[View with images] This is in memory of trees not mine. Not that any tree is mine, of course, even the one I climb every day. But in a way these felt like mine too.
There is a posting to the town listserv that the next day our dirt road will be closed from a little ways above our house to its far end, for the removal of trees. I suspect I know which trees are slated for removal. There is a place where our road becomes quite narrow—it would take some work for two cars to pass—as it climbs a hill, and there are high banks on both sides. Along the left bank, going up the hill, a series of old birch trees lean out over the road from the top of the bank, and much of the earth has been eroded out from underneath them. Their roots run alongside the road in a tangle at about shoulder height, and, since the earth is hollowed out from underneath, you can look at them from below.
Their roots and trunks hold countless rocks. Some pebbles, some fist-sized, others the size of a human head, they are suspended in this tangle of roots, either resting on it, deposited there as the earth sifted down through this bent and twisting meshwork, or tightly gripped by roots from above. In some cases roots have wrapped around rocks and grown half over them, stones now suspended by the long, jointed fingers of the tree. Others have been enveloped by the tree at ground level and are embraced by the trunk itself. It looks like the tree is giving birth, laboring to thrust half-born creatures out into the world—or as though it is reluctant to let them go, a too-protective mother holding them back with powerful arms.
The effect is ancient, chthonic. Wood and stone, root and rock. It’s like a door to the underworld. It stirs the imagination. The universe could not have conspired to create a better place, for example, for hobbits to hide as Black Riders menacingly traverse the bank above, threading among the trees on stamping horses.
It is Christmas vacation and I propose to Emme and Claire that we go up the road to visit these trees, in case they are indeed the ones to be taken down the next day, when there will also be a snowstorm coming through. Emme has been sick since Christmas, has barely moved from the couch for days, but she is game and we decide to mount the expedition. We bundle up and drive most of the way, and walk the rest.
We spend some time scrambling about, examining the intertwining of roots and rocks, crawling part way under the embankment to look up at them from underneath. There is a thin snow over everything and the light is flat, gray, and chilly; it is not the most beautiful of days. Immaculate snow, brilliant sunshine, and deep blue skies would have been nice. But we enjoy being there, and roam about exploring and taking pictures.
In the lush growth of summer, this part of the road is an entirely different place. It is almost luminously tunnel-like, the banks green with vegetation and moss, trees nearly meeting overhead. It feels enchanted, shimmering with life. In this pared-down world of snow and tree trunks, roots and stones, other marvels are evoked: the exposed bones of the earth and an ancient sense of depths.
Last summer we made some videos of Emme playing the hammered dulcimer on this bank, beneath these trees, and now I am glad we have them. Because when we drive up the road a day or so later, when the snowstorm has passed, all the trees are lopped off about six feet above the ground. The lower trunks I assume will be taken later. There is a strange and uncomfortable sense of openness above the road. It is hard not to feel that the lopped-off trunks are like amputated digits or limbs.
But birch trees age quickly, and not well, and while this was part of their charm, they would not have lasted much longer, especially perched precariously on top of a scooped-out embankment. We need our thorough-fares. We can’t fare through without them.
When all three of us have taken as many pictures as we want—as always, pointing a camera at something is a great way to observe it more closely—and we have spent enough time with the trees that our visit feels complete, we make our way back to the car and drive home.
The embankment is still there, for the time being, the trunks and roots and rocks, but no life springs from them now. The stones are no longer gripped and suspended by living beings. The bank doesn’t breathe. No rafts of foliage will be held up to the sky in summer. The meaning of it all has changed. In time the roots will rot and the embankment will collapse.
I am glad we made our little trip.
[View with images] A week ago Sunday, when the sun rose a little higher, the rose color of sunrise faded and was replaced by the purest white. Frost burned like tiny arctic flames from every feature of the landscape. I went back out to take more pictures. I climbed the tree again and photographed ice crystals clinging to branches, now backlit by the sun.
Seeing that the orchard is even more heavily frosted, I move on to photograph rock stacks in the meadow, along with a few stones I have placed in the apple trees. (Woodwaterstone taking on new meaning in this case, crystalized water pulling me from wood to stone.)
I like to imagine these countess miniature pinnacles of ice erecting themselves over night, molecule by frozen molecule. How does Coleridge put it? “The frost performs its secret ministry / Unhelped by any wind.” Cold condensing moisture from the air, transfiguring it into crystals; erecting crystals into towers. Water now pointing outwards like millions of tiny porcupine quills. As purely white as freshly covered alpine slopes.
I take some photographs of apples still hanging in the orchard, and I can’t resist including them, even though they are neither maple tree nor rock sculpture.
I spend some time reading about frost and its formation, about the differences between advection frost and radiation frost (often known as hoar frost). What I’m seeing is clearly radiation frost, formed from air moisture on cold, clear, still nights, when heat radiates from objects into the unobstructed atmosphere quickly enough that water goes from gas to solid on available surfaces without passing through the liquid phase. It happens all the time down in the valley along the Ompompanoosuc, where the air is rich with moisture from the river, but up in our meadow it is much less common.
I find the edge of a snowbank with larger crystals, feathering out from the snow like little ice ferns. I think of window frost, which also often has a branching structure–in fact called dendrites, from dendron, Greek for ‘tree.’ And dendritic snow crystals are the ones we think of when we imagine the classic snowflake. Each arm tree-like in structure, and fractal: branches emerging from branches emerging from branches, the pattern replicating itself on an ever smaller scale. (As does a tree, less precisely, from trunk to branch to twig.)
Patterns repeating across realms: the vegetative and the crystal; the organic and the mathematical. Branching and re-branching and branching again.
A maple tree. Hoarfrost. Dendritic snowflakes. Fractal replication. Featherfrost. A beautiful sequence. But only one of them has arms large enough to hold a human; so I head back across the meadow to the tree.
[View with images] It is a gorgeous day for mid-November in Vermont. It is just over 50 degrees and sunny. There is a good breeze, but it is still warm. I decide to spend some time in the tree, more time than usual—in fact, to take up not only a camera but a drawing pad and a few drafting pens.
My usual stance in the tree is the one illustrated in the very goofy post, “Exuberance and Playfulness: Or, The Headless Selfie.” It is what in Bagua they would refer to as a 60-40 stance–about 60 percent of my weight is on my back foot, and my forward foot, slightly bent, bears about 40 percent of my weight. Maybe it’s closer to 70-30.
It’s how I imagine one would stand in the prow of a ship, gazing across waves and dolphins and the wine-dark sea to the horizon. It’s a fairly comfortable stance, and also good for standing in the prow of a tree and looking out over waving branches and birds and the sun-fired hills to my own horizon, and I make do with it—but it’s not a good position for drawing or meditation, or anything that requires sitting or the use of both hands.
The only decent place to sit in the tree is lower down, just above the large prayer flags on the other trunk. There I can sit on a branch and lean back against it comfortably, my legs on either side of the trunk. To my left are lawn and meadow, to my right the woods, but I am not high enough to see much of the former. Since the trunk is very nearly in front of my face, there are not many things to draw, but I extract drawing pad and pens from my bag and set to work. I try to capture some of the outlines of the opposite trunk, where a large branch joins it and then the trunk itself splits into two smaller trunks.
My drawing is terrible. I perch the pad on a branch and pull out the camera. Just below me and to my right an oak leaf has gotten caught in the gauzy material of a prayer flag, and the breeze is furling and unfurling the flag, sometimes entangling it with the flag next to it, folding and unfolding them or snapping them taut. The leaf is often caught between two gauzy membranes, a pale light shining through flag and leaf and flag. It is an awkward angle, but I hold the camera as far down as I can reach and take a number of photographs over five or ten minutes. The flags move in the breeze so quickly that in many cases the camera’s autofocus at near range can’t keep up with it—though it does a better job than I could.
When I look at the photographs, I think of aleatory music, music determined partly or wholly by chance. (From the Latin alea, a gambling die.) This is a bit like that, like the sky throwing down a vast handful of air molecules across the game board of our hillside. Whipping the flags this way and that. I put the camera in place and push the shutter, and it extracts a moment from the swirl of leaf and cloth in the wind. The image shaped by the complex forces at play between wind, leaf, flag, cloth, and tree. What isn’t captured of course is movement through time, the swirl itself. The liquid undulation of a prayer flag in the light, trailing an oak leaf.
In either case—still moment extracted in a photograph or flowing movement live—what is produced by this dynamic system of elements at the edge of the wood is more beautiful to me than most music I have heard that was generated partly or wholly by chance. Which makes me wonder–is what I am seeing truly random? Or is it that our ears crave more order than our eyes? But then, I have never heard an ugly stream either.
In any case, I could watch this remarkable thing—this wind-leaf-light-cloth thing—dance all day.
But eventually the sun sinks and I grow cool. I pack up notebook, pens and camera, climb down, and head for the house.
[View with images] Radiant. Ablaze. Luminous. Charged with light. As though the world itself were made of the stuff.
And then I give up. These last several days are ones best experienced; and if not experienced, at least seen.
And so I release myself from the obligation of writing, and you into a small world of images.
This afternoon and the next we have a spare hour, and on each of them we climb again. The first day we bring up the Canon as well as the iPhone, and spend even longer up there. It is another magnificent day of perfect greens, blues, and golds. We pass the good camera back and forth between the trunks. The pictures get sillier and sillier. From the other trunk I hear cries of “Work it, Claire, work it!”, as Emme snaps away. I take a series of ridiculous selfies to pass the time while, mainly, enjoying the girls, their goofiness, the spectacular day, and our arboreal camaraderie.
Kids in trees. It’s the way to go.
[View with images] Claire’s birthday. I work in the morning and am back by mid-afternoon. We have a few hours before we meet Kim to drive up to Montpelier to go out to dinner to celebrate. Claire suggests we go outside to roam around for a bit, and inevitably we drift toward the tree. We make our way upwards in a kind of vertical caravan. Emme and Claire end up on the trunk I usually climb, where the high prayer flags are, and I settle myself in the other trunk, across from and a bit below them.
It is a ravishingly beautiful afternoon, sunlight and deep blue sky and an intermittent breeze. The leaves are emerald and washed with light. Patches of sky between them are like the Mediterranean. Every once in a while a stronger wind comes up and pushes through the tree, and the branches bend and leaves foam and the trunks rock back and forth, and we laugh and hang on more tightly. I have my phone and take a lot of pictures, and they do, of ourselves and one another, and of our green cavern. Mostly we just laze and talk and hang around. Again the image of koala bears comes to mind. Spending time in a tree does with the girls exactly what it does with me alone: it shifts one into a different state of being, one that is more free and more open, the world turns to us a fresh face once again, and we do the same to it. Talking is different, somehow; being thirty-five feet above the ground predisposes one to bat ideas and reflections around more playfully.
So more silly pictures, and more talking, and a high wind, and laughter. When I embarked on my summer of tree climbing–that turned into a year, and more–I didn’t foresee that it would also turn out to be one of the most pleasant ways to spend time with my daughters.
They are comfortable enough in the tree now that I remind them that this is when it becomes most dangerous, when you feel as safe as if you are sitting in a chair in your living room.
After maybe an hour in the tree we climb down and roam through the meadow, and eventually find ourselves in the strip of trees along the stone wall at the back of our property line. There is a marvelous, ancient beech tree there, hollow and bent-trunked, and I have been wanting to play around with taking black and white photographs of the girls curled up in the hollow tree, or emerging from it, or sitting on it. So we spend another 45 minutes or so playing around with pictures, and having a blast. Eventually we turn towards the house to transfer the pictures to a computer to examine the results of our photographic play.
On the screen: marvelous images of spirits emerge from gnarled and knotted wood. Youth curled up in an ancient tree. Primitive masks of stone. The woodland broken up into mottled patches of light and dark behind.
[With images] A cool gray morning, with rain in the forecast. I go out early to avoid the rain. For the first time it occurs to me to experiment with taking black and white photographs in the tree, so I figure out how to take them with the Canon, throw on a fleece over my pajamas, and head outside. My first thought, up among the branches, is that this is why I am climbing the tree: every single day I spend time outside in a way that is significant, however brief. Every day I am out here, attending to the weather and the change of seasons and the feel of the natural world.
Taking pictures in black and white effects a sudden change in how I see the world. The visual aspect of my surround that suddenly pops into saliency is texture, in a way that is not the case for color photographs. Pointing the camera around, the woods are a bland striped field of gray. The tree trunk and branches are gray against gray, also not striking. I do get some interesting shots looking upwards, at the starkness of the trunk and branches in all their gothically irregular formations against the sky. But the real interest comes when I start to point the camera at where prayer flag meets bark. The fine soft weave of threads against the lichen roughness. Faintly inked symbols next to the smoothness of the bark on a young branch. Older craggy bark next to a sweeping twist of fabric.And when I put the camera down I see everything differently for a little while. It as though my eye is now half-way between the look of things and the feel of things. I see not the extension of shapes through space or their outlines, their unexpected contrasts or convergences, or their protruding and receding three-dimensionality; nor brilliancies and shadings of color, in all their richness and variety. It is the feel of things to the eye’s hand. Soft, rough, smooth, textured, fine, coarse. The difference between linen and lichen, which has nothing to do with their shapes or their colors.
I think back and recall that in some prior entry, six months or a year ago, I talk about the hand’s eye: feeling one’s way in the dark, seeing and moving by touch. Now I find myself ruminating on the eye’s hand: the way things feel to our seeing of them. The textures they present to our looking.
Any day in which being in the tree makes me see things differently is a good day. And this is one of them. From this gray day, this unexpected insight. This splash of color. [View with images]