Dedicated to Pierre Lioni Ullman who found a home with me along the river.
“Alice started to her feet, for it flashed across her mind that she had never before seen a rabbit with either a waistcoat-pocket, or a watch to take out of it, and burning with curiosity, she ran across the field after it, and fortunately was just in time to see it pop down a large rabbit-hole under the hedge.
In another moment down went Alice after it, never once considering how in the world she was to get out again.
The rabbit-hole went straight on like a tunnel for some way, and then dipped suddenly down, so suddenly that Alice had not a moment to think about stopping herself before she found herself falling down a very deep well.
Either the well was very deep, or she fell very slowly, for she had plenty of time as she went down to look about her and to wonder what was going to happen next.... Down, down, down. Would the fall never come to an end? ….
Down, down, down... when suddenly, thump! thump! down she came upon a heap of sticks and dry leaves, and the fall was over.
Alice was not a bit hurt, and she jumped up on to her feet in a moment: she looked up, but it was all dark overhead; before her was another long passage, and the White Rabbit was still in sight, hurrying down it. There was not a moment to be lost: away went Alice like the wind, and was just in time to hear it say, as it turned a corner, “Oh my ears and whiskers, how late it’s getting!” She was close behind it when she turned the corner, but the Rabbit was no longer to be seen: she found herself in a long, low hall.... There were doors all-round the hall, but they were all locked; and when Alice had been all the way down one side and up the other, trying every door, she walked sadly down the middle, wondering how she was ever to get out again.”
--from Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
It was May. Every vivid detail of the day shines in my mind. I was in the woods, checking the young trees, seeing how they fared the winter. There were a lot of trees to check, so I went fast and didn’t look around much. Then I tripped and fell. Looking up, there was a tent right there, and I had tripped over the rope. A man was sitting on a stump.
“Are you okay?”
“Yes. I’m sorry to bother you.”
“No bother. Can I ask what you’re doing?”
“I check the young trees each spring to see how they did over the winter.”
“Do you live at the commune?”
“Yes. How do you know about us?”
“Well, the commune owns quite a bit of land along this segment of the river.”
“Is that all you know?”
“No. We also know that we don’t know why you own all this land and what you do here.”
“Our goal is to live a life off the grid and to restore the land we own to its original state.”
“How long have you lived here?”
“Twenty years. Now it's time for me to ask a question. Who are you? How did you get here?”
“My name is Benjamin. Yours?”
“I got here by canoe.”
“That’s upstream. It doesn’t make sense.”
“I was once on the Olympic slalom canoe team. This river is nothing compared to that.”
It had been almost twenty years since I’d spoken to anyone who wasn’t living with us at the commune. I felt afraid. It’s still hard to explain why.
“Oh. That still doesn’t answer why you’re here.”
“I needed some quiet, so I used time off of work to come here.”
I didn’t know what to say.
“Does that bother you,” he asked, “You’re not saying anything.”
“I just don’t know what to say. I don’t know how to explain. It’s like I’ve forgotten what it’s like to have a conversation.”
I remember him looking at me more intently at that point. Not unkind, not disrespectful. In fact, I felt an abundance of respect.
I looked up at that sky, noting where the sun was.
“I think I should get back. They’ll know that it shouldn’t take this long to check the trees.”
I went back as fast as I could and then stopped a few yards away to walk normally and catch my breath, so that they wouldn’t know I had been running.
The next day, I said that a few trees had been gnawed on over the winter and needed some protective coverings and supports and went back to the same spot.
Benjamin was sitting near his tent reading.
“Hello,” I called out. He stood and came over, but I stepped back.
“I said I needed to tend to a few trees with special needs.”
“Well, sort of.”
“Can you show me?”
Benjamin followed me while I checked trees, adding supports and coverings around their base.
“Did you learn this here?”
“Yes and no. I studied botany before I came here. It was natural for them to assign me to this.”
He nodded. I looked up at the sky again to figure out the time.
“They keep you on a short leash, don’t they?”
I heard the sentence and felt it like an arrow into my heart and like a flash of lightening illuminating the protective fog which had descended over my mind during the last twenty years.
“I’d better go back, but I can figure out a way to come back tomorrow.”
Except I didn’t go back the next day. I can’t say why. It was the way things were. It wasn’t my decision. I said I had to finish the trees and was told that I should work on other trees. There was more to it than that. It’s too shameful to say. If they thought there might be something else going on, they had ways to remind you that the group was more important and that the leaders of the group were the most important.
Three days later, I decided to go back.
“I was worried about you. You said you would be back.”
I didn’t say anything at first and just began working on the trees. Benjamin followed me.
“Maybe you mind me here?”
“No. The trees are always good company. It’s different having someone else around.”
“You live in a commune. You’re with people all the time.”
I didn’t answer.
After working on three trees, I checked the sun.
“I’d better get back.”
“Rachel, I plan to be here one more week.”
I didn’t answer and walked back.
I hadn’t been gone long, so no one said anything. The length of time I was gone was intentional. I wanted to see if Benjamin was still there, and he answered the question I was thinking of asking. And I wanted to see if the feeling that was growing inside of me was still growing or if had been a fleeting mood.
I also had purposely “forgotten” a tool by one of the trees.
The next day, I returned about the same time to retrieve the “lost” tool.
“I have nothing,” I said, “and I have been living in the woods for twenty years. It’s been 20 years since I’ve even seen myself in a mirror.”
I pulled up my sleeve across my wrist to reveal the welts and then raised my skirt to reveal similar welts around my ankles.
“Yes, Rachel. I have been wondering. It takes me a couple of hours to break camp, and if you wait that long...”
“Yes, they’ll come looking.”
“Yes. I’ve actually been doing research on this on my phone. You can get a signal here.”
“I’ll explain another time.”
“I have nothing. I probably look awful. I have no money, no contacts. I don’t even know how to get a job.”
“You’re very pretty. I have contacts with people who do conservation and land management along the river. And you can stay with me.”
“Until I find my own place.”
“No, as long as you’d like.”
Two days later, I came to the campsite under the pretense of finishing up work on the trees. Benjamin had taken down his camp and had everything in the canoe with a place for me to sit in the front.
He pushed us off from the shore, and we headed downstream.
It was a two-day trip back to the city where he lived, so we set up a quick campsite halfway back.
He hadn’t planned on food for another person, so we ate a light meal of nuts and dried fruit.
His tent was small, but two people fit. It had gotten warm, so he opened up his sleeping bag to make a blanket for two.
The days were still short, so we went into the tent as soon as the sun went down. I was sleeping in a tent with a man whose last name I didn’t know, heading for a much different world than I had left twenty years ago, with no contacts, money, job, or even a change of clothes. And I knew it was the right thing.
“Rachel, how are you feeling?”
“You mean am I comfortable?”
“No, you are doing something brave. How are you feeling?”
I laid on my back and thought and felt. I hadn’t had the luxury of personal feelings for twenty years and possibly my whole life. I mean, people don’t end up in these situations who are in touch with their core.
“I feel, Benjamin, like I fell down a rabbit hole and that I’m beginning the journey out.”
We lay side by side and slept.
The next morning, we got up with the sun, ate some more nuts and dried fruit, broke camp, and got into the canoe for the last leg of the journey.
The day was comfortably warm, the sky clear.
“This part of the river is easy,” Benjamin said, “All I really have to do is steer the canoe. If you want to rest, I’ll be fine. It’s only a couple hours.”
I looked back at this man who was becoming a friend. His face was so intent, and I wondered what his story was.
Then I stretched my legs out and leaned back on the bags packed with camping gear. With my eyes closed, I turned my face towards the morning sun which warmed not only my face but my whole body.
I became aware of the woundedness that I had incurred in those twenty years. An innocent gesture of wanting to help the world and nature lead me down a dangerous and unhealthy rabbit hole.
“Benjamin, did I waste those twenty years?”
He was silent for a bit and then replied.
“You lost many chances that youth should have afforded you. At the same time, your work with trees will benefit the environment for years to come.”
It made enough sense. I let the sun warm the wounds, the river beneath the boat soothe them, and the current beneath give me the hope that it was taking me to a more authentic life.