Why so few children’s stories are set in the Southern woods:

The woods, The forest; basically the same thing. The jungle; quite a bit different. Many books have been set in the forest (“Little Red Riding Hood”, “Hansel and Gretel”, etc.) or even the jungle (like, “The Jungle Book”) but how many are set in the Southern version of the woods?
“Woods” or “forest” conjure up visions of straight trees, dark trunks, dim light, coolness, grass or leaves or pine needles underfoot, little woodland animals (the harmless kind) and the vague worry about a bear. “Jungle” makes you think of rope-like vines, fifty and a hundred feet long, dripping water, boggy spots, lush growth, a canopy high overhead, the scream of primates and the hiss of snakes twined around the aforementioned vines.
I think the reason why so few stories are set in the Southern “woods” is that you can hardly move in them. Hard to get much plot going. People who live in the South or who have spent any time there in the country know exactly what I’m talking about. People who haven’t, well, it’s hard for them to imagine. You might think that the “Woods” would be scary because of the preternatural darkness and the lurking large, furry predators, and the “Jungle” would be scary because of the poisonous snakes, the poisonous spiders, the poisonous lizards and the gorillas that rip your limbs off. People think of the South and think of some pine trees or a few palms. They wonder, “what’s the big deal?” I can’t tell you what the big deal is, but I can tell you what it’s like. You’re not going to meet the Disney version of the three bears, you’re not going to see Hansel and Gretel coming around the next clump of trees. Tarzan will not be swinging from any vines. Instead, it’s like this…
You have to imagine this in the summer. The temperature is in the 90s, the humidity over 80%. There is a nice breeze…but not in the woods. The air is still. The ground is not firm. You may be walking on several years worth of accumulated pine needles – it feels spongy, unsubstantial. You can’t see very far. The trees are a combination of hardwoods, pines, scrubby stuff. Pines let in a lot of light through their “canopy” so there is plenty to nourish the undergrowth. And the undergrowth is where you are. Kudzu climbs up one tree and down another, carpets the ground, hides stumps and logs, smothers small trees and produces structures as large as circus tents. Blackberry bushes grow randomly and generously. Ferns poke through where they can, saw palmettos disguise the boggy places. Green briers rise straight up from the ground like cobras, waving tentacles to punish the unobservant. Hardwoods are covered with green mosses while pines drip sap in quantities that astound. The innocent looking green-leafed things by your feet are really poison ivy and poison oak. Lots of things have “leaves of three” in the South so it’s hard to immediately pick it out.

Trees start their branches only a few inches from the ground. You take a few steps and your foot is snagged by a bramble, your shirt caught on a branch. You turn to unhook your shirt and your head runs right into the web of a banana spider. Banana spiders are LARGE. They’re not tarantulas, but they’re almost as frightening. Especially if you can’t see it and wonder if it’s in your hair. You will spend the next half hour imagining you feel it sneaking down your back. Because you’ve stood still so long you have attracted a few ticks. You don’t realize this now, of course. You’ll find them tonight. The mosquitoes arrive in large squadrons, undeterred by that wimpy bug spray you put on back at the house. Worse are the yellow jackets which raise instant welts where they land. Every time you swat, your arm is scratched. All those scratches start to sting as the sweat trickles in them. The sun
manages to beat down on your head even though you’re in the middle of the woods. Gnats float in a cloud around your head and even though they don’t bite, they can land in your eye or mouth.

You have to be careful where you step; the snakes will not give warning here. Smart people take a stick and wave it in front of them to catch the spider webs, occasionally banging it ahead of them on the ground to flush out snakes and skinks. If you walk through a carpet of kudzu you’re taking your life in your hands because while the kuzdu looks lush and green and innocent, underneath it hides unspeakable numbers of things that sting and bite. You do actually have to watch out for larger animals. The state of Florida has a panther named after it and its own black bear. They are not fables.

The forest is not quiet either. The mosquitoes whine in your ears but
they’re nothing compared to the cicadas. They can produce a drone as loud as 120 dbl. A loud rock concert is around 115 dbl, just for
comparison. The hotter it is, the better the cicadas like it and the
louder they sing. The sound of cicadas is the one thing that
instantly brings to mind summers in the South.

In closing, I’ll tell you the story of Mr. Tate. “Remember Mr. Tate”
is something you might have heard from your grandmother as you set out for the woods. There is a state forest in the Florida panhandle down the Sumatra Road called “Tate’s Hell.” We passed every time we drove to the beach and back.

This is the story: During the 19th century a man named Cebe Tate lived in Sumatra, FL. He raised cattle and some of them were being killed, he thought, by a panther. He took his dogs and set out in the woods to hunt for it. After a few hours he became separated from the dogs, lost and disoriented. He was bitten by a snake and half devoured by mosquitoes. He was lost for about a week. When he emerged from the forest he was near Carrabelle (25 miles from Sumatra). He approached two men and said, “My name is Tate, and I’ve just been in Hell.” Then he fell over dead.

It is not surprising that most authors have not tried to weave their fairy tales of morals, beasts and children into this setting. The beasts are too sleepy in the sun and the children too demoralized by bug bites. Only the cicadas sing on undaunted, their chorus the “song of the South”. This is what it sounds like:

5 thoughts on “Why so few children’s stories are set in the Southern woods:

  1. My dad used to take us camping in central Florida frequently… I'm sure it was everything you say above, but all I remember was making fires and roasting s'mores and getting to whack things with my hatchet. Maybe it's all the garlic we ate that kept the mosquitoes away. I rarely had any bug bite as a kid.

    Now my memories of camping in the wet, wet woods of Northern California on the other hand… Oi.


  2. My family has a ranch in Florida, and since moving North I've had to explain to people that when it is time to round up cattle for the stockyards we go “Cow Hunting.” And hunting for cows is what it is! You take your horse into the scrub and try to get the cattle hiding in the shade out of it. I remember the “jungle” just like you describe it.


  3. Can you believe that I never knew the constant drone of the woods was cicadas? I knew it was bugs just not which bugs. The video is great & incredibly accurate. Sometimes the buzzzz is soothing. Until I get bit by a mosquito.

    There's a reason I so love the B'ham Botanical Gardens. I'm never too far off a path to scream for help! Even while trapsing in the wildflower garden. Plus I have cell signal.


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