I’ve been a city girl for nearly 30 years. But I grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey, where the little bit of leafy woods that remained after our homes were built was a source of both solace and mystery. As a child, I sought out the quiet calm of the scrubby forest behind Thomas Jefferson Junior High School. But at the same time, I found the solitariness a bit frightening. Who might I encounter there? Older kids smoked cigarettes and drank warm beer in those woods, and there were ridiculous kid-fueled rumors of deranged child-killers and bobcats. Taking a shortcut through that place to the pizza parlor on Saddle River Road was a brave undertaking for ten-year-old me. Still, nothing could keep me out of the woods for long.
That’s still true today. I’m fortunate enough to spend my weekends and summers at an old farmhouse in the foothills of the Berkshire Mountains. Formed about a half a billion years ago, the Berkshires sit mostly in Massachusetts but also border Vermont, New York and Connecticut. This is a truly beautiful part of the world, punctuated by hills and peaks, and cut by river valleys and wetlands that are home to an extraordinary number of plants and creatures.
The fact that my family owns the land behind this house is completely beside the point. These forests and fields belonged to generations of families before mine, and to no one at all before that. And they will outlast our ownership by thousands, maybe millions, of years. What’s important is that these woods are mine in spirit. I love them and in their silent way, I think they love me back.
When we first came to this place some 20-odd years ago, my sons were small and we spent most of our time playing in the yard. But once they were old enough to navigate the rooty paths and steep ravines, into the woods we went. The brushy trails we walked were once farm roads, bordered now by collapsed stone walls. There is much forensic evidence, in the form of household trash, of the people who lived here before us: shards of china tea cups, soda bottles bearing the names of long-extinct brands, broken tools and kitchen implements, car parts, shoes — all at least 75 years old and some much older than that.
Apparently, before the era of driveway garbage pick-up, the area farmers simply hauled their unwanted items into the woods and dumped them. For my children, these orphaned artifacts were treasures to be sniffed out, celebrated and displayed. A rusty fork may as well have been a pre-Columbian statue; an intact glass medicine bottle was worthy of its own exhibition hall. My kids may have figured this out long ago but if not (spoiler alert, Nick and Peter!), I now admit to planting a few extra treasures along our route for them to find. “Look, Mommy! It’s a silver dollar! It’s a golden locket! It’s a little wood elephant…in our forest!!” Imagine that.
Besides treasure-laden trails, there are two other main attractions in our woods. One is a very old cemetery dating back to the early 1800s. Most of the tombstone inscriptions are illegible and some are broken on the ground, covered in moss. But a few still stand in the dappled sunlight, bearing the names of the families who settled this place three hundred years ago. One of those families built our house and one planted the now massive black walnut tree that sits sentry by our front door. This graveyard is peaceful by day and spooky by night, no matter how old you are. Few have the accepted the challenge to visit it by moonlight.
The second must-see destination is Ax Rock, a large boulder that sits midway down a steep slope, with a rushing stream below. In the center of this boulder, wedged in a deep cleave, is an ax. (Cue the creepy music.) Who put it there? Why? What happens if you touch it, or, if you dare, remove it? These are the questions that thrilled my children and every young visitor who ever hiked to Ax Rock with us.
Beyond these fantastical features, which have become fodder for my family’s personal mythology, these woods provide something even more valuable to me. They offer quiet and beauty, no matter the season, no matter my mood. More than any other member of my family, I head into the woods for walkabouts with my dog, Lucy, often trailing close behind. I choose our routes on a whim, some days heading to the birch grove, other days to the meadow where whitetail deer scatter at the sound of our footsteps through the reedy grass. I’ve seen foxes and owls and a fisher cat; bright orange salamanders emerge every May when the forest floor reaches the perfect combination of dampness and cool. Sometimes Lucy and I move vigorously up and down the ridges, following skinny deer paths. Or I might just sit on a rock in the stream, tossing pebbles and poking at blue crawfish with a twig.
I am both interloper and resident here. I feel separate yet integral, uninvited yet welcome. I am simultaneously stimulated and calmed by the smells and sounds. No other place seems so solid yet so fluid to me, ever the same in one sense, yet anything but static. I can count on these woods, and that’s truly comforting in a world that changes much too fast. For me, there is no better place than here.