Full disclosure: this is not about the school and yet it is very much related to how our teachers and parents approach childhood and play. We take purposeful steps towards shaping and reclaiming time and space for both childhood and play. There is a tree in my neighborhood that is dying. It is a blue atlas cedar. Its leader branch was struck by lightning many years ago and while this affected the health of the tree, the strike also may have changed its growth pattern. Its lower branches thickened, all the the growth focused on outward rather than upward growth so that it became an excellent climbing tree. Even small children could easily gain a foot and hand hold and successfully scramble up. The bark itself is a joy and mystery, as it is riddled with evenly spaced holes from hosts of sapsuckers. It is something the children remark upon every time they climb. It and the azaleas at its base were planted in memory of our neighbor, Stuart M. Armstrong, who I didn't know and the commemorative stone that bears the dedication is used by many children to give them a leg up on his tree. The tree certainly has contributed to the stories of childhood for the children living along the streets.
It is planted in a circle -- that is what we call it, even though it is actually more of a teardrop shape. The circle features a little stretch of grass and a planted section that at one time, held only azaleas, but over time, as neighbors' gardens overflowed with lamb's ear, phlox, and asters, they transferred this overflow to replace the failing azaleas. This process mirrors the collaborative effort all the neighbors take in caring for this public space and all the public spaces in the neighborhood.
The circle is bordered by two streets and a third little cut through at the bottom of the teardrop joins the other two. The traffic on these streets caused many of our neighbors to voice their concerns over the children playing in and around the tree. Some feel that the best plan for the tree, since it is dying, and the circle, is to remove the tree and replace it with something that will be less attractive for play and therefore, safer for . . .
This past weekend with the latest news echoing in my head, I was thinking about how children, of all ages, should be safe to walk in the streets and certainly to play in a space that features an excellent climbing tree. I went out and weeded our circle to make myself feel better. My husband and I worked all day removing strand upon strand of bind weed and as we got closer and closer to revealing the hidden azaleas, phlox, asters, and lamb's ear, I began to notice a space beneath the tree that called out to me, "claim this."
The next morning, with still more weeding to be done, I told my husband, "We need to make a tea party fairy garden." His immediate response, was a sigh, but afterwards he said, I would have to check with the neighbors. I noticed that our immediate neighbor was already outside, picking up where we left off in the circle, I told her my plan and she not only bought in, but began gathering things she had in her yard that were, of course, necessary, two stumps, a gnome, and a wind chime. Another neighbor had a whole collection of stumps and we combined our team of sons to pick them up. I drove quickly to the the thrift shop and picked up teacups, a little mushroom, and a bright orange sheet. A tea towel and some baskets were added as well.
We finished the whole set-up and knew we were on to something when the 19-year old said, "I wish this was here when we were younger." And then he sat down on one of the stump seats and tweeted, facebooked, texted, or social networked about it (whatever the young ones do when they want to tell their friends the latest fairy garden news!). Over the next few days, little things have showed up in and around the table, a blue-checked cloth, some dried leaves, acorns, a basin of water. Tonight, a family could be seen through my window, their two little ones wandering in and out of the plants, sitting at the table, and climbing the tree. A neighbor walking her dog said, "I look over every time I come home from work to check on it. It just makes me feel better."
I don't know how long it will last. The cups will break, the cloth will blow away with the next big wind, the acorns will disappear, but maybe, just maybe more things will appear and a message will be sent -- this space is claimed for children. I hope to plant another tree, and yes, it will take a very long time to become a climbing tree, but I don't need to see that happen, I just need to know that it WILL.