My memories of childhood seem to revolve around the woods–I grew up in a land of mixed fields and forests that were slowly being converted into the outer edge of a city suburb, and in the 1970s and 1980s, there were still large patches of forest surrounding my neighborhood. Riding bikes with friends to the edge of the woods, and then ditching the bikes for a walk into the unknown was how I spent my summers from ages 8 to 12. Visiting Ohio and Michigan again this summer has given me an opportunity to reconnect with this familiar landscape. I live now in Colorado, which sounds more glamorous to most people, with its 14,000 foot peaks, sweeping vistas of the Rocky Mountains, powder snow, and cloudless blue skies, but I miss the woods and rolling hills of the North American East and Midwest.
I’ve enjoyed some walks and runs in the woods lately, but I am amazed that I have found absolutely no evidence of children or teenagers hanging out there. Back in the 1970s, running into teenagers in the woods was a large part of the pleasure and the danger of the woods for us younger kids. My friends and I would find evidence that the teenagers had been in the woods–empty beer cans and soda bottles, cigarette butts, empty cans of spray paint, and–in one shocking and terrifying instance–a stash of pornography in a grocery bag stuffed under a rotting log. Kids built forts and tree houses in the woods out of materials swiped from the construction sites that would eventually render those woods someone”s back yard.
Back then, in the days before cable TV, video games, and the internet, back even before everyone had central A/C, the woods in summer meant freedom from parents and endless entertainment for anyone under the age of 16 (that is, before the precious driver’s license was proffered.) Because I came from a family that didn’t hike or camp, the woods for me was a space totally unmediated by adult influence or supervision. We could play Little House in the Big Woods, or the Swiss Family Robinson, or Tom Sawyer there. We packed baloney sandwiches and thermoses of Kool-Aid so that we could stay out all day long. We peed in the woods, and on occasion pooped there too, because no one else was around. We followed cricks that became creeks that were lined with wild strawberries in June. We went into the woods because we were bored, because we could tell secrets there and make some more, because we kind of wished we might run into those teenagers to see what it was exactly that they were up to, but mostly, just because we could.