Two days before Christmas it rained all day in 20-degree air. Water froze on everything it touched, and then on top of that, hour after hour. Ice built up on every surface. Partway through the day I climbed the tree, brushing away crusted snow as I went; over the remainder of the day a shield of ice accumulated ever the entire tree. The next day it snowed on top of the ice. By Christmas Day, the wind blowing geysers of snow up into the air, the tree was as treacherous as it has ever been. The day after Christmas I gave up on climbing with mere boot treads, and strapped on sets of metal teeth. I wore these for the next three days and then stopped, fearing damage to the tree.
Nearly every day since then has struggled to reach 0 degrees, and the nights have averaged -10 to -20 degrees, in a sustained Arctic freeze. It is weather that reminds one how quickly the world can kill. Over the last several years I have climbed the tree in the aftermath of three ice storms, but they generally happen in late winter or early spring when temperatures are fluctuating and the ice melts from the tree within a day or two. Now, New Year’s Day, looking out the window across the field through brilliant sunshine, you can see fragments of ice from ten days ago still clinging to the branches of trees. The bitter cold has arrested the world. Little changes in subzero conditions.
The tree is still full of ice and snow. Climbing at night in the dark I sometimes dislodge from the bark chunks of ice that fall shattering like crystal into the darkness beneath me. Each movement of each climb is careful, controlled, the possibility of error everywhere. No surface can be trusted. The placement of every boot—the hook of every wrist or arm around branch—is critical, all the more so under the distraction of gusty winds and -10 degree temperatures. Once, on a day when I am wearing teeth on my boots, one foot abruptly slides down the slope of a branch toward the trunk. My arms are well-placed, and I catch myself before falling. Eighteen-inch claw marks are left in the ice.
There are moments of contemplation at treetop, but they are brief under the force of the wind, even when prepared for with snow pants, hat, good gloves. Mercifully, the air is usually still at night, and one can lose oneself for a few moments in the penetrating silence of a deep winter twilight.
I climb at midnight on New Year’s Eve as Claire and Emme and their friend Lexie run their traditional circuit around the house to ring in the new year. Their shouts and laughter vanish indoors when I am still only halfway up the trunk, navigating treacherous branches. But when I stand in my place at the top in the brilliance of the near-full moon, the winter night is laid out around me in all its lustrous glory, nearly as bright as afternoon. Shadows lay pitch black across the snow of the meadow, and the hills recede whitely into the distance.
I straddle branches and years at the same time, stepping from one into the other at the top of a tree.