Whose Woods Are These?

We moved into our house on the first weekend of January, 1980. One reason we chose it was that it reminded us of Pennsylvania, where we did graduate work. (The other reason? It was the only house we afford because the seller gave us great terms.) The street was tree-lined and there was a wood across the street, five to ten acres of undeveloped land along the Provo river. There were enough trees that on a summer walk, I could feel a drop of several degrees as I turned the corner into the shade of our cul-de-sac. It was cool, quiet, and felt rural, though we live less than two miles from BYU’s campus. We occasionally saw an eagle resting in our wood. We often saw rabbits (many of them planted by one of our neighbors who loved rabbits, but not after they were bunnies). There were snakes and ponds and beaver and muskrat. Occasionally deer would show up, having found their way up river from the lake and then, like a fly in a bottle, being unable to figure out how to get back down river.

Our children played in that wood. They made forts and fought villains. They did nature searches. Sometimes they just mused. Calling them home required no more than a loud whistle—the rule was that they couldn’t go so far that they couldn’t hear my whistle—so the wood acted as a large, inviting, and relatively safe play yard.

A few years ago, the owner of the property died. He was a gruff old man whose response to telephone inquiries about buying the property was “Did you see a ‘for sale’ sign on it?” after which he hung up. I don’t know why he wouldn’t sell. I’ve heard from neighbors that it was because this had been his family’s farm and he didn’t want to see all of it developed. Since the rest of the original farm (near Fort Utah and at the point where the first conflict of Indians and pioneers in Utah Valley occurred) was developed long ago, that didn’t seem like a good reason. I suspect the story about his farm was our gossipy invention, but it was the only reason we had, so we repeated it.

After the owner died, his daughters decided to develop and sell the property. The developer divided it into five lots along the street and made most of the acreage common property for the buyers. I don’t know whether that decision was dictated by creative insight or federal wet lands regulations, but it was a good idea, for it left most of the wood intact even if now inaccessible. Some people in the ward still feel all right about traipsing through the yards of the new homes to get to the wood behind them.

Everyone on the street was startled by the subdivision. It wasn’t that we expected no change. We had rumored amongst ourselves for years over what would happen to it, and “large condominium complex” was our worst fear. But expecting the development wasn’t the same as seeing it. Seeing it made us feel that we had been robbed. It took several years for the lots to sell, but once they did, houses went up immediately. The houses were big and expensive, and though the developer insisted on keeping as many trees as possible, their building required cutting down most of the trees that had formerly shaded the street, pushing the tree line eighty feet or so away from the road and toward the river. The new houses took away “our” wood and the character of our street.

It would have been easy to be put out by the change. The problem was that the people who moved into the new houses were a nice addition to our ward, and going from two or three teenagers whom we never saw to eight or ten elementary school children riding their bikes back and forth brought life to the street, life that we hadn’t seen in a long time. We were torn between disliking the new additions—carping about the architecture, the size of the homes, their cutting of trees—and liking the people who lived in them.

For Janice and me our carping and mixed feelings were resolved completely when one of our sons bought the fourth house. Grandkids knock on the door for a visit or to practice the piano. We try not to be busybody parents and in-laws (with how much success only my son and his family can say), but I love looking up from my desk to see our grandchildren on their bikes or in their yard, and I think it is great that I have only to walk across the street to visit with about one-third of my grandchildren. I love hearing them tell about their adventures in the wood. One day Sam, the oldest, brought over a beaver skull he found, though I don’t think he’s seen any of the beaver yet. The muskrats are out in the day more, so he’s more likely to see one of them. Snakes and tadpoles will be easy. The woods are ours again.

18 comments for “Whose Woods Are These?

  1. And thus we see that private property can replicate all the benefits of publicly shared benefits. Plus, you get to spend the extra cash. :)

  2. I envy you, Jim.

    I was raised a few miles south of there, and the sprawling orchards of my youth are now cookie-cutter subdivisions. I used to walk to my grandparents’ house on Saturday – 6 miles where I passed about a dozen houses. I visited a couple of years ago, and the distance walking among the trees and farmland has shrunken to less than half of what I once enjoyed. Some of my parents’ neighbors have moved further west to “get back to the country.” My four-ward town now has two bulging stakes. (Does that pinpoint it for anyone?) I used to know every kid my age in town – quite well; my cousins’ children now know fewer kids their age than I did – in a town over five times the size.

    In many ways, I’ve lost my hometown – at least the town of my memories. I understand intellectually why it happened, but my heart never will accept it fully.

  3. Thanks Jim your thoughts are lovely. Our house is older and too small. Our large yard is wooded. The property behind it will not be developed because it is flood plain. A big part of me wants to sell and move to a spacious, new home with everything just like I want it. The problem is that if we moved to a grand new palace I would loose the woods, the animals, the creek and river. Thanks for helping remember why I love our woods.

  4. Thanks Jim your thoughts are lovely. Our house is older and too small. Our large yard is wooded. The property behind it will not be developed because it is flood plain. A big part of me wants to sell and move to a spacious, new home with everything just like I want it. The problem is that if we moved to a grand new palace I would loose the woods, the animals, the creek and river. Thanks for helping remember why I love our woods.

  5. Jim, I’m a couple of decades away from being a grandparent, but I’m already jealous of your closeness to your grandchildren!

    As it happens, we are moving this week to a smaller house because it has woods and a pond on conservation land behind it.. The look on Peter’s face when I told him that he’d be able to go fishing right there, a couple hundred yards from our back gate, was worth many years’ worth of property taxes!!

  6. Jim – It sounds like you live in the ideal world – family and woods! After growing up and starting a family in the mostly barren landscapes of southeastern Idaho and the Salt Lake Valley, we moved with our family to the suburbs of Washington DC in Northern Virginia about 19 years ago. We settled in a little planned community with wooded buffers and walking trails and all the elements of nature that I love. Just a few blocks from our house was a county road called Pohick Road which was just two lanes with woods growing so thick on either side that they had grown over the road and met in the middle. So driving on Pohick Road was almost like driving in a wooded tunnel in the summer and after the leaves were gone on the winter it felt like a wooded trellis over the whole road.

    About 8 years after we moved here, the country started to build the Fairfax County Parkway which meant the Pohick Road went from a quaint little two lane road with a wooded canopy to a 4-lane mega-boulevard with a median strip in the middle and with trees cleared to at least 30 feet beyond the roadway on either side. I was stunned and upset.

    But in the years since the parkway was opened I have come to appreciate the convenience offered by the quicker access to certain activities and functions in the county. I also notice that in my favorite seasons – spring and autumn – I can drive along the parkway with its gentle hills and still be overwhelmed as I gaze over the wooded areas that are left. The flowering trees of spring or the colors of autumn are still breathtaking and still move my spirit. I wonder sometimes if I am just settling or rationalizing because there is nothing I can do to change what happened to Pohick Road.

    Your essay suggests that you understand that life offers many beautiful things for us to enjoy. Your grandchildren have now become a pleasant part of the landscape of your life. You truly are blessed.

  7. 1) I don’t know why he wouldn’t sell. I’ve heard from neighbors that it was because this had been his family’s farm and he didn’t want to see all of it developed. Our area used to be a vast farm. Now it has a couple of subdivisions and lots of 1-2 acre lots, but across the street from us is an alfalfa field that the original owner kept to keep a little bit of the farm in his family.

    2) We live close to my parents. There is nothing sweeter.

  8. Kristine, I’m sorry to be the one to have to tell you this, but: you have a ten year old. You could be a grandparent in ONE decade.

  9. As I went walking, I saw a sign there,
    And on the sign it said, “No Trespassing,”
    But on the other side, it didn’t say nothing:
    That side was made for you and me.

    (Woody Guthrie answers Jim’s possibly rhetorical question.)

  10. Jim, where we live now we have a least a block, block-and-a-half between ourselves and all but one neighbor, and they’re about 3/4 of a block off. Pastures give us elbow room on three sides and BLM gives it on the other. Our house sits between two canyons, each of which teem with all kinds of life. Having grown up mostly indoors in Utah Valley, my kids take little advantage of the room to roam, but I sure do.

    Someday the pastures will develop. In some ways, I look forward to that. Development will cut down on the number of bullets burning through the air from shooters using their guns for entertainment and artistic expression. Sometimes our rural paradise sounds like a rough Chicago neighborhood because of all the recreational gunfire, even after dark. What I hope is that when the area does begin to grow new transportation and building technology and just plain increased human awareness will make it possible for people to avoid the trouble Utah Valley has gotten into with air and light pollution over the years. Looks like I came to Provo four years before you did, but do you remember how local news programs used to issue visibility reports during the weather? “Visibility today is fifty miles,” etc.

    I want to live close to my children and grandchildren someday. Somehow. I might even give up what I have now to do that.

  11. Jim didn’t mention the thoughtful housewarming gift he gave us before we even moved in: his snowblower and instructions on how to clear his driveway and the driveway of every widow on the street.

    We love living here and Jim and Jan are not busy bodies at all. (Of course, it hasn\’t really snowed yet.)

  12. Kacy, we actually don’t live far from you and Jim if that snowblower ever needs a trial run. Also, we’re north facing.

  13. I used to live in the San Fenando Valley down here in California. On the very west end of the valley, there is Chatsworth Park, which is really a dinky little plot of grass, but at least it was right up against a set of rocky hills that you couldn’t build anything on. My bros. and I spent a good chunk of our adolescence up there. We encountered snakes and the occasional mountain lion dropping. I’m kinda grateful that I never became that dropping by stumbling into any mountain lions, but that’s a different story. We had a spectacular time, so I understand some of the feelings you have about your woods. Of course, as the 80’s progressed into the 90’s, the amount of crime made going to Chatsworth park next to impossible, even though we lived not 2 miles away. When we would hear sirens, gun shots, and hear reports of young girls getting raped and gang shootings happening there, it kinda put a damper on our visits. Also, in an effort “to curb gang violence,” they decided to fine anyone near the railroad tracks that went through a part of it. So naturally, the only people fined were a bunch of teenagers looking for a good time. Anyway, to make this brief (too late!) there are worse things than having an area developed and nice people move in. And I’m glad that you recognize that. Tell your grandkids to play and play away, because you never know how long the area, the nice people, a time to play will last.

  14. As the new owner of one of those giant houses, and the mother of 6 of those “8 to 10 elementary school kids,” I have to say I’m glad the woods are going to be around for the next generation of kids to enjoy. We couldn\’t imagine a better place to raise our family, especially because everyone who lives on the street has been nothing but gracious and kind to us, tree-cutting and all.

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