A spirit of inquiry in every day life – of forgetting you know something about anything, of asking questions without agenda, of listening for answers without expectation, radical openness, relentless curiosity – this spirit, when recognized and invoked, illuminates the mundane, revealing it to be absolutely teeming with insight. Tree climbing, for instance. Two years ago, I started climbing trees again – beech and maple, sycamore and oak. It was play, at first, but with inquiry it became a kind of experiential existentialism – investigation and revelation through mind, body, and tree.
Each climb is a symphony, composed of movements. First, tuning the instruments as an orchestra would – softening the mind, shaking out the body, the branches and leaves, too, readying themselves for the music. Approaching the tree, eager, curious, uncertain. And then, the spontaneous moment of contact with root or branch – the first note – and the symphony begins. The movements. Postures and contortions. Holding each position for a moment in stillness, in full physical activation. Listening for what it has to offer – a feeling, a thought – and then flowing into the next.
There are numberless movements – numberless insights – but there is always the Big Move: the upside-down hang. It’s never all about the Big Move, because each movement is its own world to explore. But sometimes I have to do the Big Move, just to know that I can. Hanging upside down, knees hooked over a V-crook thirty feet above the ground, suddenly trust isn’t an abstract concept anymore. Neither is fear. I am living them both. Trusting my muscles to hold, fearing they won’t. Trusting my mind not to snap, fearing it will. Trusting the tree, fearing it. Maybe fear has to be experienced before it can be known, and known before it can be transcended. Maybe trust is a skill that has to be practiced, not something that just happens on its own.
I don’t climb with the intent to reach the top. I do not know where I am going. I do not know how I will get there. There is only here, and here is always moving.
There are some spots in some trees that I can only reach by swinging. Swinging is controlled falling. Falling, I realize, is a tool. The trick is to know my weight and the unique signature of its momentum – how it will move once I’m no longer in control. If I know it well, then I can anticipate what will happen when I fall and then set myself up beforehand to use that happening. Or experience it with minimal damage. If I understand myself and the way I fall, then it won’t matter that I can’t think through the movement when it’s happening. I will already know the nature of the fall, and trust it.
But still, in each tree I’m scared shitless of falling. Alan Watts tells the story of the fish chasing its own tail in the ocean, terrified it will plummet to the depths if it can’t. But of course, the fish is already floating; it doesn’t have to hold itself up. All this time, it could’ve just been exploring the ocean. It could’ve enjoyed itself. Sometimes I get caught in a precarious posture, my strength fading, and my arm swings back, blind and panicked, only to find the perfect branch. It fits right into my body, relieves it and holds it. I didn’t plan that. I didn’t even see it there. The ocean takes care of the fish, and the tree takes care of me. It is all taking care of itself, somehow, and I should just let it. Enjoy it.
I play a symphony with a big old maple and two little twins, Zoe and Max, around four years old. Max is fearless. Zoe is hesitant. “I’m scared,” she says, trying to transition from one big branch to another. “It’s all right,” I say, “I’m right here.” “But what if I’m scared?” she whimpers, reaching out, and then: “Hold me.” I do, and she looks around us. We are enshrined in a cathedral of shining leaves, a stained glass dome of green, all sunlight and silence. “Wow,” she says, wondrous, “It’s like a world!” She loosens up after a while, learns to trust. “The tree is protecting us,” she tells me, “and we’re protecting the tree.”
A middle-aged man stops to watch me in another maple on another day. The symphony has just begun. His name is Jim. He lives right down the road, a few blocks from where he grew up, so many decades ago now. He delivers blood, that’s his job. I invite him to join, but he has a muscle condition that gives him charley horses if he flexes too hard. When I’m up near the crown, forty feet in the sky, he shouts, “Hey! What do you see up there?” I describe it as best I can, the expanse of trees and cornfields and the murmuring sunset. I am his periscope. We are all periscopes, each of us showing the other what the other cannot see.
There are some symphonies that I don’t want to end, but they all must end. There was a maple that grew out over a lake that I climbed in the fall, and the music was so good that I began to weep, suddenly, when I realized the end was near. I almost took a leaf with me, to remember it. No, don’t take the leaf. You can’t take anything with you in the end, not even a leaf. Let it go. Just let it go. I dropped to the sand, leafless, the symphony finished. For a long time, I stared out at the slate grey lake, thinking that perhaps letting go is something that has to be practiced, too, and that we are all practitioners, every day, whether we know it or not, readying ourselves for our great masterpiece.
And the masterpiece is now. That’s what I see, with the spirit of inquiry. It’s a double-edged sword, though. Sometimes a tree is just a tree, you are just you, and the climb is just a climb. There is no hidden insight, nothing to be understood. I was on a weeping beech tree with my friend Jacob once when I lodged myself into a crook that kind of crushed my junk. “Oh God,” I groaned, “I just caught a nut.” I immediately set about the task of searching for the lesson in it. “I don’t know, man,” Jacob said, to my musings, “I think sometimes you just catch a nut and that’s all there is to it.”
*Sam Dakota is the artist above, and we’re looking forward to more collaborations. Check out his work, and support! samdakota.tumblr.com.