For many, the phrase “tree climbing” calls up blissful memories of clambering up the big oak in the backyard. Not me — despite growing up with five active brothers, I wasn’t especially adept at ascending or descending things. As a preschooler I tried to climb through my parents’ greenhouse window — twice — and both times ended up in the hospital. One day when I was 11, I was showing off for my older brother’s best friend by sliding down our spiral staircase banister. I tipped backward, fell three floors to the basement, and got a concussion. But when I received a recent press release promising a “bird’s-eye view of Vermont” from Al Manning’s New England Tree Climbing school in Danville, I decided it was time to branch out from grounded activities and sign up.
Manning is the owner of Vermont’s first school for recreational tree climbing, a sport that ropes children and adults alike into the high canopy of hardwoods and pines for the pure fun of it. Since it opened in May, though, he’s had only a handful of customers. “You say ‘tree climbing,’ and people go, ‘What the hell is that?’” he says. “Everyone thinks you’re an arborist, up there with the chainsaw. This is just the opposite, a family recreational activity where you can get up in the tree and sit there for an hour. You can have a Coke and read a book and relax; that’s what it’s about.”
In the three-hour class I signed up for, called the “experience” course, students of all ages learn about equipment and safety in a classroom before climbing a tree using ropes already arranged by Manning. In further advanced classes, students can also learn knot-tying techniques, survival skills and setting up hammocks, à la environmental activist Julia “Butterfly” Hill, who perched in a 180-foot California redwood for 738 days in the late 1990s.
Humans have been climbing trees forever, of course — to gather food, cut lumber, clear electrical lines and rescue cats. And kids have been clambering into the branches for just as long. Before driving to Danville, I leaf through some background material and learn that the first school for recreational tree climbing — called Tree Climbers International (TCI) — was founded by Peter “Treeman” Jenkins in Atlanta in 1983. In the 24 years since, he’s helped launch “groves,” or chapters, of tree-climbing enthusiasts elsewhere in Georgia as well as in Oregon, Colorado and Taiwan. According to a 2005 New York Times article, many of the tree climbers have nicknames, such as Ponderosa, Swampy Joe and Xenon. The trees sometimes get special names, too — Old Scratchy, Gramps, Lancelot.
I’m somewhat disappointed to learn that the nickname for Manning — a 55-year-old émigré from Montréal whose other job is with Pratt & Whitney aircraft — is just AJ. But the tree-climbing site on his property, called Twin Pines, more than makes up for his ho-hum moniker: It’s a 35-acre swath of rolling hills and woods set high on a ridge just east of Joe’s Pond. As I drive there from Burlington one recent afternoon, most of the state is baking in mid-summer heat. But a breeze blows across Twin Pines, where a pretty yellow farmhouse with a matching garage, a swing set, and a horse named Belle are visible from the driveway.
The property’s name is misleading: “Twin Pines” is actually studded with thousands of trees. Manning, who moved here with his wife, Brenda, 10 years ago, cleared some of the land and built almost everything. That includes a magnificent tree house, complete with glass windows and a sleeping loft, deep in the woods and 60 feet up. Also hidden in the forest is a nicknamed birch tree — “Methuselah” stands more than 100 feet tall and has enough branches for several people to climb it at once.
At first glance, Manning doesn’t seem like the type to monkey around much: He’s built like a farm silo, has a serious, silvery mustache, and wears the no-nonsense uniform of a khaki shirt and shorts. But it turns out he can climb a tree like a chimpanzee.
Manning says he started climbing trees just to cut down branches, then became enamored of the process. Eventually, his four kids convinced him he could build a business out of his tree-climbing habit. Two years ago, Manning began talking with Gary Gross, a co-worker from Connecticut who was interested in starting New England Tree Climbing. The two men decided that Twin Pines would be the first site.
As I stare up at the ropes dangling from a grove of 70- to 80-foot trees (unnamed so far) near the farmhouse, it’s hard to see how Manning finds this activity relaxing. But it’s not time to climb yet — except up a few stairs to the classroom above Manning’s garage, where I get a lesson on limbs. As in, how not to lose my own. “All I care about is safety,” says Manning, who shows me how to look for dead branches and other hazards, and how to throw a rope without hurting the trees.
“We’re very environmentally friendly,” he says. “We don’t use nails or spikes; it’s all free climbing.”
Manning has decorated the classroom with inspiring signs and images, including one of people hanging in hammocks from tree branches, their reading lights like fireflies against the purple evening. On another poster, a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson advises: “In the woods we return to reason and faith.”
Dangling from gym equipment in the classroom is “Knotty” Nancy, a rescue dummy whose necklaces of ropes demonstrate the five knots we’ll be using, including what’s called a B-53. With a “double-rope” technique, I learn, I’ll be hoisting myself up the tree. A saddle, or harness, and carabiner clipped to one rope, along with safety knots I’ll tie along the way, will ensure that I don’t plummet to the ground like an overgrown acorn.
We head back out for my first climb. I do a “BACK” check — belt, anchor, carabiner and knots. Then up I go.
Well, not really. In fact, not at all. I fumble with the technique of placing one leg in a loop and moving the B-53 up the rope. But something in my head finally clicks, and, after much patient coaching from Manning, I move toward the treetops. Soon I become addicted to the three-step process: bend knee, slide the B-53, tie safety knots. Before I know it, I’m 20 feet in the air.
I’m not swinging like a monkey yet, but I’m comfortable enough to relax and grin down at Al and Brenda Manning. “It’s so nice, isn’t it?” Brenda yells. “Just to sit there?”
I consider asking for a book and a Coke. I contemplate what it might be like to climb Methuselah. Then I just sit there, gazing toward the distant mountains of the Presidential Range, inhaling the pine smell and soaking up the silence of the trees. And I begin to understand how Butterfly could do this for 738 days.