Back Porch: Call of the wild

Back Porch: Call of the wild

Nobody’s ever accused me of being a nature girl. It’s not that I have anything against the great outdoors, but my idea of a killer hike consists of trekking from book store to coffee shop to shoe sale. I can identify almost no varieties of plant, tree or bird. And gardening is a pastime I’ve never really embraced because I don’t like to get dirty.

Why then, I’m often asked, do I live in a home with a massive yard surrounded by a couple of wooded acres a dozen miles from Downtown? Good question.

My husband and two daughters have no trouble answering that query. The space, the air, the freedom and ever-changing nature of our surroundings is both irresistible and fascinating to them. They like nothing better than to while away an entire afternoon in the woods. But what do you do, I ask when they return home filthy and scraped. We walk and we listen and we watch, says my husband, all David Carradine-as-Grasshopper-like. You should join us sometime, he adds.

I remind him that the last time I spent a substantial amount of time outside, my reward was a nasty case of poison ivy. I decided that the forest knew I was an interloper, and wanted to make sure I didn’t come back anytime soon. So I didn’t. Until a couple of weeks ago.

It was a warmish early spring afternoon; one of those bright days that reeks of the better weather to come. I was wrestling with an impossible article when my youngest daughter poked her head into my office and asked me to go for a walk in the woods. It couldn’t be any worse than this, I thought, and closed the lid on my laptop.

Once properly shod, we crossed the street and struggled down a thorn-laden hill. Well, it wasn’t much of a struggle for them, but I managed to get slapped in the face with a branch, rip my jeans and fall on my tush. Not the most auspicious of beginnings, I thought, and figured that nature’s fatwa against me was probably still in effect.

On we tromped, my daughters and a friend pointing out a fuzzy tree and warning me not to hug it. (As if!) Poison ivy, the two Girl Scouts and a Brownie explained. Even though it looks dead, there’s still enough oil to cause a rash.

We stopped at a small stream, where the children began turning over rocks to see if any critters were stirring. Too cold, they decided. When the weather warmed, the girls promised to bring me back to hunt for frogs, crayfish and water striders, often called Jesus bugs because of their ability to walk on water. Further down, I spotted what looked like a beaver dam, but my woods-savvy young’uns said no, it was obviously man-made because the edges of the sticks weren’t chewed to points.

My eldest daughter rushed ahead to a mossy natural bridge, the preferred water crossing venue during chillier months. Next we encountered “the open grave,” a mysterious 4′ by 2′ trench, currently filled with a foot of water that the girls reported is a favorite hot weather hang-out for our neighbor’s dog.

We kept on like this for some time, the children excitedly recounting how they spend their afternoons in what, to them, is a magical place filled with all sorts of adventures to be had. I peered into a couple of small caves they’ve discovered, and marveled over their encounters with deer and attempts at identifying all manner of animal tracks.

Near the end of our walk we came upon a small tree next to the stream. This, my eldest confided, is the best spot out here. The flatness of the ground around the tree’s base makes for an ideal place to lay out a blanket and a picnic. Its leaves provide equal amounts of shade and privacy during the summer. All you need is a good book, and you’ve got a cozy afternoon hideout, she said. Or maybe, I thought, the perfect space to finish an overdue article.