On a recent Sunday morning I climb the tree, glorious and full of light. The glory and the light are the tree’s, of course—but it lends them me, briefly. Sometimes when I climb on Sundays, especially if it’s morning, I find myself thinking of all the virtuous souls out there heading off to church; and, for me, of being in the tree as a kind of going to church.
It was as a spiritual practice that I first conceived of climbing the tree two and a half years ago, though it has become many things since then. Herewith, a few brief, preliminary note-like observations on the spiritual dimensions of being in the tree.
There is no better place from which to celebrate the glory of creation than the top of a tree. The world sings and you sing with it. The sacred dimension of life, even for those who feel there is one, can prove elusive. God, the more so. Which is not to say that these things burst forth reliably at the top of a tree either, but there are times and places when we feel them more closely; this is presumably why some go to church, and it’s part of the reason I climb the tree.
Last spring the community chorus that Claire and I are in sang Cindy Kallet’s “I’m Gonna Walk”:
“I’m gonna walk to the glory of the river, I’m gonna walk to the glory of the stars;
I’m gonna run to the glory of the mountain, I’m gonna run to the glory of the sky;
I’m gonna fly to the glory of the wind, I’m gonna fly to the glory of the rain.”
This speaks to so much of my experience in the tree. The glory of the stars, the mountain, the sky; and on more than one stormy day, the wind and the rain. And glory is more than beauty; glory is celebration and gratitude and praise; it is the self giving way for a few moments before the majesty of creation.
Or again, climbing is sitting. The practice of the mind of no mind. I think of videos I have seen of Buddhist monks engaged in walking meditation. The slow transverse of a sandy path in front of a monastery, back and forth, almost infinitesimally slowly. Just walking; just sitting; just climbing.
The body moves from branch to branch with the mind focused, empty. Some can do this seated on a meditation cushion; for me it helps to be in motion, to observe the flow of the body rather than the flow of breath. Still there are times when, standing at the top of the tree, prayer flags strung against the sky, I lean back against the trunk, a cushion of sorts, watch my breath, and meditate for a while.
Even more, I think of Taoism, of the stillness in movement that is tai chi. Climbing the tree is a kind of vertical tai chi. Taoists speak of wu wei, of “not doing,” or “effortless being.” My body knows how to climb the tree now; there is no effort, no calculation, no resistance. I step into the branches and there is movement upwards, nearly of its own accord. Have I climbed the tree a thousand times? Probably not quite; but close. And now climbing up is like water flowing down; it is just what happens.
I think also of the importance of nature in Taoism. The contemplation of change, of beauty, of the ephemerality of the world. Leaves falling, snow piling up, buds bursting. The nesting and overlapping cycles of time: the hourly change of light, temperature, weather; the revolution of night and day; the moon that comes and goes as climbing companion; the turning of seasons, of years.
The Taoist sages, for all their love of valleys and low places, built their huts in the mountains; I, my hut of hours in my tree. From there I see they have a point: all being is becoming; all becoming is ying and yang; climbing itself is the physical exchange of push and pull; and every season contains its opposite as its seed.
Or again: the tree is for me the church of art, the temple of creation. Of photography, of writing. And thus the tree proliferates like—well, like the leaves on a tree. There are thousands of it. And every one different. How better to enter the abundance of creation than as active participant in it? This is the abundance of being, that it can refract and multiply through image, through thought, through experience. We critters with consciousness—we are the great amplifiers of existence; through us, being abounds.
And too there is the wildness of being in the tree. This is its own kind of church; the church of the ancient, of the primal; the church of adrenaline. Its own kind of hunger, its own kind of savagery, however comparatively mild. The pitting of sinews against icy limbs.
Or again, the tree as practice of openness. No presuppositions, no goal. No religion, no spiritual framework. Just climbing in full openness to what may come. To what flake of lichen or trickle of memory; to what cascade of thoughts; to what sorrow or joy or indigo bunting (just once) might fly your way. The presupposition of all worship, all spirituality: openness and and a wide-hearted sense of wonder.
Most writers don’t write to get something particular down. They write to find out what they have. This is also why one climbs. To climb a tree is to ask a question, and to be open to the answer.
Simone Weil says that attention is the highest form of prayer. Deep climbing is attending. Deep climbing is climbing in which one goes up to go down, to strike a taproot down in search of what matters.
But, Whoa, you say! It can’t always be like that to climb a tree!
And you would be right.
It’s certainly not like that in the grim cold unendingly gray days of March and April—Vermont’s dark night of the soul—and it’s not always, or even often, like that on summer afternoons, luminous fall mornings, or full-moon-drenched winter nights. But it is what climbing the tree can mean, can be, and sometimes is. And when it’s not—well, that’s the whole point of practice. That’s why we go to church on days we don’t want to, continue to meditate when uninspired, pick up our violin again, lace up our running shoes anyways, set pen to paper once more.
‘Proleptic’ can mean anticipatory: these notes in that sense are preliminary, tentative, a gesture towards talking about climbing the tree as spiritual practice. But the word has a more profound sense. Prolepsis is to take as complete or existing something which is not, or is not yet. To my mind (and it would take a lot of unpacking to think this through—this is a very proleptic gesture toward the religious implications of prolepsis), the very essence of the religious, of the spiritual, is proleptic. It is to take what is hinted at or suggested as achieved or accomplished. It is to climb a tree as though it meant all the things one wanted it to; and lo! It turns out to mean those things. It is to sit in meditation, trying hard not to try hard, recognizing that Enlightenment is simply to see how things were all along. It is to take as real a God of whom one has only intimations, through text or tradition or experience; and to live accordingly. And more, I think we do this in every moment of every day, infusing the world with meaning and hope.
Prolepsis is to live towards, rather than from; and how else would one really want to live? Prolepsis is the ongoing ingredience of the possible in the real.
At its best, climbing a tree is consolation, and refuge from sorrow. It is community, when others are up there with you; it is adrenaline, when the world has turned slippery with rain. It is stillness, in moments of flow, and beauty, nearly always. It is praise and celebration of the glory of the world; and it is a way of furthering that glory.
At its best, climbing a tree is an act of love.
These days may be few, but we live for them.