I climb the tree in the dark in a cold drizzle late in the evening after returning from Bagua. The branches are covered in a slick organic film and I go carefully, slowly. I am dressed in black from class, wearing a black jacket, climbing in the dark on a moonless, starless night, and I think how nearly invisible I would be if anyone happened to be walking through the woods in the rain. And soundless, as drenched bark makes little noise.
I think of meeting friends for lunch at the Base Camp Cafe in Hanover several months ago, when one of them asked if being in the tree made me feel like an animal. It was an interesting question, and it came at a time when I was reading the delightfully outrageous Being a Beast by Charles Foster. In the attempt to understand what it might be like to be a red fox, a badger, a swift, an otter, he does the usual, researching their habits and their habitats, their ways of movement and feeding practices and sensory systems, but also the unusual: he spends months endeavoring to live like each animal.
As an otter he slithers through the rivers of England trying to catch fish with his teeth; as a badger he lives for a summer with his son in a scrape in the side of a hill in Wales, traversing fields and woods on hands and knees and eating earthworms (and, occasionally, chicken curry). The book is a bit erratic, as are his efforts to be a beast, but it is viscerally entertaining, full of grit and blood and the smells and sounds of the natural world at its earthiest.
One of the best paragraphs in the book is a disquisition on the varying tastes of earthworm slime and flesh in different regions of Great Britain, a sommelier-worthy exploration of earthworm terroir, if you will. This I am delighted to have read but feel no need to experience firsthand.
But the attempt to become something else, and the impetus that drives him to make it, I understand. The desire to somehow push beyond the bounds of one’s own experience into another experiential world. This is not foreign to me as I sit in the tree for an hour in a snowstorm, or climb by moonlight and touch on a summer night. We think with our bodies. Our flesh is our other mind, our other spirit. Maybe our best spirit. (To make use of a distinction that is wholly arbitrary to begin with.) This is why we sing, dance, hike, do martial arts, hug, make love.
In a tree we traverse a new landscape, vertically, and our spirit follows.