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 dross beneath them; the lightly manicured, suburban lawn did not grow beyond that line, despite my teen-aged lawn mowing efforts to expand the lawn by clearing the dead leaves and branches away. That tight boundary made The Woods appear all the more elemental, foreign, forbidding, and, of course, inviting.
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. High tension power lines that fed electricity to our thousand-house neighborhood ran along an unpaved road about three football fields away from our back door; 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 and away from the river, merely existed to separate us from the taller-than-average power poles.
There were two trees, both maple, one close to the edge that The Woods shared with our backyard and one set back a foot and three feet to the right of the closer tree, and on those occasions when I walked into The Woods from any point other than between those two specific trees it felt like I had entered The Woods through a side window or a wall instead of the front door. Now, there are times in one’s life when one may enter someone’s house through a side window, but I was always, even as a child, very formal. The Woods had a front door from our backyard.
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 screens in our front and back doors; I certainly have no memories of gazing 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 for their air rifles. Not one mastodon. Never a 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 U.S.) 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 by my hands, probably not in a maple, definitely not in a sugar maple; I hope the tree has grown around it.
I remember the excitement felt the day we walked all the way through The woods to the dirt road and the high-tension lines. A truck zoomed past on that dirt road, thus obscuring in a cloud of dust the possibility I had traversed into a land “untouched by human hands.”
That unpaved dirt access road lent the map of my world now a boundary on its other side. There were no two trees next to each other like the accidental front door that marked the boundary between The Woods and 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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This has appeared more than once; the first time was more than a year ago.
The WordPress Daily Prompt for March 29 asks us to reflect on the word, “Territory.”
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Ha! I saw this challenge and thought of my NJ ‘woods’ and then of this post of yours. Perfect, Mark!
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