Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Tarzan of the Poplars

My husband, Bev, having been trained in forestry, has very definite ideas about trees and their comparative value. He has always considered the poplar to be a “weed” tree. Of course he tends to look at trees with an eye to their potential usefulness in one of his woodworking projects. My brothers and I always liked poplar trees when we were children. They were tall and slender and would sway gracefully in the wind to the accompaniment of the fluttering dance of myriads of pale green leaves….beautiful and perfect for climbing.

My Dad told my brother, Tom, and I about how he and his friends would occasionally chase one another through the treetops when they were children. He said they would climb the trees in a poplar grove and when you got up high enough you could set them swinging by throwing your weight from side to side. You had to get your tree to bend far enough to allow you to reach out and catch hold of the tree next to it. Occasionally it would involve a bit of a jump but it was possible to swing from tree to tree eluding your pursuers without ever touching a foot to the ground. It was a mode of transportation that required a fair bit of agility not to mention nerves of steel. It was just the sort of game to appeal to boys growing up in the woods of Northern Ontario.

It sounded exciting to me but it also sounded dangerous, far too dangerous to tempt me into trying it for myself. I did climb trees but I kept my climbing confined to one single tree at a time, preferably one with reassuringly thick and sturdy branches. I had no illusions of being able to fly and I wanted no sudden encounters with thin air.

Not so my brother, Dave. He confessed recently that when he was in Grade 7 he discovered a stand of poplars in the forest near our home and decided to try a little treetop travel for himself. Perhaps he’d also heard my Dad speak of his childhood experiences. In any case, he chose a starting point and began to climb, pulling himself up from branch to increasingly slender branch until the whole tree began to bend and sway under his weight. His first attempts to swing and catch hold of another tree were a bit clumsy but he eventually managed to get a firm grip with one hand while letting go with the other, transferring his weight to the new tree. Timing was critical but he kept practicing until he could move easily from tree to tree. It was an exhilarating experience, one that he wanted to share.

Eventually he talked one of his young friends into coming along to witness his newfound skill. His enthusiasm was contagious as he climbed the first tree and proceeded to demonstrate his technique. He swung mightily and made a grab for the tree next to the one he’d come up, snagging it on the first try as his friend stared up at him in wide-eyed wonder. “See…it’s easy!” he called down from his new perch with a grin stretching wide to reveal the gap in his two front teeth. “Come on!”

It only took moments for the other boy to climb the tree he’d just left. Dave moved on to the next tree and kept going, knowing that his friend would be following. Tarzan had nothing on the two of them, he thought. All they needed was a troop of monkeys to make it perfect. A terrified shriek followed by the crash and snap of breaking branches somewhere behind him brought his daydream to a sudden and abrupt halt. There was no response to his call and his vivid imagination flared to life with a picture of his friend lying broken and bleeding at the base of a poplar tree. Galvanized into action, he scrambled down, dropping from branch to branch, frantic to reach the ground. He jumped the last couple of feet and turned to push his way back through the undergrowth, terrified of what he would discover.

The angels must have been watching out for them that day. Dave’s friend actually survived his fall with nothing worse than having the wind knocked out of him. He landed squarely in a patch of soft moss and that’s where Dave found him gasping for air and surrounded by a litter of fallen twigs and leaves. It was the only spot in the entire area that was free of boulders and jagged outcrops of rock. They counted themselves more than lucky and decided to keep quiet about the whole thing. There’s nothing like a near death experience to take the fun out of playing Tarzan.

I sometimes wonder how any of us survived childhood.

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