Sunday, November 8, 2009

Still Life

Saturday Pip and I deployed to Virginia on an ASRC callout for the kind of search I least want to do.

The kind where, as you are doing your best to be diligent and thorough and up to the highest standards in the technical execution of your work, you fervently hope for no results, because if the ground search effort is successful, it is the worst news possible. This girl is not a missing hiker. If she's in the woods three weeks after disappearing from a stadium parking lot, it is not an episode of Survivorman.

As long as the ground search remains fruitless, there is hope: Hope that a feckless young metalhead is rockin' out in Cancun with some hairy dude named Tusk, hope that somewhere a blond is waking up with a new tattoo and a mouth that tastes like a tire fire, even hope that she plots her escape from an abductor's cellar, from a living hell that is, after all, living.

Still life.

We've had some searches over the decades in which we knew the inevitable outcome. Crime victims whose murderers had confessed. Partial remains. Evidence of blood loss incompatible with life. Witnessed drowning.

That somber chore -- to restore the earthly remains of a departed soul to his survivors -- offers no ambivalence. A successful search does not help much -- but it does help.

But these "most likely scenario" searches offer the successful searcher an opportunity to kill hope. This does not make one's day.

Then there's the plenty of time out on task to cogitate on the fairness thing.

Another massive search effort for a rich, pretty white girl.

Not that missing rich, pretty white girls do not deserve to be sought tirelessly.

But so did this lady. Exactly as much. Exactly.

And well -- you know, I could go on ...

I won't even get into the Byzantine interstate SAR politics that yesterday equated my multiply-certified, battle-tested, impeccably professional partner, myself, my two teammates, and my sixty-some highly-trained SAR colleagues with "anyone over 18 with a state-issued ID." Including the associates of a notorious felon.

Because I don't train for those people, and neither do my teammates.

Anyway, it was an unseasonably lovely day in Charlottesville when Pip and Eric and I set out to comb some woodland for clues. Pip's main job was to find any scent clues and tell me about them. We humans needed to navigate accurately, choose search tactics that kept Pip downwind of the unsearched portion of the area, avoid hazards, and use our eyes like any other searcher.

When your eyes are peeled bare for six hours, looking for drag marks, disturbed earth, a black t-shirt, crystal bling -- anything that might be relevant, anything that does not belong -- the other thing that you see is everything. Even stuff that does belong, but is worth noticing.

Like this:

I saw it as we were about to head back to our car for a snack before tackling the other half of our search area. Actually I saw Pip see it -- she noticed the contrasting whiteness, briefly checked it out, and declared it background noise. It certainly did not smell relevant to her.

Lots of deer skulls in the woods, but I never find one with two undamaged antlers. This needed to come home. Antlers don't fit into backpacks well, so I was carrying it under my arm as we walked down the road that formed one of our task boundaries.

As luck would have it, a local television reporter driving by gave herself whiplash when she saw the cute doggy in the orange vest. Never fails.

She asked if she could get video of us. We told her that we didn't have time to stop, and that she needed to check in at the command post.

This gave me just enough time to wrap the skull in my jacket before she started rolling. The press will be press.

I just really did not want to be the searcher shown on-camera dragging a skull out of the woods, no matter the species of its former owner. Some people would not, you know, grok this.

But inside my small pack was something that I do not grok.

That does not belong.

Yes, those are lemons.

They were on and under a large, vigorous, weird-looking spiky lemon tree.

Out in the middle of the dense and untraveled woods. Uncultivated.

In Charlottesville Virginia.

38 degrees latitude.

I smelled them before I saw the tree.

Pip's job description does not include acknowledging errant citrus; she continued to work while I looked around for the source of the incongruity. Since we had detected a few party spots in the course of our task, I suppose I was imagining some odd variant on these. But there was the tree, surrounded by drops and loaded with fruit.

I'd have been less surprised to encounter a family of penguins.

I've asked about it on the citrus forum of Garden Web. No response.

Everything the Googles has uncovered indicates that lemons don't grow north of Florida.

I have no friggin' explanation. None. The tree is an impossibility.

So, driving north to home last night with my teammate Chris and a bag of the fragrantly impossible, we mulled over the not-so-strange case of the missing Metallica fan.

I recounted a disagreement I had with my ONB training partner, Douglas, when I had worried that a certain individual was not above harming or killing a dog in order to seek revenge on people involved in ONB.

Douglas told me I was being ridiculous, that what I was postulating was "TV levels of evil."

Meaning: People don't act that awful in real life -- it has to be badly scripted. Douglas was referring to, let's say, Dynasty scripting.

Yet SAR responders' stock-in-trade is slogging through the consequences of TV levels of evil that are so shopworn, we sometimes wonder if we are living repeats.

We perform our duties in a world where the first, and usually last, suspect in a child's violent death is one or both of her parents.

We sit on our hands while public servants decide that an all-out search is unnecessary for someone -- someone who is not rich, is not white, is not pretty, but is just as missing as Chandra Levy.

We watch as public servants and our self-declared colleagues in volunteerism obstruct professional search efforts as they play out their territorial pissing matches and ego fantasies -- while the lost person's survivability curve plummets by the hour.

We smell the piss and neglect in the dank nursing home, and wonder how long that 98 year-old has really been missing.

We look into the glassy eyes of the mother of a runaway boy who is trying to convert us to her religion while we are trying to find her son, and know that there was a reason he hopped a freight.

We wonder how the swindlers with a magic search dog and a "100% success rate" stay out of prison for years and keep garnering breathless laudatory press coverage and the fatuous loyalty of law enforcement.

We see TV levels of evil all the damned time. More than we do on TV.

Okay, sure -- there's plenty of selection bias. We all imagined our SAR duties in terms of misplaced hikers, wandering children, stranded climbers, and trackless wilderness. Our reality is wandering dementia patients, once-a-year Nimrods with cardiac histories, the victims of violent atrocities, and the trash-strewn strip-mined gully behind the assisted-living center.

TV levels of evil are the bleached deer skull in the thicket of a SAR career. Interesting to find, but no surprise. Something that belongs.

So Chris and I parsed out the obvious selection bias, and just went with people we knew in our personal lives. The neighbor who stabs his parents to death in their bed. The one who shoots her child and then herself. The one who invites her illicit lover in to rape her teenage daughter while her husband is out of town. The brother's best friend who murders his 13 year-old girlfriend, molests the body, and then disposes of the evidence with the help of his aunt. The former lover serving federal time for treason. And those are just the things we know about.

TV has got nothing on real life for the ubiquity of human evil. It's not the skull in the woods, it is the woods themselves.

So perhaps what we work for is the impossible. That part of the woods that we do not expect, but must be open to seeing.

Ron Remich, the unwitting Patron Saint of my SAR career. The dead man who insisted on being alive four days after he went missing without his insulin or his anti-rejection meds, and taught me that I have no right to kill a lost person in my head. No right to search for a body when I might be searching for a man.

If not for Ron Remich, I would have given up hope for young Jacob Allen. I'd have been looking for a dead boy, not the live boy we found. Maybe I'd have dismissed his parents' account and turned a jaundiced eye upon them, wondering what they'd done with their handicapped son. Given in to the omnipresence of evil. Instead, I rolled out of my sleeping bag every morning and went to work on a rescue, not a recovery.

Ron and Jacob remind me to believe in the reality of the improbable.

The inconceivable existence of a wild lemon tree in central Virginia. The remote prospect that a rich, pretty white girl has not succumbed to the most likely scenario, the most banal story of evil.

A bowl of impossible lemons makes a decent still life.


  1. Wow. That was an amazing essay. Thank you.

  2. Very well in Va, we watch the almost nightly news reports about that missing girl. The likelihood of a happy ending is slim to none- but I am sure the parents were happy you were out there searching. They need an end to their story, no matter what it is.

    Lemons and deer skull - you never know what you'll find in the woods!!

  3. That was wonderful.

    And... we need to buy Douglas a copy of "The Gift of Fear".

  4. Truly, a well written blog post. I admire that you search, and I hope for the rescue or recovery of all who are searched for, even those pretty white girls.

    Interesting about the lemons..

  5. Thank you for this. As someone who has had a close friend go missing/presumed this hit very close.

    My friend was in that 'not worth searching for' category - age, a history of drug use and sexwork - all of which left police shrugging and uninterested. It didn't matter that she was smart, a mother of two kids, loved by her friends, a talented artist. She just wasn't considered a 'priority'. She still isn't, except to those of us who loved her.

    It's good to know that the people conducting the searches don't all feel the same way.

  6. I recently learned that a friend disappeared. "Worth searching for" but not found anyway.

  7. Bother GardenWeb on the lemons. You want the North American Fruit Explorers, who know everything:

    The PA branch is the BackYard Fruit Growers. These guys really do Know All.

    I am betting a Meyer's lemon cross, but they would know more and tell you how to take cuttings. Save the seeds -- if I get my farm, I want some.


  8. Meyer lemon or maybe Menton lemon, which are grown in France.

    It's not the only plant that can grow in an unusual place.

    Figs will grow well north of where you think they'll grow. Charleston, West Virginia, is well known for its figs. Now, figs won't grow outside of town very well, especially at higher elevations, but they do okay in valley.

  9. Lemons in Virginia:

    Granted, this is on the coast.

  10. Virginia is for lemons.

    - the other state motto -

    Great essay!

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  12. Wow.

    When I first encountered this site, I estimated that "cynography" was "the writings of a cynic", but on looking it up, writing about dogs.


    Both, now, in one package.

    Powerful stuff, Heather.

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  14. You know I'm going to start looking for lemons. I admit that I spend most of my time either right on the Mason-Dixon line in West Virginia or near the dead center of West Virginia (also known as The Middle of Nowhere).

    I know that I will be laughed out of town if I tell people I'm looking for lemons.

    Maybe it's just too cold in the winter on this side of the Allegheny Front.

  15. A trivial comment to such a somber, heart & gut wrenching essay -

    This site has some cold-hardy (relatively speaking) citrus varieties, pix too.

    Citrus do grow in northerly climes. Or perhaps the woods or local topography provide some extra protection, a micro-climate that helps the lemon tree survive.

    Based on catalog descriptions, many of the more cold tolerant citrus varieties tend towards thorny trees & seedy fruit. Like the tree you encountered. What Dorene said - save the seeds, or take some cuttings!

    Been reading up on cold-tolerant plants in preparation for a move to VA, but NOT about to give up my home grown tangerines, lemons, bay leaves, and rosemary!!


  16. Turns out Garden Web came through.

    What I found is this plant:

    AKA poncirus. Dunno why they call it an "orange." Looks like a lemon, tastes like a lemon, smells like a heavenly lemon. We are using them in our iced tea. Ken really likes them.

    I may try to grow one against my south-east facing brick kitchen wall, though the hardiness map says no.

    Yes, I think this side of the Allegheny Front -- plus significantly higher elevation -- makes a world of difference.

    The other thing I see in Virginia (every time I'm there) is enormous holly trees. Don't get those here.

  17. In central West Virginia, we have little holly bushes, but nothing very large.

    The main shrub around these parts is the autumn olive (introduced) and the multiflora rose (introduced to make hedgerows).

    I've never seen this orange species, but apparently it will grow at USDA Zone 6, which is where I spend almost all of my time.

  18. the plant is trifoliate orange - poncirus trifoliata - as you now know. if you want some actual plant specimens to try, I'll mail some your way as we have tens of thousands of these things in various sizes from seedling to 12' on our land. and if you find a marketable use for the lemons, please let me know. . .
    we put bowls of them around for scent and throw them at each other. we have found the foliage to be handy in cut bunches. we ran it all around the perimeter of one of our goat pens for coyote/stray dog -proofing. the spikes are nasty and strong, I've found that they run right through the skin till they hit bone - usually finger or shin.

  19. If it's a poncirus, you should be able to grow it on the wall. They use them as hedges in Philly community gardens. Yours looks much more "lemony" than the ones I've seen in Philly -- those are smaller and have an orange tinge to them.

    Plant the seeds and see what happens. The warm wall should do the trick if you're in Zone 5.


  20. That was a seriously well-written essay.

    I've never that term MWWS, but I definitely knew something was up when the Natalee Holloway thing lasted more than a day on the news. And then it kept coming back...and coming back...and funny how other missing persons stories just came and went, but not this one.

    Retrieverman, there's a moderately-sized holly tree in Williamstown. Nothing to write home about, but it's definitely not a bush. Plants in weird places are out there I guess, even if in minute quantities.

  21. We should all remember to seek the possible, along with the probable; to exclude one from the other makes one a fool. This is a thought provoking missive, Heather. Thank you!
    Diane Guy

  22. I'm spending a bit of time every day reading into the archives, laughing, crying and thinking. The lemons - grafted citrus often freezed dead to the rootstock, then the hardier rootstock takes over. If the tree was in a sheltered enough spot, it could be it's really old, 40 - 50 years, from an abandoned homesite. We have them here, oranges too, sour sour, but there you have it. Thanks for all this Heather, you make me think.

  23. Apparently some Poncirus are tastier than others. Most people consider them inedible. I am on a quest for one that tastes better. Have you ever tasted them from another source to see if they tasted the same? I am very interested in your better tasting fruit. They will grow all the way to Canada if protected from winter sun and wind.

  24. Trifoliate orange is very hardy in the mid Atlantic. Very thorny , seedy fruits. Makes great marmalade. Probably hybridizes ready with other citroids.


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