Some of my favourite childhood memories are of playing in the woods directly behind our house. Even now a walk through the forest after a light rain evokes scenes so vivid that it is almost like stepping through a portal into the past.
There is nothing to compare to the smell of the forest after a rain. The combined perfume of moss, leaves, wildflowers and pine needles mingling with the scent of decaying wood and fungi; all of this, when washed clean by the rain becomes even more intense. If it could be captured and bottled, it would be the perfume of dreams.
In the same way that the sweet smell of cotton candy brings back the childhood awe of carnival rides, the pungent odours of the forest bring to me happy days spent playing among the trees with childhood friends. Hide and seek, cops and robbers, acting out fairytales and my personal favourite, making "houses" in the woods.
The trick to making a beautiful "house" in the woods is to first find a spot with lovely low-hanging pine branches. Spruce or fir will do in a pinch, but pine is by far the best. It not only smells wonderful, it also provides a lovely carpet of needles for the floor. After finding the perfect home the next important step is to clean it up. A broken branch from any evergreen tree makes a perfect broom to sweep away debris, such as sharp twigs, stones or toadstools.
My playmates and I had lots of ways of beautifying our forest home. Donations of "furniture" and dishes from our parents were always greatly appreciated. A scrap of wooden planking and a couple of logs from daddy's woodpile made a perfect stove for our kitchen. One summer my Mother's tea kettle developed a leak and so became a proud item on our kitchen stove-top. Judy's mom gave us several chipped cups and two cracked plates which we proudly displayed in our orange crate china cabinet. Hazel's mom gave us several nearly empty perfume bottles and their colours added a decorative touch to the tree branch shelves. A cardboard box covered with half of an old bed sheet was our table by day, but became a cradle for our babies at bed time.
And oh, what good mothers we were to our babies! We made diapers for them from the other half of the bed sheet and before putting them on our dolls we smeared them with a little mud from the forest floor. It was always a big production when one of our poor little babies had soiled her diaper and needed to be changed. Whoever was in charge of diaper washing that day had to wash them fast because the old plastic bowl we washed them in had a hole in it.
Every now and then we felt very lucky when one of the boys in the neighbourhood agreed to be the Daddy. No one seemed to notice or question the fact that there were five or six Mommies and only one Daddy. The Daddy's role was always short-lived anyway. We'd make him breakfast and despite his protests we'd all kiss him on the cheek, shoo him off to "work" and that was that. It was rumoured that the boys only agreed to be Daddy for the kisses.
The woods behind all the houses on our side of the road were not deep woods by any means. In fact, you could walk right through them to the highway on the other side in less than ten minutes. The entire woods was a network of well-worn paths going from house to house and to our many play areas. The widest path was the one all the neighbourhood kids used as a short-cut to the highway on the way to school. That short-cut saved us a couple of miles worth of walking. It was a different world in those days and no one had any need of fearing a walk through those woods.
Growing up, our family had a place in the woods that we called The Picnic Place. A few times each summer my mother would pack a gargantuan picnic lunch and hauling blankets, all eight of us would trek in single file along the path to our picnic area.
This place was a large clearing in the woods, under a canopy of ancient pines. The forest floor beneath was softened by a thick carpet of brown pine needles. On a blazing hot summer day it was cool and shaded. Not far from the clearing a narrow stream babbled its way through the forest, on to the pond near the highway below.
We would spread our blankets over the needles and eat potato salad, ham and watermelon, or perhaps sandwiches, washing it all down with ice cold grape or cherry fruit drinks. Afterward, Dad would sometimes take his guitar out of its case and play while we all sang along to all the old favourites.
My childhood forest also held an air of mystery for me. There were puzzles there that I never solved. Years before I came to play in those woods someone had built a tree house, high up in a big old pine. Not much was left of the tree house; nothing more than a few floor boards and some railing. Many's the time I sat beneath it and imagined wild stories about the boy or girl who had played there long ago. I was equally intrigued by a worn and weathered sign nailed to one of the thick pines along the path. Most of the lettering on the sign had disappeared long ago. What had it said? Who had put it there?
Not long ago I was talking to my son, who is grown now and living in the city. We were discussing his childhood memories and he told me that whenever he takes a walk in the forest after a rain he thinks of all the good times we had as a family in the woods behind the house I now live in. It struck me how it's all come full circle. I suppose that I unwittingly passed my childhood love of the forest on to my children with our family hikes and picnics. Perhaps they will do the same with their own children in spite of living in the city. Not because they set out to do so, but simply because they love the forest so much themselves that they just can't stay away.
© August 3, 2002
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