I grew up in the woods. Spending my earliest years in East Brunswick, New Jersey—a municipal casualty of suburban sprawl—I was lucky enough to live in a sleepy little neighborhood of roughly 52 houses on a small dead-end buttressed by The Woods. And while it wasn’t a tree strewn vista of thousands, or even hundreds of acres, it was a relatively small plot of naturalish habitat that was as big as the whole of the world to an excitable 7 year old with an overcharged imagination and a great group of friends equally inclined. It had a creek, railroad tracks, old abandoned warehouses and a secret path to McDonald’s. Spending our summer vacations equipped with everything a group a friends would ever need to replicate life as depicted in Stand By Me; roaming the woods and railroad tracks hoping to someday come across something so adult as a dead body—or worse.
Days on end were spent pew-pewing one another as we’d chase our chosen foe after lying in an ambush for the better part of an afternoon. Our game of Guns was how we exercised our wannabe existence, recreating the carnage we witnessed in Platoon—which I was of course watching without my parents’ permission. We’d go so far as to map out routes, tie off ropes and plant booby traps between trees using fishing wire for trip wires. Boom-boom you’re dead, [insert friend’s name here] being the adopted call for you’re out of the game.
When we weren’t busy replicating violence we didn’t understand, we took a much more peaceful approach to The Woods: resting along the creek, trying to track deer (and failing), catching frogs or just walking and talking. We had our own paradise, free of parents, supervision and the boundaries of the outside world. We were the masters of our domain, free to build forts and pseudo-villages trying make out a life where Robin Hood, his Merry Men and the Ewoks would feel at home. The woods was our place to live out our fantasies, to flesh out the worlds of not just our minds, but of the movies, cartoons and video games that marked our formative years.
Now I find myself spending more time than ever in that other forest that has been my home for the last 20 years. Gone are the large deciduous trees that stood sentry over my youth, exchanged for the smaller pitch pines and cedars of the New Jersey Pinelands. I’ve spend two decades living on the southeast edge of Pinelands National Preserve, at a whopping 1.1 million acres. If I’m ever to match the intimacy of the woods of my youth, I’ve got some serious exploration to do.
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