When many millennials hear the word “swamp,” they think of Shrek. When I hear the word, I think of my home. When I was in kindergarten, my family moved to a house in Plainville, New York. It was in what most people would consider farm land, but I think of it as a normal suburban town. While most people on our street did have large yards, our property definitely was the biggest overall, because we owned not only our own front and back yard, but a plot of land that stretched behind and past our neighbors' house. This land consisted of mostly cleared woods and a huge pond, which we began calling “the swamp.” It took me a while to actually comprehend the fact that we owned this, even though it technically fell a long way past our house.
In the first years of living there, going to the swamp was a treat. My sisters and I weren’t yet allowed to go down alone, so we had to wait for our dad’s trips to follow him for company. He would do his own thing, clearing small trees and making the land look generally nicer, while us kids would run around playing. Some days we would throw or kick around a ball, and others we would poke sticks around in the shallow, mucky water of the swamp itself, pretending that the small bubbles that rose to the surface were caused by alligators that lurked right under the muck. We did these things a lot, but mostly we pretended we were lost in a forest and forced to survive on our own. We built shelter between the largest tree and a row of bamboo-like plants by propping up multiple fallen branches and imagining a blanket of leaves covering our heads. Then, we cooked dinner made out of swamp water, leaves, and mushed up berries (which were probably poisonous) over the fire we pretended to start ourselves. If we ever grew tired of eating plants, we would go hunting near our campsite and if we encountered another person, we battled out our differences with our hand crafted weapons. Although these weapons made of a simple sticks, bamboo pieces, or even a cattail were pretty harmless, we imagined the immense danger that came with fighting our enemies.
One summer, my dad grew tired of making the long walk down the road adjacent to our house to get to the “entrance” for the swamp when the land was conveniently attached to our backyard but was only separated by a steep hill. To make the walk there easier for him and for his young kids, he decided to build a set of stairs that started in our backyard and stretched down the steepest part of the hill. I remember my grandpa coming over with his big red pickup truck filled with planks of wood, something that always meant Dad was building again. They really only spent a few days on this particular project, so before we knew it there was a full blown staircase connecting our two plots of land. This made it way easier to go to the swamp, as well as much safer for us kids, so we no longer had to trail single file down the shoulder of the road with a parent following closely behind.
As we got older, we were allowed to go down more and more by ourselves. This was probably because we became less likely to hurt ourselves or accidentally drown in the few inches of water. Going to the swamp became a huge part of having friends over, because it was something different that no one had done before. While some kids had the huge house or the nice pool for playdates, we had the big swamp. It was as simple as yelling “Mom, we’re going down to the swamp!” into the house, and then skipping around to the backyard and showing our guests down the cool new stairs we had. Once down the remainder of the hill, we would mainly play that same survival game with our neighborhood friends or other visitors, because the lack of houses and civilized items allowed us to really let our imaginations run free. It wasn’t hard to lose track of time and truly believe that we were children stranded in the wilderness.
When I was 13, I got a bow and some arrows for Christmas. It wasn’t a kid friendly version, but was in fact a legitimate simple target bow and a sheath of sharp arrows. My dad assured me that once the weather got nicer we would take a trip to Olive and Maynard’s farm and pick up a bale of hay to use as a target. Sure enough, the second the snow began to thaw we made the short trip to our church members’ farm, got the freshest bale they had, and brought it back to the swamp. My dad helped me set it up along the outer edge of the big clearing and I began to shoot. For the entirety of spring and summer that year, I continuously went down the gradually aging steps and shot my arrows into the hay. When I was feeling particularly creative, I would imagine myself as Katniss Everdeen and run around the land, finding shelter, making fires, shooting arrows, and surviving in the 74th annual Hunger Games. The swamp turned into my own personal arena, and I could immerse myself in the world of this book that I had become so obsessed with. I went from playing with sticks as my weapon down on that plot of land all those years ago to actually shooting arrows that could be very dangerous if used incorrectly. I became pretty good at it too, no longer having to pretend to hit my intended target right on the mark. But once the following winter came, the hay was covered by snow, and progressively decayed until there was nothing left.
The swamp seems smaller to me now, and less like a never-ending forest to get lost in. My sister Graisa claimed a few years ago that the land and the water is actually a marsh. Although she’s right—based on the type of vegetation and physical layout of the land and pond, the land technically is a marsh—no one in the family has stopped calling it “the swamp.” It still grants me many amazing memories, but in a different way. Poking sticks around in the water has turned into ice skating in the coldest depths of winter. Building a shelter out of three huge branches propped up against a tree has turned into adding wood to the bonfire that provides light and heat for the people gathered around it. I’ve told junior high school friends ghost stories over s’mores, gone sledding down a hill leading from the road to the water with my high school sweetheart, and stayed up into the early hours of the morning talking to my cousins while sitting on blankets and bundled in sweatshirts on the Fourth of July. The swamp itself has not really changed a bit, but I certainly have. I simply grew up, gained more life experience, and my basic interests changed. But somehow this piece of land has always been able to provide me with fun and excitement. As I continue to grow up, I’m still discovering new things to do there. It’s always been a reliable constant—a place I could go if I wanted to enjoy the outside air, to perform a physical activity, play with my sisters, or to just be alone. And as long as my family owns that house and that piece of bonus land, it will continue to be there for me when I need it.
The steps that lead to this place of solace should be over a decade old by now. The wood is growing darker, the remnants of dead leaves have pressed into the fibers. Some of the steps closest to the bottom have lost their back panel, leaving an open frame so you could look in and see the blackened dirt of the hill still behind it. A few summers ago, my dad decided not to trim back the greenery growing around the staircase for some reason. Or maybe he just forgot to. This resulted in weeds and vines creeping up the balusters and spilling over the handrail. The leaves and flowers began to sprout and grew to the point where the entire staircase was completely covered. The limited visibility of the steps themselves made this foliage a major problem, so we did what anyone would do and trimmed them back, vowing to never let them get that out of hand again. Sometimes if you’re not careful, even when you can fully see where you’re stepping, you can slip on the decaying wood, or even pull off the newel cap on the top right newel post. They’re getting old and are kind of falling apart, and I dread the day when someone will tumble all the way down or even fall straight through. However, that day still hasn’t come. The stairs still stand after all these years of storms, plants, and footprints. Although they’ve changed in appearance a bit, they still get the job done. They still serve their purpose of transporting our family down into the swamp.