Books & Essays
My Woods Were Gone
I?m approaching 54 years old and a piece of me is missing. What?s missing is the woods behind my childhood home. The woods are gone. ?It looks like a peanut patch,? my brother told me over the phone. I should have known better. After all this time, I still blame myself because, really, who else is there to blame?
I made the decision in 1997 to sell the remaining four acres of a six-acre block that my grandfather had bought in the 1920s soon after he moved to the farming community of Pelham in Southwest Georgia. These four acres belonged jointly to my aunt, my step grandmother, and my brother and me. At one time or another, all of us had lived on this block. The woods were our back yard.
My Aunt Carolyn told me over the phone we needed to sell the property. After all, she noted, part of it belonged to Vina (my step grandmother) and we needed to make sure her financial needs were met. Vina had lived on this block in Pelham since the early 1940s, and had beautified her yard with azaleas, camellias, and dogwoods, which grew to be the largest in town as they matured with just the right amount of sunlight filtering through the loblolly pines. Now her place was empty. Since 1988, Vina had been residing in a nursing home in Quitman. Aunt Carolyn had moved away from Pelham many years before, and was living in Madison, Florida. Even my brother, who in 1973 had built a brick house among the tall pines on the edge of the property opposite Vina?s house, was living in Albany. As for me, I had been living in Northeast Georgia for 27 years and rarely made the trip south to visit my brother, much less the additional 35 miles from Albany to Pelham.
It was a Sunday night and I was upstairs on the bedroom phone talking with Mr. X about the land, and how he wanted to buy it because Vina?s house was ?falling in.? He simply wanted to remove the house, but keep the land the way it was. Mr. X now lived in the house next to the one where I grew up and he owned about one acre of the six-acre block. ?I promise to keep all the trees. I just want to remove some of the underbrush, and make a walking path by the stream,? he told me.
The stream, I thought. How nice that would be, having a path by the stream.
My first memories of the woods always included the stream. The little stream began in the woods, and I could take you to the exact spot where the dark water seeped out of the ground. It was not, as you might imagine, a clear stream of water bubbling up from the earth. Instead, it was just a circular hole probably six feet in diameter filled with black water. Even though I spent many hours looking and probing at the edge of this little pool, I never knew how deep it was. When I was only five or six, I would shove long sticks into the water, trying to hit bottom and determine the depth. The sticks never reached bottom.
I was fascinated by how this seemingly stagnant pool of water began to spread across the ground, creating a home for tadpoles and mosquitoes in a muddy swath several feet wide. The water barely moved for several feet, and was less than an inch deep. And then something miraculous began to take place. All that muddy and seemingly stagnant water somehow was funneled into a small trickle. That little path of water, only a few inches across, widened slightly as it moved for several more yards. Only fifteen or twenty yards from where the dark water seeped out of the ground, a little stream appeared. At this point, the stream was less than a foot across, but the dark water was moving and there was life in it.
The woods behind our house broke up the flat South Georgia landscape. Towering loblolly pines were the dominant tree, but water oaks, tulip poplars and even bay trees contributed to the mix. Like most boys, I spent a lot of time just romping through the woods. But the tall pines also served as my solace, a place where I go at times when I wanted to be alone with my thoughts.
The woods were simply part of the landscape as I knew it. They were bordered on the north by Tennyson Street, which ran east and west. Lake Street ran north and south and formed the eastern border. You could coast your bike from the intersection of Lake and Tennyson to the bottom of Lake where it hit Green Street, which formed the southern boundary. Glausier Street, as flat as could be, formed the western boundary. Four houses backed up to the woods along Tennyson Street: the Tennysons on the corner of Lake; then us; then our next-door neighbors to the west, who lived in a small brick house with a front and back yard filled with trees; and finally on the corner of Glausier, Mrs. Wilhite, whose dilapidated, gray clapboard house stood on stone pillars and was surrounded by trees. In the middle of the block on Glausier sat the white one-story house that belonged to my step grandmother. It was framed by tall loblolly pines on either side, and a line of water oaks grew near the street. She had a circular goldfish pond in the middle of her front lawn. Each side of her house was like a little Callaway Gardens in the spring, with her colorful azaleas and camellias and her white dogwoods. Her back yard was the woods. In fact, the little stream was only twenty yards from her back porch. So we lived in a normal neighborhood, with the benefit of having woods behind our houses. I just accepted the woods as part of my life, and never questioned whether they would always be there.
The woods had different parts. One section was where the stream was formed. It was the most mysterious and seemed tropical compared to most of the other parts. I remember a bay tree with its long trunk growing at a forty-five degree angle that reminded me of a coconut tree. This part of the woods always seemed to draw me in. It also included my ?hiding place,? a thicket of vines and bushes that literally surrounded the base of one of the large loblolly pines. The tree?s circumference was so large that it would have taken three of me to wrap my arms around it. When I entered this thicket, I felt like a rabbit entering its home. For whatever reason, once inside the vines there was a nice carved out space about three feet high that went all the way around the tree. It seemed built just for me. I would go there alone, or with my dog, and just sit and think about things. I never told anyone about this place.
My favorite part of the woods, however, was located almost in the dead center of the block, where the stream picked up its flow, and suddenly made a sharp turn and dipped a foot or so in elevation before widening to maybe two feet. You could hear the flow of the stream for the first time, and I realized it had a power all its own. There were all kinds of green ferns growing nearby, and the sunlight barely made its way to the ground through the shade from the oaks and pines. A hardened oak stump made a perfect seat to watch the stream as it dipped and turned sharply before it made its way southeastward toward the back corner of the woods. Just up from the stump, I would dig in the rich dirt for earthworms. I would dip a worm into the stream and wait for a crayfish to dart from side to side before finally grabbing the worm with its claws. Nearby, I would check on my little hut built with rotting pine logs. The roof was covered with a thick layer of pine straw laid over small interwoven branches. Occasionally, some neighborhood kid would knock in the roof. But that was no problem. My ?hiding place? remained a secret since no one was interested in a bunch of vines around a pine tree.
In the southeastern corner of the block, the woods seemed to change character all together. The stream lost its way. It slowly moved into two parts, and the bottom was muddier and the water seemed to stagnate as it flattened out into a muddy marsh. Cattails grew abundantly, and were especially thick on a little piece of land I named Devil?s Island because it really was an island. I would sit among the cattails and pines, surrounded by the swampy water. As you might imagine, a variety of birds ? blue jays, crows, and sparrows -- flew overhead. Or you could see a brown thrasher in the undergrowth, or bird tracks in the mud, along with the occasional dog or and possum track. Finally, the stream came back together just before it entered a concrete pipe and flowed underneath Green Street.
The Decision and Aftermath
If you recall, I said earlier that I should have known better than to sell the land to Mr. X. That?s because he had a history. When I was in high school, he had bought the house next door to ours, as well as the Wilhite place. One weekend when I came home from college I was shocked to see what had taken place next door. He had bulldozed all of the trees on every inch of his land, including the back yard that I classified as the official edge of ?the woods.? Six months later, his house was surrounded by an irrigated expanse of green lawn without a tree in sight. He had remodeled his house next to ours, adding a pool, brick patio and guesthouse. Mr. X had previously lived in Pompano Beach, Florida, and now his place looked like a beachfront home had fallen from the sky and landed next door. I was angry when I saw what he had done, but what could I do. It was done and I would be returning to school. But the natural look of our block was gone forever. Little did I know that this change was an omen of things to come.
With all these thoughts in my head, I sat upstairs in my bedroom in Toccoa talking to Mr. X as he explained why I needed to sell the remaining property to him. I told him I needed at least $25,000. It was 1997 and I knew Pelham was a dying town and not many people would be interested in the land. I never really considered the value of the timber. Interestingly, a neighbor across the street from Vina?s house had called out of the blue earlier that week and offered $17,000. ?That?s my top offer, and I won?t pay a penny more,? she said, abruptly. I told her that I would need at least $22,000 or $23,000. She said seventeen was her final offer. We never talked again.
At this point, I called my sister-in-law, who still lived in the house she and my brother built on Lake Street. The woods were part of her back yard too. I explained the situation and told her I would sell her the land for $1,000 less than Mr. X?s final offer. She said that she was not in a position to buy any of it, and in fact had a hard time paying property taxes on what she had.
A few weeks later, I was back on the phone with Mr. X. We finally agreed to $23,000 or so (I really don?t remember). I do remember that I called my sister-in-law and offered it to her for less. She declined again. I hated to sell the land, but felt it was the thing to do. For some unexplainable reason, I truly believed that Mr. X was telling the truth and had no desire to cut down any more trees. ?All I want to do is remove some of the underbrush and make a nice walking path down by the stream,? he said. ?I promise not to take down any trees.? I believed him. I never have been so wrong.
Only one week after the sale, I got a call from my sister-in-law. ?Do you realize that Mr. X is bulldozing the woods? Why did we let this happen?? Momentarily, I could not speak. My heart sunk, and I?ve never felt the same. I still dream of the woods, but my dreams are not pleasant ones. Even in my dreams I know the woods are gone.
The destruction happened in the spring and summer of 1997. That December, I traveled to Pelham to see what my brother had described as a ?peanut patch.? As I turned from old U.S. 19 onto Glausier Street, I got the first view. I immediately turned sick to my stomach. The woods were gone. There were houses on Green Street that suddenly appeared that were always hidden before. The land was a plowed field. I lost my orientation. My sickness swelled as I quickly drove away. I have returned two other times: the summer of 1999 and the spring of 2003. It looked just as awful each time. It appeared that a front-end loader had attempted to dig out the spring, leaving a huge crater surrounded by piles of brown dirt. The stream was simply a ditch that ran straight to the corner of the property. My beloved woods were gone?forever.
For what it?s worth, I did learn something from all of this. The main lesson: the best way to protect land is to own it yourself.
If ownership is not an option, the next best thing is to transfer the land to someone who will protect it in the same way you would. Over the years, many others have done this, whether by selling to a land trust for preservation or simply by giving away the property to make sure it remains in the right hands.
Of course, my loss (in terms of acreage) was minuscule compared to what we lose each day due to commercial and retail development, highway construction, and housing sprawl.
We live in a time where any wild land or bit of woods cannot be taken for granted. I see the mountains and streams of North Georgia and North Carolina and cannot imagine anything happening to them. But much has changed in the last thirty years. Houses litter the mountain landscape; ridgelines are no longer sacred.
We live in a time where clean water cannot be taken for granted. I turn on my spigot and expect clear drinking water to flow forth. But logging continues in sensitive areas of our National Forests, with seemingly little regard for the damage done to the headwaters that ultimately supply the water for millions of people downstream. And the Georgia legislature passes laws making it easier to build near rivers and streams, clogging them with silt and mud.
It seems to me that every piece of land that possibly can be saved should be.
Once destroyed, it is never the same. It can?t be. Several years ago, a wooded park in South Atlanta was being considered for a new elementary school. The tract was filled with 300-year-old white oaks that provided an oasis for residents in that part of Atlanta. It was their woods. A young woman, appearing in a photograph in the Atlanta paper, said enough is enough. The photo showed her standing in front of one of those massive oaks. She waged the kind of fight that got results. The school board decided to put its school elsewhere. The white oaks still stand.
In the total scheme of things, this little park was not considered a vital ecosystem. But these woods were vital to those who lived nearby. I?m so glad that young woman (and others) saved her woods. I wish I had saved mine. In retrospect I could have. I could have donated the land to the City of Pelham for a park, or sold it to the neighbor who wanted to keep her view of the pines. Or convinced my sister-in-law to take it. But I didn?t.
Today, my Aunt Carolyn is dead. My brother is planning to move to Ohio. I?m still in Toccoa. And Vina, at age 95, died this month (March 17, 2005) in the nursing home in Quitman, her money and her woods long gone.