The First Year: Summer
Being alive is as tenuous as climbing a tree. As tenuous as clambering among the branches, when there is so much more not-branch than there is branch. The not-branch consists mostly of air, but also of leaves and sunlight, and so is exceptionally beautiful, but not very good at supporting the weight of a body. To slip from branch into not-branch would be a quick way of making the acquaintance of the Not-Branch at the root of it all, the not-branch that is also not-air and not-leaves and not-sunlight, the rich, hard ground of it all, the earth. The earth that effervesces in slow motion, the burgeoning source of life, the canvas and compass and materials and engine of the ten thousand things, the earth that made me and tree and sends me rising up it.
It started with a hunger for a spiritual practice. But I didn’t want to sit. I have done enough sitting in my time and I needed an element of journey, of adventure, of ascent. Not being at liberty to fly off to Japan to retrace Basho’s narrow road to the deep north, or spend a month on the pilgrimage to Santiago in Spain, I needed to find something closer to home. Something I could do every day; that wouldn’t take too long–because how much time do any of us have?; and be inexpensive. It should have an element of challenge or difficulty, whence the adventure; be spiritually inspiring, preferably in a way involving the natural world, which is for me one of the principal domains of the sacred; and, practiced day by day, offer the possibility of the unforeseen.
So in late April–one of those cold, damp, sunny days that April is so good at–I climb a maple tree and tie prayer flags among the branches, about 40 feet up. There is one good climbing tree on our land, and it contains a tree house from a prior owner. Climbing, the first eight feet are up a ladder; then you enter the tree house through a hole in the floor. There is a wall, about waist high. You step up onto the top of the wall and from there move into the branches.
I would climb every day. No excuses: not lack of time or sickness or poor weather. I would spend a few moments at the top, breathing or contemplating or, most often, just looking around. It would be a small thing, a slender golden thread of moments to run through my days. A way to emerge from the rush of life and the welter of tasks and responsibilities that dominate my existence the rest of the time, and be truly present to the world at least once every day. On May 1st I start climbing.
All my climbs at first are on warm spring days. Up I go and down after getting home from work, or before collecting the girls from school, or while dinner is bubbling on the stove and the girls are doing homework. Sunlight and gentle May warmth. The tree is open and airy in the absence of leaves. Week by week I watch buds break into miniature leaves, watched them reach for the light and stretch wide their arms. Slowly the tree fills in, until I am no longer perched on high among bare branches for all the world to see if the world happened by, and cared. I am in the sheltered space close to the trunk; I am under the canopy, looking out between the branches; I am on the inside of the tree.
On a warm evening in June I slip out of the house at twilight. From inside the house it looks dark out, but when my eyes have adjusted, the world is misty and dim and at the same time somehow faintly luminous. The house windows emit a warm yellow light into the evening. I climb the tree and bask in the slowly moving warm air, surveying the landscape from on high. The tree is awash in leaves that are no longer green in the semi-darkness. Everything is the same color, a faint warm gray, in different shades. The air is sweet from grasses and wildflowers in the meadow. From the field comes the cry of a woodcock, which is what I have climbed the tree to hear. I listen to it beep from the ground, repetitively, off a ways, beyond the apple tree and near the bottom of the field. Then the beeping stops and in the moment of silence that follows I try to track its flight up and against the low cloud cover, but cannot find it. Then the chittering cry, the circling against the clouds, and finally the plummet, dropping like a rag bird down through the air, twisting and turning, until it reaches the ground and begins beeping again. As I listen and wait for the next ascent, I hear the deep almost booming call of a barred owl from the ridge beyond the meadow and across the road. ‘Who cooks? Who cooks? Who cooks for you?’
At last I climb down and return to the brilliance of the house.
One of the joys of summer, it turns out, is climbing in a drenching warm rain, shoes and shirt shucked off as you run across the lawn toward the ladder. Sheets and buckets come down, the rain drums and pummels you. Moving upwards from branch to branch you climb carefully, the bark slick with wet lichens and mosses, treacherous with running water. The tree trunk has put on a new coat, is no longer gray, is now brown mottled with brilliant emerald greens. The light inside the mantle of leaves is different, greener and more watery. The world outside is gray with curtains of rain. When you reach the top and stand among the prayer flags, each foot on a different branch, the sheeting rain beats on your head through your hair and runs down your face, down your chest and back, down your legs, and runs in streams from the bottom of each foot.
You look down and see the raindrops in their thousands converge among the branches beneath you, and your two foot-streams as well, the rain running down you as down a pair of rain chains from the corner of a temple roof, two streams of water converging at the base of the tree. You tip your face upwards and are washed by the sky.
It was inevitable that eventually we would be gone all day and return late, and I would have to climb the tree at night. Not in the evening, not in twilight, when there is a faint glimmer on things, light just enough to read the world by as one walks across the lawn; but in true night.
On my first real night climb the sky is moonless and starless. It is so black out that I have to feel my way off the porch by touch. I slowly find my way past the car, arms out in front of me for protection, move across the driveway and up onto the lawn. Locating the tree in the undifferentiated black mass of shrubs, saplings and trees at the edge of the lawn takes some time. At last my hand is on the ladder.
Climbing by touch alone vaults one into a new realm of perception. The seen world simply doesn’t exist. The whole world is made of bark and air movements. Elongated solid things that one can grip and stand on, branching irregularly through space around one. And nearby, the rough leaning pillar in which they are rooted.
By the time you are near the top, your pupils have dilated to the maximum extent possible, and now around you things are barely suggested. The trunk of the tree is hinted at here. You put your hand on it to confirm its existence. That might be a branch. It is possible that that barely discernible line over there is the horizon, but when you look at it, it disappears. But for the most part, the world is uniform around you: up, down, right, left, it makes no difference. It is all the same to the staring eyes. So you return to your hands, which are now your main way of knowing the world. They are the eyes at the end of your forearms. You lower yourself down, hanging by your hands, and feel around with your feet for a branch. You look down; there is a glimmer there, a darkness separate from the rest, and you are pretty sure it will support your weight. You find it with your feet, and it does.
Climbing on a clear night: the climb–on the trip up only–reverses the usual order of things: you tip back your head to look straight up, and the black sky is filled densely with hard white stars. The branches are the places where there are no stars. Reaching a hand upwards, partly by touch and partly by sight, one is reaching for the empty places, the places where there is nothing. The strangely curving, crossing, irregular places of no-star, no-light. One reaches for emptiness. To keep climbing upwards toward the stars (and who does not yearn for the stars in all their lonely and celestial glory?) it would be fatal to reach for the stars themselves. The dark places pull you upwards, the dark places that are rough with lichens and bark. The dark places that are born of the earth, branching and ramifying up into the sky like a reverse watershed of wood, the streams of not-star at the twig-tips meeting and running together and gathering into the trunk and flowing down into the earth, from which water is sucked and gathered in return and sent up into the air as sap. The tree silently exhaling liquid into the night air.
The practice is to climb the tree every day. No excuses: not the weather, not being too busy, not being away all day. Not forgetting.
Until, of course, the day I did. Until the moment I woke up one morning and knew, lying in bed, even before my eyes were open, that I had forgotten to climb the day before. It was late July–I had made it nearly three months without missing a day, except when we traveled. My first response was regret at the loss of my perfect record.
O salutary failure! O excellent prompt to humility! It is so easy to cling to the rule and the face of the practice. I could hear myself saying, months down the road, “Oh, yes, I’ve climbed a tree everyday for six months. Yes, every day. I never missed once.” Not now, and I was the better for it.
My second response was excitement. Setting a practice for myself, and knowing that eventually I must forget, and acting on the dictum that to err is human but to atone divine, I had devised in advance an exercise in atonement if I ever missed a day. The day following, I would climb the tree twenty-five times, consecutively if possible. And so, lying in bed, I began to ruminate on the day’s schedule, turning it over in my head, looking for a gap. How long would it take? Would I get tired? Would I not be able to do it? And if I couldn’t? Fifty times the next day? Ample reason for excitement!
In early evening, dinner mostly prepared and the girls each settled with a past-time, I went out and climbed. Up the ladder, out of the tree house, branch by branch upwards, hand over hand, ascending to the aerial shrine, pause for a moment to look about, and the descent, hand under hand, lowering from branch down to branch, and into the tree house, and down the ladder. Mark an index card. Start back up.
I began to get tired after ten or fifteen ascents. I would pause at the top to catch my breath, at the bottom to shake out my arms. I was reminded that climbing is a war with gravity, that bodies are meant to go down and not up, that making them go up costs real effort. I marvelled that the earth could be so massive that it could make something as small as myself feel so heavy. I continued with the unnaturalness of rising (rising that on other days, at this point in the summer, was genuinely effortless, as easy as strolling down a slope, seeming almost to float up among the tree), branch by branch.
After about twenty climbs, I paused part way up the tree, my attention caught by the branch my hand was on. A change that must have been gradual and a long time coming had vaulted to perception all at once. The places where my hands and feet habitually made contact with the branches as I climbed had changed color. The cool mottled gray of the tree’s bark had become a warm reddish-brown, and the minutely textured surface had been worn smooth and in some places almost gleaming. I gazed at the changed bark, at this new thing in the world of the tree, and something nagged at my memory. Looking at this polished reddish-brown area on the tree limb, marked out like a new continent on the map of the tree, I travelled to other internal regions as well. I had a visceral flashback to childhood, to swinging in the branches of the maple tree in front of the house, making a circuit around the trunk, limb to limb, grasping the smooth reddish-brown places my hands had been so many times before.
With this came a rush of the primal joy of childhood, when one climbed a tree as a tree was meant to be climbed, like a kingdom, each moment a joy with no thought to the future, each leap a perfection in itself that had no need of any other completing perfection. When nothing had to be for anything. When one didn’t have to decide to climb a tree every day for six months, and climb it twenty-five times if a day was forgotten.
And yet without this for, without these rules, I would not be in this tree with my hand on a branch, rediscovering childhood, seeing again what it would mean not to need these rules.
I had made a path up the tree as one makes a path through a meadow, by walking it over and over. I rubbed the palm of my hand over the smoothness of the branch, and started walking again.
It took me about forty-five minutes, maybe closer to an hour, to climb the tree twenty-five times.
The next day I was just barely sore in every possible part of my body.
The primal fear of climbing at night does not come from making one’s way upwards among the branches. The blackness is entire. And yet the particular economy of grace and effort that is climbing a tree that one cannot see supports one and lifts one up. I climb carefully, slowly, not mistaking what is not there to sight for what is not there, leaning heavily on the more reliable sense of touch, and with very little fear that I will slip, that I will fall tumbling down through the not-branch until I smash my face on a limb or my body on the ground. The branches that don’t break during the day are not likely to break at night; and the strength of my hands during the day will persevere in the darkness. Nearly sightless among the branches and the warm summer air and the felt membranous leaves and the stars that hang among them, I feel exhilaration and peace with a small hit of adrenaline.
No, the primal fear comes before then. It comes after feeling my way by touch off the porch and across the driveway, and stumbling up a few stone steps onto the lawn, which rises towards the edge of the woods. It begins when I am walking blindly across the lawn, arms extended in front of me for protection from lone trees and swing sets, toward the black mass of shrubs and trees that is like night incarnate. The brain stem starts to buzz with electric neuronal warnings, begins to throng with thoughts of teeth and claws and lightning speed. This is a good thing, unnecessary in our world but prehistorically adaptive. I step the two or three paces into the woods to find, by touch, the ladder to the tree house, and I am on high alert, but the moment when the gut really clenches is when I push myself from the ladder up through the small opening in the floor of the tree house, and advance, unprotected and headfirst, into that dark, roofless space. The fear that a rabid racoon or startled fisher cat is taking shelter there and poised to attack the soft-faced head that emerges vulnerably into that space is a primal fear, a fear of the body and not the mind, but it eases when I have done this only a few times. Once out of that space and into the branches I am unafraid. I am liberated and exhilarated. There was a reason our ancestors slept in the trees.
Climbing a tree naked is best done in summer. And at a time of day with little traffic on the road. Even behind a full shield of foliage, even on a quiet dirt road, it is remarkable how vulnerable it feels to be up in a tree naked. From the road the interior of the tree seems fairly sheltered, though there are scattered openings among the branches and the prayer flags themselves can be glimpsed if you know where to look. But when you are among the branches looking out, it is nearly all openings, and it feels almost inevitable that a passerby would see you up there, white-bodied in the dappled shade and sunlight. And the sight of me disappearing up a tree naked is not one I care to inflict on anyone–though it could be an excellent way to prevent trespassers on our land, if word got out. As well as a surefire way to brand oneself a lunatic.
The moment of greatest visibility is the dropping of trousers at the foot of the tree and the climb up the ladder into the tree house. This is in full view of the road, as is the initial ascent from the tree house into the branches.
I catch myself writing these sentences. I look at the pronouns and the verbs. “Best done.” Passive voice. “How vulnerable it feels.” “When you are among the branches.” “Brand oneself a lunatic.” Second person, third person. No first person, no active verbs: I have written myself right out of the narrative. All agency gone. Because who would admit to climbing a tree naked? As an adult? Lunatic indeed.
So let me try again.
I drop my shorts at the foot of the tree. There, not so hard, now that I’ve caught on to myself writing myself out of things. I swing up onto the wall of the tree house and into the tree, initially conscious of my lack of clothing. But quickly my attention turns to the rhythm of climbing, the pleasure of the act itself. And I find that climbing naked is a wonderfully different experience: limbs move freely, unconstrained by a shirt, by pants. Or perhaps not more freely, but without the slight tug and cling and stretch that we experience with every moment through most of our lives. We are naked often, but how often are we naked vigorously? At least, vertically? And the air is wonderful, the air is a being that wraps itself around the all of one, that goes everywhere. And as I lose myself in climbing, I find that my sense of vulnerability has been replaced by a glorious sense of freedom. The stretching and reaching and pulling and clambering is physically delicious anyways–it just feels good, always–and naked it feels even better. And I am closer to the tree itself somehow, less separate, as though a barrier between us–a barrier much thicker than a millimeter of cloth–has been removed. My nakedness moves up through the latticework of branches, and I can almost feel the cool shadows and warm patches of sunlight move across my body as I rise upwards.
I reach my place and stand among the prayer flags, exulting in the sensation of being free and unconstrained, looking out over hills and fields. Leaning back against the trunk I can feel the bark rough to all my length (to steal a phrase from Robert Frost). Climbing naked may not be for every day, nor every season, and probably not for company, but a few times a year it is marvelous. The light inside the tree is green-filtered; it is the height of summer, and luxuriously warm. There is a breeze, and leaves shift a little where they are suspended in clusters, slender stems yielding when the pushing air catches their luminous green sails. I am on the mast of a ship, sailing naked over the hills.
It is on a late summer night that I climb under the influence of a sleep aid gone bad. We return late, very late, from an evening out, the four of us together. I had slept poorly for several nights and would need energy for a hilly ten-mile hike the next day. Once or twice before I have taken an Ambien, the first time productively, the second not so much, but it seems a reasonable chance to take. I pop a pill and continue with my part in the bed-time routines, and after about half an hour go out into the warm summery night.
The world drops away when you go out in the dark. You point yourself in what you believe to be roughly the right directly, and make your slow way through the darkness, navigating between the barest gleams–a car here, the wood waiting to be stacked there, up the steps to the lawn, and up the lawn past the sandbox. Nothing can be seen at a distance, but coming into close range of things there are hints and shadows. From the base of the tree I start climbing, up the ladder and into the tree house, up onto its edge, and from there into the branches.
It is a star-filled night, and gloriously warm and breezy. I make my way up, branch by branch, and am just reaching my place among the prayer flags when a branch lunges at me. I grip my handholds more tightly. The trunk followed the branch and lurched toward me too, and then threw itself back and away, and suddenly the air was swimming with branches around me. I was certain I was falling and even when I knew I wasn’t it was difficult to be sure which way was up, which branches to hold on to. I hurled myself at the trunk of the tree and threw my arms around it while the tree lurched and swam wildly about.
Slowly I sorted out my perceptions, named my world as vertigo, and relaxed. When I felt in command of the situation I crept down the tree, very slowly, finding that branches which were indubitably sliding sideways remained still in my hands. Seizing them stilled them. I was over-careful, climbing like a drunk person talks, over-enunciating every grip and hold, every lowering of my body onto a branch below.
In the house, upstairs, getting ready for bed, I lose my balance walking and have to catch myself on the bedroom floor with my hands.
The real risk of falling comes from climbing not in the dark but in the rain. The bark is wet and slick and coated with mosses and lichens. There is a kind of slippery organic film over the branches. Sometimes it feels like climbing a many-branched greased pole. It is especially treacherous because tree limbs as they grow out usually reach upwards towards the light. The foot placed some ways out from the trunk is at risk of sliding abruptly downwards, and one would be left dangling by one’s hands from a branch that is equally slippery.
My awareness of this possibility, I think, generated the almost prophetic inevitability that it would occur. Climbing one summer evening in a light drizzle with customary care, and about thirty feet up, my right foot slipped. As bad luck would have it, my left hand was reaching upwards, between branches. My left foot was likewise unmoored, and before I knew what was happening I dropped, and was left hanging by my right hand from a too-large slippery branch. I twisted for two or three seconds, bodyweight dangling in the air, and then managed to get my feet back under me and my other hand back onto a branch. I hugged the trunk until my heart stopped pounding.
Adrenaline makes breathing delicious.
In a tree all the things that we should see every day become visible again. I am only forty feet away from the world I live in, but those forty vertical feet bring me a disproportionate distance into a foreign land. This strange land is only the one I left, really seen. It is the same hills and fields, the same driveway, the same house and garage and woodshed. The same road runs a line from the upper right of the landscape, behind a line of trees and the garage and the bottom of the driveway and the orchard, down to the lower left. The same car or cars sit in the driveway. The sky is the sky I walk under every day. The light is the same light we see by. And leaves, what are they? As common as dust, fringing our world by the billions.
But to see all these things fresh, from on high, up among the branches, under a new sky–this is a kind of mysticism. It announces the world. It is a poor mysticism that seeks another world; real mysticism reveals or penetrates or makes new the richness of this one.
I climb to get off the ground. I climb to find a new world because the old world is too familiar. I climb because I cannot make it up a mountain every day. But the great by-product of climbing, the chief accidental glory of it, is a reacquaintance with mystery. Alone among the leaves and branches, hidden under the great green-gold mantle that is the canopy, the silence is different, and there is a different kind of stillness to the world. There might be the barest rustle of a breeze through the membranous leaves. It is easy to fall into a microcosm, a world of bark crevices and sea-foam lichens–each a tiny forest itself–and emerald clumps of moss. Of ants and a broken piece of bark and a leaf that has fallen from above and caught in a mesh of twigs or a spider web.
But it is at twilight, or in the night, that mystery comes full on. That ancient hunger to feel something deep and primal and other about the world is fed. One is in the presence of something, that is everything, and everywhere, and the world is once again the world we were meant to be in. With any luck the mind shuts up for a while and one just is, for a while, up in the darkness among the branches, gazing out over a dim and shadowy landscape bathed with the light of stars.
Late summer: tattered cloth and ink and filaments of thread fading in sun and rain. By end of summer you can watch the sun set through a panel of cloth. Threadbare. Images fading away, ideograms indecipherable even to those who could read them. Buddhas fading back into the world as primal gods and goddesses sometimes emerge from it, chthonic, half-formed, from rock or tree or mud. Until there is only the bare cloth. The Buddha has gone and the true Buddha of emptiness has come.
Will a strand of flags break free in winter winds, detach at one end, hang dangling from a branch? Twist in the wind around other branches, form a bird’s nest in a tangle of twigs? Will it cut loose from the tree altogether?
Perhaps to be found next summer wrapped around the trunk of some other tree.