This slumbering hillside forms the backdrop of my childhood. This frozen pond, these winter trees are part of the small wilderness I consider home. I grew up here.
In the spring of 1959, when I was just nine months old, my parents sold their small bungalow across town and moved to their new home: a two-story colonial nestled among the trees on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi. Apart from the time I spent away at college, this house, where my dear father still resides, is where I lived until I married and moved to a home of my own.
From the dawning of my awareness, these woods have welcomed me. When I was small, I’d stand at my bedroom window, rest my chin on the white wooden sill, and gaze up at the budding oaks, whose unfurling leaves waved to me with hundreds of tiny, pink hands. When the cool breath of evening wafted in through my open window and billowed my white curtains, I’d drift to sleep to the soul-filling sound of tree frogs trilling beside the pond.
I spent my childhood wandering these woods, and I still know them by heart. I can find the places where spring beauties and wood violets grow. In summer, I can walk the winding gravel road that curves around to the pond and spot the turtles that sun themselves on half-submerged logs. Chickadees still sound an alarm if I venture too close, and the turtles still splash their hasty escape. In autumn, when the wind brings rumors of the coming chill, showers of leaves spiral down to form a lush tapestry for my feet on this woodland floor. The sun slants in through bare branches in winter, spilling pools of golden light across the snow-covered pond, painting long shadows on the blue-washed hills where I used to sled with my friends.
Like woodland creatures that retreat to nests, thickets, and burrows, I have always sought refuge in quiet places where I can let the busy world pass by. My favorite childhood hideaway was under the low canopy of bridal wreath bushes that bordered our property. Invisible to passersby beneath slender branches that swept the grass, I’d make myself as small as possible and hide there during neighborhood games of hide-and-go-seek. I loved to sit under the bending branches in June and shake their clustered blossoms, causing a storm of white confetti petals to rain all around me. In this out-of-the-way place under the bridal wreath, I’d listen to robins and cardinals sing in the oaks overhead, feel the wind cup my face, watch a ladybug explore a leafy world. Perhaps it’s just my temperament, or perhaps it’s because I grew up so close to nature’s heart; whatever the reason, I’ve always had a need to be quiet, safe, and alone in a place where I can give myself over to uninterrupted thought.
Once, when I was three, Momma lost me. She had sent me upstairs for my afternoon nap, but later, when she came to wake me, I was nowhere to be found. She looked for me upstairs, then downstairs. She went outside and called. I didn’t answer. She made a second search of the house, then ran to the woods, terrified I might have wandered down to the pond alone. She asked our next door neighbor to please help look for me. They called my name across the woods, walked down to the pond, came back to the house, growing more and more frantic. I don’t know how long they searched, but I was discovered at last, sound asleep on the cool floor under my bed. I was safe, and I wasn’t scolded. I wasn’t trying to be naughty; I had simply isolated myself in a quiet place.
All these years later, I’m still this way. During the growing season, you’ll find me outdoors, tending my flowers, listening to the crickets, watching a hawk circle overheard. If I can’t be outside, you’ll find me somewhere indoors in a quiet spot. As the years have gone by, I have come to understand how deeply impressionable and sensitive I am. Life has such an impact on me that I require hours of stillness to restore my senses and process my thoughts.
This is why I love these woods: they were my first sanctuary, the still point at the center of my life. They’ll always be part of my heart’s terrain, and I’ll forever be a child of this place, as rooted as the trees that have grown up around me.