I grew up in a forest. It was not “the Forest Primeval” of legend, but it was forest that grew up in the old ridge-top pastures that once comprised the bulk of West Virginia’s agrarian economy. I was born into the post-agrarian world, where the forest and thicket loomed over me and shielded me like protective cocoon.
My companions in the woods were the dogs belonging to my parents and grandparents. They were hardy ridge-running dogs, elkhounds, collies, and beagles. They were barely formally trained at all. Life running the woods had provided their education, and they knew were the coolest mudholes were on those sweltering days in July and where they could best cut off a running rabbit before it hit the briers. They were as sagacious as any dog, but they wouldn’t last an hour in the civilized world. One of my grandfather’s elkhounds had to be taken in the back door at the vet’s because he would lose all composure as soon as he smelled a cat. Such an animal would now be listed a vicious in the modern world and would soon bring about a canceled homeowner’s policy or worse.
These were truly lucky dogs. They were cared for by people, yet they had so much freedom to be dogs.
And similarly, I was a lucky child to have been given the chance to grow up with so much of the natural world around me. I could see nature as it was. My curiosity was piqued by robin nests full of blue eggs, which were soon replaced by naked chicks with gaping yellow maws. Many times I nearly stepped upon newborn white-tailed deer that were hidden in the thickets while their mothers grazed or chewed cud some distance away. I watched the black American toad tadpoles emerge from ropy egg strands laid shallow roadside ditches and then observed them as they lost their tails and grew legs and then turned into tiny little toads that hopped away.
I also saw what happens to tadpoles when the rain doesn’t come often enough to keep the ditch beds full of water. The sun dries up the water, and the tadpoles scurry into increasingly more sparse little puddles until the water finally goes, and then all we are left with are the rotting black dots of tadpole carcasses.
I have watched maggots devour a dead opossum, including the little joeys in her pouch that never once saw light or climbed a persimmon tree for a midnight feast.
I knew that nature was about savagery, and it was also about luck. A deer spends its entire life as if it is about to be shot at any moment and from any direction. Its entire existence is about scouting and recon and constant vigilance. Even when they bed down in the late afternoon to chew their cud, they are never fully relaxed. The ears are always twisting, and the nose is always smelling.
I never once lived with that sort of fear, but all around me were the high drama of existence. When creatures live without man to care for them, their lives are about struggle and chaos and mayhem, but because they have lived for so many generations in this fashion, they give us the semblance of being pristine and beautiful.
In a weird way, it became my refuge. I was an oddball kid, and growing up in rural West Virginia, where conformity was enforced rather strictly in the schoolyard hierarchy, I often found that I turned to the woods and the dogs to escape whatever pain I felt that day.
When I feel sad now, I go to the woods in search of refuge, and I often find it. However, it is not the same security I once felt. It is as if those childhood days are fading into the undergrowth, yet I can still see them and hear them. They move as shadows just beyond my gaze. I reach for them, but I cannot grasp them. They remain just beyond my finger tips, tantalizing me.
Maybe they will disappear entirely. I certainly hope not.
I just know that so few children will ever get to grow up the way I did. The natural world for millions of people living in the West is what is on TV.
But for me it is something else.
It is the world that is not consumed by our megalomaniac species and its various dramas. It is the world that exists without us, but it is the world that spawned us. It is also the world we now deny. We wall ourselves away from it. We live in the concrete and steel world and never give this world more than a passing thought.
At some point, we will become aliens on our planet, and we might not be far from that now.
But in those lost days of dogs and children, I knew what it was like to be an earthling in its fullest essence.
A big part of who am was made in those times, and I don’t think it is easy for me to explain this someone who didn’t experience something similar.
People keep dogs now in fenced yards, where they spend most the day barking at cars and passersby. Maybe someone will walk the dog, but that’s not very likely. Most of these dogs will never know what it’s like to run unleashed in a woodland full of wild turkey, grouse, rabbit, and deer scent. Most will never know the joy of lying down hard in a deep mudhole during good hot summer walk. Most won’t know the absolute euphoria of a dog running full blast for miles and miles over a heavy snowfall.
Like tigers that pace in the zoo cage, they let loose their wild barks in hopes that this will break the monotony of existence, just as I will plug away on this keyboard in hopes that it might bring back to the woods and the ridge-running dogs and the green forest and the summer sun.
Earthlings won’t have an easy time in the decades and centuries to come, but I wish that I could cast my lot with them.
But the alien world calls and keeps pulling me further and further away.
But it hasn’t broken me yet.