The news reported recently that scientists had proved conclusively what farm children have known forever. You can’t walk in a straight line blindfolded, or by extension, if you are lost in the woods or a corn field, you will invariably walk in circles.
Those of us who have matriculated from farms in our youths with PhDs in ornery knowledge know all about walking in circles. If for example, you are hunting mushrooms in a woodlot dense enough with underbrush to hide the outer world from view, you may think you are walking straight through the trees, but in a little while you will come to a tree with striking red foliage that looks very much like one you passed half an hour earlier. After walking awhile longer, you come to yet a third tree that looks just like the other two. Astounding. The truth only slowly dawns on you. There just can’t be three trees in the whole wide world that look that much alike. I have had this experience precisely, in the woods in Maine years ago. And that old myth about moss only growing on the north side of trees won’t help either. Moss grows on whichever side of a tree it wants to. I was fortunate enough to encounter an ancient rusting fence, and followed it back to the real world. Woven wire fences have to go in a straight line or you can’t stretch them tight.
It doesn’t have to be a large tract of forest land to run you in circles either. All that is necessary is a denseness that hides the fields beyond the woods. Once I unconsciously circled around in a woodlot of less than ten acres and, still unconscious of my circling, exited the woods about the same place I entered it, much to my surprise. In fact, expecting to be someplace where I was not, the landscape near that entry-exit point did not look familiar. How could the two sides of a woods look so much alike? This sensation— of looking at a familiar landscape in a place you think it could not possibly be— is very eerie. It would be like taking off in an airplane from your farm in say, Ohio, believing that you were going to land in rural Iowa. Halfway there, the gauges on the cockpit panels start jiggering up and down in ways they are not supposed to jigger and so the pilot turns back but neglects to tell his sleeping passenger so as not to alarm him. The plane circles back and lands at the starting point. The passenger is looking out the window by now and is thrown into a state of utter confusion at how much Iowa looks like Ohio.
Getting lost on a farm as often involves a corn field as a woodlot. Farm children spend lots of time hunting for Indian artifacts on the bare soil between corn rows. From the middle of July until harvest, the corn is taller than the child. The child, totally absorbed in the vision of flint arrowheads, loses all sense of time and place. After an hour of wandering through the jungle of cornstalks, the child is distracted, usually by a hungry stomach. He, or she, looks up, but there is nothing to see except corn tassels. Hmmm. Daddy says when you get lost, gauge your latitude and longitude by the sun. Oh sure. What if it’s a cloudy day. What if it’s early afternoon when the sun is more or less directly above you. Well, if the sun can’t come to your aid, Daddy also said to pick out one row of corn and follow it to keep from walking in circles. Sooner or later, following that one row will return you to the known world. Okay.
For a child however, this is not as cut and dried as it might seem. So you start following one row. But, remember, by now, you are starting to get scared. If you have been lost, you know how scary the feeling can be, even for an adult. The child panics. Starts running. Stumbles among the cornstalks and falls down. Gets up and not realizing it, follows the row the other way. Fifteen minutes without come to the end of the field can be half an eternity in this situation. My wife, as a child, did the most sensible thing. She sat down and took a nap. Naps have a way of soothing the mind. When she awoke, she sauntered her way out of the corn just fine.
I watch the children of today who seldom wander in forest and field. How do you find your way back after getting lost in cyberspace?