Solemnity. A state of grace. Embraced by fir, cedar, and hemlock.

I am about 175 feet up a centuries-old Douglas-fir within the HJ Andrews Experimental Forest in western Oregon. There’s no fear. Only elation. From across the green ripple of treetops comes a single sweet chord of a varied thrush.

The name of the Douglas-fir is Traverse, as anointed this summer by Nina Ferrari, the youthful bird researcher from Oregon State University, and my climbing teacher. With us is Nina’s advisor for her graduate project, Dr. Matthew (Matt) Betts. He’s taking photos from below and exploring the mossy nurse logs and other riches of the understory.

Traverse is 61 meters high, or 200 feet. Her first branches are 30 meters up. She shares this ancient forest with many other elder trees that have lived for 300, 500, and even 700 years.

On this day of August third of 2022, I’d silently asked Traverse for permission to climb—gently, without harm to her lichen-tufted, furrowed bark. I would be the two-legged spider laddering my way up via a system arborists call “rope walking” that requires three ascender devices—one for your hand, one for your right foot, and one for your left knee.

The rhythm is tricky at first and I’m spinning in the air. Gradually, I take bigger steps as I push the hand ascender up the single rope. About twenty feet off the ground, I pause to take in the enormity of tree trunks in all directions. Close by is a western red cedar with shaggy bark and skirted in flexing limbs bearing needles like pressed ferns. In this moment of hover, I imagine what it would be to see like a rufous hummingbird suspended on sprint-fast wings above rhododendron, vine maple, and huckleberry.

Marina leaves the ground! Climbing “Traverse.” Photo by Matt Betts

Scaling the sky ladder ever higher and closer to the trunk, I’m breathing harder in a rhythm of ascension. This is the forest I’ve longed to see—to be among an exaltation of living pillars spearing a faraway blue sky, and to experience a vertical life the birds know.

At last, I reach the first branches that are sturdy, shortened, and bearing a trove of papery, crusty lichens waiting for rain after a scorching week-long heat wave. Recent research at the Andrews is revealing the ways these structurally complex and ancient forests offer cooling microclimates in summer months that buffer climate-sensitive birds from warming. (Matt Betts is the lead author of the publication).

Climbing slows as I navigate past limbs and graze fingers over curtains of fir needles. Who lives here in a Lilliputian world? So far, scientists have identified more than 3,100 invertebrate species alone in the Andrews Forest—from insects, spiders, and millipedes to slugs.

I am suspended in deep time this Douglas-fir knows within her heartwood, a time when the tree elders presided in great swathes over the mountainsides and along the rivers; before Oregon was a state, before logging; in companionship with wildfire, wind, and flood; and when indigenous peoples dwelled in ways of belonging.

Selfie I took (with great care not to drop the Iphone)–joy and solemnity in the treetops

Equipped in a yellow hardhat and climbing harness, I also feel a confidence that I don’t deserve, considering I’m not sure if I remember how to switch the ascender to the descender device I would need to get down. Fortunately, far below me, Nina is climbing up the second rope. She’s my key for the return—yet I’m not in a hurry. I want to stay here forever.

Twirling like a spider on a silken strand, I place one hand on the resolute trunk. Reverence. Gazing up, I decide I can climb a little bit higher for an even better view over the canopy. As I push up the ascender and step down, the rope slides out of the foot ascender pulley.

Slight skip of a heartbeat. Nina told me this might happen. Deep breath. All I have to do is reach down and press the rope back in. But nothing is easy this high up. I can’t quite finagle the move. Go slow, I think. Remember, the forest is breathing all around me and my oxygen is their oxygen. I’m held in the arms of this Douglas-fir so vibrant and witnessing.

That blue device is the ascender. This is where I climbed a bit higher close to the top of the rope as I wait for Nina.

When I was eleven and twelve, my family lived in a Pennsylvania farmhouse with a wide-trunked maple out front. I’d jump up to grasp the lowest branch, swing one leg up, and then the other to balance before scrambling to a favorite fork in the tree, the perfect nook for reading a book among the feathery flights of eastern songbirds.

Remembering, I brace my arms on a branch and raise my dangling free right foot high enough to find purchase on another firm flattened limb below me. Steadied, I lean over, flick open the pulley latch, and thread the rope back in. Snap! My little triumph.

Nina has called up to me. I can make out her orange helmet about 40 feet down through the needled lacery. I tell her all is well, and it is. While my rope-walking way up was relatively easy, Nina’s alternate system on the second rope reminds me of a frog taking small upward leaps and requiring a strong core and arms.

Athletic, positive, and capable, Nina lives up to her last name of Ferrari. One day she climbed a whopping six trees for her bird research project– fast, nimble, yet always safe. For each Douglas-fir, she gathered data from audio recorders and temperature/humidity sensors, which she’d placed every 10 meters up the trunks. Nina is studying the ways Pacific Northwest birds divvy up the vertical space as temperatures vary throughout the day at differing levels of the canopy. I’m writing about her climate change related study as an assignment for Birdwatching magazine.

From the beginning, I’d planned to climb up into a tree crown. I had dreamy thoughts of walking up to a majestic tree and clambering up a rope as if by magic. This was my third visit over the course of three months and first ascent. I’m properly humbled by the technical requirements.

The intrepid, curious, and awesome Nina Ferrari (photo: Marina Richie)

Waiting for Nina, I survey the forest from this highest point. Drinking in the full cup of blue sky, I am one with fellow trees narrowing, leaning, tipping, angling, and gathering sunlight to photosynthesize for energy. In the process? The trees are scrubbing the overladen atmosphere of carbon dioxide. The bigger they are, the more carbon they store within their vast trunks and roots. When they die, they continue to store carbon and nurture biodiversity.

Here among the treetops, I’m part of one life-giving Douglas-fir within a dynamic forest sheltering and benefiting from thousands of species that are linked in the way of spider webs, puzzle pieces, tapestries, and intricate basketry.

I’m as light as the Pacific Slope flycatcher unseen and coming ever closer as if asking a one-word question in two rising syllables: “Hap-PY?” Yes, I am. Dark-eyed juncos are trilling. Chestnut-backed chickadees chitter in camaraderie. I hear the chipping flight notes of red crossbills coming not from above as I’ve known, but from below as they whisk signals through the mid-canopy.

When Nina joins me, I ask her how she feels up here after so many scrambles into tree crowns. She replies without hesitation, “Serene.” We agree there’s a sense of time slowing down within the presence of trees growing century upon century. They do not rush or make to-do lists, yet so much gets done, like a gourmet chef who never hurries yet presents a bountiful feast at the exact right moment.

Together, we linger awhile. Our voices are hushed. Our eyes are bright. The descent? That will come and all will go well. This shared moment? Timeless.

Can’t stop smiling! (Photo by Nina Ferrari)
Nina in the treetops (Marina Richie photo)