In Remembrance of Forests Past, Or How Aimless Wanderings Will Bring You Back Home

The street where I grew up ends in a dead end where the ground drops off into a ravine. The drop is steep, and as a child it scared me. Other kids in the neighborhood would hurl themselves tobogganing down into the precipice after it snowed, but I always opted for the gentler slope of the footpath next to the ravine, which connects the dead end of my street to the lower parts of another street a few blocks away.

I love to walk to explore. But living in South Florida where everything is built to accommodate cars rather than pedestrians, and where the climate makes parts of the year difficult for outdoors activities, the opportunities for aimless wanderings are limited.

When I went home to visit over the winter holidays, I made up for this by walking for hours, going wherever my feet–or indeed, someone else’s–would take me.

Standing at the dead end, I started down the gentle slope of the path of my childhood’s tobogganing to where it connects to a footpath across the ravine that on the other side meets the embankment of the railroad that runs behind all the houses on our street, ours included.

There was snow on the ground the day I decided to go all the way down to the bottom of the ravine, enough for the ground to be frozen and tracks to be visible, but not too much to make walking difficult. As I traversed the ravine, I discovered that someone wearing thick boots had gone there before me. The path and its tracks wound deeper into the ravine, downwards, always downwards, taking me closer to the railroad, and then further away, until I found myself at the bottom, where a creek gushes forth through the railroad embankment, strong, confident, and with such force that ice could never settle on it.

The name of the creek is Kvarnbäcken, or Mill Creek, and it runs from Lake Botered on the other side of the railroad to Lake Vänern, the third largest lake in Europe after Lakes Ladoga and Onega in Russia, and where town is.

At the bottom of the ravine, I lost track of the boots, but instead I picked up another set of tracks.

A fox’s paw prints.

I couldn’t tell where the fox had come from. Perhaps from the other side of the railroad. Or maybe it had crossed the creek, using the concrete of the embankment’s foundation as a bridge. Nevertheless, I could tell the direction in which it had been headed.

I decided to follow the tracks of the fox to see where they would take me.

The fox must have been a creature of comfort. Instead of blazing its own path through the trees, it followed the footpath as it wound its way through the forest along the banks of the creek. Together we walked, the fox in the past and I in the present, in the same direction as the gushing water. And then we reached an up slope in the ravine.

There was a small rapid here, making the creek jump down a step or two as it bent to accommodate the slope. Across the rapids were narrow planks, covered in snow and ice. The fox had easily trotted across, but I would have to wait for another time when the footing was safer.

Photo: Erika Harlitz Kern

I said goodbye to the fox and climbed up the slope where I found myself in the parking lot of the tenement building at the bottom of the street that connects to my street through the gentle footpath of tobogganing past. Here began a shorter, level street, that moved away from the ravine.

I walked all the way to the end of this street, took a right at the hillock I always thought unremarkable until my Dad showed me that it is a fort from World War II, and found myself at another dead end. I was back at the ravine. Here, the even braver children would go tobogganing on the footpath that hurled itself into the precipice. The challenge was to control your toboggan mid-flight so that you could turn with the footpath and not end up in the creek or break your leg on the ruins of the mill that has given the creek its name.

I started down the hill, remembering the times I had tried to navigate my bicycle up and down it, never succeeding entirely. Downwards, the slope made it too difficult to steer. Upwards, too difficult to pedal. Or the time when it rained so hard that parts of the path washed away and you couldn’t ride a bike at all, and when you walked you had to jump over the furrows as if playing the floor is lava.

Where the footpath turned, the ruin and the creek greeted me. The ruin silent, overgrown and covered in snow, the creek roaring onward, down towards the lake. In the summer, the creek is silent, almost dry. In the winter, not so.

Here were more rapids, larger, steeper, rambunctious, covered in foam. It’s the perfect place for a mill that runs on water power. A neighbor once went to the local archives to learn more about the mill. He traced it to the eighteenth century. Maybe it’s older than that. The hollow road that leads to it through what remains of the forest that once surrounded it bears witness to a time of activity in these now empty woods. The school nearby, where I went, my sister went, my Dad and Uncle went, and for a short while one of my cousins, is expanding. Houses are being built everywhere. The town is expecting more people to move in now that the trains to the city run more often.

I saw the changes from where I stood next to the ruined mill. This used to be old forests, gravel paths, ponds with frogs and salamanders, cow pastures. Now, the trees were gone. The footpath was closed off and had become part of the schoolyard. The pond was overgrown, and the cows grazed elsewhere. In J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring when the four Hobbits set out for Rivendell, I always imagine in my head that they walk through the pastures and the trees along this footpath, next to the creek and the ruin. I look at the changed landscape before me, and I think of Sam and Frodo and what they felt when Saruman took over the Shire.

I continued down to the banks of the creek where there was another bridge across the rapids. Though this bridge was also covered in ice and snow, it was wider with a railing, so I walked across and climbed the slope on the other side.

At the top of slope, I discovered a lean-to and a fireplace with logs for seats surrounding it. I saw traces in the snow everywhere. Boots from several people. Tire tracks. Coals and ash in the fireplace. But no garbage. From growing up here, I knew that the boots were from teenagers in the area and the tire tracks were from mopeds.

Unsure of what to do next, I saw that someone walked away from this party, through the forest in the direction of the railway. I decided to follow.

My eyes fixed to the snow, I walked together with this new stranger through the trees and up the slope where I once again reached the railroad. To the right in the distance was the creek, the embankment with the fox’s tracks, and beyond that the dead end where it all started.

I listened for the hiss in the metal rails that signal an approaching train. The rails were silent, and so I crossed. On the other side, the tracks continued down the slope, through more trees, and then I walked out onto a field. The tracks continued in a straight line, past the watch tower for the moose hunt, no stopping, no meandering. This person was headed somewhere (home?) and knew how to get there.

At the other end of the field was the highway, the E45 that runs in a north-south direction from the Swedish Arctic to Sicily in Italy. The E45 used to run through town, like roads did before heavy traffic. Since 1991, the E45 by-passes the town and instead, it cuts through here, adding noise to our up-until-then tranquil garden, leveling yet another ravine where I struggled to handle my bicycle, shifting the small gravel road that for centuries had run through the farm from which our neighborhood got its name.

On hot summer days in kindergarten, we used to go swimming in the lake where the creek begins. Sometimes we would drive there in the teachers’ cars, other times we would walk and be pushed in carts. The walk took us through trees and along a gravel road with clover growing along its banks and along fields of oats. Ripening oats smell sweet in the sun; they taste sweet, too.

The highway changed all that. The gravel road disappeared. The oats were replaced by fields of grass. You could no longer drive across the railroad behind our street, and so the neighbors we used to have on that side were no longer our neighbors.

The construction of the highway all those years ago confused my inner geography to such an extent that when I reached the other end of the field and stood at the wildlife fence watching the stranger I had been following walk through the gate in the fence to cross the road, it took me more than one moment to realize what I was looking at.

It was another one of the forts from World War II.

We used to walk past this fort on our way to the lake. Back then, nobody cared about it. It was in the middle of nowhere. The only people passing by were people like us, on our way to go swimming. Or people like the ones who one time had left their empty bottles behind and what looked like a blood-stained shirt.

When the highway was built, I lost track of the fort. I had no idea how to get back to it. And yet, here it was. Suddenly, my inner geography snapped back into place. Standing there by the fence, I knew exactly where I was because I recognized where I once had been. I also realized something else I had never known. Walking to the lake in the summer with the teachers and other children, I had always felt that I was far from home. But standing there next to this fort as this December-day moved towards its rapid, early-afternoon end, I realized that my house was very close.

With the setting sun to my back, I followed the wildlife fence along the highway, following nobody’s tracks but my own. When I reached the steps of the house, I came from the other direction from where I had started. My aimless wanderings had taken me in a circle back home.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.