Twigs in an Old Tin Can

We sat down in the dirt next to an old juniper tree, me and the kids. To one side, a rock wall, the never-ending work of the boys, lay crumbling. Hundreds of wood shavings, the product of countless carved sticks, were scattered everywhere, along with the bits of colorful yarn variously understood as bedding, money, decorations or, in the case of the boys, laser security. This tree is our classroom, and we have visited it many times.

This particular species of juniper grows like a large shrub, its trunk a series of long inner branches that arc out like curved slices of melon toward the sky above. Its scaly needles form on the outer reaches of those branches, which, once parted, reveal an inner kingdom largely free of intrusions. It was especially hot and dry that day, and, like most days, the kids and I sat not so much next to the tree as within it.

Agnes ducked between branches, toting a bag of yarn with which she was eager to set up the other children with finger-knitting. The craft, a piece of handwork that helps develop the differentiation between fingers, produces a woven string or rope, or even a sort of cloth, depending on how many fingers one uses at a time. Silke was at a baby blessing and Agnes, having mastered the technique, was her stand-in. She was proud. Me too.

I leaned back and fondled a dry twig, coarse and brittle like the sun. Snapping it in half, I eyed a small rock a few feet away, took aim, and tossed the broken end. Missed. I looked left and right. The girls were engaged with their knitting. The boys were dragons. Contentment reigned. So, when I spied a few rusty cans a little way down the canyon, the same three cans I’ve seen a hundred times before, I decided to get up and check them out.

The cans are so old they would have disintegrated long ago if there was enough moisture to rust them out. They’re probably a hundred years old for all I know. Everything lasts longer in the desert. Occasionally, I find a word or two on old cans like these, the font alone helping to identify their age, but the only identifying mark I found this time was the telltale wounds of a triangular can opener, the kind you use to puncture and then pour out the contents. Must have been juice. Or beer. The small canyon in which we took shelter was really just a cleft in an endless sea of sage, an obvious resting spot for any traveler.

Picking up a can, I found it was heavy as stone. Years of neglect, I suppose, had refilled it, grain by grain, with sand and dirt, which was now more or less trapped inside. One of the cans, however, had its lid hanging open like a properly iconic can, providing an opening large enough for dirt to blow in, dawdle briefly, then escape. I picked it up and dumped out what remained.

Returning to the shade of the juniper, I propped the can a few feet in front of me, listening to the tones, not so much the words, of the boys and girls, then reached for another twig. Snapping off an inch-long segment, I took aim with my thumb and forefinger, then watched as the tiny emblem of my life arced through the air and bounced – ding – on the open lid and fell inside. Score.

I used to spend a lot of time like this, tossing, throwing, aiming and hitting. It was a simplicity I used to enjoy with my brother and friends, skipping stones across the water to hit an old tire on the dock, building a snowman solely for the purpose of knocking it over with snowballs, unloading a tree’s worth of crab apples, one by one, at a stop sign twenty yards away. It was worth an hour and half if somebody hit it just once. Bang. Then I grew up.

Silke said something to me when I first started assisting in her kindergarten, and I’ve repeated it to myself many times: the object of a kindergarten teacher is to engage in meaningful tasks and allow the children to come and go as they please. This matches my experience, which is that the best moments happen when I’m just a safe presence in the background, not an active part in the children’s play. The result is that I’ve done a lot more throwing and collecting in the last few years than I did in the previous twenty, this time with children loosely playing nearby. Still, I’m alone. 

Young children (and adults) need the freedom to explore their own imaginations. They also need to be guided sometimes, but it’s best if they can watch, help for a little bit, then run off. It’s a cycle, and goal-orientation can disrupt it. I’ve taken this to heart, but I sometimes wonder if Silke would consider tossing stones and sticks a meaningful task. I do.

Berries and stones are excellent throw-pieces, but twigs and balls of mud do just as well. Leaves are better for dropping. Water is much too sloppy to throw, but it can be splashed with a self-directed sort of energy. Its frozen cousin is superb. Crab apples have a dear place in my heart and there are decidedly too few in New Mexico. Pine cones do just fine.

The receptacle, whether a bucket or merely a pile of leaves, is best designed based on one’s intent. Is it merely to hit it? Or must the object land inside? Once inside, must it remain? Or does that only half-count? The game is essentially always the same – hit something with something else - but it can vary widely based on the scale. Crab apples and stop signs is invariably a game of distance. Juniper berries and a small plastic cup can be played very quietly and within arm’s reach.

The latter was more the scale of my game this time around, and I managed to do pretty well hunched under that old juniper, till Laura knocked the can over. “Can I play?” she asked, evidently bored with knitting, then proceeded to stuff my old can with rocks. I cringed inwardly but didn’t say anything. One can’t be too picky. After a few minutes, she scurried off to find the boys. I emptied out the can and started over. 

The object is generally to hit one’s target, but it’s also to watch and be present. Different versions require different kinds of appreciation. For example, the flicking of a tiny stone off the end of one’s fingernail is, everyone agrees, rather whimsical. A tiny bloop or blip as the stone pockets itself into the river is all the reward one needs. One child, a demure little girl who spends much of her time alone at school, excels at this particular task and the two of us can easily spend an hour together at the shore, listening to the tiny sounds of stones sinking into the river.

However! That same stone placed between the fleshy pads of the forefinger and thumb, thrown not flicked, requires a target not much larger than a tomato. The object is different. One is a sort of caprice, the other is plain fact. And if it involves not just one’s thumb and forefinger, but the wrist and even a full extension of the arm, and its consequent twist of the torso, then we’re talking a whole new level or seriousness. Just what are we after here? If it’s a twig, you can watch it float in the current, navigating the pitfalls and obstructions, which adds an extra joy to the game. Stones disappear. Crab apples, bless the sweet lord, also float.

Anyway, there I was tossing (not flicking) dried juniper branches into the rusty tin can, loosely attentive to the children in my midst, when I felt my heart give way. I miss this. I miss it for myself, yes, but I also miss it for the children and every human being on the planet. You could say I miss it for our species. The world is sometimes full of complicated and difficult choices. We are sometimes so engaged in our meaningful tasks, that we no longer remember how meaningful it is to sit in the shade of an old tree and toss twigs into tin cans. There is an enormous part of me that says that this is not enough, particularly as an educator. But there is another part of me, a quiet and gentler part of myself, that says this is exactly what I should teach.

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