As a child, I lived across the street from the Lonoke town park. It was laid out on a single city block near the center of town. In fact it was on Center Street. It had an old merry-go-round, jungle gym, swings, and a slide that contrasted with the brand new tennis court, cedar wood big toy with sand, and two new pavilions that were still under construction. But what I was most interested in were the trees. Lonoke was known for having some of the oldest oak and cedar trees in the state. The oak trees were pretty to look at, but the cedar trees had a much more inviting quality for me. They tended to have lower lying branches that made them easier for a child to climb.
There was one tree in particular that I was fond of. The tallest one in the park, it stood by the merry-go-round just ten yards from the street. It had a knot on the trunk about three feet from the ground under a branch that I could just barely reach. I would jump up and grab it with my right hand which enabled me to gain footing on the knot with my right foot. From there I could grab a higher branch with my free hand and anchor my free foot on the side of a much larger branch. Letting go of the lower branch, I could pull himself up just enough to grab on with both hands and pull myself up. From here I could climb as high as my nerve would allow.
I was not a fearless tree climber; I had a healthy respect for the dangers of a tree. I always tested out branches for stability and never ventured too far out on the limbs. I had a keen sense of what a branch could support and nearly always gave it far less. I performed little or no acrobatics, nor did I pretend to be a tree-dwelling animal such as a monkey or a squirrel. And although I did indulge an occasional fantasy of being Tarzan, I did not really climb trees to play. I had something else in mind.
There were many things about climbing the cedar that I liked. I felt proud that I, such a small creature, could navigate such a large creature. I enjoyed the feeling of invisibility I got when adults walked under or near the tree without noticing me. Kids always noticed me, but few joined me. On the rare occasion that an adult, especially my mother, did notice me, I relished the gasps of surprise, shock, or fright that I might receive for being such a young child in such a high place. These I received as precious gifts. But none of this kept me climbing the tree day after day. I had a far deeper purpose to fulfill.
As a child, I was a natural appreciator of beauty. I would climb high, find a favorite branch, and perch. I might stand, or I might straddle it, or I might just sit across it letting my bare feet dangle in the breeze. Then I would get really still a take whatever the tree had to offer me. To me, it was like a whole other world. I took time to breathe in the strong cedar fragrance. I enjoyed the unique perspective on the wind that only a tree can provide. If I stayed still long enough, I might get a visit from a bird on a nearby branch, a robin or a blue jay or maybe even a goldfinch. When I was in the tree, I was no longer a ground-dwelling stranger to birds, I was more akin. I was a fellow tree-dweller, more like a peer.
I had a vague notion that this tree had become my friend. I liked to imagine it’s life. How it must have been a sapling long before the park even existed. How it must have known many children. Some would be men and women right here in Lonoke, some would be dead. Had it ever been hurt? What did it think about this town growing around it? To me, these visits of stillness and friendship lasted hours and went on for years. To an observing adult, they might have lasted fifteen minutes and went on for two summers. To the tree, just a flicker, no different than any brief visit from a tree-dweller, except that this one didn’t have wings.
But like all nice days in the park tree, there came a time to climb down and join the ground-dwellers again. In many ways, I’ve lost the natural ability to be still and commune with nature, but I know that somewhere deep inside there still lives a tree dweller.