I stood silent on a mound of crushed pink, brown, and white granite rocks, oblivious to the sharp edges pushing through the soles of my cheap rubber flip-flops. Even the oven-like heat of the early Arizona summer ceased to hold my attention as I gaped at the full-grown tree in front of me: a mesquite, dense with miniature fluttering leaves. It boasted a multitude of sturdy brown branches that wound their way out from the trunk like distributary streams from a river. Right in the middle of it all, an arm-less saguaro cactus over six feet tall had grown up in between those branches, hiding the bulk of its towering frame in the mosaic of brown and green. I could hardly believe my luck – the mesquite was perfect.
I was 10 years old and my new favorite pastime was climbing trees. I had already conquered the scrubby palos verdes in my front yard and at the nearest park, easily scrambling up their pale green, slippery trunks. Their branches were often so low that I could hold on to them with my feet still touching the ground, but I would lift my legs up sporadically and swing back and forth until my arms gave out. The palos verdes had begun to bore me.
I had walked down the street to the desert-scape golf course by my house in search of bigger trees; I preferred to crunch along through the rocks next to the sidewalk instead of staying on the smooth concrete. When I rounded the corner just two blocks away, I came face to face with the graceful mesquite. After admiring it for a few minutes, I ran toward the base of the trunk. The climb was going to be painstaking, but my ever-analytical mind mapped out my path as I went.
The nearest branch was high enough that I had to jump to grab hold of it, before swinging my legs up to grip it more firmly. From this upside-down position, I used my whole body to squirm my way around until I sat upright on the branch. After clambering up to the next highest branch, then pulling myself up one more, I found myself in the heart of the tree.
I stood up on the branch and put a hand on the trunk for stability, gauging the obstacles. I had already encountered one, which came in the form of its jagged bark – much rougher than that of the palos verdes I was used to. Red stripes were already visible on my hands and legs, but I hardly noticed. Two-inch thorns jutted from the mesquite’s smaller branches, guarding its delicate leaves. As long as I stayed on the thicker branches and watched where I gripped my hands for balance, I would not have to worry about being stabbed by those suckers. Finally, the rounded head of the arm-less saguaro peered at me from its fortress of mesquite leaves and branches, tempting me to approach.
I smiled. This was my realm now, and I needed to name the beautiful welcoming tree. I was convinced that the mesquite was a she, and that she was much older than I. I remembered the name of a Civil War-era folk song that I was learning in my beginner’s piano class and decided it was perfect for my new companion: Aura-Lee.
Whenever I had a free moment, I would run in my flip-flops from my house to the golf course and scramble up Aura-Lee after saying a quick hello. I would invent games for myself like “How High Can I Climb Before I Feel Dizzy,” or “How Fast Can I Run from This Branch to That Branch Way Over There,” or even “How Close Can I Get to That Cactus Without Falling On It and Dying.” I imagined that while I was running and hopping breathlessly from branch to branch, the mesquite was watching me amusedly and chuckling. Disney’s Pocahontas had Grandmother Willow, and I had Aura-Lee.
One day, I was sitting on one of the higher branches and leaning my back against the mesquite’s trunk, taking a momentary rest from my wild games. Suddenly, I noticed a couple walking towards my tree from the golf course. I hurriedly leaned forward, wrapped my arms around the branch I had been sitting on, and pressed my torso down onto it so that I was less visible. I pulled my legs up behind me and rested my toes against the trunk, fighting for stability. The couple stopped under my tree to talk. I have no recollection of what they were saying – all I can remember is the feeling of my heartbeat thudding against the tree branch. I was so terrified of being seen in my secret territory.
They must have felt my wide-open eyes boring into them, because they abruptly turned around and looked up at me in surprise. I didn’t budge, but I didn’t look away either. This was understandably unnerving, so they speed-walked away whispering, “Who let that kid hang out up there alone?” But this just proved how little they understood; I was not alone.
P.S. This piece was originally an exercise written for a class I’m in called Advanced Creative Writing – Nonfiction. Since the majority of my creative energy is being funneled into that class right now, several of the assignments (the ones I like!) will probably show up as blog posts for the next few weeks…
Photos courtesy of: http://www.nps.gov/tuma/naturescience/mesquite-tree.htm