Tree Country. Leaf Country. Creek Country. Bone Country. My sister named each one, but only she knew their imaginary boundaries. All were part of what we simply called The Woods. I spent much of my childhood there with an ever-changing combination of siblings, cousins, friends, and neighbors. In this beloved place, we absorbed more about the natural world than we could ever put into words.

At first, the woods seemed like a vast, mysterious place—as it would when you're only 3 feet tall. Brambles and rusted sections of barbed wire guarded the edges. But once you went beyond the ragged perimeter, you entered a different world—a vertical landscape that had you craning your neck upward and tripping over fallen branches. Towering maples, red oaks, ironwood, butternut, basswood, and elm made up the forest and, when in leaf, covered much of the sky. Here and there, dead trees crumbled into duff. Some stood alone and hollow, filled with mysteries.

We rambled through it all, learning the terrain of wooded slopes, rocky creek beds, bee-droned meadows, and pungent marshes. At the northern edge, the streams ended in a small lake—a stunning bright eye in a tranquil opening. It was a few years before we made this surprising discovery, for we had to grow bold enough to navigate to the far end of the forest.

In fall, magical prisms of light shone through the changing leaves above as if from vaulted stained-glass ceilings. The forest floor became a riot of rustling, drifting carpets. We built enormous leaf piles and dove into quilted mounds of yellows, oranges, greens, and reds. The smell of dead leaves and damp earth was deep and rich. The air was apple-crisp and invigorating, stinging our cheeks crimson and making our stiff fingers seek pockets. Fall was for running—sprinting through columns of tree trunks and leaping over logs, whooping and laughing. We stomped through the crunch of fallen leaves, snapping dead twigs with the utter joy of making noise.

Winter cast a silent cloak over the woods, beneath a tangle of black limbs stark against gray sky. Snow muffled and disguised the sound and sight of everything. We slogged through deep drifts, our boots filled with icy clumps that chafed our ankles raw and froze our feet. Huffing and puffing through the animal smell of our damp, half-frozen woolen scarves, we trudged onward to the edge of a stream-cut ravine. There we would launch ourselves out over the abyss on a fraying rope swing. We perfected the art of flying just far enough so when we let go we planted ourselves waist-deep in snow on the opposite bank. If our technique failed and we swung to a stop, we risked dropping into a pit of jumbled stones and jackstrawed tree limbs. It was absolutely terrifying, but we couldn't resist the draw of being airborne.

Spring turned the woods into a fairyland. The scent of new greenery wafted through the airy understory. Wildflowers shone like tiny jewels. We went tiptoeing to go nose to nose with dew-speckled lady's-slippers and dainty Dutchman's breeches. On a favorite knoll, we played pop-beads with ancient horsetail stems. The nearby marsh popped with leopard frogs as we walked along its spongy edge. We searched for amphibians to catch—the polka-dotted salamander, the tiny treefrog, the warty toad—each so different, yet all with the same small grasping hands that looked like ours.

The peak of summer had us searching for relief from the blaring sun. It was a long, weary bike ride to seek out the cool, green canopy of leaves. Picking through burrs and stinging nettles, we'd work our way to the depths of the woods. A meandering hike to the small lake was the best reward. But it was yet another battle to fight through reeds and squishy mud before we could belly-flop into the water. Those too disgusted by foot-sucking muck to reach water broiled and complained in the sun while the brave frolicked and floated. Cool spring-fed water soothed sunburned skin, bug bites, nettle stings, and bad moods.

The woods became our stage for acting out fantasies. We created elaborate hideouts against huge fallen trees by weaving walls of leafy, green branches through an upright framework of dead limbs. Soon our structures were almost invisible to the casual wanderer. Vivid imagination turned these simple structures into teepees, jungle lairs, castles, pioneer settlements, forts, or deserted island huts. Our Tarzan calls and battle cries disrupted the harmony of bird songs. Some of the birds defended their territory by strafing our fortress, giving away our location to enemy soldiers or even cannibals.

But all was not beauty and imaginative play. Dead animals were mourned and tentatively examined as once-vibrant creatures became still. Creepy bugs and smelly substances were a part of our education.

We were feral children enraptured by the textures and colors, scents and sounds of this place we called The Woods. We absorbed its every molecule, endured the stings and scratches from its inhabitants, accepted the wounds, and studied all it contained. We took care not to tread on its tender blossoms or harm its living creatures. We somehow knew it was a haven for wildness.


Editor's note: Saved from development in 1978, Wolsfeld Woods is now a scientific and natural area. It's open to the public for nature observation and education.