A cordon of dark, gnarly Macrocarpa trees stood along the falling-down-fence boundaries behind my childhood home.
I can’t recall ever crossing the boundaries they defined. The fields beyond were someone else’s. They lived on different roads that I seldom travelled. The trees, like sentinels, looked outward over my no-man’s land. And, like guardians, they looked inward over my play. Like a friend, one became my frontier and then sanctuary.
Wood and fire, community and memory
My father felled those magnificent trees for firewood, one by one over many years, to warm our home. Beginning with those closest to the house, each tree supplied more than a year of firewood but not two. There was a lot of waste. One man working with a chainsaw and axe takes only the easiest firewood – its hard work. The rest, too branched or stumps too big, was heaped for the bonfire.
Magnificent trees make magnificent bonfires. I remember ash clouds from house-tall piles of branches heaped over still rooted stumps, raining on distant neighbours’ homes. One Guy Fawkes Day neighbours and friends joined us after dark to encircle a massive fire with nervous glee. Community forms around fire. Big fires fuel boys’ imaginations and the sear memories for old men. Eventually my sentinels and guardians became black stumps and grey ash.
Learning my instinctual primate
Just two tall, branched, specimens at the very extent of our lot survived to my childhood’s end. They were mine to climb. One became my frontier. I mastered its lowest branches and found new, easier ways around and up its trunk. I found fear. I slipped sometimes but learned to trust my instinctual primate – to reach-and-grab into mid-air. The tree scratched and stabbed at me too. I returned to the ground sometimes wounded and always with sap stained hands.
Sanctuary & friend
Soon I could climb to its crown and a comfortable, three-branch seat. Then, it became my sanctuary and my friend. I sought myself there, away from my family, and my small town. Once or twice I sought refuge there in frustration and anger. At other times it provided peace – a place to be contentedly above everything. A few other friends shared my sanctuary – but not many. Later we smoked there secretly. The Canterbury Plains was not very treed and, aside from a handful of old eucalypts around the nearby rugby ground, my tree was amongst the tallest in town.
From my sanctuary, I could see across the entire town to my school, and my daily route to it through the single street of stores that was the town’s centre. Further still, Banks Peninsula’s hills dry and green-less to the northeast, the Southern Alps snow-capped and blue to the west, and in between the flat alluvial agriculture of Canterbury. I don’t know how tall my friend was – adults’ childhood memories are exaggerations of their impressions as little people – but probably not higher than 30m (100ft).
My parents planted other trees, of course, but they were young and small, like me – unable to support or inspire me, alive or burning. Those last two magnificent Macrocarpa survived to my leaving home and then to my parents selling that childhood home, but they are not there today. They, and the tree I planted over my childhood dog and other friend, are gone to new houses with small ornamental trees that look good, to some, but cannot be frontiers or friends.
Do children climb trees anymore?
Fewer people live on properties with big-big trees. I hear of teachers scolding children for climbing in the school yard – young primates being disciplined for their biology. I see the City prune low branches – ‘hazards’ or ‘ugliness’ – in ways that make public trees unclimbable by small people.
I want my daughters to climb trees – grow strength with nature. If allowed, climbing trees grows powerful, dextrous bodies. And trees grow powerful psychologies too. Children build determination in the face of fear – learning that fear can be found and known, and surmounted too.
I want my daughters to climb trees – learn to find sanctuary in nature. People who spend time with nature and natural places live happier, better lives. When stressed and unwell, people recover faster when they can take refuge in nature.
I want my daughters to climb trees – have a relationship with a living thing bigger and longer-
lived than themselves. Children who love trees gift them to the future, their children, and their childrens’ children.
I want my daughters to climb trees. But where will they climb? To heck with pretty trees and safe trees. I want trees for children – climbing trees.
This post appeared first as an article in the November 2015 issue of Kiwiparent.
Bibliography – More about children and climbing trees
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