If you're a kid, one of the best things about living on a farm, even one as modest as our own, is having a pasture to frolic in, barn stalls to hide in, animals to play with, a garden to taste, a creek to splash in, woods to explore, and plenty of trees to climb. It seems a rare thing these days for kids to have so many outdoor spaces to enjoy, so we do our best to make sure that our girls have opportunities every day to spend a generous amount of time outside the house. Of course, their adventures often bring with them a certain amount of risk, and they have had more than a few scrapes and bumps since we moved here. But they seem to consider these minor injuries a small price to pay for the joys of their outdoor escapades.
In the past few years of homeschooling the girls, I have discovered that outdoor time not only provides endless opportunities for exercise and adventure; it can also do wonders to facilitate indoor learning. (Of course, many other parents, teachers, and scholars have discovered this as well. You can read much more about this issue in the well-cited article "Children's Contact with the Outdoors and Nature: A Focus on Educators and Educational Settings," published by the Children and Nature Network.) Because of that, I often break up our "school hours" with several mini-recesses in which the girls can traipse through the woods, play in the Enchanted Garden, visit with the animals in the barnyard, or simply jump rope in the driveway. It truly is amazing what 10 minutes of fresh air can do for student morale! But again, this carries with it some risk. They occasionally get involved in something that seems much more pressing than the awaiting math problems, making coming back indoors wrenchingly difficult. Or a chicken poops on one of them and we have to interrupt everything for a sponge bath and a change of clothes. Or something more serious. Like last Thursday when one of the trees in the barnyard let go of Segi.
The girls and I had been studying pumpkins that morning. We had read a couple of books about the life cycle of pumpkins and then had planted a few pumpkin seeds to grow in the Discovery Room along with the hodgepodge of other "teaching plants" we have there. Our next activity was to be a visit the local Pumpkin Patch to pick up a few pumpkins for carving and baking, but I needed a few minutes to record some of our work, so I told the girls, "Just run out to the barnyard for a quick recess. I'll call you to come to the car in a few minutes." Before those few minutes were up, Simi (the younger of my two daughters) burst through the door, crying that Segi had fallen out of Grandma Tree and that she was "really hurt!" I grabbed my boots and dashed out the door and straight to the barnyard. By the time I got to the gate, Segi had gotten herself up and was walking toward me. At first, I thought, "Oh, thank goodness. It's nothing serious." Then I saw her lower left arm. It looked like one of those sidewalks they're laying in Davidson now that go along straight for a bit and then abruptly jut out to avoid the tree standing in the path. The gnarled bend was right at her wrist. I knew right then we were on our way to the hospital.
The whole time we were sitting in the hospital fretting and waiting . . . and fretting and waiting some more, I kept thinking of how, just the night before, my husband had come inside and told me, "Those girls shouldn't be climbing so much in that tree. One of them is going to fall and break an arm." Seriously, just the night before. "Oh, honey," I'd responded nonchalantly, "What's the point of being a kid if you can't climb a tree?" My siblings and I had been raised in a rural town in Tennessee and had spent a good deal of our childhood out in the woods swinging on vines, traversing creeks, wading on half-frozen ponds, and of course, climbing lots and lots of trees. We loved it, and so do my girls. And though I sometimes do worry a bit, I generally agree with E.B. White when, in his passage on the Zuckermans' barn swing, he says that "Children almost always hang onto thing tighter than their parents think they will." So my own kids don't often get much discouragement from climbing high and swinging wide. In fact, the girls had recently taken to climbing Grandma tree with books in hand and perching aloft to read. Okay, maybe that's not such a great idea when you're 15 feet in the air. Maybe mamas don't always know best.
For my older daughter, Segi, always wants to climb just a little higher than reasonable. She's the kid at the park who ignores the civilized little steps leading up to the tunnel she's meant to crawl through and instead climbs up the wall and onto the top of the tunnel. She was the four-year-old that terrified all the other guests at the gymnastics birthday party by zipping up to the top of the climbing ropes and hanging over to wave at everyone. I should have remembered this about her. I should have given her and her sister some thoughtful guidance and some serious warnings. But I hadn't, and this time, she'd not only gone very high but had selected a branch that was too small--and probably too rotted--to hold her. And much to her surprise, it couldn't. With a loud cracked, it led her right to the leafy ground beneath--luckily on her wrist and not her head.
Harry Behn writes that "Trees are the kindest things I know, they do no harm, they simply grow." It is hard to disagree with that. And yet even the kindest trees--like even the kindest people--also have their weak spots, and if we assume they are stronger than they are, then they can indeed leave us hurting. The tree let go of Segi because it was not as strong at that particular place as Segi assumed it would be. There is a lesson we can all take away from this. It's not, I believe, that we should stop climbing high or running fast or jumping long. It is, rather, that we should acknowledge that even the strongest amongst us are somehow, somewhere weak, and that if we can accept and respect those weaknesses, we will all be much better off.
Trees are the kindest things I know,
They do no harm, they simply grow
And gather birds among their boughs.
They give us fruit in leaves above,
And wood to make our houses of,
And leaves to burn on Halloween
And in the Spring new buds of green.
They are first when day's begun
To touch the beams of morning sun,
They are the last to hold the light
When evening changes into night.
And when a moon floats on the sky
They hum a drowsy lullaby
Of sleepy children long ago...
Trees are the kindest things I know.