The Great BRF Tree Project: Maybe I’m A Gryffindor, Or in Search of Eastern Cottonwood

A couple weeks ago, I got into a conversation with my girlfriend, Laura, and her roommates about Hogwarts houses.

“I think I’m a Ravenclaw,” I said at the time, “but my secondary house would definitely be Gryffindor, because I do a lot of dumb shit.”

This morning, perched precariously on a rock outcropping some fifteen feet above a racing highway, I thought maybe those two houses should be reversed.

Let’s back up a bit.  Today, my sample collecting plans were to look for eastern cottonwood (Populus deltoides) and slippery elm (Ulmus rubra), two invasive tree species that I had found last summer near the highway bordering Black Rock Forest.  (If you need a refresher on what I mean by “invasive species,” you might want to reread part of my intro post.)  Ellery, one of the other Barnard students doing research at BRF this summer, kindly offered to drive me along the highway to help look for these trees.  While driving up the road, I saw a couple of eastern cottonwood trees in front of a large rock outcropping.  Such walls of rock and weedy trees and shrubs are common, at least along highways in the northeastern U.S., where forest has been cut back to make room for the road.

eastern cottonwood

Photo taken from the edge of the highway; the trees I climbed to collect are marked with arrows

Ellery parked at the next available shoulder of the road, and I got out (clippers, tape, and pole saw in hand) to search out my trees.  I walked back to the outcropping and found the cottonwoods I’d spotted from the car: there were two larger trees right at the edge of the highway, and several more smaller trees in different places up on the outcropping.  I collected branches from the larger trees easily, then stared up at the rocky incline.  There were at least four or five more cottonwoods up there – I could tell by their distinctive pointy leaves and silvery bark.  They were maybe ten, fifteen feet up.

I can get those, I thought.

And without a moment of hesitation, I began to climb.

It was pretty easy going, on the way up  I’ve done my fair share of rock climbing between the climbing wall at my old summer camp and the steeper trails at Black Rock.  I just found one hand hold after another, one foot hold after another.  Securely rooted tree, patch of moss, rock crevice… and soon enough, I was up in the air, next to the trees.  I turned around and looked down at the highway.

That’s when it hit me.  A wall of rocks and thin tree trunks was all that stood between me and a fall into heavy underbrush.  One wrong step, and I could slip and fall – and with these rocks, the chances of me banging my head hard were about as steep as the incline itself.

At this time, I had the (before now foreseen) good sense to text Ellery: “so I may have climbed a rock face a little bit.  I think I’ll be able to get down ok but will keep you posted”


The view from the top

Satisfied that at least someone would go looking for me if I slipped and fell, I started to collect samples.  It was challenging to get out my phone, mark GPS coordinates, and label both branches and trees while constantly using at least two limbs to keep myself anchored to the rock surface at all times, but I managed it.  And then I faced the hard part… getting down.

I went through my options.  I could inch back down the way I climbed up, relying on hand and footholds in the rock to secure myself.  I could scoot to a low location on the upper rocky area where I was now sitting, then jump off.  I could call Ellery, give her my GPS location, and ask her to go get help from one of the BRF staffers.  Or I could just cut my losses and call 911.

My limbs started to shake.  My heart pounded loud in my ears.  My feet kept almost slipping – my hiking boots were a half size too big, and this had never been a big deal before, but what if now it would cause me to lose my balance and –

I suddenly understood how cats feel, when they climb to the tops of tall trees and refuse to get down.  Those dumb animals, I used to think when I saw photos of them.  Why do they climb up there if they know they can’t get down?  But now it was me.  I was the dumb animal.  And the fire department would have to come and get me and they’d have to shut down the highway and John and Ben would never let me live it down and –


The face of barely concealed panic

Okay.  Stop panicking, I told myself.  You’re not a cat.  You can get yourself out of this.  You can do this.

For a moment, I kept still on the rock.  Breathing steadily.  Steeling every muscle in my stupid, impulsive body.  I forgot the highway, forgot the potential embarrassment, and focused solely on the span of my arms, the bend of my toes, the slow movement of my lungs.

You can do this.

And then: I climbed down.  Slowly and steadily.  One hand hold at a time, one foot hold at a time.  Checking each crevice and branch before I put my weight on it.  Breathing steadily.  Breathing steadily.

And I was down.  I shouted in pride, then headed back to the car.

“That was one of the dumbest things I’ve ever done,” I told Ellery as I climbed into the passenger seat.  “And I’ve done a lot of dumb shit.”

Before we headed back to the science center, we went to a different road just inside BRF for me to seek slippery elm and Ellery to seek coyote scat.  While I was walking on the gravely trail, I noticed a tree up on a steep incline that had an old, fraying label tied around its trunk at breast height.  It was a beech tree I’d sampled the past summer – and as I looked at it, I remembered clambering up the hill, using roots and stones as hand and foot holds, then panicking when I realized I’d have to somehow get back down.  A familiar story.

This dumb, impulsive feeling that led me to prioritize my trees over my own safety today is not a new feeling.  It’s the same feeling that leads me to push off trail into unexplored parts of the forest, wander through swamps, and stick my pole saw high into the trees.  And back at school, it’s the same feeling that leads me to run for leadership positions in every organization I join, (prospectively) write four senior theses, and go out to parties on three hours of sleep.  The Harry Potter Wiki says the traits of a Gryffindor are “courage as well as daring, nerve, and chivalry,” and I think that might just be me.  (Sorry, past Ravenclaw-identifying Betsy.  You’re not as wise as you think you are.)

I can do that, I think.  And I don’t stop to let another part of my brain warn, maybe you shouldn’t.

This dual courage/stupidity will no doubt come back to bite me in the butt sooner or later, but for now, I’m enjoying my myth of invincibility.  At the very least, it makes for good stories.

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