“We worked in the woods for nearly 10 hours today, falling trees, sawing lumber. I could have worked 10 more. There is something invigorating about work in the deep forest, the type of work of which I never tire.”
— Alexander Smalley diary entry, 1880
Autumn is the perfect time for reflection, for a walk through the woods for no reason other than the enjoyment of a walk through the woods.
As I took a hike through a wooded path earlier today, I recalled the great woods of our youth. My mother’s city cousin who was raising her children in Dayton would often come for a visit to the farm about this time of year. We were busy with the hard work of not only running the daily operations of the dairy farm, but the harvest was in full swing as well. They chose this time of year for the beauty of it all.
Dad would quietly grumble about their timing, wondering out loud why this visit couldn’t wait until he was done combining and staying up late in to the night to check the grain bins and dryers, but we never turned away visitors.
A conversation which I will never forget still makes me chuckle. I was probably about 10 the autumn of this particular cousins’ visit. I had an hour before it was time to start the evening milking, so I invited my two younger boy cousins to go to the woods with me. I envisioned us climbing some trees, pretending to fight off some invading enemy in the jungle. Perhaps we could even slay some dinosaurs along the way.
As we started back the long walk toward the woods where my sisters and I played endlessly, suddenly the youngest of the two brothers stopped.
“Come on! We don’t have long to play!” I shouted over my shoulder.
“I just realized you are taking us to that forest!” this kid shouted in a wobbly voice, almost sounding as if there were tears in his very near future.
I think I called him a sissy or something equal to it, and kept on hiking. I couldn’t imagine anyone calling our great woods a forest, for one thing, and I couldn’t figure out what in the world the kid could possibly be scared about. I wasn’t about to waste an opportunity to climb the greatest tree in the world on such a perfect tree-climbing day before I had to go do my chores.
The older of the two boys walked just to the edge of the woods and came to a screeching halt.
“What in the world are you scared of?” I asked this city cousin who I only saw once a year.
“It’s dark in there. It seems to me something could attack us and we wouldn’t have a chance of fighting our way out,” he answered with fear making his voice shake.
Many years would go by before I could fully realize how very different our childhood experiences really were. These boys were raised in a brand new subdivision with very few trees, most of them small and ornamental trees at that, playing on wide open green lawns with neighbor kids.
My sisters and I grew up with only one another as playmates, exploring an ancient woods, loving the dark and earthy depths of our own private playground.
“See that den tree over there? That beech tree? Well, I’m gonna climb it. You and your little brother can climb it with me and find out how great it is or you can stand there and fret,” I said to David.
I wasn’t exactly being the gracious host, but sharing that amazing tree seemed to me the greatest gift I could offer. By this time Douglas had caught up and stood by his brother. They both looked at me as if I were completely lacking a brain.
“Why would anyone want to climb that tree?” the older boy asked incredulously. “You could fall and break your arm!”
I started my ascent while shouting back a little information of which we all were very proud.
“There’s never been a broken bone in any one of us, and it sure isn’t gonna happen today! Besides, look at all the leaves that have fallen off of the trees. It might be kinda fun to fall out of a tree if you know you’re gonna land in a deep pile of pretty leaves.”
Later, while I was chastised for taking these city boys to the frightening forest, I stood quietly, taking my verbal punishment. My mother’s cousin was telling me in her southern drawl that I had plumb scared her little boys to death, and she believed little ladies were to stay on the ground instead of climbing trees like jungle animals.
I smiled to myself, because what cousin Peggy didn’t know is that is exactly what I was pretending to be when I climbed that old beech tree — a sprite-footed little monkey living deep in the jungle.