July 11, 2014

Suburban woods reverting to overgrown jungles -- an effect of cocooning?

When I've visited home the past several years, I've been amazed at how overgrown the woods are around suburban Washington, DC. I started playing around or trekking through these woods in the mid-1990s, so I know them pretty well -- at least I thought I did.

Many paths have shrubs and saplings blocking their entrance and obstructing the way off-and-on along the rest of the course. The only exception is paths that are paved. There is so much underbrush sprawling in all directions that there are hardly any more clearings to be found. Not to mention a number of invasive species that would have been totally unfamiliar just 20 years ago.

With so much overgrowth and so few human beings tramping around, there are now deer thriving in spots just behind suburban parks. And they've become so settled-in that they don't startle and run off when they see a person nearby. Twenty years ago, you had to travel farther back into the woods to see deer; now you can spy them from a playground in a residential area.

I would've taken pictures, but that would only be useful if I had similar pictures from the '80s or early '90s to compare them with. Nothing much comes up on Google Images, though. For lack of a closer comparison, then, let's take a look at the woods as they appear in two horror films, a genre that loves to shoot on location. The first is from Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986), the second from The Lashman (2014), a movie that turned up when I searched for "friday the 13th woods," and which is an attempt to shoot an '80s slasher flick in the 2010s.

Granted, the two shots are not from the same spot in the same woods, may have been filmed in different seasons, and so on. But all the memorable wooded scenes from movies of the '70s and '80s look walkable -- Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Swamp Thing, The Princess Bride, Heathers, and so on and so forth. They're just how I remember them, and the shot from The Lashman and other candid pictures from Google Images look just like my neck of the woods today.

The simplest explanation seems to be that in a climate of cocooning, people have abandoned the woods as one of those public spaces that they visit every now and then. Each person has a small effect on tramping down the underbrush and knocking twigs, branches, and shrubs out of their way, but cumulatively the effect is huge -- carving out entire paths and clearings in what would otherwise be a hostile habitat.

When I've gone out to the woods these days, I've never seen another person back there who was wandering off of the paved path. At most you see folks walking, jogging, biking, or walking their dog along the official bike path. So even when cocooners do visit the woods, they are still paranoid and fearful of what lurks just 10 to 20 feet away from the officially designated path.

In an earlier post I mentioned another clear sign of how the woods have been abandoned over the past 20-odd years -- the decline in tree carvings (which usually carry dates), and the sparse amount of litter from recent compared to earlier years. Close to the official paths, you can still find current-day beverage cans and plastic wrappers, but once you go off the beaten path, you are only going to find glass Coke bottles, rusted cans, pull tabs, narrow-mouth openings, old logos, and long defunct brands like Schlitz, Stroh's, and Nehi.


  1. The Blair Witch Project, shows the height of paranoia about woods - most of the movie is about a group of filmmakers getting lost in the woods. That was released in 1999, so it was the height of cocooning, before the trend reversed briefly in the early-to-mid 2000s.

    Wildlife has also become overgrown. I remember reading an article about wolves roaming around abandoned towns in Europe, and wild dogs in Russian cities, who apparently have become so sophisticated they are able to ride subway cars to different locations in Moscow. In America, coyotes have become an urban pest. I see all these trends are related to cocooning.

  2. Rising carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere means that plants are having a ball... forests are getting more dense and expanding.

  3. Schlitz still exists. Haymarket in Chicago has an awful special consisting of a Schlitz and shot of Malört.

  4. Schlitz has been out of the picture since the early-mid 1980s. If its only existence is in the form of an attempted revival by hipsters 25 years later, under another company, it is defunct.

    "Rising carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere means that plants are having a ball"

    Yeah but where are the people to tramp on those annoying crummy plants? It's not as though there was no global warming in the '80s.

  5. Against all the downsides you mention we have lower crime rates, much less vandalism of nature and manmade structures, and more intact ecosystems.

    It seems like a reasonable tradeoff.

  6. To calculate a trade-off, we need quantitative estimates of what has gotten better and what has gotten worse. Not simple up vs. down that hides the magnitude of the changes.

    Violent crime rate is down 49% since '91-'92, property crime rate is down 44% from the same peak.

    Meanwhile, attendance rates have fallen to nearly 0 for many types of public spaces where "strangers" (community members) were milling around and feeling part of a thriving larger community. Mini-golf, roller rinks, video game arcades, playgrounds, malls... just to name some examples that are fresh in my mind, based on having nowhere to take my little nephew last weekend for a day of fun.

    And, nothing has taken their place. It's not as though mini-golf and roller rinks have been replaced by a new exciting public space -- the public sphere has more or less dried up.

  7. The same goes for activities and rituals that turn the private residential areas into more public, communal bonding spaces. Trick-or-treating, Christmas carolers, neighborhood children visiting each other's homes and playing out in the yard, etc. Those are down way more than 45-50% -- you hardly see them at all anymore, when it used to be commonplace.

  8. Most people exist in a state of anxiety during cocooning times. People were probably a lot more relaxed and happier in outgoing periods. The proof is the huge rise of prescription meds over the past 20 years - which also happened during the midcentury cocooning.

  9. All these factors from cocooning, to rising temperatures, to shrinkage of public sphere have a role. Also need to take into account baby boom population numbers. Suburban forest spaces were jammed with tramping boomer boys in the adventurous 8-14 year old age group for three decades. Those areas might only now be recovering. Also -- my personal than-and-now studies of particular patches of suburban and exurban land show a cycle of clear-cutting for fields in the early 20th century, followed by building in the second half of the 20th century, and the regrowth of forest at the beginning of the 21st.

  10. In terms of trying to calculate net benefits, I would try to see if there are places on different crime cycles and look at the "foot vote" between them. It seems obvious to me that people prefer low crime to high crime, but agnostic has emphasized he's more interested in the slope than the level.

  11. "people prefer low crime to high crime"

    Of course they will say that if you ask them, but most older people would also say they would prefer the 60s, 70s, and 80s to modern times. In fact, most older seem to think that right now times are more dangerous than they've ever been, or at least the ones I've talked to, and that the 80s were safer.

  12. I like your "Friday the 13th" approach to verifying this trend. Another approach would be to Google scientific papers on the biomass of North American forests. It has been significantly rising for decades, especially in the north-east.


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