Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Old Cottonwood Tree

June 23, 2013

Dear friends,

Nature or nurture? DNA or environment? Such questions can trigger a lively discussion when people are thinking about the complex process of human development. Was it the genetic blueprint that I received at conception that produced the woman I now am, or was it that Kansas world into which I was born—the prairie winds, the dust and heat, the country schools, my mother’s death—that determined the “self” of which I am conscious and by which people now identify me?

You are already objecting—or at least I trust you are objecting—to the form in which I cast the question. It is true that either/or questions can lead to helpful answers if under carefully structured conditions we are studying meticulously specified factors. However, when thinking about the life-long process of being and becoming we are dealing with a dynamic, fluid process with frustratingly inexact parameters. In this case, while asking either/or questions can lead to interesting arguments, the results generally produce more heat than light. When considering human growth and development we do better to shape our questions in a both/and form and  live with the tension of imprecision that inevitably emerges in the answers we work out.

So—caveat given. You must find your own way today, shape your own questions and develop your own answers. All I agree to furnish for this process are some facts as I now know them and description of experiences that memory still holds. You decide what significance, if any, grows for you out of the piece of my story that you can catch here.

The tree had a name: its name was The Old Cottonwood Tree. Often adults would shorten its name like leaving off a last name when they said things like, “Wonder how long that Old Cottonwood has stood here? It’s seen a lot in its time.”

The Old Cottonwood stood at the base of a small knoll in the pasture that bordered the yard where our house stood. The wind mill and the water tanks for the stock stood on the crest of this mound. When my sister and I went to play in the tree we would squeeze between the little water tank and the  post that terminated the fence between the yard and pasture. This shortcut saved the walk down to the pasture gate. Our shirts often bore evidence of the route we had taken. Barbed wire and nails are not shirt-friendly.

The trunk of The Old Cottonwood seemed huge to my sister and me. Even from present perspective, that seems accurate. When we held hands and stretched as far as we could together we couldn’t reach what we thought of as “half-way” around it. The highest branches seemed so high, so far up against the sky that we thought the place where heaven came closest to earth was where The Old Cottonwood stood.

A long branch of The Old Cottonwood stretched south toward the tanks. When we stood on the mound near the tanks, we could reach this branch and scramble up on it if we helped each other. Only when we grew to be “big kids” could we manage it by ourselves. Once safely up, we would walk along this branch back to the trunk of the tree. Then we would stand there, leaning against the great old trunk looking down and thinking what an adventure it was to be so high, so far above earth. After we had reached the trunk, we would climb and swing on the higher branches we could then reach, and (small miracle) in all the years of playing alone in The Old Cottonwood without adult supervision neither of us fell or was injured.

“How come The Old Cottonwood grew so big?” I asked my father one night as he was watering the horses at the tank.

“He stands where his roots can reach water,” my father answered. “Dry spells and hot winds don’t bother him much.”

One day (I think I was in third grade) I decided to write a story about The Old Cottonwood. I planned to tell about how his roots reached far down in the earth for water and his branches reached high as the sky, maybe even close to heaven. I thought I would end my story by telling that The Old Cottonwood had lived such a long time that not even my grandfather knew how old he was.

In English class I had learned the rule that proper names should begin with capital letters. I very carefully wrote, “The Old Cottonwood is my friend.” I went on to explain that he stood at the foot of the hill where his roots went down far in the earth where he could reach water and his branches went up far into the sky where he could almost reach the stars, and maybe be close to God. I told how I would stand up in his branches and be high too, and far away from earth, and that he never let me fall. Each time I used The Old Cottonwood’s name, I made capital letters for each word.

My teacher said, “This is an interesting story. You have made a mistake, however. You have made capital letters each time you wrote ‘The Old Cottonwood Tree.’ Please copy your story over and correct your errors in capitalization. Then it will be a fine story for you to turn in.”

I was puzzled and irritated for a reason I could not explain either to my teacher or to myself.

“But I did it right,” I protested after a bit.  “‘The Old Cottonwood’ is that tree's name, and names have capital letters.”

Some childhood memories remain startlingly clear no matter the number of subsequent birthdays. I have not forgotten my teacher’s face or voice when she said, “But, dear child, you know trees don’t have names,” and moved on to help Francis whose desk was next to mine. Francis did not write stories; he did extra hard special problems in arithmetic in his spare time.

I sat for a while trying to work out my dilemma. My tree had a name. Why weren’t capital letters right for a tree’s name? How could I ever get my story written so that my teacher would like it when this tree had a name and I should use capitals and she told me not to?

Thinking with you today of the ways in which life teaches us that rules are tricky things.

See you next week.


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