Origins, Grown Man Stuck in a Tree, Childhood
I’m stuck thirty feet up in the air clinging to the bending limbs of a dogwood tree as I write this in my field notebook. I just barely beat the pitbull-ish dog that’s tearing up the ground at the base; barking and biting at the air between he and I. He spotted me between the trunks of the sugar pines and cedars and made a B line after me through the woods. I’d heard his bark, looked up, and we met eyes. With that eye contact he went into a dead sprint from standing still. I on the other hand, knowing that I couldn’t outrun him, looked for the closest tree that could hold my weight with branches I could reach from the ground. I was about 40 feet away from the dog when he barked and only with this small head start was I able to reach the tree and climb up before having my legs most likely bit clean off at the hip.
Also, at the base of this same tree, there is a freshly dugout dirt depression where a black bear slept last night. As well as its accompanying scat full of berries, a piece of blue string and bits of other things. In my haste to find a tree-bound-escape route, I hadn’t checked to see if this tree was occupied by a bear… To my good fortune, and certainly not to my planning, I only shared my small perch with a few ants and the occasional mosquito.
I’m in the woods behind my childhood home in a Northern California, in a town called Arnold on a street called Aspen, nestled in the mountains between Yosemite and Lake Tahoe. Situated in the Stanislaus National Forest near the Stanislaus River, just down the road from White Pines Lake and a grove of giant sequoias. This dogwood tree is on the north side of the mountain and it’s early enough in the morning that the sun hasn’t fully shown it’s face down here yet, in this cool shaded hollow beneath the tall tall trees; sunlight broken into blanket sized swaths on the forest floor.
It’s the only house I lived in as a kid, as an only child, and I came here today from Colorado today to be with my parents before my wife Emi and I move to New York City later this month. It’s the biggest move I’ve made since I first left home for college nearly a decade and a half ago. I wanted to be with them before this large transition, and to be in these woods to start this year long project called, Where the Questions Live. These woods are my place of origin, and so to plant the project’s origin here as well holds a special significance to me - the two of us sharing the same patch of woods as a birthplace. Our collective headwaters.
The WTQL project is a year long exploration that explores the connections of humans in nature, and in order to dive as deep as possible into the project and its process, I hoped to begin this exploration in the place where my love and curiosity for the natural world began, before I even knew to describe it as such. This place is time beyond time to me, going back in my memory until it fades into the yellow sunlight of childhood, these trees and quiet trails having shaped me in ways that will take me lifetimes to unfold. Who am I because of this place? What do I owe this place? Does it recognize me today? Does the forest have a collective memory?
But what I anticipated to be a quiet morning of walking and writing poems in the forest, has abruptly turned into an unexpected childhood adventure, delayed by about three decades. Maybe the woods thought it too cheesy or nostalgic to let me traipse around thinking I’d grown up, so instead it offered me an experience more true to form. Myself, a 33 year old man, stuck 30 feet up a tree like a raccoon with a very angry dog barking up at me from the bottom, my hands covered in sap, with sticks and leaves in my hair like a nest. Ironically stuck in a dogwood tree because of a dog. It’s an adventure that would have thrilled and terrified me as an eight year old, and to be candid, as a 33 year old.
And another irony of all this, is that the very tree I’m currently stuck in, is a tree I climbed countless times as a kid, and if I close my eyes and try to visualize time folding over itself, with the “kid me” climbing the same limbs as the “adult me”, it brings me a strange happiness that my original plans were changed. Can we exist within a place even after we leave it? Do we have a spirit that stays when we go? Do we take the spirit of a place with us when we move away?
A seed in the ground. A birth. A beginning. Today is that seed, that birth, that beginning; for me and for this project. Although September 1st is not so different than it’s neighboring days to most folks by most appearances, it’s set apart in my imagination with this WTQL project’s start.
Over the next month as I move from here to there as part of the transition into the project, I will cross nearly the full breadth of the United States, from California to New York, traveling over its three major mountain ranges, the Sierra Nevadas, the Rockies, and the Appalachians. I will pass over and swim through what seems like an unending family of rivers, streams, springs, creeks, brooks, ponds, reservoirs and lakes; flowing from one home to the next like a drop of water. I will look closely at stones, caves, quarries, mines, and graves. As well watch the way wind and sunlight fills the arms of green leafed trees, wildflowers, seaweed, prairie grass, and evergreens, as well as the house plants riding with me with the backseat as I drive from West to East.
And through all this, I will be following the metaphorical threads like clues that run out of the mountains, from the trunks of trees, and out of the burrows in the ground, following them back to where they connect with human lives. We often think of humanity and nature as two separate entities or endeavors, and although I will often compare and contrast them as if they are, this project sets out to show those threads are spun together in a larger fabric, woven together with mystery and poetry, inseparable from one another, offering fullness and life to each. This first full month of September will be one of transition, the first of twelve full months that will hold the shape of the year long project.
There’s more to say, but there’s not rush I suppose. We have all year to let the exploration offer space for words and ideas to ruminate, to follow rabbit trails and to bloom as they choose, so long as we’re present with them and listen closely.
But one last thing before I go…. If you are someone who has felt that tinge of joy when standing in the presence of a great sea, live in a city and crave nature, or have simply found a deep life giving breath next to a tree, I invite you to come along for this wild, format-bending project and ask yourself, who am I today within this world on planet earth, that for better or for worse has given me everything? What landscapes do I carry with me throughout my wandering life? What expansive questions can we ask together?
Where are your “woods of origin"? Where do you trace your life from? Please share any thoughts or stories in the comments below, or send me and email with words and visuals at email@example.com