On experiencing books outdoors
Margaret Emma Brandl | Friday, August 24, 2012
For one Saturday in summer, I read a book in a tree at my grandmother’s house. I was never one for climbing trees, unless the sap-sticky scratchy pines beside the tiny church ever counted. Barely bushes, they were long bending branches with so many pieces sticking out that my Sunday School compatriots and I would clamor into the hall minutes before Mass, scraped and sticky, with pine needles mixed with beads of blood (from the roughness of the bark) ruining our clean church clothes.
Knowing I was afraid of heights without having ever really experienced heights in actuality, I never had the guts to climb a real tree. I knew the stories about Uncle Carl, my mother’s youngest brother, who had been an expert at climbing trees, but less well-versed in the process of getting down from them. Aware, then, that going up a tree also meant getting down from it, I decided against such explorations.
The day came, however, that (if I remember right) this tree growing into the side of the fence would be trimmed or otherwise cut down, and as my mother and I examined it reverently, she suggested I sit in it. The notch in which one could sit was not very high up – over my head, but I was small. With some boosting from her or my father, I forget exactly, I found myself settled in the notch between two branches. The sun was shining brightly and the sky was blue and somewhere I could hear a lawn mower (always in Shreveport I could hear a lawn mower). The bark was warm in the sun. Once I was up, I requested my book which my mother had to retrieve. What I was even reading I forget, as I remember paying little attention to it – perhaps a volume collected from Grammy’s dusty library shelf. I was more interested in the treeness, of the experience of being-in-tree.
I recall that, on the whole, the adventure was short-lived. I realized the tree was not exactly comfortable, that the shapes of the branches formed a seat but not a nice one, that I was tired of reading the book I wasn’t really reading and that I would like to do something else like try on dresses in the closet or pick out songs on the piano or find whatever chocolate/ice cream/cookies there were to be found in the house. I demanded to be retrieved and hoisted myself out of that space, where I must have been caught by Daddy or Mom.
When I discovered books on tape were sometimes read by the author, I decided that I wanted to hear Madeleine L’Engle read me “A Wrinkle in Time.” On first picking up the book, I discovered the protagonist was named Meg, which was all I needed to be interested. In the space of a few pages, I was transported into this great science-fiction-fantasy space in which God was still present and in which there was a space for my Christianity in this brave and beautiful world.
From the children’s room of the public library I retrieved the tapes I wanted – “A Wrinkle in Time;” later, “A Wind in the Door,” though I would fall asleep listening to that one. With my trusty beige and brown tape player/recorder I set up camp on the swingset, placing the thing on the wooden platform by the slide. I was swinging, climbing, hanging upside-down from the metal bar and twisting my hands in the rings as Madeleine L’Engle, grandmotherly, taught me how to properly pronounce things like the name of the Murrays’ dog (Fortinbras) and what it meant that Mrs. Which talked LLLIIIIKKKKEEEEE THHHHIIIIISSSSSSS (it was an echo). Caught there between the swings of my swingset and, later, sprawled on a blanket in the open grass as the sun disappeared, I began to feel an autumn chill. I saw myself in some windy New England town, where a little farmy piece of land with landmarks like “the star-watching rock” produced Margaret, Sandy, Denys, and Charles Wallace Murray, and Calvin O’Keefe. With Mrs. L’Engle’s calming voice to carry me I rediscovered my backyard. I saw the brick colors of the back patio, the flat roof of the sunroom, the climbing plants that clung to our little green fence, the locks on the gates, the slope down the hill where I had made my fairy-houses, the red clay and light brown mud that I had squished my toes in during a heavy rain on a day on which my mother had felt adventurous as well. I breathed the grass and saw the colors the sky turned as night fell.
Contact Margaret Emma Brandl at [email protected]
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