I grew up in the Mississippi Delta. There were no hills in that flat land. The incline of the railroad track that ran through my hometown of Cleveland was the closest thing we had to a hill. We had trees in town, but out in the rural areas between hamlets, there was nothing but flat fields. All cotton when I grew up there way back in the day. Yet south of town stood a little patch of woods I could see off in the distance. It was fascinating to see those trees–thick as hairs on a dog’s back–stand tall above the cotton. Years ago, I wrote a story about those woods. It was eventually published in a few venues over the years. Below is the original (unedited) version.
The Big Woods
I lived four blocks from the edge of town. It was 1960, I was a kid, and my life played out in the city block around my white house in the 800 block of Deering.
On hot Delta days, I stayed under the stream of cold air from the window unit in the living room, cutting out paper doll clothes, playing jacks, or reading a library book—one of those blue pioneer biographies with a yellow ribbon around the title. Or I rode my bicycle, aqua with cream stripes and a tan vinyl seat, up and down Deering, pretending to be on a Wild West adventure, letting my imagination run wild, but stopping now and then to pop bubbles in the boiling black tar between sections of concrete in the street.
Occasionally, I ventured out, exploring, expanding my horizons. I went to the corner and rode my bike down Fifth Avenue’s cracked sidewalk until it dead-ended at Yale Street. Yale defined the southern edge of town. A two-pump Standard Oil station stood there, backed up to a cottonfield. Beside the station, John Deere tractors, plows, and other implements lined up in a row, Johnson grass growing up around them.
I crossed Yale Street at the three-way stop and parked my bike under the canopy of the full-service station. Full service meant the owner filled up each car with gas, checked the tires and oil, and washed bugs off the windshield. I went inside, where it was dark and smelled like rubber tires. There was a tall rack of comic books inside the door—Archie, Betty and Veronica; Little Lulu; Tweety and Sylvester. Next to it were displays of Double Bubble gum, red jawbreakers, Moon Pies, and candy bars.
A two-rut dirt road, used as a tractor turnrow, ran beside the Standard station, cutting down the middle of the cottonfield. In summer, lush green cotton plants bloomed pink and then burst open with white bolls of cotton. By the end of summer, the field was white. White under a dome of blue sky, white pressed out for miles across flat Deltaland.
Sometimes I rode bikes with my friend Nancy to the service station. We parked at the end of the turnrow and looked south, the dusty trail narrowing as it got further away and the defined leaves of early cotton blurring into walls of green.
The flat, open field stretched out as far as the eye could see—except for one thing. A patch of woods a mile or two down the road. One circular structure of trees rising up out of the cotton. We called it The Big Woods.
It was mysterious. It was out of place. It was far away. Yet, it beckoned, its wailing sweetness sliding across waves of heat, wrapping around us, pulling us like it knew us well and we knew it.
I’d learned the word oasis in geography class. A refreshing, green, fertile spot in an arid region. I liked that word and always thought of it when I looked at The Big Woods.
Nancy and I often tested the dusty turnrow toward The Big Woods, the heat parching us, our tires sinking in soft dirt. We always turned back after a short piece, wondering what it would be like to go there. We had a yearning.
One day we did it. Like pioneers taking off across the desert with full canteens, we each bought a Coca Cola at the Standard station and struck out into the frontier. We must have heard the same voice that cried out to our ancestors, calling them to explore new land. We forged down the trail, dust flying behind us. If we hit a hole and slowed, we caught a mouthful. Onward, ho! To The Big Woods.
The crop rows ended abruptly at the bases of gigantic, ancient trees like logged walls of a blockade. As we stepped into the forest, we entered a whole new world. It was the difference between summer and winter, light and dark. Sunlight couldn’t penetrate the thick vegetation, making it damp and cool. It was like Tarzan and Jane’s jungle we’d seen on TV. Virgin forest. Vines hanging, twisted and tangled, much bigger around than my arm. Screeching wildlife. Wet pools of swampy water on the ground, stagnant with circles of colors—spring green, lavender, and pale yellow florescent. A lush tropical forest, it was pure and pristine. An oasis.
We swung on vines. We hiked through marshes, stepping through painted pools, getting our white Keds wet and muddy. We pushed through low-hanging branches, brush, vines, tripped over tree roots, and explored the jungle. Tropical dampness curled our hair. Mosquitoes stung our legs, leaving little red bumps. We slapped and scratched. We marveled at nature’s playhouse—this place that seemed to belong to us alone. What an adventure! What an oasis!
We were pioneers. We invaded the silence of the jungle, disturbing native creatures who’d had it to themselves. We left our footprints in this new land.
I wondered how The Big Woods got there. How could a jungle be sitting in the middle of a wide-open cottonfield in my Mississippi Delta homeland? Who planted all those trees? Why was the ground at the end of the dry, dusty turnrow muddy and marshy? How long did it take all the heavy vines to grow?
A few years down the road, my questions were answered. Once upon a time, the whole entire Delta was a jungle, covered with a lush blanket of vegetation, filled with virgin forests, thick vines, and wet marshes, all nurtured by a humid subtropical climate. It was all pure and pristine.
Pioneers cleared swamps, felled forests, and tamed the wild Delta. They changed the face of the land, stirring and plowing, awakening a fertile earth to progress. They planted cotton.
I’m glad someone left a small patch of forest for me to experience. Glad I listened to the mysterious voice, heeded the call, and returned to the loins of Delta jungleland, satisfying the longing deep within.
In German, there’s a word: Fernweh. There’s no English equivalent. Translated, it means “a longing for, or a need to return to, a place you’ve never been.”