Thursday, December 22, 2005

Reminiscing about my childhood home

Sheba, our English Setter, barked incessantly at something back in the drainage ditch. Going to investigate, I found her moving around a pocket in the clay wall of the ditch. Water had been draining out of small caves such as these. "What is it girl?" I asked as I rubbed the dog and got down to peer inside the hole. A good-sized turtle hid inside, its head barely sticking out of its shell. "Good girl," I said, grabbing a stick. I slid the stick underneath its shell and tried to drag the turtle out when all a sudden its head, showing fangs, struck. Dropping the stick, I jumped back as the snake’s body recoiled and Sheba frantically barked. I was maybe ten years old and had come just inches from being bitten by a water moccasin. Leaving the dog to guard the snake, I ran inside and told dad who came out with a hoe and killed the snake. It was too dangerous for something that poisonous to be at the edge of our yard.

The drainage ditch behind our house was a wonderful place to play as a kid. When we first moved here, there was always water flowing through it (I didn’t realize this being an ominous sign as tehy were draining the swampy areas to the south of our house). As kids, playing in the ditch, we hunted for salamanders and turtles, and even caught a few small red-finned pike. Also exciting were the carnivorous plants, especially the Venus flytrap with trigger-hairs in its cupped hands that would imprison an unlucky insect as it feasted on its decaying body. The ditch also served us as a trench for us to re-enact Civil War battles. Having moved here from Petersburg, Virginia, we were well aware of how trenches were used during the Civil War. We fought our battles with friends, unaware that just a mile or so away our ancestors skirmished with Union soldiers, in an attempt to delay the fall of Wilmington until all the provisions at the port had been shipped to Lee’s troops held up in trenches at Petersburg.

Behind the drainage ditch were several square miles of woods and swamps. In this area, these swamps are known as Carolina Bays, low oval shaped depressions filled with peat moss. In all but extremely dry periods, the depressions were filled with water. Ringing these oval depressions were thick undergrowth including live oaks bearded with Spanish moss and towering cypress. The rest of the land, which was only a few feet higher than the bays, consisted of sandy soil that supported tall long-leaf pines, occasional patches of sumac or blackjack oak, and the ubiquitous wiregrass. In ages past, these pine forests of eastern North Carolina supported a thriving industry for naval stores and turpentine and as I got older we found evidence of such. The mature trees had slash marks where sap drained. There were also mounds, which we at first thought were Indian burial grounds, only to later discover they had something to do with burning pines in order to extract the pitch. The woods and bays made a great playground, but until we were older, we could only play there during the winter due to the snakes.

We moved to into the Myrtle Grove Sound area when I was nine years old. This was before the big building boom in Wilmington, which started around 1970 and has continued ever since. There were only seven houses on our street, each sitting on a half-acre. Ours was an exception for my father brought two lots, not wanting to be "crowded in." In addition to the woods behind the house, we could cross the street and ramble through more swamps and pine forest until we came to the headwaters of Whiskey Creek, which I thoroughly explored after I purchased my first canoe when I was sixteen. The woods across the street were the first to go as houses were built up and down the road. By the time I was in high school, all the lots had been used and new roads were being laid. I don’t remember just when the woods behind my parents succumbed to the great urban sprawl of the Southeast. My last trip out through the bays and pine forest was during a break from college. A few years later, as I was surprised to visit one day and discover the ditch had been filled in and where the bays had been stood houses.

I can’t imagine growing up down here now. Houses are everywhere. When I was a child, my friends and I freely roamed the woods in winter and rode our bikes in summer. It’s only a half a mile to the water, where we watched fishing boats and barges make their way up and down the inland waterway as we fished or caught crabs. Today, access to the water is severely restricted, the woods have all disappeared, and I haven’t seen one of those meat-eating flytraps in decades. They say its progress; I have my doubts. As a child, living here, the world seemed endless. Now, children growing up in this neighborhood will have worldviews limited to a fenced half an acre.


  1. what a playland! i can remember playing war games in the ditch behind our house, sliding down the hill on cardboard...ahhh fun!

  2. I think we were privy to magic. There is magic in growing up so close to nature, learning some of the fundamental joys of life - and not being in front of a TV. There is something to be said about roaming for hours on foot or by bike to wondrous places - that may only be a block away from home.

  3. I don't think it is progress at all, Sage. I mourn the loss of so many wonderful places for kids to explore, like I had when I was young. YOur description is so good I felt I was there with you!

  4. The eyes of a child see things so differently regardless of our view or memory. Going back is never the same. Never. Things always look smaller and many times meaner, darker. But to the child there, the world is still a huge wide open place to be explored.
    Have a wonderful holiday!

  5. I am reminded of the song "Yellow Taxi" or something like that with the lyric, "They paved paradise and put up a parking lot." There was also another lyric in that song about "going to a tree museum and paying just to see'em."

    Having grown up on a farm in rural Iowa, I have had the opposite experience as all the neighbors have either lost their farms or moved to the towns leaving our area with less people than ever before. On the 960 acre (section and a half) where my parents live, there used to be perhaps twenty families living when I was a youth and now there are just two, my parents and an old widow whose home will surely be torn down once they pass never to be rebuilt.

    The paradise of your youth is still there, only shifting to different locations. Excellent writing.