as I can tell: I could stop hiking in Missouri, or I could learn about the Civil War. I suspect that learning wouldn’t stop the thoughts, but would allow me to have the next thought in the series, then the next one, so that my brain might think its way out of its current trap. It seems so easy, but I’ve been thinking about the Civil War’s physicality almost nonstop while hiking for the past five years, and have yet to try to learn about it.

One skill I’m developing in my thirties is the ability to let my mind wander. I spent much of my past far too alert, my mind hyper-focused on the task at hand. I was late to discovering the joy of floating away on a thought.

Back when we were first dating, some jerk told me that Tony was spacey. The jerk meant it as a criticism, but I didn’t take it that way. Tony’s spaciness has always seemed to me to be among his greatest gifts, key to his patience and poetic sensibility.

Like her dad, our daughter has a strong dreamy streak. Between the two of them I’m learning how to float away, too. And what a delight it is, to give a task half of my focus!  How much peace can be found in dissociating from whatever components of the daily grind trouble me! How wonderful it is to have access to an imaginary world that is all my own, whenever I need or want it!

Just recently I had the new experience of someone having to say my name multiple times in order to get my attention. My daughter has taken to grabbing my face if she notices my mind beginning to wander. Last week I googled adult onset ADD and was reassured to discover that, while some people are diagnosed as adults, the symptoms generally manifest in childhood.

As a kid I was only able to float away through books. In sixth grade, I once became so engrossed in a book that my entire class, including the teacher, got up and left the room to go to lunch. It took ten minutes before I realized and raced to the lunch line. I’ve always loved the dissociating effect of reading. I’m sure that my life is better now that I’m learning how to achieve this effect even without words on a page.

My Civil War/hiking thought pattern is especially troublesome in light of my developing skill. While I am constantly improving my ability to dissociate during all manner of mindless tasks and interactions,  I don’t yet know how to float away from a persistent thought. My brain is unable to get away from itself. I am stuck with the Civil War.

I’m currently reading Willa Cather’s My Ántonia , which I’ve never read before and so far love. It was published in 1918, the same year that the 1918 flu pandemic began and the year that WWI ended. The National Willa Cather Center has a brief description of Cather’s experience during the pandemic—she got the flu in the third wave, in 1919—and a copy of a letter she wrote to a friend in the midst of it.

Cather was a journalist by trade and her writing style is accessible. Her books were extremely popular during her lifetime, although some critics panned her later work as old fashioned and out of touch. Her letter is great because it is so normal. Reading it doesn’t feel like reading the work of a writer, but rather a person, which is surely a higher compliment.

I’ve had this thought that I need to do more to help people when we return to whatever the new normal might be. I’ve idly wondered if I should become a nurse, as if that’s an easy thing to do, something I might pursue on a whim. At the same time, I’ve had an equally strong sense that I might already be helping people, although I had no idea how, just that I might be, somehow.

While dissociating the other day I floated toward this thought, testing it with my lazy, lazy mind. Through the mist I had a revelation: I am helping people through this blog. But that’s crazy, right? Who is helped by this public airing of my embarrassing, half-formed thoughts? I floated closer and it came to me: I am, me, a person.

Helping yourself really is something. It’s a small something, infinitely small next to the agony of a Union solider in Missouri underbrush, microscopic compared to the work a nurse does on a single shift, but still. Something.

I could not have chosen a better time to learn how to retreat into my brain. Missouri’s stay-at-home order expires this Sunday at midnight, despite lack of widespread testing, let alone effective treatment or a vaccine. Unemployment is quickly climbing toward Great Depression levels. My own work—which I’m fortunate to have—is exceptionally stressful at the moment, not to mention as precarious as anyone else’s. There is much to recommend a swift retreat to the shadowy reaches of one’s mind, or one’s blog, and aren’t they the same thing, or almost?

The letter Willa Cather wrote in 1918 includes this lovely line: “I have had a rather hard winter, though many pleasant things have happened and I have never enjoyed living more.” She was surrounded by deadly disease when she wrote those words, and I’m not sure if her sentiment reveals her indomitable spirit or her privilege. Maybe both. Regardless, it’s a nice thing to write and I feel mostly the same way, depending on the day and how successful I’ve been at disconnecting from reality through my thoughts. Think of me as Willa Cather, high above the underbrush, unbothered by the pandemic or the economic crash, never enjoying living more.

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