Thursday, November 23, 2006

Child hood memory

A daylight domain of tangled bush and canopy of tree tops through which the high sun of summer filtered through to the mound of fresh dug red loam where a small freckled skinned child busily amused himself by digging and shaping the sandy soil into an impenetrable fortress. The soil was easily shaped because the badgers and foxes who inhabited this overgrown temperate jungle frequently seemed to be improving upon their extensive network of holes and burrows. Charles liked the feel of the fresh dug soil as he scooped it into piles with both hands to build the walls of his castle and unlike pure sand it was not so abrasive as he dug into it with his fingernails in order to clear a tunnel under the castle wall.
A lone Sentry stood guard atop the newly constructed watch tower. The soldier had been obtained from the bottom of a cereal package after breakfast that morning . He had done it while mother was washing up because he had to empty the contents into a large mixing bowl in order to find the pesky prize. The toy was made of plastic and its legs were attached to a platform which Charles promptly cut off with his scout knife. After all how could a soldier do anything constructive while his legs were attached to a flat piece of plastic? With his legs firmly embedded in the sandy soil the soldier looked so much more genuine on guard at the watch tower .

Charles continued to dig , scrape , and shape the red earth , steadily improving upon his fortification. The toy soldier viewed Charles' kingdom from a perfectly defensible vantage
point .
They were on a ledge, on the side of a steep slope, which had been formed by the excavations of badgers and foxes. These lairs were what first attracted Charles to this place and he called it the " Fox Holes ".
The Foxholes were actually in a large pit situated at the intersection of three fields and bordered by almost impenetrable bramble bushes and elderberry overshadowed by aged elm , oak , and sycamore trees. Surrounded by well tilled barley fields and lush grassland the pit had been left to nature, wild, unspoiled, and mysterious enough to attract the attention of a small boy on a day's exploration. From his first discovery Charles claimed this small territory for himself and returned here many times throughout his childhood .

It was a perfect place. On a summers day the the trees filtered the hot suns rays and provided gentle warmth and light. On a cold windy day the air remained calm , Charles could only hear the wind bending the tops of trees which bordered the pit. It was a wild place but not inhospitable, with Charles' activities accompanied by chattering sparrows , and the song of robin, thrush, and nightingale , with the occasional rustling and scratching of small animals in the undergrowth. His exploration was aided by small well trodden paths made by animals criss crossing this overgrown excavation. The bottom was "'fairly flat and close to the centre , the lack of direct sunlight had impeded growth to create a small clearing under the trees. On cold rainy days in spring or fall Charles would build a campfire in the clearing. At first , his attempts at fire making were frustrated by damp wood and lack of experience. However , through trial and error he became an expert at putting together the right combination of dry grass , small twigs and kindling sticks to create a blazing fire with just one strike of a match. It was a natural progression for him to obtain an old cooking pot and cast iron fry pan with which he cooked meals of sausages and baked beans and boiled water for steaming hot cups of tea. Charles could even enjoy that damp English weather while treating himself to such delicious feasts and warming himself by the crackling and spitting fireplace. On days when there were no delicacies to steal from his mother's pantry Charles would go to the potatoe field nearby and take a few potatoes to bake in the open fire. As he became older he played less in the sandy red soil and the fireplace became more the centre of attraction. He gathered together pieces of sandstone which outcropped all over the pit and made a proper circle of stones for his fireplace. Then he made a tripod of sticks from which he could hang his cooking pots . These ideas were picked up from books that he read at home and school. One particularly ambitious project was his attempt to make charcoal. The idea came from a book which described how charcoal burners lived in the Woods of Northern England during the 18th Century and earned their keep by making charcoal. The principal was fairly simple and consisted of piling thin sticks on top of a well stoked fire and then layering sods of damp earth on top to slow down the burning process. Almost all the air had to be excluded from the fire except for a small hole at the bottom of the pile of sod and an outlet hole at the top. The cracks between the squares of sod had to be filled with mud so that oxygen was excluded from the fire. The mound had to be constantly tended to make sure that the fire did not burn too fast. After eight hours of slow burning removal of the sods revealed a small pile of brittle charcoal sticks. Fortunately for Charles there was a small swampy pond nearby where he could obtain the necessary materials for damping down the charcoal burn . On another occasion he made a bow and used the fire to harden and strengthen the points of his arrows. Most of his entertainment was gained from manufacturing these things rather than using them for their purpose.

These trips to the foxholes were not an everyday occurrence for Charles because he was at boarding school during the week and only came home on weekends. Sometimes months would elapse between his visits but this would serve to make his place all the more special to him. As the child grew so did the foxholes change with the time and seasons. Each visit became a new discovery, a new hole and fresh digging , a tree had died and fallen , a young sapling was shooting up beside it. In summer wild strawberries and blackberries could be picked and taken home for pies or , more often , mostly eaten on the way home.
One great attraction for him was the hope of one day seeing a fox or badger out of it's lair. The evidence of their presence was easy to find. In winter tracks in the snow, and in summer paw prints and claw marks in the soft earth and here and there piles of fluff , feathers and thin bones where a bird or rabbit had been caught and eaten. Many times he had stared into the thick undergrowth trying to see where the noises came from but without success. Yes , he did see the occasional rabbit or hare scurry across the clearing but he never spied a fox or badger. Sometimes he wondered to himself why he ever called his place the "Fox Holes ". Then again why would he see anything when so engrossed in tending his fire and building fortresses right next to the badgers den. Sometimes, when engrossed in his activities a particularly loud noise would freeze him in his place and the excitement would send a shiver down his spine.

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