Remember Climbing Trees? People Are Taking to the Trees Again

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.

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Getting into the canopy of a Manitoba Maple. At 10 years old, she took 15 minutes to decide to make the 7m (20′) climb. After that, she was up and down like a squirrel. The Coves, between German Canadian Club main soccer and practice fields, London, Ontario, Canada.

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.

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Someone has finally gone out on a limb and created an excellent read on tree climbing! I sincerely hope you buy this book and help inspire lots and lots of people to start climbing again. Cooke, Jack, 2016. Tree Climbers Guide. Harper Collins.

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?

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A barefooted, fall climb on Grandmother Sycamore of the East Coves Oxbow Pond (you can’t miss this tree even from the small bridge at Coves Road and parking lot of German Canadian Club). The hollowed out base of this tree is my sit spot. Occasionally, I force her old and weathered bones to hold another 200 or so pounds above the water. London, Ontario, Canada. Photo courtesy of Cassie Dugsin-Porchuk.

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.

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Few trees can rival the ease, comfort and reassuring feeling imparted by an open grown Norway Spruce. Here in the Forest Therapy Invitation, “Introduce Yourself to a Tree”, a participant chooses to ascend to great heights. Look for the open grassy meadow lined by several giant conifers at Medway Creek Heritage Forest, London, Ontario, Canada (I call this special place, “The Council of Conifers.”)

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!

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When all is said and done, you still don’t have to climb a tree to enjoy it. However…inspiration just may present itself when you least expect it! Norway Spruce, Medway Creek Heritage Forest, London, Ontario, Canada.

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.

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Looking downward at climbing companion, Paul, in a Norway Spruce. I think we could fit 50 or more people on this tree at once and ‘she’ wouldn’t sneeze at it! Elsie Perrin Williams Estate, London, Ontario, Canada.

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.

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Views like this have created a yearning in many to somehow get to the canopy without tools, external energy sources or anything but our one’s own will, hands, feet and full presence. American Beech, Meadowlily Woods, London, Ontario, Canada.

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!

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A Blue Racer Snake. They take to the trees with ease! Some hawthorns may be possible to climb, but Cockspur is highly recommended to avoid. Pelee Island, Ontario, Canada.

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.

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A view in Autumn from 20m (65′) up a Norway Spruce looking at a 25m (85′) White Pine in the distance. Having climbed this day alone, I had to take a photo to share what I was bathing in. Elsie Perrin Williams Estate, London, Ontario, Canada.

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.

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Tree climbing gives us new vantage points, opens most hearts to joy and playfulness and reconnects us to the values of measuring every step in life as though it is our last. Black Maple at the first large group camp site, Albion Hills Conservation Area, Caledon, Ontario, Canada.

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.

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It is not necessary to get high up a tree to get a fresh perspective. Many trees, alive or passed on can facilitate peace, playful giddiness and unique perspectives. Eastern Hemlock, Sunnybrook Park, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

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.

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Not too high up an entry level climbing tree is a great place for a little ‘zoned out’ meditative reflection. Norway Spruce, Elsie Perrin Williams Estate, London, Ontario, Canada.

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.

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Tree climbing is far, far from a male or ‘boy thing’ or a young person thing. Sometimes getting up to the first (lowest limb) is the biggest hurdle for either of the sexes, for any age. Knowing this, those with more experience, confidence and physical strength can serve as humble, non-judgmental guides. London Plane Tree, Hebert Arboretum, near Pittsfield, Massachusetts, USA.

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.

Deep Connection with Wild Animals: Avenues for Right Relationship with Earth

Being one of millions and millions of ‘living*’ planets now discovered, the Earth, in essence, is a wild animal within a greater population. We’re in sad and yet exciting times. We know a lot. We are aware. We are very skilled, loving and crafty beings. All of this and since I was born (1970) we have killed off over 50% of the wild animals living on the planet.

We’ve caused many substantial problems because we’ve ignored our intimate relationship with Earth. We’ve taken much more than we’ve given. We’ve decided not to notice that she is in sickness, versus health. While we perceive we continue to get richer, Earth definitely becomes poorer. At almost every step, we’ve cheated on Earth, taken advantage of her kindness, taken for granted her forgiveness, and balked at her willingness to start over again in right relationship. If ever there was a relationship that needed therapy, this is it.

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A Yellow-billed Cuckoo hit a window and fortunately I was there to pick her up. I held her in a towel against my heart for an hour. She then hopped on my hand, paused for a few minutes and flew away. Oh what a feeling it was to have assisted and shared those moments with a bird of which I usually only ever got brief glimpses.

I see wild animals as great ambassadors and agents of reconciliation. They sense fear and danger from us. They can also sense indifference and love.

More and more, many humans recognize the real possibilities of tweaking our consciousness and energy fields to resonate with those of wild animals. How can we use deep connections with wild animals to foster better relationships between people and nature and thus people and the planet? I begin by looking at deepening connection.

There are many who have retold their seemingly unbelievable intimate encounters with wild animals. There was the Humpback Whale rescued from netting and sure death. In gratitude, it repeatedly breached the water’s surface in joy. A dolphin who sought the help of a few divers to untangled its fin. There was a Baltimore Oriole bird who let my Dad collect nesting material for her, retrieving the substrate one piece at a time, right from his hands. The list goes on and on. Wild animals accept relationship with us and act in ways that often bewilder.

I’m fortunate to have had dozens of authentic, personal encounters, a few of which I share below.  This isn’t to say I can freely go and cuddle a Grizzly or play-wrestle with a Siberian Tiger. I don’t recommend trying such with either of those species. But is it possible? That’s up to a situation that might happen one day and circumstances that could prove to be in alignment to do so. What exists in each case are barriers and opportunities to connection. How each instance unfolds is determined by a thousand or so unwritten rules that become apparent and acted upon in a moment’s notice.

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Crow in full ‘Caw’ mode. Photograph by an old friend, Ethan Meleg.

I’ve experienced two general scenarios that precipitate deeply connected, wild animal encounters. The first is when sick or injured animals come to a human for assistance. The other cases occur when one resonates with nature enough to be ‘accepted’ as another benign part of the ecosystem (or natural, spirit world).

For a while, everywhere I went, sick or injured wild animals were presenting themselves before me. While it wasn’t always easy to corral them, I carefully brought them home, did my best to heal them, and returned them to the wild.

Crow: I was on a conference call in my backyard with my portable phone. I paced around expressing myself and in a moment of great discovery in the meeting, a Crow fell out of the sky, landing at my feet. I paused the phone call, picked up the bird and kept it for a few weeks inside until its wing had healed. Crows have remarkable intellect and great personality. This bird chose to malign me, often taunting me, refusing to take food from me. It was hard not to take it personally, but easier because **she did bond with other members of my family. When she had healed, she begrudgingly let me pick her up and heave her skyward to the heavens. What a moment that was.

Great Horned Owl: I was on my way to the beach when I noticed an owl sitting under a wild grape vine in broad daylight. Using my towel, I wrapped him up and carried him back home. He lived in my two room cabin with me for a month, eating dozens of mice I provided. Oh the funny stories I could tell…Eventually he was released after he gained the strength to fly again.

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This Great Horned Owl moved in with me when he lost his energy from West Nile Virus. Thankfully I stayed healthy while providing him mice (trapped in my little cabin) that rebuilt his strength again.

Bald Eagle: A few mornings later, after a severe thunderstorm, at the base of a large tree at the end of my laneway was  a Bald Eagle. Given his Endangered Status back then, I eased him into a large cooler and delivered him to the authorities. His bruised wing was rehabilitated and I swear months later I saw him fly low over my cabin, as if to send me gratitude for taking notice and assisting.

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A Bald Eagle with a severely bruised wing. Can you see him poking his head out from my comforter? After a few weeks of recovery and release, I think it was he who flew over my cabin and tipped his wings at me!

Other Birds: Dozens of birds in shock, after various traumas, came to my attention and willingly let me assist. This included a Prothonotary Warbler, a Pied-billed Grebe, a Golden-Crowned Kinglet, a Nighthawk and Cardinal and a Yellow-billed Cuckoo (see above photo). Often found in shock distress, these birds seemed to give over any sense of fear for what may heal them.

Resonating at nature’s frequency for me has resulted in a slightly different level of connection. In the moments of obtaining deep connection with wild animals in this manner, it has felt less miraculous and more expected.

Manatee: I was swimming once in the open ocean near Belize. Open ocean is the one place on the planet that has always been a serious edge for me. But I had been cooped up in a cordoned off location to snorkel on a coral reef with dozens of tourists and it felt really inauthentic. I like authentic. Slipping under the floating foam-rope boundary, away from the watchful eyes of the lifeguards, I sleuthed silently just at the water’s surface. I felt so much gratitude for my freedom and the life of the reef that I decided I had to give back. Outstretching my hands as though they were mini radars, I gave Reiki to the open ocean. It was peace at its purest.

After a few minutes of gently self-propelling aimlessly, I nervously realized I wasn’t alone; the energy beside me was palpable, to say the least. A large grey animal, at least a few times my size was keeping pace with me on my port (left) side. This information came to me from my peripheral vision. I didn’t have the courage to turn my head and see what it was. Manatee.jpg
Finally, after keeping pace with each other for a good few minutes, **she cut right in front of me, and then headed to the depths (20 feet down) towards the sea grass. I sighed in relief. She wasn’t a shark. She was a southern Manatee. The species was quite rarely encountered in the southern Caribbean; they are Endangered. Realizing I hadn’t kept pace with her, she turned at the bottom of the ocean to see where I’d gone. Her look was as if to say, “Come on, it’s time to feed on this yummy sea grass!” Noticing I wasn’t coming, she then ‘said,’ “Ok, if you’re not hungry, I’ll come back to you.” She swam slowly toward me, until we were just a couple of feet away from each other, gazing into each other’s souls through our eyes.

A Method? I imagine many people would describe technique many ways with a number of common threads. The only way I know how is to first immerse oneself in nature. Deepen breathing. Vacate the driver’s seat of the brain. Find alignment; the place where one knows that place and time are sealed in ‘is-ness’ experience. This is where we often feel multiple sensations at once and watch osmosis take over the body and surroundings. Any connections with wild animals then become both circumstance and the manifestation of one’s commitment to be with what is in the moment. “Being with” means one’s energy field blends, or comes into resonance with the surroundings.

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Forest Therapy a.k.a. Forest Bathing or Shinrin-Yoku is a wonderful way to drop into alignment and find resonance with plants and animals in nature. Forest Therapy has been a gateway for me to connect with wild animals. Most recently a Short-tailed Shrew permitted me to stroke the fur on his back for a few minutes in my wild, yet urban garden.

Forest Therapy is an avenue to deep connection in nature. Accordingly, it’s not surprising that I’ve had a slew of recent animal connection experiences since becoming a Forest Therapy Guide. If led by an experienced and ‘dropped in’ (walk the talk) guide, Forest Therapy substantially heightens our nature connection, dispels the many myths of time, and allows us to seamlessly become a part of the encompassing naturescape.  Forest Therapy walks are usually at least 2 1/2 hours long and often over 3. This duration seems to be helpful in ensuring we are disengaged from our brains.

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The oak tree near the top of Sugarloaf Mountain, California. Over a three-hour period, this tree allowed my deepened relationship to the surrounding natural world, facilitating my intimate interaction with Lizard.

Lizard: I was on Sugarloaf Mountain in California. The lizards had caught my attention for a week, never letting me approach them closer than about ten feet. I climbed up the tallest peak of the mountain for a medicine walk as the final part of the forest therapy training week. I sat in an oak for almost three hours. I walked down the mountain side like I was walking on helium; I felt the strongest sense of the phrase, nature connected. At the bottom, I spooked an Alligator Lizard. **She fled in a fashion I had grown accustomed to expect. I momentarily accepted it again and then realized, “No, I am in connection with you!” I found her, moved closely and told her I wanted some full facial photographs, I desired to touch her scales, and that I had some mosquitoes to feed her. She accepted all these offers. Our relationship lasted about ten minutes before I moved on.

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The Alligator Lizard who accepted all of my offers to connect into a deep relationship, feeding out of my hands, allowing my touch and permitting these full frame shots. Sonoma County, California.

I moved on, as did the lizard. What did I carry from that interaction with the lizard and did this make any difference to forging a better Earth? For one, this experience echoed within my psyche now for a year and a half. I’ve often thought of the mountain, the oak, and the reptile with reverence and wonder. I’ve retold the story over and over. Had I come down the mountain without finding intimacy with the lizard, the story likely wouldn’t have been told.  I’ve been so inspired by this and other experiences that I became a certified Forest Therapy Guide, as well as a trainer. I’ve felt and observed the nature-connection influence I’ve imparted on others, who in turn, are blazing the Forest Therapy trails in their circles of influence.

It doesn’t matter how we reconnect with nature, or wild animals. It just matters that we position ourselves to have the opportunity to do so. Finding ways to get people on a walk, to sit by a stream, to listen to bird songs, or to huddle by a camp fire are all means of and steps toward ‘making up’ with the planet. Nature’s half of the relationship is always steady; forgiving, longing, and waiting for us to come back. The bird, the Manatee, the lizard are all willing volunteers rising up to be ambassadors or activists for right relationship. For humans, I think it’s easy too. We have to step into again the other half of right relationship. At these early stages of relationship repair, however, stepping into right relationship effectively means we’re  activists. For some reason activism is really difficult for most of us. Therein lies one of the key challenges of our times.

* Recent discoveries suggest potentially millions of planets situated similarly to ours most likely are ‘alive,’ like Earth (teaming with living plants, animals, etc.).

** Notes on pronouns: in most cases, I knew if an animal was a male or a female (my biological experience and information from the wild animal clinics with which I consulted). In the cases that I didn’t know for certain (like the Crow, Manatee and Lizard above), I have chosen to write the stories using the pronoun that I sensed was appropriate for my feeling of the animal.