I’m very thankful for a childhood spent outside. I
don’t remember my mother being too insistent that we make a decision one way or another about being outside or inside. Although she often got tired of hearing the screen door slam and would utter the familiar “In or out, kids!” mantra of so many mothers in my neighborhood. But in my mind, we were outside kids.
We had freedom to roam the neighborhood from a very early age. Our house sat at the bottom of a hill. Three houses past ours was a dead end. Past the dead end was a patch of woods that reached all the way to a thru-way street. This patch of woods only stretched one block from one end to the other, but it seemed immense to me. It was dense and it was ours.
We had a good sized back yard with lots of trees. At the back end of our property stood a majestic weeping willow tree and just beyond it a creek. Well, not so much a creek but an open part of a massive run-off drainage system. The end of a large cement pipe jutted out from the very back of our property and then the open creek led back through what seemed like a vast field behind our house.
The willow tree, the creek, the field, and the woods down past the dead end, that’s where I grew up in my early childhood.
Halfway through the patch of woods and on the side of the woods that faced the field sat one of our many forts. This fort was the most elaborate of all our neighborhood forts. It was constructed of rock, big, hefty foundation-type rocks. Probably left in the woods from some old homestead long-since torn down. The rocks were stacked in a circle about two to three feet high. Two entrances were left open where the two different paths led to the fort. This was the most secluded and remote fort we had. Here we were completely cut off from the neighborhood. No one could see us or hear us and likewise, we couldn’t hear anybody’s mother calling. It was a world to imagine and construct with no adult intervention.
Along the creek in back of our house we had another fort. It sat on the bank of the creek maybe 50 feet from the back of our property where the willow tree stood. This fort was of much simpler construction. It was a small square clearing in the field. There were logs marking its outer edges. Even though it was not far from our house, because the field grew tall around it, you could be in that fort and not be seen even from our backyards. But we could still hear our mothers calling if they stood in the backyard and yelled.
The willow tree was the fort closest to home, and in many ways, the most memorable since so much of my childhood took place in and around that mighty tree. There was a single rope swing hanging from a high branch. We could swing out over the creek and back. The more daring, like the boys in the neighborhood, would swing out over the creek and jump off. The ground around the tree was mostly dry dirt, no grass because it was so heavily traveled by all kids in the neighborhood. But on rainy days, it was perfect for making mud pies. Those are my earliest memories of life around the great willow.
The tree stood with a wide trunk that rose up 7 or 8 feet, at which point the trunk had divided itself into several secondary trunks that formed a natural fortress in the center of the tree. And as luck would have it, about 6 feet up the tree was a branch sticking straight out of the front of the tree about 4 inches in diameter, having been cut off about two and a half feet from the tree’s trunk. The branch was your ticket up into paradise. Without it, the tree would have required a ladder, a rope, something that you could use to climb up the first eight feet.
I’d hoist myself up by grabbing that first branch with both hands, hooking one leg up and over it and pulling myself up to sit then stand on it. The bark was worn off so that, even in shorts, it was an easy maneuver. The next step was the tricky part because for an instant while I clumsily hung onto branches way too big to get my small arm around, I had to balance on that small branch and get a foot hold in the crook of two big secondary trunks while pulling myself through to the center of the fortress. Once there, there were crooks in which to lean, a large branch on an angle a little further up where one could perch, all sorts of places to lean, sit, and hang out. The tree could easily hold 3 or 4 of us, more if you were willing to climb higher. I was not so adventurous. I happily hung out in the folds of those larger branches. I’d sit staring up at the willow’s canopy swaying in the summer wind.
Years later the city authorities decided that the willow tree was causing the storm sewer to back up and our basement to flood. I must have been about 13 or 14 years old when they came and cut it down. I sat in my second floor bedroom overlooking the backyard and cried the whole afternoon while they did it. I was crushed. That tree cradled what seemed at my tender young age to be a lifetime of exhilarating memories going all the way back to making mud pies as a toddler on rainy days underneath it, swinging out over the creek on the rope swing, and pretending that the crook of that tree was a lost world belonging only to us, the kids in the neighborhood. I cannot pass by a willow tree to this day without feeling a rush of summer glee.
Yes, we were outside kids. And it’s made me an outside adult–gardening in spring and summer, camping, or walking in one of my favorite parks. Undaunted by cold and snow, I’m out sledding or tubing with my niece in the winter. I even like shoveling snow. Yep, I’m an outside girl. Always have been.