Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Woods

Thomas Wolfe was right, you really can't go home again. Nothing is quite the same, but we keep on attempting nonetheless.

But I am luckier than many, the home where I spent my youth from age 3-18 is still standing and still owned and occupied by my family. My old room is still there, full of my sister's junk (as are all the rooms), but still there. Actually lots of things are still there; while cooking this weekend I asked my sister where the hot pads were. "Where they always have been", she replied with an annoyed sneer. Yes, they were, the same ones too. How silly of me to ask.

Thankfully, among all the things laid unchanged, "the woods" is still there too. 14.5 acres of untouched woodland that wrapped around my street, shielding us from the noise of the main road leading to town. Today called officially "Sanders Park", the woods is now maintained by the city park district. But in my day I am not sure who owned it and we really didn't care. All us kids in the neighborhood, boys and girls alike, spent most of our day exploring this uncharted wonderland. To our young minds, it was akin to the jungles of Africa that we read about in Social Studies. Just as scary and full of wild animals and strange plants too.

We even had a Tarzan vine, a huge old vine that hung from a tree conveniently perched on a gentle slope. We would swing on this vine for hours, bigger boys who shed their shirts to emulate the latest Tarzan hero, little boys, girls, an even an occasional adult neighbor. Deep in the woods, a small ditch sometimes flowed with water. Fording it was a challenge and certainly led to much moaning by our mothers as we arrived home covered in mud. We named places, claimed land, looked in awe at the culverts leading under Center Street that led to someplace even more scary and unexplored. I was 12 when I first went under the culvert.... I was disappointed as it only led to the Zientara family's yard and I had been there before.

My friend Gary and I spent a lot of time there. Building forts, exploring, looking for the magic land of the May Apples, strange plants we had never seen before. We'd get lost looking for it every time. While digging around for some reason one fine summer day, we uncovered a scary bright red glowing crinkly thing. Running in fear that we had dug up the devil, we beat a retreat vowing never to return and be good boys. A dog, raccoon or someone less easily frightened later dug the scaly red object up and deposited it near by. It was the red inside tray of a package of cookies.... ah childish imaginations.

But Thomas Wolfe was correct.

This weekend, as I drove by or stood at the window and gazed at the bare, silent trees of the woods, it looked less imposing. The mystery was gone. It was smaller and I could easily rationalize that it was just a few acres not a few miles of land. The Tarzan vine has long been absorbed into the loamy soil. The ditch was full of water from recent rain, but it was just a drainage ditch taking run off from the pavement, not a roaring stream dividing my land from Gary's; I certainly felt no desire to defend it from invaders. The knot of trees that had grown in a circle are still there, although hard to find. I am sure a rare dogtooth violet still pokes its head up now and then but May apples are just common wild plants. I didn't see any evidence of Bobcats or other wild beasts, just the occasional deer.

Part of the woods has been mowed and cleared. An historical marker has been erected in the clearing at the corner of Hunt and Center. Seems the woods has a long history, part of the land first settled by Europeans in the county. Abraham Lincoln's name is on some legal land transfers, our city actually had its beginnings there, although the first buildings were built a few miles to the east. No longer just a scrap of land, but one with history and significance.

As a kid, I had always hoped that the woods would be there forever, protected for kids to always enjoy. Thankfully, the city of Decatur agreed and it was spared the fate of being plowed under for more houses or a convenience store.

So while there is much familiar at home there is much change. I can physically go home, that is not an issue. But in my mind it is so different; maybe I am the one who is different. Yeah that is it, while the land changes slowly and inevitably we plunge into adulthood and then middle age where everything once fresh, new and mysterious becomes the mundane.

I wish the Tarzan vine was still there.

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