After spending the past few weeks camping and hiking in various forests of the eastern U.S., I noticed marked differences in my demeanor and state of mind.
Even with the sacrifice of physical comfort by sleeping in a tent rather than in our bed, I slept more soundly. I also noticed an improvement in mental clarity. In part this was due to the absence of the demands and distractions often encountered at home and work; but also from the peace that overcame me as I enjoyed the trees, sun, breeze, song birds, and sights in the forests and along the trails.
We were immersed in nature. We felt great!
My wife and I spend a fair amount of time outdoors throughout the year. Whether it is taking trips like this, regular walks in the parks and trails near our house, or enjoying time in our backyard gardens, I know my time spent in nature nourishes my soul and has a positive impact on my health and well-being.
Your personal experiences may be like mine and you also feel positive impacts from your time in nature. We hear about Nature providing benefits to our health and well-being, but are the claims real or do they just sound plausible?
Sounds Good, Can You Prove It
As it turns out, there are numerous studies that looked at and measured the impact of spending time in nature. There are also studies that looked at the human health impact when natural areas and trees have been removed from an area, as was the case in several communities who lost an extraordinary number of trees due to the invasive emerald ash borer.
Those of us who have been aware of the positive impacts we experience may have been self-medicating by making time spent outdoors a regular part of our weekly routine. Obviously medical professionals need to operate on hard evidence rather than opinion, so thankfully this information has been making its way into the medical field and showing up in doctor’s prescriptions!
Easier Said Than Done
I am fortunate that my work schedule provides the opportunity for me spend time in nature most days of the week. Even my hobbies of walking, hiking, and gardening draw me outside. Thankfully my wife is able to motivate me to get outside to play, exercise, or simply relax when I have found myself content with sitting on the living room couch.
With all the opportunities I have to get outdoors, I still look for assistance and guidance from professionals to help me maintain focus. A few years ago I found a health & wellness coach who has helped in my pursuit of a healthy life-style and other personal goals.
With her expertise in health, wellness, and nutrition education & coaching, she has been great to work with and learn from in regard to the role that spending time in nature plays in her clients’ success.
Recently she invited me to sit down with her and a colleague to discuss my experiences and our tree climbing programs. I know I need to be physically active and get outdoors, but that doesn’t mean I always have the motivation to move.
What Does It Take to Get Me Outside
My tips include:
As we discussed during our time together, part of the intent behind our tree climbing experience is provide a unique and exciting way to get outside, move, and connect with Nature. (The appeal of the climb lured her to join me in the tree for an additional segment you'll hear at the end of to the podcast)
With the energizing affect that comes with climbing tall trees, I hope it provides further motivation for participants to make spending time outdoors a regular part of their weekly schedule.
Where do you go to unwind, slow down, find peace? A walk at the end of the day helps to quiet my mind. My wife and I take weekend hikes which help us unwind and enjoy a peaceful morning together.
Walking in parks lends itself to providing a calming effect after a busy day. Crossing paths with others is almost a given in these situations, and I enjoy the sense of camaraderie I feel as I nod to others who seem to be enjoying the same experience as me.
However, there are times where I wish to be further removed. I like to find places that are accessible but where I may be one of the only people around.
These days it is often that I need to hike further distances to get away from the more heavily trafficked areas. I don’t necessarily need to find a completely secluded spot, but it is nice to find a place where I can be alone for at least a short period.
When I need further distance, I often find myself in the branches high above. Up there I usually only come across birds and squirrels.
I have yet to cross paths with anybody while I’ve been climbing a tree.
Energized yet at peace
The energizing effects take hold as I leave the ground behind on my way into the branches. Once I reach my destination, be it the top of the tree or one of the many branches to sit on, I can focus my attention inward.
The common city noises and chatter from others playing nearby may still be in earshot, but they are softened by the distance.
Laying my head back on a branch and gazing into the canopy above, those distractions are gradually drowned out by the rustle of leaves in the breeze. This is when I notice that I have already begun to unwind and calm my mind.
Up here I can enjoy the life in the canopy and the peaceful feelings that overcome me.
Taking it all in
Sitting alone, looking down, you enjoy a view and perspective most people seldom have.
It can feel like you’re floating above the daily grind and able to focus on the simple pleasures in your life. Back on the ground your worries and troubles wait for you. Up here though, those worries cannot reach you. You are free to enjoy your time alone.
You can take the time to explore your thoughts and emotions. With your heightened energy level that comes with the location, you are likely to reconnect with yourself in a way that may escape your reach during the demands of your day.
That’s how it is for me, which is part of what drives me to provide the opportunity for others to experience tree-time.
Climbing tall trees is fun and why we offer the recreational experience.
It is also therapeutic, and why I climb on my own or share a branch with a friend.
You’ve heard the expression “Stop and smell the roses.” How about the leaves, blossoms, bugs and even fungus?! Join me in the tree to appreciate the little miracles that are right above your head.
EVERYONE needs playtime! Play is an essential part of life. Children get it. Some adults have forgotten. Play is vital for the enjoyment of life as well as social, emotional, intellectual and physical development. Picture yourself playing within this week’s video.
Come play with us! Register for a climb today and come experience it for yourself!
I spend time with trees by sitting beneath them or hiking through the forest. Of course, I also like to climb them. I’ve enjoyed climbing trees for as long as I can remember.
The oak in our front yard in Miami was one of my favorite climbing trees growing up. It was a rite of passage when I could finally jump high enough to grab hold of the lowest limb and pull myself into the tree without any assistance from my older brothers or standing on my bike.
“I used to climb trees.” I hear this quite often when I tell people what I do.
After sharing enjoyable memories, some people follow up with, “it was so much fun.” Therefore, it begs the question, “Why did you stop?”
When most people think of tree climbing, they tend to envision free-climbing, using hands and feet to climb branches without the aid or safety of rope. Technical tree climbing utilizes ropes and saddles to climb trees.
Each style of climbing offers a variety of benefits and experiences for the climber.
Growing up in Puerto Rico and Florida, we climbed numerous rubber trees (Ficus elastica). Our hands coated in sticky sap enabled us grip and swing from their aerial roots like Tarzan! We could shinny up the schefflera trees and climb onto the roof of our house. We climbed and picked countless mangos, loquats and tangerines from trees around the neighborhood, bringing them home to feast upon them at the top of our favorite climbing tree.
Those days of free-climbing involved smaller and even some medium sized trees. For the most part, climbing a tree in this manner requires that the tree have enough branches to provide hand and footholds.
Free-climbing small trees calls upon our primal instincts as we explore these living jungle gyms.
Free-climbing a tree without the use of rope, you are exposed to a higher risk of falling. I think this is the primary reason people are discouraged or even forbidden to climb trees, even though playgrounds are filled with structures for climbing and enabling children to get off the ground.
The simple act of climbing develops a person’s hand-eye coordination and motor skills. Each step of the way while tree climbing, you are determining where to place your hands and feet to gain vertical height. Trees do not have a standard arrangement of limbs or spacing between branches like a fabricated jungle gym. Planning a few steps ahead is a necessity as the path is not a straight line up. Returning to the ground can be even more challenging.
An adrenaline rush and flood of emotions accompanies this type of play. During our time in the tree, we are also rewarded with releases of “feel good” hormones like endorphins, dopamine and serotonin. You don’t need to know what these are because you can feel their effects even if you don’t know their names.
I love reading the research about such benefits today as that helps fuel my passion for providing an incredible experience for people to spend time in the trees. Back then, all I cared about was that climbing trees was a fun and exciting way to spend my day.
Technical Tree Climbing
When we moved to St. Louis, we had a sugar maple that could be climbed, but it wasn’t nearly as much fun as my previous climbing tree. Aside from the maple, we had oaks, hickories, and elms that were too tall to climb since the lowest branches were about 20’ high.
If you have the desire to climb into taller, larger, older trees, you are out of luck if they do not have low and small enough branches for climbing. Thankfully, ropes, saddles and specialized techniques allow us to climb into these magnificent trees.
Climbing rope requires a unique set of motor skills and spatial awareness in addition to those skills we developed as free-climbers. It also requires the use of muscles you may not have known were there!
Sitting back in your saddle and letting the tree and rope support your weight has an energizing effect. Once you climb into the crown of the tree and can play in the branches, you are continuously transferring your weight and sense of security between sitting in rope and being supported by a branch. The transition back and forth brings new challenges. This is part of what makes technical tree climbing a lot of fun and different from free-climbing.
Once you begin to master the balance between using branches and using rope, you are better able to climb and explore the tree at will. You are able to enjoy the freedom of spending time in the branches without having to hold on.
Another key difference is that, with rope, you can climb much higher. Some of the taller trees in Wisconsin allow us to ascend over 100 feet above the ground. The tallest trees in the world allow climbers to reach heights over 350 feet.
While these heights sound impressive, the reality is that most people are challenged and impacted by reaching heights between 10 and 35 feet. The trees we climb around Wisconsin are perfect as they allow us to play in this realm. For those who like pushing the limits, I often include a few ropes that reach 40-50 feet during my climbs. In private excursions and guided climbs, we go even higher.
In the end, the height each of us is most comfortable at will vary greatly. Using rope and saddle enables you to progressively challenge yourself to reaching new heights.
As a kid, I free-climbed trees because I didn’t know any other way. These days I climb using rope and saddle. Thanks to this hobby, I am able to explore amazing trees and chase views that few people will ever get to enjoy.
I doubt my parents ever stopped to ponder the emotional and cognitive benefits I was receiving during my time in the trees. They knew it was important for kids to play outside because they could see the differences in my demeanor between those days and the ones I spent mostly inside in front of the tv and playing video games.
Today, I notice differences in myself during and following my time in the trees. When I reflect back on my childhood, I am grateful my parents allowed me to climb trees.
As long as you take into consideration that the tree you are climbing is a living being and do what you can to minimize your impact on the tree, I encourage you to get out and enjoy the trees. Take your children and loved ones with you.
*Fine print: prior to entering a tree, I perform a thorough inspection to assess its health and structural integrity. There are a number of issues and conditions that can make a tree unfit for climbing. If you are unsure of the condition of your trees, please contact an ISA Certified Arborist and have them assess your tree (yes, even the small ones). If you are interested in climbing tall and mature trees, give me a call!
Screen-time. It seems like we cannot avoid it.
Growing up, screen-time was the television. For me that meant MTV, Discovery Channel, sitcoms or playing Atari.
Today, screen-time also comes from our phones, tablets, watches, pc’s, laptops. At work, at home, in the car, in restaurants and bars, or even while we sit on a park bench.
While I it can be difficult to truly grasp the numerous impacts screen-time has on humans, I recently had an experience that opened my eyes to the conditioning affect I have subjected myself to.
For some people, online interaction is the equivalent of the in-person social interactions I am drawn to. When I consider the time I spend online, a fair percentage of it is with social media platforms, news feeds and email inbox.
I engage with each of these in a similar fashion, scrolling through a never-ending feed of digital stimulation. Within a fraction of a second, I make a decision for the next course of action.
If the item requires a relatively short amount of time for contemplation or consideration, like a picture, I can appreciate it for a few seconds before my thumb intuitively flips on to the next item. If the item holds some value or interest requiring more in-depth engagement, I might give it a minute, but no more. In many cases, the item gets flagged, saved or added to my list for later action.
I believe this overabundance of information and stimulation is part of what makes our digital devices so addictive. As soon as I pick up my phone it’s as if I enter a trance where I scroll continuously until one item grabs my attention enough for me to take pause.
While I may think I am learning or absorbing the information I come across, I question how much I retain in this state of mind as I cannot process completely before I am on to the next stimuli. This became uncomfortably apparent to me recently.
Back in the Analog World
One of my weekly goals is to spend one morning dedicated to reading articles, journals and magazines I have collected in my “future reading” pile. This stack of readings and bookmarks include the items from my digital binges, articles I had flagged for later, and notes I take from books I am reading.
I was at the coffeeshop one of these mornings with the sole purpose of taking time to read through a small stack of professional journals and research articles that I had set aside. I had already thumbed through the journals and knew there were specific articles that I wanted to give more attention to.
I settled in to enjoy quiet time with my readings over a cup of coffee. I began paging through until I came upon the first article of interest. Being somewhat technical in nature, it captured my undivided attention. That article had a lot of great information, and there were plenty more to go.
Before long I reached the end of my stack.
Looking down at my stack of journals, I had to laugh. Somewhere along the way I stopped reading articles and ended up skimming through the pages and dog-earing the interesting articles for future reading.
What was I doing? I was there to read! It’s as if I am on a constant search for new information and answers to my questions, yet not taking the time to digest and process the information beyond face value.
When I thought it through, I realized that I had unknowingly returned to my habit of mindless scrolling. My digital reflex had jumped into my analog world.
It may seem easy to explain it away with the notion we hear in regard to shortening attention spans, but I doubt it is that simple. Do kids-these-days have shorter attention spans? Has my attention span been shortened in the digital age?
I never pursued the field of psychology beyond a handful of introductory courses in college so I may date myself; but, every time I heard a ding on my phone or laptop, I pictured myself as one of Pavlov’s dogs.
With each interruption no matter how brief, it typically results in at least a 10 to 15-minute disruption in my day as it takes that long to fully reengage my mind with the task at hand. Talk about a drain on productivity. It didn’t take too long for me to shut off notifications on my devices!
I believe that maintaining ready access to social media, news feeds, and e-mail are a powerful distraction and hindrance to engagement with work, play, family and friends. How well do you stay in conversation with your spouse when out to dinner at a restaurant with 15 screens or your phone on the table?
This leaves me wondering if attention spans are truly decreasing to a significant level, or how much of this has to do with distraction and conditioning?
Move Forward by Leaving It Behind
It takes me long enough to sort through my thoughts and write an article. As I sit here at my laptop I know one thing is for sure; I’d be here all day if I did not have my email closed and phone in my bag. Removing these distractions appears to have a positive effect on my attention span.
Keeping my phone in my bag or otherwise out of reach also goes a long way to breaking my sub-conscious habit of picking it up for no apparent reason. Picking it up of course being the trigger to my fingers’ conditioned response of bringing it back to life, sending me tumbling uncontrolled down the rabbit hole.
Moderating screen time improves my work product and returns tremendous benefits for me psychologically and emotionally. Digital fasting helps me regain perspective and control of where I focus my attention.
One of the aspects I enjoy about taking people into the trees is that everyone engages in the moment. Phones are set down, eyes look up to the branches above and the excitement builds. Being a unique and adventurous experience, it captures participants’ attention the moment they walk up to the tree.
Some parents and teachers have wished me luck with their child or student, alluding to their short attention span or the idea that all they like to do is play on their phone. They assume I will have a hard time keeping their interest for two hours without digital stimulation.
In reality, there are some climbers who wish to take their phone with them into the tree so they can get some pictures. Most do not.
It is common for those who do ask to forget to even pull out their phone while they are climbing!
Engaging in the activities you enjoy is great for keeping your attention in focus. Climbing requires some attention on the task at hand.
During a climb, everyone needs to take a break. This is when you are able to sit in the saddle, take in the view, catch your breath, and breathe in the moment. You are present in the moment, processing the experience and your emotions.
I find peace and a calm mind in activities like tree-time. I find the same when I disconnect.
It’s Not Easy Seeing No Green
I enjoy and appreciate cold weather. The crisp air, clear blue sky, and visible plumes of frozen water crystals rising out of vent pipes are some of the details I enjoy on a cold winter day.
Having lived in a variety of places and climates, from the tropics to the temperate, I understand why winter can be a challenging season for some. But I love the season because of the many changes taking place and the excitement for what may lie ahead.
I also love snow. Watching it fall softly to the ground. Hearing it crunch beneath my boots. Sledding, cross-country skiing, and snow shoeing are possible thanks to snow.
In winter, you may notice as you walk through the park or a forest, that the color spectrum is more in line with the urban landscape of concrete, bricks and blacktop. Shades of brown, black, gray, and white abound.
Not only do we have fewer hours of daylight to brighten our mood and tend to stay inside to avoid the cold temperatures, winter also surrounds with a seemingly lifeless landscape due to the lack of flowers and leaves. This perception of lifelessness is due to the lack of green.
The color green is overwhelmingly absent in winter. We feel the absence of this wonderful color that we associate with life, growth, health, and freshness.
During a drive through the countryside this past week, I enjoyed the winter ambience created by snow covered fields and trees. The hardwoods provided a complex array of interwoven brown, gray and white lines.
When I drove a stretch road that wound through an area with numerous eastern white pines and Norway spruce, I felt a sense of calm enter. These trees provided soft and orderly lines of green in contrast to the surrounding trees.
The presence of green plays an important role on the human psyche. The differing shades of green are seen more readily by humans as they fall in the middle of our spectrum of visible light. Because of this, it is the easiest on our eyes and calming to the mind.
Shades of green are known to have relaxing effects and help to alleviate stress, instill a sense of safety and increase level of concentration.
They can also improve mood and creativity.
These are some of the reasons I integrate greens into my home and work environments. (See “How the Color of Your Office Impacts Productivity”)
Arborvitae, red-cedar, douglas-fir and pines play an important role in my landscape, in part because the color they provide in winter. While I can appreciate it from the warmth of my house, it actually draws me out for a stroll through my landscape regularly regardless of the temperature.
I also incorporate live plants and scenes of nature indoors. With the office spaces I have had over the years, I always found a way to incorporate the color green as an integral part of the décor for these very benefits.
In Search of Green
Of the images I have displayed in my office today, the focal point is a large print with the perspective gazing upward into the crown of a magnificent beech tree and the splendor of its green leaves. I still remember basking in the field of green shining down on me as I took the photo during my time with the tree. This energy continues to radiate as I sit in my workspace.
The effects of working in the presence of this image are noticeable. I feel a calmness within, in much the same way as when I drove that stretch of road that took me through an oasis of green in the middle of winter.
Fortunately, there are many places around Wisconsin you can immerse yourself in green this winter. In Waukesha County, I enjoy hiking through stands of conifers in Nashotah Park and Retzer Nature Center. Mukwonago park has a few nice groupings of conifers, one easily accessible as it is adjacent to the campground parking area.
I encourage you to get out into an area with an abundance of green. Hike, ski or drive yourself someplace green. See if you can sense impact the color has on your mind and body.
Dr. John Gathright was an author and motivational speaker, not a tree climbing expert. He wrote a book about pursuing your dreams, and at one of his book signing events, he was approached by a woman. Speaking from her wheel chair, Toshiko Hikosaka told him of her dream to climb the world’s largest tree and that she wanted him to help her. He was not a tree climber and had no idea how to climb such a tree, but he wanted to help her achieve her dream.
Three years later, Gathright and Hikosaka reached the top of a giant sequoia. At 63 years old, she was the first paraplegic to climb a tree to this height. Her climb that day culminated in triumph, wonder and exhaustion. They spent the night in the top of that 243-foot tall tree, on the branches, under the stars.
Just as that day in the bookstore had set the ball rolling for their 3-year journey, the climb to the top of the sequoia was the beginning of the next chapter. Upon returning to Japan, demand for Gathright’s tree climbing adventures inspired him to cut his own path forward.
Given there were no tree climbing schools in the country at that time, he had to start at the very beginning.
It was a delight for me to be able to attend a presentation of Dr. Gathright recently. He is a pioneer in using recreational tree climbing in therapeutic and rehabilitation programs, and I have been inspired by his work for a number of years. To hear him tell his story of the legwork he had to go through was amazing.
Sometimes It Is About The Numbers
He had to find research that supported his idea of establishing tree climbing as an effective and legitimate form of therapy. No research existed at that time, therefore he realized his next course of action was going to have to be the pursuit of his PhD studying and testing his hypothesis.
His doctoral thesis looked at the physiological and physical differences in individuals between their climbing living trees and climbing a concrete structure. In both instances, participants were climbing to elevated heights and performing similar tasks.
In analyzing the data, there were clear differences between the 2 experiences. When climbing trees, participants experienced less pain and fatigue, experienced greater vitality and clarity of mind, and reported feeling a greater feeling of self-worth versus when they were climbing the concrete structure.
Tree climbing had produced an increase in positive emotions and reduction in negative emotions. His further studies revealed and measured reductions in participant levels of stress, tension, anxiety, depression, and anger after climbing trees.
Not only did his research show the positive effects of tree climbing, it revealed that it wasn’t simply the climbing that was providing the benefit. There was a marked enhancement of the effects when the participants were climbing trees.
Gathright had provided the scientific basis behind his TreeHab and Tree Therapy programs.
Meet Your Therapist
My first ascent of a tall tree early in my career had a profound impact on me physically and mentally.
My muscles enjoyed the physical exertion, but I was exhausted. I was energized by the height I had reached, at the same time nervous. Through all of the hormones flushing through my body, I found mental clarity and focus. I was energized, yet I was at peace.
I never measured the effects to confirm in what ways and by how much climbing trees changed me, yet I walked away from that climb relaxed and inspired. And every climb since.
Over 20 years later, I came across the research of Dr. John Gathright that identified and quantified the effects of climbing trees that I had personally experienced.
From its origins in 2000, TreeHab has worked with thousands of children with physical disabilities and emotional trauma. Gathright and Tree Climbing Japan have helped over 300,000 people of all abilities discover their inner tree-climber.
As I listened to him share his stories of people he has worked with over the years, I was reminded of those who have touched me during my journey thus far.
Tree Climbing Touches Lives
I am involved with tree a climbing program for urban youth and people who do not have the resources to leave the concrete and asphalt landscape at will. Counselors and therapists utilize our climbing experience in their dealings with children facing emotional trauma, such as that related to the loss of a parent.
It was interesting to hear him speak of programs developed for people with autism and ADHD. While the experience and benefits of tree climbing have a profound impact on these participants, it appears that TreeHab is also having a promising impact on breaking down the stigmas associated with them in his community.
I have seen the benefits first hand in dealing with a variety of people from all walks of life and backgrounds. While the majority of our climbers may not fall into any of these categories, every one of us benefits from the same effects that tree climbing provides.
His words brought into focus for me that we each have our own inhibitions, insecurities, and unique qualities. Each of us may be at a different point in our journey through life, come from different backgrounds and face our own challenges; but, every one of us can reap the benefits of time in the trees.
Through this past year, the vast majority of climbers returned to the ground with a sense of accomplishment, feeling of pride, boost in self-confidence, and a big smile on their face.
We met parents who were supportive of their children, speaking with words of love and encouragement. There were participants who overcame their trepidation and ended up excelling and enjoying their time above the ground. A number of children and young adults had the exciting opportunity to participate in an activity alongside their parents and grandparents.
With so many fantastic memories and wonderful people, I was tempted to put together a year-end video recap of the year. We were able to capture many nice images of climbers, but there are too many for us to make a video with a realistic time length.
In this period of reflection, I am inspired to share your pictures in a series of videos related to our experiences with trees and tree climbing.
Inspired by Robert Fulgham's book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten... and our interactions together, I created this video to share a few of the lessons trees have taught me throughout my journey thus far.
Your day in the trees may have been captured in this video. If not, I hope you will keep an eye out in the coming months as I cycle through as many of the images as I can in upcoming videos. Other images will grace our website pages and posts on Facebook and Instagram.
A guided, mindful walk in the woods
This year, my wife and I spent a few weeks camping in North Dakota. The majority of our hikes took us through remote wilderness areas where we spent hours without seeing another person. There were a number of hours spent where we heard no sound of human civilization. No road traffic. No airplanes.
Recently we spent a few days hiking trails in some of our State Parks and natural areas from Milwaukee to Door County. It rained much of our trip, which meant we again found ourselves alone on most of the trails we walked.
For the past few years I have been focussed on improving the quality of the time I spend outdoors and the associated benefits. Simply looking at pictures of nature can have positive and measurable impacts on our well-being. Walking into a forested area is even more powerful in part because you are breathing in essential plant compounds. But, is there a way I can improve my experience?
I have been amazed at how much impact these benefits can have, and I created the following video to share part of this journey with you. You might feel better just watching it!
As a G.O.T.C. Recognized Facilitator & Master Instructor, I.S.A. Board Certified Master Arborist, and T.C.I.A. Certified Treecare Safety Professional, Curt has spent over 30 years dedicated to the study and care of trees.