Thoreau’s Wisdom on Tree-climbing

Henry David Thoreau looked to trees as muses and he responded to trees with the deepest feelings in his heart, one could say he romanticized his connection to trees, and he wrote prolifically about trees.

One autumn day, he wrote, “Now is the time for chestnuts. A stone cast against the trees shakes them down in showers upon one’s head and shoulders. But I cannot excuse myself for using the stone. It is not innocent, it is not just, so to maltreat the tree that feeds us. I am not disturbed by considering that if I thus shorten its life I shall not enjoy its fruit so long, but am prompted to a more innocent course by motives purely of humanity. I sympathize with the tree … These gifts should be accepted, not merely with gentleness, but with a certain humble gratitude. The tree whose fruit we would obtain should not be too rudely shaken even. It is not a time of distress, when a little haste and violence even might be pardoned. It is worse than boorish, it is criminal, to inflict an unnecessary injury on the tree that feeds or shadows us.”

I often look to the trees as symbols of life. Trees offer metaphors to our life: we branch out, or are out on a limb, we turn over a new leaf, and we can’t see the forest through the trees. They are sanctuaries and shelter for humans, birds, squirrels, snakes, insects, frogs, leopards, koalas, and so many more creatures. Trees not only nourish through their root system, they also nurture all the life within their canopy. They tower to the skies as beacons of strength, providing shade, oxygen, and a place for rest. As a child, I defied gender boundaries that presumed that boys like climbing trees and girls like making daisy chains. I climbed up and up a tree, like pooh bear. I felt a sense of adventure. That childhood exploration established my roots for reaching for my goals, developing my creative problem-solving abilities, and skills for risk negotiation. I remember, when in the limbs of the tree I looked up, to the canopied sky, feeling the wind swaying me on my perch as I watch the clouds drift past.

“To touch the sky, you just have to get a little bit closer.” – Anthony T. Hincks

Bainbridge Island tree

More than one hundred and fifty years after Thoreau walked through the woods of New England, his words continue to resound with wisdom and inspiration. With nature as his teacher and companion, the trees offered healing and renewal. “We are accustomed to say in New England that few and fewer pigeons visit us every year. Our forests furnish no mast for them. So, it would seem, few and fewer thoughts visit each growing man from year to year, for the grove in our minds is laid waste…Our winged thoughts are turned to poultry. They no longer soar…We hug the earth–how rarely we mount! Me-thinks we might elevate ourselves a little more. We might climb a tree, at least. I found my account in climbing a tree once. It was a tall shite pine on the top of a hill, and though I got well pitched I was well payed for it, for I discovered new mountains in the horizon which I had never seen before…” _Thoreau, Walking

Trees appeal to all of our senses; scents of the needles bark, and ripe fruit; sounds of the branches creaking or the leaves fluttering in the wind, and the sound of birdsong; feeling the texture of the bark, the stickiness from the sap, or the sharp prick of the pine needle; tasting the sweetness from the fruit; and seeing the change in the seasonal colors and blossoms.

Flanders trees

Image: Rodney Graham, Flanders Trees, 1993, courtesy of

Our world would be upside down without trees.  The roots of a tree are its life force, essential for its stability and nourishment. Within the root system is a vast communication network transmitting to other life forms. People, too, have root systems. We belong to our family trees. Knowing our ancestral history and origins is understanding our roots. Our roots exist in establishing a firm foundation of our familial heritage and habits that stem from our deep-rooted ancestral tree.

There is rich symbolism in trees. From the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden which grew the fruit of temptation, to another apple tree that bore the fruit to the laws of gravity ( hence the inspiration for Isaac Newton), and Buddha reached enlightenment meditating under the Bodhi tree.

Some say the Big Trees are the oldest living things. California Redwoods are esteemed to be the tallest species on earth, reaching 300 feet, and many are thousands of years old. Old trees connect us to the realm of time, and how we are here to witness their growth and to be stewards of them for generations of life ahead. Please consider this before cutting them down to open up your view, when they are worthy of your view and perspective.

Look up to the treetops, maybe climb one and escape into an arboreal time zone, and be inspired to grow.

“Talk of mysteries!—Think of our life in nature—daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it—rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! The solid earth! The actual world! The common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? Where are we?  – Thoreau, The Maine Woods

1 comment

  1. What a lovely post. I love the Thoreau piece; as a requiem it is even more poignant today than when he sat on that Massachussets hill and watch the townsment fell the tree.
    Engaging and personal introduction, too. And you pique my curiosity with this: ” As a child, when I would climb up a tree, I felt a sense of adventure, and safety, and solitude, and power that no other place on earth has or can equal. ” Could you share a bit on climbing a tree and finding safety (along with adventure and solitude) high up off the ground? I sense something in that not seen moment which would shed light on why you picked that particular passage of Thoreau’s.

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