Where Terrifying Little Things Thrive

SG | The other day I rounded the corner to the front yard to find my five-year old daughter determinedly sizing up a Japanese maple tree. She had her climbing shoes on — that is, any foot covering ranging from flip-flops to rain boots.

“Daddy, can you clear this tree for me?” she asked, matter-of-factly.

Not quite sure what she meant, I asked “Of what?”

“Ants and spiders.”

“Ah-ha. Sure.” I briefly scanned the small tree and assured her it was home to neither. She happily climbed up into its branches as I watched, wondering what I have wrought. Two points came to mind.

One, I have quickly become the alarmist dad who fills the great outdoors with all manner of perils. “Don’t play on those rocks, black widows live in there.” “Careful around those bricks — are those fire ants?” “Wow, there’s a lot of poison ivy right there.” “Watch out — wasps. Snakes. Mushrooms! Steep hills!!”

The second point? My kids are actually listening to me.

I could give myself some credit and argue that I’m just arming them with information. The South is, after all, home to a disproportionate share of natural hazards. It’s just so damned hot and wet down here — terrifying little things are bound to thrive.

They’re woven into the fabric of my childhood, as they will be for my kids, apparently. Perhaps it’s just a Southern rite of passage.

My grandparents had a cottage on Lake Jordan in Elmore County, Alabama, near Wetumpka. For some reason my grandfather had taken it upon himself to procure a bumper pool table, the one and only I have ever seen in my near 40 years. To this day I don’t know how to play a real game on that thing, although the red and white balls did make for great games of “white ants vs. fire ants” my friends and I would play, hurling balls at each other across the table.

Everyone wanted to be the fire ants, naturally.

For a time, fire ants were everywhere on that property, building their red grainy mounds high amongst the low pricker bushes. We had a respect for them, instilled by our own semi-alarmist dad, I suppose. There were kids out there who did not, and it showed. They were the ones who would gleefully kick fire ant beds, sending a spray of dry clay and stunned yet furious worker ants at whoever was unlucky enough to be on the other side. They were also the kids, as it happens, who usually had the worst cases of poison ivy each summer. I don’t know what their dads were telling them, but “don’t kick the ant bed” seems like a pretty basic lesson.

I’ve seen poison ivy spreading out so far from hairy, thick vines that it makes a canopy overhead. I’ve battled a full nest of black widow spiders while clearing a pile of wood from a garage. I’ve been eyed angrily by more venomous snakes than I can count, at one point being able to guarantee a group I was teaching at Boy Scout camp that they would see both a copperhead and a cottonmouth on a given hike. Not that I had spotted them ahead of time — it’s just that they were EVERYWHERE.

Stepped on a scorpion while barefoot once. That hurt. And my brother has a great story about riding our dad’s shoulders through the woods on a hike, grabbing at overhead branches. One, as it happened, was wrapped in a football-sized hornets’ nest. Later, my dad recalled spotting it moments too late, watching my brother’s hand reach for the branch as if in slow motion. It took a good deal of wet tobacco to sooth those throbbing stings.

So I suppose I must come to terms with the fact that we live in a place where my kids can play outside nine months out of the year, but yes, I will have to “clear trees” for them from time to time. There will be snakes near the playhouse (there was one last week), and I will forever have to keep any eye out for shoots of that damned poison ivy working to get a foothold on my property.

But there will come a time, not too far off, when my daughter will be the one to spot that little menacing patch of poison ivy. Or perhaps she’ll expertly eye a snake’s head and give it the all-clear as a friendly. However it happens, I know I’ll be proud. And we’ll all be better for it.

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