The live oak forest on Cumberland Island, a national seashore and wilderness area off the coast of Georgia, is like something out of a fairy tale. The trees’ lower branches meander toward the ground creating bridges that beckon you from solid ground into their sprawling canopy, where epiphytic plants cling to the branches and Spanish moss forms dreamy curtains that whisper in the breeze and turn the sunlight ethereal.
Those broad low limbs, turning this way and that as they reach toward the earth, make it an ideal climbing tree, easy to get into and easy to ascend, with plenty of strong footholds. It’s a tree that can be scaled without need for ladders, or ropes, or any of the other specialized equipment that arborists, forest research scientists, and more serious recreational tree climbers require.
In Central America and other tropical zones, a strangler fig, or Ficus, tree offers easy access for climbers, too, but in an entirely different way. The tree begins its life as a seed high in the branches of a host tree. Its roots grow down from above, gradually wrapping around the trunk of the host tree, until they strangle and kill it, leaving in its place a now-massive fig with a hollow center where roots crisscross in a lattice-like pattern that becomes a natural ladder. Inside the right fig, a strong and competent climber can work his or her way quite high in this hollow center on foot and hand-holds alone.
In the dizzying heights of the giant sequoias and redwoods of the Northwest or the upper canopies of the Amazon rain forest, and in tall trees right here on the South Fork, too, climbers need saddles and harnesses, ropes and rigging equipment, helmets, pulleys, and carabiners — similar to the gear used by rock climbers — to safely explore and work in the upper reaches.
You won’t find any recreational tree-climbing outfitters on the East End, but all over the country adventure outfitters are tapping into people’s desire to get up close and personal with some really big trees. According to the New England Tree Climbing Association, which offers climbing instruction in New York, New Jersey, Vermont, Maine, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire, recreational tree climbing is “one of the fastest growing outdoor sports in the world today.”
Cornell University offers a physical education credit in tree climbing through its Cornell Tree Climbing Institute. There are similar institutes in Colorado, California, and Georgia, among other places. The Pacific Tree Climbing Institute in Oregon runs guided climbing expeditions in the Pacific Northwest that even include overnight stays in the trees, all with the goal of demonstrationg “that the remaining old-growth groves have greater value as intact forests than as lumber.”
I’ve always been fascinated by the people who work in trees, whether for science, commerce, or adventure.
I’m a tree climber with no special prowess or skills who is lucky enough to have married a man who once climbed trees for a living, to prune them and sometimes to cut them down. He has the technical knowledge and the equipment necessary to safely scale a really big tree, as well as an understanding of and feel for the anatomy of a tree that professional climbers develop by spending so many of their working hours 20 or more feet off the ground with chain saws hanging from their waists.
Like good surfers who have respect for the power and dangers of the sea, good tree climbers respect the hazards of heights, dead wood, strong winds, deceptive footings. You can’t take your safety for granted when you’re three stories up dangling from a rope.
When I asked him recently to tell me what he loved so much about climbing, he put it this way: “You see the same birds, the same insects, the same mosses and lichen, but it’s all in a place based around the structure of the tree, rather than being based around a place on the ground. There’s something that’s both scary about it and liberating.”
I came to appreciate this when he took me climbing in Montauk’s Hither Woods a few years ago, anxious for me to see a place I knew so well from the ground from a higher perspective. I’d climbed reasonably tall trees before, but I’d never climbed with ropes and harnesses until then. We scouted the woods a week or two in advance, looking for the perfect tree — a clean one with solid limbs close enough together at the higher levels so that we wouldn’t be solely dependent on our ropes to ascend.
We chose a nice tall one not too far from a pond. He climbed first, setting the rope in place. Then I attached it to my harness, climbing with my arms and legs, but using a rope-and-knot system to take up the slack as I went, so I was never in danger of falling more than a few inches if I lost my balance.
The first rule of safety in a tree is obvious: Never let go. If you detach from the rope dangling from above, you first attach yourself to the tree via a short, waist-level lanyard.
When I’d climbed as high as I felt comfortable going, I caught my breath and looked around — not down, necessarily, because down might have been too scary. From that high point, we could see the pond, and, looking out across the top of the forest, Gardiner’s Bay beyond that. A light wind, unnoticeable below, gently swayed the tree this way and that, and us with it. That helped me appreciate what arborists call a tree’s “sail,” the wind-catching mass of leaves that can help topple a tree when there’s a good hard breeze. Arborists “take the sail out of a tree,” which means pruning so the wind passes through it rather than coming up against it.
When I’m lying in a hammock strung between two trees in my backyard and the wind blows just a little, I can feel how it travels down the length of the trunks until it moves the hammock ever so slightly. And I think about that tree in Hither Woods.