A few weeks ago, I met a bonafide woodland octopus in the Hocking Hills, just around a bend in the trail, in Clear Creek MetroPark.
And, in a welcome change, this octopus I met was a nice guy.
It’s not far-fetched that I met an affable cephalopod in Clear Creek MetroPark. I once saw this exercise in basic cable CGI on the Discovery Channel that speculated upon evolution in the distant future. Long after we’re gone and all our flesh and accomplishments are tomorrow’s fossil fuels, intelligence will re-emerge when a band of tree-dwelling octopi hurl tiny wooden spears at a giant land nautilus with murder in its eyes. They will be adorable.
Much more adorable than people.
People have been problematic of late.
But I really clicked with this octopus. At one point during our conversation, I acknowledged his upcoming mastery of simple tool-making (—and then… the world!). I gestured a broad swoop to woods around us and proclaimed, “Someday all this will be yours!”
Without missing a beat, he responded: “What? The curtains?” Even though his English accent could use some work, we cracked ourselves up. It’s great when you meet someone, and you don’t have to slow-walk them thru your go-to pop culture references, especially something as basic as Monty Python & The Holy Grail.
It’s simple contact like this that I miss.
I was walking alone in the woods because simple contact has been nearly impossible for the past year or so. No one expects to get sexually assaulted. I’m a fifty-year old guy of ample girth —and it happened on a Tuesday, in my kitchen. I had recently relocated to Columbus, and the perpetrator was the first person I had connected with here.
I’ve never been what one would call “good” with people I flail at those interactions that don’t involve some sort of counter (or stethoscope or lectern or proscenium arch) between me and whomever. People in the wild, off-script, worry me. I stand off to the side, hoping someone will break the ice. It’s been this way since I was kid.
That first friend I connect with in a new place is very important. My brain really couldn’t handle having him, several months into our friendship, disregard my “NO” with a casual laugh and a belly poke. When I said “NO” again, the laugh got a lot less casual, and the belly poke turned into more of a shove against the kitchen counter. One should never be put in the place of doing the calculus that decides acquiescence is the only safe option.
I tried to forget it happened. Still, I withdrew completely. Nowhere was safe. Everyone was a threat, especially other queer men.
After too many months of denial and some nasty, yet ultimately psychosomatic, sciatica, I began to deal with the PTSD from the assault. Many techniques and treatments have helped. The most effective has been reconnecting with my physical self —to remember that I exist, and deserve to exist, in this physical world. A nice, wandering, hike with few expectations has really helped. My doctor calls it a “healthy sublimation.”
Ohio has been abnormally warm this winter —71 Fahrenheit degrees of abnormally warm. I took advantage of the Earth spiraling into the sun to get some long bonus hikes in before I went full Lois Nettleton in that Twilight Zone. Columbus proper consists mostly of pragmatic right angles replicating themselves endlessly over a flat plane of corn. However, head southeast on US-33 for about 40 minutes, and tiny humps humps of trees begin to poke above all that future corn syrup. These little bits of land too angled for the first white settlers two hundred years ago to cut and plow are the Hocking Hills, the first inklings of the Appalachian mountains.
I have always been drawn to the edges. But not too much —I love a vista, but hate a drop. When I lived in New York City, I would ride the F-train to Coney Island just to stand and stare at not-land for a while. In LA and Texas, I would drive to the edge of the desert to that first point where the road goes perfectly straight and my headlights go on forever.
Approaching Clear Creek, behind me is flatness that extends all the way through downtown Columbus to the other side of the Mississippi watershed. In front of me, it is broken and wavy for a good two and a half states. But this next few miles of Southeast Ohio is a littoral zone, an edge between the mountains and the plains. I’m not going to get overwhelmed in these tiny hills. I’m not gonna drown in a sea of Appalachian hills and hollers. I can still scamper to back to the beach.
You need to go to the shore and get your toes wet to meet a quality cephalopod.
Clear Creek is the most far-afield of Columbus’ MetroParks, usually tucked into an Alaska/Hawaii box on park system maps. It’s not just in the next county —it’s in the next county after that. The Hocking Hills are home to myriad state parks, but hiking those on a nice day can be a single-file affair. There must be some sort of unspoken park name hierarchy where a “state” park is thought more “nature-y” than a mere “metro” park or —gasp —a “city” park.
Clear Creek is five thousand acres of quality nature, refreshingly devoid of right angles: ridges, ravines, clear creeks as you move thru ferns, hemlocks, oaks, and the last few rhododendron in Ohio.
Any place that can have the last rhododendron can have the first smart octopus.
The only thing it doesn’t have is a waterfall. People love waterfalls. They are very goal-orientated —both the water and the people. Hike somewhere with a waterfall, and everyone seems in a hurry. I am in the way. No waterfall, and I can wander around for three hours and encounter maybe three other people.
When I met the octopus, I was moving thru a stand of wintering oaks. Hiking after the leaves have fallen from the trees is like walking thru a ruined cathedral. The roof is gone, but the columns remain. Long winter shadows fall in sharp lines.
I rested and took this in. Somewhere, a friendly voice said, “It’s looks even better if you twirl a bit.”
I didn’t hesitate. I outstretched my arms, focused outwards, and began to rotate. It was the kind of moving twirl —a Julie Andrews Sound of Music thing —you do when you’re not worried about what you look like twirling.
[And if someone does see me… What? A fat guy can’t twirl?]
The twirl was more than I expected. Just like a film tricks you into thinking a bunch of still photos are actual motion, the trees galloped along like horses in a zoetrope. Sun, shade, and columns made an intoxicating parallax.
However, I soon realized that this intoxication was actually dizziness. One of the downsides of hiking alone is that no one can see how spectacular you look twirling yourself into the bottom of a ravine and laying there until the birds come and cover you with leaves.
Just as the trees returned to their stationary lives, I registered another set of eyes. I must’ve caught an instant of them on a rotation. It took a few scans, but I saw this octopus poking out of the leaves about teen feet off the path. His arms were hidden, and he was trying to camouflage himself reddish bark brown with patches of moss green and lichen gray. But his eyes gave him away. You can’t camouflage a good brain.
I have been told I have an annoying habit of mimicking the accent and cadence of the last person I’ve spoken with. Therefore, I greeted him with the Appalachian lilt of an extremely friendly Sunoco clerk. “Oh hey! If you just ain’t a big ol’ octopus sticking outta the dirt!”
He didn’t deny it. He just said, “Nice twirl, huh?”
“Yeah. Thanks for the tip.” I nodded my head.
We engaged in some friendly banter. We chatted about Python, ways to eradicate invasive honeysuckle, and, most vitally, how the low winter sun flatters absolutely everyone.
After a bit, I even decided it didn’t worry me that I couldn’t see any of his arms. I could trust him. He wouldn’t be poking at me with them. I could focus on what was happening and not one what could happen. This was the kind of connection that heals.
Now, I know perfectly well I was having a moment with a decaying tree stump, advantageously lit by the low winter sun. The reason he wasn’t poking me with six or seven arms was that they were roots. If the roots had begun to poke, then the PTSD would be the least of my problems. I don’t want to get run thru with an adorable wooden spear.
Hiking in the winter allows one to really appreciate dead trees. There is a sense of exhalation with dead trees. They are done impressing with their leaves and dealing with the embarrassment of crown shyness. They are focusing outwards, giving what is needed.
I needed to chat with someone not behind a counter. I needed to feel normal. I needed someone to chuckle at my hackneyed references. I needed to not worry about being trapped. I needed to exhale to a point where I could register that feeling. And then maybe I can call upon it again when I’m in with people in their natural habitat.
I needed to wade in and find myself a friendly octopus.
As I headed back down the trail to my car and the flatlands and the right angles, I passed a small boy who was offering excited commentary on what he saw in the woods to his dad. He ran up the path to me, “There there there was this big pumpkin monster! He was big, and he stomped around!” His father smiled patiently and said, “Don’t worry. Apparently, a friendly dinosaur ate it.”
“I know. The octopus told me.” The boy and I nodded to each other.