I first wrote this when I was studying at the BYU Jerusalem Center for a few months in 2012. The first part is kind of whatever, but I like how the ending turned out. Thanks for reading!
Jerusalem and the Holy Land are full of caves and tombs of all sorts. It’s principally limestone, so if you put on your geology hats you will remember that limestone loves to form caves just like the area under the bed inexplicably creates dust bunnies. What is a dust bunny, anyways? Anyways, any way I could lead into this story in the way most obtuse and with the most similar-sounding things sounds rings of goodness to me.
One Sabbath Saturday we walked down to Gethsemane to see if we could pop on in and do a study session in the private portion of the Garden. Well, we took our plea to a locked door with no one inside, and we decided to keep on going somewhere else. We walked past a couple other churches and cemeteries on the Mount of Olives before the people with me declared their intentions to go to the Tomb of the Prophets. Wait, who died? We walked into someone’s yard where there was this big green gate and signs in this yard pointing to some stairs leading down about two stories into the solid rock. When my eyes had adjusted I could see in the dim light I stood in a domed room about 25 feet across carved out of the rock. To my right and left were tall passageways leading into darkness. The only light in the room came from the doorway behind me, a small hole in the ceiling which flowed to the surface above…and the wan light of a single candle held by a man standing by the stairs. I don’t remember the exact story, I’ll tell you if I remember. In decent English he said that when his family had moved into the region, they rediscovered the cave and used it as a home for several months when conditions above were unfavorable because of civil strife. Later, during the Six Days War of 1967 they again spent a few days below to wait out the tempest above. He also told us that according to tradition, the Old Testament prophets Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi are buried here (this is probably just tradition—the style of the tombs dates closer to the time of Christ or 1st century AD.)
He then gave us each a lit candle and set us free in the tombs. The place was wasn’t enormous, but it was decently sized. If your candle went out, you would be plunged into total darkness. It reminded me of something I read about in a book called the Tombs of Atuan, an underground maze where no light reaches. When I closed my eyes, I could imagine I was there.
“He kept his right hand on the wall. As his hand brushed against its damp mass, loose pieces of dirt and rock crumbled off of the limestone beneath. His torch long extinguished, the inky blackness pressed against his open eyes, robbing their sight. He counted each opening he came to. Some were passageways, some tombs, and some were both. How many openings had he passed? Seven…eight…nine. Right, then left, then right again. It would be a miracle if he found what he was looking for. He couldn’t leave without it, but if he searched much longer he might never leave at all. His soft footsteps echoed quietly off of the walls, sometimes wandering off and never coming back when he passed a pit or crossed some dark crevasse and they were lost in the depths. The air was stale. How long had it been since anyone had come this way? Fourteen…fifteen…sixteen….or was that seventeen? Panic rose up in his throat. His worst fears began to realize themselves as—no, wait! A draft of cool air on his right cheek. He was close. Very close indeed….”
Have you read the actual Tombs of Atuan? Like and share!
Wilderness of the Mind posts every Wednesday. Y’all come back now, y’hear?
I lived on my college campus for seven days over winter break sleeping under a tree and eating only fruits, nuts and berries I’d gathered from my surroundings. This is how it all ends.
This is the eighth and final installment of the Urban Forager series. Want to go back and start from the beginning? Click here.
O, wind, if winter comes, can spring be far behind?
–Percy Bysshe Shelley
FRIDAY, 2:03 PM
My fingers wrapped around the dark hilt of the machete and tugged. The notched blade whispered metallically as it pulled free of its maroon leather scabbard and I stared the silver man in the space where his eyes should have been. “Thank you, Bryan.” The man’s expression remained impassive beneath his black mask and hat adorned with a peacock feather. Aside from his cloak twitching in the wind, there was no indication he had even heard me. “Thank you for your weapon,” I said again. Again, no response, but I couldn’t judge him too harshly. He was, after all, a mannequin. Rescued from a formalwear shop in the throes of foreclosure, Bryan had guarded my apartment silently for months with his unblinking gaze festooned in whatever discarded garb we’d seen fit to give him. His current musketeer accoutrement and Robin pajamas were on loan from a mutual ally we had living nearby. Get on with it, Bryan Mannikin seemed to say. Get on with—oh, right. I spun around and regarded my true foe. For two weeks now this squat snowman had watched my apartment. It had seen my struggles, and it had mocked them. For this, it would die. For the icy gales it had encouraged, the subzero nights it condoned, the winter it represented, I would smite its head from its body. But not before I took a moment to remember.
THURSDAY MORNING, 10 AM
The last thirty six hours had been exhausting. I had begun my adventure on a Friday six days prior, and at long last it was almost Friday again. Today—New Years Day—had been strange. My roommate MacGyver had camped out at Cloudreach with me and we’d eluded detection. Unfortunately, every building on BYU campus was closed for the New Year. If this had occurred at the beginning of my week in the winter wild, it might have been merely inconvenient. At this late date, it was looking to be soul-crushingly boring and possibly even dangerous. While my breakthrough in learning how to speed-prepare acorns (thanks, Hermana) meant I was getting more to eat, I could tell my overall nutrient levels weren’t doing so hot. Trying my best to observe Rule #1: Don’t Die, I decided I would spend some time in my own apartment. I also had another compelling reason to do this. Friday was supposedly the day my three new roommates would move in, which meant I would have to clear up some space in cupboards and closets to at least give the appearance of accommodating their arrival. So I began to sort and organize. As the hours passed, one thing became glaringly clear: I had stashed food everywhere in my apartment. Inside and on top of my fridge, in my cupboards, in my roommates’ fridges and cupboards, stacked on shelves, stuffed in closets, hidden at the back of bookshelves, crammed beneath beds, filling shoes, lining coat pockets and squirreled away in the hollows of cinderblocks. Were she to stumble upon it, an archaeologist from some distant time and planet could only assume she’d discovered the hideout of some apocalypse-fearing giant squirrel. It had to be a varmint, for what human would cache eighty pounds of walnuts and acorns in an old laundry bag?
Self-awareness of my hoarding aside, the whole enterprise of sifting through buckets of food quickly became some sort of idiotic, self-imposed purgatory. The stupid cleanup finally ended and after speaking to my soon-to-be-affianced-and-thrilled-about-it cousin on the phone for a while I decided to have a meal. Crushed gravel acorn gruel and rehydrated FishFood, I concluded, would be ruled cruel and unusual punishment were it served to the inmates of some high-security facility, a preschool perhaps.
My eyes closed and I was transported back to a time when Russia and America didn’t pretend to be friends.
THURSDAY AFTERNOON, 3:32 PM
Filled but not full, I set out onto campus. I’d spent a lot of time on the grounds in varying states of mind. As the day wore on, the sun began to set. I was filled with a strange, warm confidence. I was hungry, I was tired, but I could sense victory was close at hand. Campus was almost as deserted as Kmart on a Tuesday. I saw only two people; and I gave the police vehicle I spotted an unnecessarily wide berth. I munched on a handful of Russian olives as I moseyed along a dry streambed. Their dry, astringent pulp numbed my mouth, but it didn’t really matter. I ran into bunches of some other tree berry I’d tried before. I have no idea what species it was. Some kind of local hackberry? It didn’t really matter, for each berry yielded a thin bud edible layer of raisinlike pulp surrounding a cherry-pit sized seed. Perhaps influenced by the Russian olives in my pocket, I decreed them “commies.” My eyes closed and I was transported back to a time when Russia and America didn’t pretend to be friends. So, Ray. How many Commies you say you take down in th’ war? Oh, I can hardly count. At least a couple dozen. EVERY DAY. How’d you git ‘em to surrender? With a freakin’ twelve gauge, whaddya think? Gosh, Leroy. It’s like you ain’t even American or somethin’. You callin’ me a Commie? Mebbe, mebbe not. You admittin’ to somethin’? I ain’t askin’, I’m tellin’. I didn’t like where the conversation was going, so I grabbed a few more handfuls of commies to go and dropped by a friend’s house where I watched The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Pumped-up and ready to face the winter night one last time, I geared up and set out for Cloudreach. I slipped into the tent quietly, burrowed into my massed sleeping bags and promptly passed out.
FRIDAY MORNING, 6:12 AM
My eyes fluttered open and drank in the gray predawn light. Stretching to ease the cramps out of my body, I sighed and breathed deeply for a few moments and thought. In. This is the last day. Out. But you’re not done. In. I’m close! Out. Yes, but you still have a few more hours. Until two, perhaps. In. Two? Two PM? Why so long? Out. Look, you started in the early afternoon last week. If you’ve already been out here for nearly a week, you might as well go a little extra just to make sure you make it the whole week. In. I guess that makes sense. Well, I’ll just sleep until then! Out. Um, no. I think not. You’ve got to break camp and bust out of here, and soon. In. What do you mean? Out. If they catch you hauling all your stuff out of Cloudreach, you know what will happen. Remember Leafhaven?
I winced involuntarily at its mention. Leafhaven was another tree on campus, the place where I’d originally intended to live during the Urban Forager project. Long ago I’d first climbed into its ladderlike boughs and carefully hung up a hammock. Rocked to sleep by the warm summer wind, I’d awoken refreshed… and my face covered in pine sap. I’d rubbed pine bark on myself during the night whenever I awoke to abate the stickiness, which caused no small concern when I’d showed up to work at an art museum hours later looking like I’d spontaneously developed a precancerous lesion. This initial setback aside, I took provisions and building supplies to Leafhaven from time to time. I envisioned stringing multiple hammocks up in its mighty boughs, a place where I would study, relax, and sleep. I would learn how to carve wood and work obsidian. When I wanted company, I would bring friends over and we would talk late into the night beneath the slow dance of the stars.
Unfortunately, as school started up that fall I didn’t make it to Leafhaven much, and weeks passed without a visit. Deeply stressed out one autumn afternoon, I decided to check up on my urban sanctum. As I drew close, I could see something was very wrong. The thick underbrush that had given Leafhaven both privacy and protection were cut down to the ground. Which meant—I ran around the corner—which meant—
My jaw tightened. The tree that was the center of Leafhaven had been discovered. Twelve feet off the ground, the branch where I’d once placed my hammock remained intact… but every branch below that level had been severed. Other branches on the tree had also been cut. Even if I could somehow manage to clamber up the trunk, the once secluded hammock perch was now hopelessly exposed to the eyes of passersby. I reached out and touched the sticky sap bleeding from the missing limbs, examining the damage. This was no attack by Sand People, but the precise circular cuts of imperial stormtroopers the campus grounds crew. It was a calculated move to ensure I’d never return. This place was to have been my refuge, my hideaway, my Terabithia. Now it was destroyed, and my careless association with it was the reason it had been targeted. I slowly slumped to the ground and rested my back against Leafhaven’s rough bark. Overcome with guilt and sorrow for the dreams that could no longer be, I put my head into my knees and sobbed as my tears mingled with the deep smells of wet dirt and sawdust.
I breathed quietly, deeply in my tent at Cloudreach as I remembered. In. Out. In. Out.
I put my head into my knees and sobbed as my tears mingled with the deep smells of wet dirt and sawdust.
FRIDAY MORNING, 10:22 AM
I stood at the road nearest to Cloudreach. I knew I needed help to get my mountain of gear out quickly and covertly, so I’d contacted my buddy Tenzin. He agreed without hesitation or reservations. I look up to this guy a lot. Not only is he three inches taller than me, he is easygoing, intelligent, insightful, and adapts quickly to any new situation in which he finds himself. He is also an Airbender. After some recon in Cloudreach’s vicinity, we made our approach through the secret path. Emerging through the branches at last, we arrived in the sheltered clearing.
“Whoa,” said Tenzin.
“I know, right? It’s perfect for human habitation! Or deer walking sausages, but that’s too darn bad for them. So, you think we can get all this stuff out in two trips?”
We looked down at the accumulated sleeping bags, mattress pads, backpacks and tent I’d heaped together before I’d left.
Tenzin frowned. “Two trips? We can get this out in one.” And after taking some commemoratory photos with Cloudreach’s third human visitor ever, that is exactly what we did. Afterwards, we drove around campus for a few minutes and I showed him some important spots. “Here’s where I captured my first flock of glue berries. Try one.” He bit into the red fruit and chewed. “Hey, that’s not bad.”
“No, but eat another one,” I responded. He obliged, and frowned ever so slightly as nature’s finest glue began to form in his mouth.
“Say no more, Tenzin. Say no more.”
FRIDAY AFTERNOON, 1:53 PM
Back at my apartment, it was almost two PM, the time I’d chosen to officially conclude Urban Forager.
There has only been one other time in my life I’d anticipated two PM as much as I had now, and that was as a nineteen year-old when I was leaving my family and home for two years to be a full-time missionary volunteer for my church in Paraguay. But at least that day I’d been able to eat as many slices of Costco combo pizza and Jelly Belly beans as I’d wanted. Right now I felt like I wanted to consume an entire ice cream metropolis. Seeking to commemorate the occasion, I ran compulsively around the apartment engaging in bizarre behaviors like cleaning the kitchen, shaving, and showering in my own apartment. It wasn’t enough. I needed something more. Something important, and also really cool. I drummed my fingers frenetically on the windowsill, takatakatakataka. What could I possibly—I locked stares with the snowman outside my window. What could I possibly—
FRIDAY AFTERNOON, 1:58 PM I dragged Bryan Manikin outside, the sun glinting off his silvery forehead as we emerged from the stairwell. The world may never know why his head and chest were the color of the forty-seventh element, but it was probably the same reason he didn’t have arms. Or eyes. Or a soul. I ran through the apartment complex, gathering some friends, some strangers, a shield I’d built out of a shipping pallet and some old jeans, and a camera. There was just one more thing I needed: a sword.
There was just one more thing I needed: a sword.
2:04 PM Get on with it, Bryan urged. I slowly approached the snowman dressed in cardboard armor. My left arm carried my homemade shield. My right carried Bryan’s wickedly notched blade. bearing scorch marks in places where it had previously been set ablaze, i t was the perfect weapon to vanquish the memory of December. I addressed my mortal enemy. “Winter. You said I couldn’t do it. You boasted you would be victorious. Well, how’s this for victory?”
Swinging my blade in a powerful diagonal arc, the blade connected perfectly with the snowman’s neck—
—and bounced harmlessly off the solid ice beneath its surface. What?!? I swung again, harder this time. The blade ricocheted again. I began hacking and slashing indiscriminately, but the abominable creature scarcely acknowledged the ineffectual flurry of blows. Yelling in frustration, I swung my buckler at its head in a shield bash fueled by desperation.With an audible CRACK, the head rocked back on its axis, paused for a moment, and finally plummeted lifelessly to the ground. I plunged my blade downwards into its body, sunk to my knees, and let out a guttural yell. Victory was mine.
2:12 PM Finally. I sat at my kitchen table, reveling in the moment. I’d compulsively arranged and rearranged plates of food on the grass mat moonlighting as a tablecloth in the hours leading up to this moment. I’d just finished saying a prayer to conclude my week. The moment to think for a few quiet moments and meditate felt fitting, though I seem to recall telling God I was “thankful for industrial food systems.” (They’re not all bad, right?). I regarded the plates of food before me.
Besides the plates of food I’d saved from my cousin’s missionary farewell on Day 3 (see A Miserable Feast), I also had some sauerkraut and kefir. I reached for the kefir first. This fizzy, yogurtlike drink probably originated with shepherds thousands of years ago in the Fertile Crescent, so to choose kefir was to slowly leave my hunter-gatherer lifestyle behind and transition to the pastoral. I tipped back my mason jar full of it, inhaled slowly, and took a sip.
The blade connected perfectly with the snowman’s neck and bounced harmlessly off the solid ice beneath its surface.
Whoa. A bit tangy, a bit yeasty, definitely not plant. This was food? This was food! It was amazing. I reached next for the sauerkraut, a nod to early farmers (and Germans, I suppose) who preserved their crops without refrigeration. The sauerkraut was a surge of flavor combined with a satisfying crunch, and there was something about it my tastebuds craved. Next, ham. I’d looked forward to this a lot, reasoning I would really enjoy the protein. And you know, it wasn’t bad or anything, but it was loaded with salt. This was even more true of the cold-cut style ham and turkey I tried. Cheese was likewise very salty. I thought drinking pine-needle infused saltwater over the week would have left me with my taste for salt, but the opposite seemed to hold true. I shoved the meat aside and reached for a pretzel roll. I bit into its chewy mass, closed my eyes, and savored. This was fantastic. I reveled in how much nutrition just one bite of the bread yielded, and just how easy it was to get those calories. It’s something I’d never really understood until that moment. As a society, we’re really good at getting calories into a ready-to-eat form. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but just think about it next time you eat something. YOU BETTER BE GRATEFUL YOU MAGGOTS It’s worth considering. I ate for a little while longer, and encountered an unfamiliar sensation: I was getting full. This made sense. My stomach had shrunken considerably as of late, and now I was at the point where I could stop eating and still be satisfied. I was almost ready to get up and leave the table when the Goldfish Brain awoke.
Have you ever accidentally dumped too much food in a goldfish’s tank? Unless you get those soggy cornflakes outta there lickety-split, yo’ fish gonna’ be like HEY GUESS WHAT THERE’S FOOD RAINING FROM THE SKY IMMA EAT SOME O’ THIS OH WOW IT TASTES THE EXACT SAME AS EVERY OTHER DAY ONLY THIS TIME THERE’S FOOD FREAKIN’ EVERYWHERE OMNOMNOM HEY LOOK I’M EATING THIS FOOD FISH FRIENDS CHECK IT OUT IT’S PRECIPITATING JOY I AM BEGINNING TO FEEL FULL BUT HOW OFTEN DOES THE SKY RAIN FOOD I MEAN SERIOUSLY WHAT’S THAT PHRASE FROM ANCIENT GOLDFISH PHILOSOPHERS OH YEAH IT’S ‘CARPE DIEM’ WHICH I’M PRETTY SURE MEANS ‘SEIZE THE CARP’ SO NEVER LET IT BE SAID THAT I DID NOT RISE TO MY POTENTIAL ON THIS, THE GREATEST DAY OF MY PITIFULLY SHORT LIFE OH NOW ITS BEGINNING TO HURT BUT THAT WHICH DOESN’T KILL YOU ONLY MAKES YOU KELLY CLARKSON SO HERE GOES OMNOMNOM ITS SOOOOOOO GOOOOOOOOOD— and at this point the average aspiring anchovy violently explodes, but on rare occasions becomes an overrated American pop star. Both are equally unfortunate.
The Goldfish Brain is a part of the brain inside each of us that feels no remorse and no restraint when it encounters unexpected abundance. Different people’s goldfish brains are triggered by different things and situations. For some, the place where they will lose control is an all-you-can-eat buffet. For others, the Goldfish Brain manifests itself when a clearance rack at H&M is spotted, and for a few it is a Starbucks every time one appears in the rear-view mirror. As for me, my Goldfish Brain had awoken right now.
HEY GUESS WHAT said the Goldfish Brain, YOU SHOULD PROBABLY KNOW THERE IS A TON OF FOOD IN FRONT OF YOU. “Actually, I feel perfectly full right now. I think I’m just going to get up and—
GET OUT FROM BEHIND THE WHEEL the Goldfish Brain yelled, tossing me aside as it took control.
WE’RE EATING THIS MEAT AND CHEESE FIRST BECAUSE IT IS CLOSEST TO OUR FACEthe Goldfish helpfully informed me. “No, I don’t want that. That stuff nasty and I don’t want too—” but the Goldfish had already inhaled the oversalty horror.
WHAT ELSE IS IN THIS PLACEdemanded the Goldfish in a declaration of unabated greed as it cased the apartment. I watched in horror as the Goldfish found my carefully organized pantry of food.
GIANT COSTCO BAG OF PEANUT M&MS? DON’T MIND IF I DO and half of the fifty-five oz. (1587 g) bag disappeared before I could convince the Brain to move its attention away to my comparatively safer bedroom where—
HEY THERE IS FOOD PRACTICALLY OOZING FROM EVERYWHERE MAN ROCK ON
Big mistake. “No, dude, just get out of here!” and for once the Goldfish Brain complied… making a beeline for my roommate’s freezer.
HEY GUESS WHAT I FOUND screamed the Brain, IT’S AN UNTOUCHED HALF GALLON OF YOUR ROOMMATE’S STRAWBERRY ICE CREAM
“Hey man, that’s not yours! Don’t touch that!”
DUDE HE’S IN VIRGINIA RIGHT NOW AIN’T NO WAY HE GON’ STOP US!
My stomach moaned in pain. “Sweet mercy, I can’t even…” but apparently I could, and by gosh I was gonna’.
GET OUT FROM BEHIND THE WHEEL the Goldfish Brain yelled, tossing me aside as it took control.
4:20 PM I stared at the ceiling blankly. By some small, inexplicable miracle I’d neither died nor turned into Kelly Clarkson. As for the Goldfish Brain, it appeared to have overdosed on sucrose and had gone somewhere to have a long, slow recovery. I didn’t miss it. Unable to move as the pain in my distended belly gradually subsided, I had a chance to think long and hard about the Urban Forager project, and I’ve summarized those thoughts (along with some more recent musings) here :
I feel like it was successful. It was also much, much harder than I thought it would be. I ended up losing more than ten pounds in seven days, all of which I regained in the next week (gracias, Costco Vanilla Bean Ice Cream). There was more food on campus than I’d previously supposed, but I was also much less willing to eat it than I thought I would be. Even when I felt like I was starving, my desire to eat things I’d gathered—say, already-made glue berry jelly—was approximately equal to zero. I was hungrier than I’d ever been that week, though it would still be a little pretentious to say I actually understand chronic hunger when the World Hunger Organization estimates 1 in 9 people worldwide suffer from malnutrition.
Before this project, I would have said I was a medium-proficiency survivalist. Guess what? I’m a beginner. For sure. Were I suddenly plunged into a wilderness survival situation this summer, I’d probably die in like three weeks, though you can bet your badger I’d try to blog about it in my final moments as I slid screaming into a void full of rabid monkeys. That blog would be shorter than this one, though. Pits full of terminally ill primates will definitely kill your productivity. And you.
Anyways. There’s some really great survival experts out there that I couldn’t ever really compete with, and I feel OK about that.There’s less pressure this way. I’ve also learned I rely on other people in my life much more than I thought I had. Whether for material assistance or for helping me stave off massive boredom, friends and family were key to this and many other adventures. Thanks to the student newspaper employee who did not find my evil plans to live on campus “credible” when informed of them some months ago. Your incredulity fed my stubborn resolve to go on. More significant thanks go to the many people who texted me, emailed and messaged me notes of encouragement during Urban Forager. I really needed them.
By some small, inexplicable miracle I’d neither died nor turned into Kelly Clarkson.
I am also grateful to the people who encouraged me to finish writing about this and who didn’t shun me utterly when they found out I was actually a hobo in disguise, and to the person who gave me amazing chicken enchiladas the day after UF concluded. I am not grateful to winter for vanishing two days after I began living in houses again and never reappearing. I apparently chose the worst week possible for living outside in a tent because every other week this winter has been like seventy degrees with a chance of palm trees. Forsooth!
Holy smokes, did you read all that? Or even skim it? This post must be like a paskillion words long! Regardless of how much you did or did not read, I thank you, dear readers. Thank you for sharing in my journey, even though especially because I was really just living under a tree somewhere eating berries. Oh, about that. Cloudreach. Many of you have asked where it is. For reasons I hope are clear, I’m not comfortable sharing its location online. If you talk to me in person, though, feel free to ask. But hey, here’s a picture of Cloudreach from the outside. Pretty nifty, huh? You almost can’t tell there’s anyone in there, which is kind of the point.
I hope you come back and visit Wilderness of the Mind (this blog) again. I’m hoping to post more often on Wednesdays. And if you just want to hang out sometime and eat glue berries, come on down! Believe me—I know just the place.
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