I’m partial to white pines.

When I go to bed each night I sleep in a house framed in old growth white pine lumber built by my great-great grandfather in the late 1800s.  Recently, I felt compelled to reacquaint myself with an old living pine friend. It was a foggy early morning when I hopped on my mountain bike and headed to the matriarch white pine, a half mile from our house.  

The thick trunked pine has been a giant landmark ever since I was a kid.  She grows in a scrubby narrow strip that once harbored a barbed wire fence denoting farm borders. The fence is long gone but the tree remains robust. Flanked by open land, it has been tormented and tested by winds that have ravaged lesser trees. The silhouette of this tree is not the typical white pine with a tapering terminal summit. This one wears a truncated canopy, likely the result of the wind’s barbering of the top. When a tree’s apex is sheared, the lower limbs grow more bushy and start curving skyward.

I laid the bike down in the pine needle duff below the thick arcing lower limbs. I counted 22 smaller white pines of various ages, growing within twenty yards of the mother trunk. Each of these is likely progeny from the overhead giant. Recent science has shown that a parent tree’s roots and accompanying fungal strands are in communication with the offspring.  

I walked around the tree, assessing my squirreling route. My first steps would be on the heavy low limbs. Each of these limbs carries more girth than most whole trees. At fifteen feet up I still could not begin to encircle the thick trunk with my arms.  

I have a vivid memory of climbing high in this very tree as a youngster. Back then this land I looked over was soybeans, corn, rye or alfalfa. Now these fields harbor a restored prairie. On that boyhood summiting I carried my official boy scout manual with me. From my high perch I studied its pages.  I still have that book but on this day it remained shelved back at the house.  

Now more than fifty-five years later, my climb is more deliberate and slow. It felt good to be back up here. The soft sigh of the breeze through the needles, the resinous smell and the pulpit view brought to mind the book Anne of Green Gables. I read it aloud to my daughters when they were little. The scene that had me fall in love with Anne was when she stepped off the train to her new home on Prince Edward Island. No one was at the railroad station to pick her up. She had time to kill so she climbed a tree. Finally, Mathew arrives and she tells him, “I had made up my mind that if you didn’t come for me to-night I’d go down the track to that big wild cherry-tree at the bend, and climb up into it to stay all night. I wouldn’t be a bit afraid, and it would be lovely to sleep in a wild cherry-tree all white with bloom in the moonshine, don’t you think?”

How could you not be smitten by her?

Days before I climbed the tree, a pair of yellowthroat warblers busied themselves in the underbrush and lush canopy. On this hazy morning, there was not the bird activity that I hoped for. No surprise with summer here, there are young to feed and fledging going on.

Instead I kept avian company with a song sparrow that was still tirelessly declaring territorial boundaries in the brush below me.  In the same thicket a catbird mewed its feline-like call and a chickadee paused on a limb below me and vocalized its name for me.  In a nearby strip of woods I listened to a red-bellied woodpecker and a flicker call.  I soon realized that most of the birds were below me, including a  pair of mourning doves that rocketed by the tree.

I made my way up 30 feet before feeling trepidation. There were still plenty of stout branches to use as rungs but an inner voice said “that’s enough.” I paused where there was a natural opening through the limbs where I could peer out over the prairie. An unexpected surprise arrived with a pair of swans trumpeting their hoots in flight as they passed my pine window. 

The tree shared the movement of a breeze born on the warming day. That settled it. I would go no further up. There was no sense in pulling a John Muir moment of riding in the treetops in a strong wind. Muir was a famous Scottish-born American naturalist of the late 1800s and early 1900s who became a key advocate on behalf of land preservation and was instrumental in preserving land for national parks. 

Muir wrote about an experience where he climbed a tall fir tree in northern California and a storm swept in. “Never before did I enjoy so noble an exhilaration of motion. The slender tops fairly flapped and swished in the passionate torrent, bending and swirling backward and forward, round and round, tracing indescribable combinations of vertical and horizontal curves, while I clung with muscles firm braced like a bobolink on a reed. . . I kept my lofty perch for hours, frequently closing my eyes to enjoy the music itself.” 

Up high peering through the gentle sway of limbs, I was content. I couldn’t help but revel and honor the last of the twelve scout laws found in my scout manual. It states a “A scout is reverent.” I still live by that law. To me reverence is a firm belief of the need to respect others and the natural world.

Admittedly I couldn’t stay tree bound as long as I did as a boy. The boughs were not fitting to my twisted form so easily. I was about to return to the ground when I spotted three crows flying at eye-level towards the pine. I tracked them with my binoculars until they were almost at the tree. They swerved and the closest one turned its head slightly towards me. I think I spied a wink of acknowledgement.