Tree line: “The edge of the habitat at which trees are capable of growing…. Beyond the tree line, trees cannot tolerate the environmental conditions.” (Wikipedia).
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Of Treeline, Middle Age, and Lessons Still to Learn
I have always been drawn to high places. From my first foray above treeline at the age of nine — to the summit of Mt. Washington in New Hampshire, where my attention was directed to the plaque commemorating all the people who had died on the mountain — I have relished the mind-bending views, the lung-cutting air, the clarity and the perspective. The muscles in my face relax and I can feel my eyes focusing differently, like a camera lens moving from a close-in macro to an all-encompassing wide angle.
It’s harsh up there: As you climb, temperatures drop and winds rise. The trees stop crowding each other out, and they get thin and short and twisted, and then they disappear leaving only shrubs and the alpine grasses. Height is not something to aspire to if you are a plant growing above treeline.
The descent is inevitable, I suppose. You can’t actually live among rocks and ice with only the occasional lichen to munch on. There is the climb, then there is the summit, and then you are over the hill. All downhill from here.
That’s the clichéd metaphor, isn’t it? You spend the front end of life climbing toward some goal — a bank balance, a job, a second home with a pool and a caretaker — you achieve it (one hopes) and hang out a while buying a Maserati or ordering people around or courting skin cancer. And then it’s time to descend, before you have to be carried away. You get to tell stories and share pictures on Instagram, and it’s someone else’s turn to actually slog uphill and savor the view.
But that begs the question: If life is a mountain, what kind of mountain would it be? An active volcano, with huge temper tantrums and unpredictable eruptions and steam coming out of its head? A giant slab of granite being raised at the rate of an inch a year by tectonic plates? A former towering giant being lowered by wind and water and time? A mondadnock, standing all alone, unconnected to any other peaks? Or one of those endless flat ridges where you almost can’t tell where the summit is?
It’s hard to see, when you are struggling over rocks and boulders and fighting for breath, the exact shape of a mountain. What is its temperament? How will you feel at the top — Exhausted? Exhilarated? Sick from the lack of oxygen? Will you say “I conquered” — or “I survived”? And it’s hard to know what lies on the other side. Will the descent be sharp and steep, or long and slow and almost imperceptible? Or will the mountain blow up right when you are standing on the top? Which trail down would you choose, when it’s your turn to go over the hill?
I live on a mountain these days, and this time I’m talking literally. It’s not a very big mountain; even so, at the summit, the forest canopy is gone, leaving only stunted dwarf pine and scrub oak interspersed with blueberry bushes and mountain laurel. My life here is a balancing act of travel, writing, hiking, skiing, playing and teaching piano, photography, and attempting to learn to draw and paint. If that’s hard to fit in one sentence, it’s even harder to fit into a day.
Join me as I explore the treeline… the high places at the edge of comfort. The mountains we climb may be solidly literal, or they may be the airy towers of art and the imagination: Either way, they offer clear air, challenge, the perspective of horizon-bending views, and the potential to nurture a different kind of growth.