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Kids and Trees: Summer’s Call of the Wild

This is the summer of trees.

Any tree. Every tree.

We were at the park the other day, my daughter and I, and suddenly she freezes. Her eyes go big. She whispers, “Oh, I can climb that one.”

Her voice is misty and dreamlike, and her face is turned upward, sort of the way I act when I see a cupcake stand.

I follow her gaze. It’s an oak tree. It must have been planted during the Jackson Administration. It towers over us, its boughs rough and gnarled and calling to her in a way only kids can hear.

Climb!

Climb me!

If I’m kicking around the house, maybe making dinner or tidying up, and I realize I haven’t heard the kid in a couple minutes and can’t find her anywhere, I know just where to look.

We have a fig tree in our back yard. It is only about 15 or so feet high, and its limbs are too saggy and fragile to climb very high. The fruit it produces each year is somehow rotten with sweetness and yet never ripe.

One year, I think, one year.

Of course, it doesn’t bother the girl. To her, the tree is a tower, a monolith of impossible heights, of incredible fantasies.

I watch her climb all of five, maybe six feet and stop, her legs dangling off a limb and her arms reaching above her head. Sometimes I can hear her chattering to herself: It’s a spaceship, an airplane, a pirate ship, a UFO. Sometimes it’s a fort or a house or just a jungle tree.

To her, it is alive with story and magic.

To me, trees are riddled with dread and wonder.

I’ll see a tree sometimes and remember first grade, when I sat on my brother’s shoulders as he walked toward a low-hanging limb. The idea was that he would just keep on walking, while I grabbed the limb, held on and dangled. Only, I slipped and came crashing down, smacking my elbow on an exposed root. My elbow shattered and pushed into my arm. My arm bones twisted around each other and pushed into my wrist. My wrist broke apart as ice does when dropped.

I was in a cast for months.

Other times, I’ll see a tree and out of nowhere think of my brother, dangling silently until they pulled him down.

So when I watch my daughter in the fig tree, or any tree for that matter, I admit a part of me wants to call out: Be careful! Or, get down! Please, just … I don’t know. Keep your feet on the ground.

But I know the uselessness of those words. I know the magnetic pull of trees, of heights, of pushing yourself through waves of fear and feeling the incredible rush of new-found courage — or of just finding a place of your own, a crotch or a limb to let your freak flag fly.

It seems everywhere we go now, she wants to climb every tree she sees. She tried to scramble up a slender birch tree at her grandparents’ house. A weekend hike took twice as long as usual, because she conquered every tree in her path. Sometimes I’ll climb with her and remember what it was like, this feeling of sylvan bliss. Every time I climb a tree, however, I think of that one day I slipped — or the day everything changed. She doesn’t know this kind of fear yet and I hope she never will, and so I watch in silence and let her climb higher and higher, slipping into the upper reaches of the canopy and of herself and I watch her face dazzle and glow at what must be the first inklings of freedom. Is that the pull of climbing?

Above the fig tree in our backyard, an oak tree grows. It’s rooted in our neighbor’s yard, but it towers over everything. Sometimes my daughter and I will be playing in the backyard, and I can see her stare at it and get lost for a moment, as if she can hear it calling to her.

Climb, it must be whispering.

One year, I think to myself, one year I will find her there, high up and smiling.

Mike Adamick writes at Cry It Out!

Previously on Babble

Hacking Disneyland with a Pint-sized Cartographer

Eight Olympic Events I Can’t Wait to Watch with My Daughter

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