Thursday, March 30th. Deep blue skies, sunshine, warmth.
Never mind that we’ll have a substantial snow storm tomorrow through Saturday—for now it is gorgeously, invitingly mild. Almost cruelly springlike. I climb without even a fleece, on my way out to collect the girls from school and continue on through an afternoon’s transport to, eventually, community chorus with Claire in Bridgewater, from which joyous expedition we will return late at night. The bark is warm under my hands, and it is an invigorating climb.
I have been thinking about the strangeness of using an advanced technology to communicate something as profoundly untechnological—almost anti-technological—as climbing a tree.
Tree climbing is rudimentary. It requires nothing but a working body (and perhaps an eccentric mind). The only technology I use in climbing is the clothing I wear. In summer, perhaps a pair of shorts. In the cold windswept rains of November, rain pants, good shoes, and a raincoat are useful. The technology ramps up in winter to include long underwear, a winter coat, snow boots, good gloves. Ski pants if the tree is full of snow. Even so, technology of a basic order.
But I think and write and talk about the tree as well. Language is a technology (arguably) that is built into the experience of climbing for humans, even if the act of climbing could be performed without it (squirrels manage nicely). And language is essential to conveying the experience to others. Enter the computer. And the camera. These are intricate but—by today’s standards—routine technologies. Is the Internet simply an extension of these? A place to put writing and pictures that lots of people can get to?
And yet, I climb partly as an act of defiance against a world that feels increasingly digital. Hands on bark! Face to the sun!
There is a dissonance in using the digital medium to communicate this act, this experience. There is likely no sun on your face as you read this. However hard I try I cannot put your hand on my tree. I’m sitting at a computer; you’re looking at a screen. There’s no chance either of us will fall; neither of us is swaying in the breeze.
Chuang-Tzu asks, am I Chuang-Tzu dreaming I’m a butterfly, or am I a butterfly dreaming I’m Chuang-Tzu? If the Internet is a kind of a dream, a manufactured reality—am I using technology, or is it using me? What if I’m just the butterfly? Just one more billionth of the way the Internet finds its way into every part of our lives? And manufactures us?
Because I could, after all, just climb the tree.
But, since I do climb the tree, Chuang Tzu might say it doesn’t matter who is the butterfly and who is Chuang-Tzu. Because I am, after all, always back out there among the branches. Sending down that taproot. Hands on bark, face to the sun.
(Maybe I should ask instead, am I climbing the tree or is the tree climbing me? This might invoke more of what is—dare I use the word?—spiritually profound about the experience.)
Climbing a tree is magnificently primitive.
It sends us back in several ways: back to childhood, which is when those of us who have climbed trees mostly did; back on our evolutionary tree, to simians swinging from branches; back to a core of experience that feels more primal, more present, less mediated, than so much else in our technology-ridden lives.
Hands on bark! Face to the sun!
And an infinite blue sky.