Ways of a Child

When I was a young married woman with no babies to cosset other than a huge, 100 pound dog, I took him for a walk in a local park that I had played in as a child. It was April and the path to the lake was deserted. I could see in every direction because the leaves were not yet on the trees and I thought we were alone. When we reached the beach, I threw a stick into the lake and grinned as I watched Ben paddle with steadfast intent toward it. At some point I sat down on a fallen log to to enjoy the view and solitude.

I did not hear him approach but I suddenly became aware of a prickling sensation on the back of my neck. I stood up in alarm, whirled around and was confronted by a man in a powder blue jogging suit about six inches away from me. Shocked speechless, I stared into his eyes and, immobilized by what I saw there, knew I was in big trouble. How long we stood like that I don’t know. It seemed like forever but it was more likely seconds before his gaze shifted to my right.

I heard a low growl and turned my head to see my crouching dog not more than five feet away displaying a row of ferocious-looking white teeth. I had never witnessed my trusting, obedient, lick-your-face-off dog shape shift into something dangerous. I don’t understand and cannot explain how Ben could have arrived on the beach so quickly and what was the signal that turned him around without his stick.

I looked back to the man who focused on me once more. He made a silent decision and turned away. As I watched him jog up the path, I shook with a fear I could not name. I felt stupid the way you always feel stupid when you nearly step on a ‘snake’ and yank your foot back in alarm before your brain identifies it as a twig. “Oh, I thought it was a snake,” you explain self-consciously to your laughing companions.

I found out later that I had come face-to-face with the man known in the local media as ‘the jogging rapist’. My sister’s friend had not been as lucky as I.

I have re-played this wordless encounter in my mind many times, struggling each time to describe the nature and flow of the communication between the three of us. I have come to understand that there are ways of knowing, being and communicating that have nothing to do with words. Perhaps it is more accurate to describe the process of acquiring communication skills in childhood as one of extinguishing the ways that do not serve us in the culture we are born into.

My teacher, the respected anthropologist Dr. Oscar Kawagley, devoted his research to validating the traditional ways of his people that did not adhere to  scientific methods and language. He argues that it was the First Nations people of Central Canada who alerted environmental scientists to the emerging detrimental effects of the phenomenon later known as ‘acid rain’.  Their ‘non-scientific’ but equally valid findings were based on their observances and intimate interactions with the land and its inhabitants over seasons and centuries. Dr. Kawagley believes that a return to these traditional ways will provide the path to wellness for his people.

Indeed, it may well be the way back for all of us. I have heard it said that when I step into the forest, everything that lives there is aware of my presence. The path to human wellness probably winds through those speechless parts of the brain that are fluent in the common ways of all that is.