Climbing a Tree

Childhood doesn’t seem long ago when every day a man sees the same things he saw the first time he began to look around. Then there can’t seem such a sharp division between youth and age. A person would grow into his years like a tree.

Judy Van Der Veer, November Grass

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The tree, the pine at the lower left of the field.

The tree stands in a field, and behind it are steep hills rearing up into the limestone cliffs of the Hohe Wand. The nearby village is Dreistetten, barely more than a hamlet. Along the path that leads past the tree are two springs, one from the east, the other from the southwest. Only a few hundred metres from each other, yet the waters from each utterly taste unique. One is sweet and cool, the other has the sour metallic tang of the ancient earth.

We walked along that path, Dad and I. We had been here at least twice before, it was a landscape of real significance to our family. An uncle of his, had discovered a cave in those cliffs, and along with all the cave bear bones inside, also found a spiralling horn. A unicorn horn. but of course Dad, ever the pragmatist, pointed out that it was the fossilised horn of a narwhal. In the hills around we would later fossick for petrified snail shells, cave bear bones and emerald deposits.

First, we went through the field to the tree. It was a conifer, pale green leaves, tight hard cones.

‘Can you climb it?’ Dad asked.

‘I’m not sure,’ I replied.

But climb it we did. Dad boosting me the first part, and then it was quite easy. He followed me up and kept exhorting me to climb higher. I ended up about 80% up the tree (and it was quite tall). He stood slightly higher, his way of telling me not to be afraid. He climbed down and took a photo of me. I have not seen the photo in decades, but I hope the tree is as green as it is in my memory.

The area was an important part of Dad’s childhood and youth. He would explore much of the buckled hills of the region, and knew much of it intimately. He would go to dances in the Gasthäuser riding a tandem bike with my uncle. He would ride at the rear, and so on the way home, could relax as Franz dutifully pedalled drunkenly the 20 or so  kilometres home, unaware that Dad was sitting, feet off the pedals, watching the stars overhead, as they meandered down the hills to their village.

Many years later, upon our return to visit him, we went back there. He was by this point, already a double amputee. He would never climb a tree again, and he was ill, but it seemed he could still recover much of his health, and live a better life. We drove down there and he insisted in looking for the tree. It became clear to me that both of us had held that moment close to our hearts, and not told each other. We took the wrong turning and ended up in the wrong lane. He tried to get in his wheelchair, and fell out into the muddy track, and we left, stressed and upset. He was never to return before he died.

I went back on my own, at the end of that trip. The better path was there, higher on the hill. We had both forgotten it. The path was unsealed, but smooth. A slow walk with a wheelchair would have been possible. I could not reach the tree, but I found it, behind barbed wire fencing. I sat in a few places where me and Dad had been, twenty years before.

I wanted my Dad whole and well. I did a quick watercolour picture of the view from above the field, and sat, and hoped to fall through a hole in time, to get back there, to live a more demonstrative life. To spend more time telling him I loved him. To climb more trees with him as a boy. But in the end, I got up and walked on some more, through forests and over hills, feeling the spring of ferns and the crunch of wheat stubble. I visited him that afternoon in the hospital. I can’t remember if I told him that I found the tree.

I hope that I did.

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