Woodworker's Central
Woodworker's Gazette
Gazette Archive 3/25/02

The Big Tree
by Dan Bailey
Jan 9, 2001

From Four-Way you could drop down to Hog-Lane, in to Main, up to Clear-view or out to a branch whose name escapes me now. The last was a dead end anyway. Those names identified landmark locations in a big tree, The Big Tree across the street from my house in Dallas.

The house and The Big Tree were located on an old north-south property line, which then still slashed through distinct blots of residences in the southwest edge of Dallas. Persistence of the tree line was practical, not historical or traditional. If you wanted a property line to stay-put you used markers that would stay put, like trees. If later you decided to build a house, you tended to build where it was already open and avoided having to clear tough marker trees. This property line had good trees: cedar, hackberry and bodark.

The Big Tree was a bodark, or bois d'arc, or osage orange, or orangewood or horseapple tree. The names reflected the color of the cortical wood, its suitability for making archery bows and the size and color of its seeds. This one was surely a stay-put tree because it was big, no longer grew any horseapples and had only one small branch still capable of sprouting thorns. In its early years and prime this monster's two-inch spikes probably secured sixty feet of property line against wandering cattle and casual strollers.

The bark was rich auburn, cortex was yellow and the heartwood a heartbreaking Irish Redhead. Leaves were lime green, sap was sticky milk-white and thorns were from 1" to 3" long. The wood was tough and, for a child, getting a 16d-20d nail into a bodark was a half-hour job; the tree would mangle or spit out anything smaller. My big tree had a trunk diameter between five and six feet. It was probably fifty feet tall, but may have gone to sixty. When I was climbing it those numbers seemed to run to 10 and 100 feet, but I'm willing to sacrifice 'truth' to a little accuracy. It was sited at the junction of two city lots about forty feet from the edge of the street. This allowed the streetside branches to dominate Clarendon Drive. Two other trees shared the domain: a 2-1/2 foot diameter hackberry twelve feet closer to the street and off to the right, and a tall plain tree to the left.

Most limbs had distinct names: Main, Elm, Hog Lane, Horse (on left), Hotel, and Lookout. One could transfer from one limb to another. Some transfers were so useful they also had names: Hog, Fourway (this was more accurately a place, since four distinct transfers made it noteworthy), Death, Clearview, Suicide and Drop.

Clearview, Peak, Main, Hackberry Hotel and Clarendon were treehouse platforms. The smallest was two by three feet and the largest was Main, about eight feet square. Clarendon actually hung over the street, and Clearview was high enough to see the small airport for which it was named, three miles away.

A lot of our childhood life went on in The Big Tree. It was a kid's community center for three or four blocks around. There were no dues, no called meetings except the one the next day or the week after that. There were no officers, no rules except by consensus, and then only as long as they worked better than 'no rules at all'. There was no supervision!

Our basic game was tag. One person was "It", chosen by one of several childhood rituals of random selection. "It" allowed the other players to disperse then called time and started the chase. If the players were well matched, "It" rotated to whoever could be caught. If the crowd was diverse, a small person or slow climber might have trouble catching the faster players so, by consensus, "It" could accumulate into two or three or more until everyone was caught. If you had just been "It" you could not be caught back immediately. If you left the tree and touched the ground, you were caught. I remember as many as thirteen people in such a game.

We had a contest one summer to discover previously unknown transfers. A new transfer had to be at least six feet from any known transfer between the same two limbs, and could be counted in both directions. Some transfers involved bending limbs down or dropping from one limb to another, and the reverse trip was impossible. A few were innovative in one direction but only claimable by a taller person in the reverse. One transfer was unique because the limb broke during demonstration. I found thirty-two new ones that I could demonstrate and another kid found twenty. In all about sixty-five turned up that summer. It was a Big Tree.

We threaded a large single strand wire through a short length of iron pipe and ran it from thirty feet up the Tree about eighty feet across Clarendon to a tree beside my house. The slide down the wire hanging on the pipe was almost worth the hassle of getting the pipe back up to the launch location. No one ever got hurt but we abandoned it after a while.

The Big Tree was finally cut down by a construction speculator named Jones to make room for two small houses. The cutting did not proceed gracefully. Each evening, we gathered, bringing the largest nails and spikes we could scrounge; some purchased with precious pennies from allowances.
Guided by the cutting of that day, we drilled pilot holes and hammered in as many bits as we had of nail and iron into the likely cutting ground of the morrow. It took more than a month to topple The Big Tree, and the sabotaged blades and saws were memorialized by some of the purplest invective ever to reach our young ears.

Dan Bailey
Beutel Health Center
Texas A&M University

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