June 1, 2012
In the late spring when lightning bugs start to come out I always think about the British folklore of the will o’ the wisp, the mysterious lights that would lead travelers to their deaths on the moors. Except will o’ the wisps are really swamp gas, since they don’t have lightning bugs in Britain. They do have glowworms, although these are apparently so rare you usually only find them inside giant peaches, but that’s another story.
Why people were out wandering around the moors is beyond me. Probably they were lost and I understand will o’ the wisps were often mistaken for the lanterns of other travelers, so people would follow them blindly. Well, not entirely blindly. And I would think that if the will o’ the wisp was well-known enough to make it into folklore people would learn not to follow strange lights without first yelling out something like, "Hey Phil, is that you?" And if there was no answer they’d go some other direction. Unless they were lost and panicking, which I understand can make people do crazy things.
Many years ago I took a hunters’ education course, on the off-chance that I would one day want to go out and shoot wild animals for food instead of chasing them down and tearing them apart with my bare teeth or, well, going to a grocery store. And we watched several educational hunting films that taught me, among other things, that sitting in a pile of brush wearing camouflage while blowing a turkey call and occasionally wiping your mouth with a red handkerchief is an incredibly boneheaded thing to do, which would seem to be common sense, but you’d be surprised at the number of guys who’ve been shot doing that. Each year. The scientific term for that is "thinning the herd". Anyway one of the genuinely surprising things I learned is that there’s something called brush panic that people who are lost in the woods sometimes experience. According to the film there was a guy who wandered away from his group while hiking in the woods. Having lost both his group and the trail he gradually became more and more upset, steadily reaching a state of panic bordering on psychosis. He was finally found by rescuers with his arms wrapped tightly around the trunk of a tree. He’d lost all sense of external reality and could only be moved once the rescuers had used crowbars to pry his arms loose. And because these educational films always liked to have Twilight Zone-esque endings we were told that the tree where he was found was just twenty feet away from his cabin. I’m still not sure what, exactly, this story was supposed to teach us, other than "Don’t get lost in the woods". Even at the time, and even though the film’s narrator had a very authoritative voice, I suspected brush panic was a made-up phenomenon.
And I still doubted its existence even when I once got lost in the woods and came very close to having a mental breakdown myself. Technically, though, it wasn’t the woods in the sense of a large forested area. It was a wooded area behind my uncle’s house in Connecticut. We were visiting, and I was wandering around the backyard and found a path leading off into the woods. And I thought, hey, there’s a dark, spooky-looking path going an unknown distance into woods I’m completely unfamiliar with. What could possibly go wrong? So I started walking down the path, among birch trees and ferns. I came to a fork and decided to go left, because, hey, totally different direction taking me even deeper into woods I was completely unfamiliar with, so what could possibly go wrong? Besides, I thought, I could just retrace my steps. And my uncle lived in a suburban area. How big could these woods be? When I came to another fork and decided to go right I started to get an idea that these woods were a lot bigger than I realized. I’d later learn that my uncle’s house was at the edge of a state forest. I started to panic, especially when retracing my steps didn’t get me back as quickly as I thought, and I kept finding more forks in the path and wasn’t sure which way to go. The birches and ferns all looked alike. Then, luckily, I came out into a clearing with a house nearby. Not my uncle’s house, but I thought, hey, strange house near the woods, nobody around, "Dueling Banjos" being played in the distance. What could possibly go wrong? I knocked on the door and told the nice woman who answered who I was and asked if she knew the way to my uncle’s house. And she pointed out that if I looked really hard I could just see his house through the trees. Maybe I’d panicked. Maybe there really is such a thing as brush panic, even though, through the whole ordeal I retained enough presence of mind that, had I seen a little light up ahead, I would have yelled out, "Hey Phil, is that you?"