They took away my woods right in the middle of my childhood. The field behind our pine trees was the beginning of Rose Valley, a different neighborhood in a different Borough. And beyond the field the woods began with its dense brambles and interwoven matting of honeysuckle growing more and more impenetrable as one moved into it.
When I was very young, my father brought me along as he “blazed a trail” (tying ribbons on the trees and hacking back the brambles) through the woods and showed me how to find my way back by following the marks the cut-back branches of the trail. That way I could safely go on my small adventures that led down the hill through the tall oaks, chestnuts, walnuts and maples to the old trolley bed. The trolley had once run in a straight line at the floor of a cleft between our hill and the opposing hill which rose up into the community where my aunt lived, and other relatives had lived. Now the trolley bed was without rails, but a rough strip of broken concrete aggregate and stone made a clear boundary between “our woods” and the “Rose Valley woods”. I learned later to use that strip to take me straight to the community swimming pool, often stoically hiding my pain as I bruised my bare feet running faster than my younger brother across the stony way.
“My woods” was a pocket of heaven for me. Once we learned the lay of the land, my younger brother Carl and I created secret paths by carefully moving and tying back brambles, and pulling out certain vines. We made the paths very narrow and with many blind alleys to trick anyone who might try to find our fort. My brother was good at fort-design, using his Army/Navy store foldable shovel to dig under the roots of a large trees until there was a large enough musky hole to couch two or three small children and a matting of field grass. He created a “roof” or covers from a piece of sheet metal, and camouflaged it well with branches à la WWII GI films. Inside the fort were comic books and gum and candy, and some other things of value to my brother and his small neighbor friends. That they showed me the fort was an amazing privilege. Girls were unwelcome, but my toughness of foot and expertise with tree climbing made me not so much a girl as” just Carl’s big sister.” And, as a sort of “dues” for the privilege, I shared some books I found in the attic about mothers breast-feeding babies, and that sort of bought me admittance because of the anatomical pictures that would later draw the boys to girlie books. It was well worth it to my sense of specialness to exploit their prurient curiosity.
The fort was special, but nothing compared to the tall trees. The trees had never been thinned out or trimmed. Many lay rotten, some were leaning, and many of them had lower branches that had been covered entirely by vines, but certain trees had low enough branches with enough foothold so that I could climb twenty or so feet up and wedge myself more or less comfortably in a crotch and settle back to watch.
The rewards of watching in the woods cannot be exaggerated. If I stayed wedged there very quiet and let myself relax with suppressed breathing and no squirming, the woods would slowly return to its natural state. The creatures that had frozen themselves into invisibility would relax too and begin to move about in their normal ways. They’d flit and fly and feed and chatter their languages. They’d skitter up and down trees and hunt and gather, and play wonderful games, especially the squirrels, those consummate acrobats and daredevils who defy gravity and good sense racing across the canopy and spiral up and down tree trunks so fast you can’t count how many of them there are.
The best kind of spying was the rare occurrence of a person coming down my path and into my woods. A few people had learned the way to the pool down our blazed trail and sometimes used it. Long before I would know someone was coming I would notice the creatures becoming statues. And, like the animals and birds, I would become a statue far above the trail, freely watching the unsuspecting walker move below. What a superior feeling it was! I was there but they had no earthly knowledge of my presence! It felt in a way like being God — for a few moments omniscient(!) — at least in sight, sound and motion. What a powerful thing for a young girl to feel! People just never seem to look straight up into the trees—except me; I do, still, to this day.
Those woods! The last significant event I remember about the woods was at Thanksgiving time when I was in Junior High School. We had a dance at our school, which was nearly a mile from the woods – it was several neighborhoods away and across some main roads. One of the chaperones at that dance remarked that there was a fire on Hilltop Road and “didn’t my aunt live there?” The house he described was, indeed hers.
I left the dance, ran the familiar way home, shucked the dress and “heels”, shouted the news to my puzzled parents, and tore down into my dark woods, across the trolley tracks and up to where my aunt’s flaming house was indeed encircled with fire trucks, streams of water pouring into billowing flames and smoke, mesmerized people, and guards to keep them away. It was beyond belief!
I found my aunt and uncle and their guests watching from the window at a neighbor’s home across the street. They had been enjoying a lavish turkey banquet when the fire broke out… That long narrow table with the rich napery, the glittering two silver candelabra, the silver settings laid out for many courses, the crystal glasses, had been moved exactly as it had been abandoned, to the back lawn, along with the huge sideboard with the parsleyed turkey and the covered silver serving dishes. Several attentive family members stood close by to guard all this finery. A banquet fit for a king standing in glory out on the lawn, and no one there to dine!
My revisit of the scene next morning remains so clear in my mind’s eye—even in my memory’s nose!—the loved rooms* sodden and sooty, stuccoed plaster walls eroded with water damage, hardwood floors and moldings swollen and blistered. The prized Persian rug destroyed and the proud furniture and collections from world travels just gone, ravished. The little bedroom my grandmother used was the only room still recognizable, and the only piece of furniture remaining was a small wood chest she had had from her childhood. I ended up with that chest, and it resides in the house of one of my children today, having been a toy box for them for many years. We sanded down the charred places, but you can still see that rippled, charred wood texture—the evidence of a very bad day in our family history.
But then, one year, someone else coveted my woods. Behind my back they paved a road on the old trolley bed. Houses rose up by ones and two, starting at the end closest to the swimming pool. On weekends when I came home from boarding school and later from college, I counted rooftops lining up beyond the pine trees. Soon it was like “anyplace” back there. The field disappeared and became domesticated into a lawn and the trees gave way to grass and gardens and patios. The magic was lost forever.
What a precious thing to have – that passage of time when a little girl “owned” a woods. I made a wish, a vow back then, that someday, if ever I had a woods, I would never let anyone come and take it away. No one would build a house in my woods. The trees would be there for birds and squirrels and for me.
The picture above is my woods today– the one I finally got to own. It sits behind my house, and I walk in it several times a day with my little dogs. I feed the birds and squirrels every day. Of course, even if there were low branches, I would not now, at 71, climb the trees. They have been lovingly groomed by a professional arborist, and anyway, the first branches are so far up one would need a fire ladder to reach them. With regret, I watched as the honeysuckle and brambles disappeared, but I knew well that those lovely tendrils have the power to strangle tall oaks to death. I have made amends to the woods for the lost sweetness of springtime honeysuckle by planting two fragrant bay magnolias among the hardwoods. I have blueberries where there had been sticker bushes. I have planted favorite shrubs and periwinkles in places that were overrun with wild grapes and virginia creeper. There are small cedars and hollies that the birds have planted and I feed them and prune them to encourage them to flourish. They will grow long after I leave this place – at least I HOPE so.
My woods and I will have a lifespan, of course. Already the deer have stopped coming as they used to because roads have been laid separating our block from the greater woods of flat Central New Jersey — the farm country where I live. But footprints in the snow that fell two days ago gave fresh evidence of the many four-legged beasts that still regularly venture through. I know (and name) the feral cats who hunt there and I also know the wild turkeys, and rabbits and chipmunks and the snow tells me exactly where they have walked today. I haven’t seen the skunk tracks, but my nose knows from his occasional wafting through that we have one, and he just may come through this snow. I’ll watch.
Am I a lucky septuagenarian? Yes. I am the one who sits very very quietly on the bench until the creatures stop paying attention to me. Then they come out and I watch. The amazing privilege never fails to thrill.
NOTE: *my aunt’s house was a refuge for me during many years of growing up. I have written of her role in my life in another place.