Gaining New Perspectives: Tree Climbing in Ithaca

A gentle breeze rocks my hammock as I lay in my sleeping bag staring up at the full moon through a canopy of leaves. The moon is so bright I can read my watch, just after 2:00AM.  I shift a little to adjust my harness, double and triple check my rope, and then return to watch the moon move through the maple canopy surrounding me.  As I peak over the side of my hammock, even with the bright moon, I can’t see the ground below me.  I slowly drift back to sleep with a smile on my face, just thinking how unique it is to be sleeping suspended in a forest canopy over 60 feet from the ground.

For the past 18 months I have been able to proudly call myself a tree climber. I’m not talking about scampering up the first few branches of the oak tree in your backyard.  I’m talking about climbing up nearly any large tree and spending hours or even days off the ground, fully secured by ropes, carabineers, and a harness.  I’m talking about sleeping 100 feet off the ground.  This isn’t the tree climbing from your childhood.

For me, it all began with a phone call from a friend and a proposal for a collaboritve project.  Before I knew it, I was in southern Oregon taking a week long class on how to climb trees.  A few months later I found myself in Costa Rica spending every day climbing into the canopy of the Monteverde cloud forest.  The resulting project, Canopy in the Clouds, was a great experience and you will be hearing more about the project in the coming months as we prepare for a release at the end of the year.

Fast forward to my arrival here in Ithaca a month ago.  Knowing nobody in the area, I immediately reached out to groups that share a common interest: birders, photographers, and tree climbers.  Amazingly enough, the Cornell Outdoor Education program teaches a tree climbing class and even take a trip to Costa Rica each winter to do some serious climbing.  After a couple emails, I was able to join the group this past weekend for a fun weekend of climbing and training.

Having not been in a tree since March, I was a little rusty but things came back quickly and it was great to be off the ground again.  The highlight of the weekend was by far the night in the tree.  The weather was perfect, the setting spectacular, and the company entertaining.

We also did a lot of training that proved extremely valuable.  I learned the different techniques that Cornell teaches and I was able to show them a few tricks of my own.  I worked with the advanced group and Sunday we worked on rescue techniques in the tree.  This was especially valuable for me since I have spent a lot of time thinking about what to do in such and such a situation, but I hadn’t actually done most of the techniques.  The simulated rescues proved challenging but I am now even more comfortable moving in a tree.

So why tree climbing?  Well, for the photographer in me, it provides a totally new perspective on the world.  It creates an access point into a world previously unaccessible and creates new opportunities to create unique images of the natural world.  I can’t wait for the leaves to start changing colors in the coming weeks.

For the naturalist in me, climbing opens up new doors to better understanding the world. How else can you spend a morning in the company with a troop of howler monkeys as they feed, sleep, play, and interact without a care in the world?  How else can you study a tiny orchid found only attached to branches over 75 feet in the air?  The canopy of trees, especially those in the tropics, is an entire world that has received far less attention than terra firma and is open to new discoveries.

In the coming months I will be writing more about my arboreal experiences as I explore the events that occur just above our heads.

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