I don’t have many indoor memories from the summer of my 9th year; it’s all fireflies and long days, strawberry jam sandwiches on homemade bread and only needing shoes on Sunday.
My birthday party was near the rose garden; I remember pink streamers and getting Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. My mother’s rose garden was home to pink and yellow roses, meandering pathways, and gliding lawn furniture my dad had made. Someone had a wedding in it once. The house was to the right of it; a shaded grove of trees we called, “the park” to the left. Acres of squared pastures surrounded us; forested woods surrounded the fields. Between the yard and the front pasture ran a line of tall northern pines and our driveway; those enormous pines would have snow laden boughs in winter. We called this indelible homeplace, “The Farm” even though we rarely had more than cats, dogs, a batch of bunnies, or someone’s boarded horse.
I marked my favorite places by the trees. The Park had a locust tree at the entrance, tall with brown papery pods, where we hung the hammock my parents brought back from an Amway trip to Mexico. At the first bend of the driveway were orange tiger lilies and birch trees, the bark of which I did try peeling and writing on. Halfway down the half-mile long gravel driveway (quarter mile? Mile? As a kid I had no scope for distance; I measured the way in memorized bends and potholes) stood a scrappy old apple tree, not good for climbing high but a favorite milestone nonetheless. In our neighbor’s back fields there stood a magic circle of birches that turned gold in September. I wasn’t supposed to venture that far out but I pretty much did, just so I could stand in the center and look for God and probably faeries. I can still view it from Google Earth. And, the windbreaks were all evergreen, so every pasture line and the front of our drive held a guarantee: excellent climbers, with branches spaced so evenly they almost seemed like ladders. I could get the highest up one of those and often did.
I told some of those trees my secrets. Today, when told to “imagine a peaceful, happy place” there’s the branch three quarters of the way up a pine dividing two of our back fields, from where I could see the whole spread and beyond and felt tall, where I go. I could feel the wind and see forever from a perch no one else knew. The farm was, and in some ways still is, my heaven.
A year later we moved to a hot place full of asphalt and poinky transplanted palms. There’s a breach in my outdoorsy spirit at that point; I didn’t acclimate well. Years passed. I kept my feet on the ground. And then one day I had my children and they started to grow. I boosted my little son to the lowest branch of a Sycamore tree and watched him fall in love.
It didn’t really occur to me, as an adult raising a family, to try climbing up into a tree. Somewhere in there my outdoorsy-ness had returned in bursts but only through ground based, perfectly adult-geared activities like hiking, biking, gardening, and running (for clocked distance, not headlong joy). I’d become supervisor, event planner, nurse for skinned knees, cautionary life guard reminding my littles to, “be careful!”.
During those years I had a neighbor once whose ambition it was to pave her front yard. “I hate trees,” she said. I stared at her, I’m sure mouth agape, unable to comprehend what she said. I’m not exaggerating. I could understand hating to rake up tiny little oak leaves or deal with hazardous limbs. But to hate trees? All trees? Shade that reduces your power bill? Wasn’t that a very grown-up reason to nurture a healthy population of trees? I don’t get it.
I still mark my favorite places by trees. When we travel, its the trees I want to see; I bring pinecones and leaves home with me from Aspens, Cedars, Poplars. It’s the massive Live Oaks that caused me to finally love this southern city as home. I believe an old tree will challenge a transient, commercialized attitude. An old tree knows things that came Before You. I know trees to be good listeners, to be generous and servant hearted and I trust in the integrity of a place more if it has a good tree. A strong tree says something about the people who tend it, and these days, the ones who allow it to continue growing un-razed.
When I think about getting old, I think about who I always was, that barefoot girl with freckles from the sun who grew up in the woods. I think about which parts of her I get to keep, which parts of her want to wake up, come back, come out to play. I’m 42 June 24, a reflection.
I’ve started trying to find her and the first place I looked was up.
It was humbling, but not halting, to realize I could hardly pull myself up anymore. I need to work on arm strength and hand grip.
I was happy to find a playground without kids one early morning. I wasn’t interested in being the weirdo adult who’s playing on the swings and monkey bars without a kid in sight. I might need to borrow a kid soon.
I still don’t like heights, which is going to make this goal interesting. But maybe, if I get good at it again, and make it back to Michigan someday, I’ll have the chance to climb up and say hi to an old friend.