WALKS IN THE WOODS Part 2
Save for the first six years of my life, I have always lived in proximity to a forest of one sort or another, whether by fortuitous happenstance or through deliberation I cannot truly say. It has been one of the abiding joys of my life to be able to ramble through woodlands, feeling the coolness and slight dampness of the breath of the trees, the scents of moist earth, running water and greenness, and thrilling to the beguiling sounds of furtive wildlife.
When I reached the age of eight or thereabouts, my parents allowed me the freedom to wander farther from our yard, mainly, I think, to get me out of the house while they dealt with the demands of raising my two-year-old brother. I was drawn ineluctably to the woods, an uncharted wonderland that beckoned my youthful spirit with visions of boundless mystery and discovery. The first and most magical experience that I can remember is viewing the door which led into the woods. It was reached by passing through the yard of our neighbor across the street, and I saw this threshold before I was ever allowed to cross it, by virtue of having swum in this neighbor’s backyard in-ground pool (he owned a furniture store and was by far the richest man in our neighborhood.) Our neighbor had taken note of a natural separation between two oaks and the manner in which the boughs strained toward each other to form an arch, and had embedded a board into the earth directly before, and had placed small cairns of stones to each side of, the opening, imparting to it the appearance of an actual doorstep. On many occasions in the ensuing years, our small band of ‘brothers’ and our loyal companions, two of the neighborhood dogs, availed ourselves of the opportunity to enter that gateway, although we could have entered the woods at any point.
The ‘foyer’ just beyond the door was quite as enchanting. At one time, someone had taken down some of the trees, leaving a few weathered stumps (which we happily used as seats) and a cleared area of packed earth, girded round about by a quantity of second growth. At the very rear of the clearing, to the north, a faint track led more deeply into the denser growth of the forest proper.
Through the years, I came to know the turnings of that track almost as well as the faces of my family. Its origin was probably deer trace, as we were able to catch rare glimpses of the magnificent, stately animals before they were spooked and bounded far into the gloomy distance. My fellow wayfarers and I thrilled to the discovery of the spot whence the track met and crossed the gully of a narrow and shallow stream named Shipbuilders Creek, and how the bank had been worn down at that point to allow for relatively easy access. Often we camped atop the small bluff in an inviting clearing, building a firepit from rocks plucked from the bed of the creek. In those years, it was not yet illegal for young lads to build campfires, and, as we were newly minted boy scouts, we took full advantage of that fact.
Gradually and grudgingly, the forest revealed to our questing and restless eyes and minds the mystic treasures of its innermost secrets. Away from the track, the trees gathered into dense copses and thickets, dappled with sunlight where they brushed the sky, dim and mysterious where they gripped the forest’s floor, inhabited by a bewildering variety of birds and small mammals, frequently startled into frantic flight by the intrusion of a small, noisy band of boys and dogs.
As the woods had grown from the bottom of a moraine, the water level was very close to the surface, and in our purposeless rambling, we stumbled across a number of small meres, thickly populated with a stunning number of species, insect, amphibian, and molluscan, that we would attempt to catch and, when successful, avidly study. Frogs, toads and salamanders of various sorts would be unceremoniously handled and inspected, and we would scoop from the ponds the glutinous masses of frog eggs with dark semicircles inside, future tadpoles waiting to hatch. We never tired of watching water striders skate along the surface of a pond or the creek, and we marveled at the tiny shrimplike creatures with their eternally oscillating cilia. We would chase after dragonflies and swat with futility at the clouds of noseeums hovering above each pool, and follow the slow progression of snails as they pursued their mysterious goals.
There grew beneath the oldest trees, in the rich loam created by a thick blanket of decaying leaves, lovely, alien species of plants - red and white trillium, may apples, johnny-jump-ups, jacks-in-the-pulpit, Indian paintbrushes, and ferns of amazing variety. Thick, shaggy vines, laden with wild grapes, twined about the boles of the aging giants. Berries in a multitude of colors - white, red, orange, and black - grew in the rare clearings, bathed in patches of sunlight, and near the root systems of the trees. Mosses, lichens, molds and slimes, from deepest green to palest white, clothed the rotting trunks that sprang from the ground like diseased teeth. There were shelf fungi - orange, red, yellow, and cadaver pale - jutting from the crumbling bark of fallen logs; mushrooms, gigantic and dainty, smooth and shaggy, harmless and deadly poisonous, sprouting from the fertile marl; we once discovered a patch of delicious morels and harvested some to cook upon our campfire.
We discovered, buried deep within the mystic wildwood, an extensive tangle of briers, reminiscent to our impressionable young minds of the forest in Sleeping Beauty. When we summoned up the courage to penetrate to the center of that forbidding tangle, we discovered one of the most spellbinding sights of all. A colossus of a tree, the base of the trunk of which must have been roughly four feet in diameter, had been literally ripped up by the roots by some bygone meteorological calamity, and lay athwart the portion of brier patch opposite to that at which we had entered. Because the corona of the topmost branches was so wide, the trunk canted upward at about a 40-degree angle. The crater in the ground, which the root system had formerly occupied and which now beetled above like some fantastic tentacular creature, was deep enough to be almost a cavern. This a friend and I had the great good luck to happen upon together, and it became our secret refuge when we needed to escape from family turmoil. It was ours alone, for we never told another soul about it, and we doubted that others would have the temerity or patience to wend their way through the formidable brambles. We spent many a lazy summer afternoon lying in the shelter of the overhanging roots, musing upon what directions our lives might take in the unforeseeable future. At our tender age, we had no idea what might become of us.
The woods were my introduction to the myriad wonders of Nature, and there were marvels beyond number. It was in the woods that I first experienced the awe and delight of encounters with squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits and groundhogs, forest denizens that on occasion demonstrated as much curiosity of rambunctious boys as we did of them. Therein were birds beyond number, cardinals, jays, finches, chickadees, sparrows, wrens and nuthatches; handsome, fleetingly glimpsed creatures flitting from branch to bush and spilling their joyful paeans to life into the viridescent gloom. To one accustomed to pigeons, this was a startling and welcome revelation.
On one sweltering midsummer dusk I discovered a Luna moth, an insect of elegant and ethereal beauty, lying upon the ground just inside the gateway into the woods. Fearing that it might be injured, I picked it up and carried it home. Whether it had been injured or not I never ascertained, but it remained alive and at length produced a number of tiny eggs inside the shoe box in which it reposed. It was my first direct experience of the miracle of birth, so to speak, and led to my abiding interest in entomology. The mother did eventually perish, but I fed the caterpillars, watched them grow and transform, and released them into the wild.
The woods, an enchanted realm of endless fascination, took hold of my imagination and never let go. Much of my interest in and informal study of flora and fauna was engendered by the time I spent thus indulging my curiosity, and my young life was colored by what I saw and learned. The days of campfires in the cooling autumn evenings, of delightful discoveries of wild stands of blackberries and patches of strawberries, of drinking cold, clear water from the creek (something I would not dare to do now) are long gone, but the memories are forever.