It’s been a while. Maybe two million years. For me personally, about sixty years. What, you ask? Since I’ve sat in a tree. Which is where I am right now.
As a species we used to sit in trees. Mostly for safety and to escape nighttime predators; the lions and leopards, things that go bump in the night. We’d swing down onto the savannah to forage for food and water, and then back up, lickety-split, at the first sign of danger. Trees were a safe sleep haven.
Now, have you ever startled awake at night as you began to fall asleep? Seventy percent of us do. It’s called a hypnagogic jerk. It’s a reflex action which some scientists believe is evolutionary. The old limbic brain accidentally firing a signal that you are falling out of your tree. We’ve left the trees, but we still have hypnic jerks. (Though I believe many of them are now running the EPA and Department of the Interior.)
So I decide to climb this big old pine on the banks of the Cascade. There’s no one around, so I don’t have to feel self conscious. Adults aren’t supposed to climb trees. We used to climb trees as kids. I wonder why that is, and when we lose our desire to do so?
I have no reason, but this tree is calling to me. It has limbs I can reach from another tree fallen against it. They are evenly spaced like a ladder. Some deadwood. It smells good. I ask the tree for permission to climb. The sky above is blue against the green bows.
As I climb, I remember there was an apple tree at the end of Glibert’s grove. Late in the season, the best apples were at the top. Apple trees are easy but tricky to climb; their branches are very accommodating. Strong, but growing weaker at the top. Sort of like our democracy. Every fall, some kid would come to school with his arm in a cast. Without speaking we knew the kid went too high, and we clucked our tongues at him silently in collective superiority as well as a little relief.
As the river bank falls off below me, I can see out across the valley at a panoply of colored maples, birch and spruce. That’s a big word, panoply but it rolls off tongue. I find a nice strong branch and another I can rest my back against. The day is sunny with some fluffy white clouds floating by. I can feel the beginning of a high pressure cell moving down from Canada. Winter will follow soon.
Up here the humidity is less. The air is quiet and soft. I can not see the ground and my fear of heights is nowhere to be found. Though the canopy is open, the branches envelop me. My heart rate slows. My breathing slows, and I taste the sweet air. More than that, there is nothing to do.
Doctors have measured the blood pressures of people exposed to the forest for just a minute and find that it declines by fifteen points. Our bodies must know something. They harbor ancient memories. Trees are good for us. I wonder why we don’t climb trees more often? It might replace Prozac, though what would happen to our 401Ks if drug company prices plummeted?
I am joined by a Blue Jay. Surprised, he sounds the alarm, but then for some strange reason, settles in. I watch him watching me. He files off. We have templated each other. His image is in my brain. Blue, black, sassy, cautious.
I wonder if I can actually sleep. As I close my eyes, I can feel the faint sway of the tree. The tree is a hammock to my heart. I hear the whisper of the wind again. Far away, a skein of Canadian geese honk across the sky. Then I am jerked awake. I thank my ancestors.
Stiff now, I must descend. It has been fun. Sitting in a tree. As I carefully work my way down, I wish we’d kept our prehensile tails.
It may also be that trees are good for our creativity. I have an idea and smile at my own cleverness. Maybe we should require all candidates to spend a couple hours in a tree before running for office. It’s a lofty idea. It just might help preserve the earth.
We Are All Connected! Savor the Earth.
L. Hobart Stocking