December 1969 – Two new missionary families in Swahili language school at Brackenhurst Baptist International Conference Center decide to plant the evergreen tree that had served its Christmas purpose. I do not think there was much fan fair regarding the planting and I suppose the evergreen was not expected to actual live … let alone thrive, but it did. In fact, it grew to be the single tallest tree within the compound and, at the equivalent of a three story building, it practically begged to be conquered.
“If you climb up a tree, you must climb down the same tree” ~African Proverb
Sometime between 1981 and 1983 – I stand staring at the overgrown Christmas tree, knowing that a boost from a friend is going to be required in order for me to get my short self even slightly close to the bottom most branches, but resolute that today will be the day that I climb this tree. John will do and I venture off to find him. We return shortly only to have a typically childlike argument over who gets to go first – knowing that the tree will be climbed alone as there will be no remaining helping hands on the ground to assist climber number two at the beginning stage. As I rarely give in to any argument and because it was my idea in the first place it is decided that climber number one will be me.
John has willingly laced his fingers together and leaned down allowing me to place my foot in his joined hands. Combined with a little hop from me and an upward thrust of his hands I am able to grab the lowest branch. My arms barely reach around the large appendage as I dangle there, hugging it … cheek pressed against bark and fingertips barely touching. Now what? I am going to have to swing. I throw my legs to the left … right … left … right … left … one final swing to the right and I throw my right leg over the branch pulling the rest of my body with it. I pause, rubbing the scratches on the inside of my arms and adjusting my weight on the branch to make sure I don’t topple back to the ground where I would be forced to start all over again. I am up. I am good. I give John a grin and give him the thumbs up.
Now that I am in the tree – I look straight up contemplating my next move. The branches are incredibly dense. That is okay. I am incredibly skinny. Mentally plotting my course from branch to branch and bark scraping against skin – I begin my ascent. I climb for a few moments before looking down. I am already losing sight of John’s blonde head in the midst of the foliage between us. The climbing has become easier and I am simply stepping from branch to branch. I stop to survey my progress. To the right I am eye level with the red roof of the closest cottage. To the left I am equal with the door to another cottage … one that is perched on a steep hill. John has moved away from the base of the tree and stands in the open with head raised – hand shielding eyes from the sun – as he squints to make out my location. I wave. He waves.
I resume my climb and it is not long until I have passed the rooftop of the cottage perched on the hill. My progress is slowed now as the branches are not as strong and must be chosen carefully. They are woven tightly together and grab at my clothing and pull at my hair as I continue rising higher and higher. As my head pushes out of the densest mass of twig and branches I realize there is no where else for me to go. I am several meters from the tip. Alas! I do not think the remaining branches can hold my weight. I cling to what is left of the tree trunk (the width of a small branch itself) and survey my surroundings. I can see the entire conference center as the people bustle to and fro and the cars come and go. John sees me and I can make out that he is waving. He is possibly yelling something as well; but I can hear nothing but the wind in the trees. Like the pendulum of a grandfather clock I am caught in the breeze as the tip of the tree sways back and forth and back and forth and back and forth … I am thankful I do not suffer from motion sickness. I wonder briefly if the tree tip might snap under my weight only to decide not to concern myself with such thoughts. I stay a while. I am at the top of my childhood domain. This is where I belong with my skinned knees and scratched arms and wild blonde hair … swinging in the breeze. Now – how do I get down?
“So was I once myself a swinger of birches;
And so I dream of going back to be.
It's when I'm weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig's having lashed across it open.
I'd like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.”
~Robert Frost, Birches (lines 42-50)