“Dad I wish you could
climb up here with me,” so I did. The tree is a centuries-old pohutukawa at Te Toki Road Reserve on Waiheke Island, New Zealand. We’ve come here to visit friends who live down the way, and their Vizsla needs his evening run. So does Charlie. It’s nearly dinner time and the cicadas are clacking so loud the boy can hardly hear me say “watch me.”
We spotted the pohutukawa from the roadside while still behind the fence. I told Charlie he better climb over that fence or else. And he looked at me incredulously for a beat, then turned his left cheek up in a squinty smile and took off clamoring over the wood rails as though they’d meant to run a ladder across this edge. He swung a leg over the top and hopped a metre down into the fresh cut grass. The park is mostly a field of weeds tall as him, nearly, except some mower-wide runs up and down the contours to the estuary, a loop with chords cut across here and there. One path leads to the tree. We’re heading that way.
Charlie took off down the hill faster than Ted the Dog, disappearing below the horizon. We thought we’d lost him, and Ted thought the same, until I spied the gentlest of movements in the weeds, and I knew. I announced to nobody, as a barker would announce a carnival act, I couldn’t find Charlie. He stirred in the undergrowth slightly more than would a breeze. I scanned the horizon, palm to brow, shielding my eyes, “Where is he?” gesturing in irony. Pause. I shrugged and said “Oh well” and I started off away from the clump of hiding little boy.
He stirred again. I stopped cold and I turned to him and I squint smiled like I was about to climb a fence. You couldn’t have missed his grin from an aeroplane.
He jumped up and out and attacked my leg, and before I fell across the mowed track Ted the Dog bounded over to get his licks. We all laughed and woofed and rolled around in a chaotic happiness, out here, out in the middle of a field, nothing but weeds and imagination. I stepped back and surveyed the scene and sniffed the air, aping a distinctly canine way, taking in a breath of the grass’s pollenic exhalation. That’s the stuff of summer.
In the western sky was a jet aeroplane coming across to the south, embarking over the Pacific. I watched it cut a trail in the air while Charlie cut his own through the sticker-filled weeds, all clinging to his little shirt, bigger every season but still so small. Just below the aeroplane was that pohutukawa. I wondered whether some passenger looked down at this landscape the same way I looked up, saying the same as I had, as though a termination of a truncated idea that needed no more: “This life.”
The trees along the ridge twist spiraled from a hundred years of wind, branches split off into adventitious jack-rooted forms that looked of worlds unto themselves. In the crevices and wrinkled bark ridges, the cicadas so close by, their wings clacking and snapping, ticking like a teletype printing out their squeals. And under this jet aeroplane, an ancient tree about to get clumb, a surprisingly healthy specimen of a creature who’s made shadows in this same setting sun since before Europe’s Enlightened Age. Surely its canopy predates gravity’s favourite apple.
Charlie wades through the weeds, stickers stuck to his shorts and shirt in a mosaic of unbridled enthusiasm, and I see he could use a haircut the way his part bounces in stride. He stops at the trunk and finds a gnarl as a first footing. As though a natural scaffold, he ascends to the first landing where two main branches separate. He kicks off his jandals half way up. Now barefooted he swings a leg around and finds a hand hold and keeps three points attached at all times because he does actually listen to the old man’s advice. And of a sudden he’s walking palms at shoulder height, level steady, balancing along a split branch grown to a bridge over what looks a separate tree in the ecosystem, though as connected through the Earth as we all are.
“Dad I wish you could climb up here with me,” so I did. And as I started up the same path I said “watch me” and the little boy smiled and took off down the natural bridge, the cicadas never missing a beat as he stepped over their perfectly camouflaged exoskeletons.
All is as it has been in this tree for centuries. On this occasion a father scampering after a son, thinking aloud:
“This life. It’s still in me.”