Category Archives: In The Woods

Diagonal Trees

The woods near our house had a few tall trees that had rough scrap wood ladders nailed up their sides. They looked pretty shoddy. How many nails does a kid put into each wood scrap? What kind of mental calculation occurs that allows them to guess weight loads and limits? I don’t remember, but when you were going straight up a tree, I’m pretty sure however many they used, it wasn’t enough.

At the top of one particularly thick and tall tree, maybe 60′ in the air there was a triangular platform in the crotch of the high branches. Only it was falling apart, some planks were missing from the floor. There were rumors a kid had fallen from the platform and broke his neck. I suspect that was parent disseminated propaganda to keep kids off the tree. At least these days it would be propaganda because if a kid really fell from a platform perch that high, parents today would cut down the treehouse fort, the offending tree, and probably, for good measure, most of the woods.

This treehouse/platform didn’t even need scare tactics. It was, just visually, way too high, and way too intimidating. But still, it was there! Someone had nailed those boards into the tree, climbed up, and built that platform. Like a 14th century explorer coming face to face with the much grander ruins of Roman civilization, the treehouse high above was evidence of an earlier, much braver, and less over-protected generation of kids.

Diagonal trees were more my style. Like the picture above, they tend to be found near a stream bed where the ground is weaker and one strong storm can knock one half over. And like the photo, they can stay alive all tilted like this just fine. They keep their leaves. They’ve just become the best thing a tree can become to a kid – diagonal, conquerable. Our woods didn’t have a stream deep enough to jump into, but we did have excellent rope swings dangling off trees like this. Grabbing the knotted rope you could run along the mud and dirt creek bank, and then leap into the void and swing a wide boomeranging arc out and over the water and then back again into the dirt. It was amazing fun – the closest I ever got to really flying. Of course pure joy like that wasn’t something you could hold onto selfishly – spots like that were the nearest things kids had to treasure and they often became spots of fierce competition and acrimony.

My favorite diagonal tree experience was after a tornado that must’ve been about 100 yards wide roared through the woods during one late afternoon storm. The sky was crazy enough just before it happened that our family went into the basement for shelter, and when we came out, the street was transformed. Power lines were down, and trees were toppled all over the neighborhood. Once they cleared the downed power lines we went into the wood where you could clearly see the path of the twister. Perfectly healthy trees towards the left, and towards the right, and then just a mass of toppled and tangled trees in the storms path. But it was beautiful!

This was summer – the trees were in full leaf, and the woods were thick enough that very few of the toppled trees found a clear path all the way to the ground. Most of them fell on neighboring trees which fell on other neighboring trees and so on. The forest had been turned into a kids’ wonderland. You could scramble up one staggered tree, and navigate from that one to another, and another still like Spiderman flying from one building to the next. It was amazing, and we played late into the day on all those slanted and enchanted trees. I got the most incredible feeling running up one tree and then just perching, like a bird, as dusk approached and then consumed the woods. Till I was a silhouette. Till long after I had been called home. Silent. Waiting. The world had finally been re-made to my dreams.

But all too soon the magic forest was invaded by chainsaws. I don’t recall if they were city employees or just private woodsman given license to “make things right” once again, but before long our twisted and tilted playground was gone, consumed in sawdust and engine whines.

Still, though, that patch of woods was always something to watch. You couldn’t just cut down the magic. Now there was magic in watching how fast the forest floor was covered by the shoots of new trees. Seeing how quickly and densely these young trees packed themselves into this abstract divide. Noticing how nature weeded the weak ones out, and the faster and stronger trees begin to grow taller, and grab the newly liberated sunlight.

That was all al long time ago. I guess now it’s pretty hard to see where all the damage was. Unless you know where to look. Unless you can see yourself high up in the air scrambling from tree top to tree top.

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