CosmiComedy: The Happy Wanderer

I wake in my king size bed with my cozy flannel sheets. The heat pump has just kicked on and I curse briefly (and silently) at the slight chill in the room. I stumble to the bathroom a few steps away, fumble at a switch, and the bathroom illuminates my route to the glistening toilet that magically whisks my waste to a hidden tank buried in my yard.

I turn on the shower, and gasp at the cool water, which within seconds becomes a warm soothing pleasure. Each moment of my privileged life is so easy to take for granted. Anything that goes wrong: a blown fuse, a stove pilot that won’t stop clicking, a clogged sink, puts my panties in a bunch, so I huff and puff at the inconvenience.

My Mother’s entire village was force-marched by the fleeing Nazi army from Russia (now Belarus) to a German labor camp. My father was imprisoned and marched all over Poland from prison camp to prison camp. Because of my parents’ WWII experience, my DNA carries several apocalyptic genetic markers, like being able to make a meal out of anything left in the refrigerator (an egg, some old cheese and wilting parsley? Voila! Soufflé!). Did you know that your life experience can affect your DNA? I will probably forever flinch at an unexpected knock at the door thanks to the Nazis. Perhaps all those people who claim the Holocaust never happened simply have a different chromosomal arrangement.

This has not turned me into a contemporary survivalist with a storage cellar of freeze-dried food and several guns. My parents were fatalists. In the face of an invading force, there’s no point in storing food or water, since everything will be taken. What you need to know how to do is walk long distances, forage, and keep your eyes peeled. The genetic directive to walk was so strong that I actually skipped crawling.

My parents started taking us on long hikes when we were quite small. My Dad would lead the way, singing ‘The Happy Wanderer’ off-key at the top of his lungs, “Val-deri, Val-dera, my knapsack on my back!” We often got lost; one time in a swamp where my sister and I began to weep and my mother became hysterical (which of course was not unusual, but still kind of challenging when you’re literally stuck in the mud). We ended up in a parking lot in the next town.

They took us camping, taught us to carry heavy loads, to build a fire, to haul water from the campground pump. For my siblings and myself, it was an adventure. As I look back on it, I wonder if for my parents, it was a kind of comfort zone, taking them back to a harrowing, yet unforgettable period of their lives. Or were they quietly training us? When I was a child, and complained about any kind of lack, my Father would bellow, “What are you complaining about? You have a roof over your head, food on the table and most importantly, you are alive!” So when I forget to be grateful for the miracle of the hot shower, or my cell phone-activated remote car starter, even the half and half gone sour in my refrigerator, I feel a touch of shame. (Although of course, another part of me is already thinking about a recipe using sour milk.)

Sometimes I drive my husband Ron crazy on our walks, stopping to harvest wild mustard for dinner, stuffing shopping bags full of stinging nettles (“Ow, ow, OW! They will be so good with pasta!”), scrambling through thorns in order to grab blackberries. “We have bushes growing in our yard,” he’ll state quite logically. But I can’t pass anything that looks like food without attempting to take it home.

My parents only came to Asheville once. As I went walking with my Mother, she suddenly exclaimed, “Hazelnuts!”

“What?” I asked. She excitedly pointed to a shrubby tree growing on the edge of our dirt road.

“I used to collect them when we were in the labor camp. We’d wait till the soldiers had walked away, then sneak over and grab as many as we could, hiding them in our shirts.” Giggling, she patted her ample bosom. For years afterward, I tried to harvest the hazelnuts, but the squirrels always got them first. Last year, I finally found a trove of unripe nuts down the street. I Googled how to outsmart squirrels and sure enough, there was a YouTube video on how to harvest immature Hazelnuts to foil those clever rodents. I schlepped a shopping bag on my next walk and picked as many as I could carry. I carefully laid them out in a cardboard box as prescribed. I waited till the husks dried off. There it was! The nut! I cracked it open. Empty. The next one was rotten, and the next one so tiny and shriveled as to be inedible. I felt guilty. I had stolen from the squirrels (I know, I know, they steal from my garden on a regular basis) and all these wonderful nuts had never had a chance to achieve their potential because of my lust for wild crafting. Or was this simply a genetic imperative?

Someone once asked me why I like to walk alone. One foot in front of the other, bathed in blue sky, the shiny mica chips below my feet, casting my eyes left and right for chanterelles or ramps. I wanted to say,” It clears my head.” Or “Did you know that research shows that taking a walk outside does more for brain health than Lumosity?” or “When I’m alone, I can walk at my own pace (fast),” or “I love to just feel the air resist as I move through space.” But perhaps closer to the truth is that I simply have to. Like eating, breathing and sleeping, walking is in my DNA. And hey, I’ll be ready. Just in case there is some kind of apocalypse – no gas, no food, I’ll still be able to walk, one foot in front of the other –

Along the mountain tracks
And as I go
I’ll love to sing
My knapsack on my back.

Val-deri, val-dera
Val-deri, val-dera
Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha
My knapsack on my back

When not taste testing unfamiliar mushrooms, you can find Lavinia teaching the Feldenkrais and Alba Methods. Join Lavinia and Stephen Opper June 3 for a rich and satisfying exploration of The Art of Walking:

AND, Join Lavinia for a fabulous retreat in Boone, NC, May 4 -7 – Click here for details.

Lavinia Plonka
Written by Lavinia Plonka