How do you like to go up in a swing,
Up in the air so blue?
Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing
Ever a child can do!
– Robert Louis Stevenson
It’s a simple thing, really, the tree swing – just a rectangle of wood and a sturdy piece of rope – but it has a singular magic. Sure, a porch swing is great, but it’s not the same. Likewise for playground swings, hammocks, gliders and rockers. Ditto – most certainly – for those silly plastic disks with the single strand of rope you wrap your legs around.
A true tree swing offers a different experience. There’s none of that leg-pumping, playground competitiveness, none of the clanging and squeaking of chains on metal, none of the primary color-painted A-frame supports. Tree swings are covered by a canopy of leaves and limbs that lead up to the sky. Or, they swing over a river where a long rope, in a knobby knot, provides summers of fun for youngsters who stand on the knot, swing over the water and let fly, arching into a dive, a cannonball or the dreaded belly flop.
Where to locate a tree swing? Start with a beautiful, healthy tree with strong, reaching limbs. In my case, it was a two-story black tartarian that each summer produced large, sweet, dark cherries. My siblings and I climbed big, wooden ladders to pick the bounty we sold in pint-sized baskets for 50 cents apiece. Even with two big trees, the cherry supply was never sufficient to meet neighborhood demand. A good many of the cherries graced my mother’s pies and – with leftover pie crusts – turnovers, flaky, hot-from-the-oven delicacies with fork-crinkled edges. Of course, we ate as many cherries as we wanted, right off the trees, spitting the pits in the yard where they could later hit us on the legs when the lawn mower passed by.
Once you’ve found the tree, someone needs to build the swing, preferably someone you love. In my case, it was my dad. It was a classic board – rot resistant and splinter free – with two ropes. Nothing was better during Blue Ridge Mountain summers for sitting, for swinging, for dreaming. Or twisting: just use your feet to twist yourself slowly around until the moment when you lift your feet and untwist with dizzying speed.
Good views are important, too. From our swing, you could see the acre-size backyard, including the fruit trees, grape vine, garden and plenty of chairs for sitting. As a bonus, you could hear everything being said in the kitchen (handy information for spying on siblings).
The best view, though, is achieved while lying back from a sitting position in an arcing swing that rises almost to the branches. Even on a winter’s night when the leaves are gone and the stars are bright – much like the sky-through-the-tree-limbs depicted in Georgia O’Keeffe’s “The Lawrence Tree” – leaning back in a swing can make the world right again, even when viewed upside down.
These days, during those crunch times when it’s impossible to unplug, unwind or even fall asleep, it’s good to remember the tree swing – back and forth, back and forth, back and forth – and then head to bed.
Linda Shockley is a writer based in New York City, but her roots remain in Virginia.