When I was young we lived on the edge of Winton Woods, in Greenhills, Ohio. Out our back door, at the end of our yard, were two apple trees. Their fruit was bitter at the start of summer and by the end of summer there was the sickly-sweet smell of rot that told us the season had come and gone. In between those times we feasted whenever we passed by the trees.
Beyond the apple trees was an open field. I remember it as being around a hundred yards across, but it could have been shorter. Things always seem so much bigger in youth. To the left, at the far end of the field, was a giant maple tree. I used to climb that tree and gather its seeds – nature’s perfect helicopters – and throw them into the wind. I spent hours in that tree, listening, watching.
Our entrance to the woods, a narrow footpath guarded by volcanic rock and sticker bushes, was halfway back up the field. The rock was actually scoria, a pitted rock with cavities running through it and a surprising lack of weight, that had been dragged south from Canada during the last Ice Age’s slow march through time. It could be found everywhere in the neighborhood. Once I entered the woods it was another world. It was a world of giant trees that reached to the sky and darkened the forest floor. And, too, there were a few of those giants that had fallen to the ground, making great jungle gyms and hiding spots, and adding to the unmistakeable smell of decay prevalent in all woods.
The woods were moist and smelled of freshly tilled earth and moss. The sounds of city life disappeared once inside the wood and in its place there were birds chirping and the sounds of things falling to the ground and creating a new order to the forest floor.
Our favorite thing to do everywhere in the woods was to turn over the large stones and fallen branches and look at the things living beneath them. We wanted to know what was underneath. A few minutes along the path and at the bottom of a hill was a creek. In the creek it was even more true about turning over rocks, except there we were looking for crawdads. Sometimes we would capture them, sometimes not. It was more about the hunt.
Following the creek bed for maybe a mile would bring us to a small pond. It was always hot by the pond and there were bugs everywhere. The trees no longer provided their shielding canopy. This was the world of light. At the end where the creek emptied into the pond was a water main line that was maybe six feet above the ground. It ran over the edge of the pond and beyond before finally going back underground when the land raised up. We used to walk across the top of it. At all times by the pond sweat clung to you and was a constant companion.
Here’s the thing about the woods and the creek and the pond – time didn’t exist there. When in the woods – and I spent a lot of time in them – the only thing that mattered was discovery. The next new thing that could be learned or found was all there was. Sometimes those new things were flights of imagination and the stories we would make up and tell ourselves. Other times the trilobites, perfectly frozen in the creek rock, would tell the story to us from 450 million years in the past.
I lost entire days in the woods, if lost is what you would call it. It wasn’t a land where time stood still. It was a place where time didn’t exist.
I’ve looked for that place since then, since becoming an adult. Not the actual wood; it is still there and no doubt smaller and less impressive to my aged eyes. No, I’ve looked for the place where time doesn’t exist, where there is only discovery and freedom.
I cannot find it.
I’ve come close on occasion, like when running through a park in the early morning. But there is always the idea and concept of time, whether it is in minutes per mile, the hour of the day, or the thought of coming chores, duties, and other responsibilities. But the ultimate betrayal to age when running is the worn and used message my body sends with each foot that strikes the ground, reminding me – through my feet and up to my aching muscles – that time leaves nothing unchanged or unfazed. Running through the woods of my youth was void of that weight or those messages, of time’s reminders.
I once took my dogs for a long hike out over Clear Creek Canyon when we lived in Evergreen, Colorado. It was winter, but the sun was strong at the altitude and its light felt warm for the time of year. I had no cell phone, no appointments or schedule to keep me from simply being in the moment and enjoying the hike. But even then, miles from home amongst foreign scenery, sitting on a rock and eating some jerky, there were intrusions that forced themselves upon me. Most of the intrusions were inner, my mind’s machinations from nearly forty years of living. The white noise of the mind that comes with age and experience. I was unable to loosen time’s hold over me. I couldn’t shake all that I had experienced.
Today I can walk the woods and lift the rocks to see what’s underneath, to discover, but the things underneath have dates and times stamped upon them. And on the odd chance there is something new I find there is a label attached to it and, in spite of its newness, there is a history, a framework, an expectation, and a familiarity attached to it. That doesn’t make the experience less valuable or diminish it in any way. I still sense the quiet in the woods, the language it speaks and what it has to offer. It’s not the woods that have changed. It’s more that the freedom I experienced as a youth – that letting go and just being – always ends up in shackles, dragging the weight of time behind it.