When my dad was a kid, he and his buddies used to go “tree riding.” The term made his childhood sound wild and elemental and full of a since-disappeared magic. And dangerous. The tree-riding stories always ended with the description of my dad’s intrepid friend Peter lying in the road on his back, a thin trail of blood coming from his mouth, several of his bones broken, including his pelvis. You don’t want to break your pelvis.
On our first long walk in the woods I can remember—there would be many—my dad showed me how to tree ride. He had, as usual, related the Peter story, and shortly after started looking for a sapling of proper girth. I felt aware of my new inclusion on a walk of adult length and somewhat worried about the Peter story. I wondered if we would be telling my mom about tree riding.
My dad told me we needed a sapling thicker than your wrist, something bendable up higher, but big enough to shimmy. There may not be an act of greater intimacy with nature than shimmying up a tree. Progress is measured by the hard-gained inch, cheek to bark, clothes an afterthought. But one gift given to the wiry and small: I could shimmy.
In ensuing years I would shimmy trees all over our neighborhood. Maples mostly, which lined our street, many of them young enough to get my arms and legs around so I could hump it up to the lowest branch. In a neighborhood like ours, one little yard leading to the next, there wasn’t anywhere to go but up. And I loved to be up. Time spent above the ground seemed more precious, more unique, the path to a me-centered future more clear as I saw over these same old houses to the nearly-identical houses of the next block or two.
Maybe it’s the sense of perspective that gives trees their nobility. Like us, they live and drink and eat and grow, but so much more slowly. They tower and sway above us and reach down, too, to know the wormy world below. Between their reaches, we play like kids with nursemaids.
The names of trees feel written on my skin—white pine, maple, sycamore, oak—the names of old and wise companions. They insist their way into my writing, colorful sounds that invoke what’s untarnished in the world. The slow and old and wild.
But it’s the young ones that work for tree riding. I remember the long walk with my dad morphing into twilight made murkier by the wood’s canopy, dad’s knowing hand shaking saplings. My shimmy needed work and he helped me get started, his hands under my sneakers, pulsing me upward. The idea was to get high enough so that when you held on and pushed your feet away from the trunk, the tree would bend over and dangle you softly earthward.
Despite fear making me lean out when I hadn’t climbed high enough and Peter’s blood lined face indistinct but fearsome in my mind, I found the groove eventually and felt proud at my dad’s shouts of encouragement when a couple saplings in a row dropped me dreamlike to the moss and leaves.
Confidence often couples with disaster, and shortly after my first successful tree rides, I leaned out joyfully from a young trunk and felt a terrible crunch and pop and landed solidly on my ass with a handful of poplar. I did not break my pelvis. I think I cried a bit and was fine, and after agreeing we might not mention the tree riding to my mom we walked out of the woods and had a hamburger at Big Boy.
I felt old and hardened and like I had barely escaped a broken pelvis. My dad told me that Peter’s fall had been due to riding too late in the fall when the trees were less pliant, less full of sap. I wondered why my tree had broken in the middle of summer. When comparing notes with my brother Matt, he told me he had a similar experience with my dad a couple years later, that he’d broken a sapling and crashed, too. It would seem that safety wasn’t really a major feature of tree riding. These were our first lessons in No Risk = No Ride. In, “maybe don’t tell your mother.” In leaving the twilit earth behind for a slow shimmy into danger.
With startling description (“perfect as a fresh stain”), “On Bended Tree” by Angela Abbott reflects the paradox of hope and despair that greets a brutal storm’s survivors. The themes of joining and tearing apart work together beautifully as people and tree regard each other.
Kayla Kennett’s innovative poem, “Heartlines,” asks an age-old question and turns it inside out. The poem’s layout and separation of text are clever, but the poem shines most in its imaginative description, forest and lovers becoming interchangeable, old language and phrases spun into new utility, philosophy grounded in pink slippers and hen’s teeth.
“Discovering Imperfection,” a poem by Melissa Burton, cackles and surprises, finds trees and history in the burnt alveoli of lungs. Burton’s piece, like a tree full of birds, transcends customary understanding, and thrills/freezes our hearts with its own powerful logic.
We’re on a bit of a Patricia Clark kick, and here’s one more beauty from our featured poet for August. “Radiantia” is a work of relentless and mesmerizing rhythm, its tercets building with gorgeous images that counter the poem’s ambition by finding “astonishment in the small.”
Precise and clear, Alicia Li’s flash piece, “Difference,” shows how the grafts in our family trees can struggle as they connect. Alicia, a high school junior, is the youngest writer we have published.
Our connection to trees and place lie at the center of Janet Dale’s lyric micro-essay, “Pines.” Tight and playful in construction, “Pines” achieves much in under five hundred words.
“A Time To Say Goodbye,” a short story by M. E. McMullen, follows an aging “furniture, art and antique brass” merchant on his errand to retrieve a mafia Don’s wayward grandson from an artist’s colony. The result is wicked smart, the description of the artist’s colony almost painfully hilarious.
This issue concludes with Matt Sailor’s “Snow,” short fiction that triumphs in its commitment to a bold narrative context. A kind of adult dystopia comes to life through a compelling and earnest narrator, the piece’s dazzling creativity offering a lens on the fierce privacy of the human heart as it ages and strives and mourns.
Photo By: Trey Ratcliff