Babes in the Wood


As I was out walking, I had an encounter that stuck with me afterward and got my mind wandering off the beaten path. It was a little thing, but there’s a panoply of history behind it. Something the modern civilized human seems to have forgotten. 

Look. It’s not that nature is out to kill you. It’s just that when you get sideswiped on the way past because you were in the wrong place at the wrong time… whoops. 

I have been trying to walk after work every day that it’s not raining (and I’d walk in the rain but Ohio soil is slippery clay mud and dangerous on most of the trails I frequent). Because nature is having a vast episode of accidentally trying to kill humans, and humans are reacting in their usual erratic and irrational manner to that existential threat, the trails are full of people. People who ordinarily do not venture far from their well-groomed and risk-averse habitats of HOA subdivisions and inner-city enclaves. People who really aren’t aware that nature, red in tooth and claw, doesn’t always mean grizzly bears. People like this young mother with her toned body she was fighting to keep, letting her barely-walking toddler out of his stroller and then standing there watching him careen across the heavily-traveled bike path and into the vegetation on both sides of it. 

“You realize there are poison ivy and nettles growing along here?” 

That’s all I said. She didn’t have time to say more than “Oh. Really?” as I walked past. But she did scoop up the kid before he was rolled up under someone’s bike, or more likely… 

There were at least six plants within a hundred feet of him that could have injured him, or killed him. She was just letting him beebop along like he was on a nice mowed park lawn where the worst thing that he could encounter was a bee. Out on this trail? Poison ivy, wild rose thorns, nettles, Larkspur Aconitum with it’s lovely purple and deadly flowers, poison hemlock, buttercup with it’s attractive shiny yellow flowers. I’m only naming the things the kid would have found at this spring season, without even getting into the poisons of alluring berries and fruits later. 

Walking away, I couldn’t help thinking about death, and how in removing the perils of it’s constant looming presence, we have lost the fear that kept us from lurching into the thicket of nature’s worst. Children used to die. Now? It’s a shocking anomaly. I’m dead certain that mother had no idea what her babe was within grasp of. Had she known, she might have retreated to the home she’d fled to try and get fresh air and exercise. Really, all she needed to do was to be aware and exercise caution. Situational awareness isn’t in her vocabulary, I’m afraid, just as it isn’t in most people’s. I encountered more people than I’d have liked on the trail that day, and watching them, I realized that most of them think the world revolves around them, and that they are convinced they are immortal, invincible. Nature? Harmless pretty thing. 

How many children died of eating things they ought not? More than we’ll ever know. In an era where death was unquestioned, no one looked too closely at the passing of yet another little one. But also, mothers taught children to be wary. Don’t put that in your mouth. Don’t go into the deep, dark woods alone. Don’t try to pet the wolves. 

Babes in the woods come out all right in the stories. Real life was, and is, much more harsh. Nature isn’t out to get you, it’s just there, and you were in the wrong place at the wrong time.



16 thoughts on “Babes in the Wood

  1. You posted the picture the other day of the jack in the pulpit. It reminded me of when I was maybe twelve or so and my sibs and I, or maybe just me, found some in the woods behind our house and dug them up to transplant in Mom’s garden. I knew exactly what poison ivy looked like and I was *careful* considering that the whole under story was nothing but poison ivy.




    Oh, misery. LOL.

    The transplanted jack in the pulpit thrived.

    But you’re right. We learned and we knew. And so did Mom. So while we were little Mom watched closely. We still got in scrapes, but they were only scrapes.

    1. My kids were fairly free-range. But when they were small I spent a lot of time walking them through the pastures and woods teaching them the names of all the plants and what could, or could not, be eaten. And why not to just try anything at random.

      Jack-in-the-Pulpit, by the way, is also a toxic plant. With bright red attractive berries just full of oxalic acid.

      1. Easier to identify the few things that you *can* eat. But I definitely grew up that way. Every moment of any walk was one identification after the next. Plants, bugs, animals.

  2. Realizing that I could keep myself safe in the desert but I am hosed back east. Although I know “leaves of three” and to not eat what I don’t recognize.

  3. Gak! I’m not sure what people are thinking, or if they even are. One former neighbor let her grandkid wander and I had to stop the little girl from wandering into a patch of poison ivy. We also have nightshade. And any number of poisonous mushrooms. Derp. Plus, plants aren’t the only things to worry about. We have bobcats, coyotes, foxes, owls, hawks, eagles, venomous snakes… Yet people around here let their cats roam free and then are surprised when they disappear. One former neighbor had a cat snatched right off her front porch by a bobcat. Another neighbor’s dog was bitten by a copperhead and had to be rushed for emergency antivenom. An acquaintance’s teen was running into the house barefoot and stepped on a copperhead on her front porch. It bit her, of course. Most stuff can be avoided by being aware, but so few people are aware these days.

    Ignorance is a killer and it’s so easy to avoid.

    1. I seriously think it’s the lack of risks. You can’t be aware unless you know there is danger, and in suburban US, that’s something people have done away with. Look at little play parks. Anything kids could get hurt on? Gone. Instead of expecting parents to be aware and wary of danger, they cater to the school of “let the child do whatever it wants” and try to keep the dangers away. Like baby proofing a house. I’m willing to bet if I ask my grandma, she did no such thing when my mom was a baby (as she has published a memoir of that time, it’s a safe bet).

  4. And then there’s the “Sucks if you touch it, but if you boil the crap out of it…” Stinging nettles, boiled in a couple changes of water, with a bit of salt and vinegar.

  5. Many ways to be ‘stupid’ in the woods… Some of us learned the ‘hard’ way about poison ivy, and the things that may lurk in the middle of a blackberry patch. Thankfully the snake departed without biting us!

  6. Oh, ghod, I am flashing back to my just-above toddler-age brother and my above-toddler-aged self going about my mothers’ garden and for some reason – eating a bit of every plant in it. We were pretending to be … something. Can’t recall what, but we sampled a bite of everything there. (on another occasion, we were pretending to be worms, and ate a bite of soil. Probably safer, all told …)
    There is, indeed, a god who looks after children, drunks and the US of A.

  7. Kind of related– I really hate most non-expert pretty plant sites.
    They list stuff as “poisonous” if it can give you a tummy-ache if you eat several plants, exactly the same as the “people have died from drinking tea that somehow got a leaf in it”.

    Came to mind the other day because we were picking up a vanity, and I noticed a bleeding heart flower– then I noticed the pretty, leafy plants all around it were freakin’ Lily of the Valley.

    Yes, they’re gorgeous– but about my only rule for plants is “nothing that kills you for being an idiot toddler.”

    So no oleander, or lily of the valley, or english yew trees.

    (with an honorary ban on sweet peas, because I like growing sugar snap pees and can see some kid eating them long enough to cause serious issues)

    Partly inspired by too much Agatha Christie, Brother Cadfael, and thinking the Poison Garden in England was just TOO FREAKING COOL.

  8. And of course, in in the middle of Nature, there’s always the risk of gravity. A broken leg inconveniently far from help can ruin an evening. And the business of splinting a broken leg with sticks and strips of cloth only works so well. A compound fracture can be quieted to a loud roar, but you ain’t walking out of there.

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