I’d seen him high up in the top of an oak tree in our yard, cutting dead branches and lowering them back to the earth from which they came. He was tall and muscular— not in a work-out-in-the gym kind of way, but in the way of men who earn their living working outdoors.
What captured my attention was how coolly he donned his harness, attached ropes with magic knots and pulled himself up through the branches. How joyful he seemed up there where hawks fly, where tree tops become pendulums in a heavy breeze, and later, how darned much fun he had as he rappelled himself back down.
I had to try it I told him, and he graciously agreed to take time out of the upcoming weekend to get me up in a tree. Saturday dawned gray and damply cold, with the occasional snowflake floating about, as though with no place special to go.
He dropped his gear bag at the base of a willow oak where he planned to prune a branch that threatened the roof of his brother’s house. He handed me a 150-foot long bundle of rope and showed me how to feed it out on the ground while he stepped into his harness and adjusted it. Remember these butt straps, he said, pointing to two adjustable straps on the back of his harness. I’ll show you why in a few minutes. He explained each of the carabiners that he hooked to the loops on his belt, where to attach the safety lanyard and how to check and re-check each point of attachment. For more reasons than one, his attention to detail gave me comfort.
He attached one end of the long rope to his harness, showing me how to tie the knot with some rabbit-through-the hole mnemonic. Then he threw some of the same rope over the lowest branch of the tree and connected it to his belt with a friction knot. One more equipment check and he began to haul himself up. His plan was to climb in this fashion, secure the rope high up in the tree, rappel back down, then with ropes still in place, help me into the harness and talk me up the tree.
Remember those butt straps? You just keep adjusting them until the harness hits you just right, he hollered down to me. Like right now, I have a huge wedgie so I have to loosen it.
What got you into tree work? I asked him.
It was about manhood, he said, climbing, taking up the slack, and climbing again. I hadn’t learned how to run a chain saw. Or drive a stick shift, he told me. Those seemed like things a man ought to be able to do. I craned my neck to watch as he secured the rope around a sturdy branch. He paused before he started back down. When I was in high school, I watched this older guy 60 feet up in a tree with a chainsaw and thought, it doesn’t get any more badass than that.
Tears in my eyes blurred the man in the tree, for the man in the tree was my son, and my son had just given me a window into the matters that sat heavily on his once teen-aged heart. And what weighed him down mightily was how he might make his way in this world, and how in this world, he might become a man.
Then there he was, helping me into his harness, making sure I checked and rechecked my connections, then talking me up the tree. I climbed, took up the slack, then climbed some more. I paused at the top, surveyed from his vantage point the rolling hills and the bare trees that in a few weeks would be green again, and I understood why he loved this so. Then I readjusted my butt straps and started back down. I am getting this right? I asked him.
Just lean back in the harness and push your feet against the trunk, this man told me. Now slide the knot up and come down as fast as you want. There you go, girl! You’ve got it now.