Monday, May 28, 2007

Woodlands and woods

Woodlands is the name of the cemetery where much of my mother's family is buried. Yesterday we had a two-year-old birthday party out that way, so we visited the tall Celtic cross with the dates ranging back to the 1830's. I realized that I didn't really understand the genealogy, so I looked some of it up. My grandparents--my mother's parents--are there, and my grandfather's grandparents, aunt, and uncles. But his parents must be buried somewhere else. And there's an infant girl a few years younger than my grandfather who lived eight days. I don't think she's his sister, at least I've always heard he was an only child--perhaps a cousin? A tragedy 100 years old. I wonder if she were my great-aunt, how that might have affected my grandfather, always a quiet and distant man in my memory of him. But a cousin seems just as likely.

We picked buttercups, and found rocks, to leave on a ridge in the base of the cross. Once, maybe ten years ago now, when my grandmother was still alive, I was walking in Woodlands and came across a hand-tied sprig of holly at base of the cross. It was close to the anniversary of my grandfather's death: a glimpse into my grandmother's widowhood. Until yesterday I simply hadn't done the math, but she outlived him by nearly two decades. They were married more than 50 years, and she still outlived the marriage my more than half of my lifetime. She wasn't a centenarian, but she came within a year of that mark.

Today, we went to a branch of the "big woods" that forms a natural boundary to our part of Philadelphia. In The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen compared a neighborhood near ours to Narnia, which I think was a misreading of Narnia more than of the neighborhood, given the rest of the way he skewers the neighborhood in the book. Although the woods and the local stone used in the houses gives the neighborhood a fairy-tale quality--the stone, also used in our more down-to-earth zip code, sparkles with mica, and even the dirt that we track in from the garden glitters. But our neighboring neighborhood is pedigreed and civilized beyond the normal run of old-money suburbs, making it an easy target.

The woods at its edge do lend it a wild flavor, but it's an illusory wild. You walk down a decently maintained path to a small creek that flows into the larger one that gives the trail system its name. This little branch was burbling nicely with the past few nights' rain. The trees, mostly maples, rise in a filigree cathedral of green above you. You feel you're outside the city, but in fact the woods exist because the city protects it as part of the park system, and the grades are so steep that it was never easy to build. The forest, like the forest in most of North America, is second-growth, and this close to people's homes it's peppered with garden escapees and invasive species. The walk down to the creek begins with English ivy, garlic mustard, and bishop's weed under the canopy, giving way after a few yards to ferns and other more native-looking understory plants. On the way down I noticed dogwood and jack-in-the-pulpit, as well as a lovely volunteer hosta and two japanese maples sheltering among the more prosaic trees.

We ate on a roughly-assembled retaining wall near a lovely place where the creek is accessible to the path, pausing on its way down in a series of small falls. Z. was excited to see a black lab hunker down in the little pool, smiling, clearly trying to communicate to its owner that yes, this was enough water to play ball in (despite the dog filling the small pool entirely). We had our tofu and nectarines and raisins and pretzels, and then it was time to walk back. Going uphill, mostly I noticed the poison ivy.


slouching mom said...

I loved this glimpse into your neighborhood. So evocative.

Thank you.

S. said...

Slouching mom, it's a wonderful neighborhood.

I hope you're recovering from your scare!

niobe said...

I love the descriptions in this post. Slouching Mom certainly picked the right adjective.

Magpie said...

Lovely post. The part about the poison ivy struck terror into my heart - I am so very allergic to it - I hope none of you are.

S. said...

Niobe, thanks.

Magpie, HIGHLY! I get such a severe reaction it looks like I've had second-degree burns. Typically I pick it up once or twice a season from the dogs, who track it in from the woods, and it's a three-week thing.

You'd think I'd learn by now.

Julia said...

This IS freaky. And it is sad that you can't know more about that baby girl. A lovely glimpse of your grandma, though.

I am very impressed with your knowledge of plants. I feel like an ignoramus in comparison-- I know very few species, and can grow even fewer. Scary about the poison ivy... Good thing it didn't get you this time.

S. said...

Julia, I felt embarrassed writing that post when I lapsed into "more native-looking"--I only learn the names of the plants I need to know for gardening.

Unfortunately, poison ivy can take several days to develop, so I'm not certain I didn't get it (though with my reactivity, I'm pretty sure I'd see little bitty blisters by now.) It's a little creepy not knowing what your skin is up to.

I googled a little to find birth and death records from 1907, but no luck. There's no one left to tell the story.