I headed back into the woods in the summer of 1977 when I was fifteen.
"Back" meant I'd outlasted a baffling, excruciating year and a half of a bone disease that went untreated by my Christian Science parents. I'd spent a year in bed, six months in a wheelchair. Then my knee was useless and fused, but I was strong enough to walk with crutches. I could lead my irritable Appaloosa up to a big rock--my mounting block--so I could share her wonderful, powerful legs and ride a little. This was far more important (I told myself) than missing most of two years of junior high. Much more critical than my misery and alienation at school. I wasn't sure who I'd turned into. Couldn't walk. Couldn't (ever) run again. But I could stump around on the crutches.
The padding of crutches is not kind. My hands blistered and then grew calloused as my skill on the wooden sticks developed. Gradually I chose stairs over the tiresome privilege of the school elevator, and learned to carry my own books.
And when school let out for the summer, I set out into the woods that stretched behind my house in Lexington, Massachusetts, the forest that butted up to the power lines and Route 128/95 for a mile before it jagged back towards Hanscom Field Air Force Base. The barn on the corner of the road was where my horse lived, where my hope waited for my legs to be set free. (Healed was the Christian Science term. The plan was perfection. But that's as irrelevant right now as it was impossible at the time.)
The wood were crisscrossed with tumbling stone walls of green boulders that had pastured cows in the 1600's. Pines, beeches, and junipers lined the paths. Wild grasses and tall blueberry bushes swayed in the breeze at the power lines mixed with the pungent sweet fern.
Not too many years before, behind my house, a crystal clear spring had run out of an ancient pipe slimy with algae near a ruined foundation. Crystal clear, the stream had wound into the swamp by the highway until it was captured and forced into a culvert so that a housing development could be built. The best that could be said about that was that it happened long after my friends and I raced Pooh-sticks, dammed up the stream with rocks and mud, and built tiny lean-to's and model horse corrals.
The smells never change when you step into the woods. Whether you're there hunting wild model horses, riding a live, stubborn Shetland pony bareback, or clumping along on a crutch, the fiddle head ferns, skunk cabbage and jewel weed shimmer their varying shades of green. The mud squelches underfoot, or pine needles make you silent. Mosquitoes and deer flies drone. The sun shifts behind the taller pines and reminds you time is passing.
When I was fifteen I felt the woods pull at me. The woods wanted me. I felt them call to me. I couldn't explain it, only obey. I thought I wanted to map out a new trail across part of the hillside above the barn, maybe build a few new jumps I'd coax my mare to hop over someday.
My father loaned me a bow saw, a set of pruners and a round point shovel. I figured out how to carry one or more tools as I crutched my way between the trees, over stones and between stumps. All summer, afternoons and sometimes evenings found me swatting bugs as I dug holes and set flimsy posts I cut by hand. I piled rocks, chopped at stubborn roots, and hacked back branches. It was sweaty. dirty, soothing work. I loved the solitude. I loved the sense that I was both caring for this little patch of wilderness and also making it more useful, at least in my mind. I could no more have stopped tending to the woods that summer than I could have stopped trying to ride my difficult horse. I would finally let go of both projects--the trails until the next summer, my horse forever--but not yet. Not in the middle of that muggy summer as I grew back some strength.
Fast forward thirty-five years and a day. To yesterday.
Five weeks and change since surgery to replace the only long-suffering, worn-out remaining knee of my fifty-year-old-amputee body. Surgery had become vital more suddenly than I'd expected. It had deftly derailed my summer plans: cutting fire wood, building a better pasture fence for my horse and ponies, working on endless carpentry projects. I've got fifteen woodsy acres on a hidden hilltop in upstate New York, south of Ithaca. In thirty-five years since I wore out a bow saw making trails and jumps in Lexington I've found that my instincts were correct. About needing horses, of course, but also about the homesteading. After my informal but thorough career, I could wax eloquent on the building and maintenance of half a dozen types of fences (not to mention butcher any kind of poultry at all with my eyes closed.) I can't imagine a life without a four-wheel-drive truck and a chainsaw. Yeah, I'm a homesteader. Born and bred, apparently.
But I've been feeling increasingly at arm's length from myself since my above-knee amputation five years ago. This summer's surgery has underlined the gradual physical decline I've been fighting for years, one I know I can't win, only accept with grace.
Five weeks with my new knee: physically I felt good. Almost sound, fatigued in a positive way, but gaining strength every day. But mentally I was floundering. Couldn't get centered. Not sure who I was.
So I went for a walk.
I grabbed the single crutch I'm using now--an aluminum crutch; I haven't seen wooden ones in years--and marched myself out between the big spruces that hide my place from the main road. Now that my knee doesn't hurt, walking is a lot better, except that I'm out of practice. My muscles aren't up to snuff, and my prosthetic leg is really only as strong and coordinated as my organic leg. My fake foot can catch on a clump of weeds or a stick; if I'm not paying attention, I fall on my nose.
But hey...Walking-in-the-woods and I go back a hell of a lot further than a fake knee (or two.) I scrambled through the sticks and dead fall to a Cotton-Hanlon right-of-way on my north boundary and walked it by my corral fence. Then I cut back into my property.
I walked a bit and stopped to consider the clump of small trees I cut down last year. Crutched on until I had to stop and squint to imagine the angle of a future fence line. And think for a while.
This is new for me: thinking. Introspective stuff. Ever since I ditched my last crutch in high school and found that, while I couldn't run, I could out-walk, out-ride and out-work everyone I knew, I'd been a blur. But becoming an above-knee amputee five years ago slowed me down. Shifted me into a new low, slow gear that I pretended wasn't happening.
But you know what? Though it's better to run than walk, it's better to walk than sit in a wheelchair (or use a walker like I did for a week. Another first; another growing experience.) And it's better to walk on crutches (or one, or a cane) than not walk at all.
This is called Having Grace. Maybe I'll stop feeling so grudging toward it some day.
Anyway, the woods don't care. The sound of the wind high up in the top of the pines is the same song pines sang in Lexington. I don't have any big beeches. But I have hemlocks, and spruces that tower into the sky. I have maples and oaks in a hundred-year-old hedge-row. Slippery elm and poplars. Sweet fern doesn't grow here, but we've got honeysuckle blooms in two shades of spring: white and pink. It's been dry all summer and the ground was hard at the spots that should have been running with springs and lush with ferns.
And the land knew me. Recognized me. Said, Liz, how the hell you been, girl? like the town truck drivers at the bar would.
I don't own my land. It owns me. And it made me feel strong. I'll keep on keeping-on and walking out to the woods. It's who I am. Owned by the land.
Which makes the school tax bill I just got seem more ridiculous--and the outdated dog license renewal (for a dog long since moved out) seem more pertinent.
"But Your Honor, I don't own the land...It owns me......like a dog."
Wonder if the town justice would go for that one. Oh well.