June
25th 2009
Into the woods

Posted under: American history, childhood, happy endings

woodsMy memories of childhood seem to revolve around the woods–I grew up in a land of mixed fields and forests that were slowly being converted into the outer edge of a city suburb, and in the 1970s and 1980s, there were still large patches of forest surrounding my neighborhood.  Riding bikes with friends to the edge of the woods, and then ditching the bikes for a walk into the unknown was how I spent my summers from ages 8 to 12.  Visiting Ohio and Michigan again this summer has given me an opportunity to reconnect with this familiar landscape.  I live now in Colorado, which sounds more glamorous to most people, with its 14,000 foot peaks, sweeping vistas of the Rocky Mountains, powder snow, and cloudless blue skies, but I miss the woods and rolling hills of the North American East and Midwest. 

I’ve enjoyed some walks and runs in the woods lately, but I am amazed that I have found absolutely no evidence of children or teenagers hanging out there.  Back in the 1970s, running into teenagers in the woods was a large part of the pleasure and the danger of the woods for us younger kids.  My friends and I would find evidence that the teenagers had been in the woods–empty beer cans and soda bottles, cigarette butts, empty cans of spray paint, and–in one shocking and terrifying instance–a stash of pornography in a grocery bag stuffed under a rotting log.  Kids built forts and tree houses in the woods out of materials swiped from the construction sites that would eventually render those woods someone”s back yard.

Back then, in the days before cable TV, video games, and the internet, back even before everyone had central A/C, the woods in summer meant freedom from parents and endless entertainment for anyone under the age of 16 (that is, before the precious driver’s license was proffered.)  Because I came from a family that didn’t hike or camp, the woods for me was a space totally unmediated by adult influence or supervision.  We could play Little House in the Big Woods, or the  Swiss Family Robinson, or Tom Sawyer there.  We packed baloney sandwiches and thermoses of Kool-Aid so that we could stay out all day long.  We peed in the woods, and on occasion pooped there too, because no one else was around.  We followed cricks that became creeks that were lined with wild strawberries in June.  We went into the woods because we were bored, because we could tell secrets there and make some more, because we kind of wished we might run into those teenagers to see what it was exactly that they were up to, but mostly, just because we could.

20 Comments »

20 Responses to “Into the woods”

  1. Bavardess on 25 Jun 2009 at 10:20 pm #

    Wow, this post just gave me a rush of nostalgia. I grew up in Maryland, in a new suburb surrounded by woods. My street was the last one in the neighbourhood at that time, on the very edge of the wild woods that were incredibly enticing but scary at the same time. I had my first drink of alcohol and my first cigarette (a habit I never took to) while hanging out in the woods with my friends and someone’s older brother (supplier of said booze and ciggies).

  2. Sharon on 25 Jun 2009 at 10:53 pm #

    I just returned from a lengthy road trip that included a visit to the town in Virginia where I grew up (ages 5-11). At my insistence, my husband and I went back to the woods that used to lie behind my house. We had to enter from another side, because the house side had been built up with new houses. (When I lived there, our house was at the intersection of two dirt roads, and nothing but woods lay behind.)

    I wanted to go back in part because, in the last year or so, I had figured out that the strange house on the creek in the woods was an 18th century mill, and I wanted to know if the old rock quarry in the woods and catch-pool by the spring might be that old too. Alas, the catch-pool (lined with stone or concrete when I was a kid) was completely gone. The quarry looked promising.

    As a child, the woods were welcoming and interesting and a place where I spent a lot of time. They seem less welcoming now because they feel like private property. Our explorations felt like trespassing. What I never knew enough as a child to consider was that structures like the catch-pool might be old. I know now, from basic historical research, that the mill was operated with slave labor. As a child, I never had any idea that my neighborhood landscape was a landscape of slavery. Now it’s just a landscape of suburbia.

    What was lost when developers ripped out the catch-pool someone had built? For all I know, it dated back to the the mill’s operation.

  3. Lance on 26 Jun 2009 at 4:43 am #

    We have a creek behind our house, and woods beyond that, and smaller subdivisions all around the woods. I’ve been back there many times (searching for lost dogs, lost toys, or “harvesting” stone for landscaping) and am pleased to find all sorts of little set pieces. A set of green plastic chairs and styrofoam cooler, for instance, or a blanket, suggesting a tryst. I think the woods are still an active retreat, for young and old. At least in balmy Indiana. But this place is also frozen in time, in a good way and a bad way.

  4. Winifred on 26 Jun 2009 at 7:32 am #

    Michael Chabon develops these same memories into an essay in this weeks New York Review of Books, The Wilderness of Childhood — contrasts playing in the woods as a child in the 70s with raising children in a neighborhood where two children the same age on the same street have never met.

  5. Tom on 26 Jun 2009 at 7:39 am #

    I grew up on a farm in Northwest Ohio and my earliest woods memories do circle around parental figures: looking at the tornado damage after the big fourth-of-July storm (where my little brother almost blew away) and smoking out the bees from the honey tree in the middle of winter.

    But later, the woods on our farm were a place to get away, for tree climbing, exploring the old trash dump that was out there, and general time-wasting in the summer. No suburbia for us, but still there was a place for us under the trees that offered some kind of difference and an illusion of independence. But so did the barn, the garage, and the creek down the road where we’d catch little catfish (sometimes).

    For kids these days, those “places” are on-line?

  6. Penny on 26 Jun 2009 at 7:51 am #

    You found the stash of porn too? ;) Our woods were full of buried mason jars, OLD barbed wire (ouch), random marbles and other such evidence of the ancestors. It was an archaeological dig every time we went out to play. We came home filthy, but it had to be healthier dirt (even with the rusty old barbed wire) than digging in the culm dumps at the end of the street, our other site.

  7. Poe on 26 Jun 2009 at 8:41 am #

    Parents don’t allow their kids to play out in the front yard unsupervised (a stranger might abduct them, and the parents will end up pilloried on Nancy Grace), so why would they let their kids play out in the woods?

  8. Mother of ALL on 26 Jun 2009 at 9:39 am #

    I grew up in the city during the 50′s. Summers were all about sneaking down to the “crik” and playing on the railroad tracks. People had burn barrels on their property and you could find some interesting things that didn’t get completely burned up. (I once singed my eyebrows off while stirring around in one of those barrels! Couldn’t figure out how my mom knew I had been in a burn barrel.)
    On the other side of our crik there was a business that made concrete casket covers. We would sit with the workers as they ate lunch. One of the guys was named Digger and we thought that was pretty funny.
    The moms in the neighborhood all knew pretty much where we were and what we were doing (as all moms seem to know) but rarely did we get in trouble for where we were or where we played. As long as you came home for lunch and dinner, all was well.
    I do feel really sad for today’s children who don’t have the freedom to explore and enjoy the wide world out there. It just isn’t the same as viewed through a video screen.

  9. Fratguy on 26 Jun 2009 at 2:08 pm #

    There have recently been several books on the importance of nature in a child’s development. Rachel Carson had a great deal to say it on the matter several decades ago. A lot of it is wrapped up in the importance of “doing nothing” and seeing where your mind and feet take you. I grew up in playing woods that are now mostly but not completely subsumed into subdivisions. I worry for where my own child is going to get this experience

  10. Indyanna on 26 Jun 2009 at 2:10 pm #

    You coulda been talking about my little sylvan aerie on the Delaware in Eastern Pa as well. We moved from a tight knit inner Long Island suburb (where it shocks me to remember even how much unescorted physical mobility us kids had even there) to Penn’s Woods, where we could light out at first light and come back wherever.

    I guess it’s not play date terrain at this point, and even the spread of the wireless revolution doesn’t seem to be making it a happy site for the gamer generation. I keep humming a tune from 1962 and thinking about Bob Seger’s landscape of the imagination, which included the backwoods and the Chevy and the trusty what else was it now? This post was a true oasis, Historiann! This Vernors is for you!!

  11. John S. on 26 Jun 2009 at 2:35 pm #

    I think that my experience mirrors Sharon’s somewhat. My town has doubled in population since I was around 8 or 10 years old. There has been so much development, and so many of the areas that used to be wooded have been developed. Even in those spots where houses haven’t gone up, the owners have taken steps to keep people away, including fences, more sign postings, etc. (There were a couple of accidents and concerns about insurance, liability, and the like).

    There is also beyond that the question of fears of child abduction that seem to have just missed those my age. I don’t recall my mom being super worried when I was 10 that a stranger would get me. (I think the dangers of finding pornography or teenagers smoking pot were much higher on her list.)

    I will say this to throw some cold water on the “video games” changed everything meme. I spent many summer days inside gaming–but the game was Dungeons and Dragons. (AD&D, to be exact.) My wife continues to be ashamed that I can tell the difference between an eight-sided and twenty-sided die by sight or how you calculate a player-character’s Strength, Dexterity, or Wisdom.

  12. Matt L on 26 Jun 2009 at 2:54 pm #

    Thanks Historiann and the posse commentariat for the mid afternoon remembrance of times past:

    The fiancée and I were just talking about childhood and the true meaning of summer at dinner the other day. Summer was when you could go out and ride bikes with friend all day long. (ride bikes is two words but one verb) There were ample opportunities to read books on the patio, swim at the pool, or generally goof off.

    I grew up in mostly suburban southern California. We didn’t have forests, but we did have arroyos and canyons where it was too steep to build subdivisions. And they had criks for part of the year too. It was the first time I ever saw a crayfish.

  13. Fratguy on 26 Jun 2009 at 5:14 pm #

    I can’t believe I did not think of this earlier. Follow the link to the bestest and saddest/sweetest Jonathan Richman song ever. If it doesn’t make you cry you’re too young to be reading this blog.

  14. Lilian Nattel on 26 Jun 2009 at 9:32 pm #

    I didn’t know there were still woods around suburbs in the 70′s. My family moved into a new suburb when I was 5 but there weren’t any woods, just some fields that were quickly built up. My husband, though, had a similar experience growing up near a ravine where he spent his childhood exploring and to this day is a nature guy.

  15. Rose on 27 Jun 2009 at 5:31 am #

    Ann, I love this post. Since moving back east, I’ve really come to appreciate the ways this lush (read: sticky), green landscape feels like home to me. As you note, CO is beautiful, but its woods are completely different in feel, smell, sound, and every other sense.

    I, too, have very vivid memories of entire days (or so it seems in retrospect) of just kind of being unleashed in nature in the summers. I hope some kids still get to experience that.

    Wish I’d known you were en route to NW Ohio–I was just up there last weekend!

  16. Indyanna on 27 Jun 2009 at 5:49 am #

    This is maybe a recruiting opportunity for Historiann fans at the Old Colonial end of the continent? The humidity part is fixed, but we’d have to get some kind of interstate compact of land use laws to preserve many of these old woodlots. And we do have some good universities available. You could just plat out a quarter-section somewhere back this way and go to homesteading. :)

  17. Ann Bartow on 06 Jul 2009 at 9:46 am #

    Some local teens hanging out in the woods near my neighborhood found a dead body. No joke.

  18. Historiann on 06 Jul 2009 at 10:01 am #

    See! Hanging out in the woods may assist with law enforcement. (That is, tolerance of petty crimes in the woods may lead to the discovery of major crimes and assist in their investigation.)

    Seems like a fair trade to me!

  19. Scenes from a more dangerous childhood : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present on 22 Aug 2009 at 7:38 am #

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