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Masters of Dust
From the toddler trying to stuff dirt into his mouth to the kindergartner’s mud puddle afternoon, there is an essential childhood longing for soil. In all its grubby wonder, it exerts a magnetic pull on those under age eight, compelling them to lower themselves to the ground and examine its microscopic, lowly workings. When one combines this fascination with the obscure desire for perfection, one will find the scruffy trees at Maplewood Elementary.
They hunched resignedly at the left of the dull asphalt square that served as our playground, six maples that were slightly stunted due to their proximity to concrete. Standing with our backs to the school, we saw that the maples ranged on a gradient of greenery, from the stark winter sapling at our end to the mature, lush beauty on the other. The best two trees sat incongruously in the middle.
These two trees were not different from the others in any way except one; their roots. These particular roots, being much more excitable than the others, humped in small tangles out of the ground to form a number of capital caves. Useless as these miniscule caves might appear in the early morning, everything changed at lunch recess.
A buzzing swarm of children erupted from the school doors at 12:15, ready for twenty minutes respite from our teacher read-aloud and number cubes. We dashed frantically about, a few peeling off the primary herd every couple of seconds to play jump rope or four square. In the end, about ten dedicated seven and eight-year-olds barreled towards the maple trees. Oh, the adrenaline! The blood rush! The thrill of deadly competition! Who would reach the trees first? Who would claim the prized roots at the base of the fourth tree? The third? And who, slowest and weakest of the bunch, would be relegated woefully to the puny roots of the fifth?
Once we had established the hierarchy of the pack, we hunched contentedly on our haunches, examining the roots with fierce concentration rarely known to humankind. There were many possibilities for the intricate and myriad caves. A farm was always a good choice. So was a modest bungalow. The daring climbed the summit of grocery store construction. The purely stupid attempted castles.
I remember those days now, the delight of scavenging for the requisite sticks to lay across a cave’s mouth, the trauma of a maple leaf roof tumbling disastrously onto the pebble people’s heads. Surrounded by the scratching sound of fingers and sticks moving earth, we dwelled in our private six-inch worlds.
The earth with which we worked had an almost nonexistent smell of the sun that baked it to a thick crust. Errant soil molecules formed a flighty garnish, drifting across the flat plains in clouds of dust. After a few minutes of intense labor, the dust coated our tongues with its inescapable gritty finesse, barely a flavor at all. The only reality it had was in clinging determinedly to our pudgy fingers, gently tracing their whorls and arches.
We became absorbed with perfection, in placing a shingle minutely in accordance with its fellows. We trailed our fingers through the slippery piles of tan soil as it mingled with crumbling dead leaves and the occasional splintery stick. Everything turned the same bland oat color, and I’m sure that after ten minutes we did too. We were absentmindedly camouflaged within our work.
Still, during every recess lurked the danger of rival factions at neighboring trees. At least once a day, their jealousy of our workmanship and prime real estate would overcome them, and they stormed around and through our picturesque farms, rampaging without discretion over our cottages and ranches, scattering our building materials like the weary twigs and leaves they were.
Bile rose then, and we flung ourselves to our feet, our tiny bodies bristling with outrage. We shouted our indignation at our pillagers, accusing them and prosecuting them for their unimaginable crimes. We could escalate no more for fear of rousing the interest of the dreaded recess warden, so we retired to gaze despairingly upon our decrepit and spoiled creations. Some of us felt the tears rise, the destruction of our root houses striking keenly into our hearts. All was lost. Recess was ruined. No, life itself was ruined.
Then a suitably bright child with a watch pointed out that we still had half of recess left. We exchanged glances with our neighbors, shrugged our shoulders, and immersed ourselves once more in the world beneath the tree roots, content as if nothing had occurred.
And to us, nothing had. Despite the penetration of dust into the creases of our previously pristine T-shirts, despite the endless frustration with the twigs that refused to lie flat, despite the countless sieges from our peers, I think we loved that little dusty land by the blacktop. I know I did.