‘The Big Tree’: Remembering a relic of childhood

by C.J. Tanner

Everyone has something in their memory that symbolizes their childhood. It might be a song you and your cousins used to listen to on the radio, a book that your grandmother read to you, a favorite toy that you couldn’t go a day without or an endless number of other possibilities. While it’s difficult for me to pick just one such symbol of my childhood, one of the most meaningful goes by the name of “The Big Tree.”

On a playground in a small town in Central Arkansas, there stands a massive oak tree. For generations, this gentle giant has watched over countless children who have passed beneath its branches. It has silently presided over perhaps hundreds of make-believe weddings as children pledged their puppy love to one another. A select few of those “marriages” became a reality many years later, and their children have engaged in hours of enjoyment in the shade of that same tree.

It has played the role of “base” for the ever-present games of tag and offered abundant shade during those hot August recesses. And let’s not forget that as long as you stand on the exposed roots of the tree, you will be safe, while the ground in between is made of lava.

It was in the shadow of this playground colossus that some of the greatest friendships of my life were forged. We were inseparable as we joined up with the Power Rangers, chased after the rarest of Pokémon, and experienced legendary rounds of freeze tag. We didn’t know what a terrorist was, we knew nothing of politics, we couldn’t spell quarantine and our biggest worry was how in the world Kevin was going to get his shoe out of the storm drain (legend has it that the shoe is still there). The world to us was like The Big Tree — huge, expansive and a bit mysterious.

C.J. Tanner in front of “The Big Tree” at Perryville Elementary School. (Mike Kemp photo)

I recently learned that The Big Tree will be cut down due to safety concerns, and it has taken me aback. After watching generations of children come and go, its years of service are coming to an end. This news fills me with sadness, and I know the same can be said for all those who have known The Big Tree. It may sound silly to be sad about the cutting down of an old oak tree, but I can assure you that it is far from silly.

I think the reason this news cuts at our hearts is that it is not only the removal of a community landmark, but a staple of our childhood. With the passing of The Big Tree comes a jarring reminder of the passing of childhood, and it fills us with a bittersweet nostalgia as we long for simpler times. Although most of us have gone our separate ways since the days of carefree recess antics, that tree is something that unites us in memory and experience. In a time where there seems to be very few symbols of unity in the world, it certainly hurts to see this one disappear.

Although the removal of The Big Tree is incredibly sad, reflecting on what that old tree represents in my life fills me with renewed hope. The recesses of our youth were filled with games of our own invention. We didn’t require advanced technology or even the latest toy to keep us entertained; we only required friendship and imagination in order to have a blast. These thoughts remind me that often it is the simple things in life that are the most meaningful. There are a lot of things going on these days that tempt us to worry, and 2020 seems to have brought with it waves of insanity that threaten to capsize all that we have. The world may never be the same, and that brings with it feelings of despair and loss for so many. It is in these times that we could use a dose of the childlike creativity that fueled us for so many years.

This, of course, is not the ultimate answer to our need for contentment or joy. As a Christian, I believe that the ultimate answer to those things is the love of Christ. He is the Savior that we need in order to be eternally secure. An added bonus to an eternal relationship with Christ is being able to find multiple “Big Trees” in our lives — things that help root us to the profound simplicity of enjoying the relationships with which we have been blessed. Even though the symbols of our childhood may wither, fade or collect layers of dust, the memories that we have made and the friendships that have been cultivated will last a lifetime. The impact of faith, family and friendship upon our lives should never be underestimated.

The memories made around The Big Tree will continue to be cherished by those who passed their recesses on that playground. Although it will soon be gone, it will not be forgotten as long as we live. May our children have something just as special to fondly look back on when they are adults, and may we search out other “Big Trees” in the days ahead.

C.J. Tanner lives in Clinton with his wife, Jaycie, and baby boy, Noah. He is a social studies teacher at South Side High School in Bee Branch. His biggest passions are his faith, family and students. He can be reached at [email protected].