I grew up in a house surrounded by forest. We didn’t live on a large lot, three acres or so, but the house couldn’t be seen from the road and we couldn’t see the neighbours from the house. The forest was typical of the area – temperate rain forest. Full of sappy fir trees, gray barked alders and majestic big leaf maples, each growing tall enough that their canopy perpetually shaded the forest floor. Under the trees a unique habitat thrived which I spent hours exploring. I considered it my forest and during daylight hours it felt friendly to me. I’m sure if I went back there it would seem small, but at that time/when I was little it felt huge and packed with things to see. The rich earthy smells have stuck with me and anytime I walk into a similar forest the smell immediately takes me back.
In the shade, huckleberries, salmon berries, salal, and vanilla plants (I have no idea if that is the true name for them, they grew as a single stalk with three large triangular leaves and to me they smelled like vanilla) grew. If I was really lucky, I would find a blooming trillium, which I would never pick because my mother told me if I picked them they wouldn’t come back the next year. Tiny yellow violets could also be found hidden between ferns and stumps. On an particularly unlucky day, I found a not-so-fresh deer carcass – the smell from that find is still etched in my memory. The forest also provided a home for large wasp nests and many types of birds who were mostly heard, not seen.
Since we lived on a hill the forest had dry areas and boggy areas. The boggy low areas contained skunk cabbage and huge ferns beneath massive cedars. Here, a wrongly placed foot would end up swamped in mud. Little tea-coloured bogs/ponds teemed with tiny lifeforms. With rubber boots and a collection of jars, I would wade into the ponds and try to catch the little critters.
The stumps of the old growth forest remained as a reminder of a past majesty, like the ruins of an ancient civilization. These stumps could be found in varying states of decay everywhere. Most were topped with thickets of salal, except one which was hollow. This exception became a favorite hiding place and reminded me of a book I read about the same time where a boy did the same thing.
Human machinery had pushed some of these old stumps aside. A large bulldozer would do the trick. Someone before we moved there must have done it because I don’t remember big bulldozers in my forest. The stumps were pushed (or pulled) until their massive root balls came clear of the soil. These root balls had a diameter much greater than the stumps. On their side, the roots would extend up in a gnarled mass of hand holds – so I would climb them. Some had been there so long that ferns and huckleberry bushes grew at the top. All of them were dirty. I had to be careful, because sometimes a choice hand hold would only be a dried ball of mud and would crumble the instant I held onto it. I always felt satisfaction when I would get to the highest root and look around.
The light in my memory is always the same: dappled sunlight that would shift as a breeze moved the canopy of fir needles above. This indirect light allowed for dark recesses in the forest that added mystery. Was something watching me from these recesses? (This very question made this forest a scary place at night.) A cougar? A bear? They were in my forest too, but I never saw them. In reality, I was never that far away from our house. I think I was lucky to have had the opportunity to roam alone through this wild place – many kids don’t.