The house in which I lived before I moved to where I live now lay quietly shaded by about forty acres of trees. These trees began and rose uphill in our backyard, and were split down the middle by a two-track that had been out of use long before the house was built. These trees had always been in the neighborhood's consciousness. In the springtime we would hear the soft tapping of the newly sprouting leaves in the wind. The summer would come with the pervading squeal of tree frogs, that could be heard when eating a popsicle on the deck or answering the phone, when we would cover up one ear to drown out the noise. In the autumn the leaves of these trees would drift lazily down to earth by the dozens. And even in winter, when the leaves were under the snow and it seemed that even the trees great lives were stagnant, their shadows would loom over and calm the glare of the bleach-white snow.
But although everyone lived amongst them, we, the children of the neighborhood, owned these trees and woods. At least that was how it seemed to us. While our parents held the legal contracts, they never bothered to go back there themselves. So we claimed the land under the trees as our own land, vehemently building adult-proof forts and exploring as far out as we dared. While the line of woods that stretched the line of my friends' houses was all filled and inhabited, I remember my family's two acres of it the most.
The beginning of the two-track marked the beginning of the path up the hill. If you turned immediately right, you would come to another, smaller path. This one had been blazed solely by my friends and myself. The path weaved in between the fallen trees and outreaching undergrowth, and soon you were upon the steepest part of the hill. The path here went over a patch of loose gravel, which made walking up nearly an impossibility. (Imagining walking upon a floor covered in marbles gives one an idea of what going up this hill was like.) But my friends and I felt an overwhelming need to conquer this hill. Finally, we chipped in our saved-up quarters, and bought thirty feet of rope. We tied one end to the tree nearest to the bottom and then struggled up to the top. Once we made it, breathing heavily and triumphant, we tied the other rope to the tree at top. From then on, we could belay up and down the slope with relative ease, clutching the rope tightly each way.
A few steps past the crest of this hill and we were standing next to a giant, dying pine. It was the only tree of its kind on my land (although a small patch lay east by a few acres.) This pine towered above the rest of the trees. It smelled of old, sweet sap that would soon be all over my clothes. Its branches were built well for climbing, spindling outward from the trunk in the manner of the red stripe of a barber shop pole. Soon we became quite familiar with it and came to refer to it as the Climbing Tree.
We had attempted a tepee on a smaller, nearby tree, but whenever any wind came down upon our delicately crafted creation, at least part of it would fall over. Soon we tired of that and let the sticks begin to decompose back into the rich soil.
Some days I would follow the two tracks and go left up the hill. I would have to paw through a tangle of bushes not much taller than myself. I came to endure the burrs as they collected on my socks. At points along the trail this way I would have to grab onto a tree trunk and pull myself upward.
It seemed that more animals lived here, and I often found myself stifling my footsteps to keep the squirrels from tramping off and the robins from flapping off. If the animals were still, then it was quiet and serene here. I came up this side when the phone rang too much at home or I wasn't getting along with my parents, for whatever reason. I would walk deep into these woods and let my imagination run, thinking about what fort to build next, or could my friends and I have a cookout here? The calmness of the woods didn't solve any problems for me, but the steady back-and forth motion of the trees rocked them away for the time I was there.
I eventually convinced my mother to buy a hammock. It was a tiny makeshift one, made for rugged camping, but I didn't care. I stuck it in my backpack and tramped up the hill, fixing my eyes on the sturdy maple trees that I wanted to tie it to. When it was up, one side tied slightly higher than the other, I was pleased. The side on which I was to enter was only about two feet off the ground, but if I turned my head away, the ground dropped down quickly. It seemed as if I was floating within a canopy of a hundred trees.
When I tied the hammock up, the leaves hadn't fully come out and there was still space between them to see the Thornapple River, gliding gently against the farm-lined banks. At that time the development of my neighborhood hadn't quite reached it yet. More trees and a few docks lay on my side of the bank. Green farmland, spotted with the occasional spare dairy cow, occupied the other. I would return about a year after we moved to find that it had all been bulldozed away to make room for a golf course. Funny that they would rip out all that green to create a place that would be completely re-sodden for the course, I thought then.
But on the day I hung the hammock, the weather was fair and the sun was casually setting. I wasn't thinking about the plows that would inevitably come through. At the moment, I was closing my eyes, waiting for sleep to come over me. But I couldn't; I was too busy noticing things that I hadn't when I was wide awake. For one thing, the air had become cooler than before, causing goose bumps to form on my bare arms. Trying to catch a little extra warmth, I folded my arms. Another thing was the wind. I had noticed it there before, upon the brilliant green leaves, causing little spots of light to flicker on the few fallen logs around me. But now the wind clamped onto me as well as the trees, and set my hammock into a gentle rocking.
Now with my eyes closed I was listening to the sounds within my familiar trees that I had never noticed before. There were the squirrels a hundred yards away, fighting and squeaking with their tiny feet tramping over last year's dried leaves. There were the robins calling to each other, communicating their bird emotions as surely as you and I communicate our people emotions. I heard a hawk's call down by the river, and I imagined it stretching its wings over all of us and grandly searching for fish in the river. Soon it would fly back home to the safety of my woods.
It was then, laying lazily in my hammock for the first time, that I fully appreciated what surrounded me. Aside from the other kids in my neighborhood, most people didn't have this kind of leafy embrace to step into. Not many people had a hammock, a climbing tree (as scratchy as it was), a faded two-track of their own, or even a gravelly old hill. Someday I knew I would outgrow building forts, and maybe even swinging in this hammock, but as long as I needed it, it would be here for me.
A single cricket started chirping two feet away from me. I jerked back into consciousness and realized that the sun was almost down. My watch read eight o'clock. Suddenly I heard the ring of a telephone a few houses down from mine. The houses all glowed from within now, silhouetting their inhabitants. I sighed and carefully made my way out of the hammock.
It was time to go home. I would take a shower and put on my pajamas. I would watch a few hours of sitcoms and then lay down in my own warm bed. I was glad to be safe and tucked away in my own home, but the woods loomed overhead, waiting for my next visit.
|Story previously appeared in
the Beechnut Review