It is a Monday evening and I am bringing four girls back from a yoga class in White River Junction. It has been raining hard for hours and the temperature is below freezing. The roads are slow but not as bad as they might be: a very thin layer of snow fell before it turned to rain, and this dusting is providing enough texture that the roads are not turning into sheets of ice. When the three of us finally reach home, I put on snow pants and head back out to the tree in the dark. It is still raining hard. I make my slippery way up the ladder, onto a treacherous tree house floor, and reach for the lower branches. The topside of every branch is as smooth and textureless as glass. In the dark I can’t see how thick the ice is, but it may as well be an inch thick for all the difference it makes: the tree is heavily iced and streaming with rainwater.
I take a few moments to prepare myself. I have climbed the tree like this two or three times before, but never in the dark; and always it takes total concentration. It’s not just that it’s physically demanding. It requires moment-by-moment problem-solving, sometimes while stuck in precarious positions. It is, like all such things, an opportunity. An occasion to go deep, to enter the moment with total focus and commitment. Maybe we should live like this always, but it’s hard to do without an imperative. And I have been given a delicious imperative!
I slide my body onto the lower branches, wrapping my arms around them as I go. As with prior ice climbs, feet are of limited use. If you trusted your weight to them you’d shoot into space. I experimentally slide a foot back and forth along a branch. The motion is absolutely frictionless.
I begin the ascent, using the crook of wrist, elbow and armpit to hook my way upwards. The wind spatters heavy rain on tree, ice, me. At every point most of my weight is suspended from my upper body—not with my hands, which are as useless as my feet, but with the full length of my arms and all their wonderful joints, helped occasionally by knees and stomach. Right now, armpits are the crowning glory of my body. I hug my way up among the branches. This is full-body tree climbing: graceless, but effective.
As every time, there is a place just below my perch that is difficult to negotiate. I have to stop for a while to figure out what to do with my body to make it up there. In the end it is all about angles: which branches to slide my body between, at precisely what angle to push off a from third branch so that my foot doesn’t slip, how to pull myself to my feet. And then I am up there, wedged in place, glorying in the windswept rain forty feet above the ground.
When I am down I walk back to the house with a deep feeling of peace. Katharsis, perhaps: the purification and cleansing of emotions through an encounter with darkness—usually vicariously, in art.
It is good once in a while to have one’s world reduced to ice, rain, and the abyss.