This morning is unusually quiet. Even golfers avoid the dull overcast from last night’s steady rain. Trunks of trees glisten with moisture and drip tears from their leaves as I take my morning walk. Ah, here at the clubhouse something is going on, perhaps to celebrate Earth Day. (On Saturday the place was overrun with children in various activities.)
As I walk and wonder, I recall a similar celebration when I was 7 or 8 years old. I’m playing hopscotch with my friends on a sunny early spring day in Michigan. In the middle of my turn I remember, I was supposed to be up at school today! The teacher has talked about the celebration for Earth Day or Arbor Day or something. I think of green and plants and trees and saving the earth from pollution. We’ll do activities, make crafts, play games, and have prizes. I signed up and each day this week our teacher has reminded us.
I rush through my turn, stepping on my stone then jumping off the chalked-in game board. I run home but cannot find my mom. “Dad took her grocery shopping,” my older sister tells me.
Now I’m in a panic. My teacher reminded us, reminded me, endlessly about this. Will I get into trouble?
My eldest brother overhears and offers to take me. He is in his last year of high school (or maybe just home from his first year of college) and I feel so grown up sitting in the passenger seat of his car. He can drive, though our other brother can’t. Not yet, not for several years.
The school is not far at all, but to walk there I’d need to cut through an abandoned nursery plus an orchard and riding my bike would take me along too many busy roads (some without sidewalks).
We arrive and no one is around. Oh, no, I think, I’ve missed it!
But the school is not surrounded by fences or gates as they are today so we head to the playground in the back. I lead my brother around the building, guiding him through the enclosed Kindergarten playground, and now I can hear all the people and kids on the main playground behind the school.
My brother checks in with one of the grown ups and I run off to find my friends. They’re planting something and I get to help. But I’m disappointed when I reach them. They’re watering sticks in the ground.
“Where were you?” my friend demands. “You weren’t here to check in. We already ate lunch.”
I don’t know what to say. I shrug, because I already ate lunch. At home.
The man smiles. “It’s okay that you’re late. You’re here now.” He’s not a teacher at our school, I don’t think. He shows me how to gently separate the sticks from the pile, make a hole and place a stick in so it will grow. “I know it looks weird,” he says, “but each stick really will turn into a tree. Just wait.”
My brother is next to me now. “Lisa, I’ll be at work when this ends. Dave will come up to take you home. Okay?” I look up at him, nodding.
Then, it turns out, the man knows my brother. They laugh and talk. By the time I realize my brother is gone, our little group has planted a crooked row of sticks at the edge of the playground where it backs up to a row of houses.
Each group rotates through planting stick trees or flowers. (Now that is what I expected. Just like when I help my mom with the plants at home.) We have relay races with prizes, tiny ice cream cups like when someone at school has a birthday. And I learn about trees and plants.
The man says to me, “Your name’s Lisa, isn’t it?” I nod. “That boy is calling you.”
I turn to see my other brother at the far corner of the playground, back by a giant oak tree my friends and I like to play tag around. He’s waving to me. “Come on! Gotta go!”
My friend turns to me. “But it’s not done yet. We get a badge and award at the end.”
I shrug, then turn and run to my brother. We walk the way I am not allowed to go and he swears me to secrecy. I trust him. He leads through a gap in a fence, across a wide plank like a balance beam over gravel pits. Then we cut through the abandoned nursery and the old orchard to enter our backyard.
At school on Monday a hand-printed certificate sits on my desk. So does a thin plaster “badge” shaped like a clover. It reminds me of the cut-out cookies my mom makes, but with a hole at the top with red yarn strung through it. Except, instead of colored sugar, this is painted green with my name lettered in black. This is my reward for planting sticks? I wonder.
The sticks do grow into trees. When I’m on the playground, I feel proud, especially by the time I’m in grade 4 and the pine trees cause me to marvel that they were ever shorter than a Popsicle stick.
I like to believe that during this event I participated in the first Earth Day, but I have long since lost the “award” and it could have been Arbor Day (which is celebrated this year on Friday, April 24). Whatever the event, I do know it had a lasting impression on me. I love the outdoors, plants, trees, birds, wildlife. I grew up to write books for children about these topics. I’ve written about the environment, nature, recycling, and sustainability. I’d like to believe the roots of these interests were planted on that spring day long ago when I was still in elementary school.