The other day I was remembering the trees I climbed when I was young. In front of our house, in the expanse of lawn enclosed by a semi-circular driveway, was a maple tree that was a gift to a tree-climbing kid. It was dense with branches, like a porcupine. From one branch hung a swing, and I discovered that if I swung high and jumped at the right moment I could grab a branch out in front of me and from there pull myself up into the tree. This tree was my playground for years, and I spent hours jumping and swinging from branch to branch, exploring circling and climbing higher.
Later, when I was older, I discovered that across the driveway and on the edge of another lawn, a hundred feet from the house, was a poplar growing next to the road that afforded excellent climbing. This tree I could climb much higher, and it was far enough from the house that I couldn’t be seen, and the branches thick enough that I was invisible from the road below. This is where I would go to disappear, to escape from family, world, life. Where I would go in secret—not to swing and clamber about and explore, but to sit and brood on the miseries and yearnings, and savor the occasional joys, of adolescent life.
When I was older yet, I would climb The Forbidden Tree. My father was extraordinarily relaxed about matters of safety when we were kids, unshakeable in his faith that the universe was fundamentally benevolent and would cause us no real harm. But at the bottom of the field that dropped away from the house and sloped down to the woods was an enormous white pine that rose above all the other trees at the wood’s edge. Because of its great height, and because the wood of pine trees is soft when living and brittle when dead, this was the one tree I was told not to climb. And so, of course, as soon as I was capable of it, I would drift off down the field in another direction, trying to look aimless to the eyes of the house at my back, and when I reached the woods, cut back under cover of the trees to the forbidden pine.
It was a precarious climb, the branches farther apart, and it nearly always felt dark and gloomy inside it, which added to its allure. Up and up I went, circling the trunk as I hunted for safe branches and viable routes, until I came out just feet from the top, back into the sunshine. I could look down on the crowns of other trees below and around me. The top of the tree shifted side to side in the slightest breeze, and in a strong one would swing two or three feet in each direction. It was terrifying and wonderful and I was at the top of the world, surging with adrenaline and exhilaration.
I think now of the secret language of flowers, the centuries-old code that reached its culmination in Victorian England, when each flower had a symbolic meaning.
Freesia for innocence; lilac for beauty; rose for passion.
Pine for danger; poplar for secrecy; maple for joy.