May 8, 2016: Inside the Tree

I

climbed early today, 6:30 on a Saturday, the rest of the house still sleeping.  I slipped out to the car to retrieve a Mother’s Day gift and flowers to hide them away in the mudroom for later in the day.  It will rain later too, and so I slip off socks and shirt and go back out.  It is chilly, only in the upper 40s, so I am not sure why I am out there in just pajama bottoms.  In fact, I realize, it is my first barefoot climb of the new year.

There is not much change in the flowering of bud into leaf; the rains of this afternoon followed by the warmth and sun of mid-week will stretch them out from their calices, like pulling veined green taffy from an acorn cup.  But only by degrees, still only tiny emerald growths on the immense gray-brown body of the tree.

Today I find myself thinking about the inside and the outside of the tree.  I have a single rule for the photographs I take as part of my climbing practice: they must be taken from the tree itself.  They can be of anything: tree, horizon, leaf, ground, sky, moss, me.  But I do not take pictures of the tree from outside.  Part of the intent of climbing is to recapture the strangeness and intensity of experience; and we all know what it is to look at a tree.  It is being in the tree that is novel, that lets us see things afresh.  We are used to being on the outside of trees, not the inside.  The farthest away I can get from the tree to photograph the tree from within the tree is out on one of its branches–as far out as will support my weight.  I am on its margin, but its inner margin.  I am well on this side of the threshold between tree and world.   

The inside of a tree and the outside of a tree have only a barest hinge of reality in common to flex around.  They are two different entities in the world; two different modes of experience.  I would like to say they are like a piece of sheet music and the music played; but that would be going too far.  Perhaps they are a little like the inside and the outside of a person.  We see the body, the face, the expression, the clothing, from outside.  But the interiority of a person, sensory experience and feelings and values and thoughts and fears and hopes and desires, is much more variable, much wilder, see-sawing in scale between the vast and the microscopic.  

We can’t say quite so much for a tree.  But while from the outside, a tree is a thing–beautiful and interesting and varied, to be sure, and even symbolic of things other than itself–but nonetheless, a thing standing over there; from the inside it is a world.  It becomes the eyeball seeing, or at least we, among its branches, become so, looking out.  It is a microcosm of the universe, micro and macro in one, immense trunk and tiny mosses, light and wind and sun and snow; heights and depths and distances among the latticework of branches, the unreachable and undesirable and the infinitely desirable; silence and music and stillness and motion, tiny crepuscular movements of life in crevices of bark, leaves drinking sunlight, a human being leaping from branch to branch; snowflakes piling up silently in white mantling masses along the boughs.  

The tree is hills and stars and morning light and sun-bleached meadows and moonlight and back-lit draperies of sheltering green all around; the tree is the flock of chickadees that hopscotch among its branches; the tree is the sky that arches overhead and is its roof–but only if you are in the tree.  From outside, it is not hills and stars and sunlight and birds; it is just a tree.  This is the strangeness of experience.  It is like the difference between a book lying over there on a table, and a book that one is inside of, reading deeply; I am immersed in a good book, we say.  And that of course is when the book gets inside of you, and begins to read you.  And so it is also with a tree.  And it is a good thing to have a tree growing inside of one.