Our Favorite Climbing Tree
It stands moderately tall at about forty feet. Its leafy crown spreads out in the globe-like shape of a hydrangea flower, a deep dark red maroon. Branches and leaves cast a circular shadow around the tree, several feet out from the trunk. The bark is light gray, smooth on my hands when I gripped the branch but the bark of the trunk was more scaly plates. The bark seemed to be twisted and warped around the trunk. A beloved red maple in the farm yard near the house, a central location between the barn and other buildings on the site, this tree was known by the whole family as our (the) favorite climbing tree. My siblings and I often referred to it as such and many times would say “let’s meet at our favorite climbing tree,” or “we should play in our favorite climbing tree.” Even Mom and Dad knew the tree as the favorite climbing tree. With the myriad trees growing throughout the farm, this one in particular got more attention and was climbed far more than any other tree. This tree was special; with so many trees on the farm, it wasn’t necessarily the easiest or best tree to climb, it had more to do with its location, about fifty feet from the house and closer to the barn. The location meant we could climb the tree at almost any time, while waiting for Dad to get ready to go somewhere, or on a school night around chores and homework and bed early.
The tree also had a certain character about it, different from any other tree. It seemed warm and nurturing, like an old dog having been well adapted to children, allowing them to climb over it and even tug on its ears but instead of being angry and biting, it responds with gentle playfulness. That seemed to be the nature of this particular tree. Or perhaps like an older sibling, the age difference more than five or six years, an older sibling that humors a younger sibling by playing with them, doing more sitting and watching, enjoying the depth of imagination of the young child. With a certain degree of protectiveness as it observes the child at play. Our favorite climbing tree was like that and it was a place to escape to, a place where a child’s imagination could and did soar. How I miss that most beloved tree! It was more than a dear friend, rather an adored family member. In more recent years, I have met some really amazing trees, ones that offered escape, emotional protection, comfort, encouragement and strength, like the willow in Morris, Minnesota; however none of the trees I’ve met since that particular red maple have been quite like it. Perhaps it isn’t a lack in other trees, but simply the attachment to childhood, the happy childhood memories that include that tree; a different time with all my family together, when my siblings all lived at home.
Standing on the south side of the tree facing it, centered with the trunk, there was a thick branch right in front of but above me that split from the trunk at an acute angle. Staying in that same position, another smaller branch to my left that was perpendicular to the main trunk, came off straight, like a monkey bar. To the right of the bigger branch (almost like a part of the trunk that broke off into a crotch), was a slightly smaller branch, parallel to the middle branch and left branch. It was higher up on the trunk than either of the other branches and was straighter than the middle one but not as straight as the branch on the left. It was thicker than the branch on the left. Further to the right, on the east side of the tree, was another split from the trunk. A thick limb that gently sloped up many feet before branches split from it. The main part of the trunk itself was several feet around and fairly straight most of the way up. On the north side of the tree was a gaping hole in the trunk, where another limb had been attached. I have no memory of that branch. (Mom told me, “It broke off during an ice storm when you were one or two years old”). It was a bit bigger than a basketball and dipped into the tree several inches making a small cavity. Both the north side and west side had no branches except for the very top. The smaller branches toward the top of the tree are just a blur in my memory. The three branches on the south side are the clearest in my memory.
The bark was smooth against my small hands; it must have been worn and polished by the hands of seven children swinging on it over ten, twelve years. Even when we were only passing under the tree on our way to the open area used as our ball field, we would jump up (as we got older just reach up) and grab hold of the branch, swing once or twice, propelling forward then letting go, landing on our feet a marginal distance away. Often, we were playing in the tree. That branch was used to climb up into the tree; gripping the branch with our hands, we’d swing ourselves up on top of it or we’d use the trunk as well, pushing with our feet. We also gripped the middle limb, pulling ourselves up with our arms and walking up the trunk, then swinging up into the crotch the limb formed with the trunk. Once in that spot, I would scoot up the thicker, middle limb a ways before settling down, straddling the branch. Often my brother, Isaiah would climb up behind me and move to the right of the tree, climbing on to that other branch or moving further east to the other section of trunk. Jonathan being the youngest generally stayed on the branch to the left. More often than not the three of us were playing in Our Favorite Climbing Tree together.
Our imaginations soared in that tree, higher than the branches, not even the sky as the limit. With a rope tied to the middle branch for us to climb up or down on, the tree became a helicopter undergoing a crazy, fun adventure in harsh environments, even conducting some rescue missions. We became monkeys in a zoo and the tree was the central part of our cage. The tree was our house, palace, and forest fort in the heart of Sherwood Forest. We would dangle from the skinny branch one at a time, our knees hooked around it as we hung upside down and sometimes did a flip off of it, landing safely on the ground below. At one point the tree was a watch tower on a large wall going east to west. We would lower a bucket on the north side from the east branch, filled with food for hungry people trapped on that side. My sisters, particularly Johanna would take their dolls up into the tree on the large eastern limb, and pretend it was their house, when they played together all three of them had a spot. I made a swing out of the rope for my dolls. The tree was a safe haven in all our play; it represented safety, comfort and belonging. Sometimes we didn’t climb the tree but played at the base on the south side. The red maple was both a starting point and a resting place. It was central in most things.
Sometimes I climbed the tree alone, either playing by myself or seeking solace. I remember nibbling on a leaf one time, to see what it tasted like; I was also pretending to be a koala. The leaf tasted green, neither bitter nor sweet though closer to sweet than bitter. Thick, smooth leaves, they felt almost like a waxy paper, wax paper texture only more smooth. At the height of summer the leaves were pliable, I rolled them around in my hand, folding and unfolding them without doing much damage. I liked the deep red leaves, even in the summer making for a nice contrast to the otherwise green yard. Our Favorite Climbing Tree now exists only as a very fond memory.