Were there no mosquitoes in the 40s and 50s? No Lyme Disease? Rabid attacking coyotes? Salmonella infected turtles? Swarms of killer bees?
Apparently not, because I spent most of my free time in the woods in all seasons, in every kind of weather. It was never too hot or too cold, too wet or too dry for me to be exploring in the woods.
I came from a rather dysfunctional family. There was constant Cut With A Knife tension in the air along with thick clouds of blue Lucky Strike smoke, all accompanied by the loud pleasured exhalings after the day’s first swig of Cutty Sark. Thus it was prudent for me to come home from school, feed my face, do my homework, call my beloved Springer Spaniel, Punch, and get outta Dodge. And I did.
I was fortunate enough to have been raised in a home surrounded by acres of thick forest, enormous old trees, rocks, streams and everything a woodland loving kid could want. I roamed without fear throughout those miles of forest and often think if I went back today, and if those woods were still there and not buried beneath a parking lot, I know I could still walk everywhere in complete familiarity and safety. Every single thing there welcomed me. And to be honest, there are times, not many but some, when I still sort of yearn to do that.
One time, when my imagination and fantasies really grabbed me, I dug a huge hole in the side of a hill and covered the opening with many woven pine branches, leaving a space for my face to peer through. It was where I decided I’d live forever, dining on foraged meals, and I knew if I stayed very still in my safe cave, I’d be able to see wildlife at work. Birds flew by, woodpeckers, owls, hawks, bluebirds, jays, crows, songbirds, and eventually a couple of chickadees actually landed on my outstretched hand that happened to have a few broken Saltine pieces in it. Shiny black and orange salamanders waited for me from under all the rocks in my forest when I bothered to crawl out of my cave. I once saw a beautiful opossum staggering comically toward the nearby stream’s edge. She had just risen from hibernation, glanced at me, I didn’t move, shook herself and continued on her way. Deer and pheasant, rabbits, racoons, red and grey squirrels passed my home in the hole, and once a family of sweet faced skunks. I watched an enormous snapping turtle lumbering through the woods looking for soft earth in which to lay her eggs. These wonderful animals all looked at me and I looked back but did not move, and in time they walked around the forest near me, fearlessly ignoring and accepting, my presence.
I used to fantasize that I could live in the woods and totally sustain life if I just gathered lots of skunk cabbage and wild onions, birds’ eggs, frogs’ eggs, (yucko), the chewy insides of acorns. I knew how to suck the nectar from the honeysuckle blossoms and how delicious clover was, and I even knew certain leaves and grasses were lush, tender and edible. I knew these things because I used to own a treasured book that taught wanna-be back-to-nature folks how to dine on certain blossoms, wild berries, seeds, nuts and mushrooms, and even identifiable insects for protein sources. My book showed pretty accurate photos of the poisonous things to be avoided if one did not wish to drop to the floor of the forest after eating them to spend hours screaming in agony until death mercifully decided to stop by. I sure wish I still had that book but it’s been lost somewhere between my youth and old age. Not that I’d ever go out in my current back yard and begin foraging around for the evening’s salad, but back then, it was a magic book to me.
And yet there was something enthralling about dying a dramatic and back-to-nature death while lying on the soft forest floor and staring up through the old, swaying trees. After all, I’d happily fallen asleep countless times while gazing up through the branches of those tall trees, and still to this day believe that trees have their own seductive, siren call as their leafy or piney branches reach and bend and undulate in the wind. Trees can sing you know, and for me it was and still is a spellbinding sound, distant and enchanting, like woodland harps.
I knew how to make a fire in the wild because my father, a mighty hunter, woodsman and business geek taught me, but I always carried a small magnifying glass with me to use to start fires, with the sun’s help of course, its magnified rays aimed at a few dry leaves. That never failed to give me a small fire to warm my hands and feet during my early spring or fall meanderings.
How dearly I wanted to be an all-nature-girl and to rely on the forest to supply me with all I needed to survive, but I also wasn’t entirely cray cray. I was always at least smart enough to carry a few packs of matches, and a lot of those big wooden ones that would strike on any surface. I mean if I was going to coddle those birds’ eggs in an old pot I’d had the foresight to hide behind a pile of rocks along with a couple of old tin plates, a cup, fork and big salt shaker, I did not want to spend too much time making fires when a couple of matches did the job in a few seconds. All that string and wood and flint nonsense to achieve one tired spark was far too labor intensive for me.
And yes, fear not, I always stomped out all my fires and drowned them in spring water because I was also smart enough to do my forest thing next to a good water source. And oh my, that water was clear and cold and sweet and I did not ever even think about creatures doing whatever creatures do in streams. It just didn’t matter, and I never got sick.
But how come I have zero memory of being bitten by mosquitoes? Touched by poison ivy? Stung by bees? Attacked by lurking carnivores? Bitten by anything? Looped at by evening bats? Chased by Bigfoot? Today I can’t walk to my mailbox without swatting countless mosquitoes or dive-bombing flies, and yet I cannot remember ever being assaulted by those beings as a kid. Was I that oblivious back then? When I go back there in memory (and I’m doing that a lot lately) I just can’t recall swarming mosquitoes or any other biting beasties when I walked all those miles through those quiet, beautiful, singing sighing woods. Weren’t they there? Or were they kind, and stayed away from me as I meandered? I do wonder about the wonder.