RIDING THE WIND
Like a boat tossing on waves, the big oak swayed in the wind, taking me with it. Dangling from my climbing rope and harness, way up here in the canopy, the big oak was making the rules, that’s for sure. A puny human way out of my terrestrial realm, no tree had ever given me a ride. But here I was, enjoying the rock of the big oak’s branches, something I had never felt before. It was a sea legs sensation I would keep on feeling for hours, even once back on the ground. But I was in no hurry to come down. No, not yet.
Since I first met this big red oak last year, I had been wanting to get here, some 60 feet up in its canopy. I just wanted to see what it was like, and to experience this bit of woods at the Harvard Forest from the tree’s point of view. I’m writing a book about how seasons are changing because of climate change – among other things – and it was time to get up here, and see what the buds were up to. Melissa and Bear LeVangie of Trees New England twin sisters and both professional, champion tree climbers, and two friends from the Knight program in Science Journalism at MIT, were game too. So up we went, with Melissa and Bear guiding our way.
I was worried about the wind when the day of this scheduled climb came. Forecast with gusts to 25 miles and hour, these March winds roar fiercely enough on the ground. What would it be like way up there? And it was cold, in the twenties. But Sunday morning arrived, and unlike even colder days when we had scheduled a climb, there was no last minute cancellation, for safety’s sake. So I rousted Dusty, my cat, and hurried out of bed to put the coffee on, and heat up the cast iron skillet for pancakes.
The first day of spring had come and gone, but I layered on the clothes. Wool long underwear. Snow pants. My big boots with the wool liner. Hand warmers to tuck in my mittens, and a Thermos of bracing black coffee.
At 9 am sharp, everyone arrived in high spirits. We loaded up the camera and climbing gear and drove up to the Barn Tower at the Harvard Forest, then packed our stuff into the woods. The tree — BT QURU 03 — was waiting.
The name comes from the red oak’s identification tag, stamped on a round metal disk hung from its trunk by a twisted wire on a nail. The tree is a tagged, tracked specimen – a living scientific instrument – in a long-term study of how tree phenology – or seasonal change – is being altered by climate change. The tree is named for its location at the Barn Tower (BT), its species (QR for Quercus rubra, red oak) and the year it was accessioned into an ongoing tree survey by Harvard Forest field phenologist John O’Keefe. I picked this tree to study with John’s help last year for a book I am writing, while living here at the Forest as a Bullard fellow in forest research. Witness Tree, under contract with Bloomsbury Publishing, explores the story of this 100-year old oak as a living timeline of our changing relationship with nature — and its consequences.
To get to know this tree, I knew I would want to climb it. I’d done a practice climb on it once before with Melissa last October, but didn’t get up very high. Then came a practice climb with Melissa and Bear, and Patrick Wellever, digital media training coordinator at the Knight Program in Science Journalism at MIT, and KSJ fellow Rachael Buchanan, a producer from London at the BBC. We climbed a much smaller black walnut tree last November in the front yard of Community House, where I live at the Harvard Forest, for practice. Now, after several cancellations and weather delays, we were finally ready for our ascent into the big oak.
We started by heaving a throw bag up into the tree to set our climbing lines. Harder than it sounds in so big a tree, it took me probably twenty tries to wing the bag up into the first rank of branches, bringing the line with it. “Commit to your throw!” Melissa kept saying, urging me time and again to use a freer, swinging motion to release it high into the blueness of the sky. With our lines finally set, it was time for lift off.
With a blur of buckling and clipping, we got into our harnesses and sat for the first time on our climbing lines, our feet swinging free a few feet off the ground. Like a kid in a swing set, I felt a pure glee.
Climbing is my favorite part of this. With the right gear, superb instruction with a solid safety ethic, and good mental focus, climbing even a big tree like this red oak can feel natural as walking. I pushed my leg into an ascender Melissa set on my foot to give me power and lift, and pushed the friction hitch up the rope as I ascended the line, sure and smooth. How fast I could go, and how high! It was hard physical work, no question. But what a thrill, to be up here! Everything on the ground – our blue tarps with gear, the understory trees I had come to know so well – they were suddenly far below.
I had a bosun’s chair set in my harness, and enjoyed just leaning back for the view. How much life there was on every inch of these branches! Moss and lichen packed along the rough hide of the oak’s bark. I could see so much better up here, nested in the tree’s branches, how the structure of its canopy opens to the sky. Each branch was positioned to gather the sun, every twig claimed its space.
It had been a long, cold winter, and while it was March 22, some 60 feet down, the snow was brilliant white and still deep on the ground. The sky has that radiantly clear, deep- blue depth of winter, when the air is too cold to hold much moisture. There was no pollen in the air yet either, that’s for sure, without so much as a pussy willow catkin open yet. The oak’s branches were studded with buds still clenched tight.
Another gust gave the tree a big push. “You never get used to it, because it’s always different,” Bear said from across the trunk, as it leaned.
I looked into the forest, enjoying my view into secret worlds invisible from the ground. I saw woodpecker holes drilled way up into snags. I could see much more distinctly the complex weave of the canopy, each tree growing just to the edges of the next. But I didn’t see any birds in the oak, or nests. That could change as the season progresses. “In spring the chickadees come visit you,” Bear said. “They are so social, and not at all afraid. Sometimes we come across mourning dove nests tucked in the crotches of branches.”
Next month, we plan to climb the tree again, and I know I’ll be hoping for birds. We also have a notion to bring lunches up here, for a treetop picnic. We saw just the perfect spot.
But for now, at least for me just being up here was thrill enough, enjoying the big oak’s ride in the wind.