Whose Woods These Are
If you’re lucky, you encountered nature for the first time by running out the back door. During our writer's boyhood, a suburban forest was a gateway to learning, exploration, and natural splendors that shaped his life and career.
When you're a kid, the world seems big and ordained. Things are as they are because they are. Even your neighborhood seems big and ordained, until you outgrow it, depart, and consider it again from a distance. Then you might start to see its deeper dimensions—its layers of time, contingency, and meaning. You might notice how geography and history, as well as sheer chance, played a role in making the place what it was. You might discover the turbulent boundary between nostalgia and revelation. That’s the boundary I discovered, almost 60 years after the fact, when I looked at my childhood through Google Maps.
There was a house on a street in suburban Cincinnati. The street, barely more than a mile long, was called Belmont Avenue. Belmont: beautiful mountain, though this mountain was tiny. The neighborhood, for reasons I never thought to examine, was known as College Hill. The house sat at 6071. It was a ranch house with two stories and dormers, built in 1950, on a remnant half acre of farmland, by a young couple named Will and Mary Quammen, my parents. Before that they had lived in an old redbrick farmhouse, first erected in the 1830s, later expanded, still later divided into apartments, just a few hundred yards down the hill. That farmhouse, which we knew as the Runck place—after Reno Runck, the resident patriarch and landlord—was where I spent my first two years of life. An ancient well stood in front, beneath its little wooden well house, and a gazebo, and an old concrete swimming pool, full of green water, into which I could have toddled had my mother not harnessed me to a dog run wire. Moving up Belmont to our new house, this one owned and not rented, was our leap into the postwar middle class.
Behind the house, stretching to the south, lay a weedy zone of thistle scrub and tall grasses, and beyond that a forest. A trail led through the weeds to the trees, then deep into them, and that trail was kept open in large part by my feet. I had a best friend named Eddie who shared my fascination with insects, reptiles, nature in all forms, and what seemed at the time to be wild landscape. In this part of College Hill, Eddie and I were Lewis and Clark.
The forest had no name. We called it simply the Woods. Within it grew oaks and maples and sycamores and catalpas and black walnut trees, some of them draped with grapevines as thick as nautical rope, flaky with cinnamon-colored bark. If you chose the right vine and hacked through its base with your sheath knife, you could swing on it over a ravine, Tarzan style. You would do that with reckless persistence until it broke and you dropped. The black walnuts and maples, with their open limb structures, invited climbing. Sycamores, in my recollection, were as brittle as pretzels. A big limb could snap and you plummeted. But you were 11 years old, elastic, and immortal.
Downslope through the Woods flowed a small stream, also nameless, across ledges and plates of broken limestone. We called it the Creek. Under those flat rocks, some of them cobbled with shell fossils, Eddie and I found salamanders and crawdads. (My method of catching crawdads was artless but effective: stick a finger down the hole and wait for a pincer to clamp it, then pull the little monster out.) In the leaf litter, on a good day, we might encounter a box turtle or a garter snake or a shrew. Tiger swallowtails flitted on their yellow and black wings through the sunny gaps. Cecropia moths, velvety umber and huge, were subtler and more nocturnal. Eddie was a year older and a better lepidopterist than I; he possessed, expertly spread and mounted in frames, a zebra swallowtail (rarer than the tiger), a luna moth, and a polyphemus, named for the Homeric Cyclops because of its big glaring eyespot on each lower wing. Magnificent creatures, all of them, even when dead.
I envied Eddie’s trophies, fraternally and respectfully, like a deer hunter envies a man with a roan antelope head on his rec-room wall. I was advantaged, though, by parents who saw no reason why a boy shouldn’t keep snakes and salamanders and the occasional bat caged as “pets” in his room. My two sisters had their own interests, and I, the middle child, was indulged to run a menagerie. But the real point of going to the Woods was not bringing zoological hostages home. The point was to wander loose in a universe of birdsong and spiderwebs and greenery. This was the place to which, for a handful of years in the mid-1950s, I gave my time and my heart. Then the bulldozers came.
Nameless or not, the Woods turned out to have owners, though we had never heard of them nor seen a NO TRESPASSING sign. And those owners, a partnership of home-building brothers, had decided to develop a large hunk of it. They started just beyond my family’s back fence. The thistle scrub went. Then the trees and vines and cool woodland shade disappeared, scraped away, all as I watched. The bare dirt may have smelled like progress or profit to the brothers, but not to me. A grid of streets was laid down, by trucks full of concrete and the men who finished it. One time two vandals—um, OK, a friend and I—pulled up survey stakes and moved them, a resentful prank that accomplished nothing except to insert a peculiar bend between one end of Blue Bell Drive and another. Then came house foundations, and houses atop them. In a blink a new suburb of neat, boring ranch homes sprouted—houses that were not so unlike ours, except for being appallingly regimented—intruding between me and whatever remained of the Woods. It was a formative experience.
In the six decades following, given trends of urban growth in America, pressures of population worldwide, and the relentless human thirst to convert landscape for our own conveniences, I came to assume that the loss of that forest would be total. If it was half gone by 1959, what hope could there be for the rest?
My family left Cincinnati in 1966. Strangers bought our home on Belmont, and somehow, in the late 1990s or thereabouts, its owners managed to burn it down. If you want to experience a sense of severance from childhood’s golden glow, I recommend this: let someone torch your very house, shovel its ruins away, replace it with another. That’ll chill your nostalgia.
Then one day, several years ago, I happened to revisit the old neighborhood in virtual space. I typed our address into Google Maps and scanned the area as seen from a thousand feet up. The street contours were familiar, even that blip in Blue Bell Drive, and I recognized all the names, except one.
Inside an empty zone, south of Belmont, between the loathed suburb and the next road a mile farther below, I saw the words “Fox Preserve.” Fox what? Never heard of it. Since when did Cincinnati care about foxes? But wait, no—I rechecked the location, south of Belmont and north of a road called Kirby Avenue, descending from College Hill to the lowlands, and realized: this must be what’s left of the Woods. That poignant surprise put me to wondering whether the whole story wasn’t so simple.
I've spent much of my adult life as a writer who walks through jeopardized forests. I’ve slogged for weeks across the Congo Basin. I’ve bashed through the Amazon on foot. I’ve climbed the slippery green hillsides of Madagascar and pushed my way through the thickets of northwestern Tasmania. I’ve walked the cliff lines and savanna forest of Komodo, an island in Indonesia, where if you’re not careful a 200-pound lizard will jump out of the brush and bite you on the ass. These have been privileged opportunities; I’ve been lucky and blessed. It’s a job, it’s a vocation, it’s a literary beat—following field biologists through forests. And none of it would have happened, probably, if not for the hikes through my first forest, the one in College Hill.
My circuit from there to the others of my adulthood was roundabout and haphazard. By chance as well as by choice, I never became a herpetologist, as I once thought I might. My path was influenced by great teachers, three in particular, each of whom touched the ship’s wheel of my life, delicately but astutely, lovingly, turning the rudder just a few degrees, and helped set my course into literary efforts, not science. The first two were Jesuit English teachers at a private high school in Cincinnati. The third was Robert Penn Warren, novelist and poet and critic, one of America’s great men of letters, who became my mentor and friend while I was a student at Yale. Warren helped find a publisher for my first book, a novel. He also wrote me a ticket, by way of a Rhodes scholarship recommendation, for two years at Oxford. If these three men had been biologists, not literati, my life would be different.
The other person whose guiding touch mattered was my Norwegian American father. (But of course it wasn’t just males: my mother was Irish and caustic and funny, and I flatter myself that her genes nurture my sense of the absurd.) What my father did was keep open the path that led into forests, along rivers, up mountains, toward the cold white places and the deep green places distant from libraries. First he taught me to fish. He started me cross-country skiing at a time, around 1959, when the phrase cross-country skiing didn’t even compute, certainly not in Ohio. Then in 1962, the summer after I turned 14, he took me into Quetico Provincial Park, in western Ontario, where we traveled by canoe for a week and lived off smallmouth bass. Two months after that, as a clueless high school freshman, pubescent and confused in a new school among strangers, I met the first of the life-changing Jesuits.
This dazzling young seminarian, Jerry Lackamp, forced us to write, every week—which for me was like forcing Brer Rabbit into the briars. In biology class, I dissected a fetal pig. In English, I dissected stories and sentences, and began seeing how they were put together. In terms of engaging my interest, there was no contest between these two disciplines. So my path for the next decade led through classrooms and literature—most valuably, the novels of William Faulkner, which engrossed me for years—and not through labs or forests. But that path would eventually bend back around, like an elliptical orbit shaped by gravity as well as momentum, to wild places and wild creatures.
Having got a bellyful of ivy at Yale and Oxford, I moved to Montana in 1973. I rediscovered my yen for fishing and cross-country skiing and biology. I paid dues, working menial jobs. Bartender. Waiter. Fishing guide. I established by empirical test (several long manuscripts and many rejections) that the world didn’t need me to be a novelist. And then, by luck and wide reading, I stumbled upon a glorious epiphany: nonfiction, too, could be artful. Desert Solitaire. African Genesis. The Sleepwalkers. The Curve of Binding Energy. If you were stubborn and had some skill, it could earn you a living. I became a magazine writer and then an author of nonfiction books. Once you get this license in your wallet, you can take it almost anywhere, including back to your old neighborhood with new eyes.
My re-exploration of the place was, at first, distant and idle—a couple of books, a little online noodling. College Hill, I discovered belatedly, is a distinguished locale in the history of racial struggle in America. A bit of digging revealed that this modest green highland—above the downtown business district of a complacent, conservative midwestern city—had played a crucial role in the saga of the Underground Railroad.
In 1799, a circuit-riding Methodist preacher named Danforth Witherby bought 100 acres of farmland and dug a well in the area, along a path that would eventually become Belmont Avenue. (The Witherby homestead, more than a century later, was the Runck place.) Around the same time, U.S. forces under General “Mad Anthony” Wayne cut a dirt road up a ravine to the hilltop, opening their way to prosecute battles against a confederacy of Shawnee and Miami Indians. The ravine road would become Hamilton Avenue, connecting hilltop to lowlands, as Cincinnati grew quickly into a busy, dirty entrepôt on the Ohio River. By 1820, a village had been platted on the hilltop and named Pleasant Hill, because the air was cool and the green rolling highland more agreeable than the hog-slaughter pens and riverboat docks downtown. The founding families of Pleasant Hill included some affluent Quakers and radical Presbyterians, abolitionist by conviction and serious enough to take action and assume risk. A modest number of free blacks also settled in the area, some of them inhabiting small cabins in “sequestered places”—a phrase from the sketchy historical sources, which I take to mean woodlands away from the roads. These groups helped escaped slaves travel north to freedom and safety, even after the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made that a severely punishable crime.
Eventually, the hilltop got a new name. One son of a wealthy farming family went off to Miami University, in a nearby Ohio town, and returned with a zeal for learning. He founded a boys’ academy in Pleasant Hill that developed into an institution called Farmers’ College. Its mission wasn’t just to teach farming but to educate the sons of farmers for leading positions “in any of the industrial pursuits.” Benjamin Harrison, later the 23rd president of the United States, studied there in the late 1840s, and the school attracted students from all over the region. Growing large and successful, Farmers’ College moved to a new building on what became Belmont Avenue. A separate school for women, the Ohio Female College, began operating not far away. Such educational opportunities were preciously rare at the time, west of the Alleghenies, in what was still considered the wild “northwest” of America. So when the village of Pleasant Hill incorporated in 1866, its proud residents renamed it College Hill.
Meanwhile, from the 1830s into the 1850s, Cincinnati quietly emerged as a major nexus for fugitive slaves crossing the river from Kentucky, from slave state to free. It’s important to remember that a Free State like Ohio didn’t represent safety and security for escapees from slavery. The Ohio River marked the northern boundary of legalized slavery, yes, as an extension westward of the Mason-Dixon Line, but the Fugitive Slave Act applied throughout the north, mandating the forcible return of any escapee captured there. So the movement of fugitives up through Ohio, to Lake Erie or Detroit, then across to Canada, all had to happen secretly—and Cincinnati was a tunnel through which much of that traffic passed.
A man named Levi Coffin, a Quaker businessman and a leader in Underground Railroad activism, moved to the city in 1847, ostensibly to run a warehouse selling free-labor goods, such as cotton grown in Mississippi by paid freedmen workers, not slaves. Less overtly, Coffin continued his efforts to help runaway slaves escape north. He lived in a different part of town, harboring hundreds of fugitives at his own house as they moved north, and he colluded carefully with the abolitionists of College Hill.
Two factors gave College Hill its tactical importance: all those Quakers and radical Presbyterians, and the fact that it was on the safest route to Detroit. The route followed Hamilton Avenue, a well-traveled pike that had a deep wooded ravine on the east side, offering cover, and then one of its branches took the gentle diagonal of Belmont Avenue, angling toward byways beyond. One family along Hamilton, the abolitionist household of Zebulon Strong, provided stopover support. When a group of fugitives came up the gully, Strong’s children would play back there, leaving food; after dark, Strong would hide the escapees in his wagon, beneath a false bottom, and drive them along Belmont to another safe house. If you type “Belmont Avenue, Cincinnati” into Google Maps today, then zoom out, you’ll find this little street ambling northwest to connect with U.S. Route 27, which leads straight up to Fort Wayne, Indiana. Next stops from there: Toledo, Detroit, and Ontario. Canada meant true freedom.
In other words, though I had no inkling of it when my family lived on Belmont, nor did my parents or sisters, nor anyone I knew, the Underground Railroad had run right past our front door. Retroactively, it gave me, as you can imagine, a jolt of awe and entirely unearned pride.
Curious about Fox Preserve, I flew back to Cincinnati recently for a little shoe-leather reconnaissance. First I met with a man named Larry Parker, west region manager for the Cincinnati Parks Department. From him I got a good map and advice on how to read it. Parker also gave me documents showing that Fox Preserve consisted of just 14.3 acres of forest, donated to the city in 1980 by Edward and Patricia Fox, residents of 5807 McCray Ct. in College Hill, who were giving away their extended, unusable backyard. McCray Court, I saw from the map, was one of the deepest penetrations of that hated 1950s subdivision into the Woods. Fox Preserve was protected as green space by the city but not developed to invite visitation—no sign, no trailhead, no benches, though it was public. Yes, I could access it. To get in, Parker said, I should just drive to McCray Court and walk between two houses.
It seemed intrusive. This was not far from where my friend and I had moved the survey stakes almost 60 years earlier. So I felt a little vestigial guilt (though no regret) when I went in. As I emerged from my short walk, gaping around for landmarks, a sandy-haired woman appeared from one of the houses and called, “May I help you?” Now I’m in trouble, I thought. But when I explained my mission, she responded brightly. Her name was Peggy St. Clair, a journalist herself, formerly gardening columnist for the Cincinnati Enquirer, and she had written an article about Fox Preserve. Her parents had lived here for decades, next door to Mr. and Mrs. Fox, in the house she now occupied with her husband. St. Clair had loved walking the preserve with her children. It was full of deer, she told me, and harbored coyotes, too. Neither animal was present when Eddie and I patrolled this forest—the deer population must have rebounded from earlier eras of unregulated hunting, and the coyotes were invaders, having expanded their range east of the Mississippi, filling niches left vacant by wolves. St. Clair was attuned to another invasive species: Asian bush honeysuckle, an ornamental plant that had gone feral, choking the forest understory in some places. She invited me to return, tramp through her side yard, and explore as I wished. I told her I might bring a friend.
The friend was Thane Maynard, director of the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens, and famous to NPR listeners as the 90-Second Naturalist. Before he became a zoo professional and a conservationist, Thane was a nature kid growing up in the woods of central Florida, and I guessed correctly that this mock-epic expedition might amuse him. Early the next morning, we turned up on Peggy St. Clair’s doorstep for a courtesy visit and a bit more information about the green highlands of College Hill. “We breathe a little better here,” she told us. “We experience life differently because of the healing quality of these woods.” Thane and I plunged off her backyard and into the forest, fighting our way downslope through a thicket of honeysuckle. After 15 minutes the stuff thinned, and beneath a cooling canopy of hardwoods, we came to a rocky streambed. “You found your creek,” he said. “It even has a trickle.” Not much, but a start.
Part of Thane’s job on this mission was to identify birds by their songs, a skill I never mastered. (I was a reptiles and insects guy.) Red-shouldered hawk, he reported now, probably a young one, from the sound of that squeak. He listened more: Blue jays, of course. Carolina wrens. And there’s the train whistle of a nuthatch. We both noticed that, although the forest looked verdant and natural, most of the big trees were standing dead, and almost all the live trees were youngish, less than about 50 years old. (Sprouted from seeds since my last visit—take a guess whether that didn’t make me feel like a codger.) In the mud of the creek bottom, there was a single deer track. Around it lay flat shards of limestone embedded with clam shells and other fossils. “Ordovician,” Thane said. “We’re the epicenter of trilobites.” Good: at least the rocks were older than me.
We walked the creek bottom and, as it gathered more water, hopscotched our way on the dry stones. I turned over a few, looking for crawdads and salamanders. No luck. Just one small fish and a few worms. I didn’t bring a water-quality test kit and could only wonder how much unsavory effluent might flow down this ravine from the suburbs above. If the deer had returned and the trees were still growing, but the amphibians and crustaceans had been poisoned out, was this still the Woods of my youth? I knew of Heraclitus and his dictum about time and rivers, but was it true also that you can’t step in the same forest twice?
After 45 minutes, Thane and I came to a stonework culvert, where the creek poured under a road. This was Kirby Avenue, traversing down from College Hill to the lowlands. It marked the end of the first leg of a walk through the Woods but not the final end, because you could climb over it and drop back into the creek. What I hadn’t known in the 1950s was the role Kirby Avenue had played in the annals of American heroism.
In April 1853, some 28 fugitive slaves came out of Kentucky together, crossed the river by night in skiffs that nearly sank from overloading, and made their way after dawn into Cincinnati. From a few tireless local researchers, whom I reached through the College Hill Historical Society, and an 1876 book titled Reminiscences of Levi Coffin, I learned about this signal episode, known as the Escape of the 28.
The escapees were helped by a friendly white man, who accompanied them from Kentucky, and a black deacon at Cincinnati’s Zion Baptist Church. From the deacon’s house, they sent a message to Levi Coffin, that daring Quaker, who came and plotted the next moves. Hamilton Avenue was considered too dangerous at this point, notwithstanding the Zebulon Strong stopover, because of a southern sympathizer who also lived along the road. Coffin thought of a subterfuge and an alternate route. “I suggested that someone should go immediately to a certain German livery stable in the city and hire two coaches,” he recounted later. Riding in the coaches, and a few buggies driven by free black men, with other folks walking alongside, the group should “form a procession as if going to a funeral” and march solemnly out a road leading toward the Methodist Episcopal cemetery, which had one section set apart for “colored people.” Instead of turning in for a burial, the cortege would go past, proceeding gently uphill to a fork in the road, where the right branch climbed steeply to College Hill by the back way. The right fork was Kirby Avenue.
Coffin’s trusted contact and collaborator was Reverend Jonathan Cable, an abo-litionist Presbyterian minister who lived on the far end of Belmont, in a house just north of the Witherby farmstead. Cable made arrangements to have shoes and traveling clothes ready for the fugitives when they arrived. Along the way, a sick child died and was buried quickly and quietly in College Hill; another escapee joined the group there, though, so they were again 28. During the stopover in College Hill, Reverend Cable hid some of the fugitives in his house, while others stayed with black families along Belmont or in the Woods. Reading this fact about Cable’s role, and realizing his home was only steps from the one where I lived until age two, the Witherby farmstead, a.k.a. the Runck place, I felt another of those edifying jolts: as a toddler, all unaware, I had toddled on historic ground.
“We never know what we have lost, or what we have found,” Robert Penn Warren wrote in his poem cycle about John James Audubon, published in 1969 as Audubon: A Vision. “We are only ourselves, and that promise.” Audubon, an errant Frenchman, an explorer of American wilderness, and a brilliant depicter of nature as he saw it in the sublimity of birds, had always fascinated Warren, who’d been a boy naturalist himself in early 20th-century Kentucky, with a passion for taxidermy and red-tailed hawks. But to Warren, the overriding fascination was story, not science, and he turned to literature. He helped turn me to literature, too, without denying the tug of the forest. The benign tension between those two realms exemplifies Warren’s conundrum: never knowing “what we have lost, or what we have found.”
It’s hard to tally the prices of choice and happenstance. Yet part of a reflective life is to try, as Warren well knew. Myself, I lost half a forest. I lost a boyhood home, site of my richest memories, to fire. I surrendered one possible life for the chance to seize another. I lost touch with a place. Then I looked again and found Fox Preserve, and the noble history of Belmont Avenue.
A few hundred yards down the creek, Thane and I came into a maple glade, fully canopied, a lovely area with almost no honeysuckle clogging the understory. The ravine was still steep, and still wooded, though paralleled now by Kirby Avenue, not far away. “Saved by the hills,” said Thane. “You know, if this was flat, people would have developed it.” He was right. All the hillsides were slippery and unstable, with layers of clay and brittle Ordovician limestone beneath shallow soil. That explained why several other parcels of steep wooded property hereabouts had also been donated to Cincinnati by generous but realistic owners over the decades, and pieced together by the Parks Department into a sizable urban forest. Kirby Valley, some people called it.
Now we saw a house, just upslope on the road. We saw a white pit bull running down to investigate us. Uh-oh, we thought. But the dog turned out to be a tail-wagging sweetheart who only wanted to sniff and have her ears scratched. A man shouted down to her, and then shouted to us: Are you the guys from the city? Are you from Sewer? Thane and I were in green shirts, remotely official looking, and I had a notebook. No, I called back, we’re not from Sewer. We’re just a couple of nature nerds on a hike.
The man’s name was Chris Leonard, and he had concerns about stream-bank erosion. Two years ago, a hundred-year flood on this creek carved the bejesus out of his back lot. This spring he lost another three feet behind his driveway. Couldn’t anything be done? Just as I was starting to take Mr. Leonard for one of those control-of-nature guys, he climbed down into the creek with us and started talking about tree frogs.
He rescued them when he could. He had a little backyard swimming pool, covered seasonally so it wouldn’t fill with leaves. Last year the frogs laid eggs in the standing water on the pool cover, and as they grew—as the water evaporated and the tadpoles were in jeopardy—he transferred them into his canoe, still holding rainwater. Why? “I wanna hear the damn tree frog noise.” He had a complaint: “This year there’s not been one damn tree frog.” But, on the bright side, plenty of snakes. When he walked elsewhere in the Woods, if he saw a snake, he would catch it and release it on his own property. Kept the mice down—plus he liked them. He had an albino corn snake, a pet, in the house.
His children lived just a ways down Kirby, with his ex-wife, an amicable arrangement, and Leonard hosted occasional nature outings for them and their friends. His property went deep into the forest off Kirby Avenue, including the section of creek in which we stood and a swath beyond, where he had a campfire area. He held cookouts for the kids, taught them a little natural history, and sometimes they’d see a barred owl or a flock of wild turkeys. Once in a while, they found trilobites. Salamanders? I asked. “They’re here. Salamanders galore.” I was relieved. Deer and coyotes? “A shit ton,” said Leonard. Also pileated woodpeckers, box turtles, scarlet tanagers.
You’re taking a lot of notes for a nature nerd on a hike, he told me. OK, full truth, I said, I’m a nature nerd on a magazine assignment. That sufficed. We introduced ourselves and shook hands, and he lit up with recognition of Thane’s name.
I asked Chris Leonard his line of work. Building communications networks, he said. Whatever that might mean, I was impressed by the communications he was building with the next generation. Seemed to me he was helping give the Woods a future as well as a past.
Thane and I climbed back up the ravine. He had a zoo to run, and I had an appointment at the archives. Following my nose, my memory, and my compass, we missed Peggy St. Clair’s backyard by only about five degrees. We emerged from the Woods through someone else’s side yard, on a different little dead-end circle just adjacent to hers. A man saw us and came to his back door. Now we’re in trouble, I thought. But when I asked forgiveness, he hollered back cheerily, saying, Sure, it’s fine to cut through. These woods belong to everybody.