What it’s like to climb a century-old oak tree

Excerpt: Witness Tree

The following is an excerpt from Witness Tree by Lynda V. Mapes.

Amid all those trees, over thousands of acres, and living and breathing the woods, I still didn’t feel as if I knew what a tree does. I observed the big oak daily and had by then watched it through four seasons. Yet somehow, it wasn’t enough. What was it like up there in its branches? I decided that to know the big oak and its world well, I would have to change my vantage point. That’s where Melissa LeVangie came in.

The tree warden for the town of Petersham, Massachusetts, where the Harvard Forest is located, LeVangie helps local residents make smarter decisions about their trees, and she is also the town’s tree cop, taking out trees in the public right of way if they pose a safety risk. For all that, with a brass acorn necklace, a silver ring on one finger in the shape of an oak leaf, and her e-mail signature sent from the trees, there is no question where her sensibilities lie. A champion tree climber, she figured out in college that her passion wasn’t forestry, but arboriculture: the profession of tending and caring for trees. She launched her career patrolling trees for invasive insects, working more than a hundred feet off the ground if need be, swinging from a battery of ropes, a harness, clips, and carabiners. I wrote to her a few months after moving in at the Forest, telling her that I wanted to get up in the big oak. Would she take me on a guided climb?

As the day for my first climb approached, I felt nervous, the thought of it crowding in from the wilds at the back of my mind where fear lies. But I was determined to try. LeVangie often spoke of her joy at being up in a tree—she climbs most every day for her job—and that made climbing the big oak seem at least survivable, even if not exactly fun. But as we got started, and I strapped into a climbing harness and clipped into a climbing line, I felt like a trussed turkey. I puzzled at my ropes and hitches and knots and thingamajigs, all of which I was quite sure were crucial, in a life or-death kind of way. LeVangie had her blood type printed on the top of her climbing helmet, which I found both practical and a bit unsettling. We tested the harness, just to be sure, before leaving the ground, LeVangie holding on to the climbing rope as I leaned back in the harness, letting it receive all my weight. For better or for worse, all systems were go. This was the moment.

witness tree cover
Witness Tree by Lynda V. Mapes. Lynda Mapes

I looked up the rope and gave the friction knot a push. All of a sudden, my feet swung free, off the ground. As I felt myself hang in the air and saw the big oak’s trunk crowd in close, it came back to me in a rush. Here it was, that feeling all over again, when I first climbed the cedar by our pond as a girl, grasping the fragrant, peeling cinnamon-barked branches to haul myself up. I was alone (that was important), and each time I paused and looked out and around, I still saw more tree above me and just kept on going. In no time, I was almost to the very top, the trunk narrowing until I could span it with my hands. The whole vista of my world of our house and pond suddenly resolved into a new perspective. I was at ease and thrilled at the same time.

This climb was the same thrill, but with a lot of help. The big oak has no branches at all for some forty feet; the only way up was on a rope with nothing but free fall all around. Unnerved as a novice never good at knots, I leaned hard on LeVangie’s confidence and focused on the physical work of climbing, trying to just stay in my body rather than let my mind run off to worry. I huffed and heaved, no graceful first timer, as I went higher and higher. I looked over at LeVangie, effortlessly climbing alongside me, and finally understood a key thing I was doing wrong, in the way I was holding the friction knot on my climbing rope. I tried a new grip, pushed the rope away (as indeed she had patiently instructed so many times) to let the knot slide freely up with each push. I began to make more steady progress. Then, something magical happened.

With a twist and a heft, suddenly I was sitting in the big oak tree. On the first rise of branches, my relationship with this tree changed. I was in its realm. And how different everything looked from up here. The neighboring trees came so near with their branches, poking into any space the oak wasn’t filling. The lichens were different up here—there were many more of them, a whole garden up in the sky I was never aware even existed. And who knew about that cavity, way up here in the trunk? Did anything live in there?

“Do you like birch snacks?” LeVangie said, handing me a black birch twig from her pocket. It tasted of wintergreen, fresh and cool. Chewing my twig, I looked around at the oak’s branches, stretched out at my level in a great broad sweep. I felt a pure, unalloyed joy. I looked down to the ground—quickly—then away. “You’ll gain that trust,” LeVangie said from her perch on a limb across the tree’s trunk. She encouraged me to relax, stretch out, enjoy myself. I leaned back in my harness, felt the nice stretch in my back. Sat back up and looked around. I saw the snow lying in patterns on the partly bare ground, rather like the lichen on the tree’s bark. The shape of the stone wall resolved to a clear long line. Up here, the wind sounded different, fuller and more powerful. The swish of the white pine nearby was splendid, yes, like the sound of the wind at sea. For really, I was sailing the wind, from up in my crow’s nest of oak.

Excerpted from Witness Tree by Lynda V. Mapes, published by Bloomsbury 2017. Published with permission. © Lynda V. Mapes, 2017.

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