I grew up in Alabama on the Cahaba River. Luckily, I peered through the abundance of stinging nettle, water moccasins, and poison ivy long enough to find my backyard was also home to such treasures as box turtles, sourleaf, and honey suckle. Unbeknownst to my dad, the humble treehouse he built us in view of the back deck was more of a decoy to the monstrosity of stomach-flipping heights that my friends and I constructed deeper in the woods from a comical assortment of used nails and stolen lumber. It wasn’t until I was 35 years old that I told my mom how high we were climbing between the ages of 8 and 12. When we were young we were obsessed with heights. How high could we actually go was a question that could be answered. We used to climb full grown longleaf pines which, if you aren’t familiar, rise to 120 feet and often don’t have any branches below 60 feet. So, we would ascend an oak or poplar next to them and then jump from the tallest branch in that tree into the lowest branch on the pine and continue upward.
Growing up in those woods was a conglomeration of bee stings, rope swings, baby toads and trying to walk along on a muddy river bank and always slipping in. There was so much to see back there in innumerable shades of green. Once we walked down the hill towards the Cahaba and found a family of armadillos casually rummaging in the rotten logs beside our trail. We threw rocks and sticks at them like violent boys will do but they didn’t seem to care and kept digging up grubs. And the birds. Was every bird in Alabama then? I honestly don’t know, maybe so. Woodpeckers bigger than crows would batter hollowed out trees, redtail hawks would terrorize gray squirrels, and I would learn how male cardinals were so brightly colored because they were predisposed to be showoffs.
It didn’t take becoming an adult for me to realize what a privilege it was to be surrounded by left-behind exoskeletons and puff bomb mushrooms. I knew it the whole time. I knew that this was the perfect way to grow up before I was grown up.