Our Backyard Forest

The wooded sanctuary behind our house taught our children about love and loss.

By Meadow Rue Merrill
Tyler Olson/Shutterstock.com

All I ever wanted was a little cottage in the woods by a stream. Fourteen years ago, my husband, Dana, and I found it in the most unlikely place: the south end of Bath, Maine’s smallest city and one of its most densely populated neighborhoods.

There it was, a hundred-year-old New Englander incongruously facing High Street with its bumper-to-bumper summer beach traffic on one side and hundreds of acres of woods and walking trails behind. So what if the house only came with half an acre. A stream beneath our bedroom window sang us to sleep after every rain.

Living in Bath wasn’t my first choice. To a farm girl raised in the fertile fields of Oregon, this was Big City living. The whizzing traffic that made crossing the street an exercise in faith. The blinking lights from the towering cranes at the nearby Bath Iron Works that reflected off our living room walls. The twenty rooftops I could count from our front door. But Bath was affordable. It was convenient. And, with so many trails to explore outside, the great outdoors were just a short climb up a rocky hill.

Our first child, Judah, was nine-months-old on the chill Thanksgiving Day we moved in. To him, the forest was both a danger and a delight. Danger, as in our telling him, “Don’t go into the woods alone.” And the day he did, Dana found our three-year-old wandering along an abandoned logging road beyond sight of our home.

“Remember you aren’t allowed back here alone?” Dana, terrified, told Judah.

“I wasn’t alone.” Judah held up his two little hands. “I had Gooma and Gasha with me.”

Those were the names he’d given his hands.

Delight, as in the many meandering walks we took beneath the towering pines. The myriad of wild mushrooms we discovered each fall. The snow-covered paths we trod to collect holiday boughs each winter. The pink-orbed lady’s slippers and wild blueberries that filled the woods each summer.

As our family grew, every bedroom of the little house was filled. The woods were a magical playland, ringing with our children’s battle cries and springing forts of all sizes. Until one day late this past spring when our eight-year-old Lydia, wide-eyed and terrified, raced down the hill from the woods with her eleven-year-old brother Gabriel fast behind.

“They’re cutting down our trees!” Lydia burst through the back door of our house.

“What do you mean?” I asked, trying to get her to stop crying long enough to understand.

“They’re nearly at my fort.” Gabriel blinked hard as he stood behind her.

“Who are?” I asked.

“The woodcutters!” Lydia wailed, throwing herself on the couch. “They’re cutting down our whole forest!”

Of course, the forest wasn’t ours. For years, Dana and I had wondered who owned the woods and whether they might some day be developed. But unlike a group of residents who had rallied a decade earlier to save Thorne Head, a vast tract of woods on the city’s North End, no one had taken the same measures here. And now the owner was clearing the land: all seventy-five acres.

Every day for two months we listened to the rumble of engines and whir of blades and crack of branches as machines sliced through the forest. To block the noise, I shut windows, turned on music, and avoided even looking up the hill from the backyard. And then one day, about the middle of summer, the noise stopped. The trucks were gone. So were the quiet, tree-lined paths.

“I don’t even recognize this place anymore,” Lydia said on a late summer evening as we tramped over the bare, tire-branded road to see what had become of the woods.

Instead of pine needles and moss, the ground was littered with crushed rock and woodchips. What had previously been a tree-sheltered path was now wider than Route 1. Piles of drying logs waited to be hauled away. And I knew the trucks would be back.

But on this night, trees still stood beyond the reach of the new road. And I watched my daughter pick her way over stumps and fallen branches toward paths yet to be discovered.