There’s a Willow tree in front of an unremarkable house at number 8 Le Bourget Avenue. At least there was when I lived there as a young boy. It wasn’t a beautiful tree, but it was characterful. I imagined it had a personality, and that a long, knotted branch that grew at a right angle to the ground was a wizened arm. I’m sure I remember it larger than it actually was; its leaves greener than they ever were. But, close to 40 years later, it seems appropriate that it should benefit from a touch of creative license. You see, it stood in the centre of an unexceptional yard that lay towards the top of an unexceptional road in an unexceptional corner of Johannesburg’s East Rand. And, while its sturdiest branches were no more than 10 or 12 feet above the ground, they provided sanctuary that felt a world apart. Perched on that gnarly, old limb, this curious young mind had space to wander, to marvel at the cars passing below and the planes on final approach above. To imagine somewhere else, and how I might one day get there. Space to dream.
I often think of that Willow tree, but mostly in a detached, nostalgic sort of way. It represents a place in time, something against which to measure the passing years. I was climbing that tree at the time my father sold his brown station wagon and replaced it – for reasons still largely unexplained – with a bright orange Chevy. I was likely up there too, when he returned home on Friday nights with double-thick shakes from the local roadhouse. That tree – or at least my memory of it – represents a period in my life denuded of forgettable detail and re-shaped as a collection of incomplete memories and hazy images.
As three of the more than 100 candidates still in the race for a place on the Mars One mission into outer space, they remain on course as makers of history.
Today, though, my reflections are less esoteric. This is, after all, a blog about Mars. It now befalls me to draw a rather tenuous link between a Willow and a one-way ticket to the Red Planet. So, here goes:
Perched in my leafy refuge, I remember contemplating life as an adult. My sister, close to a decade my senior, was studying computer science – mostly by playing an early form of Tetris on a borrowed Apple Mac. My brother, imperceptibly able to deal from both the top and bottom of a deck, would likely be a card sharp. Neither provided much by way of inspiration although both have gone on to build successful – and socially acceptable – careers. Sitting in my tree, I decided to be a cartoonist or an astronaut.
I don’t recall my parents providing a ringing endorsement for either choice, but, in their defence, I was showing early signs of scientific and mathematical delinquency. Nor could I draw.
On reflection, perhaps that Willow isn’t due quite so much credit. It was a nice tree, but it clearly skewed my ambitions. As far as it’s possible for a seven-year-old to suffer delusions of grandeur, I certainly displayed the symptoms.
I’m not sure whether Adriana Marais, Divashen Govender or Edwin La Grange always wanted to be astronauts. As three of the more than 100 candidates still in the race for a place on the Mars One mission into outer space, they remain on course as makers of history. Perhaps they had a tree like mine that offered sanctuary and a space to imagine. Maybe their desires were shaped in the quiet embrace of a garden foxhole, or later in life beside a tent under a Karoo night sky. Whatever the genesis, I have nothing but admiration for adult minds still determined to dream.