We own a woods, a hundred acres of white oaks, hard maples, hickory, and beech trees. We own it thanks to Keith’s mother, who grew up on an adjacent farmstead, bought by her German grandparents with money they saved from working the New England textile mills. We are lucky to own this woods: It is a deciduous island in a sea of corn and beans, the only verticality for miles and miles. Aside from some selective cutting thirty years ago, it is largely untouched, and as a result, a few of the beech trees are as big as whales. Our woods is private enough for pileated woodpeckers and bald eagles to nest in. It is lush with ferns, wild columbines, gingerroot, trillium, and yellow violets. And we will swear to you that it lets in the sunlight but keeps out the noise: No John Deeres, no grain dryers, no two-ton trucks rumbling over the gravel roads. To go there is to lose track not just of the time but of all time: There are no buildings, no signs, no roads, no refuse, nothing to offer a hint as to what year it might be. When we step out into the meadow after a couple of hours in our woods, we are blank as newborns.
There is only one problem: Our woods is fifty miles from our home, which means we aren’t able to spend as much time there as we’d like to. And in these periods of absence, we worry about our woods. It is ripe with deer and wild turkeys and ginseng and mushrooms and blackberries. It is not far from the Wabash River where, in summer, a makeshift community of vagabonds appears, living out of old fish shacks and trailers rescued from the spring floods. If the river rats or deer slayers or “sang” hunters decided to clear cut or burn down our woods, we’d never know until it was too late.
For us, it is long-distance ownership, not ownership per se, that makes us ask the sort of questions E.M. Forster did about his own woods over eighty years ago. Does ownership make us stingy? Can we really own something only if we prevent others’ access to it?
In other words, does owning our woods make us bad people?
Maybe. Each time we visit our woods, for instance, we expect to run into a mushroom poacher or, at our most paranoid, to find that someone has taken up residence there, tucked tent or cabin into a ravine cranny and is living off (our) roots and berries and wild game. But in fact, in all these years, we’ve encountered nothing worse than a couple of beer cans and once, a deer stand screwed into a tree that, because it leaned west, might have been mistaken for the neighbor’s property.
It is possible that we worry about intrusions on our woods because we would like to intrude on it more than we are able to. We’d like to live here. Each time we visit, we pick out a place for our house, an east-facing spot looking out over the fern-walled ravine, there over the beech tree bridge that joins the hillsides. And then we think about the expense of building in a place without an access road, water lines, power lines. We think about being old in our woods, too feeble to make it up and down the hills, too far from a hospital if we needed one. In our more sensible moments, we must acknowledge that we will never live in our woods. But nor will we fence them in or wall them up. They are our woods, but without one essential mark of ownership: Habitation.
And from there, we suspect, stems the real sin of ownership. If we lived in our woods, would we patrol the borders to keep the birdwatchers and wildflower enthusiasts and young lovers away? And if we did, wouldn’t we lose our ability to love our woods?
So we won’t do it. We’ll sit right here on the verge of two worlds, our woods and everything else. Near the dividing line, a bluebird lifts up out of the larkspur, and for a moment, we think the flowers are flying.
In the next fifteen minutes, three cars will pass. Tell me, tell me, will it look to them as if we’re guarding our woods?