The hemlock tree in our side yard had a wide branch at the base, good for swinging onto, and hand and footholds as regular as a ladder. One of my earliest memories is of climbing up beyond the lowest branches and not knowing how to climb down -- I remember my dad on a ladder, reaching up to help me.
Later I climbed to the highest branches many times. I would keep going until the branches grew too slender to hold me, and I would sit leaning against the tree, nose to nose with the reddish concave nubs of bark. Up there, surrounded by short, soft green needles, I felt sticky patches of sap at the joins of small branches, and I could think in the quiet.
We lost our hemlock to the woody edelgid when I was in college, and I wasn't home to see it fall -- but next week I can still wish it a happy birthday.
Friday, Jan. 25, will bring the New Year of the Trees in the Jewish calendar. I'm not Jewish, but this holiday moves me. What I have read so far suggests that it begins in the teachings of Jewish mysticism that link the tree to the soul -- and that it begins in a biblical system to count the seasons from a tree's planting to its first year of bearing fruit.
On the one hand, it's a holiday as practical as pruning, or collecting the black walnuts that fall from the tree by my parents' driveway and planting them in the back woods, or bringing new baby spruce up to Maine to set out near my grandfather's cabin, where the blue spruce have now all but gone.
And on the other hand, it's a day to feel roots and sky. I think of the stories I know of trees. In the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala, the poet hero sang a massive oak or pine tree into being, and it grew until it seemed to hold the moon. In Chinese lore, in Feng Shui, a professor at Bard College of Simon's Rock once told me, trees balanced earth and air -- as, in practice, they do, filtering the air and regulating ground water.
Odin hangs from the world tree in Norse legend to gain knowledge, and Adam cares for the trees in the garden. The Shakers linked the tree of life to healing. And in the Kabbalah, in the teachings of Jewish mysicism, the tree of life gives a structure for the nature of God, with force in the trunk and understanding near the crown.
In the Kabbalah, too, God has both feminine and masculine qualities. I think of the trees that have both feminine ad masculine -- like the black alder, the winterberry, which will only bear fruit if the feminine and masculine trees grow close together.
The 14th-century scholars and poets who tended the first seeds of the Kabbalah must have had open minds and beautiful gardens. Moses of Leon, who wrote or translated the Zohar, the book at the core of the Kabbalah, would have had the benefit of the water systems and trees the Arabs had brought with them to Spain more than 600 years before. He was also married.
Maybe that explains why Tu B'shvat can be a holiday about the growing season, and family, and soul.