Saturday, October 10, 2009

Climbing trees


I used to climb trees a lot. That was about freedom, of course: freedom from adults.

The top of trees were places they could not come, and I remember defying their pleas for me to come down, specifically the high shrill voices of old woman, tiny specks below calling from the old folks home across the road. I thought I wanted freedom from safety, but I did not really. Surely no-one really enjoys fear, except in the limited sense where they desire the controlled risks of sports or competition. Real fear is an appalling emotion, reckless and reductive.

I did not really understand the dangers inherent in climbing high and, moreover, pride had accompanied my ascent. I would not come down.

When I was high up I could see quite far, almost to the parade of shops on Great Western Road, certainly as far as the silent lawns and ashen Beech trees of the old folks home. Aberdeen is the granite city, and there is the harr besides: everything greyly softened by that shadowless light.

My imagination lent that I was a pirate, on a ship high at the crow’s nest, an image that keyed with my idea of rebellion, escape. I had no eye patch but I did have a dark blue jumper that my mother had knitted and which I considered very piratical. I also had the idea of myself as feline, agile, which in truth I was, as I was unusually adept at climbing and rapid besides, and as pirate rebel I shared the heights with cats alone.

The Chestnut was best: the Lime had been pollarded, so it was just a mass of green shoots, and the stickiness of Lime leaves was not pleasant either. The Maple had no lower branches and those it had above were too tightly packed to make climbing possible. In contrast, the Chestnut occasionally offered the alternation of almost ninety degree stems so desirable to climbers. Its bark was rough enough to grip even on wet days and did not come off.

I hoped it would be possible to go from the Chestnut tree to the Maple, and then across the branches of the Maple to enter my own bedroom window on the first floor. But the Maple branches were too slender, and the two trees too far apart. However, summer after summer I could see their arms nearing and thickening to grasp each other and I looked forward to the day when that mysterious journey from the chestnut to the maple and thence into my room would be possible.

But then when they did strengthen ten years later, and I was 20 and had come back from university one summer I found that they had been cut, pale yellow discs of timber where once limbs had been. My desire to climb across the trees into my bedroom conflicted directly my father’s cathartic need to amputate their branches. He did this in a haphazard way: they resembled the broken forms of painted trees by Vincent van Gogh. This implied a profound desire to do violence against nature*, the chainsaw-massacred trees like crime scenes. It also limited my arboreal wandering.

Another possibility was to go from the Chestnut tree to along the walls bordering our house, which were about 7 foot high, of rough granite but with a course of red bricks at the top. One could walk along the borders of our garden , along the borders of another pair of gardens and then on again. How much they varied, this one orderly, with vegetables in neat lines, the next merely a lawn, the third featuring a huge plastic pool- until one reached the Amatola Hotel, where if you were unlucky a kitchen porter or chef, smoking outside the kitchen back door, would shout and start as if to chase you; something that caused me genuine fear, but which I can now see was merely sport on their part.


The trees and my child’s mind showed me a freedom that home and family and school denied. I thought then that I would some day attain the splendour and liberty in real life that my childish imagination had projected. Instead, I find myself at forty unremarkable and compromised, shouting at children to climb down from tall trees.

* I visited a Hungarian family in Lugano, Switzerland. They had a fine house with a garden that was a former orchard and had many fine trees on the slope of the hill overlooking the lake. They also had two dogs. The dogs barked causing frequent altercations with the neighbors. Arguments about the dogs came and went over several months. One weekend the Hungarian family went away on holiday. When they returned, they saw that all the trees in their garden had been cut down by the neighbor. When I visited them, the Hungarian family still had their dogs.


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