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The Bog & The Mountain

nbarker's picture

In the area where I am from, there are no mountains. Unlike Eli Clare, I am from a place often called "the flyover zone", the Midwest, an area that's an odd mix of East Coast-style urban mixed with urban sprawl and some incredible, ingrained, capitalist prejudice, slowly mixing and melding into a "bible belt" of slowly failing rural areas, ex-urban housing developments, and liberal urban transplants trying to make their environmentalist beliefs into a reality. Like Clare's northwest, there are many people who believe they are on some sort of frontier, a cutting edge of independence--yet in most cases they are continuing an era that is dying out. Much of the area I've lived in most of my life used to be what's called "transitional forest", much less dense than what he describes in the Northwest. It's an area of oaks and elms and other deciduous trees, rooted in the sands of Lake Michigan deposited eras ago, when our glacier retreated back northwards, leaving dunes and sand beds for more recent growth of loose forest, and for far-future flooding and expansion of the freshwater lake beyond its borders several blocks from my home, on the flood side of the dune now dubbed Ridge Avenue. All that forest has now been taken down, removed for the near-urban grid organization of Evanston, founded 1865, and replanted with elms and ashes that are all too quickly falling prey to foreign blights. Nearby, and even within the city limits, though, there still remain pockets of the environment that was there before. 

Unlike Clare, however, I have not always known my disability. I wasn't born with CP like him, instead I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, and only two years ago. It's unlikely I was born with it, and it probably developed around the time I turned 10. Whether it was triggered at puberty (less likely) or triggered by my father's abusive behavior (much more likely) is something I've got little chance of ever knowing. Even now, the diagnosis sounds much weaker than it is, less all-pervading than it truly is; it's just one name to a world of symptoms that for many years seemed like flaws in who I was as a person. At the same time, it's a "liveable" disability, one where I can appear to and have hope of working towards a fairly "normalized" life, if I believe the things my doctor and the medical literature say. The lack of stamina, the weakness to heat, the tendency to forget even the most important of little things, and then instead remember the exact pattern of lichen on the bark of a tree I'd seen once, for examples, aren't things that were "wrong" with how I was when I was born, or how I made myself. Instead, they were likely shaped by my illness without realizing what it was until recently. So, unlike Clare's tacit linkage between so much of the suffering he experienced as being at least partially caused by his disability, the suffering that I experiened may be what triggered my disability instead. 

At the same time that it may have taken things from me, my illness may have given me some incredible gifts. One of the well-documented parts of fibromyalgia is that it causes sensory overload in many of its patients--in my case, it appears to have manifested as additionally giving me incredibly vivid senses. I have eyesight that is "better than perfect", I can taste pesticides, I can hear a harp string moving in the air long after its tone has ceased to reverberate through a room. Perhaps because of my disability, I've come to love nature profoundly, much like Clare has. For him, it was mountains. For me, it was the wetlands, the loose forests, the smell of tannins being released as shed oak leaves break down in the melting snows of spring after a frigid Chicago winter. 

Unlike Clare, the wilderness that was around me was only left in small patches. I can count on fingers and toes the nature preserves that are larger than a mile square within a few hours' driving distance of my home. Two of the ones I've come to love the most are Emily Oaks Nature Center and Volo Bog. Emily Oaks is a small forested area in Skokie, about 10 minutes' drive from my home. It's in the middle of a suburban neighborhood, and has a very large pond that may well be linked to a creek--I've never quite figured it out. Volo Bog is a couple of hours out from my home, in Ingleside. It is one of only a few natural bogs left--most were destroyed to harvest the peat as fuel, to harvest the tamarack trees for ship masts and later telephone poles, and for other rare plants that grow in their precarious waters. I've fallen in a sort of love with the danger of the bog--step off the constructed path, and you're likely to sink into the 50+ feet of accumulated peat and water that's been amassing for thousands of years, and you've got no chance of rescue before you suffocate. The trees and bushes that shake the waters with every passing breeze sing with birds and insects and other creatures, louder in the heat, quieter in the winter. The smell is nearly indescribable, both pungent and perfumed, sharp with the sap of the tamaracks, the acids of decay, the pollen of a rare orchid growing in the rot of a log sticking up from the surface. 

It is fear that has really kept me from returning to those places. I'm envious of Clare's ability to overcome the fear that comes with disability--my feet, too, start to shake after only a little while walking, even on smooth trails, often paved. I'm now afraid to go back to that hiking because I now know just how much the wilderness that I love can hurt me. Before, it was simply my inborn sense of caution. Now I'm afraid of falling on an unseen branch and being stuck in place from the pain of an injury, without someone to help me, of slipping on the pathway through the bog if there's no-one there to catch me, and slipping away without a trace into the peat below. The solitude of nature is what has been taken from me--I will feel comfortable being alone again in this denseness of nature. My disability has made my caution into fear, and justified fear in most cases. Reading The Mountain, though, has made me realize just how much I miss that nature--and how much I will have to learn in order to be able to overcome my fear. It's inspiring me to take on that challenge that he has, even though I'm wary of falling into the identity of supercrip.

Maybe this is too personal to really be posting as coursework. I'm having trouble filtering due to my head being filled with mucus--I caught a cold, probably on Parade Night. It's impairing all my senses, including my sense of propriety. ;)