The First Year: Winter
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.