It is one of those bitter winter days (on this second day of spring) with transcendentally blue skies and luminous sunshine. The light reflecting from the full snow cover is blinding. It is about 15 degrees with a strong gusting wind.
Emme and I are back from her hammered dulcimer lesson and will shortly be off to see Claire in a one-act play. It seems a pleasant time to climb the tree, in that abundance of sunshine, rather than later that night, when I will have gone from the play to an Irish flute lesson before coming home.
On the spur of the moment it seems like an excellent idea to climb the tree shirtless. The combination of vitamin D-laden light with a subzero windchill is rather manically appealing. So off come three or four layers of clothing to the skin; on go boots and gloves. Out go I.
As soon as I am out the door and onto the porch it becomes clear that running is a good idea. So off I go, sprinting across the driveway, leaping the low retaining wall onto the slope of the lawn, and sliding my way across the frozen snow to the tree.
The light is glorious without a doubt. It’s strong and hard, almost violent; there is no light like this in summer. Every detail is sharply etched. The world feels almost swallowed up by the blue vastness of the sky. The bark and lichens in front of me, sliding downwards as I fly up, are microscopically clear.
And flying I am, because it’s cold. The higher I get the stronger the wind is, and I quickly find myself gasping for air. It’s like diving into an icy river. You surface and the cold is so intense, so penetrating, that you struggle to take a breath.
I stand in place at the top for a few moments, trying to get some air into my lungs and marveling at the intensity of the sky’s depthless blue. The wind is battering at my bare torso and I am well past the point where I feel the cold mostly as pain, so a rapid descent seems in order. I go down even faster than I go up.
Running back across the lawn, refreshed and exhilarated beyond words, blown inside out, renewed, I search for the right word anyways. “Tonic” is about the best I can come up with: “giving a feeling of vigor or well-being; invigorating.”
When I return to the house my amused daughter comments on my possible insanity. I tell her I am just trying to drink deep of life. She gets it.
Later I look up the etymology of “tonic,” and it is beautiful in every way. Lines of meaning converge serendipitously.
“Tonic,” adjective, ‘invigorating,’ comes from the Ancient Greek tonos (“strain, tension, pitch”), from teino (“I stretch”). And I am stretching hard, climbing the tree half-naked in the cold and the wind. And there is strain, and there is tension; it is not entirely comfortable. I am vibrating at a higher pitch up there among the branches, and it is wonderful.
“Tonic,” noun, the first tone of a musical scale, from the Latin tonus (“sound”) from the same Greek tonos. The note from which one ascends the scale, and to which one returns at the end of a piece of music. The root, the harmonic foundation, the completing resolution. And is this not what I am in search of when I climb the tree?
“Tonic,” noun, a healthful or medicinal substance given to restore vigor and well-being; a word devised in the 17th century when health was believed to come from well-stretched muscles (see the Greek teino, above). And used later, of course, for the ingredient in a gin and tonic that isn’t gin.
And then I think of my words to Emme, about drinking deep of life.
I have devised my own gin and tonic, and I have drunk.