The First Year: Spring
March 3, 2016. In one of the large prayer flags lower down in the tree, the blue one, inexplicably, is a hunk of ice. Somehow the flag has wrapped itself into a kind of pocket, and wet snow, followed by freezing rain and rain, collected and froze into a fist-sized clump of ice. It hangs and swings in the wind like an ice-cold swaddled babe. It is a chilly gray day. What snow is left on the ground is the same dirty color as the sky.
The next day it is the green flag that holds a chunk of ice.
March 11, 2016. I arrive home with Claire on the last day of Emme’s ski season. It is 42 degrees out in late afternoon, and sunny. Emme and friends skied on slush and water and had a blast.
Two days ago it was in the low 70s. Claire was skiing with her school and two of Emme’s friends came over after school to work on a Pi Day art project. I climbed in late afternoon in the astonishing warmth and basked at the top of the tree. I discovered that since the new prayer flags are placed higher, I can move from my perch between the two branches they hang from, ducking my head beneath them, and step onto another branch forward of those. It is a little like being out in front of the tree. I stand two feet together on that branch and lean back on the branch supporting the flags. I can practically laze there, arms crossed. A warm breeze blows across the meadow and over the house and through the tree. I close my eyes, and laze, and bask.
Today the string of large flags was detached and hanging straight down, all furled together, and blowing in the considerable wind. They made a kind of curling, unfurling collage of brightly colored textiles. It was visually arresting but difficult to get a good picture. I happened to have brought out the good camera, but the flags flicked and darted away in the wind every time I hit the shutter. Out of many shots maybe there will be one or two good ones, if I’m lucky. Somehow several thumb-sized holes were torn in the blue flag, from the center of which the others swing. It hangs around them like a worn cloak. From the center of the furled clump extends the tail of the yellow flag, a brilliant golden color in the sideways light, emerging to tease the eye in the wind, and then eclipsed again by the other flags as they twist and spin in the wind.
March 15, 2016. The prayer flags in the lower position have come fully untethered. They are the newer flags, that turned out to be much larger than I had imagined, maybe a foot and half across and hanging down two feet, made of beautiful fabric in beautiful colors–strong and vibrant but not gaudy, the fabric a finely woven cotton and the printing good. Their surface area, however, proved too great for the winds that stream up our Vermont hillside. Somehow the yellow flag was torn away altogether, leaving just a corner of itself behind, like a creature that sacrificed its tail for freedom. I survey the woods below, and up the short slope to the neighbor’s land, but see no crumpled body of gold. It must have flown far before landing.
But the result of the unmooring of the flags is unexpected beauty. They have become entangled across several branches and are intertwined with each other. They are ripped and torn and still vibrant, they are suspended above the forest floor like sails. In some places they are anchored to a twig by a single unraveled thread. They arc and twist and flare in the sunlight, sometimes flag behind flag so that blue is visible through red and crossed lines of Tibetan text march across a new luminous purple. The green flag is twisted into a bunch and bends across a branch in such a way that a Boddhisattva leans out across the forest floor, wondering serenely perhaps how she ended up in a tree in Vermont.
This flaring set of sails is irresistible to the camera, and I spend some time moving among the branches taking photographs. (And will return to do so, over and over, for weeks to come.) It is as though I threw some materials out into the world, a fistful of fabric, and wind and tree and sun have turned them to art, have torn and bent and draped and twisted them into a textile sculpture. The result is more beautiful than I could have devised and I am grateful to be able to reflect some of it in images. I find myself wondering if I could take more such flags, many times over, and tie them among the branches, or drop them from on high, to see what permutations could be generated by the natural world, to see what changes might be rung on the wrenching of color, form, and texture into new shapes by sun and wind and branch. To allow the world to metamorphose prayer flags into art.
March 16, 2016. Not exactly spring, but my first shirtless climb of the year! I spend some time researching the pruning of raspberries–reminding myself of the difference between summer-bearing and ever-bearing, between primocanes and floricanes–and go out in several layers of clothing, pruning shears and loppers in hand. By the time I work my way along twenty feet of Boyne my fleece is draped over a nearby post, and when I reach the end of Latham my shirt joins it. Then Jaclyn, and Polana. What a pleasure to be outside working in the mild March sunshine. Carrying large armfuls of pruned raspberry canes, shirtless, down the length of the meadow to a compost heap, in several trips. An excellent way to remind oneself that one is alive. Brambles against bare arms and chest feel strangely good.
When I am done I head for the tree. It is too soon to exult in spring–highs the next few days will drop to the 30s–but it is hard not to celebrate climbing shirtless in the relative warmth. After months of arduously maneuvering my way up branches deep in snow or glazed with ice, or wearing thick gloves and winter coat and snowpants against the bitter cold, what joy to move freely and comfortably among the branches! I spend some time moving back and forth between the two trunks of the tree down where the larger prayer flags are, circling the two trunks together like a planet in irregular orbit around two suns. Eventually I make my way up to the higher flags, close my eyes, and just bask.
March 18, 2016. Tree Meditation, Rock Meditation. After pruning the raspberries I tend to several of my rock sculptures which have collapsed in the last few months of high winds. Spring mending of winter’s havoc. The world applies its torque of wind, frost, and snow, and stones are disassembled, they roll off their bases into the flattened grasses of the meadow, pale rocks lying in straw-colored beds. Tall flat rocks, the largest and heaviest, just topple over and lie immovably in place. Rounded river stones travel a good ways on the meadow’s gentle incline before coming to rest. I get my hands beneath one end of the largest fallen stone. I give it a heave and it barely shifts, sideways.
Somehow I have to get it up onto a stone base that is about two feet high and then shift around its sloping irregular bottom on the irregularly sloping surface of the base stone (which in turn rests on bedrock emerging from the meadow), until the rock in my arms feels stable enough to release. Without it slipping off and crushing a foot. It takes a few minutes to get it up there and much longer to fit into place. Again and again I begin to release it only to feel it tip, and seize it again and shift it a millimeter or two up the sloping surface of the base stone, hoping that the slopes will match and some granular irregularities will snag each other and hold this beast in place. Two winters ago this top stone stood on this base through five months of winter storms. Eventually it fell and I have never been able to get it as stable again. It does well through the summer but March winds have been too much for it.
Eventually I get it in place, and it stays, and I place the three fist-sized beach stones along its upper edge.
The next day the whole thing is down.
Rock meditation and tree meditation are both ways off entering a space of deeply immersive physical activity. Both are forms of body meditation, dance meditation, meditation in (and on) motion. Both engage with physical objects, whether rocks or branches. Both have physical objects as their principle ends and means.
With each one begins by acknowledging the ruling imperative of gravity, the force that must be worked with and respected even as one finds a way to circumvent it.
Rocks rise onto other rocks; I rise among the branches.
A rounded stone on top of another rounded stone bends all its will to rolling off, and stands in silent astonishment when balance is finally achieved. It might take an hour of unceasing concentration to get three rocks balanced just right, or sometimes even two. An hour of standing in the baking sun, all the world beyond hands and stones simply gone, the horizon of attention pulled in to the textures of granite, the sweat on one’s back, the warm breeze. Raising rocks is an act of attention more than an act of muscle, though back and arms are well exercised after flipping a large rock end over end out of the woods, across lawn and driveway and into the meadow, and down past an apple tree or two to the place where I hope it will stand. And after this exertion: patience. The infinite patience required to persuade one rock to rise onto another, when both are rounded, or irregular, or have sloped bases that don’t match up.
Sometimes after an hour or so of work I stand back to look at the finished sculpture and it is clear that it is not good enough. I push it over and watch rocks topple and roll among the grasses. To be worth keeping it has to be visually interesting and a little unexpected; it should look improbable that these rocks are staying on top of each other; if it evokes something without actually resembling it, all the better. If it does none of these things, it should come down.
But if it has gone well there is a beautiful new thing in the world, something that is arresting and wasn’t there before. Something I have made with my hands, in careful accordance with physics, the laws of which these stones are agents and subjects both. They stand in the sunlight and the breezes, birds perch on them, they withstand rain and heavy wind. Eventually they will come down and I will go out in spring and raise them up again.
Over the seasons a small grove of these sculptures rise up among the apple trees, perched on obtrusions of bedrock through the meadow floor. They guard the driveway, keeping evil spirits at bay.
Wood and stone. The textures of bark and granite are both good to the hand. (I say granite, but New Hampshire to the east is more granitic, our soil here in Vermont sweeter. I do not actually know what rock this is, but I will representatively call it granite; it may as well be; and for all I know, may be). The tree is the immovable force which provides me the leverage to rise up among the branches; in the meadow, I aspire to be that force, as the rocks rise up through my hands. My soft and bending branches finding leverage in the earth, in the structure of my body. Flesh so much softer than wood, than stone, softer and weaker and lighter, but in both cases prevailing in the end, having the virtues of intention, mobility, craft, and passion.
In the tree, nothing is made (except these words, and maybe a picture or two); in the meadow, sculptures stand. In the meadow, a strong wind will topple a stone from its perch and the rock stack is no more; in the tree, it shreds a prayer flag and drops it to hang suspended between two branches, and new art is made. The rocks provide me exercise; I would have to climb the tree many times to be sore. The rocks are yang, I am tempted to say, the tree yin, but I am not sure what I mean by this. I build in the heat of the sun in an open field; I climb in the shelter of the shade in the heart of the tree. From the top of the tree, I see the world from a different vantage point, from on high; when I have built a rock stack, it is the world that has changed, not my position in it. And yet in both cases I have entered a different world, a world made new again, by the sustained application of attention and muscle and, when all is said and done, passion. It may sound strange to talk of loving rocks, loving a tree; to me it sounds strange not to. They are the objects of hunger, of affection. Of desire, even.
They rise up, or I do, and it is a kind of grace; and the spirit, in gratitude, exults.
If climbing a tree, if stacking stones, were sex, then something about the latter would feel assertive, dominant; and something about the former would feel yielding, receptive. Stones I muscle into place; the tree allows me to rise up within her. I wend my way, the path she allows me, among her unyielding branches. The stones involve a sweaty grappling, hands unceasingly holding and turning, releasing and seizing again, the sun hot on my back. It is the emblem of forcefulness.
And yet the distinction doesn’t hold. What is essential to all spiritual practice–all authentic being?–is grace. Grace in a purely naturalistic sense, of being given more than one knows to ask for; of bounty unexpected; of exerting oneself and then in the end yielding before something greater. Of working one’s way up a tree and finding that prayer flags have been thrown by the wind into beautiful new shapes one could not have imagined. Of standing in a meadow and understanding that one’s intention for the stones was wrong, of seeing their own nature emerge as you handle them, and giving way to it, and discovering that this stone really belongs on that one over there, when you finally stop to listen to them, and, though it seems impossible that this surface could cling to and balance on that one, it does, and something unexpected and beautiful has emerged into the sunlight and one had very little to do with it. One was just an instrument in the end. There is a rightness, a naturalness, to a really good stone sculpture, that makes it seem a part of the landscape, something archaic and primal that rose up out of the meadow by itself. By itself: so much for the imposition of will and the application of force. In the end, as with so much, it is about listening. Listening to the stones and their tending, to the branches and the paths they offer. It is about yielding and receptivity in the course of active engagement.
March 25, 2016: The Third Ice Storm. All night long, freezing rain. In the morning school is cancelled for both girls, and Kim works from home for several hours as we wait for the driveway to become passable. Dried perennial stems in the bed below the end-room window are encased in crystal, grape vines hanging down over the front-room windows seem more ice than plant, and tree branches gleam with captured light. When the rain has stopped, and before Kim leaves, I head out to the tree, thinking it’s better if an adult is around if things go badly. The usual drill: snow pants, coat, hat, boots with spikes, my trusty Mad Grip gloves. (What is it that makes that word, “trusty,” almost irresistible in circumstances such as these?)
The tree is the iciest I have seen it. It is completely encased in thick ice, still dripping with rainwater. The sail-flags stretched between the lower branches are rigid, the red one curved forward like a skateboard ramp, stiff and unmoving in the still air, frozen as though a hard wind had blown it into place and then the world had stopped. After standing in the tree house for a few minutes assessing the conditions, I start up. I make use of my hook-and-leverage technique, rising joint by joint up the tree. Several times the way forward isn’t clear, and I spend time switching my feet around, trying to figure out how to proceed, while my arms are locked around branches or trunk. Eventually I find a way up to hoist myself up to the next branch-cluster without slipping. As I climb, and the ends of the branches shift under my weight, the ice encasing them makes a crackling sound–never shattering, never coming dislodged, but creaking, like the clinging brittle sleeve that it is.
Close to the top I am stuck for a while. It gives me time to contemplate my foolishness. I am half hanging from a branch, my arm crooked around it up to the shoulder. My feet are perched precariously on a branch below, but even with teeth on my boots I don’t dare put much weight on them. I wonder how long until I get tired. But it’s a good chance to survey my surroundings, so I look around and admire the ice built upon branches and dripping from twigs in little icicles. The limb my left arm is hooked over at the armpit is just inches from my face, and I examine it. The ice on it is so thick that looking at the branch is like looking at a pond floor beneath the water. There is the shiny surface, the shallow depth, and beneath it the moss embedded in ice like water weeds.
I return to the problem at hand and eventually figure out a way to squirm myself safely up.
At the top I remove my gloves and wedge them between two branches. I brought up the Canon Powershot and once I am as securely wedged into the tree as my gloves, I spend some time taking photographs, trying to capture the way ice-encrusted branches seem to bend the light; the dribbles of ice hanging down from the prayer flags; their bent and frozen shapes, as though they froze solid while being blown in the wind.
Then I lower myself from branch to icy branch, slithering down the tree in extreme slow motion, catching branches beneath my arms as I go, never trusting feet or hands. I spend a little more time examining the peculiar frozen configuration of the sail flags and then return to the house.
March 31, 2016. I climb the tree in the afternoon just before going to school to pick up Emme from set design–their production of Twelfth Night looming on the horizon and a ship needing to be wrecked on the shores of Illyria–and it is astonishingly warm out, almost 70, freakishly warm for the last day of March in Vermont. It is a joy to rise up through the air, untrammeled, to be washed and supported by it like a balm for the flesh (and the spirit rejoices). I am just back from work and errands, it is a fast turnaround for letting dogs out and changing clothes and packing snacks for the afternoon, so I only have moments, no time to meditate on the imminence of spring at the top of the tree, but I savor it on the way up and I savor it on the way down and I savor it the rest of the afternoon.
April 2, 2016. An early morning climb, rushed, after clearing out the car for the trip. Today I am going as parent chaperone to a day-long one-act play festival in Rutland. The Sharon Academy is performing “betweenity,” and Claire and I get up at 5:30 to head off at 6:15 am. It is gray out and about 32. We are on the hinge between warm weather and cold; tonight it will get down to 15. At the festival there is a lot of down time between plays. This allows me, for the last hour, and for the next, and more later on, to work on entries much more interesting than this one. Today I get to write about trees and stones and sex and grace. Today it is writing about the tree, more than climbing it, that will get me into the heart of the tree and deepen my experience of it. What magic is this?
And so, sitting here in Rutland, working from notes, I write the entry for March 18, which you will already have read when you read this.
April 3, 2016: Ellipse. I have spent more time in the lower branches of the tree, and on the other main trunk of it, observing the larger prayer flags in their sail configuration. Once in the tree I swing from the primary trunk to the secondary (named so only by virtue of the fact that one of them is the trunk I climb everyday to my high perch, not because one is larger than the other: they are about the same size), view and perhaps photograph the flags, and continue up the secondary trunk, moving around it as I do so. Two thirds of the way up to the high place I cross back over to the primary trunk, pass between and under some branches, and rise the last few feet to my perch. I climb back down the primary trunk. My completed path is a kind of diagonal ellipse around the two trunks of the tree. I complete one orbit as I rise up the tree and drift back down it. A half spiral up and a half spiral down. The two exquisite moments in this climb are the two times I pass between trunks. In each case there is that moment’s commitment, the stepping from a branch extending from one trunk across onto a branch rooted in the other, the body falling slightly forward through space before there is a branch to grab hold of. A moment’s freedom from both trunks, and from the earth they are rooted in.
The earth is not something I usually want to be free of. There are times when I lay down on a bed of moss in the woods, and get the sudden impulse to burrow down into it, down into the earth like a mole. Or lie at the bottom of an ocean of crisp-gold beech leaves in fall, sinking through them like a weight. Still, there is exhilaration in that tenth of a second of controlled falling up among the branches. And passing between trees permits one to travel horizontally for a moment, rather than up or down, which is a novelty in a tree, and allows swinging from branch to branch.
I was ready for a new path, new terrain to explore, after several hundred climbs up more or less the same route. The other side of the tree is another world. The other trunk is a new universe. My tiny kingdom has doubled or tripled. What permutations and shapings of my body will take me over, under, and between these branches?
This microcosm of the tree, its own macrocosm. This universe in a grain of sand.
April 4, 2016. Hanging from a branch by one hand, my body curled into a ball, I feel like a spider at the end of a web-strand, tiny, suspended among the branches of the tree.
April 5, 2016. An early evening climb yesterday. Heavy snowfall through the afternoon without much accumulation–only an inch or so in the end. But beautiful, the air above the meadow thick with snow, dense with it, until the white of the falling snow becomes a kind of darkness. Climbing in a kind of snow-induced twilight, I make my way up toward the top of the tree, brushing snow off branches as I go. The world below is white, and it is hard to remember the sun-drenched, bleached-out, straw-colored meadow of recent days, much less the warmth of a month ago when Emme and her friends were working on art projects in the driveway in short-sleeved shirts. It is a painful time of year in Vermont, when daffodils were out elsewhere in New England a week or so ago, but we are still tossed and turned among the tempestuous waves of weather, now breathtakingly balmy and full of hope, now gray and sleety, now snowing again, now sunny and almost not-cold enough to be warm, but, painfully, not quite. Looking at the weather ahead, we have days more of this to come; probably weeks.
Something about this snow is slipperier than other snow, the flakes are like wide flat ice crystals and they must slide over each other easily, like plates. I climb down with care.
April 8, 2016. Among the bare branches I think of summer. Of curtains of green all around me. Of being sheltered. I think of the power of encompassing, of being encompassed. I am waiting for the tree to put on her mantled flesh of leaves, so that I can once again be inside her. Now, however close to the trunk I get, I am still only in the sky.
April 11, 2016. I climb early, after hauling the Monday trash to the bottom of the driveway for collection. Kim has just left with Emme, dulcimer, stand, and stool in tow, for dress rehearsal for Twelfth Night, and Claire is taking full advantage of her first day of vacation by sleeping in. It is gray and sleeting. At the top of the tree I pause for a while, listening to the invisible precipitation in the silence of the morning. It is a sifting sound, a kind of susurration, a loud whisper over the land, the sound of a thousand thousand pinheads of ice hitting the ground.
As I listen more carefully, I realize that though it pervades the air, most of the mass of sound is coming from behind me. In front of me is lawn and, beyond that, meadow. The falling pellets are lost in the grasses, their sound absorbed by its springiness, by the bent and fallen strands in all their millions. Behind me is woods, carpeted by fallen leaves, beech and maple and birch, stretched out like drum skins over the ground. The mass of sound I hear is these crisp leaves being peppered by countless thousands of minuscule ice pellets. And the sound behind me has not just a greater volume but a different quality. It is distributed in space differently. There is a verticality to it as well, and I realize it is from the pellets glancing off twigs and branches on their way down through the leafless trees. The deeper sound of the forest floor–not deeper in pitch, but somehow deeper even so–underlays the lighter sound of fifty or sixty feet worth of branches being struck by pellets as they drop among the trees. Somehow I associate these layers of sound–the lower and the upper–with the colors that represent them, the lower sound the pale winter-bleached gold-brown–almost with the barest hint of salmon?–of the curled up leaves below me; and the lighter, upper sound the silver-gray of the trunks, branches, and twigs around me. The aural layers blend together where they verge and meet, where ground layer meets tree-and-sapling layer.
And above them, the air-layer, out of whose utter silence these ice pellets fall; and sound materializes over the land.
I listen with my eyes closed for a long time.
And then the dieselly lurch of an oil truck coming up the hill, the squeal of its brakes as it slows. As it maneuvers carefully to back into the sharp angle of our driveway I climb down the tree and return to the house, to the cacophony of our two dogs wildly and unceasingly calling the alarm at this intrusion onto our land.
The air may still be silent up there above the tops of the trees, but I can no longer hear it.
April 17, 2016. “To see a tree in photographs is not to see a tree,” remarks Nancy Ross Hugo in her magnificent book, Seeing Trees.
She writes this of photographs of a whole tree. What is missing from any picture of a tree, of course, is its presence, the angle of light through its branches, the sound of birds, of the wind in its leaves; its size relative to yours, its position in the landscape. But a photograph of parts of a tree–its branching structure, the textures of its bark, tiny details of bud or seed–bring new aspects of a tree to attention. The ravishing photographs in the book, close-ups of seed and bud and leaf and twig, refresh and transform one’s perception of trees.
I find myself thinking of an analogous difference: that between a tree from the outside and a tree from the inside. Between a tree that is “over there,” particularly in photographs; and the very different kind of creature that a tree is from the inside, from among the branches, close to the trunk, looking out. From the outside a tree is a kind of tall mound of branches surrounding a trunk. It has a certain presence to it that is beautiful in the landscape. There is a kind of unity to it: it is that thing, over there. We take it in at a glance. Unless it possesses an unusual branching structure or it is in blossom, or something else about it attracts the eye, we can look at it and be done with it fairly quickly.
But if you are in the tree everything is different. You can’t take it in at a glance. It is around you in every direction, and above you, and below you. Everywhere you look, there is more tree. It is your world, rather than a thing in it.
Visually, the unifying principle of branches sprouting from a trunk and seeking light is no longer as apparent. Instead, looking down, the trunk recedes, and especially in photographs, perspective makes the trunk grow smaller rather than larger as you gaze down its length. Looking from out among the branches back toward the trunk, they gather from every side to root in the trunk, like arrows shot into a cylindrical target. With your back to the trunk looking outward, branches reach out into space, and where they stop is the end of the tree. So that all the space inside the tree feels like part of the tree, its lungs, its thinnest flesh. Looking up, the pattern of branches is much wilder and more irregular than one would imagine when viewing the tree from a distance.
In fact, almost always a tree looks and feels wilder from within than it does from the outside. It is all chaos and randomness. The principle of regularity–branches reaching to achieve maximum access to sunlight for their leaves in accordance with the branching pattern of the species–is at a larger scale, and so can only be seen from a distance; close up, it is all variation and unexpected angles. Twig, bark, branch, and trunk: everything is splitting and crossing and recrossing in its outward reaching for light. Photographs, especially looking upwards, capture this well: an almost Gothic wildness, and a leaning outwards.
And more than anything the difference is that you are inside an organism, so that you feel its presence in a different way. As Hugo says, it is the tree’s presence in the landscape and its size relative to yours that is not captured by a photograph–and this is all the more so when you are on the inside of the tree, when its arms are the girders and rafters and floor-boards of your world.
April 15: Claire In the Tree. Friday morning, the last day of Claire’s April vacation. It was a busy week so we haven’t had much time together. Around 11:00 we go outside to wander around our bit of land. In recent weeks she has slipped out in odd moments to explore the bottom of the meadow and the steep bank down to the road, taking pictures with her phone of dried plant stems, ice formations, and tree roots hanging down where earth has collapsed into the ditch. She has taken short video clips of leaves or grasses moving in the wind that are very simple and surprisingly beautiful. So we go exploring together, and she shows me the places she has wandered and what she has seen. After what seems like an interminable cold spell, and days of endless gray, the weather is finally turning, and it is brisk but sunny.
After going up and down the bank several times and skirting the part of our five acres that runs along the road, we circle back up to the house and head for the tree. She has been in it before, among the branches maybe ten feet above the tree house. Today I tell her she can go all the way up. I follow behind her, keeping an eye on her, and also taking a few pictures with my phone. To my surprise she scrambles right up and before I know it she is in my perch among the prayer flags. I come up behind her and find a way to occupy more or less the same space, and we stand there looking out over the meadow. The breeze is steady and the prayer flags are snapping in front of us. The branches are sun-warmed in our hands, and the light on our faces is warm; but the air is cool. We spend a while up there talking and taking a few pictures, and when we get chilly we climb down and head for the house.
Sunday April 17: Pilgrimage with a Rock. The warmth has grown and now it is stunning out. The temperature rises swiftly in the morning from the upper 20s into the 40s and then the 50s. By early afternoon it is in the low 70s and sunny. The sky is a stunning deep blue. We all drag some fallen branches and apple tree prunings to the bottom of the meadow, and then Kim and the girls head out to go shopping.
My tallest slab of rock was blown over one recent night in a terrific wind, and split in half when it hit the outcropping of bedrock it was perched on. It was one of my favorite stone sculptures–very simple, a single rock standing on end, with a surface irregularity six inches down on the front that allowed me to perch a small white beach pebble on its face. This feels like the perfect day for just messing about with rocks, so I start circumambulating our land in search of a good candidate for a replacement.
At the edge of the top back meadow, just into the trees, I find one that is promising. It is resting under an immense old birch tree, half rotten but still standing. The rock I’m interested in is a slab, half buried along one edge, and with two other good sized rocks, also half-buried, resting against it. I try to move it and am able to just budge it, which suggests that if I can get it out of the ground I will be able to move it to where I want it to go. After a few moments tugging at the two rocks perched against it I give up and head for the shed for my crowbar and my five-foot pry bar, thinking of Archimedes’ famous dictum about being able to move the world, given sufficient leverage and an immovable point from which to exercise it. Back in the woods I am able to pry the two other rocks out of the ground fairly quickly, creating a kind of hole against one side of the slab. It is half-buried in an old rock pile–at the edge of the meadow so probably rocks heaped up by a farmer cultivating the field–so I will have plenty of secure points against which to set the pry bar. I manage to dislodge the slab from the ground and it slips sideways into the hole in the rock pile.
Now for the real challenge. The upper part of the slab is resting against two other half-buried slabs, one against each end, on the opposite side of the slab from the rock pile. Now I have to get the slab up and over the other two slabs, without a lot of purchase. It takes about twenty minutes of maneuvering and lifting. At last I am able to work the slab up using the long pry bar, and shove the crowbar under it with my foot, so that the crowbar, bridging two other rocks, creates a platform for the slab to rest on. Now it is as though it is lying flat on the ground, except that it is suspended over the hole in the rock pile. Then I use the pry bar to wrestle it up and over the other two slabs, and it falls with a heavy thump into the leaves on their meadow side. It is free and ready to travel! Lying flat on the open ground. I give one edge of it an experimental lift. It takes considerable effort. I muscle it up and over, and the slab flips. Our first step! I leave the crowbar and pry bar on the rock pile, take off an over-shirt and hang it on a nearby branch.
The first eight or ten flips are challenging as there are small tree saplings in the way and the ground is uneven. I have to flip it right through and over the saplings, and I wince as the rock takes bark off slender trunks as it crashes between them. After a few minutes I reach the edge of the meadow, and it will be smoother sailing from here. I look out across the field, across most of the length of our five acres, to the dwarf apple trees among which this slab will, possibly, if the gods of balance are kind, stand. The trees are tiny from this distance. I reach down for one edge of the slab and we begin our journey.
We make our slow way between the young fruit tree saplings in the meadow, passing between Frostbite and Winesap, within hailing distance of Ashmead’s Kernel, and continuing on past the dead Contender peach tree–the winter before last, with its string of nights below -20 and days that never cracked 0, was too cold for it–and Reliance, which looked as dead as Contender when spring came but a year later has sent out new growth.
After every ten or so flips I have to stop to catch my breath and rest my arms. After thirty or so I need a break. I sit cross-legged on the stone and enjoy the sunlight and the meadow grasses that are laid flat and straw-colored against the ground, bits of green now pushing up between them in places.
Each time I begin again I am surprised by the weight of the stone. It makes a very persuasive case for staying where it is, pressed flat against the earth, seeming almost to sink down into it. There is a kind of joy in the sheer exertion of wresting the edge up, forearms straining, and giving it the hard push to get it over its own center of gravity so that it topples and hits the ground with a heavy thump. The slab is roughly triangular, which means that our progress is not in a straight line. Each time I flip it I have the choice of two sides to lift, and so we make our irregular way across the meadow, tacking now this way and now that way, always roughly in the direction of the outcropping of bedrock that is its destination. One edge of the slab is thicker than the other and this side is considerable heavier and requires more effort to lift. Lift, push, and thump it hits the ground. Lift, push, thump. Lift, push, thump.
Time passes magnificently doing this kind of work. We journey slowly. Chickadees call from the edge of the wood, some bird I do not know sings liquidly from the hedgerow along the road, and warm breezes push their way up the hill. Soon I take my shirt off and hang it on a post that supports mesh intended to protect the plum thicket–trees still only a few feet high–from deer. A little further on I stop to rest again, using the slab as a pillow. I lie back and look up at the deep blue of the sky. I am laid out in the meadow like a tick buffet.
A few feet away is another stone sculpture, the one I think of as Our Lady of the Raspberries, as she overlooks Boyne and Latham and Polana and Jaclyn. She begins every season Immaculate, but by midsummer is marked by birds. She holds a kind of small slab of stone, dark colored and with tiger stripes of quartz, that I found in a river in Rochester, Vermont, that went home with us to Lexington, Massachusetts and then, several years later, when we moved, back up to Vermont. Last summer I put a small chunk of antique green glass on the slab to catch the light. It is also the perfect place to perch an iPhone, so I set it up and use the timer to take a few pictures of the stone and myself as we pass. And then return the favor and take a picture or two of her in return.
I look back at the edge of the woods. How long has it been? Half an hour? We have come a remarkably short distance. I look ahead to our destination. It is a long ways off. I set to work again and we recommence our travels, our slow journey. The meadow, the lawn–which we will eventually cross one sweep of before returning to meadow–the whole hillside, open to the sky, feels gloriously empty, just the stone and me, moving slowly along in the sunlight. Strain, heave, flip, thump. Strain, heave, flip, thump. One thump sends milkweed fluff from last fall flying up into the air. I pause and examine the clumps of it lying on the flattened meadow grass, up against the edge of the slab. Some appear to be just out of their casings, lying in the meadow like silver-scaled fish. I take up a few and throw them into the air and the breeze catches them and hurls them up into the bottomless dark blue sky.
It is not long after this that, tired, I grow careless. One of the edges of the slab is slightly curved, and there is a point at which, as it balances on that side, the opposite and thickest side rising up and over, the weight of the stone can shift suddenly. As it is the heaviest side of the slab that is up in the air this shift of its center of gravity can involve a lot of weight suddenly displaced and moving in a an unexpected direction very quickly. I am aware of this and wary as I flip it along that axis, ready to muscle it back into the trajectory it is supposed to be on instead of allowing it to fall abruptly to one side. But this time I am not paying attention, and as we are on a bit of a slope, the displacement of weight and the even greater force it generates catches me by surprise. The slab slips from my hands in mid flip and switches direction, falling sideways–hard–against me. The heavy upper edge catches my right leg a ways above the knee. My stance isn’t strong as I am in mid step, and it collapses my knee from behind, and the next thing I know I am lying in the meadow with the slab lying across the back of my leg from foot to mid-thigh, pinning me down. Since I am facing away from it, I can’t reach it very well, and from the ground and off to the side of it I have no real purchase or leverage with which to shift it. For a moment I imagine being stuck there until someone comes along the road and I have to holler for help. But with a little more twisting around I manage to shift the slab off my leg. I sit there a minute, ruefully massaging my knee, which twisted uncomfortably when the rock took me down.
That’s when I start laughing, out loud, like a lunatic, on an empty hillside.
With renewed respect for my companion and the unpredictability of its moods and humors–and for the extraordinary force of falling granite–I climb to my feet and put my weight experimentally, and gingerly, on my right leg. It is sore but works, and so we set off again. Strain, heave, flip, thump. Strain, heave, flip, thump. The afternoon rolls by and sweat gathers on the back of my neck, and drips from my forehead into my eyes. Out onto the lawn, along the bottom of it, where Emme likes to do her aerials and back handsprings, and back into the meadow, now travelling along one of the paths I mow through it every summer. We are now at the edge of the dwarf apple trees, and I duck under the low branches as I lift and flip the stone. Further along the path we pass between clumps of daffodils, green and lush and six inches tall, with fat buds but not yet flowers.
At last we approach the outcropping of bedrock that juts like a shelf from the meadow floor, backed by a small growth of prickly brush. I calculate the number of flips necessary to bring it up to the mounting rock with the right orientation. Then it’s one end up and over to lean gently against the bedrock. At this point I’m pretty well exhausted and it takes tremendous effort to lift the end still on the ground and swivel the whole resisting slab onto the outcropping, though it’s only a foot or so high. Then, with everything I have left, I lift the heavy end, the long way, up into the air and struggle to control the waist-high top-heavy mass that is now balanced on a footprint that is about two by six inches. The shelf of bedrock slopes from the meadow up to its front edge, and way back in the woods, an hour or so ago, I examined this small bottom edge of the triangular slab and estimated–hoped–that its angle would roughly mirror the slope of the slab.
The moment of truth: I stand on the outcropping, the slab upright on its long axis in my arms, hugged against my chest, wrestling it back and forth, walking it around the slab on its tiny base, trying to keep its top-heavy mass from escaping my control, looking for a place it will stand on its own. It nearly gets away from me once or twice, but we finally a find a spot, a miniature landscape on the outcropping, a patch a few inches wide that is shaped just right to allow the surface variations of the slab’s bottom edge to establish contact with the ledge at the right angle. I don’t let go of the slab yet but I rock it gently to get a sense of its stability. It feels good. Slowly I release it; and it stands.
It is beautiful, swooping up from its small base like a sail, with a slight curve to the face of it, front and back. The top edge is wonderful, several inches wide, and even. I cast about me and see a round river stone about eight inches across. I put it on the extreme right side of the top edge. It balances and the slab itself remains steady. A small white pebble of quartz on top of that and the work is done. It all comes together at the end with an exquisite effortlessness, the way the best rock sculptures do.
I stand back, sore and exhausted, dripping with sweat, a few scratches on forearms and chest, and admire this new thing in the meadow, this new thing in the world. I circle it and view it from different sides, different angles, admiring it while the breeze cools me and starts to dry the sweat from my body.
As beautiful as this new thing is, I find myself thinking, it was our traveling time that I enjoyed the best. Our pilgrimage.
“‘Pilgrimage.’ C. 1200, pilegrim, from Old French pelerin, peregrin ‘pilgrim, crusader; foreigner, stranger’ (11c., Modern French pèlerin), from Late Latin pelegrinus, dissimilated from Latin peregrinus ‘foreigner’ (source of Italian pellegrino, Spanish peregrino), from peregre (adv.) ‘from abroad,’ from per- ‘beyond’ + agri, locative case of ager ‘country’ (see acre).”
A ‘stranger’: one from beyond one’s acre.
This is not like any afternoon I have spent. Walking with a stone: how to leave your land without leaving your land. How to go on pilgrimage at home. How to become a stranger in your own acre–and thereby feel newly, and most, and for the first time, at home.
Walk with a stone. Walk in a tree. Make what is familiar strange. Know it new. Go on pilgrimage without leaving home.
Journey a hundred miles across a small field.
April 18, 2016: Climbing with Emme. April vacation for Emerson. We have a little time before she goes to Laila’s to join four other girls for a sleepover and a day of playing outside, making art, and talking with friends. She does aerials and handsprings on the lawn below the house while I work on repairing one of my rock sculptures. When I am done I wander over and take some videos of her doing four, five, six back handsprings down the lawn toward me. Then I invite her to join me in the tree.
She climbs adeptly. Some ways up she finds a spot to sit and is happy to stay there, embracing the trunk, while I continue up to my place and survey the horizon for a few moments. I climb back down and take some pictures of her on her perch, smiling joyously. Kids are at their best in trees. They are at home in them. Maybe being in a tree makes them feel more like themselves.
Maybe that’s why I climb the tree too: because it makes me feel more like myself.
April 26, 2016. Snow. Heavy skies, a raw wind, and an inch of damp snow over the meadow. A spiritless climb. Hard to believe it was in the 70s last week.
April 30, 2016. A gorgeous sunny day in the 60s. A spectacular day for a climb. And today it will be one full year of climbing the tree.
I had hoped to spend an hour or so in the tree, and do some tree writing up there, in the late afternoon–I have never spent that kind of time in the tree before–after setting up Emme’s slackline for the new season. I am in the process of untying the trucker’s hitch to raise the top rope when Claire saw Quillan eating yoghurt-covered raisins in the garage. The next thing we know we are all in the car on the way down to the SAVES emergency animal hospital in Lebanon to have vomiting induced and provide possible after-care. Unnecessary, as it turns out, for when the poor fellow empties his innards into whatever receptacle they provided him, it is not raisins that came up but cranberries.
So having lost about two hours and a hundred dollars to that little adventure, we return home in late afternoon with only an hour left before Kim and I have to head out to Claire’s high school birthday celebration and fundraising gala. But that gave me half an hour to roam the tree with a camera.
Leaf buds are swelling. It is hard to articulate the magnificence of the world this time of year, the pure joy of warmth and sunlight, and green seeping up through last year’s flattened grasses in the meadow. The snow of five days ago now gone. Everything rising instead of falling.
It feels like the whole world–field and trees and hills and sky–is made out of birdsong. Built of it, in a kind of fluid architecture of green and gold and blue. They are singing around me now, in every direction, spinning threads of spring as I stand among the branches, weaving a new world.
I chide myself for getting a bit silly up there, a bit foolishly dreamy with these thoughts, and then forgive myself. It’s hard not to be a little delirious, a little drunk, in the full-on torrent of a Vermont spring. The full force of the glory of the world bearing down on one like some kind of celestial firehose. It can be hard to breathe.
It’s a little like completing a pilgrimage in itself, this turn of seasons, a journey to its own particular kind of holy land. Sauntering through the year, finishing with the steep climb of winter, to the ‘Sainte Terre’ (in Thoreau’s inventive etymology of the word ‘saunter’), the holy land, of spring.
And as of today I have spent a year sauntering through my tree as well. Its own kind of pilgrimage. Its own kind of holy land, as ordinary as it may be.