Behind our house is a deep wooded cove running the length of our street and separating us from the rear neighbors by about four hundred feet. Our side of the cove is almost ravine steep, while the far side is gentler, so the wet weather stream that carved this cove is nearer our street than it is to the street behind us. Our property line, while near the horizontal midpoint, is well up the opposite slope.
We have almost no back yard; the woods of our cove come nearly to the back of the house. From our rear windows we watch deer, squirrel, chipmunk. We hear, then see, the pileated woodpecker flashing tree to tree. We hear owls. We watch the progress of the seasons, noting the specific day on which the spring leafing-out suddenly hides the houses behind us. We watch the stream braiding across the flat cove bottom during and after a heavy rain.
From my second story study window, I can see the forest floor littered with downed trunks. We have lived here a quarter of a century, and most of the deadfall still visible has fallen during our tenure. I remember those trunks as standing timber, and they tell much of the history of our association with these woods. A few are oaks, killed by lightening. Most are pines, or the victims of pines.
When we moved here, pines represented a small but noticeable portion of the canopy. Most have fallen, their roots simply unable to keep them aloft. We had an arborist on site shortly after one fell and he affirmed that the tree had been healthy. I don’t know if it is their natural life cycle to get tall and fall, or if perhaps the maturing hardwoods around them change their roots’ ability to grip the soil. For what ever reason, one after another of our stately and seemingly healthy pines has fallen. We had the few that remained preemptively cut down to control the hazard.
In one notable case, a falling pine lodged in a white oak. It was a wet season and, before we could have the pine removed, it had pushed the oak into a large tulip poplar, which itself then leaned farther. Ultimately, that pine pushed down six sizable hardwoods in a line stretching two thirds of a football field from its base and spanning the bottom of the cove.
The back of a neighbor’s lot was once mostly pines, until pine bark beetles killed them all. On one not-notably-windy day, Nancy heard crash after crash from that part of the woods. Later investigation showed that the dead pine trunks had nearly all fallen or been snapped off high up, like some cultic mass suicide. The forest floor was littered with newly downed trunks. Most frightening were the trunk sections that had done a 180 or even a 360 in their descent, diving stunts that left fifteen foot sections planted upright in the soft ground.
Those woods have always been a playground for us. That first year, we built a “fort” at the bottom of the cove for my two boys to use—a two-story affair topped with a tarp in pup tent configuration. Straddling the stream bed, its first floor was two feet above the ground level, reached via a drawbridge from the steep side of the cove. Occasionally my sons would sleep out in the fort. I remember one night all four of us were on its upper deck, watching a deer just below us coming to the stream for a drink.
When we moved in, there was just one path down into the woods from our yard. It went straight down the slope. That was convenient for dragging the lumber for the fort down the hill, but misery for coming back up, not to mention the erosion potential. So we soon began laying out alternative routes using switchbacks. Over the years, various tree falls have necessitated slight alterations, but our original paths are still largely intact.
We use these paths almost daily. Mona and I take long walks on neighborhood streets more days than not, probably logging 400-500 miles a year. But even after a three mile morning walk, she will typically get restless in the afternoon. “Let’s go to the woods!” I’ll say, and she’s alive with anticipation. She will take off down a path, scaring up squirrels, chipmunks, occasional deer. In the woods, she can be free of her leash, roaming freely. She never strays, always staying within eyesight.
Pumpkin, our first dog, I also associate with these woods. She was a skinny stray, abandoned and hungry, watching us build the fort. She was pumpkin-colored, and came to us at harvest time. After we’d adopted her and filled out her ribcage, we had to keep her on a leash in the woods. She was a runner, liked to come home an hour later after a good roll in deer scat.
Twenty-five years of these woods. One dog’s lifetime, and more than half of her replacement’s likely lifespan.
Mona and I used to walk some of the downed tree trunks, ’til the good ones rotted too much for safe footing. I slipped off one of the huge rootballs once. Wet weather. It crumbled underfoot and I ended up flat on my back in the watery hole from whence the rootball had come, briefly stunned, wet and cold. Now I carry my cell phone, and think of my age before embarking on acrobatics.
Nancy, too, uses these paths often. With camera in hand, or just with Mona. We wage a one-family war on poison ivy, English ivy, vinca minor, privet. We gage soil moisture by where the dry stream bed becomes wet, enjoying watching water boil up through small underground passages. We scratch through the gravel beds newly deposited after a major storm.
Over a quarter-century, with near-daily familiarity, you notice changes. Falling trees open up the canopy and then it closes again. The understory changes. Small plots of various ferns and trillium wax and wane with the changes overhead. The past several years have seen our Mayapple area expand ten-fold. Our one patch of bluet shrank to nothing as the canopy closed. It will be interesting to see if it re-emerges this spring; we had to have a large, lightning-damaged white oak felled, re-opening the old bluet site to the sky.
I called the woods our playground. Exclusively ours, it seems. Once in the woods, several acres of forest are open to our enjoyment. None of the neighbors seem to know they exist. We’ve never encountered another person in this playground. In twenty-five years, I’ve heard children’s voices down there only a handful of times, with the exception of my own boys. Seen evidence of children’s play even less, except for paintball hulls, mostly shot from the “safety” of a back deck. Even our youngest had little interest in playing there. This is more than surprising to us. Both Nancy and I grew up spending many happy hours in our own wooded playgrounds. The alleged “nature deficit” of today’s children seems real in my neighborhood.
Time and weather took their toll on our fort, and no one was using it anymore, so we removed it. The corner poles and some of the better flooring got repurposed; the rotted stuff hauled to the landfill. Today, the only evidence of the old fort is a small bench fashioned from part of the drawbridge substructure. I think we have been good stewards of our small piece of nature. We’ve intended to be. We will probably walk those paths until our bodies give out, and then watch from our windows.