Emily Eckart

White Pine

Adults are not supposed to climb trees. If you’re spotted on the ascent, you get suspicious looks and sometimes questions. There is a sense that tree climbing should be forbidden, though no one can quite say why.

Tree climbing is best done alone. White pines have low, sturdy branches, evenly spaced from bottom to top. They were made for this. You climb the first part quickly, hoping to avoid onlookers. Ten feet up, you’re free. The pine needles screen you from view, and most people don’t look up anyway.

Each tree is its own place, with travel routes, formations, view points. Years ago, the tree you used to climb had a fork halfway up, its twin trunks rising higher with their branches entwined. You climbed between them to reach that one thick, generous branch, perfect for sitting and gazing through the gap in the green needles. You looked down at the yellow house with red shutters, where your mom folded laundry in your bedroom, faint music from her CD player slipping through the open window. Your dad hosed off his sailboat in the driveway. From above, you saw how small they really were, how finite. It made you miss them. Neighbors strolled the cul-de-sac below, voices sounding distantly. You were higher than even the mourning doves, who perched on the dormer window, cooing.

The tree smelled of fresh air and pine needles and sap. Your hands and clothes became sticky with it, flowing through wounds in the bark. Far out on one branch, where the wood feathered into twigs, balanced a bird’s nest. Its round indentation held the pale blue shard of an egg. Ants ventured all the way to the top of the tree, intent on a mysterious mission. A house fly landed on the branch you held. It settled its wings, its journey made easy by flight.

Once, after the hours-long flight to the place you still think of as home, after the funeral, after the reception, you visited your pine tree. It had gotten older too. It had shifted its energy to the top branches, so the ones at the bottom, your gateway, turned dry and brittle. They had snapped off into pieces on the ground. You looked up through the jagged stumps left behind, unable to ascend. The tree top swayed high above, a sanctuary that was no longer yours.

But there are other white pines in other states, in places far from home. They beckon with low, thick branches. You haven’t climbed in years, but the body remembers. You were made for this. You pull from rung to rung, finding the clearest path. The trunk is narrow toward the top. You hear the wind coming. It brushes past other trees, whispering in their branches. When the gust arrives, your tree sways and flexes. It was never solid, but moving and breathing, a living thing that holds you in its arms. The grey clouds loosen, and you’re close, you’re so close to the rain.

Emily Eckart is the author of Pale Hearts, a short story collection. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Nature, Harpur Palate, Potomac Review, and elsewhere. She studied music, literature, and sustainability at Harvard University. Read more of her work at https://emilyeckart.com.