In 1961 our family [and just about everyone else in the UK] went to see Anthony Newley’s WestEnd musical, Stop the World, I Want to Get Off, which was thrillingly cynical [especially to us Young Ones], about what is euphemized in the US as “a shotgun wedding.” Newley wrote & sang the phrase, “I’ve been lumbered.” It sounded like another example of Cockney slang [the meaning evident from the context]; but it’s actually ever so old, dating from the 1500s in England, and the 1300s in Continental Europe. It refers to an Italian ethnic group, the Lombardi, who were pawn-brokers and money-lenders. Lombard Street in London was so named for its plethora of pawnshops. [Incidentally, did you know, “Pop goes the weasel” is a euphemism for pawning a fur garment?] The Oxford Concise Dictionary (1911 ed.) defines “to be lumbered” as “to be burdened with something unpleasant” [which pawn-brokers were: namely, the “popped” weasels, used furniture, and other old tat that their clients had exchanged, for enough money to buy more rice & treacle]. Nar’mean?

Last week’s exploration of Guthrie’s One-Trial Learning theory was prompted by an event in the forest, during Lili’s & my morning walk. It had been raining for days, and then it got windy. The beaten path was like a waterslide in the downhill parts, to avoid which, I was detouring right through the trees, for better footing. As I came to the next downhill bit, I heard a tremendous crack, like the detonation of a shotgun, directly in front of me. First, I froze. Then I looked behind me, to see if a deer had been shot [since I, happily, had not]. Then I looked directly ahead, to see if I could spot a hunter and tell him to cease fire. Lili, meanwhile, looked straight up. Following her gaze, I saw a huge branch break off a tree, and fall right on the spot where I had planned to walk. Amazingly, I did not utter my trademark Hitchcock-victim scream, but just calmly followed Lili [my Pack Leader pro tem] along the slippery path, away from the newly fallen lumber.

We used to think Lili was silly, to look up warily at every looming object she passed [such as playing field lampposts, the water tower, and even our ceiling fan, when it first turns on or off]. Now I get her point. I was looking everywhere but up, in the woods; and without Lili’s vigilance I would have been well and truly lumbered.

Then I wondered if the next day I would shy away from that specific part of the woods, or if I would be more amygdally aroused in general, especially by any “gunshot” noises. In fact, I was able to cognitively reframe the falling branch as “a lucky escape,” rather than a “trauma”; and we have had remarkably serene walks. Today was the first time my husband has been able to come with us in two weeks, and it had been bucketing rain last night, so I remarked, “I hope all the branches have done their falling, by the time we pass through.” Several 100 yards past the site of last week’s fallen branch, he pointed to an 8-inch-in-diameter, newly fallen tree, lying directly across our path, and said, “Well, there you go.” [It’s not the one pictured here. No camera today.] Lili glanced up warily at an adjacent, precariously-balanced tree, decided it posed no immediate hazard, and jumped over the fallen lumber.

So, even without a tailor-made X-Box game [Timber!], I have been able to do my own limbic debriefing, and avoid being lumbered with a fear habit about our beloved walks on the wild side. In the thick of the forest, I will trust Lili’s big ears and big eyes, to warn me of impending danger from above. Still, I will be the judge of whether the people and animals we encounter on the ground are friends or foes.

Meanwhile, since last week, I have not flinched once while riding shotgun with my husband. See, we can learn to tame our Wild Things [aka howling limbic wolves], of which, more next time.

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Filed under limbic system, post-traumatic stress, semiotics

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