Someday, I'm going to host a fresh air kid. I think it's sad for a kid to grow up and never experience the wonders of the wilderness. I went to a concert in the city a few months ago with a buddy of mine, and the area was pretty run down. In between a couple of boarded up row houses, there was a small, fenced-in lot covered in scrub grass and broken glass. A few scraggly trees and some bushes were growing towards the back. My buddy looked at me and said, "That's the woods to some 8 year old who lives around here." That really struck a chord with me. I had woods to play in when I was growing up and I couldn't imagine it any other way.
Across the street from the house I grew up in, between the houses of two neighbors, there was a path that led to the woods. It was our path, and we took it for granted -- we knew it would always be there. After school, my brother and I would change out of our school clothes and go across the street to get Markie, and then go play in the woods. At the time, I don't think we really understood the concept of land ownership. The fact that this land actually belonged to someone never even crossed our minds. We were only 8 or 10 years old, after all. We figured it was someone else's only if it was fenced in and we couldn't get to it.
We built forts in the summer and went sleigh riding in the winter, and we shared our woods with the other kids in the neighborhood. We were the "little kids" of course, living in constant fear of the "big kids" who would sometimes chase us through the woods and then tree us like raccoons. The woods were simply a part of our lives, like school and home.
I remember when the trailers came, bringing string and sticks and orange vinyl ribbons. Just before dark every night, we pulled the sticks up -- we had seen them before and we were smart enough to know what they meant.
We hid them in the woods we knew like our own backyards; The woods we wanted to keep. We put them under an old piece of plywood behind The Big Hill. That's what we called it because that was its name -- we didn't really think about it. It wasn't really a hill, it was more of a sandpit - a trail up the back and a sandy, U-shaped cliff in the front. In the summer we jumped off it, hitting hard and rolling and getting sand in our sneakers and hair. We threw dirt bombs at each other, and sometimes had contests to see who could run up it the fastest.
Dave Cardella broke his leg there, and that brought the hill to the attention of our parents. For a while we weren't supposed to play there -- they said it was too dangerous. We went anyway, always remembering to empty our shoes before going home, but they always knew. In the winter, we skidded down it head first with plastic sleds under our bellies, trying to see how far we could go. The Big Hill belonged to us, too.
We collected the sticks for weeks, and brought them all to the same place. We got caught in the end. One of the surveyors got Markie, and Markie told him our names and where we lived. The surveyor had told him that we were all going to go to jail. Markie was younger and I think he really believed it.
We were punished of course, and spent the entire summer listening to the beep-beep-beeping of the bulldozers and dump trucks as they backed up. We could hear it happening, but we couldn't stop it. We sat by the curb on our side of the street, watching the trucks drive up and down the dirt road that used to be our path.
A part of us died that summer. Markie moved away, and we moved shortly after. Before Markie left, we went back in, walking along the ruts and tread marks that turned our path into something monstrous. We wanted to see, if somehow, any of our woods had been spared. The big oak that was growing on the edge of the field, the one that we climbed and carved our initials in. Our tree fort, which was nothing more than a platform where we sat and talked about stuff important to 10 year olds.
I remember a heavy feeling in my stomach that made me want to cry, and a feeling of disorientation. I remember thinking how strange it was that not one familiar landmark remained, and that I couldn't even picture where our tree used to be.
It was like our woods had never existed, except in our memories.
For the three of us, they exist there still.