By Anna Van Devender
“Did this stick come from a TREE?” asked my 4-year-old. He accepted my affirmation thoughtfully, then inched along the trail again with an 18” pine bough in his grip. “This stick”, along with promises of ice cream, motivated him for the last leg of our family hike around Dogtown Lake. For that, I was already thankful. That my son had just made the connection between sticks on the ground and ponderosas growing all around was as cool to me as the mountain air that lured us to Northern Arizona for this summer’s vacation.
In the span of a week, to my boys sticks were: “inventions”, “secret hideouts”, “nests”, “barriers”, “beaver dams”, “food” in a fake fire, kindling for real fires, digging tools, “poppers”, “microphones”, a walking stick, “fishing poles”, and good ol’ “Can I throw sticks in here?” Our family even tried our hands at fishing with real poles. My 7-year-old was remarkable patient, then turned to engineering seven versions of poles made of sticks and scraps. The 4-year-old most wanted to bob his real pole up and down in the water or use it to poke his bobber. Hence we found spots for stick play out of the way. He made his own opportunities because sticks are everywhere, are tangible, and spark his imagination.
It’s also a matter of scale. Fallen sticks are closer to a child’s eyes than the shade-producing network of living branches above. The pole-like straightness of pine trunks currently relegates them to obstacles around which to step, not construction materials with which to play.
Bigger than my boys by height and age, I relish the cooling shade, the sweet scent tugging at memories of childhood trips, and the many voices of wind through the wispy needles. On vacation, I am content to be, to rest, to absorb. My experience is expanded, though, by watching the serious work of play.
“Can I put THIS one in?” asks my young hiker as he eyes a driftwood log as long as himself. “Sure,” I say, with an intentional casualness disguising that I think he might not actually be able. Four grunt-accompanied tugs later, the log is in the lake. My son is temporarily out of breath and also satisfied to move up the trail to new stick supplies. We are outdoors, with the larger elements weaving their way through us all, one small piece at a time.
Photos by Tim Van Devender