The Elm Climber
by Jerry DeNuccio
The monarch of my backyard is a massive and towering American Elm, easily over 100 feet high and a bit past 12 feet around at its base. Some of its limbs are thicker than the trunks of most of the other trees on my property. Its maze-like, droopy branches form an umbrella-shaped canopy with a nearly 75 foot spread. It is older than my 85-year old house, older than the platting, clearing, and building that created my neighborhood. By rights of size, age, stateliness, and beauty; by the sheer power and inviolate thingness of its presence, it would be fully justified to consider me yet the latest self-aggrandizing trespasser to harbor a fantasy of ownership in the realm it dominates.
When my grandson Teddy was eight years old, we began climbing the elm. Because the first suitable perching point is almost six feet up, we used a step ladder to reach the crotch where the limbs veer off. Settling in, we ran our fingers along the oval, tooth-edged leaves; stroked the coarsely-ridged, ashy-gray bark; surveyed the surrounding area, pleased with our “heightened” perception; and chatted generally about this and that. I then asked if he wanted to climb up to the next level. He did not, but I did, and clambered laboriously to maybe 20 feet before Teddy told me I’d better come down.
We continued our tree climbing for the better part of two years, before Teddy’s attention and interests fastened on other things. I continued alone for several more years, simply for the good feeling and fullness of it. It was fun and different and I was pleased that anyone who saw me would have considered it wildly inappropriate for a person my age. It felt daring and strong and somehow sane. In climbing there was nothing in my eyes and ears but the doing, the cellular shout of it, the ceremony of it, the declarative and exclamatory act of it, the motion of it, the muscular exertion of it, the sheer doing of the doing and the return on it, the what it gives back, a rescue of sorts, a preservation of something important, something needful, something having to do perhaps with the beyondness of it: standing in that first perch point I felt myself rooted to a rooted thing, itself rooted in an unimaginably deep 20 million-year history. Ultimately I made my way some 35 or 40 feet up, until, an aging body’s achy joints lengthening the time between climbs, I stopped.
A study conducted by researchers in the Psychology Department of the University of Northern Florida found that just a couple of hours of tree climbing can improve cognitive skills dramatically, and is especially beneficial to working memory, the processing and recall of information. The improvement has to do with proprioception, our awareness of the body’s position and orientation in space. Tree climbing evidently catalyzes efforts to consciously anticipate and adapt movement to an unaccustomed spatial position and orientation. In effect, a tree is a sort of arboreal text read and analyzed on the go. One thinks one’s way up a tree.
In self-help literature, tree climbing often functions metaphorically, as a criticism of our harried lifestyles, and is sometimes even recommended as a balancing restorative , a means of carving space in time to counter our wearying ways, a return to the child’s gift of savoring an experience for the wholly sufficient richness of it.
Trees rise, up, ever up, quietly resolute, beckoned by their nature, into the well of the sky. They stand above; their center holds. Their growth comes from their always keeping their heads in the sunlight. Who knows but that climbing them can induce a corresponding spirit, an unburdened attentiveness, a centering sensate awareness, an upward-striving, a pleasure in the unalloyed, self-generated muscular and mental power of human action, a living in moments both now and next, ahead of but never away from ourselves.
In his poem “Birches,” Robert Frost recounts climbing birch trees as a boy. Having reached the top, the birch would dip from his weight and swing him back to the ground. As a 42-year old, “weary of considerations,” having experienced pain and finding “life too much like a pathless wood,” he longs “to get away from earth awhile / And then come back to it and begin over,” to climb the birch “Toward heaven” and then have it “set me down again.” In short, Frost seeks the fulcrum upon which to balance a desire to transcend, which offers risk-free isolation, with engagement with the world and others, which risks vulnerability but offers the rich possibility of love: “Earth’s the right place for love: / I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.” Body and soul, our incarnate being and our aspiring spirit, need not contend, Frost suggests, need not be mired in what Emerson calls their “stupendous antagonism.” Having once been “a swinger of birches,” he now “dream[s] of going back to be.”
And so I dream of going back to be an elm climber. I can imagine a certain restlessness of spirit driving me to pilgrimage up, branch by branch, each foot precisely placed, growing smaller but only from the perspective of the ground, vanishing into the leafy canopy, up to the swaying top, up and interspersed into the blue true of air and light, and then, having surveyed the bottom of heaven, returning to the earth, my other element, beckoned by the other part of what I am.