On the importance of climbing trees in a storm.


Did you know John Muir could really write? Yes I know, of course he was a writer, a nature writer of some extraordinary influence. He wrote of the transcendant communion available to us all in the wilds of North America AND (shocker to illiterate me) he also made the most incredible theater of the natural world.
A Wind Storm in the Forests (Chapter 10 of The Mountains of California Muir pub 1894) has him searching out an appropriate tree to climb in a storm that is snapping a tree from its base every minute or two. From the top of page 95:

John Muir – naturalist, activists,
badass storm-chasing tree climber,
and one helluva writer.

“But under the circumstances the choice of a tree was a serious matter. One whose instep was not very strong seemed in danger of being blown down, or of being struck by others in case they should fall: another was branchless to a considerable height above the ground, and at the same time too large to be grasped with arms and legs in climbing; while others were not favorably situated for clear views.”

After casually surveying tree specimens during a storm that today would probably be measured in hurricane force winds, Muir settled on a young Doug Spruce grove.

“Though comparatively young, they were about 100 feet high, and their lithe, brush tops were rocking and swirling in wild ecstasy. Being accustomed to climbing trees in making botanical studies, I experienced no difficulty in reaching the top of this one, and never before did I enjoy so noble an exhilaration of motion.”

What unfolds from his vantage point could be described in operatic terms, if it weren’t so beautifully grounded in the clarity of his heart. He discovers this patch of forest with a thousand eyes, revealing varient undulations taking place on the land as an ebullient conversation.

“The profound bass of the naked branches and boles booming like waterfalls; the quick, tense vibrations of the pine-needles, now rising to a shrill, whistling hiss, now falling to a silky murmur; the rustling of laurel groves in the dells, and the keen metal click of a leaf on leaf –”

Jack Kerouac – wild-man extraordinaire
beautiful Beat poet.

Wow.  I’m reminded of Kerouac reading poetry punctuated with the sounds of the mighty Pacific as it careened like Cassady’s ’49 Hudson into the cliffs beneath him. Both men tried to absorb enough of the uncontainable motion that engulfed them to bring it back within themselves, into our world of frozen ideas, of souls lost to nature. One writer unrestrained in his exploration of nature – throwing himself to the edge of a timber precipice in high winds, the other throwing himself to the edge of his art – dousing his mind with gasoline and lighting a match.
I find both men trying to clear a space for Grace (capital “G” intended). Digging for the sacred so obviously saturating every person and leaf of grass around them, and so missing from our daily life. Digging for Grace.
I miss the excitement of storms that might cause serious damage, maybe thats part of why I’m drawn like so many to the coast – to spend time with the ocean. Everything else is pushed away, the epic forces of life enter in, there is no hiding. Its like swimming in open water solo with big swells. You survive by Grace, you can feel it touching every pore. It carries you.
I remember taking risks like Muir did, in the early years of swimming in the Pacific. I’d wait until sunset and get in when the waves were well over fifteen feet. After a mile or two I’d have to take whatever shoreline I could find. I was too tired to swim to another beach, it was too dark, and the swell would only grow bigger. I had to pick the right wave, just like Muir had to pick the right tree. What a glorious ride it was. I stepped out of the water as if placed there by a quiet, giant grandmother. The feeling of Grace was as palpable as the salt on my lips.
I hope to see you someday perched high in a tree, your face grinning at me from across the woods while I cling tightly to the crown of a 100 ft Doug Spruce, swirling in the wind like a mad drunkard in love with life.


Leave a Reply