The history my family doesn’t know, and hasn’t attempted to know.  Memory goes back only personally, locally: to twenty-three years ago, when the house was built by my grandfather; to twelve years ago, when we inherited it. The forest’s history we aren’t sure about: it’s mostly young; there was farmland here (the poor kind) but now it’s all overgrown. When I was fifteen I watched the neighbours’s house while they were on vacation, and the father told me that when they’d moved in he could see clear over the rows of pine my grandfather had planted, and straight to the house.

“You could ski over it,” he said.

The pine forest is new: you can see that, manmade, it’s planted in rows. When we were young we went out on foot, our grandfather in his smokey flannel, smelling of wood-splinters, chain-oil, and we cut the dead branches off the trees with a handsaw, the action almost indiscriminate, arbitrary, and so rankling–we weren’t going to trim that whole twenty acres, were we?

The deciduous forest is older, but not by much. The maples stand proud and straight, unbent by age, just out of adolescence. Their trunks straight shafts flowering at the tops like broccoli. Tipped over they look like barbells, the root systems heaving with dirt–weeds and flowers too, if it’s been a while since they’ve fallen. By then there’s a good chance that we, the scavengers, would have the trunk cut-up and laid out in piles, some to be taken back to the woodshed, split, others to be left behind, over months soaked rotten, covered in moss, and forgotten. The branches us boys dissembled with the cherished handsaws, in brown November, pulling the toothpicks over mouldering earth, or in muggy July, flush with mosquitos, the hooks and loops of our velcro branches catching on all of the young growth. These thin branches, good kindling, to be laid in their circular funeral pyres and left to collect muck.

In that forest I stood a ways off and watched my grandfather take apart a leaning tree (or a tree that threatened to lean) with his axe: first one side, and then the other. The upright, standing scar left behind after the tree came crashing down: it’s been fifteen years maybe but the forest works so slowly I bet it would still be there if I had the inclination to look for it, or maybe not, the forest works slowly, but suddenly: over fourteen years the stump softens, splinters, sprouts, and in the fifteenth year, it’s soil.

But aside from this early, oft-nostalgised family history (and the facts that attend it: J—. D—. helped my grandfather clear the trail with his bulldozer; it’s here that our dog inadvertently frightened away those hunters; this is where M—. and L—. saw what they thought was a cougar, but must have been a deer) there isn’t much we know about the property, and even less we care to know. Our early history is only ever nostalgised because inside the house it is an electronic void, we’ve forgotten the forest entirely, and I’m only able to write about it because I’ve left that house long behind.


  1. Childhood homes are an especially weird place to go back to, the dimensions become so much tighter. I lived in an old turn-of-the-century row-house in NW DC, and when I went back there not long ago I was shocked at how my formerly spacious play-palace had become so cramped and suffocating. I’m very very skinny and I could barely fit on the stairs that lead to the upper floor.
    There weren’t any trees in our neighborhood. There was one tree that was long since dead, surrounded by dirt. I dug the way you used the trees as a historical measuring stick. Our forest is just how much that area has changed since we lived there. This was in a low-economic area, during the height and wane of the crack epidemic in what was the murder capitol of the United States at that time. Our street was never so bad mostly because all the families on that street had known each other for generations, but as children we still couldn’t play at the nearby playground because a child had been hit by a stray bullet. Now they’ve opened up new shops on a nearby street as well as a new Metro station and the area has picked up.

    Anyway, yeah, childhood homes are a special kind of nostalgia m’good man

  2. The first house I can remember was something like that: it was in an older neighbourhood that had seen better days, and my first time back, I discovered that I towered over the fence across the road I always remembered being gargantuan–I think because I used my parents as measuring sticks, and it was taller than my mom, and my dad.

    The relationship between transit and neighbourhood “health” is interesting. Except for one area in the downtown core (which probably has something to do with it being the nexus of a lot of detox centres) I think all of the pretty bad neighbourhoods are incredibly underserved by transit, usually because in more prosperous times they were built for people who would have been expected to rely on their cars. I don’t know much about NW DC though so I bet there’s a heck of lot more going on there.

    It’s crazy about the playground. My parents always told me that we moved out of our first house because of “drug dealers on the playground” but I have a feeling that’s just something they said. I don’t know if it was ever really that bad.

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