Put your right hand just above shoulder height against the trunk of the tree, your left hand outstretched against the bark. About a foot above ground level there’s a gnarly lump just about big enough for the ball of your right foot and big toe. You perch there like a ballerina on tiptoe, spread-eagled like a starfish, and reach your hand, your left hand, up as far as you can stretch till you feel a little knobbly bit, a small bulge that you can dig your fingers into like claws and steady yourself as you bend your left knee up against your body and wedge your toes against the trunk, quickly using the pressure to swing your right foot up to a tiny projection about level with your knee where you can balance for a split second while you stretch your right hand up to where the trunk forks. That’s a proper handhold and there’s enough strength in your right hand and arm to hold you steady as you stretch your left hand up and grab a small branch emerging just above the fork. This gives you the leverage to shift your body weight. as you haul your right knee up to the fork where you have solid support. Another weight shift sideways, your right hand clasping another lateral branch, and up comes your left leg. Uff! The vertical climb is finished and you are kneeling in the fork of the tree, looking down at how far you have come.
Deep breath, and rise to your feet, as you prepare for the next stage. This is much easier. Left, right. Left, right. Foot follows hand, your eyes fixed on the next branch that offers a secure hold, and in no time you are a monkey, scampering in the canopy, invisible to anyone below who doesn’t know exactly where to look for you. Sometimes you go up the right hand bough from the fork, where the branches sprout like a lattice, sometimes you accept the challenge of the sparser growth on the left-hand bough, which also grows at a more acute angle. The higher you go, the more slender the branches and the more they dip and sway under your weight. You lie along a branch that bends slightly beneath you and springs back as you wiggle to and fro.
You are King Charles in the Boscobel Oak, still and quiet as a mouse, your life depending on remaining undiscovered. You are the sailor climbing the rigging, the lookout in the crow’s nest yelling “Land ahoy!”, Captain Cook sailing stormy seas to discover Australia, or the Pirate Captain making your captives walk the plank. You are floating on a magic carpet with a genie. Reclining in a hammock. You are an orang-utan, wild and covered in orange-coloured hair (that’s why you think it should be orange utan) and king of the jungle. You are Dan Dare, shooting into space.
The tree stands like a tower, solid, immutable, permanent. It is the central fixed point of your childhood universe, always there, growing a little each year as you do, but not quite as fast so that the footholds and handholds aren’t quite so far apart any more as your limbs lengthen. It is an integral part of you, incorporated into your being, and you are a part of it, the skin of your elbows and knees scraped off on its bark and your blood mingled with its sap.
You grow, and grow – and grow up. You leave. One day you return. The tree has gone. Felled, felled without you there to defend it, felled for firewood. A stump is all that is left, a cross-section, ring after concentric ring marking the years as it thickened and spread, outwards and upwards.
Even the stump has gone now. Yet sixty years on, I can recreate that tree as solidly as it ever stood, offering me its bumps and lumps, boughs and branches, its canopy of twigs and leaves, and I can sail away on my magic carpet, my galleon, my space ship, into the blue of the unknown. Thank God for trees in childhood.