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Shaking the Tree

The memoir of a professional tree-climber reveals the agony and the ecstasy of life at the top of the world.

Creative Commons

When I was a child I climbed trees. From my perch I looked out on the woods. I wasn’t above the tree cover, but rather in it, the leaves rustling around me like the layers of a petticoat. This must be what it’s like to be a Minpin, I thought. The Minpins was Roald Dahl’s last story for children, about a miniature tree-dwelling people threatened by the Red-Hot Smoke-Belching Gruncher who lurks below. The final line of the tale captures the meaning of climbing trees, which is about trying to access a higher canopy of existence: “And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.”

For Dahl, a tree is a pathway, a sort of ladder leading away from the earth and into the sky. Those who climb trees are often lonely, or in search of a vantage point that separates them from everybody else. But there is an inevitable corollary to this solitary quest, a lesson that my tree-climbing habit taught me over and over again: It’s harder to go down than up. Being stuck up a tree is a metaphor for an enthusiasm that overshoots. It’s the hubris of an adventurer who is convinced that Dahl’s magic secrets are just around the corner, up one more branch.

As a professional climber of trees, James Aldred has learned this lesson the hard way. Ever in search of higher heights, he clambers into all sorts of danger. However, he does not climb trees with his arms and legs in the usual fashion. Instead he climbs mega-trees, winching himself up their trunks in a harness (he often describes it as “inchworming”). It works: The climber hurls a rope over a high branch in the tree, sometimes with a crossbow or (in Aldred’s preference) a catapult. Once the rope is hooked over and secured, the climber can start cranking himself upwards. Then he does the whole thing again, and climbs higher.

Aldred climbed his first big tree, a sequoia in England’s New Forest, at the age of 16 with a couple of friends. On that first climb up what they called “Goliath,” he recalls, the battered and shoddy equipment “stank of hard work and fear, a heady mixture of stale sweat, oil, gasoline, and tree sap.” It was the beginning of an obsession that would take him around the world in search of immense trees to scale. In his memoir The Man Who Climbs Trees, Aldred recalls upward journeys in Costa Rica, Borneo, Morocco, Australia, Venezuela. That formative teenage climb gave rise to a career in rigging sets for the director David Attenborough, and to other reasons a person might climb 250 feet up a tree full of snakes.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 272 pp., $26.00

The memoir is written in a Boys’ Own style: Though beset by wild beasts and mortal peril, Aldred makes it to the top. It isn’t the most sophisticated bit of literary craftsmanship, but it’s also not a travel diary of an Englishman’s exotic thrills abroad, that most exploitative and icky of genres. It’s just a book about trees—and sometimes animals.

Aldred seems immune to vertigo. He does, however, describe feeling exposed while 70 feet above ground in a Kapok tree. But that feeling of exposure comes more from the deranged harpy eagle that is intent on ripping him to shreds for approaching her nest. He’s in a “riot helmet, stab vest, and arm greaves,” but still the eagle gets him. “The next thing I knew I was spinning on my rope, seeing stars,” he writes. “My ears were ringing, and I could feel a searing pain at the base of my skull. I scrambled back onto the spike-covered branch as quickly as possible and placed my hand on the pain. The left-hand side of my neck between collar and jaw was numb, and when I took my hand away there was blood on my fingers.”

The hazards of a professional tree climber come largely from literal attacks by animals, rather than psychological attacks of fear. He does mess up sometimes, forgetting to tie a rope while 200 feet up for example. But the creatures that Aldred faces while up in the canopy are astonishing. He gets to hang out with chimps by moonlight, sure. But botflies also occupy his testicles in the Congo (which entails a painful extractive procedure: “I reached for a sterile syringe and slowly slid its long needle into my flesh”). An elephant charges him on a beach while he’s trying to pee (“There was no warning, no bellowing, just a dreadful silent intent accompanied by the ominous crash of foliage as he powered his five-ton bulk through the tree trunks and scrub as if they were grass”). He nearly dies of anaphylactic shock after climbing into some African honeybees in Gabon (“One managed to prize its way through my tightly clamped lips to sting the inside of my left cheek. I ground it in my teeth and spat it out, but another three crawled inside to do the same”).

At other moments it’s the weather that Aldred must fight. In the most exhilarating scene in The Man Who Climbs Trees (apart from the elephant, maybe), Aldred forgets his water before climbing a massive dipterocarp in Borneo. Earlier, while scouting for the tree up a strangler fig, 150 feet above the surface of the earth, Aldred had experienced a moment of the pure sublime: “It was a truly humbling experience, and with it came a feeling of acceptance and belonging—not just to the forest, but to nature itself—and as the emotion rolled over me in a wave, I burst into tears of joy.”

Too bad he forgot the water. Almost 250 feet up the dipterocarp, Aldred’s muscles seize up from dehydration and over-exertion. His hands are useless. “Feeling the panic rise within me, I watched in horror as my hands were twisted into useless claws by tendons that threatened to snap,” he writes. Then the thunder starts, and the tree starts to thrash around “like a rat in the jaws of a terrier.” Then the lightning starts, while he’s up the highest tree in a rainforest—an idiotic place to spend an electrical storm. “I had never felt so helpless in all my life, but there was nowhere to hide,” Aldred writes. “Had I really traveled to the other side of the world only to get struck by lightning in the top of a tree?”

Far be it from me to compare Aldred atop his tree in Borneo to my tiny perils in a London park, but I think I know something of what he felt. We partly climb trees because we want to experience helplessness. We climb away from our worries and responsibilities, but also from our sense of safety. Each escape is a liberation. The sky is not our world but we can touch it, at times, if we put our bodies to it. Mastering a difficult task—humans are supposed to go across the earth, not up it—is about relinquishing our ordinary selves, our ordinary world.

Twenty-nine years after he first climbed Goliath, Aldred writes about returning to that huge evergreen in the New Forest. “Wrapping my arm tight around Goliath’s neck,” he writes, “I felt the rays dispel the chill of a night spent in my van, and watched sunlight—glorious, golden, sparkling sunlight—flow out across the canopy, while listening to Bach’s prelude from his Cello Suite No. 1 on my headphones.” He sleeps up there in a hammock, as he has done in so many trees. He has reached another world, one which rests invisibly atop our own, connected to us by the vertical escape hatches that oxygenate the earth.

When he was up the strangler fig, he writes of feeling overwhelmed by the “distant call of a gibbon, the ragged rush of air through a hornbill’s wings.” He realizes that he is “nothing more than an atom adrift within this overwhelming tide of energy.” There’s something in this type of experience that calls back to the English Romantic poets, particularly Keats and Wordsworth, and their desire to connect the grandest thoughts with nature’s small miracles. A patch of “frail snow-drops that together cling, / And nod their helmets smitten by the wing / Of many a furious whirlblast sweeping by” are, for Wordsworth, the same as the “Emathian phalanx” who stood so ferociously in times gone by, because things “small to great / May lead the thoughts.”

This is the sublime, but in Aldred’s hands its not a domineering sublimity that seeks to own the landscape, to assert the ubiquity of the human soul. It’s just plants—no more, no less, yet just as splendid. “Watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you,” Dahl wrote, because “the greatest secrets are always hidden.”