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?