Sat, Jan 08, 2005 - Page 16 News List

Giving thanks to 'Old Scratchy'

A small but growing community of adults are finding solace in a favorite childhood pastime

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Tree climber Harv Teitelbaum climbs, left, and descends, above, from a 100-year-old ponderosa pine tree, in Colorado. Student Chris Hanson is seen from behind, above him. Recreational tree climbing is a growing sport. Teitelman now teaches tree climbing full time.

PHOTOS: NY TIMES

It takes about NT$12,800 worth of equipment to climb a tree -- arborist ropes, helmet, climbing saddle, branch protectors, metal loops called carabiners. But when you're 30m up or so and your perch is swaying in the wind, you'll be glad you came prepared.

If you really want to do it right, you will also need a nickname. (Remember Julia Hill, aka Butterfly, who sat in a 61m redwood from 1997 to 1999 as a protest against clear cutting?) Harv Teitelbaum's nickname is Ponderosa -- in homage to the western pine that can grow up to 55m -- and you'll rarely find him on the ground. A native of Long Island who now lives in Colorado where the trees grow tall, Teitelbaum enjoys the solace high in the branches after a snowstorm ("So quiet, so beautiful, the snow on the trees."), the sway of a ponderosa during 130kph Chinook winds ("Swinging like a pinata, it was great!") and the view from a redwood toward a nearby forest fire ("Great day! I was all sooty."). Teitelbaum is part of a small but growing community of adults who call themselves recreational tree climbers. He has even found a business in it: teaching others through his company, Tree Climbing Colorado.

Italo Calvino, the 20th century Italian writer, wrote a whimsical novel, The Baron in the Trees, about a man who lives his entire life high above the ground, and a fair number of people seem to be trying to live it out. Although hard data about the participants are difficult to come by, New Tribe, an Oregon company that sells equipment for recreational tree climbing, said it sold almost 1,500 tree-climbing saddles last year, up 34 percent from 2003.

Some ground dwellers might consider tree climbers slightly less evolved than monkeys (Teitelbaum's father has half-teasingly asked his son to change his last name to save the family embarrassment), but Teitelbaum and his colleagues happily spend their leisure hours climbing, and even sometimes camping, in trees.

Using ropes and other climbing gear, they swing from branches for hours, talking to the tree, hugging it, getting a unique perspective on the world. Everyday worries seem to disappear, they say. Teitelbaum does not consider himself an activist or an extreme-sports kind of guy. He just likes being in the trees.

Tree climbing attracts many sorts of people, of course, but commonly its practitioners climbed trees as children and want to recapture the feeling. Nicknames are almost required. Teitelbaum's colleagues include Swampy Joe, Tengu, Xenon, Tree Man. One, called Ai, took the name of a tree sloth distinguished by its greenish coat, tinted by algae that live in its fur.

Many climbers like the wilderness, but instead of setting up tents, they take in the view from on high. "I've seen hummingbird nests, watched parrots fly and seen the wind blow through the trees rippling the leaves in waves," said Iris Turney, a Los Angeles-based tree climber. She volunteered at the UCLA botanical gardens so that she could climb trees and has traveled to Panama for a rain-forest expedition.

Xenon (more formally known as Chris Hanson), a climber who lives in the mountains west of Denver, speculated, "Maybe we evolved swinging in trees and just have a primal wire still hooked up that tells us we ought to get up there and check things out." Hanson, who has started several software companies and refers to himself as a professional geek, likes what he called "the organic complexity" of trees. "They form such cool shapes and structures up in the sky, which we never see from the ground," he said. "It's like exploring a sculpture that's also a jungle gym."

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