Risking Life on a Limb

An interesting exchange / confrontation today after climbing a tall oak by the side of a pathway on top of Box Hill.

H & I had seen the pair earlier on in the afternoon: a grey-haired, grey-bearded man with glasses, maybe in his fifties; a slightly younger-looking woman with medium-length straight brown hair – both wearing fluorescent jackets, carrying clipboards and walking around the carpark looking up into the many mature standard trees and making notes. The man had a strange red contraption that looked like a hammer attached to a board with two straight wires poking horizontally out the other end.

At the end of our walk, I spotted the oak as we went past it and decided that it looked friendly enough to climb, so up I went. It was fairly easy going with maybe two occasions where an arms-only pull-up was required. There were a couple of wrist-thick branches that I shied of putting my full weight on because they looked fairly dead, even at the usual strong point by the main trunk. Here’s a photo of the view from near the top (it split into two just before this point and went on for another 5-10 metres above my head, but I didn’t feel secure going any higher at the +/- 20° angle):

…and looking down:

Well, when I was about halfway down the surveyors came up to the foot of the tree, telling me (in case I didn’t know) that what I was doing was ‘very dangerous’ and asking me to come down. I said ‘Yes, I’m coming down now’ and they offered to stay and make sure that I made it ‘safely’. With my new audience, I actually found myself making slightly faster progress than usual, in some moves almost playing up to them with fast switches, more arm-reliance than strictly necessary and a swift, flashy dismount – probably not the intended consequence! (Although – who knows? – maybe it’s like Jean Liedloff describes with parents making predictions doubling as expectations – “you’re going to fall”, “don’t touch that, you’ll break it” etc. – which the child then dutifully fulfills.) The exhilaration of the climb left me pumped up to face the music.

The woman did most of the talking. She asked what ‘the heck’ I thought I was doing and repeated her judgement of how dangerous it was. I said something unconvincing about how there was a nice view up there and explained that I had climbed trees before and felt reasonably assured in my abilities, flexing & examining wrist and fingers for effect. She pointed out that there was a purpose-built viewpoint about 20m away before telling me about her son who was a tree surgeon and had gone through all the necessary training with ropes, safety harnesses etc, and thus was ‘professionally qualified’ (possibly not her exact words, but that was the gist). This was meant, she explained, to show that she had some personal knowledge about the risks & dangers – or at least, I interpreted, some experience of watching another person take them on, presumably attempting to minimise them as much as possible.

I expressed mild interest, before asking them what they were doing. The man chipped in, saying that they were examining the trees in the public area for dead wood and other possible hazards. Without my asking he added that they weren’t all about felling but, in his curious way of putting it, they were ‘looking after the health and safety of the people, but also of the trees’. Um, okay. I don’t know if this was meant to imply that I was damaging the oak by climbing it. He went on to point out that this was ‘National Trust property’, though he didn’t say that treeclimbing was illegal thereon – in fact the woman later suggested I go climb one of the smaller trees further down the trail – and said that he didn’t want to be the one responsible for cleaning up the ‘jam’ if I were to fall (I didn’t ask if that was part of his job description as tree surveyor). In fact he assured me that I would have fallen if he hadn’t been there to warn me about a dry branch he thought I was about to put my full weight on with my left foot (actually I was testing it out while fully braced with both arms, and about to reject it myself anyway, but what could I say?) He said this tree looked especially dangerous to him because of the amount of deadwood he could see in it. I tried to explain that yes, I had seen it there too while I was climbing up and trusted myself to know when and what to rely on, but that didn’t impress him visibly.

From here the conversation / lecture shifted on to ‘always have someone with you on the ground in case something goes wrong’. I neglected to mention H waiting by the coffeeshop, not feeling like arguing the point or roping her in. Anyway it was winding down by now, and the three of us were walking back in the direction of the carpark. The man talked about how some of these trees were up to a hundred years old. ‘Yeah, they’re beautiful,’ I replied, hoping to build some common ground and show that I had some respect. I can’t remember what he said next, but I got a smile and some recognition out of him when I responded with ‘I think they want to be climbed’.

I think I handled the exchange fairly well, compared to some similar ones in the past. Standing firm, looking them in the eyes, trying to empathise and understand their point of view, but taking care not to apologise gratuitously or fall over myself in trying to agree with their assertions. I could have put across my side of the story more strongly or challenged the woman when she basically suggested that only trained professionals should be allowed to climb trees. Also I could have asked why it had anything to do with them, what I chose to do with my body, but I don’t imagine that would’ve gone down well… I missed an opportunity to get properly into NVC by reflecting the woman’s pronouncement – “it’s not safe” – back to her as an emotion, for example: “it sounds like you feel scared of the possible consequences when you see other people doing things you consider to be dangerous”, though I’d find it hard to know where to go from there, other than to say “sucks to be you”(!)

Weird, this safety culture. Most often the concern doesn’t seem genuine to me. These people didn’t even know me, after all. It feels to me more like an attempt to shut down expressions of freedom and/or self-direction beyond the drastic limits imposed by ‘normal’, that is to say accepted standards of behaviour. I guess they’re only treating others the way they’ve learned to treat themselves. But then what do I know, right?


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5 Responses to “Risking Life on a Limb”

  1. ondisturbedground Says:

    ‘…like Jean Liedloff describes’ – A key insight from the ‘Growing Up’ chapter in her indispensable book, The Continuum Concept: ‘One of the deepest impulses in the very social human animal is to do what he perceives is expected of him.‘ (p.87, her emph.) Compare:

    When he goes about on hands and knees, a baby can travel at a fair speed. Among the Yequana, I watched uneasily as one creeper rushed up and stopped at the edge of a pit five feet deep that had been dug for mud to make walls. In his progress about the compound, he did this several times a day. With the inattentiveness of an animal grazing at the edge of a cliff, he would tumble to a sitting position, as often as not facing away from the pit. Occupied with a stick or stone or his fingers or toes, he played and rolled about in every direction, seemingly heedless of the pit, until one realized he landed everywhere but in the danger zone. The non-intellect-directed mechanisms of self-preservation worked unfailingly, and, being so precise in their calculations, functioned equally well at any distance from the pit, starting from the very edge. Unattended or, more often, at the periphery of attention of a group of children playing with the same lack of respect for the pit, he took charge of his own relationships to all the surrounding possibilities. The only suggestion from the members of his family and society was that they expected him to be able to look after himself. Though he still could not walk, he knew where comfort could be found if he wanted it – but he seldom did. If his mother went to the river or the distant garden, she often took him along, lifting him to her by his forearm and counting on his help to balance himself on her hip or hold on to the sling if she wore one to support his weight. Wherever she went, if she put him down in a safe place, she expected him to remain safe without supervision.

    A baby has no suicidal inclinations and a full set of survival mechanisms, from the senses, on the grossest level, to what looks like very serviceable everyday telepathy on the less accountable levels. He behaves like any little animal that cannot call upon experience to serve its judgement; he does the safe thing, unaware of making a choice. He is naturally protective of his own well-being, expected to be so by his people and enabled to be so by his inborn abilities plus his stage of development and experience. (pp.89-90)

    & Contrast:

    Applying the principle [of ‘giving the child an example, or lead, to follow’] in the easiest situation, a civilized mother would go about her domestic work with a little girl taking whatever interest she takes but allowed to sweep with a small broom when she is inspired to do so or dust or vacuum (if she can manage the model of cleaner in her home) or help wash dishes standing on a chair. The breakage will be inconsiderable and the little girl will not fall off the chair, unless her mother is so clear in her expectation of disaster that child’s social impulse (to do what she understands is expected of her) drives her to comply. An anxious look, a word of what is in the mother’s mind (‘Don’t drop that!’) or a promise (‘Mind! You’ll fall!’), although working in opposition to the child’s self-preservation and imitative tendencies, can, if one persists, eventually cause her to obey, drop the plate, and/or fall off the chair. (p.93)

    I think my main heresy in the above was the one I italicised: I trusted myself – my muscles, ligaments, eyesight, tactile sense and coordination of the whole, learning & building from my own experiences and acting according to my own evaluations. The culture needs us to depend on it so it infantilises us; tries to paralyse our ability to act from our own impetus. If we discover self-reliance, self-direction, self-control we grow up and put this permanent childminder out of a job.

  2. Alette Thorsnes Says:

    I am still laughing.Well I talk to trees ,hope I can keep on doing it without being lectured (or taken away some where).Trees do want to be climbed.

  3. ondisturbedground Says:

    Thanks Alette – glad to tickle your funny bone 🙂

    I wonder how that lecture would go? Something like: “It’s irresponsible for you to talk to the trees – you might give them all sorts of dangerous ideas which a trained tree-talker would know to avoid. Besides it’s cruel & unfair to give them the hope of a friendly human/tree relationship when we’re planning to cut them down next week for biomass and office paper…” (!)

    best wishes

  4. christine Says:

    A little late to the party here, but enjoying your archives.

    I was called by my eldest son’s school one day, and told he was in deep doo-doo because he had climbed a tree in the school yard. To which I replied something along the lines of well of course he climbed it, he’s 7. sigh. Wrong thing to say. Didn’t help that he refused to come down, either. Poor kid, I didn’t do him any favours in raising him to 1) climb trees 2) question authority…


    • Ian M Says:

      Hi Christine, glad you’re liking them!

      I lol’ed at your story. Amazing the tiny things that cause some peoples’ minds to seize up…

      “::DOES NOT COMPUTE::”


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