Walking outside my apartment with fresh eyes, I realized that this practice would be two-fold: for my eyes and for my limbs. My eyes are drawn to exciting trees with high ledges and interesting branches. Unfortunately, at this stage in my monkey-ing about, my eyes serve up a meal larger than my limbs can process. For these trees near my apartment, well-manicured live oaks with strong limbs at least four feet off the ground, the difficulty seems to lie in the first move. I think to myself, ‘If only I could get to that first branch!’ while grabbing hold of a crook here and placing my bare foot there and ineffectively throwing my weight into the air.
So, I return to a Live Oak that I know I can climb. Yesterday, when the inspiration for this daily tree-climbing adventure began, I ventured into the limbs of this tree. With many branches spinning out of the trunk, the first move is a bit inelegant and the tough, thick bark drew a thin stripe of blood from my right knee. I lean arms and hips against the strong limbs that reach into the sky as I work my way a dozen or so feet into the air. I pause for breath and lean my back against a branch and watch the apartments nearby. A white pickup truck drives through and the driver peeks up to see what I’m doing. Relaxing.
Working my way down feels easy and smooth, until the last leap onto solid earth from a perch five feet up. I’d like to learn how to roll into the fall, much like a parkour athlete. Perhaps this is the week that I finally learn the technique!
In the middle of a torrential downpour of seven lecture-hours on campus, I escaped to the prime slacklining area on the USF Health campus. The space is by the anatomy labs, an underused sand volleyball court, and Lake Behnke, which lines the Botanical Gardens to the south. Throughout much of first year, I would set up lines between the live oaks and occasionally connect this towering Holly Oak. With about fifty feet between the trees, the grass is great for laying, and the spacing is great for slacking.
I’m not entirely sure this is truly a Holly Oak, though a friend identified it as such and quite confidently. I’ve climbed this Holly Oak before. I’m always struck with how wet the bark seems. It hasn’t rained recently. Perhaps the trees grabs the morning dew and keeps it throughout the hot Florida days. The first movement is easy, with low big branches that curve away from the trunk for a smooth hop, and the tree has been manicured enough that old knots where branches used to reach are outstanding handholds.
Working my way to the apical meristem, I notice the woodpecker holes arranged in a neat row on a particularly wet branch. I see liquid running down from the puncture wounds and give it a taste: not thick sap, maybe water from the xylem?
On my way down, I make a concentrated effort to dismount in a novel way. From setting up slacklines and the occasional climb, I know the easiest way up and down the trunk. There’s a certain satisfaction in knowing the route of least effort, and executing the maneuver feels good, but I’m here to learn something new.
This tree sits in a no-man’s land on the USF Health campus, between the parking lot and the volleyball court. I complete a walk-around, a small habit I’ve picked up with this tree-climbing practice. I get a sense of the area, of the tree, and of possible routes up the trunk.
The way up felt easy and fun. I’ve been enjoying outdoor lunches with my partner and the extra bit of sun and lounging over grass has helped me feel more like a true human ape. Climbing trees during these lunches is another step towards that feeling. The canopy of the tree is thick and lush. To an outside observer, I probably disappear into the branches and leaves.
The limbs are about as thick as my knee and easy to traverse. I find a perch about fifteen feet up and enjoy the view: other students sitting at outdoor tables, my partner soaking up the sun, and some white coats getting out of their car in the parking lot. I’m so close, yet none of them notice me or look up into the canopy. I don’t blame them, I probably wouldn’t either.
I extend my climb onto a few branches that reach about ten feet from the trunk. The strength of these thin-seeming limbs impresses me. Very little wobble and bend under my weight. From here, I hug a branch, hang underneath, and drop back down to the earth.
I didn’t sleep well last night. Think the ceiling fan was a bit too vigorous and disrupted my REM cycles. Woke up for SELECT lectures at 9a. Grabbed breakfast with my partner afterwards and ate my fill of pancakes and eggs. Crashed quite hard afterwards. Floated and then napped until 5p.
The sun began to set and I felt so slow. If I let the sun set while I stayed in bed, I knew the day would be a waste. Wanted to attend Jiu-Jitsu class at 6p, but felt too sluggish to muster up the excitement for sparring.
So I climbed a tree. Near my apartment, a few paces from the ones on Monday and Tuesday. This one seemed like a straightforward climb; I didn’t want a challenging one today, just wanted to end the sluggishness.
I don’t remember much about the way up. I do remember how the rough bark felt against my skin and how it seemed to wake me up out of a trance. The texture, the exertion, and the sense of height broke the slow inertia of the day. I thanked my tall green friend for changing my day and then got ready for Jiu-Jitsu.
Every Friday, there is a yoga class held at the USF Botanical Gardens. Depending on turnout, the practice is held under a gazebo or on the grass and in the sun. Today, my partner and I found a very full class, with probably thirty or so student-types. We held a large semi-circle and flowed under the cloudy sky on the recently raked lawn.
Once my partner suggested the yoga class, I knew I would find a good tree for climbing afterwards.
Near the entrance, there it was: an elephant tree, named for its characteristic seed pods that were hanging in the bare branches. The initial approach was difficult because the branches were a few feet across with few clear handholds. An aggressive muscle-up and some shimmying later, I began exploring the powerful branches with the epiphytes growing in the crooks. Fellow yogis exited the gardens below and probably had a curious look or two up at the silly person climbing. I thought about venturing to the higher branches further from the trunk, but I knew that my partner’s heart would skip a beat if she saw me up there, so I called it a day while here and promised the tree another visit in the future.
Spent the morning in St. Petersburg, a 40min drive from my Tampa apartment over the Skyway Bridge, for a poster presentation at a physician conference. Same poster as the one to kick-off second year, so didn’t need to prepare much. Just put on shoes this time.
After lunch, we had a few hours before our next series of presentations and some students left the hosting hotel to participate in a Women’s March around North Straub Park. My partner and I attempted to study in the hotel, in the sun and blown by the wind. We made a good attempt, but once 1p rolled around and the march began we couldn’t ignore the chants and calls of the throngs just outside.
We walked around the march, against the grain to get some quality sign-watching. A few minutes in, a number of classmates found us and pulled us into the clapping and chanting. After a few hundred yards, we peeled off and continued our smiling observations near the landmark Banyan Tree of the park. Having visited St. Pete a number of times in the past, I’ve climbed this pair of huge and reaching trees and greatly enjoyed the broad canopy that covers the earth like a green geodesic dome.
I picked a route that I’ve never attempted before; the tree had plenty of other human apes resting on its limbs and watching the scene pass by below. Children grabbed at the aerial roots and I worked my way up the trunk like a monkey climbing a rain gutter. My partner watched with a silly smile. When settled about twenty feet in the air, I am equally enamored by the scene below and the calm above.
I’m going to return to Monday’s Live Oak tree after I post this. It will be my reward for some work well-done.
This has been a lovely practice. Much like jiu-jitsu, the rest of life falls away when I’m fully engaged in the physical act of climbing a tree. Where do I place my foot next? How should I shift my weight? Is this a good place to rest and reset my attention, or should I make the trip up to that branch, or out to that limb? Being fifteen feet in the air forces you to the present.
Looking to the future, I’d like to continue this practice. It has changed the way I look at trees. No longer are they static background to the green landscape. Instead, they are active bits of life that host as much interaction as a playground. This practice forces me to learn the species of trees and develop a relationship with them; after all, it’s quite rude to get all up on something and not know its name. I want to show my children how to climb a tree by saying follow me, rather than staring up and telling them to get down because they might fall.
It feels so good to rest my back on a rough oak limb after a vigorous climb. I think I’ll do that now.
Long Form Sundays
- On ramps (or merging into the traffic of responsibilities)
- On a New Year (or winter break in Yuba City)
- On 2016 (as told through weekly reflections)