Last week, I went to my childhood home just to visit for the first time in a while.
My hometown is a suburb becoming increasingly strip mall-ridden, but the bones of its rural farming past still linger in the form of cider mills, orchards, and crumbling old barns back among houses. Every year a new field or stand of woods is razed to make way for a parking lot, subdivision, fast food restaurant, or big box store. I look on cynically and silently, knowing that I forfeited my right to complain when I moved away.
The realization that surprised me on this visit was that the place I grew up was actually pretty… beautiful.
My sister took me on some hikes I hadn’t been on before. There are more trails and nature preserves now than there were when I lived there, and she has explored them all. We walked through an old-growth deciduous forest with massive oaks among beech, hemlock, sugar maple, black birch, basswood, spicebush, and witch hazel, and I realized that this was nearly the exact composition of the little strip of woods behind my parents’ house.
The development I grew up in was built in the seventies and early eighties, and unlike with the newer subdivisions that are constructed on land that’s been totally cleared, whoever designed ours actually had the foresight to build the houses around the existing trees. My childhood home was on a half-acre of land which backed up to a strip of woods about 100 feet wide that ran through the back yards of all of the houses on my street and the one behind it. In addition to these woods, most houses were left with native “natural areas” in their front yards as well.
I grew up in a really beautiful place. The town as a whole? Not so much. A few streets over? Not really. But the very specific place I spent my childhood was lush with emerald foliage in the summertime, and alive with fireflies, crickets, cicadas, and hawks; sometimes even deer, raccoons, and wild turkeys. In the fall it all turned to ravishing reds, yellows, and browns, a lavish color display—and the winters were white, and quiet, and deep. All of this beauty seeped into my bones, and everywhere I look I want to see it staring back at me. One of the reasons it’s hard to live in the city is that I feel sundered from these things: a wood elf in exile.
100 feet of woods is a forest to a child. I automatically tuned out the whine of the highway two streets away and found myself in the Wilderness. I became Lyra Belacqua journeying through the frozen north, or a puppy à la Homeward Bound searching for its way home. My next-door neighbors and I nicknamed a grove of witch hazel “Aunt Marine’s house” and went to visit our invisible aunt for tea. We built a stick fort together leaning against a black birch tree, covered it with a sheet, and hid out inside. A red maple that had died and sent out suckers in a ring became an elevator I could ride in. A hollow in a beech tree where a low shoot had broken off would fill with water when it rained: we named it the Painting Tree and would dip the frayed ends of sticks into the dirty water to “paint” on the trunk of the tree. When the snow melted in the spring, the lower ground would flood with water and we would use sticks to go fishing for worms, bragging to each other about the longest ones we pulled from the muddy depths.
In later childhood, my Barbies moved out of their Dream House and into the woods, where I built them stick-frame houses covered in leaves and made them nature-proof wardrobes from old socks. They made preserves by salting berries and storing them in film canisters, and they occasionally lost limbs in squirrel attacks.
When I started middle school, my dad built a wooden fort on stilts back in the woods with a tarp roof for us kids to play in. My siblings never took to it quite like I did. In high school and on summers home from college, because I shared a bedroom, the fort became my alone space. I hung a hammock in it, decorated it with wind chimes, floral china plates, antique keys and lanterns, and old wooden shelves that I painted with suns and stars and vines, and would sneak up there to burn the candles and incense my mother had prohibited in the house and to read Kahlil Gibran alone in the evenings.
In high school, the woods were also a place of transcendental rapture that I can’t really adequately describe. It just doesn’t make a lot of sense in words. I tried to write about it once when I was 16. It’s not great, but ya know, 16. Read it if you want. I would slip outside alone at dusk and dance barefoot under the stars, or impersonate John William Waterhouse or Maxfield Parrish paintings.
Last week on my visit, I made sure to go poke around the woods every day, touching the trees and conversing with them casually, collecting leaves for the book I’m putting together, and gathering pollen cones and acorn caps to varnish and use in jewelry. I may be going off the deep end, but I’m having a pretty good time.