A Youth Well (Mis)Spent: The Magic of the Woods

Other writers have harkened upon the power of the woods in a child's youth.  A forest is a beautiful opportunity for a youth to have access to.  In part because, it can help foster a sense of connection with nature, but also because a forest is a nether-region; a nonplace in conjunction to the human world.  The human world has addresses, landmarks, streets, names, but a forest lacks all but that which one pmay assign.     "Dad, I'm going to the woods" says and doesn't say where you are going.  It gives a sense but no approximation.  That the child gets to name his way through the woods as well as go on or off paths as he chooses, creates a deeper connection and magic.  Like magic, the child does not own it, but can work his way through it as he sees fit.  Then there's also the potential for danger that embodies the forest.  What could happen?  What is out there?  To the child, this is marvelous and exciting (though to some parents, frightening and due cause for denying adventures into the woods).

Picture of a field in Peabody, Massachusetts
I had the luck of growing up with acres of woodlands at the top of my street.  Though I spent a significant portion of my childhood playing video games, watching movies, and reading comics, I also spent a good portion playing, exploring, traversing, and retreating in those woodlands.  They were a key component of my childhood and teenage years.  Just as much I lost myself in a video game or comic book, I could immerse myself in the woods.  From six years old till my later teens, those woods were a destination I often set off to spend a significant amount of time.  

I learned much about the world from those woods (they were uniformly referred to "the woods" by all the kids in the neighborhood), had many an adventure there, and was taught much from the woods.  It was a place of escape as much as it was a place of danger and a place of safety.  I explored, I experimented, I observed, I encountered so much.  I spent many hours walks its paths and forging new ones; noting its changes, and leaving my own marks on it (more about that later).

Picture of a field in Peabody, Massachusetts
Beyond plants, the woods were the first place I came into contact with animals.  While in my younger years, I was told (and to varying degree believed and was intrigued by the idea) that there was a wild bobcat lurking in the woods.  I never did find that urban legend.  However, I did encounter other animals in fairly close proximity including muskrats, rabbits, turkeys, and even a fox.

The woods were also a place of realms, spaces that had folkloric names granted by older kids (such as the infamous "Party Rock") or those which I had christened including Biker's Lair, Paradise, Bamboo Village, Bear Hill, and My Mountain.  They were places that an neophyte would not necessarily distinguish, but I had quartered off into a specified domain.  I knew all the paths and ways of getting there.  Which path was quickest, which was the most scenic, which was the stealthiest.  They were imprinted upon the mental map of my mind and had walked them so many times, I still can idly recall the paths to get to any of them, though I have not stepped foot on any of them in 15 years.

Though I had no actual claim over them, they were indeed my woods for no one knew them like I did.  To be sure as much as I glorify the woods as saintly ground for my childhood, I still did not treat it with such reverence in my youth.  I left my impression upon them as surely they did upon me.  There were at least two times where my youthful fascination with fire led to small wild-fires (it's been 20 years; I'm sure we're pass the statute of limitations).  These were not intentional but as a place of exploration and experimentation, unfortunately, some experiments go out of control.  There were also the trees that I felled with an ax, not in a pursuit of building but in pursuit of working out frustration and building inner strength.
Picture of a field in Peabody, Massachusetts

The Phases of the Woods

The woods in my mind had three phases.  The first phase was marked by exploring and routine.  It was an extension of me in some ways.  I regularly engaged with it as a matter of daily life.  I would often take the woods to and from school because it was quicker (and cooler).  I can remember a morning of spring vacation getting up early and wandering about the woods, net in hand, capturing early signs of spring which were abundant therein.  It was where I first french kissed a girl (to be sure, it wasn't at "party rock").  They were the place I "ran away" from when I packed up a bag and hung it on a stick, just like they did in the cartoons, and trekked into the woods (only to return 2 hours later because no epic search party had been launched).  I build forts and forged paths.  I learned its secrets.

Picture of a field in Peabody, MassachusettsThe second phase occurred when a 2-3 acre section of the woods were significantly altered.   What had been while where plowed over, a rock pile was introduced (later I would use this place to break rocks with a sledge hammer, to again, work out aggression and frustration).  I don't know that it completely altered my relationship with the woods, but given that this was the section I played around in most and was a region I needed to walk in order to get deeper into the woods, I think it left a taint about it in my mind.  It spoke to something in my mind that these woulds were not entirely mine and would be gone someday (though I also fantasized about buying when I grew up).  Despite that, this was also the phase of retreat and escape to the woods.  By this point I was in middle and high school, and the woods were a place for me to wander away from the problems and challenges of school and family life.  I could go to the woods and be me without disruption or distraction.  I could find allow myself to think and be all the things I wanted to be without disruption from the world around.  It was a place of peace.  So much did I find those woods a place of peace that even today when I'm asked to visualize myself in a peaceful place for meditation or reflection, it's to those woods and the various niches I spent sitting, relaxing, thinking, being.

Google view of Meadow Golf Course in Peabody Massachusetts
See it on GoogleMaps
The final stage was the saddest and mayhaps be why I spent the time writing this.  I can remember when I was around 20.  The city had decided to turn much of it into a public golf course.  I travelled up there and walked around as they were in the formative stages of it.  It was actually heartbreaking.  So many of the nooks and crannies that I had strong palpable connections to were destroyed.  Those places that I had named were just names and no longer places.  I did actually cry.  It struck a nerve of sadness deep within me.  It hurt and left me with a sadness that the memories embedded throughout the woods were lost behind those that flash into my head from time to time when I walk in other woods or just triggered by different thoughts and moments.

The forest was always a place of magic and mystery.  Look at how many folk tales and fairy tales take place within them.  They can be a place of danger, but mostly because they are a place untamed.  And sometimes, that's what a child could use; untamed wilderness, to find himself or herself.

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