I was five years old when I became obsessed with the cesspit in back of my great-grandmother’s house. I grew up in that house. It was 1985. I was piled in there with my great-grandmother and her son, my grandfather, who was also my legal guardian. Everyone was old. Everything was old. If I wanted to go out and play, I just walked out the door. There was no need to tell anyone where I was going. As long as I was back for lunch and dinner, it didn’t matter. The cesspit was a draining field for the neighborhood’s septic tanks, a swamp which lay approximately eighty feet in back of the house, surrounded by lush woods that seemed to turn neon green in the summer and filled with a cacophony of bird song and squirrel chatter—a refuge for the local maple, oak and birch trees. A proper sewer system hadn’t been installed yet, so this practice of septic draining continued in the neighborhood until 1989. I would be rebuked for venturing into the swamp, but I couldn’t help myself. There were tadpoles, frogs, snakes and salamanders back there, as well as a vast array of bugs. I took a jar, scooped up the water, held it to the light and saw daphnia—tiny freshwater crustaceans—swimming around in the amber water. I was warned of disease, but all I could see was the spectacle of life. I was rapt. There was a magical realm right in back of my house. There was no way I could keep out.
Going near the water was hazardous. It was easy to sink into the mire, which was most definitely mixed with sewage. It smelled like the refuse of septic tanks and I would be admonished by my great-grandmother every time I went back there. I would come into the house at times, caked in filth. She would strip me down and bathe me. She couldn’t understand why I would want to go back there. She had a large lawn that seemed to stretch on forever. There was an empty wooded lot across the street with no septic swamp in it. She would beg me to play in these areas instead, but I couldn’t. The woods in the back of the house, especially the wetland itself, was something else entirely to me. It was the Amazon, it was the jungles of Borneo, it was the Congo, in winter it was the Yukon. It was a perilous place that I had to investigate. My great-grandmother and grandfather implicitly knew this. I was never barred from exploring the swamp. I was told that I shouldn’t, but it was never off limits. They allowed me the freedom to make mistakes. They had seen this movie before. Many children had been raised in that old house.
This strip of woodlands extended for a width of one hundred yards and ran in length for a mile, all the way out to the ocean. My grandfather had told me this. I became obsessed with the idea of crossing the woods, from my backyard to the ocean. But there were obstacles, the first being the swamp. I was six years old when I crossed it for the first time. It was winter and it had frozen over. Being out in the middle of the swamp on top of the ice was like being on the inside of a grand cathedral. Snow encased the branches of the trees and made them look like giant pieces of coral. The smell of snow on the dampening tree bark was intoxicating to me. Trees rose out of the swamp with small clumps of earth attached to them, forming tiny islands. Giant glacial rocks stood out of the water like great monuments. I moved the snow out of my way on the ice with my grandfather’s snow shovel and slid around my great cathedral. There was a holly tree on the other side of the swamp. It called out to me, magical and green in the winter wonderland. I walked over to the other side of the swamp for the first time, like Columbus setting foot in the New World. Even the ground from that side seemed alien and more solid somehow. I carved my name on the holly tree with a survival knife I found in the basement. This was my newly conquered empire. The world was dreamlike and I thought of God looking down on me through the clouds. Beams of sunlight struck through the frozen canopy onto the ice. There was a footpath next to the holly tree. This must be the conduit that went to the ocean. One day I would follow it down there, when spring came and it wasn’t so cold.
I spent most of my free time out on the ice whenever it was frozen solid enough for me to stand on. That’s where I was when I was approached by a large, fat boy. It was an older boy. He punched me in the jaw. That was the first time I had even been punched. I tried to choke him. I bit him and punched him back. After about ten minutes of fighting out on the ice, it was over. My nose was bleeding. I watched the blood drip down onto the snow and ice below, a striking juxtaposition of red on the white, melting the snow slightly upon arrival. I liked the way my blood looked. I liked the way it tasted. The boy was angry at me for carving my name on the holly tree. That side of the woods lay in back of his yard. It was his territory and I had messed with it. He warned me never to go across the swamp again into his area or he would fight me every time. He was bigger than me and his punches hurt. I was more afraid of having to explain my wounds to my great-grandmother than I was afraid of him. I didn’t want her to bar me from going back there. That place was my sanctuary, my empire, my cathedral, my school. I couldn’t let that happen.
Spring came and the ice melted, melting away my access to the path on the other side. A hurricane had come a few years prior and knocked some trees over, creating a network of fallen timber, half alive and half dead, leaning up against others still erect. I took some old boards lying around in the shed and built a tree fort in the tangle of fallen trees with old nails I had found in the basement. I set up a lookout post where I could see over the swamp and the path by the holly tree that lay beyond it. The boy across the swamp built a more elaborate fort on his side, more of a cabin and on the forest floor, directly adjacent to the path. This was war.
The boy was too big and too strong for me to beat in a fight. He had to have been about nine or ten years old. I couldn’t fight him with my then six-year-old body. He would surely kill me, I thought. As summer came around, I noticed he wasn’t around much. He must’ve gone away to camp, I figured. This was my time to do it. I found some old rubber boots that belonged to my grandfather in the basement. I wore them as I put a series of planks, logs and old pieces of junk down between the little islands in the swamp. It was a crude bridge, of questionable integrity, but it was all I had. It took me days, but the completion of my very unsophisticated bridge was fruitful, though the fruit was rotten.
I woke up early on the morning I decided to cross the woods. My heart beat out of my little chest as I put my Smurf galoshes on—my grandfather’s boots would be too big to walk in. My plank bridge failed me when one of the boards sunk deep into the mud as I stepped on it and I walked through the swamp, knee deep in the stinking water and mud in the summer morning haze. Mosquitoes bit me and the birds chirped loudly as I tried to get across as fast as I could. The cold chill of the water hit my leg. I couldn’t turn back now, not after all this. I ran up to the shore where the holly tree sat. My name had been scratched out. I walked over to the path and I ran like hell.
An old stone wall, about two feet tall, bordered the other end of the woods and the back of the older boy’s far-reaching yard. I kept my head ducked down as I passed by what I believed must have been his house. I took a minute to gaze in awe at the fort he had constructed. It was more a small house or log cabin than a simple child’s fort. It was an assemblage of small logs or sapling trees, measured and cut perfectly. These made up the walls of the structure. There was a foundation and roof made of wooden boards. It appeared to be the work of a man, but I had watched him build the thing himself all spring. I looked inside. There was nothing in there, save for a small seat and a machete. I wanted to take it, not because I wanted it, but because I didn’t want him to kill me with it if he saw me. But I knew instinctively that this would only enrage him. I left it alone. I found a big stick and took it with me. I needed something. I kept running down the path.
I ran and I ran. I ran past the most wondrous and exotic world my brain had ever grasped. In all my life, my days spent hiking in the Sierra Nevada, or the redwoods, or Yosemite—nothing could ever compare to the Garden of Eden I was immersed in at this time, at this place, at this age. The enigmatic value we attach to the things we see at this age can never be replicated. Vines seemed to flourish everywhere, all over Christendom. To my left, I noticed that the swamp itself extended and turned into a brook that leisurely babbled along the path. Fallen trees and shrubs, generous with thorns, stretched out ahead and up above, in the canopy where squirrels rushed and gossiped and woodpeckers hammered on. I had been walking for too long. My great-grandmother would be calling out to me soon for lunch. I knew I would have to turn back. Brambles of thorns and other snarls of florae lay increasingly thick in front of me. I turned around.
I ran back down the path, hoping I wouldn’t see the older boy. Then, there he was, standing there, staring at me. He was stout and and pale white, save for a crimson red face juxtaposed with oily black hair. He seemed colossal and impenetrable. A shock ran through my body. My heart beat out of my chest. I held up my stick like a baseball bat. He laughed.
“What are you gonna do? Hit me with that?”
I’d hit him with it if I had to. I didn’t want to. I wanted to go home.
“Leave me alone.”
I stood there, shaking in my muddy Smurf galoshes, swamp water still soaked my jeans up to my knees, layered in muck and soil. My arms were scraped up from the brambles, mosquito bites dotting my extremities. Pieces of leaves and other debris were lodged in my blonde bowl cut hair.
“You really crossed that swamp all by yourself?” he asked.
Of course I did. I told him how I did it. I told him why I did it. I told him how I watched him up from my tree. I told him my name. That’s when he told me his: Matt. That’s when he helped me get back, arranging additional planks across the swamp. We made a deal. I couldn’t carve my name on any of his trees, I couldn’t go in his forts, and he wouldn’t go in mine. I couldn’t hang out on his side of the swamp and he wouldn’t hang out in mine, but I could use the path, as long as I was going straight ahead. As long as we respected each other’s side, there would be no fights, no wars. That was the deal and the deal held up.
Later that summer, Matt cleared out the brambles on the path with his machete. With his advice and help, I traversed unchartered territory, out to the ocean. On the way out, I saw the forts of other kids, positioned out there on the trees and in the thickets. There were more swamp clearings as well. There were beautiful sections, more beautiful than I could have imagined, dense with ferns and teeming with life. I saw for the first time in my life that there were swamps in other people’s back lots, some better, some worse. There were entire worlds out there that I knew nothing about. Every other kid’s house was another universe and mine was just one of many. The woods emptied out near a farm. A silo stood out across the morning fog of the ocean. The smell of the sea and the breeze beat gently across my face. I had done it. Sail boats were out there on the ocean, which was part of a calm harbor. The beach was rocky, isolated and rural. I was left with the feeling of true accomplishment and fulfillment. This was a defining moment in my development.
I didn’t know it at the time, but it was the easy part of my life, the last few remaining months of it. Soon, events would occur that would drastically and upend everything. Damage would be done that I could never truly recover from, but only learn to cope with better. Crossing the woods was the first of the great lessons I learned in life. I remain thankful to my guardians at the time for giving me the freedom to make mistakes, to explore and to learn. I got hurt along the way, but I learned about conflict, compromise, respecting other people’s space, and the world that lay beyond my own. It armed me with an arsenal that I would go back to again and again, giving me a strong core and some understanding of human nature. Every time I’m in an unsightly part of town—I live in Los Angeles, so this happens quite often—I look up and I’m taken back to the forest canopy in the middle of the swamp. Surrounded by beauty while standing on top of a cesspit, like so much of life. Every day, I’m still trying to cross the woods. Some days I make it. Other days, well, I’ll get there next time.