She’s six, just turned six in May. She announced at dinner tonight that she’s been climbing trees at school. Higher than your nose? Her mother asked. Oh yes. Most definitely, she nodded emphatically with a whole-body nod. Ahhh, her mother mused. She got that gene.
You see, when her grandpa was, I don’t know, maybe 3 or 4 (so the story goes) his family still lived in Iowa. They moved east when he wasn’t quite 5, so it doesn’t seem unreasonable to think that this happened then. He had a little friend from up the street who would come down to play. The kid was deathly afraid of snakes. They’d be playing trucks in the sandbox & suddenly Stevie would holler the red alert: Snakes! The way the game worked (it was no game for Stevie) was they had to run around & get away from the snakes. Grandpa (as he is known these days) never had a problem with snakes. He liked to catch little yellow & brown striped garter snakes. There was a huge well fed black rat snake that lived in the barn and liked to shed his skin in conspicuous places, perfect for being found, gawked at, and treasured by little boys. Snakes really were the sort of thing a little boy should pursue with diligence. They should be poked and chased and caught, little ones put in a water-free aquarium and fed hamburger & crickets. After a bit, they were released back to the wild. It was no laughing matter for Stevie.
An observer would have seen two little boys running around in random circles and squiggles, apparently having the time of their lives. Sooner or later, in a last ditch effort to escape the snakes, they’d scurry up the scotch pine tree that grew in the middle of the front yard patio. Apparently snakes couldn’t climb trees. Grandpa didn’t know they could, and even if he had, he wouldn’t have told Stevie. It was an excuse to climb a tree.
By Iowa standards it was a respectable sized tree. It was no giant like the cottonwood at the foot of the driveway. Instead of the quiet rustle of leaves, almost a clatter, that was the cottonwood’s language, the wind in the needles made a plaintive sigh. The whole thing was maybe forty feet tall, the Iowa wind & weather keeping its vertical ambitions at bay. The branches grew low to the ground, then proceeded ladder-like its entire height. The snakes were left behind.
With the agility and alacrity that are still available to a youthful body not yet beaten up by the battles and misfortunes of life, he’d scramble up that pine. Both feet on a branch. One hand grasping, one reaching for the next branch. Pulling with his arms & abs until his feet found their next landing. On and on he’d go. A few minutes later, there he was at the top, arms encircling the 4-inch trunk. Wind gently rocking the tree. Pine needles singing their lullaby. Rock-a-bye baby on a tree top, but he had no intention of falling. It was a different world up there. Birds and pinecones. Flat pancake cumulus clouds were suspended in the turquoise sky. The uncluttered view of the plains and cornfields stretched for miles. He saw the trace of the creek as it meandered toward the river, the growth of box elders crowding its banks. He imagined it a zipper on a rumpled emerald cornfield jacket thrown there by a passing giant. A friendly giant. There was the street at the bottom of the drive. A little further out was route 6. Out across the horizon in any direction were the grain elevators, sentries or game pieces however he chose to imagine them that day. The wind blew and the sun shone and time passed. Actually, there was no time at all up there. Somewhere, though, his interlude in heaven was interrupted by his mother ringing the dinner bell.
He’d scramble down at a rate just short of free-fall. Stevie was long gone. Apparently the snakes had given reprieve. His mother would cluck at him, something about being careful. What an extraordinary mother she was to give him the freedom to explore his world unfettered.
Twenty-five years later, Grandpa was married to (of all people!) Grandma. They lived in the middle of Pennsylvania in a little town Grandpa identified as Dead Center, PA to the Canadian border guard one day. I guess to a guy from a country with towns named Moose Jaw & Dead Horse, Dead Center didn’t sound like a stretch, so the guy let him through. But that’s not the point. While they were living there, their first daughter was born. Grandpa was still climbing trees (in fact he’s still climbing trees at the tender age of almost sixty). This daughter loved to watch him climb and work up in the crowns. He’d swing. He’d rope. He’d lower. He’d call for his saw. So it really was no surprise when he came into his bedroom one morning to find this blonde two-year old standing on the windowsill, hanging from the sheer curtain by one hand. She nonchalantly turned toward him and said “daddy, hand me my chainsaw.” With a chuckle of approval, he obliged. He had that same “explore the world fully but be careful while doing it” approach his mother had evinced.
It was a few years later that this same daughter started kindergarten. She was a bright and cheery soul, quick on the uptake, sharp as a tack, as they say. Agile and physical. They were learning yoga. This wasn’t public school. Experimentation & adventuring were encouraged as ways to exacerbate learning. Given the chance, kids will explore their world. At recess, they’d make forts and play games of “chase,” in the patch of trees below the school that they called a woods. Some of these trees were vertically challenged, growing more sideways than upward. A person could lay up there like an ocelot and watch the world go by eight feet below, unknowing kindergartners the exemplification of Brownian motion.
It seems that the word got out that the kids were allowed to climb trees at school. Some parents lacked comfort with allowing the kids to engage in what they perceived as risky behavior. They would raise their kids in a padded room. Kids would be protected from everything, especially life. Don’t do that, Johnny. You’ll get hurt. So a rule was promulgated. You can climb trees, but no higher than your nose.
She came home sputtering about how they were restricting her ability to climb trees and what were they up to and why? Why? Why? Sputter. Sputter. Well, actually, she admitted, they were still allowed to climb as high as their noses. Grandpa helpfully pointed out that unless you were doing a skin-the-cat, your nose was always the highest part of you and if it wasn’t, you either weren’t climbing right or you were in trouble. In reality, he said, you could still climb as high as you wanted because you’d never be climbing higher than your nose.
Her daughter announced at dinner tonight that she’s been climbing trees at school. Higher than your nose? Her mother asked. Oh yes. Most definitely.