neck of the woods

The wooded area at the back of our farm — just before the sheer ravine wall that fell off the Cumberland Plateau — was often called the ‘back forty’. This is where copperheads hid in rusted out oil tins and sent little boys racing back to the front of the property bounded by Hollow Springs Road. Out-of-sight sinkholes would accommodate the farm and machine shop’s trash until we built a house at the back of the property in my teens.

The back forty was adventurous. An old model car flipped on its top nestled in some trees that prevented its farther avalanche. I hid porn purloined from schoolmates under leaves, but the magazines got wet. I touched the neighbor a few years older than me amidst our hikes and ‘king of the hill’ games. At one point we were damming a spring to transform a large puddle into our own jacuzzi. The rugged terrain — remnants of old moonshine stills, storied with turf wars — provided the backdrop for an unlikely romance. It was our neck of the woods.

Signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on May 20, 1862, the Homestead Act encouraged Western migration by providing settlers 160 acres of public land. In exchange, homesteaders paid a small filing fee and were required to complete five years of continuous residence before receiving ownership of the land (source).

Women and immigrants who had applied for citizenship, as well as freed slaves were eligible for the plots. Farmers were offered a quarter section of a quarter section. A section of federal land was 640 acres. Thus each farmer would receive a quarter of 160 acres, or 40 acres. There would be two ‘front forties’ and two ‘back forties’. This term did not apply to our neck of the woods geographically speaking, but is relatable, historically speaking. The Ku Klux Klan was founded nearby in Pulaski, Tennessee in 1866. And, homestead properties were not available to those who had borne arms against the US government during wartime.

Daddy shot a fox off the back porch of the new house seemingly for target practice. Foxes would not hurt you — really — if walked upon in the wild, I knew from experience. They were bad for chickens but we did not keep chickens.

He had one of his worst horse riding accidents in those woods. He was ‘mountain climbing’ at the time. For us horses were trained to mountain climb and to round-up cattle — sometimes the same thing — so climbing up a sheer ravine wall or out of a gulch was not odd for him. The wall was too steep and the horse flipped backwards, head-over-tail, crushing part of my father in the cartwheel of long legs, protruding saddle horn … spurs, stirrups. I forget if he crawled out or if one of his farm hands found him. There would be months of rehabilitation and a titanium rod implanted to strengthen his shoulder.

As a special service my father will train a horse to be shot off of. He wants to be able to shoot a rattle snake he might run upon while horseback riding. At some point he found a market for these horses in Georgia where they are used for fox hunting. An elite sport, I imagine.

It is of Middle English origin, and the meaning of Todd is “fox”. The name possibly refers to a fox hunter. It remains a dialectal word for a fox in some parts of Britain (source).

Ambivalence and nostalgia interfere with one another in the evolution of memories. I would have implored my father not to shoot the fox if I’d seen him go for his gun a moment earlier. I did not then and have not since felt that it bode well for him. The terrain would prove more dangerous than its wildlife.

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