We used to call it "The Woods.” It was a big patch of forest east of the Mohawk river in upstate New York. On a typical summer day we would go off in to the woods in the morning, and come out only when we got hungry or thirsty. Access to the woods was next to my friend Eddie’s house. Just at the end of his yard was a wall of trees, and we’d enter the woods through a trail that led to Grandpa Hill. We could hike all the way to the Mohawk River, or at least to the Colonie Reservoir, which was an off limits but tempting fishing spot full of largemouth bass. Most of the time we would go to Grandpa Hill. At the top of the hill was a big old sugar pine we called Grandpa Tree. It was fat and sappy, and we'd climb as high as we could and hang from its heavy branches.
The forest had a tremendous sense of energy and life. This area is wet, near rainforest conditions with rainfall and humidity. There were always bubbling creeks and streams to explore. We'd see little puddles filled with squirming tadpoles. During the long hot summer days, the buzz of cicadas seemed to grow louder with the rising heat and humidity. Cottontails were everywhere, along with gray squirrels and chipmonks. We’d see skittish foxes and an occasional bobcat. There were hawks and eagles, and the tremendous variety of birds in the forest delivered a constant chorus. There were limitless battalions of misquotes and gnats that launched relentless attacks on us. If we remembered, we doused ourselves with skin peeling bug spray or suffered with itchy skin and gnats in the eyes. The humidity would soak us, and we'd soon be sticky and covered with dust and leaves and the bloody carcasses of misquitos who were too slow that day. Little deer flies would burrow in to our scalp and ticks would nibble on our ankles. Occasionally we’d rub up against some poison ivy and would endure a week of blisters and a maddening itch. These were all trivial compared to the adventure of the woods.
Our special place in the woods was Grandpa Hill. It was a little hill we used to use for bike jumps and sled launches. We often built a giant ramp at the middle of the hill in the winter. Once, three of us got in a toboggan at the top of the hill and pushed off like bobsledders. We got some serious speed and launched off our ramp. Halfway through the air I noticed that we were flying toward the middle of a big tree. I yelled to abandon ship, and the toboggan went on without us. It split right down the middle when it hit a frozen sugar maple. We rolled down the hill like little snowballs and laughed. On top of Grandpa hill was Grandpa Tree. It was a giant old white pine, with big sticky branches at the base, and it had some dry brittle branches along with the healthy strong ones. We used to climb Grandpa Tree just to see how high we could go and how far we could see. Often the dry braches would crack and break off beneath our feet, and we’d grab another branch on our way down.
As we got older and got to high school, our trips to the woods became less frequent. There were rumors that someone was going to build back there, but we didn’t believe it. Yet one day, without notice, the bulldozers came. The first thing they did was plow down whole sections to create roads and house pads. It was devastating to see that. I remember the deep earthy smell of the forest when all these roots were upturned. You could see the heat and steam rise from the exposed roots, and some of the roots on the overturned big trees seemed to be whipping around and twitching.
After school one night, I was driving my friends home when we decided to drive through the newly exposed dirt roads of the forest. I had my parents old Chevy Nova, which was definitely not an off-road vehicle. I was surprised at how far we got, given how wet and muddy the roads were. I wasn’t surprised at how upset my father was when a second tow truck had to be called to rescue the first tow truck that came to pull us out.
Grandpa Hill was graded and is now under asphalt, and has been renamed "Patriot Circle." Much of the woods has been sliced up and developed. What is left of the woods as an intact community of nature is in a place called "Hayes Nature Park." When I went back to New York for a recent trip, I visited the nature park and trails along the Mohawk river. One of the things we used to do in the woods was to build secret forts. We'd dig a large, rectangular ditch about 10 feet deep and wide enough for us all to fit inside. We'd cover it with branches and camoflage it to blend in with the scenery. These would last a summer, and we would build a new one every summer. To my astonishment, I noticed what looked like the remains of one of our old forts. It was a shallow pit right in the heart of the park, just a few feet deep and mostly swallowed up by the forest. I jumped in and enjoyed the flashbacks.
Down by the Mohawk River, trails have been developed along the shore. Native American history in this area is significant. Here, over 800 years ago, a Huron named Skennenrahawi, the Peacemaker, floated down and met with the Mohawks. His mission was to establish a peaceful confederacy of nations, the Iroquois Confederacy. His attempts to persuade the Mohawks to join the alliance were initially unsuccessful. To convince them of his intentions, he climbed a tall tree that hung over nearby Cohoes Falls. He asked them to cut down the tree, and he and the tree tumbled violently down over the falls. He disappeared in the current and mist. The next morning, the Mohawks saw the smoke from his camp fire. His survival so impressed them that they became the first member tribe of the Iroquois Confederacy. This alliance is the oldest living participatory democracy in the world, and a source of inspiration for the U.S. model of democracy.
I thought about how dense and vast the forest once was when the Mohawks skimmed along these waters on their birch bark canoes. One can get discouraged thinking about the levels of toxicity in this river now, or the suburban scars across the face of The Woods. But nature is voracious and relentless in seeking a return to balance. Moss dusts the rooftops here, and green shoots expand in every available crack in the cement. Water sneaks in wherever it can, and expands and contracts with every frost and thaw. Everything eventually breaks down and returns to its elemental nature. Nature always balances itself. It's a constant cycle that can guide us and our behavior.
May all I say and all I think
be in harmony with Thee,
God within me, God beyond me,
Maker of the Trees.