We bought our home 11 years ago because it was pretty much all we could afford. We were young and had few resources but big dreams. We had lived in my parents’ home for 3 years. Chloe, our daughter, slept in her own room. Liam, our baby son, slept in a co-sleeper he’d long outgrown beside Brian and I, where we slept on an air mattress that deflated each night from too much use.
It was the Great Recession, and we couldn’t believe our luck in finding this home, but closing on it was a long and arduous process. We all were impatient after 3 years, and so Chloe would often ask if we could go visit “Chloe’s House,” in her tiny, sweet 2 1/2 year old voice. It was April and on one particularly warm and sunny day we broke the rules–we snuck into the backyard and sat on the deck, sharing lunch in the sunshine and letting the kids get their bearings.
Other than a cursory glance at our viewing to make sure we’d have room for a garden, we hadn’t actually examined the backyard. We couldn’t afford to be picky, honestly, so whatever was there was what we were going to work with for our homesteading dreams. Yet, there we sat, positively enveloped by trees and birdsong. It was private and quiet. Somehow we’d been blessed with this beautiful plot of land without even trying. Brian and I looked at each other with big grins. The kids danced and twirled to the rhythym of the birds and the rustling of the trees. It remains one of my most treasured memories. We all began planning what this backyard would look like, where the garden would go and whether we’d be able to buy the kids’ a swingset. I could picture them here, running and playing, pulling carrots from the earth, and experiencing the childhood I’d always wanted to give them.
We moved in on my birthday in May and we all but tossed our boxes and furniture into the house so we could hurry-up and explore the forest. A month had only increased our curiosity. How far back did it go? We set out, exiting the gate at the back of our yard and locating a passable break in the trees. We wound our way first perpendicular and then parallel to our house, curving back and back and back some more until we found a wooden bridge over a creek on a well-worn trail. A trail!! There’s a hiking trail behind our house?!
The kids loved hiking. They would stop a lot, of course, to notice rocks and leaves and nuts and things. They would beg me to put them in my pocket–treasures for later–and so even a short hike could be stretched in time. We circled the trail around and saw a stone bench and then down a little, crossing the creek again on a stepping stone path, then up the other side. The trees parted and just to our right we spied a pond and gasped. A pond!! There’s a pond behind our house?!
The trail forked, with one side hugging the pond and another moving up to an evergreen thicket that smelled like Christmas, the pine needles soft and welcoming beneath our feet. Chloe began throwing rocks into the pond, giggling with delight when they splashed. Liam began finding all the pinecones he could, exuberantly dancing “Maniac-style” when his little fingers clasped the rough shell.
Working our way up and up a little more, the evergreens parted just enough for an outdoor chapel, reminding me so much of my happy summers at Camp Lutherwald I felt immediately welcomed and peaceful. An outdoor chapel! A place to sit and contemplate and be still. We propped the digital camera on one of the wooden benches and took a quick family photo, commemorating this moment forever.
We noticed the little ranch home on the other side of the pond and questioned whether anyone lived there. Are we trespassing? There weren’t signs posted and the trail is well-worn, as if many feet had made it so. Still, we decided to circle back the way we came rather than to loop closer to the house. As we headed back to our home, in need of so much TLC and repairs, I could not believe what we had just discovered–a hiking trail, a forest, a sanctuary. The next morning, a deer walked right up to our fence line as if in welcome, then retreated back into the forest.
We shared one car in those days because we couldn’t afford another one. I was staying-at-home with the children while they were in preschool, and so without a way to drive anywhere, the forest became a near-daily routine. Little legs would run and jump and splash and climb and explore, and then we would get back home, I’d plop them both in the bath, and they’d spread out their treasures on the bathmat to eye their bounty and whisper secrets to one another.
As they grew, they no longer needed me to take them into the forest. They found neighborhood friends of varying ages to run wild and free with in it. They made forts. And fought pretend battles. And filmed movies. They began referring to it as The Forest of Fond Memories. Yet, after a few years, the trail became less maintained and almost impassable. The outdoor chapel overgrown and then dismantled. The little ranch home demolished. The pond drained. The kids cried and cried.
We knew the church owned the property based on conversations with our neighbors and some digging at our local property asessor’s office. A few of our neighbors attended the church, even. Nobody seemed to indicate who might be in charge of the property and what plans they might have for it.
So, Brian and I quietly intervened. We began maintaining the trails. We began clearing invasive honeysuckle so native woodland plants could flourish. And every year we tended this patch of magical forest, we grew to love it more and more. Hawks would both majestically and menacingly appear to harass our chickens. Coyotes made an occasional stop. One winter, during every snow, a red fox would appear and sneak into our garden for whatever we’d left to compost into the soil.
The more we tended the forest, the more animals appeared. Forest food, too, began growing in great volume: morels, chanterelles, ramps, wild garlic, and black raspberries. The kids could once again run the trail and even ride a bike on it. It became our routine to have a family walk a few times a week. The cats would even join us some of the time.
The kids began naming sections of the trail and drawing maps to make it a “real park” — so that other people would use the trail. There’s mushroom alley, where dappled light on the bank leading down the wetlands grows bright chanterelles and other non edible fungi, overlook bridge, the levee that sits above the wetlands below, pine tree row, chipmunk lane, where all the nut trees shelter a healthy population of squirrels and chipmunks, and solitude corner, where the path curves and low-lying trees make for a feeling of seclusion before you wind your own to the wooden bridge over the creek.
Brian and I began going on morning walks with our coffee, so early the owls were still hooting and the mist was still settled in the wetlands where the pond once stood–so quiet we could come upon a deer without startling it away. We would venture off the trail sometimes, finding new nooks and crannies of this small patch of wonder.
And it was on these walks we began to dream. Does the church intend to use this land? They don’t seem to maintain it consistently. What if it’s more land than they can keep up with? Would they ever sell it to us? We probably can’t afford it. What about a piece of it? We’d keep the trail. We love the trail. We’d put the cabin in the clearing near where the ranch home once stood–where there’s sugar maples and evergreens–and we could walk this trail and tend this forest forever.
It feels foolish. Property values in our area are so high those dreams really do feel like distant dreams. But this morning, even though it was sleeting outside, I clutched my mug of coffee, walked to the sliding glass door to peer outside, and counted the birds, as is my habit: cardinals, blue jays, a wide variety of sparrows, and the juncos that I read migrate here every winter from somewhere else because I don’t see them in the summer. I’m sure there’s more. I hear more. There’s dozens of them flitting around the trees, swooping to pick at the remainders of the perennial garden I deliberately left in place for wildlife, and they’re calling in spring even while it’s snowing. I opened the sliding glass door, heedless of the cold, stepped outside onto the patio and took a deep breath. This is why we love it here. This is why we’ve been here so long, in our tiny house with one bathroom and no space. What if. . . . . What if we didn’t have to give it up?
Dear White Church: we are not members–we are members of a different local church–but we love your forest, your sledding hill, and your outdoor church services in the summer. We maintain the trail and delight when other people use it. We want to preserve it, to build a modest cabin and grow more food. We want to keep it magical. We want to keep tending it the way we have the past decade. We don’t have as much money as other people might. We aren’t real estate investors and don’t own any stock. We’re just a small family with big dreams and big ideas who aren’t afraid of hard work. Would you sell some of this to us for a price we can pay? Love, the Hulls.