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Last Stand: America's Virgin Lands

Introduction

How is the American childhood to be measured? So many different kinds of landmarks may have punctuated those years: The baseball games attended with distracted but loving dads; the marble doorways of great museums entered; the sandlots or spelling bees faced and conquered. For some, school report cards marked the high or low waterlines of hope; for others it was the friendships gained and lost on playgrounds.

But there is another category of child, bred in the back fields and uncultivated edges of America, whose years were measured in genuine, living seasons: The first clear day of winter’s end when the maple sap runs; the moment of summer when earth and air have conspired to raise the temperature of a pond so it might embrace the joyous goose bumps of a naked child’s skin; the last leaves piled high and leaped upon in autumn; then snowfall, hushed and final as the white endpaper of a favorite book.

I am one of those lucky ones, whose best memories all contain birdsong and trees. In the long light of summer, on every consecrated Saturday of spring and fall, and whenever we were blessed with the gift of a “snow day” in winter, my compatriots and I carried out our greatest accomplishments in the company of hickory and maple. Relieved of the instructive intrusion of adult company, we explored and reexplored the rambling patchwork of woodlands that formed irregular connective tissue between alfalfa fields and cow pastures that stretched in all directions from our homes.

The fields were fair enough. They harbored the occasional find—a nest of baby rabbits tucked into the thatch, or a sneezy bouquet of butterfly weed running renegade through the alfalfa—but these fields that constituted the farmers’ only wealth in our neighborhood were viewed by us kids as the empty spaces between precious wild woodlands. From the farmers’ point of view, the woods themselves were wasted land, usually left standing as woodlots because they were too steep or creek-riddled to plow efficiently. But we saw the world otherwise. We waded through alfalfa and skirted around bored cattle to get to the real places: damp groves smelling of humus and earthworm industry, rich in the pecky music of birds seeking forage.

In this cool shade I found my first jack-in-the-pulpit preaching his springtime gospel of life everlasting to a wide-eyed congregation of creek frogs. In these woods I found and consumed my first—and hundredth—wild pawpaw, a fruit that few people have tasted because it can’t be transported, only pulled from the branch and licked from the fingers like a handful of rich, banana-scented custard. We found half-buried in the banks of these gullies the bones of dead animals we imagined to be buffalo, or mastodons, thought I’m sure now they were only the weathered remains of cattle that had strayed from neighboring pastures years before, to expire from some lackluster cow ailment. But that possibility did not cross our minds at the time. We were too rich in love for life to suffer thoughts of the mundane.

Excerpted from Last Stand: America’s Virgin Lands, with photographs by Annie Griffiths Belt. Text copyright © 2002 by Barbara Kingsolver. Published by the National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.