Recreational tree climber Andrew Joslin high above the Gladeside Urban Wild in a red oak tree. Photo by Pete Stidman
It isn't always necessary to hop in a car and drive for hours to escape the hustle and bustle of city life. And with gas prices on the rise, many are looking to commune with nature close to home. One of the rare activities in this category, so far at least, is recreational tree climbing.
According to Andrew Joslin, one of two fellows who run the Boston Area Recreational Tree Climbers (BARC) website, peace, quiet and fascinating wildlife can be found anywhere a good solid tree grows. He even sleeps up there occasionally. So I called him up and asked for a demonstration inside Reporter territory.
After a few days of scouting around, he called me back. He had discovered a narrow slice of second-growth woods in Mattapan just off Morton Street called the Gladeside Urban Wild.
I found Joslin's Subaru Forester at the Gladeside entrance at the end of Lorna Road, and after waiting around a bit he emerged from the woods and led me in.
A few feet inside the wild, surrounded by lush greenery, it was hard to tell we were in still in the city. The only reminder was a distant stereo playing Haitian tunes. Joslin started identifying plants left and right, a low blueberry bush, lily-in-the-valley carpeting the floor, and a Jack-in-the-Pulpit growing along the trail.
After we reached the 75-foot red oak he intended to have me climb, he noticed something else.
"If you listen - there's that sound like rain," he says. "You can hear the caterpillar frass just falling out of the trees."
Frass, he explains, is a friendly word for insect excrement. The caterpillars are feasting on the trees. In particular, European winter moth larvae - an invasive species - seem to be the most voracious, nearly defoliating the red oaks in the area, including the one we are about to climb.
"Probably right here in this 60 square foot area there are thousands and thousands of caterpillars just munching away," Joslin says. "These caterpillars are providing food for the birds, but it's almost like the American economy, I like to say. It's burning very brightly but at the cost of the trees."
The winter moth, I later found out, first landed in New England in Boston, and has since defoliated trees from a number of different species up and down the Massachusetts coast. UMass Amherst and the state Department of Conservation and Recreation have been studying the problem for years, trying to come up with a way to stave off the little beasts before they significantly alter Massachusetts' forests.
While I'm gazing up at a tree canopy filled with small caterpillar-size holes and ducking frass I can't see, Joslin is unfolding a small nylon triangle into a two-foot-wide cube and taking out a little piece of string. Inside, he explains, is 180 feet of loosely coiled high-strength polyester-braided 600-pound test line.
He ties a small half-pound bag full of shot to the end and slings it underhand into the oak tree, but misses the particular branch he was aiming for.
"It's tough sometimes when you don't have a clear shot," he says, and tries again.
The Gladeside Urban Wild, owned by the Boston Conservation Commission and cared for by the city's park's department, is unusual in that it is still dominated by native species. Its 10-acres-plus are filled with red oaks, pignut hickories and white pine on the highland sections and sweet pepper bushes, bayberry and cattails down in a eerie and brackish but lovely little swamp.
Gladeside is a hidden neighborhood treasure. Technically, the parks department prohibits climbing trees in any city park, and would likely come down hard on anyone without the proper training and equipment. In the department's rules and regulations, it is forbidden to "sit, stand or lie upon, or climb upon or over" just about anything, including a tree.
Of course, it is also against the rules to ride a bike, roller skate, play ball, swim, fish or even "run in a race" unless you're in a place specifically set apart for such a thing. Think of that next time a young one challenges you to a foot race.
In the end it may be common sense that decides if a park ranger will pull out a ticket book. If you're 30 feet up a tree truck without a rope, helmet and other equipment, you probably deserve worse than the $50 fine a ranger can slap on you for climbing trees.
When Joslin first started climbing three years ago at age 49, after reading an inspiring article in a February 2005 New Yorker, his search for instructors took him to Georgia, where the sport is much more popular and climbing classes can be found. Peter Jenkins at Tree Climbers International in Atlanta offered a number of courses.
After developing his skills and getting a little press, Joslin and other climbers he knew became deluged with requests for instruction. His original idea for creating Bostontreeclimbers.ning.com was to create a place where beginning climbers can coordinate climbs with more-experienced types. It's just beginning to take off.
After the fourth try, Joslin is tiring of the throwbag method. He just can't seem to get an accurate toss, and instead turns to fiddling with what looked like a large walking stick on the short hike in.
"Slingshots are illegal in the state of Massachusetts too," he says. "Unless you join a slingshot club."
After affixing a two-pronged fork strung with rubber surgical tubing to the top of the stick, he sets the throwbag in the slingshot and pulls back. He squats down and sits at the base of the walking stick-slingshot thing and takes aim.
- THWANG -
It's another miss.
"American-style is to hit the highest branch and conquer the tree in one shot," he says, musing over his own impatient "aim high" practice. "Japanese prefer to pitch the smallest branch and keep pitching up. They really get into the process."
Like many esoteric things on the fringes of American culture, recreational tree climbing is huge in Japan, relatively speaking anyway. A fellow named John Gathright seems to have popularized it after helping a physically challenged woman from Japan climb the Stagg Tree in California, a giant sequoia and building a big tree house out of giant (and smelly) miso barrels.
"In Japan, everything's highly regulated," Joslin says, while loading up for another shot. "The U.S. has a natural resistance to regulation of course."
- THWANG -
To climb trees legally in Japan one needs a license, but those who go through the trouble to get it often become stewards of trees and woodlands in their neighborhoods, according to Joslin.
Finally, after some complications with an interfering branch and abandoning the slingshot again, Joslin nails a perfect shot with the underhand throwing technique. He ties the end of the string to the climbing rope and attaches a special piece of hosing to protect the tree from rope abrasion and hoists it over the branch he targeted, some 65 feet up.
After Joslin sets up a second rope, I'm climbing into a special tree-climbing harness, tying a hitch knot in a special arborist's rope and donning "smurf gloves" with blue rubber on them so I can grip the rope easier. With a pantin on my foot - a steel device that grips the rope on the way up - I can start climbing. Joslin checks and double checks all the safety gear before I do.
The progress is slow going, like an inchworm moving up a line of silk. But Joslin's own advanced gear allows him to move quicker. Somewhere around 50 feet up I feel a few butterflies looking at the untouched lichens and mosses on the tree's trunk. Somehow that's freakier than looking at the trail below.
"Everybody has what we call a ceiling," says Joslin. "A certain point where their body tells them that's high enough, and it gives them a big adrenaline rush."
At the top, it's easy to feel the tree swaying in the breeze. Below our feet, blue jays and a great crested flycatcher are going about their business. It's quiet.
We engage in one of those long and wide-ranging conversations on life, nature and yes, more trees. Joslin tells me about his goal to climb the redwoods in California, which can shoot past 300 feet, some four times higher than we are. Up there with the birds, the caterpillars, and the breeze, it starts to sound like a surprisingly good idea. Andrew Joslin shimmies up a rope in the Gladeside Urban Wild. Photo by Pete Stidman