Up a tree..and glad of it: Climbing my tree

How astonishing to look down, from up here, and see my shadow, my shadow, way down there on the ground. But after a year of watching the big oak I am writing a book about here at the Harvard Forest, I finally climbed it Sunday. Well, partly. And only with lots of help.



My tree, adorned with our first snow last week. All its leaves are down by now…and it’s quite a view from up there.



Melissa LeVangie, the award-winning tree warden for Petersham, took most of her Sunday to rig me up in a harness, sling ropes in my oak, and teach me how to haul myself up into its boughs.

Taking my tree's measure. BT QURU 03 is a tagged, tracked research specimen in a long term phenology study at the Harvard Forest. It measures 30.8 inches in diameter at breast height and is about 100 years old.

Melissa LeVangie, tree warden for the town of Petersham and a certified arborist, taking my tree’s measure. BT QURU 03 is a tagged, tracked research specimen in a long term phenology study at the Harvard Forest. It measures 30.8 inches in diameter at breast height and is about 100 years old. Note all the gear. It takes a lot to safely climb a big tree.  But Melissa, a champion climber, makes it look easy.


Melissa assessing the safety of my tree for climbing, and scouting for a good stout place to throw the first climbing rope. She does it by hand, with a cartwheeling thwack.


This is probably most easily learned when you are 7, but I was determined to try! 


I have long wanted to climb the big oak I am learning about for my book, Witness Tree. Sunday, I finally got my chance. Patrick Wellever, photo

Melissa’s infectious joy at being up in a tree — she climbs every day for her job, inspecting trees for invasive beetles — made it seem easy. But it’s not! Like a trussed turkey, I puzzled at my ropes and hitches and knots and thingamajigs all of which I was quite sure were crucial. We tested the harness, just to be sure, before leaving the ground. Good idea!

Testing the harness first. Patrick Wellever, photo

Testing the harness first. Patrick Wellever, photo


I huffed and puffed, no graceful first timer was I, as I went higher and higher, pushing with my foot in a hitch to inch my way up the  rope, hanging in mid-air, oh so far from the trunk. To be sure, my tree doesn’t make it easy, rising with no branches at all, several stories in the sky.  I looked over at Melissa, doing this effortlessly, and finally understood a key thing I was doing wrong, in the way I was holding the tension knot on my climbing rope. I tried a new grip, pushed the rope away (as she had patiently instructed, so many times) to let the knot slide freely up with each push. I began to make more steady progress.

Nice and steady, up we go. Patrick Wellever, photo.

Nice and steady, up we go. Having a look around, using my feet and another rope for an anchor. Patrick Wellever, photo.

Then, something magical happened. With a twist and a heft, suddenly, I was sitting in my tree. On the first rise of branches, some 40 feet up, my relationship with this tree changed. No longer something I only looked at, suddenly, I was in its realm. And how different everything looked from up here! The neighboring trees, how near were their branches, poking into any space in the canopy the oak wasn’t dominating. The lichens were different up here –there were many more of them, a whole garden was growing up in the sky I never knew even existed.   And who knew about that cavity, way up here in the trunk. Did anything live in there? “Do you like birch snacks?” Melissa said, handing me a black birch twig. It tasted of wintergreen. Fresh and cool. Chewing my twig, I looked around at the oak’s branches, stretched out at my level, in broad embrace. I felt a pure, unalloyed joy.

I looked down to the ground with a bit of a gulp, and breathed through the sense of vast space. “You’ll gain that trust,” Melissa said, from her perch across the tree’s trunk. She encouraged me to relax, stretch out, enjoy myself.  I leaned back in my harness, felt the nice stretch in my back. Sat back up, and looked around. I saw the snow lie in patterns, rather like the lichen on the tree’s bark. The shape of the stone wall, along which my tree sprouted a century ago, resolved to a clear, long line. In the realm of the birds,  the wind sounded different, fuller, and more powerful. The swish of the white pine nearby was splendid, yes, like the sound of wind at sea. For really, I was sailing a sky river of wind, in my crow’s nest of oak.

 We were up there quite a while, exploring. How I loved the solidity of the tree under my feet, what a realm it commands, and with such authority! A connoisseur of trees, Melissa said of the many she climbs, oaks are the firmest. To her, each tree isn’t just something to pass by, it’s a living organism to celebrate and explore, a neighbor to care for. And she loves climbing trees. “On a windy day, you still feel it when you come down,” she said of a tree’s sway. “One of the things I love most about oak is how solid they are, it is like climbing an iron scaffold.” Beeches are graceful like none other from up in their branches, and other species have a nice give and bounce. She enjoys knowing each tree up close, as an individual. “It is fun when you are climber, when you are in different trees, you get to watch every nuance and change, to watch the trees go to bed in the winter, and come alive in the spring. The chickadees come and say hello. You hear different things up here, you can call the tree frogs, and they will call back to you.”

Now that I want to try. Our plan is to climb the big oak every month, to watch it go through winter and emerge into spring and stretch its leaves into late May’s summer splendor. How I look forward to seeing all that. 

One of the things I was surprised by is how much dead wood is up there. Melissa surmised the oak lives with a fair degree of stress…and indeed, I remembered in earliest spring last year, the video my husband Doug made, of the oak standing awash in snowmelt, with streams of runoff rushing over its roots. Too much water perhaps. Newly distinct too, from up here, was the oak’s shape. The tree is not straight in its trunk, but rises in a twist. From up here, that was as apparent as the pattern in a barber pole. I hoped for a bird, or a flying squirrel, but not this time. Too soon it was cold, and time to come down. But soon, we’ll be back.

Back on the ground! I hugged Melissa for sheer joy.

Back on the ground! I hugged Melissa for sheer joy. The big oak, left, takes it all in stride.  Patrick Wellever, photo

One of my collaborators in this adventure is Patrick Wellever, digital media training coordinator with the Knight Program in Science Journalism at MIT. Patrick, and possibly other fellows in the program this year, is filming the climbs and will be headed up into the tree next. Some of the fellows elected to hone video skills by making a trailer about the Witness Tree project, my book underway about the human and natural history of this one, century old oak at the Harvard Forest. It’s been great to stay connected to the program, which enabled me to discover this story when I was a Knight fellow last year.


Rachel Buchanan, a Knight Fellow in science journalism at MIT and medical producer for BBC News London, films Andrew Richardson, associate professor at Harvard University as he examines a tree core on a tree sampling foray by the Richardson Lab at the Harvard Forest last month.

 I have been so grateful for the help of collaborators at the Harvard Forest and the Knight program, and the Richardson Lab at Harvard University for helping me research and report the book this year, while a Bullard Fellow in forest research. More to come! Some of it, from up in my tree. 


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