I wait in my bed until it is very dark and I can hear that no one else in my neighborhood is awake. Then I stand up again. I put on my favorite gray sweatshirt and my raincoat. I put what I will need in my pockets, and I make sure to include a flashlight. It is still rainy and windy. Also, it is dark, and I cannot see in the dark like the northern flying squirrel—Glaucomys sabrinus—who lives in the trees of the Pacific Northwest and is strictly nocturnal. I would love to be able to glide between trees and see in the dark. But I cannot. So I take a flashlight.
Then I walk from my house with the blue mailbox to Boulevard Road, and then I take a left and walk for another mile and a half until I come to the LBA Woods. No one is here now. It is perfect.
When I arrive at the old-growth patch within the LBA Woods, the air is filled with that damp mist turning into rain that makes most of the days and nights in the Pacific Northwest so good for large trees. As I get closer to the old growth, my stride changes from that weary trudge that I use on the asphalt road and in school to the little leaps and sideways hops that I use when I can feel forest mulch and miles of roots intertangled deep under my feet.
I walk into the night forest. I reach out my hands on either side. I can feel the smooth bark of the Red Alders and the rough chasms of a mature Douglas Fir, and then I can feel the stringy fibrous bark of a Western Red Cedar. I can push my fingers into the Red Cedar bark; it is like cloth to my fingertips. But here and there I can also feel the lacelike fingers of Western Hemlock and the prickly needles of Sitka Spruce touching my face and my neck.
I know these trees by their feel and their scent. I do not have to turn on my light to know them. The wind blows through the trees. The leaves and needles shake. I almost feel that the wind is sweeping through me as well.
I stumble through the evergreen huckleberry and the sword ferns until I arrive at the foot of the Eagle Tree, and then I touch the bark. It is raining, and it is windy, but I can still climb the Eagle Tree. I have climbed smaller trees in worse weather.
However, it is very clear I am going to have other technical difficulties. On the Eagle Tree, there are no branches close enough to the ground to provide handholds up the side of the tree. Furthermore, the circumference of the tree is so large around that it is convex and nearly flat. I cannot get a grip on the bark.
I step back and evaluate. There are smaller trees—Douglas Fir, Western Hemlock, Red Cedar—close at hand. They are at least fifty feet shorter than the Eagle Tree, but the limbs interlace at about the sixty-foot level. I can climb one of the smaller trees, and then tree transfer to the Eagle Tree.
I shine my flashlight up at the trees around the Eagle Tree, and I take a mental picture of what I can see in the rain and the dim light of the flashlight, for my climbing plan.
The great size of the neighboring trees at one point overshadowed a little Douglas Fir so that its lower branches died out. Later in its life, when some of those larger trees died, the Douglas Fir recouped its strength with epicormic branching—new limbs that filled the lower canopy and made it possible for the Douglas Fir to gather a new bounty of sunshine. This means that its branches reach up at two levels—at the original crown, and at the newer and lighter epicormic branches, most of which stretch toward the Eagle Tree. So these provide a convenient transfer system—a lattice web of branches that I can use to climb.
I make a mental map in the light of the flashlight, and I add up the moves. There are approximately thirty-one moves to transfer, and then many more on the Eagle Tree itself. I will have to figure out the rest of the moves on the tree once I get high enough to transfer. And since it is the middle of the night, I will have to transfer in the dark.
I use my finger to trace the outline of the tree branch I will have to shimmy across at the fifty-foot level to get into position for the sixty-foot branch that reaches out. There will be an interim step I will have to take in empty air before I land solid on the outstretched limb of the Eagle Tree. That is the only genuinely tricky moment. The problem is that if I fall, there are no other limbs below to break my fall, and I will land hard, sixty feet below, on the forest floor. I do not know of many tree climbers who have survived a fall from that height. I have not read of any, although somewhere someone must have done so.
When I get to the sixty-foot level, I will not be able to check the soundness of the limbs by touch or by sight. I will have to take a calculated risk based on my memory of where the limb is, and perhaps from what I can see quickly in the beam of the flashlight before I jump.
I try to check the health of the limbs from down here. I wipe raindrops out of my eyes and look for green growth at the tips. Each limb seems okay. Fresh needles and bright green greet me, instead of overgrown moss and dead decay. The branches seem true.
I stare upward into the canopy as the dampness of the rain increases. Lines of falling drops cut across my vision and trickle down past my hood and into my collar. I hitch my raincoat tighter around my shoulders and turn to the smaller Douglas Fir. I grip the closest limb, and it seems to bend down toward me for a split second in the wind and the rain, as if in welcome. I pull my left leg up, and then my right. My hand clenches a needle-strewn branch, and I slide up against the wet trunk before swinging myself higher into the adjacent limbs.
At forty feet, the sky is entirely black, but now starlight bleeds faintly down into the forest from between rushing gray clouds. The wind is picking up as well. I can feel it catch at my coat as I twist above the branches. Along with the wind pushing me, it also pushes the branches I am relying on, in one direction or another, back and forth. That means that when I reach out with the clear memory map I have kept from the ground, the limbs I reach for have moved several inches in the wind to the right or the left, so I must fumble in the air before I can grip them again. And because of this movement in the wind, I am uncertain sometimes if the limb I am gripping is in fact the one I want. By taking hold of the wrong branch, I could be drifting out of my defined course, and I could end up leaping from the wrong branch into thin air instead of catching the next limb from the opposite tree.
The wind gives a mighty gust, and my feet slip out from under me, so that I’m hanging by only my arms. I scramble back onto the limb, but now I don’t know precisely which limb I am standing on. When I almost fell, had I landed on move number eleven, or move number twelve? How far ahead is the transfer point now?
I attempt to concentrate on the mental map that I carry with me. Inside my head, it is bright and clear—like a 3-D puzzle constructed on a computer. I adjust the map ever so slightly to align with the reality of the limbs as they are pushed back and forth in the wind. I give the imaginary branches variability and wind shear instead of absolute position, and I think I am still all right. Still on course. I close my eyes and reach behind me, testing the map in my mind.
Yes, the twelfth branch is there, where I thought it would be. I keep a tight grip on the branch in my left hand, and I reach my right out into the darkness. This is what Uncle Mike calls a death grip. Thirteen is right in position, although it trembles in the wind. And if I lean far forward, I can touch the needles of the hold ahead of that one—fourteen. I release my left hand, and reach for thirteen, then for fourteen. I move forward, up into the tree.
But when I reach the final hold in the sequence, I wait. I breathe. This is the moment in my plan when I have to drop down to stand suspended on a lower limb of the Douglas Fir and then let go with my arms, balancing on the slippery branch for a moment before I leap across the void onto the projecting limb of the great tree in front of me. In the dark. What if that branch is misplaced? What if I am facing the wrong direction?
The wind blows, and I can hear a creaking from the Eagle Tree itself. I remember that the man from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said that the tree is hollow inside. And with every creaking sound now, I remember that the canopy above is feeling all of the force of the wind. If the wind hits the right resonance frequency on the right points of weakness, this great tree could crack and fall.
I look up. Clouds are above me, moving apart. The moon shines down through the broken clouds.
I look back at the tree branches. Now I can see the limb I’ve been waiting for. It is about six inches closer than I expected. If I had jumped on plan, I would most probably have overshot it. I might have been lucky enough to catch it with my hands as my feet slid past, but the statistical odds on my ability to catch the limb were not good. I would have fallen.
I swing myself down. I stand on the slippery bark of the Douglas Fir branch, and I let go. I balance against the gusts of wind, and I bend my knees, and I launch my body across the gulf.
My feet hit, land, and slip. My body is pushed backward by the wind, and I scramble to hold myself up. My right hand lands on the projecting knob of a cone on the adjoining branch. I steady myself, and I stand tall on the branch.
The wind gusts again, as if to knock me off my perch, but I have made it. I am on the Eagle Tree.
I can feel everything now. I bend my fingers and I grip tight to the sharp cone in my hand. Every single one of the tiny scales presses against my hand; each one is imprinted on my skin. Needles touch my neck, and I know each one of their individual triangle shapes, precise in their formation, sharp and green. And underneath my feet, I can feel the branch bending ever so slightly in the wind.
I pull myself higher and higher, hand over hand, moving up against the rain as it blows against the tree. Then I stop.
I am on the top of the broken crown.
Years ago, the top of this tree snapped off in a strong wind, and now the broken edges rise around my feet. Around my feet are also the ancient scattered remnants of an eagle’s nest. The branch that I grip is the only way of accessing the very top of this tree.
I step down onto the branch I stood on before, so I am just beneath the snagged peak. I lean backward against the trunk. The deep furrows of the bark are vibrant wrinkles, bending and unbending over centuries, cracking and melding with time’s vast passage.
The tree’s presence is overwhelming. I want to spread my arms and allow the sound that is building in my chest to come out of my mouth in one unending scream of joy.
But there is one more thing I want to see here, so I do not scream. I swallow the sound in my throat.
Now I do not spread my arms. I do not move at all. Just like Rhonda taught me, I do a check-in on my hands and my sounds, and I make myself be absolutely still. But I remember to breathe, so I won’t lose consciousness and fall out of the tree.
I am still for forty-five minutes by the count I am keeping internally, and after forty minutes, I see a small movement on an adjoining limb. It is what I expected to see. There is, in fact, a creature there. It is a bird, about the size of my hand. It is the marbled murrelet, the bird they could not find. It is here with me.
In the sky now, I can see faint sunlight rising, and there are colors that I have read on crayons: vermilion, cinnabar, maroon. The sky beyond the forest looks like the bark of the Rainbow Eucalyptus, all colors bleeding together as the light seeps over the forest. The wind picks up around me and the small shape of the crouched murrelet. I can feel the branches begin to shake and tremble again. The sky is shot through with gold. There is a rending creak from the depths of the Eagle Tree, a deep and profound groan.
The murrelet stretches out its marbled wings, and then it launches itself forward; it flies away from the creaking Eagle Tree. It is leaving me alone here, flying out toward Puget Sound and the distant ocean.
After the murrelet is no longer in sight, I stand up tall on the broken crest of the Eagle Tree, and I raise my arms in the growing sunlight. The wind rises.
I am standing at the highest place that can be reached within five miles, a broken eagle’s nest above me, a single limb under my feet. The sun is shining on the craggy shattered top of the tree, and it makes the dark-reddish Ponderosa Pine bark glow like orange mica, with deep furrows concealing the gleam of sap in the depths. Broken dead branches stick out into the air all around me, like broken ribs over the forest canopy.
And then the tree begins to fall.
The wind is blowing hard around me, the sound is rising in my chest again, and I feel I can fly.
And then the branch has shifted under my feet, the deep furrows of the bark have left my back, and I have no time to spread my arms. I am not flying. I am falling.
I fall forever. I remember where the Eagle Tree came from as I fall.
First, sunlight touched this hillside, and buried inside the earth, a seed stirred, turning slowly in the deep soil like a tadpole in a dank pool. In the timescale of the growth of a thing that lives for centuries, the next part happened very fast. In only a few early years, the seed sent out shoots for water, deep underground, perhaps hundreds of feet down. At the same time, this seed used its storehouse of nutrients to reach a tendril up through the layer of decomposing wood and needles and biomass that makes up soil, and found—finally—the great treasure of sunlight shining on that knobby outcrop.
The tiny plant breathed in deeply from the rich atmosphere and used the burning power of the sun to split that atmospheric carbon dioxide into carbon it could use to build new cells and grow new minuscule branches and miniature needles to gather yet more sunlight and breathe in more carbon. It drew water from deep underground and split the water into hydrogen and carbon dioxide. The tree fixed the carbon in place, expanding day by day its empire of growth.
Gradually, the hunger of the seedling brought it the power to surpass the smaller trees beside it. The Red Alders at its feet fell away into irrelevance, topping out at forty or fifty feet, yet the Eagle Tree kept growing, outlasting a fire that burned to char many smaller trees. The Douglas Firs and the Western Hemlocks kept up for perhaps two hundred years, but slowly this Ponderosa Pine outstripped their ability to reach higher and higher into the atmosphere, and eventually the great tree stood as if alone on this forest knob.
There were windstorms. There were setbacks. Decay set in deep in its core. But the Eagle Tree persevered.
After all these hundreds—perhaps thousands—of years, the center of the great tree had grown unstable; there was a weakness in the heartwood and the roots. The wind found these weaknesses, and it turned and twisted the tree, bending it, back and forth, until there was no strength left, no way to keep up the centuries-long struggle.
Now, the great tree is accelerating downward, to begin the cycle over again, to form the forest floor that will be the bed of origin for all future seedlings on this hilltop. The trunk is cracking as it falls, breaking under its own weight. The limbs themselves are bigger and heavier than many other trees, and as the branches strike, the smaller surrounding trees give way, snapping in sudden defeat. The tree is clearing a path through the canopy, opening up a chasm in the forest itself.
I can see the forest floor approaching. We are plunging toward the earth, where the nurse logs still bear memories of woolly mammoths and ancient riparian wilderness before human civilization.
We are completing that vast cycle of time. And as we approach, I see a Douglas Fir branch hurtling toward me, attached to a smaller, unmoving tree. And as if in a dream, I reach out my hands, talons stretching for flight. And I seize hold of the Douglas Fir branch, or maybe it seizes me.
I think for a moment that I am safe, and my body bends, and the great trunk of the Ponderosa Pine crashes past me, and I am hanging in the air like some abandoned squirrel.
And then I am slipping, limb after limb catching me on my way down. I am falling again.
Ned Hayes has been described as a “master storyteller” and an “marvelous suspense writer” by Pulitzer-Prize winning authors, bestselling writers, and nationally-known reviewers. The Eagle Tree, his new novel, appeared in 2016. His bestselling historical novel Sinful Folk was nominated for the “Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award.” His work has been featured in Huffington Post Books, on BookList, and Book Note. He holds an MA in Literature from Western WA University and an MFA in Creative Writing from the Rainier Writing Workshop. He lives in Olympia, Washington.