In the Woods

(This is from earlier this year.)
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“A heavy rain drowns each raindrop; a light rain, like the kind I saw in the woods out behind my house when I was a child, a light rain striking the leaves and branches of trees, further slowing their impact, that rain produces the strongest petrichor of all, the one that renders me into an seven-year-old noticing the world for the first time.
“The lightest of rain after the driest of spells leads to the most argillaceous petrichor, which is the kind that humans smell as relief, the thought that things will start growing again.” — “Petrichor,” Jan. 26, 2015

We called it “The Woods.” Well, I did. Sometimes, I referred to it as a “forest,” which it most certainly was not. Our backyard ended at a line of trees and the dross beneath them; our lightly manicured, suburban lawn did not grow beyond that line, despite my teen-aged lawn mowing efforts to expand it by clearing the dead leaves and branches away. That tight boundary made The Woods appear all the more elemental and foreign.

There was nothing truly elemental or extra natural about The Woods, though; it was not even a particularly non-developed land that surrounded our development. It simply had not been included in this particular generation of houses. Our neighborhood and it had been farmland a century ago. High tension power lines feeding our thousand-house neighborhood ran up along an unpaved road about three football fields away from our backyard; thus, the three-hundred-yard-deep stretch of trees that ran the entire backside of the neighborhood, from the Metro-North train tracks along the Hudson River on up the neighborhood’s hillside spine and away from the river to Rt. 9 at the far end, merely existed to separate us from the utility poles that were more important and taller.

There were two trees, both maple, one close to the edge shared with our backyard and one set back a foot from that and three feet to the right of the closer tree, and on those occasions when I walked into The Woods from any other point than between those two specific trees it felt like I had entered through a side window or a wall instead of the front door. One knows that there may be times in one’s life when one may enter a house through a side window, but I was always, even as a child, very formal. For me, The Woods had a front door.

A child’s memory is very specific about things. Close to the earth, the earth remains close. Rainy summer days are remembered less for the fact of being indoors than for what the gray world growing greener with the rain looked like through a screen door. I must have spent many afternoons leaning against the metal mesh of the screen; I certainly have no memories of gazing in, into the house through the other side of the screen door. The inner nose of memory remembers the metallic smell of the mesh. Tiny squares box the image of The Woods behind the house.

Some days, I stared at the screen door more closely than the world beyond it.

For all the talk in our elementary school classrooms about looking for and finding arrowheads, bones, fossils, even bones of ancient animals—several mastodons have been found here in the Hudson Valley—all I remember finding were older kids’ spent plastic cartridges from their air rifles. Not one mastodon. Not one flint. There were plenty of rusting beer cans with pull tabs instead of pop tops. (The 1970s were the demarcation point between those two “technologies,” at least in the northeast.) But really, for all the evidence of foot traffic found back there, I never ran into anyone or found all that much garbage.

When maple sugaring was a topic in those same elementary school classes, because sugar is a great topic for nine-year-olds, I wanted to tap a tree, just like they showed us in those ten-minute-long films whose soundtracks were mostly clicks and re-starts. There may be to this day a nail jammed in a tree, probably not a maple, definitely not a sugar maple; I hope the tree has grown around it.

I remember the excitement we felt the first time we walked all the way through the woods to that dirt road and the high-tension lines. A truck zoomed past. The map of my world now had a boundary on its other side. There were no two trees next to each other like the accidental front door marking the boundary with our backyard. That felt very risky and grown-up and also impolite, and the rest of my life has been a search for a similar accidental front door on which I can formally knock before entering.

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One comment

  1. Leigh W. Smith · July 17, 2015

    Great re-post, Mark. I’m on the road now, so to speak, but our backyard is in a really developed part of the city several miles from the beach. There’s bamboo, really short grass pocked with sand pockets everywhere. a dash-patch of rice-sized wild strawberries, a privacy fence of popsicle brown, and several other tree species I don’t know the names of. A blue-tailed lizard about the size and width of the aforementioned popsicle stick made his/her way inside and into my shoe just the other day, and I let him/her out into the frontyard, near where the dead tuxedo-colored dragonfly lay. This is dragonfly heaven. Anyway, I enjoyed reading, and then seeing in my mind, what you’ve rendered here, although I’m sorry that you never found a mastodon fossil or arrowhead. Nevertheless, what you’re recounting is lovely and fascinating, albeit in a different way. We had some woods like that, too, all around us as kids, and they’ve made their way into many a story of mine.


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