Up in the trees
Friday, December 10, 2021
Robert Macfarlane begins his book The Wild Places at the top of a thirty foot beech tree situated in a city woodland. He writes:
"I had started climbing trees about three years earlier. Or rather, re-started; for I had been at a school that had a wood for its playground. We had climbed and christened the different trees (Scorpio, The Major Oak, Pegagsus), and fought for their control in territorial conflicts with elaborate rules and fealties. My father built my brother and me a tree house in our garden, which we had defended successfully against years of pirate attack. In my late twenties, I had begun to climb trees again. Just for the fun of it: no ropes, and no danger either.
"In the course of my climbing, I learned to discriminate between tree species. I liked the lithe springiness of silver birch, the alder and the young cherry. I avoided pines -- brittle branches, callous bark -- and planes. And I found that the horse chestnut, with its limbless lower trunk and prickly fruit, but also its tremendous canopy, offered the tree-climber both a difficulty and an incentive.
"I explored the literature of tree-climbing, not extensive, but so exciting. John Muir had swarmed up a hundred-foot Douglas Spruce during a Californian windstorm, and looked out over a forest, 'the whole mass of which was kindled into one continuous blaze of white sun-fire!' Italo Calvino had written his magical novel, The Baron in the Trees, whose young hero, Cosimo, in an adolescent huff, climbs a tree on his father's forested estate and vows never to set foot on the ground again. He keeps his impetuous word, and ends up living and even marrying in the canopy, moving for miles between olive, cherry, elm, and holm oak. There were the boys in B.B.'s Brendan Chase, who go feral in an English forest rather than return to boarding-school, and climb a 'Scotch pine' in order to reach a honey buzzard's nest scrimmed with beech leaves. And of course there was the realm of Winnie the Pooh and Christopher Robin: Pooh floating on his sky-blue balloon up to the oak-top bee's nest, in order to poach some honey; Christopher ready with his pop-gun to shoot Pooh's balloon down once the honey had been poached....
"There was nothing unique about my beech tree, nothing difficult in its ascent, no biological revelation at its summit, nor any honey, but it had become a place to think. A roost. I was fond of it, and it -- well, it had no notion of me. I had climbed it many times; at first light, dusk, and glaring noon. I had climbed it in winter, brushing snow from the branches of my hand, with the wood cold as stone to the touch, and real crows' nests black in the branches of nearby trees. I had climbed in in early summer, and looked out over the countryside with heat jellying the air and the drowsy buzz of a tractor from somewhere nearby. And I had climbed it in monsoon rain, with water falling in rods thick enough for the eye to see. Climbing the tree was a way to get perspective, however slight; to look down on a city that I usually looked across. The relief of relief. Above all, it was a way of defraying the city's claims on me."
The city (Cambridge, England) is Macfarlane's home, the center of his work and family life...but even his forays into the city's trees did not satisfy his craving for the natural world and his hunger for true wilderness. "Anyone who lives in a city," he writes, "will know the feeling of having been there too long. The gorge-vision that the streets imprint on us, the sense of blockage, the longing for surfaces other than glass, brick, concrete and tarmac....I have lived in Cambridge on and off for a decade, and I imagine I will continue to do so for years to come. And for as long as I stay here, I know I will have to also get to the wild places."
In a piece for the Guardian a few years back, Macfarlane lauded Richard Preston's The Wild Trees, an account of the the scientists who research (and climb) the giant redwoods of California and Oregon:
"I first encountered Preston's book about two years ago in its ur-form as a long New Yorker essay. It stayed with me as an influence as I wrote a book of my own, describing the journeys I made in search of 'other worlds' - the remaining wild places of Britain and Ireland. That search took me from the sea cliffs of Cornwall to the river mouths of Sutherland, from East Anglia's shingle beaches to the salt marshes of Essex, from the moors of the Pennines to the mines and sea caves of North Wales.
"I traveled widely, and I tried to travel wildly. I walked, swam and climbed through landscape and seascape. Wherever possible, I slept out. I traveled in all four seasons, in sunlight, rain and blizzard, and by night as well as day. I also sought out the company of native guides: people who had lived in those landscapes for many years, or come to know them intimately as scientists, artists, shepherds or foresters - people who had acquired the wisdom of sustained contact with a place. I tried, in short, to find new ways of approaching this much-written-about archipelago of ours. Ways of 'coming at the landscape' - as the Georgian travel writer Stephen Graham memorably put it - 'diagonally'....
"Woods and forests were important features of my journeys. I explored the dwarf hazel forests of the Burren in County Clare, the oakwood 'thicks' of Suffolk, and the wild hedgerows of Dorset. I went alone to the Black Wood of Rannoch, the cloud forests of Dartmoor, and the birch woods of Cumbria.
"Wherever I could, I climbed trees."
Another way to experience life in the trees is to create a dwelling nested in the branches. I always wanted a tree house as a child and never had one, so I covet these grown-up versions:
The Bird's Nest, on the California Coast near Big Sur
Two French tree houses: one hidden in the trees in La Croix-Valmer, and one perched elegantly in Rambouillet Forest.
The Bird's Nest room at the Treehotel in Swedish Lapland.
In 2008, the Japanese sculptor and installation artist Tadashi Kawamata created the Tree Huts project in Madison Square Park in New York City -- a small park that I happen to know well, as I worked for many years for Tor Books in the elegant old Flat Iron building (pictured in the photo below), and before that for Ace Books, just a few blocks north on Madison Avenue.
For this site-specific project, Kawamata built twelve wooden huts high in the trees of the park, created out of raw lumber, found objects, and construction scraps. For the artist, this artwork explored ideas about the meaning of shelter in an urban context....but for children (and those of us with magically-inclined imaginations) it was as though Peter Pan and his tribe of Lost Boys had taken up residence in this most urban of settings, or perhaps some tree-dwelling clan of faeries who were now staking an urban claim. The huts appeared in early October, charmed residents and tourists alike for several months...and vanished with the turning of the year, leaving the faintest trace of Mystery behind.
"To the great tree-loving fraternity we belong," Henry Ward Beecher (an early defender of the American wild) once said. 'We love trees with universal and unfeigned love, and all things that do grow under them or around them -- the whole leaf and root tribe."
I spent a good deal of time high in trees when I was young -- both for the physical pleasure that climbing gave me and also as an escape from home: in the tree tops I could think, cry, read, or do my homework undisturbed, high above the world. All these years later, I can still remember what it feels like to shimmy up an oak's rough trunk or to sway in the slender branches of a birch; to be strong, quick, supple, and fearless, climbing higher than others dared to go. I still count myself a member of the "leaf and root tribe" though my forays into trees are rare and tame these days; I'm slower, stiffer, an earthy root elder now, not a budding green leaf. On the outside, I'm an older woman with health concerns, who sometimes looks like the wind could blow me over; inside, I'm still that strong, quick, straw-haired girl who could and did climb anything.
A friend of mine, from a troubled background, describes his upbringing as being "raised by wolves." I was raised by trees, whenever and wherever I could find them.
And thank heavens they were there.
The aboreal art above is: "The Faery Reel" and "Puck" by the brilliant, incomparable Charles Vess;"The Baron in the Trees" by Yan Nacimbene; "The Baron in the Trees" by Leredana Canini; "The Baron in the Trees," Italian edition (artist uncredited); "Pooh and the Honey Pots" by Howard Earnest Shepard (1879-1976); "Tapping the Dream Tree" by Charles Vess; "Tree People" by Virginia Lee: "The Capture" and "Tree People"; "Nest," a photograph by Ione Rucquoi; sundry photographs of tree houses and huts; a little tree girl of mine; and "Red Dog and Jackalope" by Charles Vess (from Medicine Road by Charles de Lint).