by Jenny (the related essay, “Remains,” appears in the latest issue of Written River: A Journal of Eco-Poetics)
Our home is across the street from a hidden pond, where the kids and I used to go to feed the ducks. It seems like just last week little Tyler and Audrey were giggling at the voracious birds, reveling in every overturned rock, and gazing at the world with faces full of awe. They’re off to college now, and sometimes those beautiful memories make me ache. So if I go to the pond these days, I distract myself by picking up trash. My dog, Darcy, is bored with it; she hates that I pull her along from can to scrap. But it gives me a mission, which keeps me from wallowing.
Or so I thought, until one day last March.
I’d just about filled my trash bag with the accumulated litter of careless fishermen and partying teenagers when I spotted a quart-size Gatorade bottle, taunting me from an isle in the shallow creek that feeds the pond. It was sort of a fat plastic “straw that broke the camel’s back” for me, as I’d already filled a dozen bags that spring. I felt exasperated and indignant. What kind of person thinks it’s perfectly all right to heave such a tacky object into a pristine natural setting? Kids these days! What happened to “take only pictures, leave only footprints?” Leave no trace? yeah right… and so forth.
Then, after firmly telling my dog to stay on shore, I leaped on to that isle – and sank to my waist in black mud.
It was cold, and it smelled terrible. Dank, fungal, medicinal. Like death. (Though a few days later, while eating a burrito, I thought it might have been more like chipotle.) I wished I had realized earlier that the “shallow” creek had always been eight feet lower than the bank. I was sinking in eight feet of silt that the winter storms had carried down the creek. And as I gasped and flailed, I felt myself going down deeper, almost to my shoulders.
The fear was almost as instant and visceral as the odor. My life flashed forward, not back: I saw the mud drying over my head, people scouring the hills for me, no one ever getting any closure.
Two thoughts jabbed through the fear. The first was a hope that my dear dog would stay on shore (she did – her instincts were better than mine), and the next was a flash memory from some old adventure novel. It was a scene wherein a character (a good one, obviously) had escaped quicksand by rocking upward, then flopping himself forward on his belly and wiggling over the treacherous goo. I don’t whether it was Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, Allan Quatermain, or Joe Hardy – most likely the scrape-prone latter – I just know that the instructional memory was right there when I needed it, and I was able to get out. My dog looked at me like, are you happy now? This wouldn’t have happened if we’d gone on a nice long walk. My clothes and my cell phone were ruined. I slogged my way home like a stinky Tolkien orc, grateful that the road was empty and no one was in sight.
To stress the point, that quickmud was eight feet deep. If I hadn’t been such an avid fan of adventure novels as a kid, I might not be here now. My disappearance would have been a mystery until some future archaeologist dug me up, delighted with his bog mummy find. But I was such a fan, and hence, I live and breathe. Perhaps only to impart these valuable lessons:
1. Don’t litter.
2. If you find yourself up to your armpits in something stinky: rock, flop, and wiggle.
3. Most importantly: READ GREAT BOOKS – AND MAKE SURE YOUR KIDS DO, TOO!