Lost On A Farm


The news reported recently that scientists had proved conclusively what farm children have known forever. You can’t walk in a straight line blindfolded, or by extension, if you are lost in the woods or a corn field, you will invariably walk in circles.

Those of us who have matriculated from farms in our youths with PhDs in ornery knowledge know all about walking in circles. If for example, you are hunting mushrooms in a woodlot dense enough with underbrush to hide the outer world from view, you may think you are walking straight through the trees, but in a little while you will come to a tree with striking red foliage that looks very much like one you passed  half an hour earlier. After walking awhile longer, you come to yet a third tree that looks just like the other two. Astounding. The truth only slowly dawns on you.  There just can’t be three trees in the whole wide world that look that much alike. I have had this experience precisely, in the woods in Maine years ago. And that old myth about moss only growing on the north side of trees won’t help either. Moss grows on whichever side of a tree it wants to. I was fortunate enough to encounter an ancient rusting fence, and followed it back to the real world. Woven wire fences have to go in a straight line or you can’t stretch them tight.

It doesn’t have to be a large tract of forest land to run you in circles either. All that is necessary is a denseness that hides the fields beyond the woods. Once I unconsciously circled around in a woodlot of less than ten acres and, still unconscious of my circling, exited the woods about the same place I entered it, much to my surprise. In fact, expecting to be someplace where I was not, the landscape near that entry-exit point did not look familiar. How could the two sides of a woods look so much alike? This sensation— of looking at a familiar landscape in a place you think it could not possibly be— is very eerie.  It would be like taking off in an airplane from your farm in say, Ohio, believing that you were going to land in rural Iowa. Halfway there, the gauges on the cockpit panels start jiggering up and down in ways they are not supposed to jigger and so the pilot turns back but neglects to tell his sleeping passenger so as not to alarm him. The plane circles back and lands at the starting point.  The passenger is looking out the window by now and is thrown into a state of  utter confusion at how much Iowa looks like Ohio.

Getting lost on a farm as often involves a corn field as a woodlot. Farm children spend lots of time hunting for Indian artifacts on the bare soil between corn rows.  From the middle of July until harvest, the corn is taller than the child. The child, totally absorbed in the vision of flint arrowheads, loses all sense of time and place. After an hour of wandering through the jungle of cornstalks, the child is distracted,  usually by a hungry stomach. He, or she, looks up, but there is nothing to see except corn tassels. Hmmm.  Daddy says when you get lost, gauge your latitude and longitude by the sun.  Oh sure. What if it’s a cloudy day. What if it’s early afternoon when the sun is more or less directly above you. Well, if the sun can’t come to your aid, Daddy also said to pick out one row of corn and follow it to keep from walking in circles. Sooner or later, following that one row will return you to the known world. Okay.

For a child however, this is not as cut and dried as it might seem. So you start following one row. But, remember, by now, you are starting to get scared.  If you have been lost, you know how scary the feeling can be, even for an adult. The child panics. Starts running. Stumbles among the cornstalks and falls down. Gets up and not realizing it, follows the row the other way. Fifteen minutes without come to the end of the field can be half an eternity in this situation. My wife, as a child, did the most sensible thing. She sat down and took a nap. Naps have a way of soothing the mind. When she awoke, she sauntered her way out of the corn just fine.

I watch the children of today who seldom wander in forest and field. How do you find your way back after getting lost in cyberspace?


Andy and I have no children to come looking for us in the woods when we get old and lost … The plan is to fence the entire property before that happens so if (more likely when) we get lost, we can always find our way home…

I never had the experience of getting lost in the woods as a child, though the woods were my favorite haunt, after the creek of course. Our terrain was not flat, so there was always some point of reference. I could go uphill in one direction, or else across the creek and then uphill in the other direction. The creek was its own compass. And it’s hard to miss climbing in Pennsylvania woods, or even the cornfields planted into the hills, so I suppose that kept me oriented. Maybe those cues of terrain are the reason I’ve never had any sense of direction in flat places, unless there’s some major feature to orient myself towards.

My husband likes to tell a story to our kids about a time when he was about 10, going to check on snares in the winter with one of his teenage brothers. They went out for an hour or two and eventually came upon some tracks in the snow, two sets of boots, one smaller than the other. Showing off, the teenager informed his little brother that there were other hunters out today, obviously. They came upon a larger group a while later – 4 tracks in fact – two small guys and two older guys. Light dawned in both brains, and the elder told the younger he would kill him if he mentioned their tracking theories when they got home. You probably know exactly what my husband shouted the second he got in the back door – and he did live to tell the tale. I didn’t believe the story was true; I thought he’d adapted it from Winnie the Pooh and the Woozles, but someone else in the family brought it up recently at a reunion, amid much laughter, so it clearly happened much as he tells it!

You’re right, Gershon. Kids have to have enough space to make their own mistakes. But it is so hard, when you are a father or grandfather, not to want to run interference for them all the time.
Russ, you constantly amaze me with your retention of what you read. You know, I had forgotten that I wrote about that red foliaged maple tree in Maine before— but you didn’t!! When I am around you, I will be very careful not to make up any stories.
Skip, I’m glad things are working out for you. I always worry that some people will take my sometimes overly romantic prose too literally and when things don’t work out for them, I get cussed. Gene

Hello Mr. Logsdon,

Not a comment on this story but ours. Your books and writings over the years inspired us to “make the leap” in 2002. We bought
an old farmhouse in northern Vermont on 6 acres with a run down apple orchard.

Fast forward to 2010 and the orchard is coming back, some younger trees coming now too. A good size garden is in. Scottish Highlanders in the pasture. Hogs out back. Plenty of firewood for the woodstove. Clean plentiful well water. Freezer full of delicious and safe food for our family. Good friends and neighbors. And life in a place so beautiful we still pinch ourselves and say “we get to live here?”.

So I just wanted to say thank you for shining a light to show the
way. The Contrary Way. Drop us a line if you ever visit The Northeast Kingdom here. We’d be happy to show you around.

Skip Gray
Danville, VT

Nice twist with your summary sentence! And also profound as technology takes children and youth to places that their elders have never been. The wisdom of experience and prior reckonings is scarce and becomes antiquated so quickly. I guess timeless wisdom will need to suffice – Carol obviously has a generous supply. Strategic napping when coupled with enough serenity to allow for its use would probably even help in the navigation of cyberspace.

I remember your “lost in the woods/fence row” story from your book “Wyeth People”. I highly recommend it to any of your readers who haven’t read it. Great post.

Gene, great article.

When my son was 5 years old, we took him camping. It was near a dirt road on one side and a stream on the other side. We told him if he got lost, to get near one of them and sit down and wait for us to come looking for him.

Well, he did manage to get lost, but instead of sitting down, he went down the road trying to find his way back. He was lost for about an hour and a half, and later we discovered he’d wandered about a mile and a half down the road. Still, he turned around and found his way back.

A road, a row of corn, a strand of barbed wire, or anything straight that must be get to a destination can be compared to whatever moral compass a person abides by. It can be a purely secular philosophy or deeply religious. Whatever works for the person and is true. True in that it results in proper actions.

However, like your father did with you as a child, we have to let children wander sometimes away from their guide as that’s where the exciting discoveries are made. Even if we know our children sometimes wander in circles in a mental corn field or a mental dense forest, it’s a necessary part of their development. It would be easier for a father to walk beside their child in the corn field to prevent the child from being lost, but think of all the fun learning that would be missed.

The same could be said for a teacher teaching a student anything. Say riding a motorcycle. It would be easier for the teacher to always be with the student along every phase of learning. However, it’s the digressions of the student away from the teachings of the teacher where the student internalize the reasons for the teachers teachings. The teacher can only teach what they know. These wanderings are where progress is made.

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