As of today, I have been in the tree every day for two years, with the exception of one day that first July, when I forgot, and of course the handful of days each year when we are out of town. Climbing is not about milestones like this, it is about each day’s practice, each day’s adventure, but still there is a feeling of quiet satisfaction in having kept it up this long. In having stuck with it through injuries and a busy life and challenging weather; but especially in having continued to climb when inspiration waned, through those days when it would have been easy to let the whole project lapse. It can be the hard obstacle that is easiest to overcome, as it offers a focused target for our energies; and we are undone in the end instead by the sheer passage of time and the straying of interest. But in persevering I have again and again received gifts.
This week has been a gift. With astonishing speed small hard leaf buds have swelled, dehisced, burst. Last year it took long weeks to accomplish what this year happened in days. And to my delight, when buds split flowers burst out and hung from twigs in clusters, thousands of them. More flowers than leaves, it almost seems. Last year the tree produced not one flower. I go online and read that sugar maples produce flowers in abundance every two to five years.
When leaf buds swelled last year and I was observing them minutely, I found a marvelous guide available online as a PDF: the Field Guide to Monitoring Sugar Maple Bud Development, produced by researchers at the University of Vermont in 1994. Last year I used only the pages devoted to leaf bud development. If I had known to, I could have monitored flower bud and leaf bud development alongside each other this year.
They are beautiful, these inconspicuous little yellow-green flowers cascading out of their scale-like shells. Every twig ends with a seemingly different configuration of flower and leaf. A few variables played out over and over again, in infinite variety. Each minuscule blossom and its filament of a stem, each new leaf, is fringed with fine hairs that catch and hold the sunlight.
I decide we deserve to celebrate, the tree and I (well, mostly I). So up I go in early evening, around seven o’clock when Claire and I get home, with a glass and a bottle of bubbly, for Mayday and a thousand flowers and a new year in the tree.
The weather has turned and it is quite cold, only in the 40s, and misting heavily. The trunk and branches are wet, and a heavy blanket of cloud has come down over the hills. Sometimes on rainy days the world has a kind of dark luminescence to it, everything glows darkly. It is that kind of day. Up I go with glass and bottle in bag. In my perch at the top I carefully fish them out, juggling objects while bracing myself in the tree with back and elbows.
I must add the usual provisos and warnings here–kids, don’t try this at home! Mixing trees and alcohol is best avoided until you are least thirty years old. On the other hand, as soon as you turn thirty, give it a go! It turns out that letting a champagne cork fly from the top of a tree is a total hoot!
I fill my glass, raise it to tree and sky, and drink. Champagne at the top of a tree is truly delicious, like lunch on top of a mountain. I wedge the glass in a branch to free my hands for balancing the bottle where the tree parts into several trunks. This affords me the opportunity to fish my phone out of my pocket and take pictures of both, which is kind of fun.
I stand up there a while, drinking and looking around at the quiet beauty of the landscape, of hills and trees disappearing into mist. I give the tree a splash of champagne but it seems largely indifferent. Rainwater is more delicious, more intoxicating, than the best champagne, I can almost hear it murmuring. I think of a verse from one of my favorite poems by Emily Dickinson, “I Taste a Liquor Never Brewed”:
Inebriate of air – am I –
And Debauchee of Dew –
Reeling – thro’ endless summer days –
From inns of molten Blue –
And I yield the point, remembering my gin and tonic made of sunlight and cold just a few weeks ago. Still, the champagne is fun, and I have another glass (thinking how glorious it would be to do this on a warm summer evening! Champagne and fireflies!) before heading down. That’s when I realize I haven’t really thought this through: the bottle that fit in a bag on the way up is now open and and must be carried down. So I embark on a slightly tipsy and one-armed descent, one hand lowering body down from branch to branch, the other carefully clasping the neck of a champagne bottle, and occasionally offering a stabilizing wrist or elbow to branch or trunk.
Walking back across the lawn to the house, I turn, lift the bottle once more to the tree, and have a last swig.
That night the rain pummels the house harder than I have ever heard it, drumming on windows and roof, like a flood across the landscape.