Arboreal Acrobat

In the circus spotlight, a graceful tree swings through the air like a trapeze artist
“Arboreal Acrobat”, 8in x 8in, acrylic on canvas

The tree circus was not the success the organizers had hoped it would be. We attended anyway, since one of our friends was performing, a birch we had known as a sapling.

“Too bad they can’t have elephants,” I said, as we walked into the main tent.

“Nobody wants to see animals being exploited anymore,” you replied.

“What about clowns? They seem somewhat ill-treated. Don’t we care about them too?”

“They’re clowns. It’s their job to suffer.”

To keep up with the demands of newly-enlightened audiences, circus owners tried innovating with novel forms of entertainment. Anything but animals. I rather liked the Kitchen Appliance Circus, though you found it a bit mundane. 

“How hard is it for a toaster to toss bread like that?” you had asked. “They’re designed to pop the toast out.”

“No,” I replied, “the trick is in the way the blender catches it, then flings it over to that chrome gizmo with the detachable blades.”

Still, you had a point. The typical circus-goer simply finds kitchen gadgets too familiar, even the upscale devices from Germany. Solid engineering though — those Krups performers hit their marks with the precision of a machine, as I pointed out to you.

“They are machines,” you chided me.

“Putting it that way takes the magic out of the experience, don’t you think?”

But we knew the whole idea was doomed when the ringmaster announced the Parade of Refrigerators, and we saw the stout creatures proudly resisting as they were prodded, pulled, and whipped into line by their merciless trainers. A cringeworthy sight. Ultimately though, the parade lacked the majesty of elephants marching trunk-to-tail around the ring. I miss seeing elephants.

But we wouldn’t miss the tree circus for anything. Cirque des Arbres they called it, or something grandiose like that. Trees, however, are not as agile as advertised. The audience was soon bored, and many of the spectators started grumbling.

“Well, what do they expect?” I demanded. “Double flips from the trapeze? With those roots?” 

“People these days don’t appreciate arboreal artistry,” you said. I ran that phrase around in my head a few times — arboreal artistry. Wish I had your way with words.

The show had opened with a musical sequence, “The Wind in the Pines.” Enormous fans blew against a stand of evergreens — some of which were actually firs — as the branches swayed and rustled with the gentle theme of a pastorale. Unfortunately, the audience was in the mood for something more Wagnerian.

Things went downhill from there.

The pantomime act involved a tired plot where a hard-nosed ironwood tree evicted a family of willows, who wept at losing their home, while the townsfolk — played by a cast of aspens — stood quaking in fear. In the end, the homestead was saved when the villain was routed by a strong-limbed oak and his sidekick, a short Japanese maple.

“Well, that’s a bit racist,” you said. The players left the arena to scattered applause.

“At least there weren’t any clowns.” But I had spoken too soon.

A company of human performers, including the luckless clown, and a band of birches, including our dear friend, took their places in the center of the ring. 

The orchestra struck up a waltz, while the daredevil aerialists climbed the trees, firmly gripped the narrow tops, then flung themselves outward feet first, swinging from one side to the other, until finally bending the birches right to the ground, where the acrobats nimbly landed, released their grips, and took a bow. All except the clown, who “forgot” to let go and was hurled into the air when his birch sprang back to its upright and natural position. We didn’t notice where he landed.

“One could do worse than be a swinger of birches,” I said, quoting Robert Frost.

“Tell that to the birches.”

It was a clever routine that gained the crowd’s grudging approval, but was humiliating for the trees. Our friend looked miserable.

We endured a few more acts, until they hustled an ensemble of rainforest trees into the arena to serve as props for “a team of intrepid explorers” — more human acrobats — who clambered up the vines to “conquer the Amazon with amazing antics,” as the circus program described it. 

“Who says ‘antics’ anymore?” I asked. You just stared glumly into your popcorn bag. We got up to go wait by the performers’ wagons.

“They could have had monkeys swinging through the branches,” I suggested. “Or flying squirrels leaping from tree to tree, maybe doing somersaults, with little red capes on.”

“More wretched animals.”

“Yes, okay. But trees and animals get along, mostly. And why not add more color? Have some scarlet macaws roosting among the leaves — or blue cotingas, even. Everyone likes birds.” You didn’t bother to respond.

Our friend the birch shuffled back to the wagon. We tried to be supportive, but what can you say to someone who’s just had his dignity crushed for the sake of ticket sales? No matter what, one species or another gets exploited in the name of entertainment.

That all-human, no-animal circus from Montreal — with its fancy French name — seems like a good idea. The employees are performing by choice, the audience enjoys a guilt-free show, and everyone’s happy. Of course, if the human artistes were captured by aliens, carted off to another planet, and forced to perform twice a day, complaints would be filed, I’m sure. The elephants would have a good laugh, though. A bit of la vengeance, non?

We crowded into the wagon while our friend cleaned off his makeup. 

On the wall hung a small painting, the cheap kind sold at carnivals. A graceful tree swings through the air in a daring feat of acrobatics, radiant and poised in the circus spotlight. This was the birch’s dream, even if no tree could manage such a trick. Better to aim high, I suppose, no matter who or what you are.

Plus, one thing always leads to another. 

Our friend soon quit show business to pursue other aspirations. He dyed his leaves a deeper green, trimmed off some excess twigs, and moved to Denver to work as an artist’s model. Plenty of nature painters there, apparently. And lots of demand for photo-ops with celebrities on Arbor Day.

He’s associating with a more respectful, tree-admiring crowd now.

We haven’t been to any more circuses.