I grew up in a time when I could roam the woods by myself. I could grab a hat, and walk out our back door, not letting the screen slam or else my mother might remember that I should possibly be doing something else, like weeding, or picking beans. I hated picking string beans because of the squashy prickly bean beetle larvae that crawled over leaf stems and beans. They gave me the creeps because they looked as though they had neither tail nor head, just a translucent blob, the naked juiciness of them studded with a pattern of black spines. They would break against my fingers and I loathed the sap of their deaths on my hands.
Quickly walk along the tractor path that traced the base of the hill, so I’d be out of earshot of anyone remembering that I should be tutoring my younger sister, or perhaps vacuuming the living room. Or dusting— the job that never ended. Then, with a deep breath of freedom, across the mown slope barely in view of the house. Don’t look behind, or I might see someone waving me back home for any of those chores I was convinced could wait. Over the rise, almost running, with the sweat prickling down between my shoulder blades, and down past the brushy edge of woods that bordered corn fields green with eager breeze blown blades, taller than my head, the overcast glow of sky hot on my hat.
I always looked for other people. Looked for farmworkers, for wanderers, for the adolescent boy checking out possible hunting ground before the fall, despite the “No Hunting” signs my cousin had posted on this old Gowen land. Then I’d duck down a path into the woods, this path wide enough for a truck. Trucks had come this way, keeping it open. The farmworkers often parked down here where the slope of land deepened, seeking shade for lunch time.
I knew that if I came across anyone else there, I should not let them know of my presence.. Soft footing around, I prided myself I’d always spot any intruder first, and never would they see me. Every so often, I’d take a pause, breathing through my mouth to listen. What did I fear? Nothing so clear; I simply knew I was safest alone, unknown, unnamed.
Now how many children have such freedom? To lose themselves in the woods and orchards of infinite mystery and promise, discovering animals, spying on insects, picking up a shed hawk feather or collecting a cluster of fresh chanterelles from the duff under the hemlocks? I took part of my education there in the shadows of trees, naming red oak and sugar maple, white pine and the startling silver and black of paper birch. What has replaced this for our children now?