By Ian Anderson
To the south of my childhood home stood a large sweetgum tree. It towered over the roof, over the street, over our neighborhood games. The pods were spiked and great for throwing at one another. The leaves were five-pointed stars.
I have this memory of climbing to the top to let the wind push me back and forth; I held the crown while I watched cars pass, their sounds distant. Birds flew under me. Another time, a friend and I played on a high branch and it broke. He reached out and pulled me to safety while the rotted limb crashed to the pavement. We both contend he saved my life that day. Of course there was a tire swing, too.
And now that my mind is filling up with that old neighborhood, I see from the top of the sweetgum that the trees point out all the important places: the willow sweeps over the yard with the pink house, the lemon tree pours over the wall of the neighbors to the east, and our kumquat tree peeks over the garage close by; a block over a friend’s avocado tree bends to the ground to welcome its boys, and it gladly drops its fruit for us. And the church’s lawn is carpeted with acorns just one house away.
A memory in trees — that’s what I have.
And so when I found C.S. Lewis’s poem “Pattern” a few years ago, I put it to heart. The first four lines read,
Some believe the slumber
Of trees is in December
When timber’s naked under sky
And squirrel keeps his chamber.
The rest of the poem speculates that trees come to life during the winter months, which they enter with “spirit alert” because “The hunter wind and the hound frost/Have quelled the green enchanter.” Maybe that’s why I spent so much time in the shade among the leaves — I was just as enchanted as the trees themselves, and the spell still works on me when wind gives the trees a voice, or I see a boy swinging from a branch, or pine sap mixes with the heat.
The librarian from the first school I taught at used to give book talks to encourage students to read, but she also liked to gauge the change in the times by surveying the students on certain topics. One thing she asked new groups of students was, “How many of you have never climbed a tree?”
I’m still shocked by their answers. The boy from my childhood, the one who is still swaying from the top of the sweetgum, wonders, “What have you been doing, then?”
Awhile back, during the summer, I stood in the backyard and watched my two year old son. He faced me, but looked over my shoulder. His hands waved in the air. With half a smile I said, “What’re you doing?” He replied, “Dancing with the trees.”
According to Lewis, the trees “Awake to life and labour/When turbulence comes roaring up/The land in loud October.” Today I heard the beginnings of that wind, the one that strips our fire-red maples and pumpkin-orange oaks. And along the sides of the street I saw rumors of the leaf piles to come, the ones that welcome leaping children with the sound only splashed leaf piles make.
I smile at the thought of my younger self at the top of the sweetgum, especially when the wind shakes the cottonwoods like it did today. Maybe he’s still there, his arms wrapped around an upper limb, dancing with the trees.
This fall, before all the branches are bare, I’m going to add to my boys’ memories. I’ll invite them to hunt a tree to sit in. Maybe the wind will howl and the leaves will fly beyond our reach; and the ones that still hold on will weave in and out of the pale light and dapple our faces. You come, too.
Ian Anderson is a teacher, a husband, and a dad. He lives with his family in Central Kansas. Occasionally, he tweets here: @ian_writes.