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Strange Mantra: When a Tree Beckons

Published on: December 30, 2013

feettreeIt's OK if he breaks his arm.

I try to comfort myself with this strange mantra. As my young son climbs a small tree in our back yard, his leathery feet move nimbly from one branch to another. I watch as his toes and fleshy bare soles grasp the smooth wood adeptly. His little hands have a strong hold on the branches above. At least three points of his body, sometimes it's a knee, foot and a hand, are supporting him at all times. He moves like the primate that he is, intuitively keeping himself from falling.

However, everything in my being says to pull him from that tree right now. He's too little, he's only 2 1/2! He might hurt himself and I'd feel awful if he fell. I try to avoid the racket of worry in my mind and get back to my mantra:

It's OK if he breaks his arm.

I repeat this over and over remembering what I read almost 10 years ago in Richard Louv's book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder. He notes: "Broken bones used to be a rite of passage for children. Now all pediatricians see are cases of obesity and repetitive strain injury." A pediatrician from Bellevue, Wash. is quoted as saying, "... patients arrive with fewer broken arms from falling out of trees and more organized sport and wrist injuries from extended use of video games and computers."

I remember sitting in a tree outside my bedroom window at 9 years old. As rays from an autumn sun cascaded down through the leaves surrounding me in a lace of dappled light, I was pretending to be a secretary. I was in my office and I had important work to do; there were twig phones to answer and there was leafy paperwork to file. I felt connected to myself and confident about my place in the world. There was simple comfort and much peace as I sat overlooking my yard.

Sometimes, I wonder aloud to my children, "Which tree do you think is the biggest one on our street? Can you see it from our house? From your bedroom window?" I point out the giant buckeye tree that is twice as tall as the home it guards. We look up at a big leaf maple, with a posture so grand and wide, that it takes up almost an entire lot of space in the sky.

The mightiest tree in view from my children's bedroom brings me back to the winter my son was born. In the wee hours of the night for many weeks, I would hold my newborn in the rocking chair trying to establish breastfeeding. I was mesmerized by the dark boughs of an evergreen blowing wildly in the rain, like flailing arms against a light gray sky. In watching such a large organism survive hard times, I found solace and hope.

Fast forward almost 30 years after my secretary-in-a-tree days and you might find me in my backyard under a tree answering emails regarding the outdoor parent-and-toddler program that I owned for many years. I have read about how our generation may have been the last to experience the freedom of playing outside unsupervised for most of the day. I can see how my personality, imagination and big dreams were shaped by this opportunity and for that, I am deeply grateful.

But, how do I offer this to my children? When I plan our days, I don't usually add let them wander around in the woods alone to the itinerary. I consider leaving a little room for challenging activities like tree climbing.

That's when we look for adventure within Western red cedars. Because of their massive, low, swooping limbs that nearly touch the ground, their evergreen boughs create hidden spots near the trunk that feel secret. There are a few choice trees nearby: The rose garden next to Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo has a large cedar in the southeast portion of the garden (pay attention to the ring of new bulbs sprouting forth around it in the spring.) Ravenna Park playground has a well-loved cedar with bark on the branches rubbed smooth from supporting bodies and limbs of crawling children. There is a grove of immense Redwood trees with cinnamon red trunks in the north east corner of Green Lake just west of the wading pool. A hidden big leaf maple in Discovery Park near the sand dunes is another favorite (I want to know your favorite trees, too.)

We often bike to these-climbing spots, so my kids usually still have their helmets on while climbing, which is just fine with me (from a bystander's point of view, I must look like a real Nervous Nelly). While my toddler is climbing, I am close by. However, for my 6-year-old, I walk a fine line of backing off a bit and letting her climb high toward her own goals while I wander, imagine and dream. I am absolutely worried about the risk of her falling, but I try not to stop her fun and exhilaration just because it scares me.

Is it crazy to think that the sign of me being a "good mom" is my child wearing a cast on her arm?

kakutaniJennifer made a promise to herself within this often wild and harried experience of being at home with two small children: She created lifelines in the form of writing, painting and photography. She never realized her art degree would be the thing that saved her as a mom. Her favorite days are spent riding around Seattle with her kids on her cargo bike and exploring habitats as a family at their favorite park. Her parents gave her the freedom to take hours of creative solitude to herself as a child, thereby teaching her that making things with your hands is honorable work and a fine way to support and love your family. She hopes she can do the same for her little ones. She recently decided to publish her writings long held private in journals. Visit her at Mermaid City.

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