The woods across the street from where I grew up were my refuge as a child.
It was a green belt amidst suburban sprawl and the neighbors, (and I when I was older and tasked with such things,) would dump the lawn clippings from cutting engines in huge mounds a few feet from the road in a hollow. The progression from Spring to Summer to Fall could be tracked by the size, color, and smell of those hillocks. As the long days would shorten, the mounds would come to tower on either side of me in green-to-yellow rainbow sours of decay along the path I followed into the woods towards a small brook that was partially fed by storm drains.
This was a new forest, unlike the older forest of cedar and fir a mile away that was eventually clearcut and graded for the corporate palaces of a software empire, mostly alder and vine maple, sword fern, tangles of blackberry, and the rare snag that had been too decomposed to provide any value to harvest. The understory was a tangle of branches and leaves, vines, spiderwebs, and various and sundry creepy-crawlies like millipedes, mice, rats, raccoons, and even a woodchuck that once erupted from the bottom of my sandbox after I had been pressure digging with the garden hose.
In deep summer, it was a dappled, rustling shade loud enough to drown out most passing vehicles save the downshifted diesels heading west and uphill. Lower in the ever-shaded cut the brook had carved over the years before I was delivered on Earth, was a year-round humid climate that supported an entirely different ecosystem.
Here were mosses and fungi, slugs and snails. And salamanders! It was a few years before I ever trapped one in my hands, being too slow and uncoordinated when I was younger, but they were previously caught many times in vision.
The pure memory of my youth has been polluted over the years by things uncountable that I have remembered and forgotten, but I’m fairly certain that my damp little friends were Western red-backs. There was one spot where a broken pipe jutted from the bank and its drips had stained the glacially tilled soil orange with rust. Or it was a bacterial bloom. Who knows?
But it was my spot to visit, because I could almost always find a salamander there, and that made me happy.
I don’t recall my last visit. I’ve often thought of returning. Hesitation holds me back. I don’t know if it would be sadder to not find them or cry if I did.
I’m afraid to find out.