Just off the Island Home Greenway near the airport, a tulip poplar juts out over a murky backwater of the Tennessee River. Someone, or maybe several people over time, have nailed short lengths of 2x4s along the trunk, classic tree-house-ladder style. Poison ivy brushes the edges of this ladder. Way up in the tree, maybe 30 feet, an old nylon water-ski rope with a rubber handle is tied to a dead limb. Geronimo!
A girl leaps out of the tree, clutching the rubber handle, swings out high, and drops into the river with a little scream.
“Hey, hey, dare me to do a back flip?” a 12-year old boy calls from the top of the tree.
“Double-dog dare you,” we say.
The boy spreads his arms against the sky and lets his body fall backwards into a lazy somersault. He enters the water feet first and comes up slinging river water from his hair. It’s a stunning display of mental will. Everyone cheers. No one seems to know when the swing was built or who built it. The rungs of the ladder are perfectly spaced for climbing; a jumping-off platform seems to be a product of trial and error. The rope is knotted a little differently every time I go. This rope swing is one of the most inspiring man-made structures in Knoxville. It’s a living work of art, more successful than many expensive public monuments. It is a structure that unlocks a person’s most exhilarating dreams, and sometimes their worst nightmares. Sometimes a person will freeze on the trunk of the tree, staring down into the water, unable to jump. Then the swing becomes less about having fun on a hot day, and more about testing something inside oneself.
The famous postmodern architect Daniel Libeskind claims in a 2009 TED lecture the best architecture is “raw, risky, emotional, radical.” The South Knox rope swing actually is all that. But Libeskind’s own architecture—including the disappointing 9/11 memorial at Ground Zero—is consistently brutal, alien, emotionally distant. In an effort to shock and awe, he conjures up jagged, oversized structures encased in shiny skins of steel and glass. Objects to be photographed, but never used by people. It would be truly radical, truly touching, if Libeskind’s team of postmodern architects built something small, something humble, and a little dirty that people could actually use. Something like a rope swing suspended over the Ground Zero reflecting pools. But a rope swing is pretty raw, and pretty risky.
“The hard part is climbing back down the ladder, once you’ve got the rope,” a couple of boys keep saying. And it is tricky to clamber backwards, down the slippery trunk to the make-shift platform, holding a nylon rope in one hand. But for me the hard part is the moment before jumping off, anticipating the drop in my stomach, the cold water, the alligator lurking there in the murky river. Shut up, brain, I tell myself, and jump.
Something I love about Tennessee is that even in October when the tulip poplars are turning yellow, there are some days hot enough that I feel like swimming. Last time I went to the rope swing, the rope was gone. It is finally time to admit it: Summer is over.