Once there was a tree, and it was a great tree.
I think it was my favorite tree ever.
JT called it “The Secret Ladder Tree.” In my mind, it didn’t have a name, but I can still see it, leaning skyward, a hulking bent-over pine in a grove of hulking bent-over Eastern White pines. Towering over a matted down bed of fallen needles, these trees stood away from the assorted paths, a shaded brood of sentinels. Most people bypassed them for the more obvious glories the garden, full of tulips and herbs, rich with manicure.
The pines had branches that groaned out from their sides, caked with sap. The bottom-most branches—those that hadn’t been pruned—were nearly on the ground in the ten to fifteen feet that they ventured on the perpendicular, away from the trunk. But even these branches seemed just intentionally out-of-reach to the casual would-be climber.
Which was fine. Because the casual climber didn’t merit the Secret Ladder Tree.
A friend showed me the tree, in the quiet dark, probably, one Ashland night, in the ’80s. Showed me how, with a little foot-up, a purchase could be transacted. With a foot-up, you could climb up into The Secret Ladder Tree. Once up, even a seat on that first torso sized branch incited a pinch of vertigo, a tightening of the grip. Looking up, it was more than a pinch as the giant exploded skywards, arcing madly out of sight though a vortex of branches.
And it was easy to sit still there and think, “That’s good for me. Right here,” legs dangling, heart mildly racing, eight feet off the ground. But the next branch was right there and if you held on, and hoisted yourself to standing… and if you made a couple well-placed steps, you were 15 feet up. And that was certainly enough… But after the second landing, there was something you didn’t notice. Now, as you looked up the trunk into that dizzying regress, it seems like there’s a spray of branches, fanning up and around, up and around.
And so you can’t help it.
That basic curiosity overrules the preternatural fear, and you start: One foot, and then one hand, and then the other, and then the other.
Every time I climbed this tree, whether alone or with a friend, I thought the same thing: I can’t do this. My heart would be pounding and I didn’t have to weigh the merits of not looking down. That was a no-brainer; anyway, down was farther and farther away with every step up.
Soon though— Tree World. The ground dissipates and becomes more abstract, obscured by cone and needle. As I approached it, every time, I could hardly believe it. Safety. Destination. Quietude. The Landing.
The Landing. Way way up in a tree, once upon a time, there was a cradle, a recline, a purchase. Way up above Ashland, there was a special place where two people could sit and talk, and forget about the world 50 feet below. Talk about “step into my office…” Way up there was a place that one person could actually lie back and go to sleep, as I did on many treasured occasions, dozing safely in the cradling arms of a great tree.