“Mommy, there’s a man in the tree!”
Simeon heard the young girl’s surprise thirty feet below him. He looked down and saw the child almost hugging the trunk. Her head craned back. Arm outstretched. A whirling finger trying to keep him sited.
“See him, Mommy? See him?”
A large woman in a floral dress joined the young girl. She had on sunglasses which she tilted onto her forehead to follow her daughter’s exaggerated pointing.
“What’s he doing, Mommy? Can I go up there?”
The girl’s mother squinted, slowly focusing on Simeon who stood in the crotch of the trunk where it branched into two mighty arms that supported the towering crown of the big leaf maple. Simeon gave a half wave to the mother and daughter.
“Can I climb it too? Give me a boost, Mommy.”
The mother continued to stare at Simeon. He figured she was thinking, What kind of forty-year old nuts climb trees and stay in them for half the day? He knew the woman below didn’t know that he was forty-two or that he’d been in this maple for over three hours, but she looked suspicious.
Rightly so. Simeon could appreciate her instinctive mistrust. All creatures—mothers in particular—were hard wired to detect changes in their environment, unusual behavior, potential threats.
If Simeon had been a ten-year-old, the woman would’ve smiled and waved back. But finding a middle-aged man standing high in a tree in a public park, that was odd. She did the right thing and coaxed her daughter away, downplaying the episode.
“Come on, honey. This tree is too tall for you. Let’s go find one you can climb.”
Well done, thought Simeon. The mother was acting rationally, removing her daughter from a perceived threat, yet still positively channeling her daughter’s curiosity. Good. Simeon was all for climbing trees.
In fact, that was what he’d been thinking about high in the maple, what he thought about every time he climbed a tree, a pastime that, for him, bordered on the obsessive. Thirty feet above the park’s gently sloping fields and dirt paths, Simeon pondered why our progenitors ever left the trees.
Cars roamed below him, but he heard little of their roar, their assertive positioning and posturing, behind the thick plate glass of the office tower where he worked. With his forehead pressed to the cool glass, Simeon observed the intricacies of traffic, motorized and pedestrian from on high, fifteen floors up. He could not reconcile this enclosed, hermetic vantage, higher than he’d ever been in a tree, with his almost daily escapes into some nearby woodland.
Escape. He looked at it that way now. Stealing from the urban canopy of cement, iron and glass to a park, wetland or green belt where he could take refuge in a tree for a few hours. What was his need? Solace? Safety?
Simeon did not know. Tree climbing had become a compulsion. A hunger.
It wasn’t like rock climbing or base jumping. He wasn’t in it for the thrill, the adrenalin rush, and it wasn’t about finding trees to conquer or to test himself against.
Simeon could be ten feet in a tree or seventy. The key was to reach serenity. There was a point in the climb when he achieved a perch, a vantage that was restful. A place he could spend hours peering up, below and through the boughs and foliage. Observe critters. Watch the sky. Ponder humanity. Poor, poor humankind.
A staccato rap on his office door forced Simeon away from the window and his thoughts. He moved around the desk and opened the door.
Quentin stepped into the doorway with a stack of files and a crooked grin. “You are not going to believe this,” he began.
“I will, if it’s credible.”
“It is, but it’ll still blow your mind.” Quentin dropped the files on Simeon’s desk, a bit too eagerly. “It’s your problem now.”
“Quentin, it’s our problem. All ours.”
“Not mine, anymore,” Simeon said tapping the top file. “After looking through these, I’m outta here.”
“You’re leaving?” It was the mildest of questions.
“This is not where I want to spend doomsday, boss.”
Simeon backed the door closed. “Even in the worst case scenario, it’s far from apocalyptic. We’ll have time to adjust.” His words sounded hollow as bamboo. “No need to panic.”
“Please, Simeon, leave that ‘we’ve got time to make it better’ for the plebeians. This data pushes things forward twenty years. We aren’t going to have time for counter-measures to work. It’s irreversible. Massive upheaval is inevitable. I’m getting gone while the getting is good—unless you can look me in the eye and tell me you didn’t sense this coming. I sure did, when the agency brought us on board two years ago. I’m betting you did too.” Quentin sat on the edge of the desk and pressed his point. “I mean, why would Homeland Security set us up in digs like this? We do some of the most obscure research in the world. Have you ever googled Applied Ambivalence or Ambiguous Systems?”
Simeon simply waited Quentin out.
“No, huh?” Quentin blinked first. “Look, we were brought in because they’re desperate. They don’t know what’s causing the collapse. We were a long shot. Maybe their last shot. Now that I’ve seen the latest projections, I don’t see any hope. I’m giving up.”
Simeon moved from the door to the window. “If you’re at that point, I’m not sure what I can say, Quentin. That’s the crux of our theory. Ambivalence. Collapse. You’re just a reinforcing factor now.”
“I prefer to call it bowing to the inevitable,” Quentin said as he raised a handful of the folders he’d brought in over his head smiling victoriously and let them fall back down on the desk with a thump. “But, I’m not giving up on life—just this gig. I’m selling everything and blowing town.”
Simeon carefully aimed his reply at Quentin’s triumphant smile. “This isn’t isolated. It’s systemic. Where can you go that won’t be affected?”
“It’s not real.”
“Doesn’t have to be.” Quentin smiled. “You’re the one that keeps saying audacity trumps environment. I’m taking your advice and playing that hand.”
“Listen, Quentin, a third-tier social network hinting at some mystical Terra Incognita holding our salvation is less than reliable. You can’t inhabit a myth.”
Quentin snorted. “Searching for an ideal is better than being treed.”
“What do you mean by that?” Simeon asked, wondering just what was in the files Quentin had dropped on his desk. Had he been under surveillance by the agency? Had Quentin been tailing him?
“As in being cornered. I’m not letting that happen to me.”
Not exactly sure why he was doing it, Simeon nodded. “Will you let me know?”
“You think the agency will let you go?”
“Most likely.” Quentin joined Simeon by the window. “You seem to think the guys here are somehow more capable than us regular Joes. They’re symptomatic, too. You can feel their malaise. See their growing ambivalence.” He turned to face him. “Just look around you, Simeon. Get your head out of the trees.”
It was clear he knew. The extent? Probably unimportant Simeon reasoned. If Quentin was correct about the data in the files he’d delivered, they only had a few more years, and who was going to care if he spent it in trees?
“Thanks for the files, Quentin. Send me word.” Simeon held out his hand.
They shook. A hundred fifty feet up. They shook. The traffic crawled, uninterested, below them.
Climbing was more than strength and balance, tenacity or courage. Simeon believed in placement. Careful placement. Hands, hips, knees, toes. One had to seek out safe lodgments, sturdy leverage points, restful positions. Since Quentin had left the agency, Simeon had sought out higher and higher perches, as if this might provide clarity.
From a greater height, he could certainly see farther into the distance. Maybe even to the past. Or to the future.
This afternoon, he was seventy feet up in a cedar, swaying with it in a slight breeze. A few miles distant, he watched the towers of the city, man’s modern forest, and only felt a tenuous connection. Why was it breaking down?
Gazing out from the tree, he plunged inward. Past the data. Past remorse. Could he get past resignation? Humanity was being treed. Prey to its own hungers. Finished off by disbelief. Apathy.
Simeon had a simple rule about tree climbing. Never go to the very top. Too dangerous. The apex always held unreasonable risk, diminishing returns. Thin air.
He reached upwards. A cautious ascent? Would that make a difference? Simeon wasn’t sure, but he chose that approach, moving the last twenty feet to the top methodically. He rarely was this fully exposed. He’d always climbed to blend in. Be a part of the backdrop.
Now, he was the star, literally hugging the top of the tree. He exacerbated the treetop’s natural sway considerably. The breeze felt stiffer. Simeon clutched tighter with his hands but relaxed his neck. He took in the view.
In the far distance: the city. Stolid. Uncommunicative. Those stone and steel edifices might outlast them all.
He shifted his vantage. He’d driven out to the edge of the suburbs to find larger trees, and now looking away from the city he saw just how many there were. Not a wood or a forest, but thick stands of trees. Sylvan centers among the sprawl. It cheered Simeon. Maybe humanity could survive in pockets like these trees. Maybe Quentin’s search for Terra Incognita wasn’t impossible
As reassured as he’d felt in months, Simeon let his eyes rest on a distant stand of lofty firs. A crow or raven, possibly an eagle, lifted off from one of the tree tops. Expecting it to soar off, Simeon gave it his full attention. But the large bird just flapped and flapped. It couldn’t get airborne.
Stuck. Sick. Simeon couldn’t figure out its behavior. The wild flapping. It was just like—
It’d been a long climb to the top, Simeon thought. Humanity would have to climb back up. Hard but doable. We could re-master the trees. Climb up and out. Brave thin air.
Simeon raised his arm and swung it back and forth in greeting to the person waving to him from the treetop in the distance.