There is a place in the bottom of our yard, when it moves from grass to forest, where there is a large maple nurse tree that has fallen and lies horizontal about 3 feet above the ground. This is a solid grandmother tree with several small maple trees daughters growing out of it.
After we moved here, we came to understand that this was the Fairy Tree, a magical place that the children had claimed as their own. It was a gathering place that had mythology and rules. Throughout the length of the tree, there were some places more coveted than others for sitting and there was a hierarchy to who had claim over which seating spots that typically followed age seniority.
For the most part, younger children deferred to older children in their right to their spot of choice. Periodically a child might challenge that hierarchy to see if they could earn upward mobility through sheer force of personality and sometimes they succeeded. Other times it did not go the way they had hoped and the order quickly settled itself back in to its natural line. This all happened naturally, no matter which collection of kids showed up on any given day. There was an understood way things were without a lot of words.
And then sometimes, it wasn’t clear and something had to be negotiated to bring the moment back to balance. Perhaps an older child with more adept skills at leadership didn’t show up that day and the group was a collection of Littles who had less clear distinctions and understandings of their roles, rights, and responsibilities. Without the older child, or an adult to help them figure out this dilemma, they had to learn how to work it out and by what criteria someone might earn the highest seat honor. Through this process, kids learned a lived experience of fairness, kindness, creative problem-solving, and how to live through disappointment. The solutions that emerged were often surprising.
During one phase, each of the spots on the tree were given different names and honors. Instead of there being a hierarchy from the most esteemed spot to the most peasant spot, there was a whole collection of great spots that gave you different special powers or roles within the tree community. They all had names that I wish I could remember, but the years have passed and memories faded.
The Fairy Tree was also a rite of passage. Because of its height, you had to build up your courage to climb up and walk along it like a balance beam. For each child, there was a time before they could and a time after they were able to inhabit the tree. In the in between space, they got to wrestle with their fear, learn to trust the strength of their limbs and their balance, and ultimately take a leap of faith.
As children grow older, they would lose interest in this game and the next “oldest child” would become the leader and a reconfiguration of order would be found. Finally, at some point, the game and the place faded back into forest and was only occasionally referred to as a fond memory.
Our community is once again full of kids ranging in age from four months old to 19. A few weeks ago, during the beautiful warm, sunny, be outside as much as you can days of late summer, I heard voices coming from the bottom of my yard where the Fairy Tree lives in my heart skipped a beat with sentimental wonder. The tree had been found again and claimed as a sacred and magical place for kids. At dinner the other night, I asked the kids about the tree and told them that groups of kids before them had called that the Fairy Tree and that it had been a special place. I asked them their story of the tree. They said they called it the Arcing Tree because it “arced over”. The tree lives on and more stories and memories are being built into her bark and roots.