And furthermore: Childhood myths flourished in neighborhood woods

By Laurence J. Sasso, Jr.

As children, some cousins of mine lived in the heart of Greenville. It was different in those days. Despite the fact that their house was on Putnam Pike in the center of the village, they were still never far from the woods. Now the area between the pike and Smith Avenue (called Snake Hill Road at the time) is mostly built up. Then it was undeveloped.

Behind their house, which was on the southwest side of the pike opposite Citizens Bank, the landscape was fairly wild. Corn fields alternated with rather dense ranges of trees. Naturally, the lure of these untamed acres was irresistible. Perhaps to put some limits on the children’s wanderlust and their inborn hunger for adventure, a neighbor began telling them tales about dangerous things, creatures that resided out there in the unsettled world beyond the backyard.

The cousins and their friends had named the tree-covered land which enveloped the cultivated crop fields “The First Woods” and “The Second Woods,” labels that were not particularly imaginative, but which proved aptly descriptive. Some very rich phantasmagoric flights of their fancies were fueled by one of the more creative neighborhood mothers, though. Her language was colorful and indelible.

With flourishes that traced back to Irish mythology and Gaelic fairy tales, she wove stories of a hag, a hideous evil banshee with an exotic name who was capable of black magic. She lived in the lines of trees, moving from one place to another.

Some among the children had spoken vaguely of a “Third Woods,” but none had ever been there, and once the story of the terrifying monster was introduced, the rumor of a further mythical kingdom seemed to die. No one wanted to risk an encounter with the wicked “Scunamagoon” who lived in the scary woods and wanted nothing less than to snatch up little kids unawares.

Meanwhile, out in the apple country we had our own spirit-nemeses to contend with if we ventured too far into the woodlands that surrounded our orchards. The most immediate attraction was a huge series of rocky ledges that were deposited by the ancient glaciers long before recorded history. Full of crags and caves and sheltering overhangs, they were as tempting to kids as catnip is to a cat, and they were just about as impossible to resist. They also presented countless opportunities to fall or tumble, and injuries were always a real possibility. Limits were in order, but difficult to enforce.

Today, the area is owned and managed by the town’s Conservation Commission and plays host to some of the community’s most fascinating hiking trails. Back then, to the neighborhood children, it was the furthest border of the known world, fraught with peril in the form of animals with supernatural powers, animals that could catch a child unawares and drag him or her off to some other dimension, never to return. You didn’t go into the woods without a hunting knife or at the very least a stout stick or a couple of good throwing rocks in your pockets.

The beast we feared was “the wildcat,” but not just any wildcat. Sometimes he was a bobcat, sometimes a lynx. If our imaginations were really fired up, it was a cougar. Whatever the type of cat, it was a creature on steroids, a snarling, vicious example with fiery eyes, all knowing and impossible to subdue or kill, though he could easily kill you.

My friend who grew up in Esmond (yes there are woods in Esmond) tells of a similar story. When he was young his cohort of friends roamed from their homes into the woodland, but they were always vigilant for the wild pack of Esmond dogs that was said to inhabit the area, dogs who could surprise them and do terrible things. To children, the woods were never simply the woods.

When my daughter was an adolescent, it was fascinating to discover that she had her own lore. For her the woods were closer to home, a tree-lined ledge across the street, with a rocky niche where she could retreat with a book and her imaginings. It was her private space to read and dream, and she shared with family only little bits of where her fancy took her.

There was, for instance, talk of birds, rooks that blended the stuff of her books with the flocks of actual birds that sang and fluttered in the trees. In her fantasies rooks foretold momentous events. It led to her naming the spot Ravens Ridge. There was a sense for her of other times and other places where Shakespearean characters from Arcadian climes might come to life with just the slightest help from made up magic.

At a certain age, it seems, the woods for many of us are much more than wild ranks of trees and stones, unruly underbrush and drifted leaves. They are more than the home for deer and foxes, raccoons and owls. Instead they teem with supernatural specters or beasts, conjured creatures and cosmic menace.

They are the raw canvas on which myths and legends, perhaps as old as humankind, are first splashed out in the vivid colors our own minds create. The woods are the birth place of mystery and the incubator of illusion. They are the first theater of our imaginations.