COMMENTARY: Climb a Tree!

Recreational tree climbing is the latest way to commune with nature

Trees are wonderful things. They provide shade, hold soil, water, carbon and nutrients and provide habitat for innumerable species. Our ancient ancestors lived in and among trees, and both benefited. Is there still a primal connection between humans and trees, and do we still benefit from being among them?

Tree climbing instructor Harv Teitelbaum believes in a "hands on" approach to nature.© Harv Teitelbaum

The answer is yes. Studies have shown that we are psychologically healthier when we spend time around trees and in woods. But time constraints and the stress of daily life often limit our interactions to a quick appreciation of the bottom few feet of a few trees from ground level. There is another way, a way that utilizes rope and modern techniques to non-intrusively rekindle this ancient relationship: Recreational Tree Climbing (RTC).

Here’s how it works: Arborist rope is worked up and over a branch that has been determined to be safe for climbing activities. When the end of the rope is brought down, a series of knots are tied to connect the doubled rope to a special saddle and allow for pushing oneself up into the canopy. Bark protecting devices are used to ensure that the sliding rope does not damage the tree. The doubled rope provides a strength advantage, allowing most individuals to participate comfortably.

While there are many participants and supporters of RTC, not everyone thinks humans should be up in trees. Some feel our presence harms trees and disturbs wildlife, and that the canopy was one of the last remaining areas safe from human intrusion.

This "hands off nature" attitude is a relatively recent aberration in the history of the primate-tree relationship. During the Paleocene and Eocene eras, when forests were expanding across what is now North America, there were arboreal primates expanding their range along with them—ancient relatives of lemurs and tarsiers. The tree dwellers benefited by being safe from predators, while the trees received help in dispersing their seeds. Primates could climb to an abundant food supply in the canopy, while the trees were exercised and pruned of dead wood. We now know that trees respond to swaying much in the manner we respond to exercise, that is, by stimulating tissue growth and helping the tree shore up its weaker points. Even the occasional slight damage to bark or limb might help to stimulate the immune system, much as the small cuts and bruises we receive growing up help us maintain future health. Trees have historically benefited from primate action, through the pruning of deadwood, the spreading of seed and the removal of tree "dandruff," the occasional bit of bark or lodged dead plant material.

The nature-as-museum philosophy only serves to perpetuate the separation of humans from nature. Depriving ourselves and the natural world of our presence and touch, hurts both us and the nature we seek to protect and is ultimately self-defeating.

The ancient forests grew, but the arboreal primates disappeared with a changing climate. Today, with the exception of birds, squirrels and a few other visitors knocking off bits of bark and other material as they scurry along, many of our trees are eerily silent and empty (perhaps even lonely?) compared to canopies in other parts of the world teeming with fauna.

We have greatly affected and continue to affect all Earth’s ecosystems. Just as forests and arboreal primates co-evolved for millenia, areas we now label "natural" or "wilderness" are today dependent on a human presence for their sustainability and health, if not their very survival. Confusing neglect or avoidance with "natural" has too often resulted in unhealthy, densely packed and fire-prone ecosystems.

When you climb up into a tree, you feel an almost immediate feeling of peace, of connecting with something deep-seated and right. More than a commodity, more than a resource, more than a place, trees are home. We belong in nature and in trees.

Now this new and growing activity is available to all who wish to join in. It"s fun, invigorating and sometimes life-changing. More than 50,000 climbs have been conducted worldwide by individuals and facilitators associated with Tree Climbers International (TCI), an international community of recreational tree climbers. There are now tree-climbing schools and communities, sometimes called "groves" by enthusiasts, in several U.S. states and foreign countries. These include Tree Climbing Colorado, Tree Climbing Mississippi, Tree Climbing USA (Georgia), Tree Climbing Northwest (Oregon), Dancing with Trees (Georgia), Arborquest (Michigan), Tree Climbing Japan, Tree Climbing Taiwan, Accrobranche (France), Tree Climbing Italy and Tree Climbing Holland, among others. At some of these, you can even learn to climb on your own, becoming an officially designated climber, by taking training from a certified instructor.

But there is another upcoming opportunity to experience recreational tree climbing, hang out with many of its principal facilitators and instructors, and perhaps even learn to climb on your own. The Sixth Annual International Recreational Tree Climbing Rendezvous will be held in Colorado this year, from August 29 through September 3. And it is open to anyone interested in either becoming a climber or simply learning more about RTC.

The Rendezvous will take place just northwest of Boulder, Colorado, on 1,000 acres of Ponderosa pine forest and meadows. There will be workshops on experiencing the joys of our connection to trees and tree climbing, along with climbing opportunities and technical workshops on new techniques and equipment. The Basic Tree Climbing Course will also be offered for those who wish to learn all the basics necessary to climb on their own. Once trained, and with the proper equipment, recreational tree climbing is a lifelong activity that can be enjoyed almost anywhere.

Join the growing community of recreational tree climbers in Colorado this summer to begin experiencing the joys of tree climbing.

HARV "PONDEROSA" TEITELBAUM is a Senior Certified Instructor with Tree Climbing Colorado.

CONTACT: The Sixth Annual International Recreational Tree Climbing Rendezvous