childhood wildwood

a world of pure imagination

Eight years old: I’m a tree climber. I wish for a storybook treehouse in a backyard, where I can keep a tin box full of interesting rocks and dried autumn leaves.

But we live in an apartment complex in East Tennessee. No real backyard, no treehouse. Instead, I’ve got a plot of mulch with three trees where the sidewalk ends. In spring, they burst into white flowers that give way to little round fruits, warm brown and flecked with gold. The air fills with the loud chorus of cicadas. My brother and I find on the tree trunks the dried, hollow husks of the skins the cicadas have shed. We christened this place Three Tree Island, but when we pull ourselves up into the lower branches, the trees become witches’ lairs, complete with libraries. Just as good—maybe better—than any treehouse. We pore through imaginary spell books, climb invisible staircases, and stir unseen cauldrons.

But our world of pure imagination has no borders, and it extends far beyond these three trees.

Far off on the other side of the apartment complex, beyond the last row of apartments, is a park. Gazebo, monkey bars, swings—a regular jungle of plastic and concrete and red-colored mulch. But the playground can’t compare to the woods all around it.

My brother and I scamper down the paved path winding into the forest. The woods welcome us by letting us glimpse its secrets. It’s here that I see my first owl, my first real, wild owl, and I understand the word tawny and the feeling awe as it swivels its head around to watch us sneak by. It’s here that I see a raccoon slinking silver-colored into the shadows; a huge river rat swimming in the creek with its wet brown fur plastered close to its body; a snake lying long, black, and ominous on the sidewalk.

But we aren’t mere sidewalk spectators—we take off into the grass. Here, life explodes through the soil. We bound from the purple violets to the crimson snake berries, from shadows to sunlight. Queen Anne’s lace blows gently in the wind, and the fragrance of honeysuckle is strong and sweet. We stop to pluck honeysuckle blossoms from wild jumbles of leaves and vines and pull out the stamens to draw forth those drops of sweet nectar. We even dare to try what we think is wild persimmon, and the strange, tart taste of it dries up my mouth and leaves me grimacing.

By the creek, farther down the pathway, is a bramble of wild blackberries. Sometimes they’re sour and unripe, tinged red, other times fat and bursting with sweetness, a deep purple-black. My brother and I wade in the shallow currents of the creek to splash the cold water at each other. The creek bed is lined with pebbles of various shades of brown and amber, shiny and slick in the water. But the real secret heart of the woods is across the bridge and a sharp turn to the right. There, my brother and I step onto a thin, near invisible ribbon of a dirt trail, which follows the ever-widening, ever-deepening creek. This dirt path, like the other hidden paths we’ve stumbled upon, has overgrown shrubs and skinny branches barring the way. Several of the wiry vines are lined with sharp thorns, and we have to be careful not to get pricked.

Down from the bank is a slanted rock jutting up out of the water. We jump down to it—our boat—and we grab a long stick to serve as our oar. Underwater, small fish dart through dark-colored plants with feathery, furry leaves that we’ve dubbed “monsters.” Farther down the dirt path is something of a small-scale peninsula, a paradise wrestled from a tangle of thick green moss and rich earth and strong roots that flirt with the creek, tucked away from the main sidewalk—our own world.  Here, everything is magic. This is a world of wizards and witches, fairies and fauns, and so magic runs in the veins of the leaves, in the tree sap, in the creek’s current—in us, the ones who dreamed it to life.

*

That was years ago. The truth is that now, this place I adored is no longer the same for me. A few years ago, when my family and I happened to be back in Tennessee, we visited our old apartment. The three trees of Three Tree Island had been cut down, leaving behind nothing but a desolate barrenness. No white flowers, no fruit. No witches’ library, no cauldrons. As for the park, the creek was narrow, the hidden trails not so hidden or thrilling, the grass overgrown and neglected.

There is a certain sadness in finding that the places you loved as a child have changed. I suppose, though, that the park was always like that in reality. But it was never about what I could see that made the park the incredible place it was for me. It was about the unseen, the things those woods could become in my imagination.

As I’ve gotten older, my eyesight has gotten worse, as is expected. My glasses have gotten thicker and my vision blurrier as the real world shifts into focus. But another kind of vision has been fading away, almost unnoticed—the ability to see beyond mere reality. The ability to look at the park and see the fairyland it hid in its ordinariness. I would love to regain that vision. To see again the magic stirring in every little thing.

I know that no fairy will wave a magic wand and no hobgoblin will spit into my eyes to restore the second sight of childhood. I know what that park looks like to a rational young adult—what it looks like in actuality. But a wise fox once said that one only sees clearly with the heart, not with the eyes. And in my heart, I still see and treasure what my 8-year-old self saw and treasured: a magical wonderland, an island with three trees and a witch’s library, a creek of marvels, secret dirt paths, a boat, and waving water plants called monsters.

I close my eyes, and childhood tastes like precious droplets of honeysuckle nectar and wild blackberries, feels like cold creek water, sounds like laughter and running feet, and looks like magic wrought out of grass and moss and snake berries.