Saturday, August 26, 2006

The woods bite back

As readers of this blog will know, I spend a lot of time outdoors. My walk back and forth to college each day takes me through woods and meadows. That walk has been an anchor of my life for more than forty years, the book of nature flung open for study, an education. What was it Thoreau said? "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."

What little I know worthwhile I have learned from nature. Not, of course, that I haven't spent time in the library too. But books are only clutter unless the soul is in order first; words are empty unless they have referents in experience. So much of what passes for public discourse is an echoing of self in the empty corridors of mind. Anything I write here in Science Musings is offered tentatively, hesitantly, until I can take it back into nature and measure it against the real.

So what a harsh lesson it is when the woods bite back. This past spring I was apparently bitten by a deer tick while cutting a trail in the Stonehill woods. A week or two later, in Ireland, I developed a "bull's-eye" rash. I knew this was a symptom of Lyme disease, a bacterial infection contracted from ticks and common in New England. But I was in Ireland, and the clinic was unable to do a blood test for the disease. The rash went away. I waited...

...and wasted. Tired. Lethargic. Respiratory complaints. Finally, I bailed out and came home to where I could be properly diagnosed. The tests are in; the tick had done its deed.

And if Lyme disease were not enough, our part of southeastern New England is now experiencing an outbreak of even more deadly Eastern equine encephalitis, a mosquito-borne viral disease. Another reason to stay out of the woods.

But this is a lesson too, and a valuable one at that. We do not live in the best of all possible worlds, watched over by benevolent spirits. We live -- as Wallace Stevens said -- in an old chaos of the sun:
We live in an old chaos of the sun,
Or old dependency of day and night,
Or island solitude, unsponsored, free,
Of that wide water, inescapable.
Deer walk upon our mountains, and the quail
Whistle about us their spontaneous cries;
Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness;
And, in the isolation of the sky,
At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
Ambiguous undulations as they sink,
Downward to darkness, on extended wings.