The Silliman Beech
As you emerge from the ornate stone archway, these branches are the first thing you see when you walk through the wrought-iron gate from the street into Yale’s Silliman College. Hidden from the outside by the four-story, gargoyle-adorned residential buildings that give Silliman its fortress-like exterior, the beech tree fills the western side of the large courtyard. A row of holly hedges separates its root belt from the wide central walkway bisecting the courtyard, and a gently curving stone path made up of irregular, smooth grey slabs takes you clockwise around the edge of the canopy, past where the tidy mulch surrounding the trunk gives way to ground ivy.
I was a first-year at Yale when I met the Silliman beech. Right away, I knew I wanted to climb it. But standing on my tip toes, pressed up against the trunk, reaching as high as I could, my finger tips still came short of the bottom of even the lowest branch. Jumping wasn’t enough, as the lowest branch was too wide, and I couldn’t jump high enough to grip it well. My friend Theo and I would scooter to the tree between classes, our wheels clacking sharply over the cracks between the stones before we hopped off at the edge of the mulch, stashing our scooters behind the big rhododendron at the end of the row of holly. Then we would circle the tree, looking for a new knot, some previously unnoticed crease in the elephant-skin bark, something that might help us scale the trunk just high enough to reach that first branch.
One day in February of 2020, Theo had the idea to use his belt. He looped it over the first branch, grabbed it, pulled, struggled, got one leg up, an arm, both arms, and that was it! He reached down and pulled me up, and our dream was suddenly no longer out of reach. Victory. Suddenly we were off the ground.
Beginning the next day, I would wake up at 6:00 am and walk across the hall into his suite, tiptoeing around the debris from the last party that only ever got cleaned up right before the next one. Theo never locked his door, so it was easy to wake him up. We’d run down the stairs, grab our scooters, and bang-clack-crack across the stones of Old Campus, the rattle of our wheels so much louder in the early morning silence. Out through Phelps Gate, a sharp left onto the sidewalk of College Street, try to time it with the walk signal across Elm, fly past Cross Campus, then jump the curb back down onto College, hop back up on the other side of the street, and skid to a halt in front of the gate. Sometimes we would ride through the archway after swiping into the gate, and other times we would fold up our scooters there and walk the last 20 meters. Either way, once we got to the mulch over the root belt, we paused, taking in the tree, just looking at it for a moment before climbing it. Every time.
There was the time we climbed it barefoot, early in the morning, and the Head of College came running across the courtyard, shouting hysterically, insisting upon our immediate descent. The time the assistant Head of College spotted me dangling my legs from one of the lower branches and casually mentioned that he had asked the groundskeeper whether he could climb the trees when he took the job; the answer was “yes,” and Theo and I reveled in it. There was the time my roommate, Tai, came climbing with me and stepped clockwise around the trunk from the first branch, unlocking a new and faster route to the other side of the tree. The time I got a running start, jumped, and kicked off the waist-high bulging knot where a low branch used to grow, then reached and brushed my fingers against the bottom of the third-lowest branch. A few days and many more attempts later, I was consistently getting into the tree in this new and dynamic way. Theo stuck to our original entry point, but learned to keep his belt on after figuring out how to kick off the rough bark and propel himself high enough to get a firm grip on the wide branch.
As the weather got warmer, I was getting more and more excited about the prospect of climbing with leaves — all our climbing to that point had been done on bare branches, given the time of year. Alas, February of 2020 proved to be an unfortunate starting time for this new routine, as it was promptly interrupted by the COVID closure of campus following spring break. But this story is about the Silliman beech, so I will leave it with this: After that half-semester online, followed by a gap year on the other side of the country, when I finally returned to campus, there was nothing I was looking forward to more than climbing that beech tree with Theo.