On Sunday, the boys and I went to visit one of the most important places in the landscape of my youth, a little woodland in my old neighborhood called Alexander Park. This undeveloped tract preserves some twelve acres of forest in a steep creek valley, a linear greenspace mostly hidden from view behind houses. Driving past on East Wesley, you wouldn’t think much of its tiny bit of road frontage, might not know it was there at all except for a single grave-like granite monument at the edge of the trees. During my early years in that neighborhood, I thought the Alexander Park headstone monument simply marked the little clearing of grass at the roadside, and I thought “that’s not much of a park.” Nonetheless, there came an age when my friends and I were destined to follow the creek that ran behind Garden Hills Pool and see where it went, and so we crossed over East Wesley and entered into another world.
I’m not sure how old I was or whom I was with (though I can make a pretty good guess that I was in 3rd or 4th grade—funny how those two years dominate memories of my childhood), but I’ll never forget our delicious sense of discovery and surprise when we found a narrow trail winding its way back through the trees into a hidden kingdom. Our kingdom. It was big, it was wild, it was a place apart from our normal worlds. I was thrilled to discover later that these woods stretched to within a block of my house (who knew!), that I could access the sanctuary with a couple of judicious backyard cut-throughs. Perhaps nostalgia colors my recollection, but from that day on it seems my friends and spent every free hour down in Alexander Park. We built forts. We climbed trees. We hunted each other with toy guns (the rule was you had to count to 30 when someone yelled “BLAM—got you!” before continuing). More than anything I remember playing in the creek—wading around looking for crawdads, staging elaborate amphibious assaults of sandy beaches with our plastic army men, frantically trying to build earthen dams faster than the creek could overtop them. We never saw other kids back there, much less any adults. Our parents certainly never came to check on us.
In fact, I wonder now just what they were thinking. What did they think we were up to? Were they worried at all? How can it be they didn’t come check the place out themselves, make sure it was safe? I’m not saying that they should have so much as I’m wondering what’s wrong with me and my peers now that we’re parents. Have we become weenies? If I still lived in Garden Hills, would I let my boys have the same sort of experiences? Perhaps I can’t answer this question yet as they’re still on the young side, perhaps my mind will change, but my gut says I’d be too concerned about water quality and too nervous about their running into shady characters to just let them run free. In particular, I find it hard to shake an offhand comment from a classmate back in high school that Alexander Park had become an illicit trysting place, a comment that filled my woods with all sorts of bogeymen over the years. By that age I was no longer heading for the creek every free afternoon, and so it was all too easy for fear to fill a space that had become unknown again.
I had all of these questions in mind as the boys and I crossed East Wesley and slipped into the trees. The path is still there—somebody still uses it—and the impression of entering a different world is still there, too. “This is like the mountains,” Andrew shouted out as he pattered along, the terrain being surprisingly rugged, the trees impressively large. As a kid, I guess I didn’t give much thought to the trees, but I was transfixed by them on this visit—towering white oaks and massive smooth-skinned beech trees and a few remnant grandfather pines, an exceptionally dense and diverse canopy for intown Atlanta. I don’t know the technical definition for “old growth” forest, but that’s what it feels like to me. Growing up, how lucky I was to have this little pocket of wilderness so close by. And how strange and sad it is that so few people seemed to appreciate or even know about its existence.
Unfortunately, the neglect shows. On Sunday I was immediately struck by how invasives have taken over in the nearly thirty years(!) since I last visited. Not that I had naturalist sensibilities at age ten, but I knew already that a thick English Ivy groundcover was a pain in the ass to traverse (we had a big area of ivy in our yard at home), and so I’m confident in my memory that Alexander Park wasn’t filled with it. Moreover, I remember a mostly open and airy forest, big rooms of space under the soaring canopy, not the dense jungle of privet and wisteria that would have made tearing after each other with plastic guns impossible. Unfortunately, such is the fate of untended urban woodlands. Fortunately, this deterioration is reversible; take a look at these pictures from the Forest Restoration page at Trees Atlanta’s website to see before-and-after shots of another Atlanta natural area following an organized privet pull. (For kicks, I’m going to email Trees Atlanta and see what it might take for Alexander Park to be next.)
And then there’s the issue of water quality. I don’t know how bad it is—and can’t imagine that it’s any worse than it was when I was a kid—but the orange slime covering all the rocks gave me the creeps. I picked up a few to look for aquatic macroinvertebrates on their undersides and came up empty, but I wonder what a more comprehensive survey would reveal. I didn’t find any crawdads, either, but I was admittedly reluctant to reach in too far for bigger rocks to flip over. And of course there was all the God-knows-what that had washed in from upstream: empty plastic soft drink bottles and flattened aluminium beer cans and strips of yellow police-line tape. Nonetheless, it was all I could do to keep the boys from trying to baptise themselves as they scurried along the banks, gleefully following leaf boats negotiating micro rapids and searching for flat rocks to try to skip in the one slow, deep pool we found. Wouldn’t it be great if there really were clean creeks close by for our children to play in? Nothing could be healthier. (And perhaps my squeamishness is unjustified?)
Hey residents of my old neighborhood—you have a real treasure in (literally) your back yards! Take good care of it and it will take good care of your kids.
Update: I had the opportunity tonight to ask my parents about their thinking back then. My dad’s comment: “I never even thought to worry, figured you were okay. It was never an issue that your mom and I ever talked about as far as I can recall.” My mom’s reaction: “I don’t think I knew that’s where you were. You probably just said you were going to a friend’s house.” I got the impression it would have been an issue had she known. Good thing I was sneaky, I guess.