On the Edge

The early morning December sun is still low in the eastern sky. The shadows are very long and darkened columns of the landscape create a striped pattern on the field to the west where morning seems to be delayed in dusky patterns that reflect the trees along the edge of this meadow. It is cold this morning although I must admit this has been one of the warmest Decembers that I can ever remember. My warm breath is jettisoned out of my nostrils in long shoots of steam and reminds me of my earliest childhood dragon fears. I used to think dragons lived in the woods across the street from my childhood home in a dark swamp where they would lurk in the deepest and darkest corners of the shrub wetlands. I believed giants took care of the dragons much like our family took care of our family dog. The dragons were fed large bowls of blueberries from the swamp and occasionally they foraged on their own for small children and their families. How else had the Smith family disappeared on the other side of the swamp? One week they were there and the next week they were gone. No one I knew ever saw them again. My wild trepidations as a child kept me to the edges of the swamp, one eye always on the watch for a creature that would happy to make me into a delectable meal.

This habit of hanging around the edge of the wetland led to wonderful discoveries. Where forest met shrub wetlands I discovered the beauty of the joining of two distinct and separate ecosytems. The forest held large white pines, white oaks, white birch and red maple trees. In the shade of the forested canopy witch-hazel, barberry, spice bush, partridge berry, princess pine, shining clubmoss, and wintergreen adorned the landscape. The wetland held high bush blueberries on hummocks, maleberry, winterberry holly, red osier dogwood, and an occasional red maple tree and the understory was primarily sphagnum moss, fringed sedge, marsh marigold, woolgrass, and an occasional pitcher plant. Along the border of these two ecosystems plants from both communities were found. This fifty foot or so wide strip appeared as a mosaic of two plant cultures. A true melting pot of plants. A natural laboratory where a child could go to study the natural world without the fear of being consumed by fire breathing reptiles!

During my early childhood years I spent countless hours along the edge of this swamp. The surrounding forest was fascinating and full of wildlife ripe for viewing. On days when wildlife were scarce I would test my bravado by venturing into the margins of the swamp. Over time I would further my distances into this wetland hopping from hummock island to hummock island, hanging on to the stout branches of ancient blueberry bushes, and in the drought of summer crawling between the elevated mounds along a highway of peat moss. The damp moisture held by the moss would wet my knees and cool my hands. And on those dark days when I sought refuge from the outside world this environment provided the perfect escape; place where no one could find me and no one could harm me. It was during these times that I learned that the dragons that I was trying to escape were in my head and not within the dark crevices and shadows of the large swamp.

On one particular day while exploring the inner core of this shrub wetland I remembering hearing a terrible squealing. I was just beyond my dragon fearing days and the outrageous noise terrified me. I could not stand and run because the overhanging branches were too dense. I could only retreat the same way I came in. I crawled as fast as I could along animal trails that occasionally crossed deep streams that stood still on this sultry summer morning. When I slowed at the open water I could hear the squealing animal coming my way. Images of mega sized lizards filled my brain and I scrambled through the black muck to avoid the oncoming beast. I became stuck in the mud and the squealing came closer. Certain I was on the precipice of damnation I struggle to extract my feet from the mud leaving the PF Flyer from my left foot in the dark muck. All this had taken time and the creature, now grunting and snorting as it neared, was almost upon me. I looked below the underneath of the blueberry bush branches and saw movement. I was aghast at seeing pink hooves. Images of demons and Satan entered my young mind. And then a moment later, when I was sure the end was at hand, a large sloppy looking young pig appeared. He was mostly pink, dotted with mud, and seemed happy to see me. Perhaps he had a fear of dragons too. The hog relaxed when he saw me and wallowed into the water where it frolicked and rolled over. If you’ve ever seen a pig in the mud you know what happiness truly looks like.

I was greatly relieved that the monster did not turn out to be a dragon but rather an escaped pig who was likely looking for a way out of the swamp. I was still wary for I new that pigs could be dangerous. There was a hog farm to the east and the south and many a time I had wandered over and watched these pigs in the fields. They were large, sometimes ornery, and could take down a full grown man if they wanted to. But this young pig did not seem dangerous. As I retreated towards the limit of the wetland on my hands and knees the pig pulled itself out of the wallow and followed me, at some distance I might add, but still it had some sort of sense that I would lead it too safety. The pig would study me with his beady black eyes at every move I would make. I soon learned that he was perhaps more wary of me than I was of him. But he still saw me as his salvation to sturdier ground. And so we proceeded, the pig following at a distance of about 40 yards. In about fifteen minutes I reached a point where the thick blueberry swamp thinned out. I found I could stand and finished this short trek to the border of the forest. The pig spotted the trees and ran as fast as he could to my left hand side. I was a bit taken aback by this behavior and stopped my own movement. When the pig reached higher ground he put his nose into the air. He seemed to orient himself to a southerly direction and ran off through the woods in a direction that I believed would take him directly back to the hog farm. Satisfied that I had done my good deed for the day I sat quietly under a tall white pine tree. This edge, the area between the forest and the swamp, was tranquil and for the first time in many days I felt peace.

And on this December morning as I walk the periphery of an old field and a deep deciduous forest I am reminded of the peace of the ecotone plant community. Gray birch saplings try to eek out a spot between thick goldenrod, blackberry brambles, and asters. Their foothold will lead the way for other forest followers. The goldenrod and brambles will eventually get shaded to a point where they can no longer grow. This may take decades. The patience of nature abounds.

Along the edge of this deciduous forest I find a tree that was toppled by ice and wind. The long trunk makes for a perfect place to sit and rest. I look out before me. This old field will eventually change back to forest but not in my lifetime. These changes take time; perhaps a generation of two. In the meantime a casual observer like myself can look both ways, forest on one side and old field on the other side, and enjoy their good company.

The dragons and giants, long ago, have left my mind. I am at peace.

Written for www.wildwramblings.com in December of 2011.

  • Teresaevangeline

    I can’t tell you how much I love this story, a story of childhood filed with fears, both real and imaginary and of leading a pig, who might also have been afraid of dragons,  to safety. It’s beautifully written and filled with wonderful imagery. Love the photos, too.

    Happy solstice and Merry Christmas to you and your family.

  • http://www.wildramblings.com/ Wild_Bill

    Thank you Teresa.  I’m really happy you enjoyed it.  I’m still looking for a dragon in a swamp but they prove to be too elusive.  The best to you and yours over the solstice and Christmas season as well.

  • http://swamericana.wordpress.com/ Jack Matthews

    Bill, what a story.  I like your detailed descriptions of the plant life — always fascinates me, your details.  Yes, those demons are in our heads, aren’t they?  You enjoy the forest on one hand, field on the other, and know that changes will come beyond your years.  I often wonder about my little Salt Creek.  Will it cut deeper into the bottom?  Dry up with all this drought?  I look also at the juniper trees (cedar they call down here) that have survived the axe and think that they will come back if left alone with a force.  That hog followed you for safety.  May have even sensed your trying to get out of the same dragon land as he was.  Thank goodness for your forests and escapes, thank goodness for my uncles’ ranches I could work on and camp upon, the escapes that got me away from things at home.  Teresa has her Lonewolf, I my ranchito, and you have your beautiful land, too.  Happy solstice and Merry Christmas to you, your family and all your four-legged companions!

  • http://www.wildramblings.com/ Wild_Bill

    And Merry Christmas, happy solstice, and a wonderful new year to you and yours my friend.  Yes, we are all fortunate to have refuge in the wild and to have found each other within the blogosphere.  I fell that I am so lucky.

  • Guy

    Hi Bill
     Between the dragons and the pig I am amazed you went into the woods at all, you must have been a very intrepid little boy. This was a really beautiful post you really conjured up memories of what it was like to be a child for me the fear, the confusion, the enthusiasm and the wonder, thanks for that. I loved the photo of the frog.
    All the best to you and your family in the New Year.

  • http://www.wildramblings.com/ Wild_Bill

    Thanks Guy, it is readers like you that keep me writing Wild Ramblings.  I really appreciate the comments.  Traveling from our early years to adulthood is a real adventure.  It is amazing any of navigate successfully through all the unknown, and for those of us who had burdens to bear the trip was perhaps, a little more difficult.  The miracle is that most of us arrive in the same place as willing, kind, and loving adults. 

  • http://fourwindsphotojournal.wordpress.com/ sandy

    Another wonderful story! Strange isn’t it, how our lives are formed by the amount of freedom we had, and the places we ventured as children? I think that those of us who had  kind of early life are the lucky ones. My husband and I shared similar childhoods over a thousand miles apart. And now, thanks to Google, he can show me the winding creeks where he wandered and fished in rural Maryland. Have you ever been back to your childhood swampland?

    Merry Christmas to you and your family.

  • http://www.landingoncloudywater.blogspot.com/ Emily

    Great story, Bill. And “Dragon fearing days!” I love it. :) Makes me remember my childhood and the adventures I had in the woods… what did I think about then? What did I imagine certain sounds meant? Enjoyable stroll, as always. Happy holidays to you and your family! 

  • http://www.wildramblings.com/ Wild_Bill

    I had an unusual amount of freedom to wander of a child, some would say it was totally unsafe.  My mother did get lost at least once looking for me and I had to find her (but, bless her heart, she had absolutely no sense of direction).  There were several large swamps I used to wander.  One of them is surrounded by a subdivision, one is in tact but the woods around it were cleared, and the third was too deep so it was never ruined.  I suspect that the dragons still reside in this one place. 

  • http://www.wildramblings.com/ Wild_Bill

    While I had real demons chasing me it is really interesting to see how my child mind interpreted them and made them into wild tales and fantasies.  The phrase “Wild Ramblings” as it applies to me actually comes from my maternal grandmother’s description of the wild tales (lies) I made up as a very small child.  Most were about dragons and giants.

    And I hope you and yours have a sweet and wonderful holiday season as well. 

  • http://montucky.wordpress.com/ Montucky

    In your childhood, without your even knowing it, you were blessed! I have a sense that you have been sharing that blessing with others for a long, long time. Merry Christmas and happy Holidays to you and your family!

  • http://www.wildramblings.com/ Wild_Bill

    Thanks Montucky, I have been blessed haven’t I?  Sharing all things good and otherwise about the natural world is what I like to do.  About that there can be little doubt.  I am hoping that you and yours have a wonderful Christmas season and peaceful New Year.  Thanks for reading.

  • http://www.anniespickns.wordpress.com/ Annie

    Wonderful story Bill. It got me to thinking about the some of the comments the children we take on field trips to the Wildlife Area make. They are always seeing things that I never do, like beaver that can swim in 6″ water, owls that fly around and grab ducks off the water and snakes that peek up out of holes in the ground even though it’s the middle of winter and there is no sun or warmth and I suspect they are almost positive I am mistaken when I say that we don’t have alligators. Your story reminded me to listen with compassion and be comforting in my responses for who knows what kind of dragons some of these beautiful children are carrying with them. May you and your family have a peaceful, joyous and loving holiday. 

  • Wild_Bill

    I wondered if you would connect with this story through the children that you work with at the wildlife area.  Life seen through the reality of a child is totally different.  I was so very pleased that you noticed this.  Wonderful, and your specific references are so ideal.  Perhaps no alligators, but the dragons do exist, at least in the minds of children.  Thanks Annie, and I am hoping that you have the most peaceful and wonderful year in 2012.

  • http://primarilypets.blogspot.com/ Barbara

    Another of your marvelous stories Bill – full of the adventure and imagination of childhood. Pigs and Dragons indeed… how fabulous a memory of a swamp is that! Thank you for adding to my Christmas eve with such fun. I’ll smile all day thinking about it.

    And I wish you, your dear and precious wife, your boys and those wonderful dogs – the whole family – the peace and joy of this Christmas season, solstice, yule, and all the others – it’s truly a time for enjoying each and every moment and I hope you are able to – and the best as well for a healthy happy new year.

  • Wild_Bill

    Thank you Barbara.  Yes, this is a time to appreciate all that we have.  And I hope that you and yours have a wonderful Christmas, New Year, and that good luck and fortune follow you in 2012 and beyond.  I’ll be looking forward to your posts throughout this coming year!

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