The Trouble with Paradise


Help me!  I’m in heaven and I can’t get out! I thought as I swung through the moments.

I maundered through a riparian gallery of muddied maple and soggy sycamore on the banks of the Des Plaines River.  River and I threaded together under the shuddering I-294 bridge.  When I turned my back to the traffic, the interstate’s never-ending thunder became a waterfall, and the three-foot damn where weekend fishermen perched became Angel Falls, the highest cascade in the world.  I trekked deep in the Amazon rain forest.

As I slogged farther into the swampy knots of buckthorn and willow, my walking stick became a machete.  The feral cat I scared up, wet, wild-eyed and caked with muck, became a margay on the banks of the Orinoco.  The drenched tom slipped into the mire and weeds, and so did my shoes.  The illusion went POOF and I was back in the Des Plaines River Corridor, just northwest of Chicago.

The steamy smell of decomposing vegetation added to the rainforest atmosphere.  I spotted a maple, – a sapling – that blocked the light along with the other maples in this dusky forest.  Its life history seemed a study in indoor plumbing.  Its trunk grew from the soggy leaf litter and shaped itself in two right angles—it went up, then steered right at the proverbial 90 degrees, and then went straight up again.  All around me, volleyball-sized fungi dotted the forest floor.  I’d seen them here by the Des Plaines River, but not in the North Branch Chicago River corridor closer to my home.  Pocked with indentations, they looked like giant golf balls.  And some vandals had smashed a whole family of them into white pulp.  I had no idea what they were.

Someone had left a thick, green, paperbound volume of Peterson’s Field Guide to Mushrooms on a slippery, downed log nearby.  If it still sat there when I doubled back this way, it was mine.

For miles on I hiked, far beyond the eternal noise of tollway traffic.  It amazed me how much noise just one car could make.  Add thousands and thousands speeding from airports or bending round the southern tip of Lake Michigan on their way to the East Coast or the Twin Cities, and you end up with a permanent woosh and whine that takes great effort to transcend.

The river bent like a pipe elbow.  A silver maple dominated the sludge of the flood plain, quaking with two toned-leaves—dark, Kelly green on top; light, almost metallic underneath.    The black mirrors of the still backwaters reflected the sharp, palmate leaves.  A weak breeze passed over the waters and wrinkled up the spiked shapes. The silvering leaf light glimmering like tinfoil off the blackwater seemed to undulate up branches and limbs like water through the roots.  It seemed like one of those old neon signs on the Vegas strip where thousands of bulbs surged in wavy ripples across the field of the billboard; a woods scene at once electric and hydrodynamic.

In this musty forest fought over by sunny water and leafy shadow, the diesel drone of semis, the synthetic whistle of planes stepping up into the sky and letting down onto the tarmac at O’Hare International Airport, became an ambient force.  I passed beyond a litter of beer bottles and charcoaled wood, all guzzled and burned by the teens who’d come here to party last night like my teenself had many years before. Two bucks on the summer side of rut, the tines in their racks small like thorns, browsed, bulking up for the coming joust.

The afternoon warm and the air wingless of bugs; the woods dappled light and daubed shade.; the path peopleless and I powerless to stop the muck from swamping my boots.  I awared myself of this bittersweet need to capture each drop of experience, to record each moment, and hold the moments to myself like books unread on shelves.  But then another moment rushed in, then another, and another, and on and on they flooded head-on through my eyes and into my mind like the water soaking my boots.  Fielding all those moments and stuffing them into killing jars squeezed the life out of the present.  It sopped the organ responsible for sensing moments.  It clogged the root which allowed new moments to flow in, as they naturally will if I stop thinking about it.  It’s hard to let heaven flood in in a rush of moments.  It felt like I drowned in the now, suffocating in joy.  I needed some stale old mediocrity so I could breathe.

I reached the end of my hike, a Forest Preserve parking lot.  I hunkered down on one of the picnic tables and flash froze all those moments onto a 2” x 4” scrap of wallet detritus where I’d long ago scribbled down my Uncle Joe and Aunt Sue’s number.  I owed them a dinner.

All this capturing and congealing of Now, which had become Then by the time I wrote it all down.  Pulling, wrestling, hauling the past back into the present as it bawled and fought to stay in my rearview mirror—describing it, recalling it, fantasizing it, making damn sure paradise wouldn’t slip away from me this time.  I hunted it down and shot it, stuffed it, and mounted it on my 2 x 4 card.  I shoved the new now out of awareness in favor of the old now.  Back there, all those silver maple leaves bouncing off the glass water  – I just had to have it framed.  Smelting silence, precipitating peace it into the linear language of words within the cold crucible of my left brain.    It was hard work.  Ruining perfection takes work.  God resists being pulled into the acrimony of decay.

I needed to escape the death I had created by trying to regenerate the past as the present moment.  I knew then that death arises in thought, and that thought arises in recalling the past or anticipating a future.  So I hustled back into the forests, feeling my way back with spongy boots.  I wasn’t sure where I was a couple times but I didn’t care.  I needed more Now, no matter how out-of-control that felt.  Without a future, I didn’t need a map for the trail.  Without a future, I had no destination.

When I relied on intuition instead of intellect, I immersed myself in that heaven called now, and I didn’t need to find a way back.  The way back would find me.  Without a time to keep track of, I wandered and inevitably found myself where I had begun – under the canopy of the first maple stand I’d crossed, where the day-dark didn’t allow for the possibility of undergrowth.

That whole warm, sodden afternoon, I’d ruffled up small gaggles of what I thought were mourning doves; slow, fluttery fliers.  When they took flight, they signaled with white tail feathers like a bevy of deer.  But mourning doves didn’t usually feed or roost in places like this.  I wondered what they really were.

I stopped by the volleyball fungus I’d seen when I started my hike.  Peterson’s Field Guide to Mushrooms still rested on the fallen trunk.  I picked it up: SKOKIE PUBLIC LIBRARY was stamped on the inside cover.  Skokie lay miles away.  I flipped to the inside back cover: no lending card.  It didn’t even have one of those back pockets for library cards.  What was the world coming to?  The Library Intelligence Agency had glued a magnetic bar strip to the jacket.  The LIA tracked this book with a Radio Frequency Identification tag.  If I took it, they’d find me and I’d die in prison.  Fuck it.

I thumbed it open.  The volleyball fungus seemed easy enough to ID: a vase puffball.  It fruited in fairy rings.  That was good to know in case I ever ended up under attack in Disneyworld.

But I still wanted to know what kind of birds I kept scaring up.  Just then, another one flew into a tree and hammered the bark.  A woodpecker.  A field guide at home subsequently identified it as a Northern Flicker.  Well, this was great.  I stood two-for- two in the field identification department.

I wanted to find one more thing – the tree that grew at 90 degrees.   But I couldn’t find it.

The Flicker would peck, stop and look at me, peck, stop, look, as if giving me a message in Morse code.

“What are you saying, my friend?”

I glanced at the tree my bird nailed – it was the tree which grew at 90 degrees.

Whatever I search for can’t be found because I’ve never lost it.  And so joy itself eludes me, hiding in the present while I scour the past and future for it.

The woods gave birth to a new old man, ejecting me where I’d parked my 100,000 mile Blazer, right on the high, muddy bank of the Des Plaines.  The river’s spine united the forests.  It gave the greenspace a through-line, just like the now gave spine to my Sunday afternoon.

© 2015 by Michael C. Just