When I was a young child my family lived at what seemed like the edge of Houston. Past the neighborhood where I lived there were mostly forests, farms and rural scenes. Even near my home there was a wooded area untouched by humans that was a mecca of fun and adventure for all of us kids. We were really free range children back then. At the age of six or seven I rode my bicycle all over the neighborhood and one of my favorite destinations was that little forest of trees that grew on the banks of a bayou.
The adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn had nothing on me and my friends who roamed under the shade of the tall oaks and pines excavating treasures buried in the ground and exploring the wonders and gifts of nature. I was never lucky enough to find Native American arrowheads like one of my cousins had but there were still feathers from birds and interesting rocks that drew my attention with their many colors.
In the spring the floor of our little forest was covered with wildflowers that I often picked for my mom. She would proudly place the deep purple wine cups and pink buttercups in a vase as though they had arrived from a florist. She even taught me how to find edible wildflowers but cautioned me never to try a mushroom lest I choose a poisonous variety. Somehow I never had a desire or enough hunger to eat any of the flora that I found growing in the woods but I always like learning new things and then teaching my friends about my new found knowledge.
Copperhead snakes and water moccasins roamed in the area so we had to be cautious when stepping on rotting logs or wading into talk grass. We heard rumors and tales of other children who had been bitten by snakes and the stories put enough fear in us that we poked the ground with big sticks before treading where a serpent might be lying in wait. Mostly those critters were more afraid of us than we were of them so they did their best to stay out of our way.
There were cute squirrels scurrying in up and down the massive trees carrying nuts and berries in their cheeks. It was tempting to feed and pet them put we already knew about a neighbor who got too close and was bitten. She spent time in the hospital getting rabies shots and she told us how horrid that experience had been. We decided then and there to just watch the critters but never attempt to befriend them.
Our parents had also warned us not to try to swim in the bayou. They hinted that there might be gators in water who would not take kindly to an invasion of their habitat. I never saw any signs of an alligator but I was not going to test the theory that they might be there. Besides, I was not a particularly good swimmer so I had little desire to venture into the murky waters like my mother claimed that her brothers had done when they were boys. She swore that the bayous back then were clear and filled with fish and all kinds of wildlife. She told me that she and her siblings used to catch fish along the banks of Buffalo Bayou and use it as a swimming hole on hot summer days.
Even by the time of my childhood, which was decades ago, the bayous were brackish and uninviting for anything more than canoeing. I could not imagine wanting to eat anything that lived in the muddy brew that seemed to be more of a ditch for retaining rainwater than a source of living creatures. Still I had a fascination with the bayou and often imagined myself crafting a wooden raft and follow the twists and turns of the stream of water. Instead I made little sailboats from leaves and launched them on adventures that I watched until they had floated out of sight.
The best part of going to the woods was building a fort and there was plenty of raw material just lying on the ground to create a clubhouse for me and my friends. There was an unspoken rule that once an area held a structure it was not to be disturbed, so when my friends and I built our little place it remained intact until a storm came along or we lost interest and allowed it to go back to its original state. There was nothing quite like camping out under the trees, especially in the hot summers. The temperature down on the ground seemed to be a good five degrees cooler than it was out in the open. It was a haven where our imaginations roamed free.
Eventually the wooded area was cleared for more homes, but by then I had become more grown-up and not nearly as interested in spending my time in childish pursuit. Nonetheless, I never forget how wonderful it had been in our little kid world. We did not need organized play or costly amusements as long as nature was available for free. I would always remember those glorious days with great joy.
I doubt that many children today would have the luxury of wandering into woods alone at the age of six or seven. The world does not seem to be as safe and happy go lucky as it once was. There would be any number of reasons for parents to worry about such a situation and yet I find myself thinking that the children have no idea what they are missing. It is truly a shame that it is now too dangerous for them to enjoy themselves as my friends and I did so long ago. Now such a place might be foreboding and fraught with fear when it should actually be a haven of wonder. My little neighborhood forest was a gift and images of its loveliness are imprinted on my memory. it’s a place into which I return often in my mind, especially when I want to smile.