The First Year
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.
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.
Iwake 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.
December 1, 2015. The snow will come late this year; but this is worse than snow. Full gear: rain pants, raincoat, grip gloves, and spiked chains snapped onto the soles of my boots. It is nearly dark and the rain is freezing on everything.
After picking up one daughter and a friend from school an hour or so earlier, and driving over the icy hill to collect my other daughter from The Sharon Academy–all sports and after-school activities canceled at both schools, sections of 89 and 91 closed due to multi-vehicle accidents, and reports that dirt roads are especially bad–I make the decision to take them all home instead of proceeding to gymnastics in Norwich as planned. We stop at the general store for muffins and marshmallows on the way back. Now the girls are making hot chocolate and taking on the many-headed hydra of algebra in the kitchen.
I haven’t climbed the tree yet today. I spent the morning at work and the forecast predicted only rain, so I planned on doing it in the early evening. Now it is nearly dark and if I don’t go out now I will have missed a day and will be finished for the year. Reluctant to let the practice go, to admit defeat, to see winter come–and also, to be honest, a bit excited by what it might be like to climb a tree in the dark in freezing rain–I get everything on and tell the girls I am going out, and to come looking for me if I’m not back inside in fifteen minutes.
The local roads were bad but not terrible and so I am surprised by what I find. The steps of the ladder are glazed with ice and the floor of the tree house is treacherously slippery. I reach up to the first branch and discover that there is a slick coating of glare ice over it. The entire tree is encased in ice. It is thick enough that it can’t be broken or chipped away. I place a first foot up onto the two-by-four I’ve screwed flat on the top of the tree house wall, and find that the spikes under the fore part of my foot seem to grip the icy surface. I look up at the prayer flags, dim in the near dark, frozen stiff thirty feet above me. I look back at the house, at the warm light flooding from the windows, and think of the girls drinking hot chocolate at the dining room table.
At first it is an experiment–can I make it up to the first branch without slipping? The next? I place a foot carefully at the widest point of the branch, and at its base, where it meets the tree, so that my foot can’t suddenly lose its grip on the ice and slip downwards. I try to grip a branch to pull myself up and find that the ice, streaming with rain, affords no purchase at all. Instead I hook my whole arm around the branch, holding it with my bent elbow, and lift myself into the tree. My foot holds on the two by four and I transfer the other foot to a branch, wedging it between branch and tree trunk. Doing this I discover a new technique for climbing: stay flat against the trunk of the tree and hook an arm over each new branch, first to the elbow, then all the way to the armpit, and only then straighten the leg that supports my weight. My other arm then finds another branch, hooks over it up to the armpit, I place a foot with extreme care in such a way that the spikes will best bite into the ice on the branch beneath, and straighten the leg. Repeat. It is slow, arduous, and awkward, and at every point it feels like I could slip and go shooting from the tree. I must look like a crow with broken legs trying to climb a tree with its wings. But once a branch is lodged beneath an arm, it no longer matters how treacherously slick that branch is, I have levered myself over it, and even if my foot slips I am reasonably sure that I can keep myself from falling. If I can’t get my arm over a branch all at once I make a hook of my wrist, lock it over the branch, and then ooze upwards, hugging the trunk, sliding my arm first to the elbow over the branch, and finally to the armpit. The front of my raincoat looks like I just crawled on my stomach half a mile through the woods.
And so I make my way up the tree. The raincoat hood is blocking my peripheral vision so I push it back by rubbing my head against the trunk of the tree, unwilling to take the risk of using either hand. Part of my brain is appalled that I am doing something that is so undeniably treacherous, so inexcusably dangerous, with no real recourse if something goes wrong. The rest of my brain is delirious that I appear to be pulling it off. Once or twice a foot slips, spikes or no, but each time I have a branch under my arm and can regain my footing. There is a tricky bit just below the prayer flags where I can’t use the elbow-armpit technique. For a moment I have to trust to wrists and feet–this night when opposable thumbs, for all their vaunted glory, are useless–but I make it up.
I take a moment to look at the glazing of ice on the prayer flags, observe their peculiar stiffness, which is so different from when they hang motionless on a merely windless day. I manage to get off one glove, hold it in my mouth, and fish an iPod from my pocket to take a picture or two, but they are dim and without interest. I make my way down, possibly more slowly than I climbed up, dangling by armpit and elbow as I lower myself down, trying never to trust myself to feet alone, except occasionally when a boot feels really securely lodged between branch and trunk and I have no choice.
As I lower myself into the treehouse my faithful daughter, friend in tow, emerges from the light of the mudroom into the darkness of the porch and calls out to make sure I am still alive. I invite them over to witness my insanity (what is it in us that is so pleased to have a witness?) and they run through the rain, marvel at the slippery ladder rungs, climb slowly into the slick-floored tree house with me beneath them, guarding them against falling, and reach up to feel the thick layer of ice on the lowest branches. They climb back down with freezing hands, and we run, slipping and sliding, for the house.
December 9, 2015. The photograph I missed: the middle of the week before Revels, two kids home sick from school, hedged in by rehearsals and vicarious stress on every side, I run out of the house on a cold morning, hungry to breathe fresh air and clear my mind. Halfway up the tree I see that a few dozen yards into the woods there is a yellow birch in which, twenty feet off the ground, a red apple is sitting where a branch splits off from the trunk. The brilliance of the red contrasts with the ragged golden bark of the tree, and the apple is the only thing not gray, brown, or gold in the entire wall of trees. In the entire landscape. It is round and unbitten and perfect. It is though an artist decided at the last minute to set aside her palette of muted tones and took one dab of glowing red on the tip of her brush and dropped it into the tree. I crouch in my tree for a while and regarded the beauty of the fruit, wondering what creature brought it from the orchard in its mouth and deposited it there above the forest floor. I must bring out the camera tomorrow and take a picture, I thought. (I never do.) I climbed further up, and down, and went inside, and that was that.
So into that space where that photograph is not, I pour these words.
December 20, 2015. Can air be succulent? Because that’s how it feels, tastes, on a summer night. Fragrant and lush. Heavy with leaves and the moisture of the meadow. Crisp of course in fall, that word like an apple and a ginger snap, exactly right. But what in winter? Climbing on a cold December morning, small snow on the ground, the air is flat, almost metallic, and it bites the hands and face. But the branches are bone dry and the climbing is good. I might be wearing tight rubber-palmed gloves for warmth, or, if it is not too cold, climbing with bare hands, and then I savor the slight corrugation of the bark, the lichen roughness in my palm.
A quick rise up through the branches–stand in place–breathe and taste the air (what is not succulent can still be delicious)–admire the prayer flags, the horizon, the white sky above–and down I go.
Passing from summer into fall, the leaves are stripped away and the tree rises up bare and empty from the edge of the lawn.
What goes next, moving from autumn into winter, with fallen snow, is the ground. White earth, white sky.
The tree stands improbably, like a branching stake spiked into a white void.
January 18, 2016. This morning I went out and climbed early, before the girls were up. Martin Luther King day, and they are home from school; and for me, no work. It is snowing heavily, the flakes getting bigger and the horizon pulling in to the edge of the field, and I can’t resist any longer. Over pajamas I pull on snow pants and coat, hat and gloves. After the two times I strapped teeth onto the bottoms of my boots I found scratch marks on a few of the branches, and felt as bad as if I had put them in my own arms–I had damaged the creature that was making all this possible, that was allowing me to scramble up among her branches into the sky–so I had resolved to use them again only when there was enough ice on the branches that they would be protected. Branches covered by snow are slick, but manageable with care.
I make my way out into the moving world–everything drifting sideways across the meadow and lawn and driveway and up towards the tree that I am drifting towards as well. I stand at the bottom looking up: three or four inches of fluffy snow stacked on every ladder rung and, above the tree house, on every branch going up the tree. Gloves grasping rungs dislodge showers of snow. Stepping from the tree house wall up into the first branches, a boot slips slightly along the branch toward the trunk and I fling an elbow over a branch to catch myself. I snap into a fully engaged climbing mode: slow, cautious, thinking about angles and leverage and stable places. The snow is blowing sideways through the tree thickly now, heavily. Each time I reach above my head to grasp another branch, snow is dislodged and cascades down over my head and, until I learn better, my upturned face. Brush, grasp, climb, brush, grasp, climb. Snow showering around me.
When I reach the high place, the place where the prayer flags are strung, I turn my face into the wind and watch the snow barreling at me across the meadow. It is exhilarating beyond words.
Today the snowflakes themselves are my prayer flags, blowing in the wind.
And the prayer flags have their own particular beauty when they are thick with snow, when it is built up on top of the string and clinging in clumps to the face of the flags. They are different creatures now than they were on summer afternoons. Soft and secluded, sheltered and secret in their coat of snow.
Looking down from the top, every branch below me–radiating out from the center of the tree–is white, except for my boot marks and the places where gloves brushed branches clean. White reaching out through the white on every side.
Friday January 8, 2016. I climb hastily after work, about to set off with Emme to collect Claire from school and go on Norwich where, after gymnastics, Kim will take Claire, and Emme and I will head down to Lexington to stay with friends for the weekend, so I can attend a conference in Boston.
Halfway up the tree I look over and see that the lower flags, the shorter string of larger flags, on the other trunk, has snapped at one end and is hanging straight down, the panes of cloth now curling over themselves like rolled parchment. I am surprised; somehow I thought the flags themselves would tatter long before the string broke. I continue climbing up and when I reach my perch I discover that the upper string too has snapped. One part, the shorter, dangles on the other side of the tree trunk. The rest hangs down the branch in front of me.
That both strings have parted on the same day is strange–I can’t think of any recent weather that was fiercer than usual, no freezing rain to weight and drag them down, no high winds to distend the flags like sails before snapping their cords. They have a forlorn look, hanging down, succumbing to gravity. Furled. I take a few pictures to record the moment.
The next day, Saturday January 9th, is the first day I haven’t been able to climb the tree since our trip to Canada in early August. When we return late Sunday night, I climb in a wretched cold rain, the temperature only in the mid-30s. That night the wind is so loud that Kim and the girls cannot fall asleep; and I wake up in the very early morning and cannot return to sleep. Sleds on the floor of the screened-in porch slide and bump and the air whistles and roars. A loose screen door rattles.
When I climb on Monday I am not surprised to find that there is nothing left of either set of prayer flags but a bit of string tied around a branch. This is also the day that, looking down from among the branches, I see enormous moose tracks threading their way among the saplings beneath the tree house. Later, when I bring the girls home from school, I will take them straight from the car up to the tree house to show them the tracks, and we will discover that the frozen crust on the snow across the lawn is so gleaming and hard that we can slide down to the driveway on our backsides. Emme wants me to get her gymnastics mat from the garage to bring into the house, and as I step back out onto the snow with it the idea is so obvious and irresistible that we all laugh. I take the four-inch thick mat and laboriously make my way up the field behind the garage, a short steep slope, trying to step where grasses poke out of the snow for traction, or to find weak places where I can punch my boots through the crust. The girls climb up too and we lay the mat down on a slight trough in the snow along a path I mowed through the meadow last summer. I climb on to test the waters, as it were, and off I shoot down the slope until I collide with the wall of the garage. As the mat is large and soft and hits the wall before I do, it is a perfect ride. I haul it back up and we each take a few runs before heading for the house, gloveless hands clasped over freezing ears, backpacks dangling from elbows by their straps.
Later I look for the prayer flags. There is a small area of woods behind the climbing tree, but I can find them hung up on no sapling, dangling from no bush or tree. The winds that night were so fierce that they must be up on the next property, or maybe further afield than that. They were fading and worn already, the colors muted and their printed black symbols mostly indecipherable, even to one who could read Tibetan, and already their threads had begun to separate and unravel at the edges.
That night falling asleep I think of bird nests scattered through woods and hedgerows next spring, red and blue and green and yellow threads winding among the twigs and bits of moss, every string perhaps containing still a speck of black ink, a fragment of a fragment of a prayer. Maybe six bird nests together would be saying “OM,” or whatever it is that prayer flags pray. Or twenty would carry among their twigs and milkweed fluff an unravelled Buddha, or the image of a vajra, the lightning bolt of knowledge. It is the old consolation: the pain of transience tempered by the hope of transformation. Of yang turning to yin and back to yang, even if we are not there to see it. Even if it is not there to be seen. The Tao and its expressions threading its way back into the natural world, one bird’s nest at a time. Presence becoming manifest as absence, its favorite guise. Absence threading its way back into presence.
January 22, 2016. A cold day. Blue sky and a strong wind up the hill. Running across the pure white drifted snow, running up the tree, branches bare and dry. The wind hurls geysers of ultrafine coruscating snow across the meadow and into the blue sky and through the upper branches of the tree. Sunlight glints on everything. The sky is bottomless. I run down the tree and back over the snow.
January 26, 2016. A long run now of cold dry days and good, clean, bare branches. I am as comfortable now climbing with boots and gloves as I was barefoot in the summer. It’s a different world, almost unrecognizably different, which is the way of seasons in New England, but it is a good world. Sometimes I try to imagine climbing wearing only shorts up through the citadel of green, warm breezes pushing at my bare back and washing my face. It is nearly impossible to make it real. The world is empty, white, and bare around me. It is austere, harsh, and beautiful. The tree itself feels cold and remote beneath my hands. I lean my head back against it and it is like resting on a sleeping flank, or a stone sculpture, There is no sense of rivers of sap, of shimmering leaves, of moist life. It is a structure, austere and grand. Lichens and bits of bark flake off beneath my gloves like dead skin and fall to the snow below.
The pleasure now of the effortlessness of climbing. The movements are automatic, ritual, but not inflexible. I climb and I observe my climbing and I decide this time to climb down facing away from the tree. But whichever way I climb, unless I depart radically from my usual route, I climb with flow. Or rather, the climbing flows, and I flow along with it, and that is the pleasure of it. Then it truly feels like running up the tree. Dancing up the tree. And it is physically effortless in the sense of involving no muscular strain. It is easy now, like walking through the meadow. There is a sharp joy in this experience of the climb happening by itself with no effort on my part. It is not quite that I am wholly passive. It is more like I and the climb are dance partners, and there is a give and take between us. Together we make our way up the tree and back down again. This is the archer who releases the arrow without intention, and hits the target without trying. This is the meat-cutter beneath whose knife the carcass disassembles itself without effort. It is a humble thing, climbing a tree, not like composing a symphony or mastering a martial art or achieving fluency in a language; but it is my humble thing. And the flow, the dance, is there. And possibly, in the end, within the compass of an individual life, it is the flow that matters, not the symphony or the fight or the translation.
Thus the perennial question is raised: what the value of a practice that produces no thing?
Thankfully, not thinking about such things is one of the reasons one climbs a tree.
January 19, 2016. Taoism prizes valleys and water. Descent to the low places; and an element that always gives way. This seems very nearly opposite to the effortful rising that is climbing a tree. Until–perhaps?–climbing itself becomes so natural, so effortless, that it becomes its own kind of “free and easy wandering.” A doing that has become its own kind of not-doing. A flowing upwards as easy and natural as the flowing of water downwards. Wu-wei in a tree.
January 29, 2016. I am thinking about climbing the tree blindfolded, as per Steve’s suggestion. I like to think that climbing on a heavily overcast moonless night is like climbing blindfolded, but it’s not, really. However dark the night, there is always a gleam. Objects possess a mysterious ability to exude the faintest breath of presence. Utterly devoid of vision, would I be able to locate myself in the tree? Would I be able to gauge where in the ascent or descent I was? Or would I be reaching blindly to find branches? I guess the practical question is this: would I know when it was safe to hang from a branch and feel with my feet for something below–or would I pick the wrong places to dangle and encounter nothing and have to haul myself back up?
Maybe that wouldn’t be a problem. So dangle.
So what is this dynamic which sets me seeking unusual conditions in which to climb? In ordinary terms this is obvious–it is more interesting, more beautiful, more challenging, more exciting, worthy of a greater sense of achievement, and so forth. But as a spiritual practice, it is ordinary that should carry the day. That should be enough. That should be more than enough. And it is. And yet there I am, running out the door because a wind is coming up the hill like a freight train. Intrigued by the idea of climbing a tree encased in ice. Wondering what it would be like to be up there blindfolded.
To say it is human to feel this way is not to say much. Or maybe it’s to say everything. Taoist sages may have sought the valleys, and flowed downhill with the water, but didn’t they live in the mountains?
The first several months every climb was brilliant. Surface textures were rich under my hands, the smell of the lichened trunk was exhilarating, I felt every movement and breath of air. Each motion was an exploration, each leaf a discovery. Being that high above the ground was all alertness and adrenaline. There were no ordinary climbs. But let time pass, let night climbs and rain storms and snow enter in, and prayer flags snapping in a high wind, and owls calling at dusk, and summer days of lush beauty, and backlit golden leaves in fall, every vein etched against that luminescence, and prayer flags stiff with ice–and now there are ordinary climbs. Days that have none of these things.
How can one not feel that it is the ordinary climbs that are the key to it all? The rest are easy. They are in the bag, as it were. Firmly tucked away in the satchel of inspiration and delight. That day when there is nothing notable, nothing especially beautiful, nothing especially comfortable or uncomfortable, nothing especially easy or difficult, no interesting or unusual sight: what is that day? Does it happen often, or rarely enough that it is the extraordinary day?
How to talk about the ordinary. How to talk about that about which there is nothing to say. (And the accompanying risk of making it sound too interesting.) Is it like branches against the stars on a black night? Reaching for the dark places, the empty places? The places where there is nothing to see, as for when there is nothing to say? Ordinariness: spiritual balm and tonic precisely because there is nothing special about it. Because it is the bones of existence. Because we all have to make our peace with it eventually.
The whole point of photography is to create a beautiful, or striking, or unusual, image. An ordinary photograph is not worth looking at. A striking photograph of an ordinary object, an object that is not striking, is an achievement of art. It is, in a way, more beautiful than a striking photograph of something extraordinary.
But does it do this by honoring what is ordinary about the object? Or does it do it by transforming it, in the image, into something it is not? Granting us the enjoyment of this beautiful new thing in the world? While leaving the original subject to shelter in the private obscurity of the utterly ordinary, as we turn away from it towards its image.
February 4, 2016. I found an extra string of prayer flags tangled up in a storage cubby in the mud room. I am not sure where they came from. They are a bit bright for my taste, but they are the ones that offered themselves up. Two days ago when I got home from work–it was mild out, more unusual weather in this winter of strange days–I climbed the tree with the flags in my pocket and, at the top, tied them into place. The strand is shorter than the last one I had there, so I couldn’t tie it across the same branches. It is a foot or so higher, angled differently, and encompasses less. The original string was longer, with smaller flags, and it tied across two sides of the space I stand in. I don’t like the new flags. They are too big, too bright, and they sit there disconnected from everything else, a short strand just tied between two branches. They don’t belong. I miss my old flags like a friend that has moved away. Their soft colors and their inconspicuous size. Their slowly unraveling threads.
February 11, 2016. I went to the Asian import store in Hanover and bought two new rolls of prayer flags. Taking them to the tree a few days later I discovered that both, tightly bundled when I chose them, are much larger than I bargained on. The strand I intended for the lower branches has, like the one it replaces, only five flags, but they are immense. I tie them in place and am not sure how I feel about them. Then at the high place I take the other roll out of my pocket and unfurl it for the first time and discover that it is immensely long. Not sure what to do with it, I tie one end to a branch and start unspooling it from branch to branch until it makes a complete circle around the trunk and me. The flags are considerably larger than those they replaced, and brightly colored, and I don’t like them. There are too many of them and they dominate the tree. I need to get more and try again. They should blend into their surroundings. They should appear to be emerging from the tree, like another kind of leaf.
Prayers should be murmured, not shouted.
Tonight I went out through falling snow in twilight when the world was blue. Some snow had accumulated on the branches, so I had to brush it off as I climbed and go carefully. Standing at the top I watched the world darken and the snow fly towards me.
February 15, 2016. Yesterday morning when I came downstairs the thermometer read -20. I pulled on pants and coat, hat and thick gloves, and went out to climb the tree, curious as to what it would be like in such frigid conditions.
Cold, it turns out.
The air was still and hard. First light was breaking on the opposite hills. Plumes of breath were my companions, but I left them behind as I climbed. At the top there was an intense clarity to the air, to its motionlessness. I take off my gloves to take a picture and wedge them between two branches. Almost instantly the bones in my hands begin to ache.
There is that grating crunch to the snow as I walk across it back to the house to build a fire in the wood stove.
February 24, 2016: The Second Ice-Climb
February vacation for the girls, and we had planned to go down the the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston for the day. As the day approached the forecast shifted from heavy rains to the dreaded wintry mix: a bit of snow overnight and then freezing rain. Early in the morning I watch the weather radar across Vermont and New Hampshire: pink bands of freezing rain drifting across 89 and 93. After an hour or so I call it: we’re staying home. Emme goes to a friend’s house for the morning, then I will take Claire and pick up Emme and friends and we’ll head into Hanover to visit the Dartmouth Greenhouse, have some frozen yoghurt, and see a movie–and return well after dark. As we are preparing to leave the house I realize I haven’t climbed the tree yet, and can’t risk climbing an icy tree at night.
Snow pants, boots with teeth strapped to the bottom, coat, hat, Mad Grip gloves. Out to the tree.
That it snowed last night helps. In places it is an inch or two deep and when I brush it off the top layer of ice goes too. It is slippery where the snow was, but a little more textured than glare ice. In places where the snow didn’t collect there is only ice. I climb slowly and with great care. I am even more conscious of angles this time–the way a boot sits against a branch, such that it will provide leverage with less likelihood of slipping because I require no sideways grip from it. The teeth on my boots don’t bite into the tree or ice–I place my feet so that the branch is in the arch of my foot. The teeth are fore and aft of this, and while they don’t help to grip the tree they provide a little insurance that if a boot slips it might not go off the branch entirely. Again, the key technique is always to have a branch in the crook of an elbow or under an arm. This is most secure when my arm is over a branch at its fork, where it meets the trunk. So that the ascent is the sequential fitting together of our forks, of our branchings, of, one might even say, our various and several crotches.
At the top I do my best to brace myself securely–more crotches, and wedged boots–and take off my gloves and hold them under one armpit–another crotch. All these forks. There must be a reason for them all, a structural usefulness to this replicating pattern. I fish my phone out of my pants pocket from beneath my snow pants. I take a few pictures. Stiff prayer flags and ice-encrusted branches. The world beyond the branches is bedraggled, gray and white and misty. White pines droop, their branches weighed down by ice. A freezing drizzle falls on everything. I find myself thinking that this must be the most inhospitable season–but then think, no, 20 below zero is less hospitable. It is absolute and unforgiving. It is the guarantee of a quick death if one were stranded outside. But it is up front about its menace, it makes no bones about it. I am frigid, your flesh is soft, I will freeze it hard and then it will slough off of you. I will suck the life from you before you know what is happening.
This world is treacherous. It’s only rain. It is gray and ugly. It is cold and damp and very uncomfortable, nothing more.
Unless a boot slips.
And it is typical of this peculiar winter that the most treacherous ice climb is yet to come, and will happen in the months we think of as spring.
But for now, more winter: brilliant white snow across the meadow, high branches lit by a cold sun, and stunning blue skies of infinite depths.
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 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. 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, closed my eyes, and just basked.
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.