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Incident at Covington

Posted on Thursday, July 6, 2006 at 10:22AM by Registered CommenterMarshall Massey in , | Comments1 Comment

Friends, there’s a memory that’s been haunting me for a couple of weeks now, from the time when I’d just crossed the border from Illinois into Indiana.

A storm front had been passing overhead all day, darkening the world halfway to twilight and dumping occasional heavy bursts of rain. Some streams in the region were already flooding, and to get into Indiana I’d driven over a broad flood plain on an elevated stretch of highway with the windows of my car rolled up: not at all the sort of relationship with the natural world that I’ve felt called to seek on this journey! It was the sort of grey, wet day that (if one isn’t under a leading like mine) puts one in the mood to find a cozy dry place indoors — or else to go walking with a very big umbrella.

I found lodgings at a cheap motel in the western exurbs of Covington, Indiana. And shortly after I’d unloaded my belongings from my car to the motel room for the night, the rain stopped and the sun began peeking through from down near the horizon.

Walking was quite painful at that point, but I got my walking stick out anyway, pulled on my rain jacket just in case, and hobbled out of the motel to see the world.

The motel was buried in trees, in a small wood. I picked my way around the puddles, heading westward, up the little two-lane highway the motel was located on, past the wood, past a big, fancy historic home and estate with a huge sign advertising it for sale, past another small wood, to a large expanse of cornfield where I had a broad vista westward.

The tail end of the storm front was just passing overhead. Behind it was a body of cold, clear blue air, sliding under the warm wet air it was displacing like a wedge. From where I stood, the laws of perspective made the wedge appear like a lens of blue to westward, slowly shoving the clouds away in every direction. A few stray wisps of cloud floated in the lens, and the lowering sun shone through it on the wet miles of cornfield before me.

I limped forward another couple of hundred yards into the cornfield, and looked back on the wet corn illuminated by the sun, and on the wall of trees beyond the corn, likewise lit and glowing.

I had been thinking on and off all day of the summons I’d felt some weeks earlier — the one I wrote about in my posting of June 24, to “see the world with doubled vision”. Now I saw the corn like a sea, lapping against the shoreline that was the trees. It was an artificial landscape, indeed, overlaid upon the natural earth. But it wasn’t an artificial savannah of the sort that I wrote about in that earlier posting. It wasn’t a landscape created by humans to make themselves feel more at home. On the contrary, it was a landscape that made me feel subtly uneasy.

I stood a while pondering that uneasiness. I knew perfectly well what its source was.

As I’d driven-and-walked the distance from Monmouth, Illinois, where my ankle problems finally got the better of me, to the edge of Illinois, I’d gone through many areas where I’d seen that it would have been very difficult for me to continue my walk, even if my physical condition had been perfect.

There were sections of the road where heavy traffic combined with almost-nonexistent shoulders to make walking difficult and dangerous. There were areas where construction closed off the shoulders altogether, and the arrangement of roads would have forced me to detour for several miles or more. (Later I learned that this actually happened to Shelley Newby, the Friend who walked from Richmond to Washington, D.C. last year.)

More serious (to me, at least) was the fact that there were long stretches where I would have had great difficulty finding food and shelter while still making meaningful progress from day to day: stretches, for example, of ten miles or more, that I would have reached in the afternoon of a given day’s walk, with neither motels, nor campgrounds, nor farmsites or wildlands where I might have pitched a tent. Certainly I could have eventually gotten through or around these areas, but it would have slowed my progress by a day or so at each place.

I could see my eighty-day walk to Harrisonburg — even if I’d had no problems with my feet — ballooning to a hundred days or more.

All this was country that had been very hospitable indeed before it was developed. The native Americans and early settlers would have found pure streams everywhere, wild fruits, abundant game, plenty of spaces to camp.

My unease lay in the way that we humans, seeking to support our own ever-growing numbers, have made the land ever less hospitable to ourselves when we are strangers and travelers through it.

I was feeling an alienation from the land.

I visualized poor people, unemployed people lacking my own resources, passing through the field where I was standing in the sunset. Unlike me, they might not have had money for a restaurant meal or a motel room. The corn I was looking at would have been useless to them. Game would have been hard to come by. This was a rich land I was looking at, and yet it would be barren to the poor.

The ideas of Matthew 25:31-46 were resonating in me: I was hungry, but you fed me not; homeless, but you left me with no shelter…. Not for the first time! This aspect of our society has troubled me for years. But in the past I’ve shoved it to the back of my mind. Now, challenged by my leading to walk and listen, I felt I had no choice but to stand there and give it full attention. I knew that Christ was asking me to consider: is this the way he wants his lands managed?

Eventually I started hobbling back toward the motel. My feet had swollen in the time I’d spent standing, and my speed was now much reduced, which might account for what happened next.

As I walked through the first of those two little woods, I saw a juvenile raccoon — not a baby, but clearly too small for an adult — poke his head out of the bushes at the side of the road forty or fifty feet ahead of me, hoping to run across it.

A car roared by, and the little guy, frightened, vanished backward into the bushes for a few seconds. Then he stuck his little head out again (and by now I was close enough to see the worried look in his face) — but now a truck roared by in the opposite direction, and he hid a second time.

Now he poked his head out a third time. But I was almost upon him at this point — and of course, he hadn’t noticed me yet, being too concerned with the traffic. Softly I said to him, “I’m coming through, little fellow!”

He threw one look at me, and disappeared.


(Image from http://www.loomcom.com/raccoons/gallery/index.html.)

I thought, This land has been alienated to such as this animal, too.

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Reader Comments (1)

Greetings Marshall!

I’ve been away from good Internet access since June 23 but am now home for a week and catching up on your postings. This one, about your opening regarding alienation from the land spoke powerfully to me. Thank you.

Also was moved by many of the comments of Friends from Richmond and from Dayton. I’ve been asked to give the “sermon” at a UU church in Bryn Mawr PA (outside Philadelphia) this Sunday and your postings have given me much to ponder as I prepare for what messages will be given me to deliver.

I admire the ways in which you are struggling to remain faithful to the leading to “walk” and experience the land while finding ways to accomodate the need for your ankles to rest.

Your e-journal has led me to feel that I must be there to hear your plenary and to offer prayerful support. So I’ve registered for the last few days of BYM sessions and while I will not walk, I will travel down from the Adirondack mountains in NY via bus and carpool to get there.

You are in my prayers.


-- comment posted by Hollister Knowlton
July 11th, 2006 at 5:22 p.m.
Sep 4, 2006 at 07:16AM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey

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