The Climbing Tree
by Richard Risemberg

I grew from child to man in a white clapboard house in Hollywood, a former suburb long since absorbed by the city. The street was quiet and little traveled by cars back then, lined by flat green lawns and mute houses almost identical to ours. If you looked north from our front porch you could see the low brown hills that hold up the famous Hollywood sign. A little to the right of that were the three green domes of the Griffith Observatory. The width of the street and the paucity of human forms, so typical of a city where people drive instead of walk, made the quietness of Lucerne Boulevard expressive of dullness rather than tranquillity. When pale summer hazes filled the sky and all shadows vanished, time itself seemed to disappear; the day endured changelessly, featurelessly, until at a moment that seemed controlled more by clock than nature, the light faded away overhead and the streetlamps came on. There were few other children in the neighborhood and it was pointless to stay out front.

The back yard was equally unremarkable, the usual rectangle of listless grass bordered with half-desiccated flowers and some tall but severely trimmed shrubs, which separated us from the back yards next door. There was however a gnarled olive tree in almost the exact center of the yard. Its roots humped up like buttresses, and the knobby trunk provided handholds for even a clumsy climber like myself. Eight or ten feet above the ground, the trunk divided into four thick branches that reached outward and upward in sturdy disorder, in the way of olives. There were several comfortable sitting places at different levels, and three or four children could stay up in the tree for quite a long time without crowding each other. The leaves were not so thick that you felt shrouded from the world; you could see the roofs and yards that were hidden to you when you were on the ground, but the California sun did not bear on you uncomfortably. If no one else were around to play with, it was still a good place in which to be alone, leaning on a rough branch ten feet above the ground, out of sight but not isolated. One or another of my cats would often join me up there, stretched out with eyes half-closed on the horizontal branch that pointed toward the kitchen window. Our family was a turbulent one but there was always peace in the tree.

Many years later my mother, then living alone in the house, cut down the tree so she could put in a swimming pool. She has never learned how to swim, but feels that a pool is more "classy" than a tree. My son has often played in that pool, splashing noisily and diving for coins that his grandmother throws into the water for him, but he has never had a climbing tree for himself. The closest he has come was during one summer when he spent several hours each day up on the garage roof, usually alone with a book, sometimes with a friend. We have planted several trees in our own back yard, not far from his grandmother's house, but he will be grown before the trees are tall.

Richard Risemberg