Elegy for a tree lover

February 15, 2013 · 5 minute read

It wasn’t the (hard) cider which made me surpass myself, it was the liberation we had torn away from the gray encroachments of 1943, the escape we had concocted, this afternoon of momentary, illusory, special and separate peace.   – John Knowles

It was a Saturday afternoon exactly two weeks ago when I got a life-altering phone call from my wife’s aunt. My brother-in-law, David Tate, arborist, lover of trees, and master tree climber, had passed away. Since his teenage youth Dave had been fighting bi-polar disorder, and after 36 years of life this powerful mental disturbance had finally overwhelmed him. Since David was a quiet man living a reclusive life, few people got to know him the way I did, and I feel somewhat compelled to offer the short biography of a man who only found peace on earth in the long-armed embrace of trees.

Our fates became intertwined in 2001. Dave had spent the last three years at Appalachian State College in the mountains of North Carolina but was abruptly cutting off his studies and coming home. He would tell me later that there was something about the SUV-driving pseudo-hippies wearing $80 tie dye t-shirts he found hard to stomach. When he showed up for his first day of work at my young tree care company I gained a better understanding of what his trouble had been with that confused faction of the college crowd.


David Tate at home in a tree

Dave tumbled out of his car at the jobsite looking more like a character from the Lord of the Rings than a 21st century human. He was wearing tattered shorts and the remnants of what was once probably a pretty nice t-shirt. He turned his face slightly to the early morning sun and reached two hands over his head to corral his long mane of hair into a ponytail. I found myself wondering what kind of leather moccasins or sandals he might put on his feet, but you can imagine my astonishment when this visitor from middle earth walked across the yard in nothing but the footwear he was born with and asked “What do you want me to do?”

I know it sounds like I’m making this up, but I just don’t write fiction that well. And the story of David’s barefooted entry into his tree care profession gains legitimacy when you consider that this man loved his feet!  He loved especially his naked feet. He was quite handy with them, in fact, using them more adroitly than many humans use their fingered appendages.

If you invited Dave over to hangout or watch TV, you had to make sure that your coffee table was more than a Dave leg-length away from the couch, or else you might find him big-toeing his way through the pages of a book. If the TV remote was on the table you would see the channels changing while his hands were rested quietly in his lap. He would pick up pens or other objects with his toes and absentmindedly reposition them.

I suppose the fact that David was born with four hands predestined him to become one of the best tree climbers this world has seen. Once I convinced him to put some boots on and started sending him up a rope, it didn’t take long for him to discover his own special calling, and to begin forming bonds of brotherhood with the many tree climbers and tree workers who were in attendance at a ceremony to honor his life last week.

Tree climbing is one of the most physically and mentally demanding occupations a human can choose. But Dave’s special mastery of this profession required more of him than merely mind and body. Many times he and I found ourselves climbing in the same tree. Up there, 80-100ft above the surface and its hard-to-understand people, up there, at close range, I saw a man who poured not only his mind and body into his task, but his heart and soul, as well. The full portion of his being. This is a rare occurrence, I think, in the modern world. I was privileged to witness in Dave a man doing exactly what he was born to do.

The darker side of Dave’s illness led him into hopeless contemplations about the human condition, about capitalism and its narrow-spirited focus on material wealth, and about the increasing separation of man from nature. Not exactly the “grey encroachments of 1943” spoken of in Knowles’ book, but to a sensitive earth-dweller of 2013 grey encroachments nonetheless. David’s worst enemy was the television and its 24-hour news narrative of strife, conflict, and earth abuse. At earth level, Dave saw hopelessness. And this shy, often inexpressive, grounded David is the one that many people knew.

But I worked with Dave for about 8 years. We spent 10-11 hours of our day together for 8 years, and I was privileged to witness a Dave that you would have never known if you only experienced earth-level encounters with him.

Imagine this. It’s one of those hot Richmond summer afternoons where the smother of humidity thickens right up to quitting time. Imagine a man climbing through the canopy of a massive 150 year old oak tree. He’s covered in sweat and sawdust, muscular arms moving rapidly as his thick fingered, vice-grip hands grab whatever they can find for purchase. Fresh scratches on his arms intersect with the healing wounds from the day before, and the day before. He has risen above the complicated human nature of the people below, and is interacting with a more simple nature he understands and loves. Like a special artist or athlete his body moves in perfect harmony with his self, his soul, and his surroundings. This man you picture now is a master of his craft. His mastery is expressive.

Imagine a man expressing himself fully through action, motion, determination, and commitment. Imagine a man doing what he loves to do, using all four hands, more the son of nature than the son of man. Imagine that Mother Nature embraces her son and his abilities. The man feels strong, able, and complete, and returns the embrace. Imagine a man whose mind is quiet, whose motion is pure and instinctive. And standing out in brilliant relief against the canvass of a strange and uncertain American present, imagine a man who is content; a man at peace with himself and the natural earth he loves, enjoying  “this afternoon of momentary, illusory, special and separate peace.”  I saw him. He was real. This man who was more at peace among trees than people was real.

He was David Tate. Richmond has lost one of its greatest lovers of trees.