The First Year: Fall
Climbing at night in late autumn is if possible even more exhilarating than climbing in summer. The air is clearer, the stars brighter and harder, the sky blacker. The Milky Way is a wash of light above me. Advancing across the lawn I walk toward not an indistinguishable black mass looming up against the sky, but a thousand thousand vertical threads of black rising up among the stars. With no leaves on the tree around me, I rise up through an architecture of bare branches which offer no obstruction to starlight, moonlight, space, distance. It is more like climbing up through the air itself. In the summer being in a tree is like inhabiting a sheltered space and rising up through its midst. You can look out through gaps, through spaces among the densely leaved branches, and see stars or moonlight across the meadow, but you have the feeling of moving upwards through the interior of something. It is a more intimate experience, of the interiority of tree, of rising up through its deepest places. It is very nearly sexual. But in late fall the tree is the scaffolding and the interiority is that of the cosmos. Three quarters of the sphere that is one’s visual range is just stars, it seems, from horizon over to low horizon.
And if there is a full moon in a black sky, the tree is awash with moonlight. The fields are silvered, brushed coldly luminous. Nearly as bright as afternoon, but pale and white. Even in summer, moonlight penetrates among the branches, and the leaves hang motionless and glimmering. In late fall there is no obstruction at all and you feel you are climbing moonlight and darkness rather than a tree–except that, as always, your hands grip bark and lichen and moss. Touch and sight present different and nearly opposite worlds. Touch reveals a fineness of distinction and differentiation–ridged bark, the roughness of lichens, the yielding of tiny clumps of moss, the rumpling of wood where branch meets trunk or leaves a larger branch, the areas burnished smooth by frequent passage on smaller hand-hold branches. Sight, by moonlight, bypasses all detail. It discerns shapes, silhouettes, branching patterns, the horizon, stars, a quality of light across masses of leaves. The world feels unreal as it hangs around you, silver fields and black hills and the luminous sky with its billions of stars.
The Tao of Being in a Tree (As Opposed to The Tao of Climbing)
Today when I duck out of the house to climb the tree, dinner cooking and both girls doing homework, I find myself thinking, as I move branch to branch: every day I spend five or ten minutes doing something that has no use.
I’m not getting chores done. I’m not mowing the lawn or working in the garden. I’m not taking care of anyone or making anyone’s life better. I’m not helping the environment or engaging in political action or increasing scientific knowledge. I’m not earning money, or furthering a career. I’m not doing anything that is going to impress or even interest other people. I’m not getting in better shape, though there is mild exercise involved. I’m not furthering my knowledge of the world or improving my mind. I’m not even really meditating.
I’m just kind of clambering around.
Climbing the tree is one of the most perfectly useless things I have ever done.
I find myself thinking of Chuang Tzu, of value and uselessness. I think of this story from Chuang Tzu, in David Hinton’s incomparable translation:
“I have a huge tree,” said Hui Tzu to Chuang Tzu, “the kind people call shu. Its huge trunk is so gnarled and knotted that no measuring string can gauge it, and its branches are so bent and twisted they defy compass and square. It stands right beside the road, and still carpenters never notice it. These words of yours, so vast and useless–everyone ignores them the same way.”
Chuang Tzu responds: “Now you’ve got this huge tree, and you agonize over how useless it is. Why not plant it in a village where there’s nothing at all, a land where emptiness stretches away forever? Then you could be nothing’s own doing drifting lazily beside it, roam boundless and free as you doze in its shade. It won’t die young from the axe. Nothing will harm it. If you have no use, you have no grief.”
And there it is.
I climb the tree to be nothing’s own doing. I climb it to roam boundless as I doze, or at least stand mesmerized, in the shade of its upper branches, under its canopy of green. In a land where emptiness stretches away forever.
(And here I ask myself, parenthetically, for future reflection: this experience of climbing, of being in the tree–in writing about it, do I begin to make use of it? It must continue to be so gnarled and knotted, so bent and twisted, that it will remain free of compass and square, free from the axe. In writing about it, do I begin to apply compass and square? In sharing the writing–and the experience–am I in danger of cutting it down and making something of its pieces? Turning it into timbers and bowls and broom handles? Taking something wild and living, and rendering it domesticated, or dead?)
Chuang Tzu is the perennial antidote to the world we live in, the world that needs a reason, a use, a purpose, for everything, or pronounces it worthless. It is a much-needed reminder of the worth of worthlessness. Many things, most things even, we need to be useful. May not one or two things just be?
What can we ask of climbing a tree? Not much, and that is its virtue. Not much, and so it simply gives. Not much, so what it gives is pure. Not much, so everything it gives is extra.
And yet I come to ask much of climbing a tree. I want to be moved by the experience of it, I want to climb in unusual circumstances, I want to take beautiful pictures of it, I want it to give me a little wisdom.
Wisdom that, in the end, may be to ask nothing of climbing a tree.
There is an old Zen saying: “First mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers; then mountains are no longer mountains and rivers are no longer rivers; and then at last mountains are once again mountains and rivers are once again rivers.”
Repetition: Just as I wear a path up the tree, a discernible trail among the branches, the repetition of climbing wears a path in me. A part of me, like the branches, becomes smooth and polished. The edges get worn off my attention. It becomes a little less detailed, a little less textured. It’s like the rush of meaning, the flood of sound, in the head, when one has memorized a poem and is mentally reciting it. There is no resistance in the mind, and this changes the experience of going through the poem. One is almost riding the poem down a channel like a canoe in a floodwater. The gift is that one has the poem always; the challenge is that one has to work to pay attention to the words, the sounds, the meanings, to hear them as sharply and clearly as if one were reading it off a page for the first time.
It is the same climbing the tree: to hear in one’s mind the branches and the sunlight and the breeze and the changed angle at which the landscape falls away now requires work. Effort. Care. The kind of work that was originally required to climb the tree, when it was new to my body and my body was new to it.
Now I rise up the tree like a helium balloon, and labor with my spirit to feel it fresh.
Why do Taoists value non-effort? Because there is a Tao, a flowing organic principle of unfolding, in things. To act with effort, in the sense of having to fight this natural unfolding, of working against the current of the stream, is to do a kind of small violence to things. It is to waste energy. It is to introduce whorls and eddies into the stream. To introduce turbulence into the world.
Climbing the tree now is effortless, except in extreme conditions (pouring rain, the blackest night). When I climb now it is very nearly automatic, my body knows the body of the tree, my limbs know the most efficient way up. There is no wasted energy as I make my way through that vertical landscape. There is no hesitation, no lost effort, no whorls or eddies. No turbulence in the stream of my movement, in the stream of the world.
This is a kind of free and easy wandering.
I wake at 5:00 am on Halloween morning. After the time change it might as well be the middle of the night. I slip out of bed and go down stairs in the darkness. There is a three-quarter moon but it is as bright as a full moon, the whole meadow lit up nearly as bright, it seems, as afternoon, the landscape washed with silver. Without turning on a light I feel around in the dark for shoes and pull a fleece on over my pajamas, and go out and into the moonlight. I walk across the lawn and up to the edge of the trees. I make my way up the tree, my first early morning climb.
At the top I stand for a while, the branches cold in my hands, and look out over the white-washed world, the black pine trees on the ridge, the star-filled and luminous sky. The late-fall meadow that is gold by day is silver now, improbably bright, but the shadow of every branch or bramble, every stand of milkweed, is etched deeply black. I have been gazing around for five minutes or so when there is a sudden hard, percussive hiss from the ground below me–shockingly loud in the silent pre-dawn world. It is a ferocious sound, and it comes from a little ways off from the base of the tree, from just far enough into the woods that the ground is shrouded in darkness. I hear whatever made it moving, deliberate slow steps in the fallen leaves. I watch and wait to see if it will emerge into the large area of moonlight near the base of the tree so I can identify it. It moves around but stays to the shadows, snarling and hissing repeatedly.
I’m sure I know what it is–my friend from the night the summer before when I slept out on the meditation platform in the back meadow, who circled just inside the trees, hissing and snarling, until it drove me into the house. It is almost certainly a fisher cat, and a large one from the way it moves and the volume of its cry. And an angry one, from the sound of it–but maybe fisher cats always sound angry. Maybe fisher cats always are angry. I climb a few branches down to try to get a better look at the ground, feeling extremely vulnerable in my flannel pajama bottoms and wishing I had put on jeans before going out. Still the animal stays to the shadows, circling and hissing. When I have given up on seeing it, and it has wandered slightly farther back into the shadows, judging by its cry–in fact I think I know the brush pile it is now near or in–I climb swiftly down and run over the frosty grass in a wide arc toward the house.
Inside, I consider briefly whether I should get my sound recorder and a camera and head back out into the cold. Instead I make tea.
Every time I take out a camera–most often my phone but occasionally I sling a real camera over my shoulder–I wonder about the threshold between participation and observation. Between being and looking; between looking and recording. And it is far too easy to slip instantly into recording mode when I reach the heights–or what, rather humbly, must pass for the heights in this modest spiritual adventure. To reach for the camera instead of entering a place of receptivity, attention, wonder, forgetfulness of self, and gratitude, when these are the reasons I climb. I have to stop and remind myself to just be, even if that means standing there, straddling air, not doing or experiencing much more.
Not every day sings. There are thrushes and moonlight and dappled sunlight and barreling snow and chickadees and emerald moss and blackness and stars and the membranous lushness of leaves, but not every day is like this. There is also just standing there among the branches without much going on. No irruption of beauty. Nothing memorable. A gray day. A climb barren of story. On these days I try especially hard to look around, to put a hand on the tree. I breathe slowly and wonder if the greatest spiritual task is to feel wonder at what is, when what is is not wondrous.
Until it is.
The camera focuses attention on detail, on sight, on vision; it trains the spirit on what is there. And this is a good thing. Attention truly is a form of prayer, as Simone Weil wrote. But it also takes one out–like flipping a switch–of the world one is recording. It is a kind of meditation, but also a kind of busy-ness. It can stem from the desire to possess, rather than a willingness to be possessed. To capture and take away the tree and the sky and the hills, rather than to be captured and taken away by them.
I want to be captured and taken away. I want to be possessed.
And yet–what do I have of these nine months of climbs? I have memories, to be sure, some vivid, but many of them are vague or blend together. I am left with the sense of branches, of darkness or light, of textures of bark, of the feeling of moving air. Of summer afternoons, of fall weekends. The pictures I have taken make these real to me again, and specific. This was the way the light came through autumn leaves as the sun was setting on that October day. The best of the photographs help me to remember why I climb, when I am not climbing. They remind me of the beauty of the world. They capture light and shade and texture: frost on the branches, sunsets at the far side of the world, and the morning sun among the leaves. Lichens, moss, bark, and the way the prayer flags snap wildly in a strong wind.
But not one of them captures what it is like to be in the tree, because being in the tree is all about being captured by the world, not capturing it. Being possessed by the world, not possessing it. Losing oneself in what is greater than oneself. Putting aside all instruments, including oneself, and, if one is lucky, and for just a moment, letting the world fill one’s inner reaches.