On the morning of May 1, 2015, I strung some prayer flags about forty feet up in a maple tree on our bit of land on a Vermont hillside, and resolved to climb to this perch every day through the end of summer. I hoped it would be a form of spiritual practice, an immersion in the natural world, a way and place to ponder life, and an occasion to swing in a tree like a kid again—possibly with a bit of adventure thrown in.
I climbed on sunny mornings up through caverns of green; in torrential afternoon rains; at twilight as woodcocks and barred owls called across a meadow full of fireflies; and at night by the light of the Milky Way. Summer ended and fall was even more beautiful, hills on fire in the setting sun, so I kept on climbing; until the winter solstice, I told myself. With winter came intense blue skies, an ice storm or two, and a tree full of wind, and I couldn’t give it up. It was nourishing me in too many ways. So I kept on climbing, through to the end of the year, and into the next. And I am climbing still, every day without exception, unless we are away; and sometimes then too, in some other tree. (On two days I have simply forgotten, once in July 2015, once in October 2017. The following days I climbed the tree 25 times in atonement and celebration.)
The first two months I climbed, I told no one. I made my way up the tree in secret. Slowly I began to share the experience with family and friends. I also found, after several weeks, that I was having thoughts about it that I wanted to write down. Around the same time it occurred to me that I had a camera in my pocket every day when I was up there. And so writing and photography became two of the ways I experienced being in the tree. This creative relation to the tree became as vital as climbing itself. And when a few friends expressed interest in the project, it occurred to me that it might be worth putting the fruits of these reflections online, to share something of the experience.
I chose ‘woodwaterstone’ as the address for this site when it struck me that the practice of balancing stones in the meadow (which I had done for several years) involves a meditation in movement very like that of climbing the tree. And the properties and textures of stone offer a bracing counterpoint to the organic branchings of wood. On days when I am lucky enough, I achieve a state of flow in one practice or the other: hence, water.
This project is an exercise in quiet. I am not rafting down the Amazon, or rappelling cliffs, or trekking around the Annapurnas. I am not undertaking the pilgrimage to Santiago, or following Basho’s narrow road to the deep north (more’s the pity). I am climbing a very ordinary maple tree—the same ordinary maple tree—day after day after day. The practice of climbing is the practice of being fully present. Of seeing what is marvelous about a world so familiar we walk by it every day without noticing. It requires and fosters the cultivation of wonder. And it turns out that what is tiny and ordinary unfolds into a magisterium of parts, and each of those parts in turn contains a cosmos. If there is, as William Blake wrote, a universe in a grain of sand, there are countless more in a tree. The more you look, the more there is to see; and the more you climb, the more pathways emerge.
Spiritual practice. Art project. Celebration of playfulness. Adrenaline-inducing physical adventure. Refuge and consolation. The search for a deeper and more intimate connection with the natural world.
And it turns out there is nothing better than sitting thirty or forty feet up in a tree with your daughters, like koala bears, snapping goofy pictures and talking about life.
The first year—which is perhaps the heart of this project—is presented as a traditional forward-reading narrative. The months since appear in blog format. The galleries offer a visual meditation on the tree and its countless elements and seasons.
I climb, and these are the fruits. I hope they convey something of the experience of being in a tree every day. Enjoy!
(All photographs taken with an iPhone 6s or a Canon Powershot SX50 HS. The only rule is that they must be taken from the tree itself, unless they are of stone stacks in the field.)