by Katherine Hale
I stood in a patch of forest that was, from an environmental standpoint, totally and completely unexceptional. It was just another tract of Piedmont forest on its fourth round of regrowth since the eighteenth century, fragmented and heavily influenced by the human development that surrounded it on every side. White oaks and shagbark hickory intermingled with red maple and tulip poplars, while sourwoods bent and twisted their trunks at odd angles towards the light. Hairy vines of poison ivy competed with wild grapes for real estate on the dying red cedars. A red-eyed vireo chattered animatedly above me, and I startled a white-tailed deer and her fawn out of their hiding place in what remained of the undergrowth. There was nothing I hadn’t seen a thousand times before–and that was precisely what had brought me there.
For fourteen years, I lived in a house bordering these woods, which served as my playground and refuge wrapped in one. I dug wild garlic in the sunny clearings along the edges, where woods transitioned into fields, and built shelters out of dead wood and fallen leaves. I poked through the ruins of an old stone house, pretending I was an archaeologist-explorer on the verge of momentous discoveries. I sat by the tiny trickle of a creek in the heat of summer, and listened to the waters swell and roar after a rainfall. I watched the shadow of the earth turn the moon into a bloody smear at 3 AM, before fading back to its normal ghostly pallor. In 1996, Hurricane Fran swept through central North Carolina, drowning the thick clay soil, and tipping the waterlogged trees out of the earth in the high winds. From then on out, those fallen giants were bridges and jungle gyms, shelters and shields, quick and easy highways over any obstacles in their path, and I used them often as both shortcuts and ends in themselves.
A free-range child, I had parental dispensation to wander at will, idling on the margins of houses and woods in the long southern afternoons and evenings, rain or shine. I picked wild blackberries in the baking heat underneath the power lines, built check dams in the drainage pond, and climbed the Bradford pears at the neighborhood entrance. But the forest, shady and quiet, was my preferred abode, and I fantasized about ditching the comforts of civilization for a life among the elements, just like my hero Sam Gribley in My Side of the Mountain. It didn’t matter that I could see the houses in the distance, or that this slice of forest was too small to support much animal life, let alone a human being. For my younger self, the forest was the whole world, or at least the only world that mattered. It asked for nothing from me except the freedom to be, and offered shelter and sanity in return. And those long, solitary walks in the forest are what set me firmly, solidly and unrepentantly on the naturalist’s path, the one I still follow today.
So it was with some trepidation that I returned to these woods after over a decade. In a region where any undeveloped land is quickly transformed by developers, I wasn’t sure if my old refuge remained. But when I drove down the old familiar roads and turned off at the access point, I found that my fears had been groundless, at least for now.
It’s true some things are different. The tulip poplar sapling that was my height when I was eight is now over forty feet tall and eight inches in diameter. If fate is kind, it will likely outlive me. The trees downed in Hurricane Fran are still visible, but as twisted limbs and massive trunks decay in place, they form mounds of soil upon which new life takes root. A well-intentioned Boy Scout built a footbridge over the creek, not realizing that hopping and skipping over the rocks to reach the other side was the best part of any journey. But the bulk of the forest remains as I remember it, and the sunlight filtering through the leaves gave everything an ageless, timeless quality, where past and future have no meaning and the present moment is the only thing that matters.
These woods will never be a conservation priority. No one will write songs or poetry about them, and no one, except me, will celebrate them or acknowledge them. For most of the people who live there, they form the green, tranquil backdrop to their lives, and nothing more. To a practiced eye, they are a pale shadow of their historical glory, scarred from centuries of human abuse and neglect. But this is where I learned the sound a deer makes when fleeing in the dark (a cross between a scream and a sneeze), and watched with wonder as a a rough green snake slithered through the canopy, sliding up and down the branches without limbless grace. This is where I learned what it meant to be connected to a place, to know where home is. And to be able to return after so many years is a great gift, one that I cannot take for granted in a world of constant change and upheaval.
“‘Here are your waters and your watering places,'” I whispered, the poetry of Robert Frost unbidden on my lips. “‘Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.'” And I stood in the comforting embrace of my childhood forest, and drank deeply, grateful to be home.