One afternoon in early fall, a couple of years ago, I walked out over a piece of land I had thought about buying. A two-story house had once faced the road, and a barn had sat somewhere behind it, and tobacco fields and pasture and gardens ran most of a mile down to the river. Now it had been ten years since the family had given the place up, and the house had been torn down and the barn too, and back of a brief yard the land had grown up in fresh woods, pines and skinny poplar and sweetgum. All that remained of the house was a well that might yet be hooked to a hand pump. For two hundred yards the woods were — littered would suggest too sparse a treatment of refuse; I could hardly walk a straight line anywhere without stepping over or around a beer bottle or a condom wrapper or a lumpy-full garbage bag or a moldy couch or the rusting hulk of a washing machine. If the human beings of Alamance County could purchase a thing and cast it aside, one or another of its kind surely made it into those woods. How many dumpster loads, I thought, would it take to clean up this mess? And how many months, or years? For how long would I be unearthing the flotsam of present-day consumer culture, like the world’s sorriest archaeologist?
But I had driven forty minutes to get here, and the owners’ agent was meeting me to show me the place, so I waited and tried to imagine what the place had looked like, a decade or a generation or a century ago when it was half a small working farm, and what it might therefore look like again. It required a good deal of imagination. I needed to see what was under those woods, how the land lay, how much was level and how much had been or could be cleared.
The agent arrived, late, in his full-sized pickup with a bumper sticker about how he’d rather be hunting, wearing camo-print cargo shorts and a machete holstered at his side, carrying a plat map and a topo map. His outfitting did not give me hope, but we set off into the woods, he telling me what he knew of the family, I wishing the children who did not want their parents’ land had made up their minds sooner to sell it. There was a way down to the river, he said; he’d found it before, though it was a couple of years ago. We picked our way through the trash, through the first scrim of pines. And then we came to the brambles.
The brambles. Those who know only kindly suburban woods and state-park forests and neatly cleared fields may have difficulty imagining ten acres of brambles, for brambles are what usually grow at the forest’s edge, the first soldiers into sunny fields the woods are fighting to reclaim—but this ten-acre wood was all battlefield, all half-sunny half-wood, nature still in the early clawing stages of its victory over human order. Thorny blackberry grew from the ground and lopped over in great curves across any imaginable path; thorny catbrier climbed the baby trees and dangled down from branches. Where they met they tangled in thick screens before our faces.
For one mile, I had thought, we ought to be able to manage a straight line, or at least something near enough to it to reach the river, which after all blocked our path for miles in either direction: it wasn’t as though we could miss it. But we never got there. My guide hacked at the vines with his machete, which turned out to be a dully serrated stainless steel, the result like butchering a mammoth with a steak knife. Where thickets blocked our path we turned aside and went around, but never, it seemed, quite made it back to our original line, because always another thicket stood in our way.
Twice I saw a small stand of white oaks—it may have been the same stand both times, for all I could tell—aged and stately and wide-girthed, branched out broadly from days when they grew unchallenged, shading lazy cows or weary workers, but now encircled in trash and beset by juvenile excess, invisible to anyone who might appreciate them. Perhaps in a month when the acorns fell a squirrel or two might find them, but for the moment I saw nor heard no living thing except the buzzing of mosquitoes and the huffing of the man at my side.
After forty minutes of traveling in what we meant to be an eastward direction we had not even so much as found the sharper slope where, the topographical map told us, the land ran down to meet the river. My guide pulled his phone out of one of the pockets of his cargo shorts and the folded map from another and tried to find our position using GPS. I had less faith in his GPS than in his machete, but I played along. I played along five minutes later when he pulled his phone out a second time. The third time, three or four minutes after that, I was ready to pronounce the expedition dead. I was lost in the woods, and my guide was no Virgil.
“You really think we can make it down to the river?” I asked, half rhetorically.
“No,” he admitted. “Not without a bushhog.”
“Well, look,” I said. “The sun is there.” I pointed. “It’s five-thirty now. It’s just past the equinox, so sunset should be about due west, just about there.” I moved my hand down and to the right. “We know the road runs west of us, however far we’ve gone off course. So let’s just keep the sun at eleven o’clock and we’ll get back to the road eventually.”
We did, in a third the time it had taken us to get lost. I let my guide walk ahead to save face, and also to take the first fury of the thorns, which I admit wasn’t charitable of me. In the rapidly dwindling hope of salvaging a commission he kept bravely hacking and cheerfully chatting until we saw the first outlying rubbish and knew we’d found civilization. My shirt was torn, but it was an old shirt. I had a few scratches on my arm, but they were old arms. It would take some time to brush the woods out of my hair. I kept his card, but I didn’t call him back about the property. I had seen enough, and still knew nothing.
And so this story, like a ten-acre thicket between a rural road and the river, has no good end and no particular moral. Except, perhaps, this: When you’re lost in the woods, follow the light and not the junk you keep in your pants.