I’ve been hibernating inside air conditioned buildings for most of this summer, because I’ve found the heat and humidity are triggers for my asthma. Even walking from car to building can put me in distress.
Sitting out on our deck has not been possible on very many days, and in just a few more, summer will officially be over, another year we never got the tiki torches lit so we could laze into the night relatively bug free.
As a girl there was a birch tree in our yard that I loved to climb, mainly because it was the only one I could, and I spent hours wedged against the trunk, peeling the bark and watching the bugs busily doing whatever bugs do all day.
In the evenings we would catch lightning bugs, and yes, put them in jars to make our own night lights. We had no qualms about squishing their lit ends around our wrists and fingers to make glowing bracelets and rings. Our own primitive version of glow sticks.
We had lots of trees in our yards, and I had learned how to mow using a push mower for trimming and the riding mower for the biggest part of the lawn. We had front, back, middle and barn yards, and odds and ends of patches that connected them all to maintain every week. They each had their own feel, their distinct character, and I’m sure we all had our favorites to mow over the years.
Mine was the middle yard. It was the only one with no building to work around, although there were lots of trees, bushes around the bottom of our U-shaped driveway, and peonies lining the edge of the paved half.
I had claimed the birch tree as my own, but secretly my desire was to someday climb the huge weeping willow and sit inside its hairlike strings of leaves.
I don’t know much about willow trees, but ours was always getting struck by lightning. It was located close to the road, lower than the pavement that was reach up a steep ditch bank. The poles for the power lines were spaced out across our property parallel to the road, and the branches of some of the trees had grown up among the dipping lengths of wire.
I didn’t know much about electricity, but I knew it was a big deal the weekend my dad and most of the men in our neighborhood decided it was time to cut down the huge willow before it fell in a storm and took out the power lines that supplied the whole neighborhood. Lightning had left long scars from top to bottom, killing some limbs, knocking others to the ground over the years.
So armed with coils of rope, ladders, a few helmets, heavy gloves and work boots, they divided the tasks and went to work tying ropes to branches and then a whole gang pulling on the ropes as the saw bit through a branch, the wielder himself secured to the trunk.
We watched in excitement as one by one those huge branches were cut free of the trunk, and with loud and somewhat panicked yells the crew on the ground would lean into their ropes to pull the cracking, falling limbs free of the electric lines, warning all to look out and get out of the way.
The deconstruction of a tree that had probably been there for over a hundred years took only days. The big drama of the curtains of leaves dropping to ground they had just been shading happened within a few hours.
And then our fun began.
Because even though we could see there would be lots of work for us ahead, we knew we had days, maybe weeks, that those huge branches would lay in piles covering much of the middle yard.
I remember spending as much time as I could among those reclining limbs. I was a pioneer finding raw materials to make my own shelter, weaving lengths of willow leaves together to make baskets or clothes. I had all the sticks I could want to stand up in long fence lines, defining my territory. My siblings were sent out to play in the debris as well I’m sure, but I remember loving the times I spent alone letting my imagination take me back in time and across the world to places I’d only read about.
There were miniature quarries where the dirt was chunked out, sod and all, as a branch had dug into the ground when it hit. The blocks of clay-like soil became cups and bowls to use in my makeshift hut or teepee or cabin, depending upon what character I wanted to be that day.
I remember the smell of the newly cut willow. The closest I could come to describing it was that it reminded me of the smell of a watermelon rind. A clean, green smell that was very pleasing to me. I could sit for hours just smelling the dampness in the center of the branches, reading a book or writing a story about all the adventures I could see myself having.
It was probably weeks I had to be Robinson Crusoe, or more likely Swiss Family Robinson, and even the boy who lived on his own in My Side of the Mountain. I played out adventures to my heart’s content as summer calmed down into fall. I took bigger branches and rode them around like horses or motorcycles or airplanes.
I could never understand why everyone didn’t like sitting in the grass letting their mind take them to fantastic places.
The day came when Dad began to instruct us on where he wanted us to drag the smaller branches. He was taking another weekend to cut them apart a little, and we would need to drag them back to his chopping block to get cut into firewood. The leaves had finally died, the great bulk of their tangled strands reduced to crumbling whips.
Slowly my hidey holes were uncovered, one by one. The rooms in my many dwellings exposed as we pulled one long wall after another over by the chicken barn where the logs would be stored for coming winters.
And finally the tedious job we normally did after any windy or stormy day: picking up the sticks that would damage the mower blades. And I was brought back through time to the present, the reality that I didn’t want to mow over sticks taking over the storyline in my mind.
But in the winter evenings that followed, when I would go out to have my arms stacked high with split lengths of wood, I would bury my nose in them the whole way to the fireplace, getting a whiff of that clean summer watery smell, once again a pioneer intent on holding off the cold for one more night.