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Old growth in the new city

It was a grove of trees so enormous we could barely see the sky. We ventured across the four-lane parkway, clogged with traffic, which separated the college from the park, then penetrated the old-growth forest's northernmost edge. A faint, wiggling stream of light barely reached the forest floor beneath the centuries-old canopy of hardwoods.

I didn't know it was old-growth forest then, in 1972, when the epicenter of my life shifted from the eastern suburbs of Memphis to midtown with its old homes, big trees, wide thoroughfares, narrow lanes, segregated ghettoes and the fairyland college campus of Southwestern, now Rhodes College.

Had you said it was old forest, I wouldn't have known what that meant. I didn't understand it until years later when I read Peter Taylor's long short story, "The Old Forest," the story of an engaged young man out for a drive with a girl not his fiancee:

Thirty minutes later, we were driving through Overton Park on our way to the college. We had passed the Art Gallery and were headed down the hill toward the low ground where the Park Pond is. Ahead of us, on the left, were the gates to the Zoo. And on beyond was the point where the road crossed the streetcar tracks and entered a densely wooded area which is actually the last surviving bit of the primeval forest that once grew right up to the bluffs above the Mississippi River. Here are giant oaks and yellow poplar trees older than the memory of the earliest white settler. Some of them surely may have been mature trees when Hernando de Soto passed this way, and were very old trees indeed when General Jackson, General Winchester and Judge John Overton purchased this land and laid out the city of Memphis.

Here is how enormous the oaks and yellow poplars and hickories were in that forest surrounded by a big, busy city:

That September, a tree had fallen in the section of Overton Park that was the old forest. Lying on its side, the top of its great trunk was 7-, maybe 8-feet high. We had to climb up stumps and rocks and smaller trees to reach the top where we walked its full length. Beneath our feet, the trunk was so wide there was no fear of slipping off. Two could walk abreast. From its massive roots to its mangled top, the tree stretched about a block long through delicate undergrowth of dogwoods, pussy willows and wildflowers.

For a while, I went there every day. There were no trails into the old forest. I never saw another person there except for the friends who came along with me. There were no cigarette butts or beer bottles or discarded grocery bags. So thick were the trees that the sound of traffic was overwhelmed by the songs of warblers, vireos and mourning doves.

Businessmen wanted to put an interstate highway through it; they'd even built I-40 up to just about a mile east of the forest where, today, it still ends abruptly in the middle of a broken-down neighborhood. The ladies of Memphis who loved and protected the forest took the businessmen to court. They blocked the highway forevermore with the help of some smart lawyers, the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society. But few of them walked in the forest.

The fallen tree became a bed, a roof, a table, a floor. One day some girls and I, 18 and full of ourselves, turned cartwheels down its fabulous trunk. Late September afternoons I went there alone and read a book, watched the sky turn pink through the waving limbs and walked out at twilight.

One night a boy crawled out of Overton Park, across North Parkway to the Southwestern campus, stripped of his clothes and brutalized. Rumor was they sent him home. We never returned to the fallen tree in the old forest.

Thirty years later, the forest is still there, but with a trail now and educational stops along the way. As more people discovered it and the inner city hardened, vagrants and prostitutes found their way to its heart. A couple years back, two men stabbed and killed each other in the forest. Volunteers work tirelessly to protect it and make it safe and take it back.

Thirty years later I'm consumed by visions of my teen-age sons, broken on the side of a road somewhere, until I hear the click of the back door late at night. Thirty years later, I remember being unafraid in that patch of forest, the forest unscathed, the forest of first growth, grown ancient.

-- kathryn@csindy.com

  • Old growth in the new city

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