When I was a young child, my mother purchased twenty-five acres of land in Caryville, Florida, USA, where we spent weekends and summer breaks. “The Land”, as it was referred, was a mixture of clay, forests, ponds, and swamps.
On this land was an ancient tree right in between the two lots that we owned. I wish I had a photo of it or even knew the type. It had to have been a conifer of some kind because of the pine needles. The limbs were larger than nearby trees and began growing right above the ground at the base of the trunk. The interior space felt like a secret house. It was the largest in circumference and tallest tree in the entire forest. It allowed me to climb to the very top, and I could sway and watch the wind roll along the tips of the other trees like ocean waves. It is one of my most treasured memories.
I made it into a fort. I would bring my provisions of snacks and a paperback book and stay in that tree for hours. If anyone tried to approach, I had an alarm system in the form of a bevy of quails that lived nearby. They would noisily scatter once anyone would come close to the tree by at least twenty meters. Mostly, it was just my tree. I still love that tree and consider it a friend. I have tried to figure out by photo references and my memory what species it might have been, but the types I keep leaning towards would have to be farther north. I wish I could see it again.
There were so many discoveries I made as a child on that land. I used to play with pitcher plants by seeing if I could drop ants and bugs into them and if they would get stuck. As I’ve learned more about these carnivorous plants, I’m proud that my childhood toys were some of the most treasured and rare varieties in the world. I didn’t appreciate them as flowers at the time. I remember trying to pick them and found they would leak out a horrible smelling liquid when they were pulled out. There were hundreds of them that could be seen as these white tubes sticking out above the brush.
There were several kinds of bugs to play with, also. Like the ant lions with their perfectly conical traps. I had figured out how to mimic an insect with a thin twig or blade of grass to catch them and pull them out by their pinchers. I must have spent hours just lying in the dirt harassing those poor things. I mean, sometimes I would actually catch ants for them at least, but mostly I would just harass them.
Recently, I remembered the screams in the night. As a child, I used to be frightened of the sounds and was told it was a banshee. I must have thought that was some type of animal and never questioned it again. I just found out what a banshee actually is and that the screaming I heard was the sound a fox makes which is utterly ridiculous. A fox makes the worst screaming sound imaginable. My daughter and I could not stop laughing about it and kept watching more videos the day I tried to find out about a banshee.
I saw a turtle laying eggs. We must have walked up on her after she had already begun and for some reason, she just kept going until she was done. They were perfect soft white ovals that she buried with her back lags while she was laying them. I remember her scratching the soft damp dirt over and over as she was laying her eggs. It took a long time and there were so many. Turtles do not give any indication of pain during delivery or even afterwards as they just leave without even looking back once. My mother, bless her heart, dug them all up and reburied them in a five gallon soy sauce bucket which of course killed them all. I don’t know if she wanted to raise them or eat them, but disturbing freshly laid turtle eggs is not a good idea.
One of the two ponds was good for swimming. Sure there were snakes, but we would see them coming and would jump out of the water. The pond had been stocked with brim and bass, but it was not like many of them had survived after all the wildlife that had caught them. It would be a few years later that we would discover a water moccasin den at the entrance to the pond from the spring, and then never swim in it again. Ever. I can still see my mother hacking moccasins with her machete. She was deathly afraid of snakes, but always so brave when they tried to attack us. If you don’t know about water moccasins, they are obnoxiously aggressive and highly poisonous. It gives me chills just remembering all the encounters I had as a child.
I remember trying to teach myself how to move through the forest like a ninja. There was a sweet old girl golden retriever named Fritz that would visit us during our stays. She was the best side kick for being stealthy in the woods. If I stopped to listen, she stopped to listen. She wouldn’t move a muscle or even breathe when I was trying to figure out if I heard something or not. I never did figure out how to walk through the forest without making a sound, but I did get audibly quieter as long as I wasn’t in any kind of hurry.
There was a section on part of a trail near the catfish stocked pond that always made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. It was where a tree had fallen and its roots were exposed. We used to tease each other with ghost stories about how something tragic must have happened in that spot. After learning more about the symbiotic nature of trees and the life of forests, I think that those roots may have been alive. The fallen tree was still in an early enough stage of decomposing. It could have lost its ground after other nearby trees had been cleared to make the path and the pond. Since it was a large, old tree, it could have been the parent tree of the area being kept alive. I wish I could go back and study it to see if the feeling of life after death that several people felt was actually a real occurrence happening but by the plants in that area and not our nefarious imaginings.
There was so much I learned by my solitary explorations and observations in those woods. Looking back, I am very grateful for the good things that came from being on that land. I am humbled by who I was as a child. The innocence, bravery, and arrogance of youth are qualities I am ashamed of and admire equally. Thankful to have grown up with that opportunity to really know what it feels like to be alone in the woods and being able to find comfort in the trees and the animals around me.
...Will I allow my daughter or son to live as I had? I am afraid not. I was not just alone; I was lonely. I was not just fearless; I was often afraid. For my children in the woods, I will be with them.
Much love and kind regards, Shainna 🌼