My niece, C, needed a nature spot. I scooped her up off the living room floor and declared: Instead of looking at animals in books, we were going to find some real live ones. As the inside door banged closed behind us, it was clear that this quest had not been well thought out. Even in the shade of the porch, it was a cool 95 degrees. The sun had been blasting down on the sparse grass of the backyard for a month straight, baking the red dirt. Only the fire ants were able to break up the packed soil.
As soon as I squatted in the grass and released C from my arms, she started ambling away with a crazy, careening gait—the one that children have when they’ve just learned to walk. I shuffled to regain my position of always being one step ahead of her, on the lookout for ant mounds and any other signs of life. The door banged shut again, and the neighbor’s dog started scolding ours through the fence. Our dog ran from one spot to another to another, nose down, ignoring the yapping next door. Perhaps she was sniffing for signs of life, like we were. Except fire ants and nosy neighbor dogs didn’t count.
Frustrated in my search, I took C around to the front of the house, where at least we wouldn’t be fenced in. A lone tree stood on the expanse of lawn, and cars rolled past on the suburban street beyond. C slowed to a stop as we approached the tree. It wasn’t much taller than I was, but she looked up at it with her mouth agape. I picked her up—here’s goes nothing!—and we dove into the cool shade. Inside the branches, the light wasn’t so harsh and the leaves glowed as they absorbed the sunlight. Looking through one was like looking through an empty glass Sprite bottle; it was that kind of brilliant green. Stained glass didn’t look that rich.
I touched a leaf and motioned for C to do the same. She extended one tiny finger and then drew her hand back to her chest, a sly smile on her face. It’s OK—it’s OK to grab a whole handful! Emphatically, I grabbed a bunch of leaves right in front of our faces. She reached out again and this time took a leaf between forefinger and thumb, like an old woman feeling the quality of a piece of fabric. Soon we were palming the smooth bark and squatting to look at the smaller grayish ants trailing up the base of the tree. C extended a finger; a frenzied ant had to find its way around the flesh that blocked its path. Not as exotic as the monkeys and fish in her books, but at least its legs felt pokey.
Outside, the harsh heat was still oppressive. I blinked and C squinted hard when we emerged. We made our way, hand in hand, up to the shaded front porch that overlooked the lone tree and the street. Had anyone else been standing there, it would have been just a tiny tulip poplar with dusty green leaves.