I wanted to teach my son about oak trees because I grew up learning about the outdoors constantly from my father and great uncles, who always pointed out different trees, plants, insects, animals, what animals ate, where things grew, if it migrated, was it native, etc.
It was easy for me to take all that in as a boy because I loved it, and I didn’t have video games and Youtube constantly competing for my time the way my son does.
I chose oaks as a starting point because they were something that was available in Decatur and didn’t require driving, and because the leaves and acorns of different species are distinctive and easy to learn.
In the fall when I picked my son up from school, I pointed out the acorns and leaves on the sidewalk: the small acorns of the willow oak, the robust acorns of the white oak, whatever we came across in our walks, but I couldn’t really ever get my son to take an interest.
Then one day we were building the little stick forts and stick lean-to’s that we made for our Lego people, and it suddenly occurred to me to suggest that we find acorns and use those as the good guys and sweet gum balls as the bad guys. When I said that we could find different types of acorns for different types of warriors, my son’s face lit up like I had just told him he had won a million dollars.
For the next few weeks, we walked through different neighborhood streets and collecting acorns of different types, plus black walnuts, pecans, and whatever else that had fallen. My son was very exact about what type of soldier each thing was, and he went from having no interest in anything I told him about oaks to saying things like, “Daddy, I think I see a red oak down that street. I bet there are some good big ones! Can we go there?”
We spent all of August, September, and October playing with acorns in the dirt behind his mother’s town home, building a complex of forts and space ship factories for our acorns. It wasn’t until November or December that Hotwheels and other plastic toys were added back into the mix. My son called this make-believe play with acorns and stick forts “Acorn Adventures.”
One day we had just made the best new fort out of rocks and repaired the stick shelters and forts we had made the days before. We had everything just right, and my son was clearly overjoyed with what we had accomplished. He said to me, “Daddy, this is the best fort ever, but you know there is one thing that it’s missing, and it is the one thing that would make it perfect.”
I said, “What’s that?”
My son said, “A jail for giant mutant spiders!”
I had to agree.