September 10, 2014
“Soon as you in yourself confide, You know the way to live!”
– Mephistopheles, a demon,
Faust: The First Part of the Tragedy
by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
At 9:30pm on a rainy Sunday in April, I decided to explore the Black Fork Swamp in Ashland with a friend. Though I had never been there before, my friend had gone earlier that week, so I assumed we would be fine. Sure, it was a swamp, but certainly two grown men could handle themselves. I would know. I have common sense, am in shape, and have most certainly been in the woods before. Moreover, another friend – an Ashland native who had plenty of experience in that neck of the woods – sketched a map for us on college-ruled notebook paper. Equipped with headlights, warm clothes, waders, and a map, we drove to the swamp, ready for adventure. About an hour into our exploration, we decided to head back to the car. It was getting late and we had homework to finish. So we walked and walked… and walked… and… walked… until this sinking feeling hit us. We were lost. Lulled into carelessness by the grandeur of the natural world around us, we must have accidentally taken a wrong turn. Stranded in a swamp I had never been to, in the dark, without a cell phone or GPS or compass, without a clue of where we were or where to go, we were completely lost. Nothing looked familiar and yet everything did. In the swamp, there were no discernable landmarks to guide us out.
Intuitively, I decided to walk straight for a while, but when we did not find the path, I second-guessed my decision. What if our trail was only a few hundred yards in the other direction from where we started? After we turned right, I thought that we should have turned left. After we turned left, sooner or later I thought that we should have turned right. Intuition and common sense could not lead us out. There was no way to give myself a sense of direction. Disoriented and scared, I then second-guessed my lack of faith. In the swamp, even my doubts could not be trusted. An hour passed. Then two. Then three. Sooner or later, I imagine, we tricked ourselves into walking in circles, breathing heavily and growing more fatigued by the minute. At that moment, I recognized my limit. With no other place to turn, we stopped and prayed… and listened. As we stood in the water in the silence, every now and then, we could hear the rumblings of an 18-wheeler on a highway in the distance. Trying to escape the lostness that lived in the swamp, we almost ran toward where we thought the sound was coming from. We scaled hills and quickly crossed a 50-foot wide river by climbing across two felled trees.
Suddenly, the forest opened and we saw a bright light approximately three-quarters of a mile away. Our savior now had a face. The only thing that stood between us and the light was a thick, overgrown patch of 15-foot high shrubs rooted in two or three feet of water. Because the quickest and perhaps only way to salvation was through, we descended the hill and entered the water.
Like a cobweb, the shrubs had multiple branches that spread out in all directions, making a very dense canopy. Neither my 5’4” friend nor I could stand up straight or stretch out our arms. We trudged slowly through the soggy mire – probably only a few feet per minute – for in order to take a step forward, we had to either straddle over the branches growing out of the water or stick our hands underneath the algae to lift the branches over our heads. The brushwood fought our every movement. The lostness refused to give us up. Every single step was excruciating, and we continued for hours. In reality, what I thought was a small patch of shrubs was actually an entire lake of mangal, almost a half-mile long. The darkness of the night and the density of the shrubbery prevented us from seeing more than 20 feet in any direction, so we had no way of knowing which way was the quickest way out. If we stood still, we sank into the muck. If we advanced, we would perhaps only get further into the mangrove-like swamp. If we retreated – and we tried – it was just as difficult because the path had closed in behind us.
In the swamp, hopelessness pulsed through my body like an elevated heartbeat, ready to burst. It seemed to be everywhere. It was in the dolorous and almost inhuman screams of my companion. It was in the fog covering his glasses. It was in his panic. It was in my uncontrollable weeping and the dryness of my mouth. It was in the cold sweat on my forehead and the curses on my tongue. It was in the sloshing of our waders, trudging through ankle-deep, knee-deep, and waist-deep water and muck. It was in the humid air, the silence of the night, and the musty, rancid smell of the swamp. It was in the clouds of gnats that we traveled through. It was in the hugeness of the natural world that we haughtily stepped into. It wrestled against me every time I bent a branch away from my body. It washed over me every time my friend or I tripped over a root and fell face first into the mud.
Then, my spirit broke. I realized that motion would not save us. Our energy, the only thing we had left, was quickly waning. We could not stay in the swamp and we could not continue. I stopped talking to myself. I stopped swearing. I stopped crying. What a mistake it was to have come here. What an arrogant decision. What an accident.
I almost gave up, until I remembered that, even though I could not see it, somewhere in the distance, there was a light. In one last attempt to escape, I climbed into a tree to see above the thick canopy and miraculously found the quickest way out. We trudged through the brushwood for 30 more minutes, came to solid ground, and sat on a log in the silence, staring in awe at the light that was now clearly visible. We laughed. Our savior was a yellow and black ADULT MART billboard on I-71.
“It is impossible for the man of pious reflection not to perceive in it a finger of that Almighty hand which has been so frequently and signally extended to our relief,” wrote James Madison in 1788. It’s true. God moves in mysterious ways.
A few months later, a friend, not knowing about my horrible night in the woods, told me something simple but profound. Fear is not as powerful as hope, she said. To have hope – to trust in the grace and love and timing of God – is to have what fear and doubt cannot destroy and intuition, intellect, and movement cannot replace. Without it, all I have is me, and me is not enough. Without hope, there is no way to get out of the woods, but with only an accidental sliver of it, a man can find his way if he fixes his eyes on it.
In a way, we were saved by a mistake. We made it out of the swamp because we heard random road noises and saw a faint light in the distance. It was not common sense, courage, or self-determination that lead us to safety. On the contrary, it was the misfortune of my arrogance, the downfall of my self-reliance that showed us the hand of God in the accident of a bawdy billboard.
Joseph Griffith is a senior from Medina, Ohio majoring in Political Science and History.