When I was just big enough to climb trees, my dad built my sister and me a tree house: flat-bottomed, 4’/4’ square, with 1’ high sides. He built it in our sturdy fruitless mulberry tree, where the bark was rough, the leaves ample, and the environment suitable for a small girl who needed to escape her house, with its many tensions, and who would always need to explore the outside world.
The tree house had a rope attached with a bucket, where my mom could place sandwiches and supplies. This made it perfect.
I often ventured into the upper regions, stepping near the trunk where the branches were strong. From my perch high in the mulberry, I had my first glimpses of a wider world.
Of course, I’d traveled in every direction I could see—from the Alpha Beta grocery store in the Northwest, to my elementary school in the Northeast; from Stater Brothers in the Southeast, past track homes like my own in the Southwest. But from high in the tree my mind wandered, and I wondered what lay further, what was beyond all that I could see.
From this tree I could stretch my eyes—I had a need to see distant places.
We humans need to stretch our eyes and see beyond our tiny worlds—physically and psychologically. We imagine something more, and we pursue it. We see an unknown object, and we examine it. We wonder how something works, and we attempt to repeat it. We see another way of doing something, and we consider its value for ourselves. We meet an unanswered question, and we ask “how?” and “why?”
This is the way we discover new views, ideas, perspectives, understanding, or facts.
I tell my first-year college students that one difference between high school and college is that in high school, you were frequently told who, what, when, and where, and the answers seemed settled. In college, you are expected to ask how and why, and to examine both the process and the results.
With a father like mine, asking how and why was inbred. Sometimes, such a querying spirit has felt troublesome (or it has appeared troubling to others). To me, being curious about the how and why has sent me on a path of never-ending exploration and growth.
When I was very young, my dad and I built a go cart together. I remember hammering and painting it, and I recall practicing with it on the pavement, but I do not remember ever using it in a go cart race—although that was our voiced intention.
“What makes it go, Dad? How will it stop?”
“You’ll make it go. You have to kick!” he explained. “We’ll put a brake on. I’m not going to let you race down the street without a damn way to stop.”
Or our homemade rock grinder. My dad built it from scratch—it looked like a cylindrical washing machine tube extracted from the machine, on legs.
“What is it dad; how does it work?” I asked, walking around it on all sides, my stumpy pigtails swinging.
“It’s a rock polisher! It spins, and uses rocks and sand to rub the rough edges off stones, like beach waves use sand to polish beach pebbles. I’m polishing obsidian nodules.” I looked at the machine dubiously. It spun slowly, rocks clanging, clunking.
“How long will it take?” I queried.
“Days. You can’t be impatient.”
“Why did you make a rock polisher dad? What are you going to do with the rocks?”
“I’m conducting tests. I want to know how long it takes to polish these raw stones.”
My dad kept records of his experiments. Periodically, he would remove a partially polished obsidian nodule, record the hours it had been in the polisher, and label it with tape. Today, I have some of these nodules, still marked. The longest recorded time says “72 hours.”
I learned to ask how and why because my dad was insatiably curious and interested in testing known and unknown processes for himself—and of course, I wanted to know what he was doing, how, and why.
When my dad learned that the soil in the Inland Empire was too cool to hatch tortoise eggs, he tried alternatives.
“Why are you digging up the tortoise eggs, dad?!” I queried.
“They won’t hatch. We’re too far from the desert—it’s too cold here,” he explained. “So I’m putting them someplace warmer.”
He began by putting them in a box, covered by cloths, beneath the water heater. Later, he moved them to a home-made incubator with a temperature controlled light. His experiments worked—we hatched dozens of tortoises using these methods.
When some didn’t hatch, despite his efforts, he wanted to examine them. He placed unhatched eggs in a box and stored them—where else—in our refrigerator, for later study.
Give my mom credit for patience.
We all need to learn to go beyond what we already know or believe; to discover what we do not yet understand; to learn from God, nature, and others—those like ourselves and those quite different—to grow into truly empathetic human beings.
It takes humility to do that. Self-awareness, without pride. The space to stretch our eyes to new horizons and different ideas.
We may all want to begin by spending some time in a good tall tree.