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At Home in the Woods

Fri, Sep 27th, 2002
Posted in Columnists

It's a relief that 9/11 has come and gone with no additional terrorist attacks. But, it seems that there is still a lot to worry about--impending war with Iraq, more attacks, West Nile and other exotic viruses, the lagging economy and climate change.

When I am feeling anxious, the Big Woods comforts me, so it was a pleasure, on 9/11/02 to talk about the woods at the semi-annual Presbyterian Women's guest evening in Canton. I will always remember where I was during the sad events of 9/11/01, but now I will also remember where I was on the same date this year. This year's memories don't cancel the bad memories of last year, but they take some of the sting out of them.

I received the invitation to speak because the women were familiar with my Big Woods writings in this column. They had also heard about my forthcoming book "At Home in the Big Woods" and asked me to read excerpts from it. It was not without some anxiety, however, that I prepared for my talk. I am not accustomed to speaking in public and I knew I would be speaking to some people who know the Big Woods and its history better than I do. I had little to fear, though. The alert and smiling expressions in the audience put me at ease.

I talked about how my husband and I discovered the woods in 1972, fell in love with it and immediately decided to buy two woodlots from Otto and Walter Schultz. I read excerpts from essays about the old Simley place, eccentric Big Woods characters and the birds I saw from my back porch one fall when a back injury prevented me from taking my usual walks.

My audience seemed most interested in the people of the woods, but also showed interest in the birds. Several people told their own Big Woods stories.

One woman said that the Big Woods used to be "swarming with timber rattlers" and her mother, a small woman, would never let her children swing on their tire swing without first running a big stick through the perimeter of the tire to check for snakes.

Another person said she had attended the Amherst school and that they used to have school picnics by Simley Springs, which is now part of the Hvoslef Wildlife Management Area. Someone commented on how Lawrence Simley always used to have something nice to say when he came across people picnicking on his land.

One woman, who used to live in the Big Woods, talked about visits to the Amherst store and its legendary proprietor Lilly Haagenson. She said Lilly always asked, "How can you live in the woods? It's all poverty over there."

Someone else said that she had moved away from the Big Woods because she was trying to be modern and no longer wanted to be a Hillbilly.

Following my talk, we went to the church basement for lunch. There I heard more stories and answered some questions about birds. A former coworker told me about two Bobwhite quails that, until recently, used to sing and follow her around on her farm. Bobwhites are now rare in Minnesota and when they are found it is only in Houston and Fillmore Counties. We used to hear them during our first few years in the woods. My friend said she would let me know if the birds returned.

We had several discussions about how the Big Woods has changed. Except for Merlin Vickerman, all of the old people who grew up there and still lived there when I arrived are gone now--Rueben, Pancake, Ted, Jaymour, Melvin, Lawrence, Belle, Betty and others. Gone are the tarpaper shacks and moonshine stills. New residents, like my husband and I, have built houses in the woods and have moved there to escape the rat race of various cities. The flavor of the woods has changed; it's more civilized now and not as interesting. But most of the trees are still there. We still see wildflowers in spring, trout in Simley Creek and a great variety of birds and other wildlife.

Nancy Overcott Route 1, Box 104, Canton, MN 55922 bigwoods@acegroup.cc

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