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Saturday, May 16, 2020

The Forbidden Forest

I assume all kids who grow up in neighborhoods on the edge of wooded areas live in a land with made-up names for places defined by childhood imagination and fears. We certainly did. There was the Pretty Forest, the Forbidden Forest, and the Beaver Pond.  Ironically, the engineered drainage stream that formed the spine of our childhood wanderings, and continued into town as a major landscape feature, had a real name.  That name was unknown to us and unneeded.  It was "The Creek," with a sense of primacy that needed no description to distinguish it from others.

The names were passed along among the kids.  We learned them from older siblings and friends, and younger kids picked up the usage from us.  I don't know the origin of the name "Pretty Forest," which was the closest and most widely used of the wooded areas.  I guess it did look kind of pretty when you looked up at the sky through the trees, or when the leaves kind of, sort of changed color a bit in the fall.  The name "Forbidden Forest," on the other hand, seems to have arisen from parental prohibitions against going too far, and was almost certainly reinforced by the fear kids had about following the creek out of the woods into the open to get to the next thick stand of trees.

The Beaver Pond was not a place where anyone normally went.  It was a distant location that intrepid kids would go to explore and earn some bragging rights.  Rumor had it that after crossing a fence, you had to get past an angry bull with a ring in its nose.  When I ventured down with a friend, we did step over a low fence covered by wild roses, but we did not see the legendary bull.  There was certainly no sign of a beaver dam.  We did see some nutria, so we joked that whoever named the place didn't know the difference.  We kept the name anyway; "Nutria Hole" just didn't have the right ring.

As kids, our "forests" existed in our minds as natural places that dominated our landscape.  The rye grass fields were just "the fields," nameless, featureless, somewhat hostile expanses that separated the places where we played. 

When I think about it now, I imagine the farmer who owned the land likely conceptualized it a bit differently.  The fields were fertile ground that he cultivated to provide a livelihood for his family.  The stands of trees were residual spaces along the flood-control ditch.  They were unproductive portions of his property that caused him headaches. 

I have little doubt his preference would have been to keep kids off his property, but blocking access and chasing nimble kids away from the cover of the wooded areas would have proved impractical.  He generally let the neighborhood kids play in these leftover areas, with an understanding that we wouldn't trample his grass or bother the sheep brought in to graze during the winter and spring.  There was not much reason to go wandering out across the fields anyway, but if we ever did, we were totally exposed.  The farmer was likely to catch up to us on his 4-wheeler with giant pontoon tires to keep it from sinking into the mud.  He would ask what we were up to, scold us, and threaten to ban us from his property. 

Of all the places we explored, the scariest was never named. My friend and I once followed the tiny stream that came into the Forbidden Forest from the side.  After passing a couple big trees, it was a long walk out in the open, where we risked running afoul of the farmer. When we finally reached the next cluster of trees, the smell of death hung over a fenced-in area.  Inside were several rotting sheep corpses, bloated and crawling with maggots.  It appeared to be the place where the farmer dumped the remains of the sheep we periodically saw collapsed on their sides in the mud. We were already nervous about venturing to an isolated place so far beyond the Forbidden Forest, and we certainly had no business here. We quickly made our way back to cover and never went back there again. I suppose if the name "Forbidden Forest" hadn't already been taken, it would have been appropriate for that place. Instead, in an undiscussed way, it became a sort of "place that shall not be named."

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