I was about eighty feet in the sky. Up here, the tulip tree’s two giant trunks, which split off from each other about twelve feet from the ground from a single bole, were only a couple of inches thick, still growing. Around me were big, mitten-shaped leaves and bursting tulips, orange and green. Not really tulips as you might know them, but flowers anyway, the amazing blooms of liriodendron tulipifera, a term I didn’t learn until much later. At the moment I was nine years old, having climbed my favorite tree with Andy McKemie, a kid my age. This was Virginia in 1962.
We both knew not to climb any higher. This was the perfect place to rock the two treetops, flexible as they were this high up. The tulip tree towered above all others in the woods by the creek. We could see the old house on the hilltop in its abandoned, dilapidated glory. The meadows, too. At least today, the feral horses that lived in the untended barn and grazed the grass around the collapsed chicken coops weren’t chasing us off. In the old house we’d found blue ribbons from horse races long ago. Somebody had left the property in a sad hurry. I’ve never looked into who the family was.
My parents had no idea I’d learned to do this. All we kids had. There were no limbs close to the ground around the trunk in the clearing. To get up there, we tossed a rope tied around a thick stick over the lowest bough, sat on it and hauled ourselves up. From there, once we’d pulled up the rope so no kids from Jefferson Manor could follow us, it was an easy climb along the dusty, evenly distributed limbs to the top of the tulip tree.
Andy’s perch on the twin crown was about ten feet from mine. “You ready?” I probably said, since we both knew what we were about to do. He probably said, “Sure,” and we both pulled back, bending our treetops away from each other, then, like kids do on swings, we rocked forward, working our swings to eventually pass each other, getting those green twin treetops to bend back and forth.
By the time we were done with this game, the exhilaration was always worth the climb. I guess if someone had had a drone with a camera, hovering above us, it would have captured two little boys, laughing and swinging two treetops past each other in deep arcs, better than a ride at the carnival. Wind. Light. Trust in the tree and in our hands.
The reason I bring up this true story is that here in Bradford, New Hampshire, far north of their normal range, I’ve planted two tulip trees my sister Lindsay gave me as tiny saplings four years ago in my back yard. She lives in Maryland. They’re budding again, one of them now a head taller than me.
Hopefully, long after I’m gone, they’ll be eighty feet tall, too, helping to replace the forest of red and white oaks, pines and sugar maples that currently surround my home. The poplars have survived thus far. The climate’s changing. Remember the chestnuts. Things come and go.