Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The woods of my childhood: a rambling memory (or, why I love winter)

This memory of childhood answers the question that many have for me, “Why do you like winter?” It’s true, I do love winter, and look forward to getting more snow this afternoon. That said, should I admit that I’ll be heading to Central America in two weeks?
I was blessed to be raised where there was plenty of elbow room. When I was nine, we moved back to North Carolina, outside of Wilmington. It was 1966 and the urban sprawl that has ruined the South and much of the rest of the country hadn’t yet reared its ugly head. I suppose we were the first wave of that sprawl. We were in a new subdivision, but the development hadn’t really taken off. In all, there might have been 15 houses in the whole area. The downside was that there were no friends that lived close-by. But that was counter-acted by the vast woods that stood behind our home. It was years after I’d left home before roads dissected those woods and houses replaced the forts and hideouts my brother and I built.

The woods were divided into two types of habitat. The high ground was sandy soil and quite open, with longleaf pines and wiregrass and an occasional scrub oak. Traveling through this area was rather easy as there was not much undergrowth and there were old two-track trails running through the woods we could follow when we wanted to make good time. Separating the woods were the low, swampy areas. Elevation was rather relative and one wouldn’t need the full length of a yardstick to measure the difference between the high and low ground. A large swamp separated, maybe a hundred yards behind our house, separated the woods and to get further back into them, one had to walk around it. Later, my brother and I, along with friends, would cut a path through the swamps that we could use during dry spells, but that would be a few years off.

My first memory of exploring the great woods was in the first fall we lived there. I expect it was December, just after my baby brother was born, and I was out in the woods with my dad and my mother’s father. My grandfather only got to visit us once after we got to Wilmington. He was impressed with our house, telling us the second bathroom was for a maid. Although our house was nothing grand, it must have seemed that way to him. I later learned that he didn’t have indoor plumbing until my mother was in high school and dating my father. My father, who worked after school with his dad in the plumbing and heating business, installed the bathroom in my mother’s home. That afternoon, our house got stuffy with everyone gathering around the newborn and we menfolk took a walk in the great woods. Out there, along a two track road that ran behind the great swamp, while smoking a Camel, Granddaddy told us about deer hunting in this area during the war. There were no longer deer in this part of the county, but it was nice to know that the woods in which I explored had also been explored by my granddad, twenty-some years earlier when he’d left the farm and moved his family to Wilmington to work in the shipyards. It was early that first January we were in Wilmington, just a month after the birth of my baby brother and a week before my tenth birthday, my granddaddy died.

At first, we were not allowed to go back behind the great swamp without by ourselves, but this gave us plenty of area to roam. But we could only roam in the woods when the temperature was below 60 degrees. Our mamma lived in fear of snakes. She hated the slithery reptiles. Mom wasn’t the type of woman to hate and was quick to get on us if we spoke about hating anything, especially someone else. The exception to this rule was snakes and she would have loved for us to have shared her hate for the slithery creatures, but that wasn’t in the cards. Mamma’s fear of snakes caused her to set the 60 degree threshold, a temperature when snakes, which are cold-blooded and have no means of keeping their body core warm, hibernate. Those slithery beasts drew out a primordial fear out of my mom. It was as if she took the Biblical curse personally. She insisted the men in her life, her husband and later her sons, stomp on the heads of serpents before they had a chance to strike at her heel. As far as I know, she never personally harmed a snake, except for one, but that’s another story. It wasn’t the woman’s job to do in snakes, that’s what men and garden hoes were for. It says so in the Good Book: the woman’s male offspring will strike the head of the serpent. (Genesis 3:14-15). Somewhere along the way, as scribes wrote and rewrote scripture, one of them left out the part about the hoe, the preferred implement for striking a snake’s head.

The woods were prime habitat for snakes. The sandy high ground, under the longleaf pines and wire grass, were ideal for the Eastern Diamondbacks and Pigmy Rattlers along with Copperheads. In the years I lived there, I never saw a diamondback, but pigmy rattlers and copperheads were frequently seen in our yard. Once, when using clippers along the edge of the house (this was before weedwackers were ubiquitous), I clipped into a 10 inch pigmy rattler. The snake was caught in the jaws of the clippers and I held it up in fascination as it withered around, its fangs exposed and striking at the metal clippers. Luckily, my hands were out of the reach of the pissed-off serpent. The watery bays of the woods were the perfect habitat for the dread Cottonmouth or water moccasins, an ugly and mean snake that stinks (they actually do give off a foul scent when threatened). These snakes were frequently seen in the drainage ditch at the back of my parent’s property, their location often pointed out to us with Sheba, an English setter that my dad had gotten as a bird dog.

Sheba was gun-shy and never flushed out a covey of quail, but she could distinguish between a poisonous and non-poisonous snake. For some reason, she only bothered the Cottonmouths, cornering the snake and keeping it a bay while dancing around it and barking until my dad came out and took care of it. Once, a snake bit Sheba in the nose and her snout swelled up at least twice his normal size. The vet drained the snout and gave her an antivenin and, in a few days, the dog was back flushing out snakes.

With so many slithery reptiles living behind our house, and my mom’s rule about temperature, my brother and I lived for winter, when we could explore the great woods. Wearing rubber boots, we’d walk around the shallow oval lake, dotted with Spanish moss draped cypress, which stood to one end of the great swamp. Later, I’d learn these were geologically known as a Carolina Bay, but as a boy it was just a swamp. When it dried up, you could walk out on the spongy peat moss. Even when the bay was filled will water, there was no place deeper than a foot or so, which meant Mom didn’t have to worry too much about us drowning. Occasionally, when the temperature dropped below freezing at night and you were out in the early morning, a thin sheet of ice would surround the edge. Wearing our rubber boots, we’d step on the ice and watch and listen as it cracked and splintered under our weight.

One winter, we saw in Boy’s Life an article on making an ice rescue tool, a pick of sorts that you have on you in case you broke through and fell into the water and needed a way to get out. The pick was made of a large nail secured in a piece of wood, with another piece of wood serving as a sheaf. The idea was that if you fell through the ice, you could pull out the pick and drive it in the ice and pull yourself to safety. Of course, we never had ice that thick nor did we have water so deep that we couldn’t walk out of (and it never got cold enough for the salt water in the Sound to freeze), but we made them anyway, just in case another ice age descended. Besides, they were easy to make and we could use them to fight off snakes and wild animals and, more likely, older boys. I don’t know what happened to our ice rescue picks, but having lived for years in country where it’s feasible that one might actually employ such a tool, I’ve yet to feel the need to make another.

As we got older, the Bays had less and less water in them as a series of drainage ditches had slowly been lowering the water table. I was in college before the first road was build through the great woods and it was after I’d left North Carolina that the woods behind my parents house had complete succumbed to development. I’ll never forget the feeling the first time I was home visiting and look out into the backyard and noticed that the woods were gone and another row of houses stood behind my parents. The giant woods had been consumed by the great the Southeastern Sprawl.


  1. Every boy should have a patch of woods like that. I did but mine didn't have poisonous snakes, swamps, cypress or Spanish moss. It did have hardwoods and a little creek running through it though.

  2. This morning I woke up thinking about bicycle, specifically the old simple bicycle (that didn't have any gear). The next scene came to mind was me riding the old bicycle flying past the large rubber plantations, something I did so frequently when I was a kid. The tropical sun beating down on me, the humid air was moist and thick, I zoomed in and out of the "shadow patches" created by the tree shades, hearing the little "pop pop" sounds as the tires ran and cracked open the rubber seeds on the ground, and I loving the cool breeze. I was a blessed kid, growing up in a city but had the opportunity to spend every weekend in the plantations where I could ride for hours and hours...

    And now I'm reading this piece about your childhood. I read it once, twice, three times... soaking in your memory, while finding myself rethinking the rubber trees in my childhood.

    Thanks for sharing Safe.

  3. I had similar woods in my backyard (in upstate NY), which are now homes. I never had your kind of adventures with snakes, but it was a fine place to play fetch with the dogs.

    That ice rescue tool sounds like something my father would've appreciated on his ice fishing trips with the boys. Do you have a photo of it??

  4. What a fetching and well told memoir. This goes far in explaining a proclivity for the oft harsh season.

    Over here on the other side of the mitten I have always been urban, now I long for something different. so we're looking. Yesterday we drove and drove and drove and drove some more and the damn concrete never ended.

    *sigh* I would trade my snakes that walk upright for yours that only bite.

  5. Ed, I agree, but then I can't imagine not having places to get away to

    Mother Hen, beautiful memory of your childhood, thanks

    Scarlet, tragedy strikes this morning just west of your former town. When I lived in Ellicottville, I remember flying into Buffalo and Rochester when the weater was less than ideal. I never took a photo of it--it wasn't much, just a nail and some wood carved to fit the hand.

    Walking Guy, I had to chuckle with your comments about upright snakes! Keep driving, you eventually get beyond the concrete. A few years ago, I had a colleague from India spend 6 weeks here. When I drove him across the state on I-94 (he flew into Detroit), he asked if we were in a park and wanted to know where were the houses... That was west of Ann Arbor and before Battle Creek, where it's mostly forest and farms.

  6. Thanks for the story and for bringing back some memories. Our "woods" was a twenty-acre patch owned by a family which ran a nursery. Good times.


  7. Wow. Great story. For all who read it I'm sure, for me, probably because I relate to so much of it...

    before I get sidetracked though, if you need a chaperon, traveling companion, personal assistant or whatever title would get me on that plane for your trip to Central America, call me, k?

    but anyway, the memory of your granddaddy right before he passed is heartwarming. I'm glad you had that time with him.

    Our house sits on the edge of the woods and my boys got to explore them although I'd allow it all year round... I'm with your mom on the snake thing, and my menfolk have used a garden hoe on a few that scared the bejeebies out of me and made me scream like a girl, but for some reason, we're fortunate in that we always have a black snake and maybe some garter snakes, nothing poisonous even though all around us there is a known copperhead population.

    I used to spend a lot of time exploring the woods with the boys and we spent one summer building a fort that ended up looking more like a little home. My husband had a plumbing/heating business, so that gave us the tools & supplies necessary to make more than just a fort... as well, we spent 15 years remodeling a 200-yr-old farmhouse, so there were always leftover supplies from that.

    Thanks for the story. It allowed me to reminisce about the boys growing up here. I remembered how excited they'd be if I had to accomplish something around the house, I'd pack their lunches in lunchboxes, which for some reason, made it into a real adventure, and they'd go exploring with their homemade weapons, eat their lunch in the woods somewhere, and find their way home after... I loved going out back to listen for their voices so I could hear them calling to each other... "This way guys. I think I found...", "Hey, come look at this...". They made it sound like they were men on a trip through the amazon.

    and before I forget, the part where your dad installs the bathroom at your mom's... priceless.

    Thanks for the smiles... it's a tough week and only going to be a tougher weekend, so finding a good story to relate to and have those memories that make me smile was a nice diversion this morning. I think I read it 3 times.

  8. Whoa - where in Central America? I've been to Costa Rica and Belize, and loved both places!

  9. Enjoyable reading, Sage. My mom used to kill copperheads with a hoe when I was 10-12, anytime my dad wasn't around to do it.

  10. Neat thoughts about youth- especially the part about your grandad... family history can be so cool. Similar experiences for me though, and I loved to catch the non-poisonous snakes and bring them inside. Many of those critters will give off stinky musk from glands. But playing in creeks, catching frogs... the woods seemed enormous. And too- I came back one year to see corporate headquarters buildings in place of my adventurous woods and fields. We are where we are now so the young one can build up a host of memories just like that.

  11. Poor Sheba with the swollen nose, dogs are amazing, aren't they?

    Thanks for the visit, Netchick style

  12. What a shame those woods are gone.

    I love winter too but for totally different reasons as we don't have an awful lot of snakes in the UK. I especially like the snow!

    Netchick sent me over to say hi and I was happy to come.

  13. Sherman, 20 acres can seem like a lot of land to a small child. Mine was roughly a mile and quarter square

    Lisa, thanks for your kind note and for helping your boys enjoy their woods. I was thinking today that I'm almost the age my grandad was when he died!

    Diane, a more correction term would be Mexico. We're flying into Cancun, but then traveling about 4 hours into the Yucatan jungle

    Kenju, copperheads don't tend to mind people and are more commonly seen than rattlers. My mom would call a neighbor if Dad wasn't home, then when my brother and I was about 14, she'd let us shoot the snake.

    Beau, from your blog it looks like you have a great place to raise kids.

    David, Sheba never hunted, but she was a great dog!

    Bob-kat, I'm convinced sprawl is of the devil's doing.

  14. Where in Central America?


    For how long?

    You can't put a LINE in like that and not give me details!!!! :)

  15. North Carolina is quite a contrast from Michigan, eh? :o)

  16. So if sprawl's the devil's doing, what's up with that building that you are involved in that is taken over that beautiful, once baren land that was probably home to a lot of animals? ;-)'ll be gone 2 weeks?!? I don't know if Ed and I can go that long without getting snippy like we did in the old days. I kinda miss those old days. :-)