Unfolding the Map
In this post, as William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) spends a day on Mount Tom outside of Woodstock, Vermont, he seems a little distracted. We'll reflect a little on the healing prospects of nature, and the double-edged sword of protecting oneself. To find Mount Tom, let the map be your guide.
"I spent the day on Mount Tom. Had I owned a ghost shirt, I'd have danced madly all over that mountain. Instead, I tried to keep from looking inward, tried to reach outward, but, as Black Elk says, certain things among the shadows of a man's life do not have to be remembered - they remember themselves."
Blue Highways: Part 8, Chapter 9
Mount Tom, Vermont
If you ask me, LHM did this all backwards. But first, a little back story that I didn't provide in the quote. If you're joining for the first time as we follow Blue Highways, one of the reasons LHM took off on a trip around America is that his marriage fell apart. At various points along the trip, he tried to talk with his estranged wife, who he named "The Cherokee." In the passage preceding this quote, he wakes in Woodstock, Vermont from difficult dreams involving remarriage with her. He spends the day on Mount Tom to clear his head and soothe his emotions, but by the end of the day when he is back in Woodstock he calls and has a frustrating talk with her which only serves to get him angry.
In my experience, nature is best experienced from a stable platform. By that, I mean that if one is in an emotionally unstable state, the healing value of nature, of being in a calming, soothing environment like that of Mount Tom is hindered or muted. It's not that nature wouldn't be able to calm and heal someone in that state, it's just that the healing forces of nature would have to work harder and would probably need to be applied repeatedly to have an effect. A simple day outing would not suffice.
I think of myself when I have entered nature in an emotionally unstable state. A few years ago, my wife and I went for an outing in the Tent Rocks, a geologically fascinating area near our home in New Mexico. At the time, our marriage was troubled with many issues, and my mind was focused on those things. We walked the trails of the Tent Rocks, through the hoodoos and fantastic geological formations created through volcanism, erosion and time. I saw them, but I didn't really see them. I was too preoccupied, my mind racing with potentials and possibilities and pitfalls. Therefore, while being in the wilderness in an amazing place took me superficially from my everyday surroundings where all of my troubles and difficulties were stacking up, I didn't really absorb the Tent Rocks. I saw but did not see. I need to go back to see the Tent Rocks now that I am in a more stable emotional place.
It's not that LHM didn't try to calm his emotions. He states that he tried to focus outward, rather than inward, but to paraphrase him, a man's shadows will manage to make themselves known. In my experience again, those shadows seem to come when one is ungoing emotional unrest. LHM makes reference his quote above to the ghost shirt, which to Native Americans were a protective garment. The ghost shirts were adopted by many Native tribes in the late 1800s and were initially worn to protect the wearer from the certain doom, notably earthquakes, that were believed to be the punishment for the white invaders in North America. However, some Natives believed that the ghost shirts would protect the wearer from the white man's bullets. They didn't, as was proved at the Wounded Knee massacre in 1890. It is believed that the idea of the ghost shirts were adopted from Mormon temple garments that are supposed to protect the wearer from evil. However, throughout history there have been many beliefs that the wearing of garments, or even the shedding of clothes, offered one protection. One of the most interesting cases I've read is about General Butt Naked, in Liberia, who led his troops into battle while nude believing that it protected him from bullets. He hasn't been proved wrong yet, as he is still alive! Although I think that his butt-naked battle days are over.
However, the ghost shirts and other forms of protection are all focused on dangers from without. How do you protect from the turmoil within? If you are surrounded by a cloak of protection, such as a ghost shirt, a protective bubble ala Green Lantern, a safe room, or a Romulan or Klingon cloaking device, it doesn't actually mean that you are able to vanquish the doubt, madness or rebellion that can brew within the individual or individuals within the protective device.
Here we get back to LHM. From my lofty perch thirty years in the future, I might have advised him to get his compulsive act of calling his ex-wife over with before he went up to Mount Tom. He could have had his despairing, angry moment where he yelled and hit the telephone booth door. After, a drive up to Mount Tom and it's clean air and forests would have helped calm him. The views from the top of the mountain could have given him perspective. Perhaps Black Elk's wisdom, "I did not know then how much was ended," would have come with less desolation and more inner peace.
But then again, I have been known to act exactly as LHM did. Lucky for me, I have had access to good people who provide me that perspective, and the slightest bit of wisdom to know that should I need healing energy, calm and perspective, that I can always reach out to Nature. In a week, I will be doing just that. I will go camping for a weekend in New Mexico's Pecos Wilderness. I will hike on mountain trails, take in the vistas, and observe wildlife going about its business in the moment. I will watch my dog joyfully leap into the car, not caring for a moment where she's going but just happy to be going somewhere, and then her joy at being outside for an entire weekend. For a few days, I will heal, and then come back to civilization, work, and relationships, put up some protective cloaks and live, taking the buffets to my psyche and soul that life brings, until I realize I need rejuvenation and peace again.
For the musical interlude, I am posting Protection. Written by Bruce Springsteen for Donna Summer, who recently passed away, both of them recorded their own versions of the song, as well as a duet that has never been heard. This version is a fan remix, putting these legendary musicians' voices together.
At the risk of giving in to my own hubris, I once wrote a sonnet that sort of fits LHM's situation in this chapter. Here's what LHM writes about his phone call to The Cherokee:
"By evening, my judgment had given way, and I called home. I was talking fast, talking, talking, trying to find where we stood, how our chances were. She talked. No matter how we tried, our words - confounded - ran athwart and, as usual, we ended up at cross-purposes. Neither of us knew where to go from there. Nothing to do but hang up. When I put the receiver down and heard the line ding dead, I tried to excuse the failure by thinking that nothing ever works out over a telephone."
Blue Highways: Part 8, Chapter 9
I wrote this sonnet after a similar experience with a girlfriend a long time ago, in the late 1980s. It has similar themes to LHM's quote, including dancing, nature, a dead telephone line, and loss. I humbly offer it to you here:
by Michael L. Hess
A click, and then the lifeless droning hum,
As I replaced the phone upon its hook;
I walked outside, into the setting sun,
And sat upon the porch to think and look.
A cavalcade of brightly colored leaves
Ran helter-skelter down the somber street,
Driven by a soft, yet forceful, breeze
That pushed them onward to an unknown fate.
How I wished that I could join them there,
And also dance away my lonely grief;
Until, with growing pain, I was aware
That life is but the wind, and I, a leaf.
I thought of love and loss, and thus entranced,
I ran into the street to join the dance.
If you want to know more about Mount Tom
Next up: Quechee Gorge, Vermont