In 1928, when Nila was born, the woods had been there, surrounded by more forrest on all three sides. A dirt road drew it’s contour on the east, and a creek ran it’s southern side. When hayfields and corn started dividing the countryside, they’d stopped at the creek, and at the sudden rise in elevation on the north and west sides, and the woods had remained a remnant of what used to be. These and the paved country road where the dirt road had been, clearly defined the boundaries to the property when Nila and Jim eventually purchased it.
Nila and Jim married when she was twenty in the summer of 1948. They acquired the woods twenty years later in hopes they might one day build a house there, but the little town of Menden had grown up around the first and only house they would ever live in for their 62 years together. The woods had instead became something of a family member, almost mystical and later, perhaps a bit haunted.
Mushrooms grew in some places (if you knew where to look). A nice morel flanked dinner was your reward, and folks in those parts had a hankering for that. In warmer months, the creek bed, it’s silky-soft mud lacing through your toes as it cradled your feet, was host to children and adults alike. The family spent time in the summers trimming and mowing the meadow that served as a huge welcome mat with the creek off to your left, the hill to your right, and a peaceful upsweeping trail on back behind.
The meadow had seen many tents, many campfires, and heard many ghost stories. Many a child had woke screaming in their beds, their mothers calling Nila exasperated and angry, after Nila had scared them the night before at a campfire. The creek wasn’t any good for fishing, but that didn’t stop some of the children from tying strings to the end of sticks and dropping pieces of kneaded bread balls into the water. They’d giggle and scream as baby smallies would nibble at the bait, then gulp it down and give their little makeshift rods a tug as they swam away.
Nights in the woods were unpredictable. If there wasn’t a group camping, if it had been still and untouched for a time, one of the family teens might park a car just outside the meadow. Still under the canopy of trees and out of sight to passersby, some tried to lay blankets out for their attempts at passion. The more experienced simply cracked the windows and used the back seat, too many creepy crawlies on the damp ground. This went on until Nila’s brother and his wife bought a spread of land next to the woods and built a home there. Nila threatened several grandkids in the late 80’s when reports of their scandalous activities made it to her ears.
In the winter, the hill north of the meadow was perfect for sleds. The deer that frequented the woods would keep a low profile when sounds of children whooping and laughing would begin wafting through the trees, magnified by the silence the snow cover promulgated by filtering out other sound.
In time, Nila decided to leave the woods wild, and thought of it as a nature preserve. The hill and trails became overgrown, and even the meadow became more and more neglected as the pair grew older and the younger members of the family moved away or had other priorities. A chain link fence, complete with “Private Property” and “No poaching” signs made the boundaries clear at that point. And if family wanted to go for a walk or sit by the creek, they had to retrieve the key to the padlocked gate from the hiding place in Nila and Jim’s pool house.
Jim died in 1992, and Nila held on to the woods. When she passed away ten years later it was January. The leafless trees draped over patches of snow and mud, and in its wintery silence, the creek’s trickling of tears and the black and white imagery adjoining it, the woods displayed its profound sorrow and loss.
This is semi-biographical and was inspired by the “Landscape and Time” exercise in Brian Kitely’s book The 3 A.M. Epiphany. If I had written in response to this exercise for a class I would have failed, because as usual – I cheated. Alas, I am not writing for a grade. This piece still bugs me for some minor touch-ups in language and direction. I wanted to detail what kinds of trees grow there but, much like a person’s shirt color, I couldn’t recall all of that. Funny. I would appreciate any ideas you have for what works, what doesn’t, etc. Also, feel free to share where you would have written about and why.