It begins with a family argument at the dinner table. The year is 1767, and in a mansion in Liguria a small boy is taking a stand. Cosimo, our 12-year-old hero, refuses to eat the dish of snails that has been set before him. His father, the Baron Arminio Piovasco di Rondò, whose horsehair wig flaps over his ears, is in no mood for dissent. But Cosimo pushes away his plate, rises from the table, picks up his tricorn and rapier, runs out into the garden and climbs the great holm oak whose branches spread beyond the windows of the dining room. “I’ll never come down again!” he cries.
And he never does. From the holm oak, Cosimo clambers into a nearby elm tree; from the elm to a carob, from the carob to a mulberry, from the mulberry to a magnolia—and then he is beyond the curtilage of his father’s property, and into the immense forests of late-18th-century Europe. Up in that continent-wide canopy, Cosimo learns how to sleep, eat and wash at altitude, and how to fish and farm without setting foot on the earth. His legend as a levitator spreads; followers join him, and he founds an informal republic of the trees. For 53 years he haunts the branches, “Il Barone rampante”, looking down as Europe is wracked by revolution.
Imagine it. Imagine taking to the trees and staying there. It speaks to two dreams grained deep into many of us. The dream of escape to a forest Utopia (Robin Hood, Francois Truffaut’s “Enfant Sauvage”), and the dream of the wildwood—an impossibly vast forest as yet unruptured by roads and unschismed by settlements, through which you might travel for days in any direction.
Like most children, I climbed trees; like most adults, I stopped doing so. But in my late 20s, I started again. Partly to keep my own children company in the canopy. Partly because I re-read Robert Frost’s poem “Birches”, about climbing “black branches up a snow-white trunk” and leaning outwards until the top of the birch first curves under your weight and then lolls earthwards to deposit you softly on the ground. But mostly because of Italo Calvino’s “The Baron in the Trees”.
As I climbed again under Calvino’s spell, I learned to distinguish the hospitality of different trees. Cosimo was most fond of the olive, the “gummy texture” of the fig, and the walnut, whose “endless spread of branches was like a palace of many floors and innumerable rooms”. I relished the reliability of the rotless hornbeam, and avoided the warningly named crack willow. Above all I came to appreciate the beech, with its silvery bark and its dipping radial branches that reached down like helping hands.
I have never spent a night aloft, let alone a lifetime, but it is true—as Calvino suggests—that being high in a tree can alter the way you think and see. Cosimo’s senses became re-tuned, such that he “listened to the sap running through its cells, the circles marking the years inside the trunks…the birds sleeping and quivering in their nests…and the caterpillar waking and the chrysalis opening”.
Tree-climbing isn’t without its dangers. There are splinters to be tweezered out, sprained ankles to be strapped, and worse. Recently, a friend tried to repeat Frost’s birch-swinging poem. But the top of the birch snapped clean off in his hands, and he fell 20 feet to the forest floor, landing a few yards from his two children, fracturing his spine, breaking four ribs and puncturing both lungs.
Even death cannot bring Cosimo down to earth, though. By the novel’s end he is an old man, stricken with illness and confined to a walnut in a town square. One morning he climbs to its topmost branch, wearing only a shirt. Out of the west appears a hot-air balloon, trailing an anchor rope. As it passes overhead the dying Cosimo leaps from his branch, grasps the rope, and is whisked over the blue bay beyond. His body is never found, and the epitaph on his gravestone reads: “Cosimo Piovasco di Rondò—Lived in trees—Always loved earth—Went into sky”.