Living in the wilds of Northern Virginia circa 1969 in a small suburban home tucked up against several hundred acres of dense woods, my childhood universe seemed, for a little boy with an endless imagination, vast unexplored virgin territory.
Child molestation, serial killers, and abductions most certainly existed back then, but our parents were blissfully unaware of them. Toys were made of wood, metal, and sharp edges. You really could ‘put your eye out’. My friend Bonnie had the glass eye to prove it, courtesy of an errant dart thrown by her brother. But by and large, we took our safety and the inherent goodness of our immediate world and neighbors for granted. When I exited my house at 6016 Marilyn Drive to play, I might be gone for hours, returning only at dark, or upon the distant hail of ‘Johnnnnny!!!’ if I happened to be within earshot.
Oblivious and impervious to danger, real or imagined, I enjoyed the kind of frontier freedom that short of living in wilderness Alaska, few kids could even fantasize about today. The woods jutting up against our property were a magical mix of environments. Thick stands of impermeable loblolly pine gave way to massive oaks and poplar that might as well have been redwoods to my youthful eyes. Mountain Laurel, blackberry, pokeberry, crabapple, dogwood, sassafras, and honeysuckle filled the voids in between. Stepping into the woods, the ground fell immediately away to the right, flowing precipitously downward into a deep ravine that ran for miles, all the way to the DC Beltway if you had the nerve to follow it that far. A meandering creek wound its way through the gully, like a forbidden but irresistibly inviting path that all but willed one to explore. On the high ground, dense woods reluctantly gave way to meadows, small estuaries filled with wild daisies, milkweed, and grass so tall you could disappear in it.
No matter where you went in the woods, life exploded around you. In the meadows, life filled the relative vacuum. Grasshoppers, crickets, praying mantis, lady bugs, spit beetles, you couldn’t walk a yard without spotting something crawling, flitting, or flying. Bumble bees and butterflies patrolled the skies, potato bugs and ants marched infantry-like over the ground, and insects of every possible variety clung to the foliage in between. Walk quietly enough and you might stumble onto a killdeer nest, mom or dad squawking wildly against the intrusion. Hitchhikers clung desperately to your pant legs. The meadow was a living, breathing organism.
Step into the tree line and you were met by the nervous cries of vigilant squirrels, barking warnings like sentries to their furry mates, a stranger is among us. Jays dove angrily, bombers on the counterattack, squawking their displeasure at the invasion. Robins, Cardinals, and Whippoorwill attended to their daily work, happily chatting with each other, oblivious to the intrusion. The distant caw of crows, triumphantly announcing their latest conquest, robbery, or crime, echoed in the distance. Pileated and Red-Bellied woodpeckers kept time on the march into the woods, with a steady thump-thump-thump. The stealthy might be rewarded with a glimpse of a possum, coon, or even porcupine.
But it was the creek, which ran westward for miles, whose life held my fascination most. Even in the wild west of my youth, there were rules. ‘Don’t go too far’. But the parameters of ‘far’ were never defined, and so, being kids, we did what kids do. We pushed them to their limits. An unspoken edict was never to explore beyond the ‘cussword tree’. Sitting astride the creek, this massive poplar was filled, as far as the eye could see, with carvings from what seemed a hundred generations of passersby. Despite the moniker, actual cuss words were scantly represented. Rather those seduced by nature’s blank canvas had chosen loftier thoughts to document, missives like ‘Billy loves Susie’, ‘Make love not war’, and even the ubiquitous ‘The Phantom Dork was HERE’ were more commonly engraved for eternity to enjoy. Harmless or not, the massive tree with its cryptic hieroglyphs stood like the Obelisk in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, a looming sentinel warning one to beware what might lie beyond it. Until my teenage years, it stood as an impassable mental barrier between safety and sure peril, the good graces of one’s parents or their wrath.
Stepping into the woods from our dead end street, you were pulled by gravity down a narrow jagged path barely visible but to the select lucky few. Traversing downward and sideways all at once, eyes on the ground looking for roots and slippery spots, you heard the creek before you saw it. Cut into a deep bank of rich Virginia clay, a carpet of impossibly green moss caressing it, was the creek.
I learned, quickly, to approach the water like an Indian brave. Slowly, stealthily, creeping on tiptoes, barely making a sound. There was always something reverent, spiritual, and holy about the creek. It was a place of solitude and mystery, its secrets earned and revealed only to the respectful and deserving. I sensed and knew this even before I understood the words. A clumsy step or rushed approach and you’d invariably hear the bloop-bloop-bloop of bullfrogs hitting a deep pool. But advance with the requisite care, and you’d glimpse the beautiful amphibians in all their glory, iridescent, impossibly green, perched on the edge of the bank or a fallen log. I spent countless hours viewing, observing, and catching frogs in my youth, sometimes at the creek, and sometimes by bringing tadpoles or eggs home to a small 5 gallon aquarium where you could watch the miraculous journey from egg to tadpole to pollywog to frog from your bedroom.
Perhaps even more intriguing than the frogs were those grandest of woodland architects, the crawdads. Their mud castle domiciles, meticulously constructed from the muddy creek banks, things of beauty. Finding and catching crawdads required skill and stealth. Lift a stone slowly from the water, wait patiently for the muddy cloud to dissipate, and look for the unmistakable and beautiful outline of the crawdad to appear. Crawdads are Marine-like in their fearlessness, never retreating or turning to run for cover, instead slowly backing away under threat, pincers brandished in threatening fashion. A mason jar placed surreptitiously behind one, and you could back him right into the trap. It was a skill honed to perfection over years of practice.
The creek abounded with life. Mud puppies, minnows, and water bugs that danced like ballerinas on top of the water, masters of surface tension for whom the laws of physics seemed not to apply. Brightly colored dragonflies of every shade and hue, often joined in mating pairs, the peacocks of the insect world, were everywhere. Even the occasional water moccasin or black rat snake could be found on a particularly lucky outing. Seeing them was my first introduction to the concept of risk vs. reward.
In the woods, there was always the promise of finding something you’d never seen before, something unique and fascinating. Turning over a rock to discover a large, bright orange red spotted newt. Flipping over a rotten log, and finding a wood salamander, blue-tailed skink, a behemoth rhinoceros beetle, or a chrysalis. Walk through a meadow and you might discover praying mantis egg sacks, made of one of the most formidable substances in nature, plastered to the stalk of a bush or shrub. I once collected 15-20 of these and took them to school in an empty mayonnaise jar for ‘show and tell’. The lid sloppily left ajar, Monday morning arrived with what must have been 10 thousand of the little newborn mantises crawling everywhere. It was perhaps the most entertaining school day of my storied elementary career.
Walking sticks, katydids, thorn bugs, neon green sweat bees, wooly bear caterpillars, red velvet ants, massive Hercules and stag beetles, and giant Luna moths – the more you looked in our woods, the more odd, strange, and mysterious the world became.
The treasures to be found in the woods weren’t all living. The clay banks of the creek beds were like time capsules. Pay close enough attention, and it was common to spot, beneath the mossy overhangs, ancient glass bottles peeking out from the clay. Yellow, blue, purple, and green bottles, medicine jars, hand blown and apothecary items were commonly found, many of them 50-100 years old. Triangular hand pounded nails, still bearing the hammer marks of creation, were easily discovered. A childhood friend found the mother lode of all discoveries one day in the woods as we sat astride a massive rotting tree. A civil war era rifle, wrapped in oilcloth and remarkably preserved had been hidden a hundred years before in the hollow trunk of the tree, long since grown over and sealed until discovered by my friend in its rotting interior all those years later.
The woods I grew up in and reverently loved so dearly are gone now. Like a lot of wonderful memories and experiences, fragile and fleeting, the woods fell victim to progress, the inevitable and inexorable expansion of the DC suburbs. I stopped by the old house a few years ago as I passed through Northern Virginia on a business trip. Driving through the extension of my childhood neighborhood, looking at the manicured rows of contemporary starter homes that now sat atop my former magical stomping grounds, it filled me with sadness. The sting of embarrassing and unexpected tears filled my eyes. The trees, creeks, meadows, and animals were beyond gone – swept away so effectively and cleanly by dozers and graders, it was hard to imagine they ever really existed at all.
But sometimes, in my dreams, I’m back there. In the lush greenness of my youth’s sanctuary. I hear the water, and the birds, and the hum of mosquitos, the smell of decaying wood wafting into my subconscious slumber. I’m there again. Wandering, wondering, exploring…
In the woods.