A Tree Climber’s Guide to the End of the World

Climbing trees. For many this is a childhood memory more than a present-day concern. And yet, for some, climbing trees is a life-long pursuit that offers an insight into the complexities of the human condition. 

This, at least, is what I found when I accompanied a group of climbers young and old on International Tree Climbing Day 2021 at Ashton Court. 

Tree climbing connects us to our past, but can it tell us about our future? And what, if anything, can it teach us about life, humanity, and navigating the world in a time of crises? 

For 13 years now, the last Sunday of March has been International Tree Climbing Day. 

An understated affair, with little promotion or fanfare, ITCD lives up to its name, with climbers in places as far-flung as Serbia, Barcelona, and Sydney all taking to the branches today. 

Yet the seeds of ITCD were sown right here in Bristol by two artist-activists, Kale and Heath and now attracts a small crowd every year with a simple purpose: to find a tree and climb it. 

This year, around 15 people of all ages turned up at the chosen meeting point of Ashton Court cafe before setting out on what one climber described as ‘like a round of golf, except at each hole we climb a tree’.

So what motivates people to climb trees?

On one level,  it is purely about enjoyment. ‘I just enjoy the movement. I enjoy dancing as well. For me it’s about the movement’ said Luke, a filmmaker, shortly before demonstrating his skills by shimmying up the nearest tree in a matter of seconds. 

However, other climbers see the climbing in a deeper context. 

‘As adults we’re told not to play’, says Kale. ‘International Tree Climbing Day is about exploration and play, breaking free of the pedestrian, of the grid-like structure of our streets.’

Kale is keen to point out that ITCD is not a protest per se, as it is not set against anything. Yet, it is hard not to see its play aspects as a form of envisioning, in which a possible alternative to our present way of life is lived out in practise. 

Speaking to another co-founder of ITCD, Heath, a different take on tree climbing emerged, one in which climbing connects to something primal. 

As Heath put it, ‘Humans have been climbing trees for 500,000 years. People have an instinctual understanding and pleasure of being in trees’.

This, in turn, speaks to a deeper motive behind ITCD. 

‘It started with a survivalist idea,’ Marco, who has been involved with ITCD for 10 years, told me. ‘What could we do if society collapses?’

Indeed, Heath talks a lot about systemic collapse, whether of ecosystems or the ‘industrial system’: ‘the collapse is here and it’s in unexpected ways. So all of our group training, social dynamics and so on, are just irrelevant now.’ 

Heath has previously run survival trainings, and workshops for artists and activists to learn security techniques such as encryption and personal security. He also spends a lot of time growing vegetables, ‘because that’s the only thing that makes sense really now’.

However, there is more to ITCD than apocalypse planning. As the afternoon wore on, I began to sense another side to the “end-of-the-world” rhetoric: an element of self-transformation, of finding oneself as a different person when climbing trees. 

Many of the climbers I spoke to lauded the benefits of tree climbing, from fitness, to mental health, to communality. The sedentary life, at a desk, in a car, it’s so bad for mental health’ said Marco, who has been involved in ITCD for 10 years.

I asked Heath whether he was concerned at all about safety, there were, after all, many people, including children, climbing large trees without harnesses. But he argued that there is value in risk, and even in injury. 

‘I’ve had lots of injuries and I’d much rather have an injury or delirious fever than a cold. Much better to be transformed. Transform your perception of things instead of just being a little bit irritated.’

‘Let’s say that you normally go to work every day and that you break your fingers, so that you can’t do any more typing. What are you going to do for the next month?’ 

‘All the rules are turned on their heads in [a] crisis. Things that you think you rely on are possibly not there.’

Whilst Heath is referring to larger ecosystem crises, his remarks have relevance to us all here and now due to the situation so many of us are facing in the pandemic: lives turned upside down, and systems (personal, social, political) on which we have come to depend perhaps failing us or not being there at all. 

Covid has prompted many of us to question what we are doing with our lives, and whether the things in which we place value are truly making us happy, whether it be work, our social lives, or even our society as a whole. 

Heath recalls when he was younger speaking to an older friend who confessed to climbing trees. ‘Even for me, who was not even an adult, it just seemed completely insane for someone to spend their time climbing trees.’

And now, at 54, here is Heath doing exactly the same thing. He admits, you ‘get into a lot of social difficulty’ with climbing trees, as people tend to respond as the younger Heath did.  

But ultimately, as he argues, climbing trees is about ‘provoking people, provoking thought.’

Perhaps today then, after so strange a year, tree climbing is not as insane as it might at first seem. To explore, to play, to take risks, and to break out of the structures that have delineated our lives for so long and find new ways of thinking, perhaps there is something for us all to learn from the simple pleasure of climbing trees.

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