And to the “Woods,” Again

In my previous posting (I Went to the Woods), I described the woods near my childhood home and its meaning to me as a source of play and pretending.  My good colleague Virginia Dickie sent me a thoughtful comment: she wrote, “…it made me wonder how many kids today get that sort of opportunity for unsupervised play outside the house!”

I have thought about that, too, especially related to our granddaughters as they have been growing up.  Our son John and his family live in a newer neighborhood in a municipality that borders Madison. The house they purchased when moving here from out East is on a 2/3 acre lot; the very back part of the lot is undeveloped and sort of a tangle of trees and grasses and vines.  This small “wild” backyard area has provided the girls with a place for unstructured play, a sort of childhood respite from the otherwise landscaped lawns of the nearby homes.

When Carolyn was 7 or 8 years old, she and a neighborhood friend built a “hide-out” in the back corner of their lot.  When we were over visiting one day, we were allowed to peek into the hiding place.  I remember appreciating the fact that these children had an area of the yard that they could mess around in, where they could create a special place for themselves, and where they could enjoy some imaginative unsupervised play.

That is the kind of play that was so important to me as a child.  Indeed, building on what Virginia said, how many kids today have opportunities for daily outside unsupervised and unscripted play that they structure themselves?

Something to think about.

Thank you to those of you who shared with me memories of your own childhood woods, and the “houses” you made in a carpet of pine needles or fallen leaves.

I Went to the Woods*

The large vacant lot next door to the house I grew up in was one-half open field and one-half woods.  The woodsy section was referred to by us as the woods.”

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The woods was light and airy and welcoming.  As I remember, what we mostly did in the woods was create “houses” — not the kind made out of solid materials, but simply the kind made from clearing an area of the floor of the woods to make a “room,” and then opening one side to clear a way into another “room,”  Tree roots and small rocks and old stumps became furniture and appliances.  Small branches with berries or seed pods were stuck in the ground around the edges to be the garden.  Stones outlined a path up to the front door.

One day, as we were digging around in the dirt to find good stuff to use in our “houses,” we uncovered what looked like a glass plate.  We dug deeper and realized that we had discovered a whole stack of glass plates.  Here was a mystery in all its glory!  Another time, on the edge of the woods, we found the remnants of a vegetable garden — tiny carrots in the soil.  Both the plates and the carrots added tremendous reality props for our “houses.”

During one summer, the woods became a place of excitement tinged with fear and awe.  In the lower part of the woods, the older boys from below the hill built a real club house. The Schmitz boys were a bit “edgy,” not quite trust-able in our eyes; they verged on being “wild.” The club house was definitely off limits for us younger kids. Then late one night we saw flashing red lights down in the woods and heard the roar of a fire engine.  The club house was on fire!  We were totally transfixed by this event, and, the next morning, we cautiously went down to see the damage.  In my young eyes, I visualized the Schmitz boys being punished with imprisonment for the rest of their lives, however, I never heard of any consequences from the law in response to their escapade in the woods.  More mature thinking prevailed.

The woods is still there.  I look at it with some longing whenever I go back to my childhood home. To this day, I do not know who owns this property. The open field part of the property is gone, a modern home built on it at some point over the years.  Perhaps these new neighbors own the woods.  But, somehow, in my mind, the woods will never be “owned” by anyone.  It is still there — for all of us.  And if I walked through the woods again today, I think I would still be able to find that one particular tree that had a hollow area under one of its roots that I pretended was an oven in my house.

*Henry David Thoreau, Walden

It’s Peanut Brittle Time

It’s peanut brittle time at our house.  

For the last several years, I have made peanut brittle to share with a few neighbors for the holidays.  A Scrabble friend gave me the recipe for microwaved peanut brittle that seems to be “no fail.”  I have yet to have a bad batch.  So I roll into action in early December, make 7 or 8 batches, and parcel out the brittle in small holiday bags tied with red or green ribbons.  If I can keep Ed away from it, I can get 2 gift bags out of each batch. To be able to give a gift that is made from scratch and that looks and tastes fantastic (and that, rightly or wrongly, makes me look clever) is very satisfying.

For years, Ed made chili sauce to give away for Christmas — using the tomatoes, green peppers, and onions from our vegetable garden flavored with sugar, vinegar and cinnamon.  The big pot of vegetables bubbled on the stove top for almost an entire day, and the aroma filled the house for hours afterwards.  Ed put the chili sauce up in pint jars — reminiscent of the process my Mother used to “can” peaches, pears, apricots, plums, applesauce.  Back then, as the filled and capped jars started to cool, my sister and I would listen —  waiting to hear each quart jar “ping” to indicate that the jar had sealed.

“Canning” is a lot of work.  So a few years ago, we started making the peanut brittle instead of the chili sauce.  And now it’s become the expected thing — by family and friends.

peanut brittle

Microwave Peanut Brittle

1 cup raw Spanish peanuts
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup white corn syrup
1/8 tsp. salt                        
1 tsp. butter
1 tsp vanilla
1 tsp. baking soda

Stir together peanuts, sugar, syrup and salt in 1 1/2 quart casserole.  Place in microwave and cook on high power for 7-8 minutes.

Add butter and vanilla, blending well.

Return to oven and microwave on high 1-2 minutes more.  Peanuts will be lightly browned and syrup very hot.

Add baking soda and gently stir until light and foamy.  Quickly pour mixture on lightly greased cookie sheet.  Cool 1/2 to 1 hour.  Break up when cool.  

Happy holidays!