The woods behind my house
Next to my driveway, there was a cherry tree with magenta flowers. I picked them in bunches. Closer to the street, a fern tree; that reminded me of dinosaur-times. There were two loose-needled pines near the front door of the house, and grass wouldn’t grow in their shade. I would sweep the hard dirt of needles and soil dust until it was bare and all but shone. That made it one of my outdoor homes, in games with the neighbor girl, Kirsten.
The branches of those pines grew out straight and horizontal. They could support your weight, especially when you weighed 80 pounds or less. It was as simple as climbing a steep staircase, to make your way up to roof height, hands sticky with half-dried sap. You did not make the mistake of de-sapping your hands by licking them, not after your first try, because the taste was like burnt sugar, soap and earthworms.
The neighbors had thievable flowers. On the right, the Grothes’ towering forsythia, which had to be torn off the shaking bush with both hands. On the left, the revolving-door house—it couldn’t seem to keep a family in it—which had a tree whose whole top mass looked like pink cotton candy in tons of little tufts. These flowers were so soft they should have been collected, and slept on. Every time a new family moved in, I became newly nervous about jumping up and down in their yard, grabbing a branch, pulling it down, and tearing off twigfulls of flowers. None of the residents ever said anything, which was good. They’d have an easier time keeping me away from a tree loaded to sagging with wrapped Christmas presents.
Daffodils behind the Mackin’s house, pussywillows by our cul de sac’s big shared mailbox. And on the way to school there was a full block of crabapple trees. The fallen fruit drew bees in solid numbers; the apples were inedible, and melted into vinegar on the sidewalk.
And everywhere, there were wildflowers, of course. Lots of weeds, skunk weed, umbrella weeds, weeds with flowers. Dandelions. Buttercups that left a yellow grease-smear on your skin if you rubbed them. Pale star-shaped flowers—not a quarter inch across, and perfect, like dollhouse miniatures of stargazer lilies. Solid and spotted violets swarmed, free from pots or gardens.
Probably best though, were the tiger lilies. In the summer the Maryland thunderstorms—we’d lost more than one tree to lightning—flooded the creek into a powerful torrent, and the banks would spring out with thousands of angry orange tiger lilies that you had to walk through the woods to get to. The woods’ near wall was at our yard’s edge, and immediately upon entering there’d be nowhere to stand. Walking through the pathless woods was stomping and tearing through. The lilies abutted the trees and then grew so thick that there was nowhere to stand while you picked them. I was still a girl’s girl, and I loved to come home with anything that could be arranged in a vase.
But with all these flowers, for me, did not come a place to roll like a happy dog or spring lovers. The flowers were themselves perilous, having untold mites and tunneling bees and tough stubborn stalks and stems. The woods began thirty feet behind my house, and they were both treacherous and potent. You might find strawberries back there but you’d definitely find wolf spiders, and you could train a tangled grove into an idyllic suite—a cave with vines and trees for walls—but the next summer you’d never recognize it. There’d be no hint that human children had exerted their wills here, nine hours a day every day for a week, unless perhaps you found plastic trinkets hung for the intention of decorating house. Somehow we had amassed a collection of a dozen or so plastic L.A. Gear sneaker tags on little chains; the tags had rhinestones on them and were pretty enough to hang from twigs, to show that this was civilization.
But like I said, we couldn’t maintain it against the floating dirt, and the rain, and the moving vines, and when we came back even the tags were underfoot, under leaves and twigs and a film of crusted dirt, as though someone had purposefully come in, undone, and redone our work—on the woods’ behalf.
Winter was odd in that way. The neighborhood kids did not organize in the same numbers to keep the woods at bay. We all had school and it got dark at four o’clock or so, and the woods were dry and scratchy then; more hostile, less balanced. The bugs were gone but so were the leaves. Sometimes after school, or on a weekend, I’d make a solo mission back to a summer haunt, find it a hot mess, and spend an hour or two neatening up as best I could. I’d head indoors feeling I’d accomplished something, cleared some clutter, reasserted some of the shapes of the space, and cleaned house in a more meaningful way than my parents did. Having done so I would agitate for my parents to come out and see, just as I would after having cleaned my bedroom unprompted, but with greater pride of authorship in the forest-room.
We—Kirsten and I—were comprehensive on our attempts to make these rooms real homes. We definitely made a toilet out of a cement mixing bucket, and tucked it to the side. We perched on fallen logs and ate leaves: oak and maple and walnut and whatever looked fresh and wasn’t poison ivy. We found the funny yard-onions that grew with the regular grass, looking like scallions, and which might even have been escapees from some garden, and we smelled them and then pierced their slender juicy white bulbs (with their tufty goatees of roots) with our fingernails until our hands smelled rancid. I would bite one once in a while, permitting the hated onion flavor to spread thin and invasive in my mouth, because it had come out of the ground, growing freely, and there was a value to that. Meanwhile, I would never have eaten real, on-purpose, garden onions, because onions were disgusting.
My dad kept a limited garden, compared to Mr. Grothe’s hand-built terraces full of flowering bushes, all purposefully landscaped. My dad grew tomatoes. And bell peppers, and a little zucchini. The strawberries we picked up at Home Depot didn’t like the dirt in the thin strip that lay alongside our house. Or maybe they didn’t like the Maryland weather, but they always ended up white, sour; snappish and tiny. Even so, birds or squirrels or mice were always at the albino berries, leaving little dirty craters.
But it was good, we were proud of all the fledgling plants and of our huge swarthy Dad, in shorts and brown shoes and garden gloves, who knelt and sweated and made food happen, in the fridge or in the dirt. I brought him 32-oz plastic cups (collectors cups from Oriole Stadium) full of ultra-iced water. The condensation on the cup helped wash the dry dirt from his hands.
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I spent summer days outside, and kept the woods in line, and made things out of clay from the creek, until Kirsten got to junior high and quit playing outside. Around then I start to remember a lot more TV shows. Cartoons and Nickelodeon. Staying in, making cookies with my little sister. Summer was still fun, but the woods started to seem dirtier and dirtier; either from lack of child-maintenance, or because my tolerance declined. By now, as far as I know, it’s only the LA Gear tags out there, holding down the fort.