Where I grew up, the forest was full of children.
We grew out of tree trunks like lichen, wound round branches like vines, and leapt limb-to-limb like wild things … for this is what we were. Half-wild, at least.
We hung upside-down in the canopy — eyes full of stars, faces streaked with earth — and watched the world below with wonder.
We slipped canoes and kayaks into the swamp; paddled for miles; held torches aloft and saw what the forest looked like in the dark, with its thousand yellow eyes gleaming back at us.
We dragged dead limbs into clearings, onto islands. Built shelter. Tore it down. Built thatch-roofed huts in the limbs of the trees. Strung swinging bridges trunk-to-trunk through the stands of cypress, so that you could teeter out over the black water, ten feet up. Sometimes, we imagined building hundreds of bridges into the distance … for this was a true forest, one that seemed to float, and if you faced a certain direction and kept paddling, you could paddle until nightfall and not reach the end of it.
We were half-wild creatures, messy mistake-makers, just beginning to understand how to live lightly. Hooting and hollering through the forest. Leaping and dodging through the brush. Bird-calling and doe-stepping. Howling like wolves.
In the forest, I was never alone.
I am older now, and I live near the edge of a smaller wood — a citified remnant of a forest, stretching between orderly neighborhoods.
Even so, there are certain stretches where I’d be startled if I saw another human.
More than once I’ve come face-to-face with a herd of grazing deer, who lift their large eyes to me in surprise, blinking and gaping at old Two-Legs. I’ve heard hawks scream. Seen a raccoon fallen from the canopy, lying still and silent in the most peaceful-looking, sleepy sort of death. The place is within shouting distance to civilization, but it’s an emptier wood than the raucous place of my childhood.
Solitary, in the way of human company.
I putter through the house. Make tea. I am thinking about what to wear to a party: black stilettos. A bracelet full of white stones that catch the light.
I plan a dinner for friends.
I check my calendar to see where a birthday gathering can be shoehorned in.
I’m a social creature, these days — civilized and surprisingly grown-up — but I am still half-wild, too, and wishing for a little humanity in whatever wild places I have left. I plan dinner and almost wish I could serve it on a summer night, in the forest of my youth — seat my friends at a long table crowded with candles and moss and stones.
Teach these friends of mine how to whistle like the whip-poor-will — whose song I haven’t heard in years.
For so many reasons, this is impossible.
I go out walking in my woods. I walk for hours. The place is empty of children.
Every now and again, I’ll pass another adult human, looking purposeful and intent at walking a dog or finishing a run. These do not look like wild creatures — not even a little bit — and for them, the woods are a place to finish a task, check a chore off a list. The telltale white wire hovers at their throats, and as they flash past me, I hear their tinny electrified tunes jabbing through the birdsong, for just a moment or two.
And there is no doubt that these people are more put-together than I am. Their days more ordered than I can imagine, or want to.
Still: sometimes I almost want to grab an elbow as they pass, and whirl them to a halt. Jerk the white wire free, so they can hear the stream slipping over the stones.
I want to, but I don’t.
Winter overtakes the woods, and the bones of the trees sink into earth.
I walk long, in the cold air, under clean-limbed shadows. Skeletal black stripes.
At the edge of the woods, I look out onto the close-cropped lawns of the humans who live so very near me.
The woods are silent.
The woods are empty.
There is no shouting, no hollering, no howling.
Still: the forest stretches her shadows out across the lawns, out toward the houses with their lawn mowers and empty swingsets, and I open my arms, calling out without saying a word:
We are still here, waiting for you. ❤