Children should know the joy of the woods

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“Compared with most other places in the developed world, America is still to a remarkable extent a land of forests. One-third of the landscape of the lower 48 states is covered in trees — 728 million acres in all. Maine alone has 10 million uninhabited acres. That’s 15,600 square miles, an area considerably bigger than Belgium, without a single permanent resident. About 240 million acres of America’s forests are owned by the government.” — Bill Bryson, 1998, “A Walk in the Woods”

With a sinking feeling, we came to realize our wooded playground was going to be erased. It didn’t seem possible and it made no sense.

It was 1960-something, and our dad tried to explain that he needed to make tillable every bit of farm ground that he possibly could.

That woods was our stage. Without any props at all, that woods could be a beautiful art studio to one sister, a country market to another, or a stage upon which to dance, while just a few steps away, old Davy Crockett and I battled off wild grizzly bear and mountain lion while making friends with the natives deep within this foreign land.

I had a cap gun and was not afraid to use it. We captured bugs and bad guys, collected leaves and wild flowers, and more than once we found a bushel and a peck of delicious mushrooms which we carried home for that evening’s feast.

A downed tree could be the scene of our latest play while doubling as our picnic table. I was too young to realize this was a rare and wonderful time and place.

Later in life I was stunned to learn that for some, the only woods ever hiked was a national forest, a land far from home. For us, a short hike to our own paradise was always within view, and never far from our thoughts.

Between the morning and afternoon chore times, we had a limited bit of free time to call our own. Often I would bribe my sister to spend it all in the woods, which sometimes meant I had to bite the bullet of Barbie doll playtime with her in the house.

Why stay inside when, instead, trees were there for the climbing, serving as a look-out, when every snap of a twig could signal Apache just gunning for a fight. The birds, butterflies and wild rabbit became part of the setting, flushed out by bad guys, which served as a clue to their whereabouts.

So, the day the bulldozers and heavy equipment arrived, all false hope of hanging on to our woods was dashed. It was understood that a kid didn’t call the shots.

The trees and brush, knocked down and hauled away, became tillable acreage.

Every kid should be so lucky, if even for a few chapters of a lifetime, to know the depths of a woods, to call it home long enough that one day recalling it brings a sense of joy like no other.

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Judith Sutherland, born and raised on an Ohio family dairy farm, now lives on a 70-acre farm not far from the area where her father’s family settled in the 1850s. Appreciating the tranquility of rural life, Sutherland enjoys sharing a view of her world through writing. Other interests include teaching, reading, training dogs and raising puppies. She and her husband have two children, a son and a daughter, in college.

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