In my young years, the only things that kept me close to the wild country were the woods behind the garage and beyond the grape arbor; a fantastic world where I could be an Indian maiden, or a big game hunter, or a fairy leprechaun. It was another world just a step over the garden fence. Sometimes the McKenna kids, six of them, would be marauding through the trees and it was necessary to hide, hunker down in leaf litter behind the tallest tree. Most of the time though it was quiet, the breeze drifting through the branches. I didn’t know the names of the trees, only that they were there, and I found myself dwelling in a foreign land where magic could happen. Who knows what I would find exploring the depths of this forest, the sound of the city dampened and held at bay, absorbed by the bark on the trunks. The woods, I thought, would always be there. It didn’t occur to me that I might not be there.
Out the back door, down the lane, through the center of the grape arbor and wait . . . listen for mother calling. No! I am going to the country. I am going to the woods. I didn’t need a companion but sometimes brother would come along and then we could play Robin Hood and the Merry Men. I would not be Maid Marian. I was a Merry Man too. Someone had to be Robin, and someone had to be the bad sheriff although his face was never seen as we rode our horses through the forest to the camp where we would lay out the booty taken from the rich to give to the poor.
When did I find out that this was a fairy tale? The booty, The rich. The poor.
Around the time I turned eight and was immersed in arithmetic at the Catholic school and a short period in the Brownies, and dance class, and piano lessons, the woods were left alone. One day a large truck came up the drive and men came stomping in the house, taking the furniture and the boxes so patiently packed by my mother, and the piano and musical instruments of my father, into the truck and drove away.
My brother and sister and I shuffled quickly into the car and down the highway far away, leaving the woods behind. I couldn’t believe it as I gazed back and saw the trees with gaping mouths waving in the wind – don’t go, don’t go. How could I?
The new housing development was large, many houses made of brick, green grass lawns, no trees in front yet – too new. Instantly I hated it. Where was the old garage, the grape arbor, the dilapidated fence, to climb over – where were the woods?
Everything brand new in the house, spic span clean, and bright. Where was the wrap around porch? The old columns holding up the roof overhead, the steps to sit on in the cool of the evening on a summer’s day – where were the woods?
First day of school and we rode the yellow school bus, picked up on the corner, with kids of all ages crammed in, yelling, and tossing things about. I pressed my face against the window and gradually the most wonderful sight came into view. Way down the road but within walking distance of the awful house, there they were, the trees, the wonderful trees.
Brother found out first that we could get to St. Joseph Catholic School on time if we started out earlier and trekked down the road to the edge. Then picking our way through the thick trees, we walked, we ran, we danced, in our woods.
I rarely rode the bus after that, only in winter if the snow was high. No one plowed the paths in the woods. Now, farther out on the island that was our home, wild animals kept house in the woods. I met bobcat, deer, raccoon, and slithering snakes. This was a new world to explore, not like the urban woods at the old house. The adventures were great, and I thought, okay, this makes up for porch and the grape arbor, and friends left behind. It was okay if I had the woods.
They said it was something called cancer. It could kill and it did. The spanking bright new house never got old for me. Death. Death. And after we held the funeral and buried my father, I was whisked away to live with an aunt and an uncle I barely knew in a house on a hill surrounded by other houses in the city. How I sorely missed the woods back on the island. Would I ever see them again?
Time passed. I got older. Mother finally came for me, and I came home to a small house across from a playing field, surrounded by a tall wooden fence and in the back a garage, a gate, an entrance once again to woods. These held no deer, no bobcat, but a city-block long section of trees. I was too old for Robin Hood now, but being able to walk under the canopy of leaves was enough.
Yet the machines came and the men with saws and the trees were murdered, and large holes dug in the soil and concrete and boards filled in, new houses built. Now the woods were dead too.
Two weeks out of the year and there was vacation in the countryside of lakes and farms and time once again to strike out and hike beyond the fences and into the woods – the wonderful, marvelous woods.
Now I, much older, saw these leafy friends become lovers, walking hand in hand in their shade and quiet. So, there was the boy and the lake and the summer, swimming and dancing and singing and loving.
No trips to France or Italy to marvel at cathedrals compared to the vaulted canopy of slim trunk trees; cocoons of caterpillars weaved into their hair of branches and curls of leaves.
These are not just woods. They are living beings with promises.
Promises, words spoken, troths plighted, it was all a sham.
I lived within the violence of the world, sniping, and hating, and climbing, climbing. The world took its turns, round, and round and back again and there were houses, bigger houses, better houses – mine is better than yours and things, things, things, more things, brighter, shinier, and faster and faster.
I forgot the soil, forgot the leaf litter, forgot the whisper of the wind through the branches and the solitude.
I cannot live without promises.
I need the woods.