Our weather the last few weeks has whipsawed between spring and deep winter, with autumnal and nearly summery days thrown in for good measure. An apt joke makes the rounds on social media:
Mother Nature: You can’t possibly do four seasons in two weeks.
Vermont: Hold my beer.
The roads are clogged by a premature mud season, the sap is running and sugar houses are smoking, and a few days have made it to 60 degrees; but some nights have dropped to frigid subzero temperatures and there have been winds strong enough to bring down branches. The rivers are running high from rain and snow melt, and their banks are piled with slabs of ice. I have climbed the tree shirtless twice, and other times I have climbed quickly and regretted not being better dressed against the bitter cold, jogging back to the house with head ducked against the wind and frozen fingers tucked into armpits.
But–oh joy!–my rotator cuff injury has healed enough for me to climb back to the upper reaches of the tree on several occasions. Not consistently yet, but two or three times, on days when my shoulder is feeling good.
My first full ascent in several months is on a pleasantly warm day, and I make it my task to replace the prayer flags that have been stolen by the wind from both upper and lower branches. After spending a little time reclining on a branch and enjoying the warm light in the tree foregrounded against an intense blue sky, I begin the climb, prayer flags draped around my shoulders.
The delight I feel at making the full climb for the first time in several months is lodged at least partly in my body—hands and shoulders and legs encounter familiar configurations of branches, recognize movements like old friends. And how wonderful to feel the ground drop away beneath me again, to survey the hills from on high! To be up there for the first time in a few months (though I have never missed a day in the lower branches) is to be reminded of how simple and how extraordinary this pleasure is: the meditative yet physically invigorating act of climbing itself, the new perspective on the world offered by heights, a sense of being a part of the tree that is never quite as pronounced down in the lower branches, and the exhilaration of being perched a bit precariously 40 feet above the ground. Of shifting with the wind. Of once again being held up to the sky.
After enjoying being up there for a while, I tie a string of flags between some branches, and all feels right with the world. They make of the treetop a shrine—without being intrusive—once again. I climb down to the lower branches, and for the first time since my injury step across to the other trunk and hang the longer string of flags looking back into the woods.
I didn’t realize it when I bought them, tied into a tight roll as they were, but they are not traditional prayer flags; their fabrics are in a wider range of colors and they are in English, each flag flapping into the wind a different prayer, for prosperity or compassion or equanimity as the case may be.
But there is no equanimity in weather or landscape in these late winter days. We all hold their beers—maybe occasionally taking a sip—and watch with awe as they plunge and ricochet from season to season to season. The tree ices and cracks and thaws. Rivers flood. Ground turns to mud. Sap runs. Winds roar mouthfuls of snow and mud hardens to granite again.