Climbing Trees

I read a story written by a teenager, let’s call him John. His life was troubled. In his words, he was “trapped deep within the frightening jungle of the New Jersey suburbs”. Computers were slowly draining him of energy and passion.  “I was numb, and I didn’t care that I was failing high school, and I didn’t care that everything sucked; I was perfectly content with my empty life”.

As a last resort, his parents sent John to a therapeutic boarding school in Montana. It was there that he started to climb trees, play outside, and run on trails – natural things that children have done for generations. It was there that he came out of his numbness. It was there that he blossomed into a young man that is now a senior in college, majoring in music. As John says about his years at the schools and specifically his nature experiences: “I found the inexhaustible spirit that everyone is born with but many lose.  I found it right there in the dirt and dead pine needles, I found it in the top of a partially dead Douglas Fir, and I found it in the view of the mountains out of my classroom window”.
When we ask: why we need to feel the forest under our feet? Why do we need open spaces? And why do we need to get outside and experience them? remember the story of John. Whether it’s the stress of the day-to-day, or a medical complication, a dose of nature goes a long way to prevent or heal what ails us.

“I know y’all will love today’s activity: we’re going to climb trees.”

Dave Kretchzmar is a happy, wonderful man. He lives in a pocket of natural beauty in Idaho’s panhandle. He now works about two days a week, and then spends the rest of his time actively learning about nature. He found his passion, and now has shaped his lifestyle into what he wants it to be. Dave is a wise man. He discovered happiness in simplicity. I “infinitely” admire Dave.

“After you climb into the tree, I want you to perch like an owl and without moving your eyes, observe everything.”

While Dave was first discovering his desire to teach nature connection to teenagers, I was trapped deep within the frightening jungle of the New Jersey suburbs.

I wasn’t connected to much of anything, except for my office chair and keyboard. Video games and Netflix were slowly draining me of energy and passion. I was numb, and I didn’t care that I was failing high school, and I didn’t care that everything sucked; I was perfectly content with my empty life. My parents and teachers didn’t know what to do, or how I would graduate. And no matter how hardmy dad tried, I never wanted to go kayaking with him, or hiking, or camping, or fishing.

“Remember to always have three points of contact with the tree, and watch for dead limbs. I’ll give a crow call in forty minutes.”

© Christopher L. Wood

I guess I had climbed trees as a kid. My family used to go apple picking every fall, and my mom would bake delicious pies. I used to climb up to pick the apples, with my mom watching nervously. Where’s the fun in that? Climbing an apple tree while your mom watches is like playing on a playground at recess. There’s no letting loose, no giving in to the primal urge to explore. So I never knew how to be free truly, until I met Dave.

“Hey Sam, do you think maybe you should come down now?”

There I was, the frail Jersey boy who hid in his room for all those years, thirty feet up in a double trunked Douglas Fir in the mountains of Montana. I was having the time of my life, and the goofy grin that was plastered to my face may have scared my friends even more as I continued to ascend. I could see them below me, and the further up I went, I could see most of my boarding school’s campus. But I was more drawn to the sight of the distant Cabinet Mountains, their ancient spires looming above constantly. “Oh shit.” This time the dialogue belonged to me. I could hear the branch clattering down through the tree, and its sound was quickly met by the frantic yelling of my friends. Turns out the branch that had very recently belonged to my feet was deader than I thought it was, and that’s how I found myself dangling off of one single branch, forty feet off the ground. One hundred and sixty-five pounds of frightened teenager very suddenly hung from this one branch, and my life was very suddenly put at risk. Clumsily, my feet found their way to a new branch. Maybe I should have listened to Dave more carefully, back in Nature Connection class.

“There he goes again.”

This is a common occurrence. I’m genuinely engaged in conversation, and a magnificent Red Cedar catches my eye.

How can I resist?

Three minutes later, my friends continue walking and tell me they’re not waiting for me any longer. Obviously my scary Douglas Fir experience has not stopped me from climbing my heart out on an almost daily basis. It’s my way of being a kid again. We all have those “childish” urges, somewhere deep down, wherever we shoved them when it became apparent that these things weren’t okay. But sometimes, you just need to climb a tree, and really enjoy it, because it’s fun as hell. That’s what I learned, that I can find happiness in these small things, which brings me back to Dave.

“You all know this game—it’s good ol’ capture the flag.”

Thirty minutes after Dave made the teams, I was submerged in the thick boughs of some young Grand Firs, stalking into the enemy’s territory. A thought came into my mind: this is ridiculous. That was my old self talking, voicing in my mind what many millennials would be saying about capture the flag in the woods. And it is ridiculous. It’s ridiculous that I might at any point not enjoy myself playing capture the flag, because capture the flag is a damn fun game, no matter what age you are. Dave probably had a better time than I did, this small, smiling man guarding his team’s flag. I had made it to their base and I was watching him through the trees. He hadn’t seen me yet but was mimicking the actions of a hawk peering through the foliage and searching for prey. At that moment, Dave was quite happy.“Hey Dave, I think there’s someone coming up on you.” His body tensed up, his grin widened, and his gaze swept through the surrounding trees, right into my eyes. Our eyes were locked together for five long seconds before I bolted away, dropping my camouflage and sacrificing stealth for speed. Knowing those woods well, I charged into a stand of young pines and huddled into my favorite hiding spot. I could no longer hear Dave behind me; I was safe for the time being.

“Gotcha.”

Well, I wasn’t actually safe. Dave’s just really good at moving silently in the woods. After he tagged me, we both fell back and laughed as I good-naturedly cursed his stalking skills. Over the months I spent in Dave’s class, I found the inexhaustible spirit that everyone is born with but many lose. I found it right there in the dirt and dead pine needles, I found it in the top of a partially dead Douglas Fir, and I found it in the view of the mountains out of my classroom window. We’re all born with a fiery ardor; no matter how many times the pressures of the world stomp it out, it’s never too late to go and discover that innate enthusiasm.

“And Sam— don’t climb so high this time.”