The education of trees

One could do worse than be a swinger of birchesRobert Frost

Get down from there, Tommy!"

From this altitude, my mother looked like a bug, far away, tiny, insignificant. But her voice was another thing altogether. It carried all the way up to my lofty perch without losing a decibel. A mother's strength, not to be ignored.

Up here, the wind made the branches sway in ever-widening arcs, and I felt like Ishmael sitting on the topmost mast of a whaling ship. The wind. The sky. The freedom! And then that voice again, louder now: "I - said - get - down - from - there - now!"

There's a theory somewhere that explains how all human society, civilization, is somehow tied up with our association with trees. Perhaps, in some prehistoric epoch, men and women lived out their lives in the branches of trees, safe from the danger and stress lurking on the ground. There's no denying the civilizing effect that close proximity to trees has had on my life.

When I was very young, I couldn't get my arms around the old pine tree at the side of the house. It was that wide. Worse, the lowest branch was too high to reach. But trees are patient and live by a slower clock than we do. My tree waited, and while I grew quickly, it grew slowly. Day by day, week by week, I began to catch up. Weeks became months. Months became years, and my arms stretched enough to reach those lower branches. But how to climb a tree? Like most human activities, you learn by doing.

The poet Robert Frost describes going up the trunk of a birch tree with such care and deliberation that it was like balancing a cup filled to the brim - and even a bit above the brim! That's how I climbed, letting my hands lock onto each branch like a vise. I can still feel the hot, sticky sap oozing between my fingers and combining with the healthy sweat of fear.

Still, it was comforting to clamber up, and convenient, too. The higher I went, the closer together the branches grew. A thousand woody fingers stretching toward the sun. It was a serious education for a six-year-old in a few minutes of an August afternoon. As I climbed, I was urged up to eagle heights. There was no looking down, no going down, either.

People have always built good things from trees: homes, tables, temples, beds. But people who climb trees build something even more sustaining - their character. Trees take us from the mundane pathways of the earth to the lofty aeries of heaven. A thousand years ago, the Vikings believed that the world was part of a giant tree, Yggdrasill, whose spirit infused life into all things. The mighty roots of Yggdrasill held back the dark forces of chaos. Men who reached the summit of Yggdrasill became companions to the gods.

When I had finally reached the top of my tree, the trunk was thin, but strong. With a twist I could sway through the sky in grand, looping parabolas. The laws of gravity seemed suspended, though the laws of childhood remained intact.

"GET DOWN, TOMMY!" cried my mother urgently, and I slowly, carefully obeyed. Now, as I look back to that day, I knew even then that I would make that climb a thousand times in a thousand different trees. As Frost said, we climb "toward heaven," only to return to earth once more. But we never return empty-handed. We come home changed by a bit of heaven snatched from the treetops. And even when our feet tread the granite rock of earth, our hearts continue to step among the clouds.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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