I briefly discussed my childhood relationship with tree-climbing in another piece for Floom, which got me thinking more broadly about the act of shimmying up nature’s own climbing frames: leafy, vertical assault courses that have inexorably drawn children (and some adults) to their peaks. But why? As I wrote:
“My sister is an amazing tree-climber (well she was when we were kids anyway, I’m not sure how often she manages to exercise her skills in recent times - branch-hopping like a little Yorkshire Mowgli probably took a back seat to the PHD in Biomedical Engineering she just spent about five years completing). I wasn’t too shabby - I could scoot up the trunks well enough, it was just once I’d reached the highest point I would glance down and inevitably Lose My Shit. Luckily the skinny younger sister that I would ignore in the school playground was on hand to shimmy up after me and guide me down each time.''
Why do I remember this aspect of our relationship so vividly? I probably couldn’t tell you who was the more accomplished rider of bikes, or finger painter at that age, yet there’s something about climbing trees that imprints itself upon one’s identity in those fledgling years.
I think it’s probably something to do with how physically it manifests, and successfully merges, two essential aspects of childhood that so often seem to be competing with one another. On the one hand, there is the pure escapism of exploring another world: one that is tangibly removed from the assurances that terra firma provides; one that offers up an entirely new (and literal) perspective on the confines of Life Down There, through the gaps in verdant foliage and ever-twisting branches. Just think of any generation-defining family blockbuster and chances are there’s a memorable scene set amidst the canopies of some magical forest, from the Ewok’s forest moon of Endor in Star Wars, to the luscious habitats of Avatar’s Pandora moon and the countless tree-centric moments that play a part in Tolkein’s Hobbit and Lord Of The Rings mythology.
On the other hand, you have the unavoidable reminders of one’s own corporeal mortality to deal with at all times. If you misjudge that enticing branch-swing, or take a breather on a slightly rotten chunk of trunk then the cold hard thud of ground is going to feel anything but magical; a trip to the A and E isn’t going to look like anything that Peter Jackson might conjure on-screen. If you do master the route to the top (and back again) then the sense of accomplishment is perhaps a first foray into overcoming obstacles that will become all the more meaningful as adolescence and adulthood arrive.
Tree-climbing gives children the opportunity to explore both of these essential aspects of humanity in a completely natural environment. As far as I remember there was no cgi at play, or furry animatronics running around, on the oak tree that my sister and I would scale. Even writing this, I’m getting a hankering for such a straightforward and buoyant way of coming to terms with both my dreams and reality. Even if the branches are knotted and writhing, navigating a tree is way less tangled than the things we have to navigate in everyday life now. And of course beyond all that: what a rush. That tentative first test as you nestle a foot into a wooden groove. The initial thrust upwards as you throw yourself towards the first branch. Plotting one’s course from appendage to appendage, incorporating jumps, swings and daring hoists wherever you could get away with them… I’ll leave you with this wonderful quote from Italo Calvino’s glorious novel, The Baron In The Trees, the London sky is offering rare sunshine and I’m off to scope out new adventures down the park.
“That wish to enter into an elusive element which had urged Cosimo into the trees, was still working now inside him unsatisfied, making him long for a more intimate link, a relationship which would bind him to each leaf and twig and feather and flutter.”