Clearing Land and Psychological Thickets


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These nice spring days, my wife and I often go back to the thicket near our house before supper for an hour or so of clearing. Our place is thick with oaks, pines, sassafras, cedars, the occasional hickory and maple and lots and lots of vines. We have fox  grape vines as big as three inches in diameter, muscadine and mustang grape vines, poison ivy ropes an inch thick centipeding up a tree and wild climbing greenbriers. Together they can choke a tree to death, and not just an unlucky sassafras, but a 50-foot oak.

The clearing is exercise, and we like that it expands our view.  The only problem, other than back-breaking cutting, hauling, and burning, is what the clearing reveals. Behind those cedars which we thought were blocking our view might be a dead tree or five of them which demand clearing for themselves. Maybe, we say to each other, it would have been better to have left things the way they were — now there’s even more to do.

The downside of clearing got me to thinking about another kind of clearing, that cutting, hauling, and burning we do in the name of getting our past straight and cleaning up old messes that we’ve neglected because they looked like too much trouble to deal with. Maybe it’s the effects an addiction had on others, maybe it involves children who were neglected, maybe it’s an old relationship left badly or a thousand scars left by past experiences we’d like to forget.  When we undertake that kind of clearing, we might find a whole vine-infested jungle of guilt, fear and shame lurking behind.

Maybe the prudent course of action is to let things be or put a fence up to hide all the mess. About this issue I am of two minds, as I am about so much in life:  sometimes I think the full-hearted way would be to face the messes, admit our neglect of them in the past, and do our best to clean them.  The poet William Blake argued for the full-exploration approach in “A Poison Tree.”

“I was angry with my friend, I told my wrath, my wrath did end.”  On the other hand, he says, “I was angry with my foe, I told it not, my wrath did grow.” 

I love Blake, and I’m sure he has a point, but I can’t help thinking that sometimes clearing reveals more of a mess than you’re prepared to deal with. Or maybe it’s that Blake was brave and me, not so much.

One thing I am sure of is that clearing land is a lot easier and a lot safer than clearing psychological thickets. So I’ll keep working on the land and try to get my courage up to work on the others.

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