Every journey begins with a single step, to paraphrase Lao-Tzu. This would be no different—could be no different—one foot setting force into motion, the bonds of inertia sundered, a path undertaken, a threshold crossed.
One step and I was engulfed in green. Two steps, three, I felt myself being hemmed in, the tall stalks parting before me only to close ranks behind. I felt a little like Frodo Baggins when he entered the Old Forest and found to his dismay trees not only living but sentient, and none too happy with his intrusion.
Five steps, ten. I glanced back and saw through an opening the front tire of our yard-art bicycle and, above the tasseled crowns of the cornstalks, the redbrick finger of the chimney. On all sides a phalanx of stalks each a mirror image of the other, row after row disappearing into a greener maze, crinkled leaves rustling and clattering like distant castanets, fibrous brace roots gripping the soil like tentacles.
My homing points were lost at twenty feet but I broke into a small clearing where corn failed to grow. The sudden openness was a welcome respite, though a curiosity, too: the soil appeared no different from anywhere else in the field, nor was there any sign of erosion. It was as if the farmer had neglected this patch, or—and the idea gave me an immediate chill—perhaps mysterious forces had carved symbols visible only from the heavens. Beyond the clearing the ranks of stalks grew tighter and more dense. Shadows gathered in their recesses.
The uniformity of the cornstalks was almost unnerving. Turning left or right or, as I eventually did, spinning in circles until my head swam and vision blurred, produced merely another view of identical tufted ears sheathed against identical thick stalks and identical sun-dappled blades. Cardinal directions devolved into inconsequentiality, with up and down the only real quantification. If not for the tallest crown of the catalpa, whose dark green mast thrust above the cloned tassels, I would have had utterly no bearing. And then I faced the thickest growth, hesitated a moment to summon my resolve, and plunged in.
Lao-Tzu, when illustrating his point of the singularity of a step being the catalyst for a journey no matter how long or short, chose as a measurement of distance a thousand miles. At the time he wrote those words in the sixth century B.C., it was an unfathomable distance, impossible to conceive of except in the most vague terms. A thousand miles could mean anything at all, or nothing. A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step, he wrote; mine took me farther than Lao-Tzu could have imagined possible.
For as I batted my way into the heart of the cornfield, I remembered a time in Costa Rica where we traversed another kind of unnatural forest, the tropical jungle beset with a swarm of army ants whose numbers eclipsed the stars. Every leaf, every blade of grass, every tree limb and mossy stone was submerged under their relentless passage, and as we stood at the edge of their flow the guide looked back at us and said, “they won’t hurt you,” and turning walked into the current. We followed, our feet disappearing beneath the swarm, not daring to breathe, eyes riveted to the sweaty back of our guide, our ears attuned to the preternatural silence beneath which thrummed an undercurrent of static.
There were other alien forests, coastal swamplands in South Carolina, alligator-infested scrub along the Texas coast, live oak thickets and gum trees in Mexico. And yet they possessed a randomness that seemed, if not haphazard, then regulated somehow by powers beyond our reckoning. Nature is messy; trees grow where seeds fall, with no more intent than the erratic flight of birds or a wayward gust of wind. In the cornfield, growth was reason enforced by mechanical engineering, a monocultural colony where variance was unnatural and subjectively disallowed. And not without its own sterile beauty, though cold and too patterned for my tastes. Feeling claustrophobic, I fought my way out of the cornfield and emerged into blessed sunlight.
Next time, I’ll stick to woods I know.