Each time I head off into the woods to check on how they're doing, something new catches my attention as a symptom of their abandonment by people over the past 20-odd years. (Earlier posts here and here.) Two observations from today:
1. There are many more spider webs than there used to be, along paths and in clearings. They aren't very thick, almost invisible unless you're keeping your eyes peeled. They fall apart when you walk through a single thread, so there shouldn't be many at all in walkable areas. Their ubiquity shows that nobody is walking around back there. When dozens of folks would have been passing through on any given weekend, each individual may have gotten snagged once. The cumulative result is that they cleared out the spiderwebs so that everyone could enjoy a stroll without having to peel off sticky thread from their arms every five minutes.
We're not talking about way deep in the woods either -- even ten feet in, you have to start mindlessly swinging a stick in front of you to keep from getting snagged so often. I felt like an idiot doing that -- it was definitely not one of those moments where you remember, "Oh yeah, now this experience is all coming back to me." When I was a kid, we didn't have to result to such goofy stuff, since there weren't so many threads in our way. It felt strange having to do that right as you got into the woods: you expect cobwebs in the attic or the basement, not the entryway.
2. Related to all the underbrush that's turning the woods into a jungle, there seems to be a lot more branches and small trees that have fallen to the ground and are getting in the way because no one goes back there, where they would tramp them into smaller pieces. Kids, too (or boys at least) would entertain themselves by knocking off smaller and medium branches from trees, or finding a large branch already on the ground and whacking all of the smaller branches away from it with their walking stick.
It's like with spiderwebs, or treading over grass to lay down a path -- each individual's contribution is small, but added up over all those people, it made a huge difference.
The very large fallen trees look familiar -- no one would have stomped those into halves in the old days either. The small end of the spectrum looks familiar, too -- twig pieces, shredded leaves, broken acorn shells, etc. But there's way too much stuff in the middle range, like medium and large branches lying all around, often with all their dead shriveled leaves attached, instead of the branches getting snapped into smaller and smaller lengths, and the leaves getting all crumpled up into shreds. It looks like an unkempt lawn cluttered with yard waste, not the small-scale mat of debris that you think of when you picture "forest floor."
While I was back there, a guy driving a lawnmower (who surprised me by being white) was busy clearing out the field that is part of the property just outside of the woods. Public places under bureaucratic control can pay workers to mow the lawn, where that's convenient, and such places look well maintained today.
But once the public place is in a less convenient area, like the woods, the government or corporate board isn't going to pay someone to traipse around back there with a machete and weed-whacker to make it more walkable. Paths and clearings rely on the aggregate of many actions, each of small effect, from the entire nearby population. And of course you're not mindful of your unintended stewardship, given how puny each of your contributions is. You only take note of it when everyone has opted out, and suddenly the public place is overgrown and hostile.
I'm confident that the state of things will revert to how they were once we switch from the cocooning to the outgoing phase in our social-cultural cycle, sometime within the next five to ten years. But it sure would be nice if those future woods-explorers could hit the ground running, and have paths already cleared out. I make a point of carrying a stick to knock branches off and whack the taller weeds out of the way.
Still, it's too much for one person who occasionally goes back there. That would be a great shovel-ready project for the parks and recreation department. Instead of installing free wi-fi in public parks, where folks are supposed to be unplugged, use that money to hire someone who doesn't mind cutting trails through the local woods, and making sure clearings don't get all cluttered up with large debris. It wouldn't even be as difficult as the first time, since now he could be guided by the fading traces of the original ones.