The act is natural, refreshing and fun. Do you realize that tree climbing can help save your sanity, tone your muscles, quiet your mind, and create strong leadership sorely needed for this generation and those to follow? Climbing itself builds balance, confidence, wherewithal, and courage. It allows us to toy with our playful selves, stretching boundaries, and to lead as role models. To rise up in a tree, we must measure every step and hand hold with presence, use the tree as a gateway, a friend, and a playful obstacle to a healthy Earthly escape.
I climbed a lot as a kid and teen. And now? Entering my late 40s, I’m climbing more than ever. I’m seeing more unseen things than ever. I don’t care so much about how high I go, or getting too many photos up there. I climb in my Forest Bathing practice, often helping others up. I drag my kids out to climb. I’m thinking of ways to get seniors up there too. In short, I can’t get into trees enough.
Every so often we recognize an idea, a program, or a publication of something that we have held strongly in our own hearts for years and years. For me it is a recently released book on tree climbing by Jack Cooke. What an ultimate gift it was to come across someone as crazy as me and diligent enough to write an amazing account of a life partly lived, rising up and down the trees of London.
Cooke’s book, “The Tree Climbing Guide” is almost a lament of simpler eras gone by. Thanks to a lot of research, great drawings, and a wonderful perspective, this book is so much more. It’s a reminder of our youth. It’s somewhat of a how to. It’s a poetic, almost self-‘helpian’ statement; how we can rise above our lives to give our heads a shake, or in the very least, re-calibrate our beingness to a new perspective on the casual inaneness of fossorial living. For anyone remotely nostalgic or still into hoisting their physical (and spiritual) matter(s) above the Earth’s surface into the welcoming limbs of a tree, you simply must add this book to the treasured section of your library.
Cooke makes notice to the significance of our childhood’s first climb. For me, it was a quartet of Silver Maples growing between our farmhouse and the horse bard. Spaced out enough, they were daily multi-limbed climbing invitations. Planted a few years before I was born, these trees now in their 50s are massive, accessible to all ‘climbers.’
What was your first date with a tree climb (comment below). How old were you? Where was the tree and do you know what kind it might have been? Is it still there?
Cooke describes and lists a bunch of great trees to climb in his London (England). In the absence of a publicly accessible book in which to promote my own familiar trees, I use the photos scattered through this post to highlight some arboreal buddies upon which great climbs can be had in Southern Ontario (and a bit beyond). Again, please send along any stories, photos and locations of great climbing trees you know of.
I’ve never before encountered fellow humans in a tree. However, Cooke mentions a few memorable encounters, especially dismounting the lowest branches and crashing a group of unsuspecting picnic’ers….quite the riot ensued!
Anyone spending time up in trees gets their share of unique encounters with wild animals. Recently, while only 2m up a Sugar Maple, I witnessed a bizarre exchange as a Red-bellied Woodpecker attempted to peck a meal out of a dying Green Ash. A Ruby-throated Hummingbird moved in and appeared to have mistaken the red breast of the woodpecker for a flower. Seemingly seeking nectar, the hummingbird moved in. The woodpecker responded by comically hobbling 180′ around to the opposite side of the tree. Not letting up on a potential source of nutrition, the hummingbird responded accordingly by flying around after the woodpecker. Of course, the woodpecker repeat countered, as did the hummingbird. After a few rounds, having enough of it, the woodpecker bolted, deciding to fly the 10m or so over to the tree upon which I was now hugging extra tightly. I suppose that since I had been so silent and motionless that the woodpecker didn’t notice me until the last possible moment. The primary feathers of her left wing wisped my left cheek as she realized she couldn’t land on my face. Yes, it was exhilarating and due cherished.
Many other times I’ve looked up, as I suspect you likely may have, in awe of the straight trees rising branchless to the canopy. Serving as inspiration, many have considered the ascension to these natural cathedrals unattainable. While you can use ropes, harnesses and spend lots of money to get you there, I treat these more mature woods as places for other more naturally adept animals to scale these domains.
Professionally, as a wildlife biologist a few memorable arboreal experiences occurred that I’d never recommend to anyone. Rare, fast and extremely agitated, Blue Racer Snakes numbered as few as a couple of hundred in all of Canada. My colleague and I had startled a large male in the grass at the edge of a field. The dash was one. Thrashing through and across the big tufts of grass thatch like a slalom water skier flying across one wake of the boat to the other, the near two-metre long animal fled for the nearest escape; a Cockspur Hawthorn. We sprinted following behind to the small tree. At only 4.5m (18′) tall, many low branches and piercing 5cm (2 inch) thorns awaited our perseverance. With ease, the large reptile whipped from one side of the tree to the other. For every small branch we scaled, descended and then scaled again in pursuit of our moving target, a good half-dozen or so thorns etched our skin with consequence, slowly painting the surface with our own blood. Finally cornering the tiring serpent, he made one last getaway attempt. Using leverage, gravity and the flexibility of the branch, he flung his thick body in a coordinated pulse to jump from the tree to the grass, but we caught him, almost in mid air!
Taking stalk afterwards we were thankful the snake wasn’t injured and that all four of our eyes were fully functional. We weighed, measured and tagged the snake, and then let him go, watching him slip into a nearby hole in the ground. “Why didn’t he go there in the first place?” we had thought, wondering if the snake had been looking to give us a run for his pure enjoyment. Looking back at the tree we remarked how it would be one of the last trees in the world that we’d ever consider climbing.
Very few of us get the experience of being a wildlife biologist that sometimes brings such excitement. This is far from the point. Naturally kid-like, climbing trees is a really fun and healthful pastime. While being in nature is a great experience in itself, challenging yourself physically and encountering some edges are great ways to build balance, strength and confidence.
Being playful with friends and family in the branches creates lasting memories and tight bonds between people and the natural world. With more and more pulls to interesting electronics, grand gizmos, seductive fashions, and dazzling events, any reverse tug back to nature is something more than welcome in our era of high distraction and often unhealthy escapism.
Of course, all of the inventions in our era are for the most part great additions to our lives. Some features and designs, however, that intentionally lead us to obsessive use or extreme behaviours (e.g. social media, staying ‘connected’, fear of getting dirty, etc.) cross the line and rob us other great experiences that we truly need.
Very few of us can get away with lecturing others to make change (thank God!). We need to live by example and show each other (especially our children) that we don’t need to be plugged in 24-7, and that we are not defined by our cell phones, our bank accounts, our popularity or anything else than our true personalities. And – we have to demonstrate that seemingly immature or ‘young things’ like tree climbing, are ‘cool’ for all ages.
If you have been sold on the idea, go out with a friend or two, or find an event in which others may be going (see this offering for example in the London (Canada) area). Pick up a copy of The Tree Climber’s Guide. While this book is somewhat specific to trees of the London, England area, there is much great advice within if you don’t have anyone experienced to accompany you.