I am sitting on a couch in the Green Mountain Rock Climbing Center on a Wednesday afternoon, watching Emme and her friends scale the walls, when it suddenly hits me that the day before, for the first time in over two years, and only the second time ever, I forgot to climb the tree. The presence of an active shooter at Kim’s workplace, the subsequent lockdown and conflicting news reports, and relief that things didn’t turn out worse, wiped everything else from my mind for the evening.
The last time I forgot to climb the tree was in July of 2015. My act of atonement was to climb it 25 times the following day. This was a fairly demanding task, and no doubt helped keep my memory sharp for the next two years. As I sit and wonder when I will find the time today for this ritual act of atonement, I register the fact that my entire body is sore–I happened to have exercised strenuously the night before as we all watched some show or another. Legs, arms, shoulders, back, all have the fatigue that plagues recovering muscles. I will have about an hour and a half when we get home to make dinner–and climb the tree 25 times–before heading back out for an Irish flute lesson later in the evening, after which time it will be dark. This should be be an adventure!
And now it is early evening and I am standing in the grass at the foot of the tree. I drive a thumbtack through an index card into one side of the ladder and balance a pencil on a rung. I step onto the ladder and begin my first climb, more slowly than usual, pacing myself. Up the ladder, into the tree house, onto its wall, and up into the branches. Foot, hand, lift, pull, step, rise; turn, reach, pull, lift, step, stand. Repeat a few times, step left foot out onto perch, pause to admire the view, turn and descend. This won’t be so bad after all! I think.
At the bottom of the ladder I take the pencil and make a single hash mark on the index card. Twenty-four to go.
It is a warm evening, and humid, an unusual weather pattern for mid-September in Vermont that will stay in place for several weeks. I take my shirt off and hang it on a nearby bush. I start back up the ladder.
Half way up the tree it hits me. I feel the fatigue in my shoulders and arms as I lift from branch to branch, in my sore thighs as I push upwards. I climb laboriously into place, breathe for a minute, and start back down.
At the bottom I stand in front of the ladder, slightly winded, and make my second mark on the index card.
It’s going to be a long hour.
After ten climbs I am sweating profusely and I go inside for a cold glass of water.
After a few more climbs I am bushed. My muscles, which started out sore and fatigued, now burn. Climbs 14 and 15 are not fun at all, my body wearily negotiating familiar handholds, braces, branchy steps.
And then I hit a rhythm. On climb 16 I move slowly but steadily, and the world goes still and quiet around me, sliding down as I move upwards alongside the trunk. The heat and humidity of the air feel good on my torso, and every twist of body and grasping of hand is sure. The tiredness of my muscles is pleasant now. I am dancing–slowly–up the tree. Time slows down (Is this delirium? Am I dehydrated? I wonder), and everything becomes extremely beautiful. The sun is close to the horizon now, light shining sideways through the tree. Clusters of leaves luminesce, emerald touched with gold, among the branches.
Step, turn, lift, pivot, push, turn, step, glance at the hills. And back down: dangle, step, turn, dangle, step–down into the rich smell of dried leaves rising from the forest floor. Hash mark.
Lichens rough on the branches. Hash mark. The deeply corrugated bark of the trunk. Hash mark. The hills receding soft in the late light. Hash mark. Skin moist with heat. Hash mark. Late leaves eaten by insects. Hash mark. Air brushing chest and back. Hash mark. Moving, where moving is just being. On and on and on. Hash mark.
And I am done. I stand in front of the ladder, drenched and breathing hard, and collect my shirt from the bush.
I must remember to forget to climb the tree more often.