Impossible autonomy

Some days I feel like a substandard ecopoet. I have only walked the UNF Nature Trails twice in my six years’ experience on this campus. Yet each time has brought forth the same conclusions, thoughts that have been steeping awhile and now must be given a voice.

The first occasion, according to the dark green diary I kept at the time, was on October 2, 2010. (I am relieved by my own meticulous journaling these past few years.) I walked the trails with Angel, and it was the first time I’d ever done so. I felt elated, ready to revel in the green quiet and the soft earthy breezes, ready to be transformed. Like Thoreau planting his beans at Walden, I was prepared to accept a series of transcendental epiphanies.

And other than the beauties that surrounded me – the piercing clarion of the bird calls (birds I couldn’t name by the way since they only sounded in my perception), the soft, changing terrain underfoot, the idle cicadas by the water’s edge, the wind’s amorphous timbre as it stirred leaves of different sizes – other than these things, I found myself with one thought.

My cane is utterly useless here.

I had my cane gripped tightly in my left hand, while my right was lodged firmly in the crook of Angel’s arm. Because it was a warm October day in Florida, sweat started to loosen my grip on both items—and still I clung to the cane. I clung to it as it skittered futilely over roots, swung upward out of my hand, and caught along fallen branches. I clung to that long tube of intuitive material even as it distorted the ground beneath me. So why didn’t I fly about, trip along, stumble, tumble down into the soft uneven ground as the cane told me to?

Because my right hand had a firm grip on reality. It curled around Angel’s arm, and so, as Angel lifted a foot to circumvent a troublesome root, the arm, capturing the movement of his body, responded, and my hand received the signal. Pick up your foot. And I did.

With silent fluidity, the gestures continued to tell me what my terrain looked like, where to lift my feet, where to shuffle forward, when to stop abruptly. The cane continued to bob in my left hand with near exaggerated efforts – as if to say, “Look at me! I am still useful! Trust me!” But its responses in this place were so confusing and inaccurate, I finally stopped swinging it before me and just dragged it along.

Perhaps to the sighted among my readers, this does not seem a very drastic gesture. How can I underscore the utter unconventionality of this abandonment of the cane? Maybe I could tell you that there are only 3 places I can think of where I don’t use a cane: 1) inside my house, 2) inside my apartment on campus, and 3) in my front yard. Everywhere else, that cane is in my hand, informing my reality. It’s my fifth limb and if, by some hellish chance, I forget to grab it, I feel as though I’ve had half my body surgically removed.

So when I walked the woods 18 months ago and decided to ignore what my cane was telling me, I thought that surely this was a fluke, a rare occurrence, and a testament to my companion’s excellent ability to guide me. And this is all true.

But I ventured into the trails again today, this time with Katie, and found that, as before, the cane was of no use. Again, all the information that helped me stay on my feet and move forward came to me through the movements of Katie’s body, through my sweaty grip on her smooth elbow. I noticed also that the woods had a sedative effect on my mind; the busy brain that would normally have been lamenting and correcting my misplaced feet had been muted. I glided along, feet feeling the roots, boardwalks, soft ground, cane bumping awkwardly against the steps I had not even traveled. At one point, the cane swung up and caught a step that I would not touch with my feet for several inches—that was disorienting. To feel the cane suspended in the air, alerting me to a future situation, made me think that in some ways, the cane in the woods is like a delirious time-traveler.

What does it mean that my cane is unfit to travel these trails? I have never harbored any delusions that my cane and the natural world get along perfectly—when I return from my very infrequent trips to the beach, I have to shake the sand out of the cane’s segments before it will fold or unfold smoothly again. I know that it is not made for all climates. The cold weather makes it stiff and the segments difficult to separate.

But the cane is a simultaneous symbol of disability and of autonomy. The cane and I make One Independent Blind Woman. The cane says, “I can travel where I want.”

And the cane is utterly useless there, in the trails, where I feel such a prevailing peacefulness and delight. What can it mean that my cane won’t let me access this small piece of paradise?

How can it be that a human guide is better than a cane? No! I refuse to accept that. It can’t be! It must be that the human offers me something different, not necessarily better. Just…different.

Unless I was never meant to be autonomous in the garish, glossy, tourist-brochure kind of way. Maybe autonomy, which eludes me in this natural setting, is not something I even want.

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