By AIDAN FITZSIMONS
Oak-ay everyone, I’m back with my bi-weekly tree talk.
Two weeks ago, I started this column off with my favorite tree in Harvard Yard, the Emerson Evergreen Tree in Sever Quad. This week, we’re going to kick the skill level up several notches. The Emerson Tree is a relatively easy tree to climb: the first branch is accessible at standing height, and the branches continue all the way up the tree with horizontal orientations. It’s a breeze. But the two trees we’ll bark up today are another story.
If there’s one thing Harvard students love, it’s a challenge… or at least, a challenge within a field in which they are already adept. My love of tree climbing, along with slight masochism, has led to many attempts to climb trees around Harvard which seemed unclimbable. When I see a tree whose first branch is around the edge or just out of my range— maybe 10-13 feet off the ground— then I feel this crazy need to get up into it. These larger trees often have plenty of branches above that first branch which are great for climbing around in. Any seemingly inaccessible tree can be climbed as long as you can grab that first branch (this is a life lesson as well as a tree lesson, for all you upwardly-mobile types.) The hard part is that first grab. There are two challenge trees around Harvard that I climbed last spring which I am especially proud of conquering.
The first one is in Tercentenary Theatre, located diagonally between Sever and Emerson. It’s got its own little island of grass. It is a different species from the other climbable trees around it, with a rougher bark (I really wish I knew tree names). Anyway, the trees in this area are all pruned by Harvard specifically to prevent you and I from climbing them, because Harvard wants to keep us all grounded and stale. Harvard probably thought that this tree was bred sufficiently well so that it, too, was unclimbable. They underestimated our power, my mammalian friends. The lowest branch on this tree faces Pusey Library, and its crest hovers about 10-11 feet off the ground.
It actually took me a long time to notice this tree, because upon first glance you would never think it climbable. But one day, I was walking past Sever and looked at this tree as if for the first time. I stopped, considered it for a moment, and realized that I was being challenged. I backed up a considerable amount across the path that leads between Emerson and Sever; I took a running start at the tree, jumped, and then wall-jumped (like in a video game, or like a ninja) with one foot against the trunk. At my flight’s apex I grabbed at the large branch with my right hand… and fell to the ground. I got back up and tried again. And again. And again. A few times, I almost got purchase, but slipped off due to the transitory and unstable nature of such a leap. My hands got red and raw; my arms got scraped up considerably, and I even bled a little bit. After 24 leaps, I rested a moment, breathing heavily.
I decided to stretch out, and I took my time limbering up my muscles. The extra few millimeters of muscle elasticity I gained from stretching ended up making the crucial difference. On my 25th try, I ran at the tree, leaped, pushed off the trunk, and grabbed at the branch with my right hand and then, surprising myself, with my left— both found solid purchase, and I had it! I dangled from the branch a moment before pulling myself up and grabbing the now-accessible other branches of the tree.
Pulling oneself up is the easier part, but it still takes considerable coordination between upper and lower body weight. Once fully in the tree, I cackled like a maniac. I loitered up there a while and watched the tourists passing through the yard. Some people stopped to ask me how I got up there. I relished telling them how. Nowadays, I can usually get into that tree the first try, and I actually just did 40 minutes ago.
(Sidenote: there is a tree at the Business School which engaged me similarly, with many failed leaps followed by eventual success. I will not discuss this tree further for safety reasons.)
The second challenge tree is by the Charles River, between the Weeks Bridge and the first bench to its right. It’s one of those smooth-barked, late-career-Michael-Jackson-looking trees. The first branch on this tree is at least 12 feet high, and I will never be able to jump into it (although maybe someone on the basketball team could).
This tree was my personal rival last year, and it took me literally hours on separate occasions to master. To get into this tree, I had to engage in some real monkey business. I removed my shoes and socks and worked my way up the slightly knotty but still relatively smooth trunk by the tips of my toes and fingers. At a certain point, I had to straight-up shimmy, which is the craziest thigh exercise you’ll ever do. This, too, entailed many failures and scrapes; some days the tree would win due to my exhaustion. But eventually, through Herculean efforts of clinging and shimmying, I was finally able to grab onto that high first branch and pull myself into that damn tree.
That was probably the highlight of my sophomore year. Barefoot, I was able to hang out in the tree for an hour and watch the beautiful tangerine sunset over the Charles. Next time you’re strolling by Sever or the river, check out these trees, and feel free to entertain that tantalizing thought: maybe…
Aidan Fitzsimons (email@example.com) is Tired but Wired.