Growing Up

By Jim Sollecito

The author has enjoyed this sugar maple tree for decades outside of Baldwinsville.
The author has enjoyed this sugar maple tree for decades outside of Baldwinsville.

As a boy, I climbed every tree in my neighborhood at least once. Even the “pricker trees” (actually Black Locust), although they were just one and done. I got up close and personal with an assortment of trees growing on Onondaga Hill and learned how to distinguish them by the way their branches grew. The sugar maple would be one of my favorites. Its branching habit is called “opposite” because for every branch on the left there is one on the right, so it’s like the ladder of a ship’s mast. As I circumnavigated the trunk, I imagined I had a 360-degree view of the world. Climbing in autumn I marveled at the changing leaves. Mother nature has the best box of crayons, after all.

I remember conquering a particularly large black cherry, eventually building a tree house with my best friend at the time, Matt Mastic. We used construction scraps we found. Materials were available to us in 1963 as new homes were being built on ground that revealed evidence of Onondaga Indian settlements. Inspired by that and the Tom Swift books we read, we shinnied up a knotted rope and entered our Dreaming Room. We watched as time and nature changed the leaves, and naturally, our lives.

Why climb? According to my 82-year-old brother-in-law Ted Nickel, a very experienced climber who vividly recalls climbing as a lad, it was this: to escape, to hide or to get a better view of the world. Sometimes, all three.

I attended Split Rock Elementary School in Camillus. A great name, foretelling our prison job if we didn’t succeed with our studies. Reflecting on those get-under-your-desk-for-safety air raid drills, my concerns weren’t about the end of the world, but more about the end of the week and where I’d be playing outdoors. It was a time when girls and boys were not yet old enough to think about dating. We simply wanted to run around and play, scramble up anything that got us closer to the sky. Maybe swing from a tire hanging off a mighty oak until darkness chased us indoors.

As we age, our revisionist history allows us to do some mental editing. We hold tight to those things that can still bring a smile. I believe it’s healthy to forgive some of the rough edges that forged us into the people we have become. To remember where we came from and let that form a foundation, not a boundary, for wherever we decide to go. The taller the tree grows, the higher we can go.

Ascending a tree can make you feel like you’re young and small again. Even now I make a point in autumn to climb a few times. As leaves drop, I am reminded of the lesson revealed, at how lovely it can be to let things go. I will take that thought and memories with me as I enter 2020. I’m still growing up.

Jim Sollecito is the first lifetime senior certified landscape professional in NYS. He operates Sollecito Landscaping Nursery in Syracuse. Contact him at 468-1142 or