The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep ...
Robert Frost, 'Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening', 1923
For 15 years my home address in Haddonfield, NJ was on Center Street, which ran perpendicular from King's Highway and out toward the edge of town. My house was 4 blocks off the main drag. Two blocks further out was the top of a three-block hill that dropped steeply through a wooded ravine, before crossing a small stream before emerging in the more modern part of town that had been built in the 1950's and 60's. There was a corner store up toward the hilltop.
Only after I had moved away did I learn that It was also the site of the first homestead in the area that had been name Mountwell. A bit later a Military Academy had once stood at the top of the hill as well, many of the houses that stand there now originally part of the cluster that made up Reilley's Academy. Just before the woods ended and the houses began again was an old railroad right of way. After the tracks had been removed the right-of-way was ceded to the town and became part of Mountwell Park. The woods were not that large, perhaps 2 blocks wide and 4 or 5 blocks long, but they were large enough that you could lose sight of any houses when you were in the middle. In the early 1900's the little stream was flooded to make a swimming hole, and then in the 1920's a cement pool was created where I swam as a small boy for a few years before it was finally closed by the County Parks Department, being too old and patched to maintain anymore. By the time I got into junior high I had explored the park from end to end, and I spent many happy afternoons exploring and tramping through those woods. I loved the peacefulness and feeling of being removed from everything, but yet still so close to town.
Haddonfield, New Jersey
There is a function that these parks serve in a town, beyond the stated function of preserving green space. They have the feeling of time portals to me. A section of woods that is left to it's own devices will get overgrown and knotted, but within that growth it seems to hold something of the past of the place around it. Stepping off the suburban curbstone and into the comparative wild of Mountwell Park I had the sense that I was leaving one time and place and entering another. One of my favorite pastimes was reading the initials carved into the trees and looking for those who's dates were still legible. I think the oldest I found was from the 1930's faded and stretched with time, but faintly recognizable in the 1970's. I liked to imagine who carved them and what the town looked like when they did. Older still were initials and carvings too stretched from time to be readable, which I could only assume were from teens and twenties. I would wonder what the town looked like back then, and where the boys who carved these initials were now; were they sitting inside a house just outside the woods? Somewhere else in the world? Were they in a foreign graveyard dedicated to one of the World Wars?
The Power of Snow
I was particularly attached to these woods on the rare nights when it snowed, which it would do once or twice each Winter. I would bundle up in high boots and my heaviest coat and say that I was going out for a walk, and then I would walk down to the woods and hike through in the snow. They were small and I knew them well, so there was no way to get lost. I loved the feeling of the woods in the snow and the way that the snow made the familiar unfamiliar, but in a half-rememberd / half-forgotten kind of way. At the far end of the woods, just before they hit a tributary of the Cooper River called Pennypacker Creek, was a 50' high hill. At the base of a hill an area called The Water Works was always alive with activity as this is where the salt trucks parked. During snowstorms I would hike along the ridge above the waterworks and imagine myself a soldier in WWII on a mission above an enemy target. I never attacked, but did reconnaissance of their activities and enjoyed the feeling of timelessness.
The Old Haddonfield Station in the Snow
(though the photo feels like it could be from 50 years before that)
Haddonfield in the snow was beautiful, and something about it connected me with the 1940ís. I don't know why I focused on that particular time when the woods had history going further back, but that period always came to mind. Most likely it was due to seeing war movies as a kid with soldiers slogging through the snowy forests of Europe. Mountwell had a quality of anachronism that I treasured. It was fascinating to me that so much could change all around this island of woods, and yet the woods remained seemingly unchanged. It felt like a hole in time to me where I could commune with kids my own age from the distant past, going all the way back to the Leni Lanape Indians that I had heard lived in the area up into the 1800's.
Growing up in a place that has a long and rich history adds a certain spiritual dimension to living there. I don't know how many people felt it, but there was hum about the place that was louder at certain times than others, but always just below the level of audibility. Standing silently in those woods, looking at the filtered lights of the town through the trees and falling snow, that sound would almost be loud enough to hear.