Sunday, November 18, 2007

Portrait of a Childhood, Vol 1: The Woods

The image of a bullet hitting the floor in a ubiquitous movie trailer suddenly reminds me of how much time my sisters and I spent playing with spent shotgun shells that we found in the woods.

We literally spent years of our lives in the woods. We knew every inch for a square mile around our house at least. In the summers, we'd be off in the morning after breakfast and not come home until Dad whistled for dinner. In the fall, we shuffled paths through the fallen leaves. There was an unfinished house on the ridge, only frames and foundation, where we'd assemble dream house fantasies. There was a field on the opposite ridge, past a barbed wire fence (which didn't stop us), where I imagined riding a horse or running in a white gown towards a lover. There were creeks on either side, which met at a pond below the turnaround at the end of our street. We waded and found skipping stones, invented a fairyland (Lynker) on the banks, found tiny shells and occasionally a crawdad or discarded copperhead skin. These were our treasures, squirreled away in boxes under the springs of our mattresses.

It wasn't a desolate area, where we lived. There were dozens of houses on our street. But we were at the end, and felt an exclusive ownership to the surrounding hills. We had names for everything, most of which were probably wrong: mulberry bushes, Indian money, oysters and waterskeeters. I ripped up cattails and used the down to make a (highly unsanitary) pillow for Dolly. We had shredded canvas sneakers just for creekwalking, and further up the creek on the western side of the street, there were pools almost deep enough to swim in.

Directly behind our house, there was a shell of a car at the base of the hill. The glass was all broken out, the roof caved in, most of the upholstery rotted or cracked. We told each other brutal theories about a family dying in whatever accident had left the car there, covered in brambles and rust. We found the broken windshield glass, in perfect cubes, throughout the gravel in our driveway and under the grass, and collected it, pretending to have baggies full of dirty diamonds.

We knew which sticks could be hollowed out and made into whistles or wands. We were terrified and fascinated by cicadas and praying mantis. There was a blue heron that lived in the pond one fall, and a pair of white ducks with red eyes another spring. There were tulip poplars with perfectly aligned branches that we could climb twenty feet in the air.

One summer we were playing in the pool at the base of the waterfall that flowed from the southern end of the pond. The water was clear down there, and deeper, less algae, less reeds and tangles in the shallows. I only remember being there with Casey. Across the surface of the pool, coming towards us in a rapid, twisting whirl, was a cottonmouth. It moved as if I was pulling it towards us on a string, its jaw wide open, fangs bared, white spongy interior exposed. I do not remember even the moment it took to recognize the danger, or the decision to run. All that I remember is literally hauling Casey up the waterfall like a sack of potatoes, before she knew what was happening.

My not-even-a-parent-yet overprotectiveness is aghast when I look back. I can't believe we ran around like that, that close to the water, to the wildlife, to the hunters in the wintertime. I think that I would never let my kids out there. I am not questioning my parents' judgment. They were right, we were perfectly safe, and knew how to get home quickly if we were scared. Our imaginations were enriched by having so much territory at our disposal. But now I wonder if my own current existence is so homogenized that I would never allow such adventures for my family. So much of it seems dangerous or filthy, ticks and nettles and invisible creatures that crashed away in the underbrush as we climbed up a hill.

We went for a walk around Dad's house this spring, and I hung back from the others and sat down next to his creek, examining the ecosystem for the first time in 15 years. As you all know, I'm just not the outdoorsy one anymore. My motto is, "I love not camping." I scoff at people who offer stories of going on a nice hike. I haven't sat on the always-damp ground of a forest and stared at the countless movements in every square inch in a long time.

If I do raise kids, it will probably be in the city. We love Nashville, I love how I see people I know everywhere I go, but still have (pretty) good grocery stores within 10 minutes of my house and the big fireworks show on 4th of July within walking distance. But what will my (hypothetical) kids be missing if they don't grow up with a pond, a field, a mysterious unfinished house and crashed car to explore? On the flipside, what did I miss by not growing up in the city? I think I know the answer to that: very little.


G.B. Williams said...

I grew up with that kind of stuff, and I'm grateful for it, believe me.
But my provincial young life also meant that I had very few options for a decent education, and because of that, I believe I've missed a lot of opportunities in my life.

Don't get me wrong, it all led me to here, and here is where I want to be, but I do wish I'd had a better chance at a better education.

I'll never forget the mark those days in the woods with my cousins meant to me. We'd explore the hollowed out school bus, play army using the apricots on the ground for grenades, walk down the railroad tracks to explore the tunnels.

Our parents let us do all those things, because they knew we would be safe, and they knew we would protect each other.

You're lucky in that you have family that still live in places like that. Which means your kids could still have those experiences, and know what it's like to grow up with the benefits of living in the city as well.

That's a good thing to have.

G.B. Williams said...

or the mark they LEFT on me...early morning commenting, argh.

CDG said...

Wow, I totally do remember that story now. So vividly. Crazy. And Indian money and all of it. I just hope we'll have a place like that we can go on weekends or in the summer with a whole hoard of kids so that can experience it that way.