Only God can make a tree
With autumn in the air, trees are front and center on everyone’s mind. Once again, Mother Nature has taken out her painter’s palette to transform the tree-covered hillsides into patchwork multi-colored quilts of reds, and yellows, and browns.
Trees in autumn certainly do take center stage. But actually, while growing up in the sixties, trees – and sticks, leaves, and tree limbs – were important to a kid during every season of the year.
Trees willingly cooperated with many childhood activities. Swinging from sturdy grapevines that grew intertwined in large trees. Carving your initials into a tree trunk. Racing sticks in the small stream that flowed through the culvert pipe under the road; running back and forth, from one side of the road to the other, to see whose stick had won. Swinging on a tire swing hung from a tree branch. Impaling apples on the end of a sharpened stick and seeing how far you could whip them. Climbing trees and building tree houses. And carving wooden whistles out of small branches – which, as anyone knows who has ever done it, is no small skill.
Give a kid access to a tree and they could play all day long.
Growing up in a house surrounded by 15 large apple trees, it was hard not to be conscious of trees. Falling leaves from all those apple trees, plus all the other trees in our yard, meant piles and piles of leaves to be raked. After raking them, day after day, over the side hill into an extremely huge pile, it was time to burn them.
You wadded up a couple of pieces of old newspaper and stuck the crumpled sheets in the leave pile, here and there. You lit the newspaper with a match, and soon the thick white smoke would be billowing.
Sometimes we would wrap up small potatoes in aluminum foil, burying them deep at the bottom of the pile of leaves before we lit the fire. Then we would dig them out of the ashes, with sticks, and have a half-baked and half-burnt treat, with butter.
The leaves in the middle of the pile would burn mightily, with the fire creeping outward, slowly, into a circle. At the end of burn, you had a literal “ring of fire” of burning leaves around the perimeter, with a pile of hot ashes in the middle. I remember seeing that large burning circle one evening, and getting an idea.
I quickly ran into the house, through the back door, to grab my older brother’s guitar. Then I stood beside the fire, outside in the cool fall evening air, strumming his guitar and singing the chorus of Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire, as loud as I could, to no one in particular. It seemed like the appropriate thing to do.
Sometimes you burned leaves, and sometimes you saved them.
The beautifully-colored maple leaves, gathered up in the woods, were great for placing between two pieces of wax paper, and then ironing them. Why did we do this? I’m not really sure. Maybe it was to hold their beautiful fall colors captive for a bit longer.
In the fall and winter, evergreen trees provided pinecones. Boys used them to pelt each other in games of war. Girls used pinecones for more demure things, like dipping the edges into white paint, and then sprinkling them with glitter and putting a pipe cleaner around the top to hang them on your Christmas tree. I still have my glitter pine cone, made in Mrs. McGown’s class in Second Grade. Its white paint has yellowed, and the pieces of red glitter are few and far between, but that pinecone still gets hung on my Christmas tree every year.
With no windbreaks around for half-a-mile, the wind was always fierce where I grew up. There was a tall, spindly white pine tree growing up in the woods, just across the back tracks. On windy days, in any season, I would run up to that tree and hike my skinny body up into the branches, climbing up as high as I dared to go. I would clasp the tree trunk in a bear hug with my arms and legs – never minding the sticky pitch that would attach itself to my skin – waiting for the next gust of wind to whip the top of the tree back and forth, taking me with it.
Hanging on for dear life at the top of that white pine, while the wind howled and the tree swayed intensely back and forth, was exhilarating. It was a nature-made carnival ride, and the closest I would get to flying for 30 years.
Every tree possesses a unique loveliness and wonder of its own. Evergreens with their limbs draped in snow; yellow and gold maples; willows swaying gently in the breeze; steady sturdy oaks; mysterious larches, which look like evergreens, yet lose their needles each year; fruit and nut trees, giving sustaining food to wildlife and humans, alike; and quaking aspens that shimmer in the sunshine.
As a child, trees were always special to me. They still are. Summing it all up, and to paraphrase a line from the well-known poem about trees, by Joyce Kilmer:
“Columns are written by fools like me, but only God can make a tree.”
Rose Hoover is a correspondent for The Express. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 814-387-4016.