The Old Man Climbs A Tree

The Old Man Climbs A Tree
by Wendell Berry

He had a tall cedar he wanted to cut for posts,
but it leaned backward toward the fence,
and there’s no gain in tearing down one
fence to build another. To preserve the fence
already built, he needed to fasten a rope
high up in the cedar, and draw it tight
to the trunk of another tree, so that as he sawed
the cedar free of its stance it would sway
away from the fence as it fell. To bring
a ladder would require too long a carry
up through the woods. Besides, you can’t
climb into a cedar tree by means of a ladder–
too branchy. He would need first to cut off
all the branches, and for that he would need a ladder.

And so, he thought, he would need to climb
the tree itself. He’d climbed trees many times
in play when he was a boy, and many times
since, when he’d had a reason. He’d loved
always his reasons for climbing trees.
But he’d come now to the age of remembering,
and he remembered his boyhood fall from an apple tree,
and being brought in to his mother, his wits
dispersed, not knowing where he was,
though he was in this world still.
If that should happen now, he thought,
the world he waked up in would not be this one.
The other world is nearer to him now.
But trailing his rope untied as yet to anything
but himself, he climbed up once again and stood
where only birds and the wind had been before,
and knew it was another world, after all,
that he climbed up into. There are
no worlds but other worlds: the world
of the field mouse, the world of the hawk,
the world of the beetle, the world of the oak,
the worlds of the unborn, the dead, and all
the heavenly host, and he is alive
in those worlds while living in his own.
Known or unknown, every world exists
because the others do.

`                                          The treetops
are another world, smelling of bark,
a stratum of freer air and larger views,
from which he saw the world he’d lived in
all day until now, its intimate geography changed
by his absence and by the height he saw it from.
The sky was a little larger and all around
the aerial topography of treetops, green and gray,
the ground almost invisible beneath.
He perched there, ungravitied as a bird,
knotting his rope and looking around, worlded
in worlds on worlds, pleased, and unafraid.

There are no worlds but other worlds
and all the other worlds are here,
reached or almost reachable by the same
outstretching hand, as he, perched upon
his high branch, almost imagined flight.
And yet when he descended into this other
other world, he climbed down all the way.
He did not swing out from a lower limb
and drop, as once he would have done.

Sabbath Poems 1995: VI


17 comments on “The Old Man Climbs A Tree

  1. BeeHappee says:

    Wow, Bill, that is beautiful. I need to check out more of his writings. It reminded me also of more mundane but just as beautiful views, like looking at things the way a baby sees his/her world while crawling under the table among crumbs.
    Are you getting ideas about climbing? Thank you for posting.


    • Bill says:

      I greatly admire his work. He’s a poet, essayist and novelist. The name of this blog comes from his poem “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.” That poem changed my life.

      Nebraska Dave inspired me to post this one. Recently I posted Mr. Berry’s poem “How to Be a Poet.” Dave responded with a poem about how he prefers climbing trees to poetry. So it seemed fitting to offer up this poem about climbing a tree.

      His Sabbath Poems are poems he writes on Sunday mornings, rather than attending a church service.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. nebraskadave says:

    Bill, Wendell’s poem does way more justice to climbing a tree than my attempt was. He truly is a gifted poet with eyes for seeing things in a unique way. The truth is we all could see the way Wendell does if we would just take the time to stop our busy lives and look at our surroundings. You probably know that rural living encourages that aspect of life just to survive. Awareness of weather, activity of wild critters, and signs of trouble with livestock must be noticed if success is to be accomplished on a homestead. Even my experience with gardening has brought me into new worlds. Each property has a different world that surrounds it. The critters are different, the landscape is different, and the people living around the properties are different. I am a fortunate man indeed to be able to enjoy the different worlds with open eyes. Life is the best ever for this man’s twilight years.

    Have a great different world viewing day.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      You make an excellent point Dave. He is a master with words, but we could all see the way he does if we tried.

      I agree with you about life getting better with age. I’m sure I qualify as “over the hill” now, but I think these days are the best ever. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. avwalters says:

    A treat from my favorite author. I did an undergraduate independent studies thesis on sustainable ag, way back in 1978. In my research, I came across Wendell Berry, considered, even then, to be the heart of the movement. He has been my companion since.


    • Bill says:

      Very cool that you were so ahead of the curve on that. I left home for college in 1978 and if you had asked me then I would have told you my farm days were behind me forever. Life disagreed with that conclusion.

      I discovered Mr. Berry in the early 90s. Before that I knew of him as a regional novelist, but I’d never read him and had no knowledge of his agricultural critiques. I briefly discuss his rise from obscurity in my book. Glad to see him getting the recognition he deserves.
      I couldn’t find this poem anywhere on the internet (other than in Google books). I had to type it all out. So I feel like I’ve done a small task to help make his work more widely known. I hope he doesn’t mind. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. EllaDee says:

    I could imagine myself perched in the tree beside him. I wonder did he cut it down after spending time in the tree; the link between his other other world and the others.
    We have 4 cedar trees across our back fence line, planted by the G.O. despite being told they never grown. More than a decade on they’re growing.
    Cedar trees symbolic meanings include healing, cleansing and rituals of protection. This site is quite interesting:


    • Bill says:

      Thanks for the link. I did not know that about cedars.They’re beautiful trees. I love the way they smell. And they do make great fence posts (because they take so long to rot).


  5. I’m a little behind, but so glad I arrived here first to catch up … what a wonderful poem.


  6. Buffy says:

    Great poem. Reminds with of sometime one of my first graders said this week. “Everyone can climb a tree!”


  7. All too often, we condemn ourselves to oldness. (Doesn’t mean a few precautions aren’t in order. :)) –Curt


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