Tuesday, February 19, 2008

tree says climb

I think it’s a child’s job to put us in touch with the rightness of certain impulses or experiences that we’ve long since lost sight of.

I have some low level angst about (among many, many other things) raising my child and stepkids living here in the Dixie Burbs because I feel strongly that children need unstructured outdoor time in order to thrive, preferably in the country. We live on a busy street, our land is stripped of topsoil and floral or animal diversity, and there’s no f-ing way I would let my kids out of my sight for any amount of time *at all* even in our spacious fenced in back yard. I’m terrified  they’ll wander away and get hit by a car or that someone will entice them with candy or just snatch them.

As a child I spent hours alone doing things I would never let my child do alone at the same age, ever. I spent hours outdoors by myself. I walked for hours in the woods, sometimes in charge of my much younger brother, and played at the edge of ponds and creeks.

My husband grew up in Napa CA but it was a different place then. Starting from about the age of eight he and his ragtag band of friends stayed out on their bicycles all day long. They could safely pedal all over town, and wild, undeveloped land was just around most any corner. He never heard of any strangers abducting or trusted adults molesting kids left alone in this way, and nor did I.

I couldn’t let my child or stepkids do that, I’d be panicking the whole time.

Too, I wish my childhood had been a bit more balanced. I wouldn’t take anything for those long hours of freedom in the woods but my family always lived in pretty isolated spots. Social support really helps a child make sense of and heal from trauma.

For me and for my husband both I think the long, long hours out in the fresh air in all weathers was a blessed refuge from unhappy (or worse) home lives.

But looking back on it I can’t imagine much that is more precious. The fantasies spun– everything from Narnia or Tolkien style epics to Little House in the Big Woods-style survival on my own in the snowbound woods– the serenity found, the difficult situations that began to heal in those hours outdoors– there is just nothing better. I think a lack of nature– wide open space, freedom to navigate as one pleases, fresh air, sunshine, cold or heat, mud, dirt, plants, insects– makes a healthy child, emotionally and physically, and I think lack of those things is at the heart of many so-called ills for today’s kids, no matter how loving and present their parents are.

Unstructured time outdoors instils a contact so desperately needed –with basic physical realities, with one’s physical self and one’s inner resources– and so painfully absent. I know I certainly am missing it ever since I became a creature of cerebral pursuits, by turns plodding and suffering incredibly through educational, professional, romantic, financial and parenting experiences.

I’ve always felt a faint-to-painful unease living in urban / suburban situations but over time I’ve just learned to make do, as we all do. Having a baby brought me closer than I’d been in years to the pleasures and boundaries of being a truly physical being again… but that was only the tip of the iceberg of what I did not even know I’d lost.

So at our place we have these crappy scrubby trees that are probably just weeds nobody ever cut down and then it was too late and they were trees.

We spent several hours working in our yard this weekend. (I asked my husband if he remembers trying to throw away the kindling wood, and told him I’d blogged about the whole tree/fire saga. he just made a ‘nyah’ face at me. Haha!) Anyway, darned if she didn’t climb those crappy trees and just love it. It was the first time I’ve ever seen her do such a thing. My ass squinched up real tight, reflexively and painfully, in the way that it does when I’m afraid something will happen to her– I had visions of falls, like in Bridge to Terabithia, wasn’t that it? or of her getting hooked or cut or worse on some jutting branch or the chain link fence next to the trees on her way down. I had to control my urge to hustle her down out of that tree, and reduce my admonitions to her to be careful and hold on tight to only once every other minute.

And it was pretty darn neat. She was so happy.  She climbed over, and over, and over. She installed herself in one of them and just stayed up there, peering at us through the leaves like a gorilla in the mist and saying mom, dad, look at me! Look how high I am (about four feet). She sang, and sang, and sang, Winnie the Pooh style, little made up songs about how she felt up in that tree. She got stuck over and over and went from asking us to get her down to navigating her own way down. She begged to climb the tree one more time when, hours later, it was finally time go go in

I suddenly remembered something I’d long forgotten.

Tree says climb.

I remembered at least cerebrally even if I couldn’t really bring it back, the compulsion of childhood to climb any and everything vertical. Because it’s there! What a wonderful mindset to be in– tree says climb. I climb. Why can’t we live our entire lives that way?

Of course my angst kicked in– I can’t give my baby real nature, she has to climb these crappy scrubby weed trees.

I realized that to a child a tree is a tree, whether it’s an ancient crab apple tree with limbs broad enough for me to lie down on and stuff myself on crab apples, or a scrubby little crap tree in the Dixie Burbs. I always got in trouble because I could not control my longing to climb a small young ornamental tree in my grandmother’s tiny suburban back yard (it’s huge, now, in spite of all the abuse it took from little me). She’s just four, almost five. So many mundane, substandard things are full of wonder to her.

What a lesson. I feel even more grateful for our yard, such as it is. I realize that she has the faculties to create a precious experience of fresh air and connection with her physical body, of challenges to her strength and bravery, right where she is.

Tree says climb.