Lessons From The Canopy

In support of time spent climbing trees

Feature type Story

Read time 5 mins

Published Jan 13, 2022

Waldo Etherington
Waldo Etherington Professional tree climber, expert tree rigger and rope safety specialist, Waldo has over 15 years of experience in remote-location rigging and has trained extensively around the globe in wide-ranging rope-based disciplines.

The forest canopy has often been referred to as the most significant biological frontier known to mankind. The vast majority of Earth’s forest canopy remains entirely unexplored and those that do venture up into the tops of the trees, discover more new species to science than in any other place on the planet. It’s an extremely biodiverse environment and an exciting realm for scientific exploration, not least because it often involves climbing trees!

The challenges of tree climbing are many, but this is something that I’ve come to cherish and love over the years. It’s not an easy thing to get up into the top of a giant tree, and once you’re there, moving laterally through the branches presents its own unique set of challenges; not to mention all the bees, wasps, ants, scorpions, spiders, rotten branches, snakes and spikey plants that you might have to negotiate with while you’re up there.

Tree climbing is an entirely unique discipline, almost incomparable to rock climbing because of the medium you’re in. Unlike anything else, trees are nature’s largest free-standing natural structures, and they are alive. Branches bend and snap, the wind can move the canopy several metres in each direction, the climbing is three dimensional and requires some innovative rope work as well as equipment. But above all, a tree climber needs to be well versed in the body language of trees to be able to understand them and to climb them safely. 

There’s a certain freestyle element to tree climbing that encourages improvisation and rope wizardry that even technical mountain rescue cannot teach you

Having worked and gained qualifications in many different rope-based disciplines, I firmly believe that climbing trees has taught me the most. There’s a certain freestyle element to tree climbing that encourages improvisation and rope wizardry that even technical mountain rescue cannot teach you. 

There are places in the upper most branches of tropical forests that are so rich in life and plant biodiversity it looks as though you could unclip from the ropes, take your harness off and walk around. And in some instances, you probably could! 

These tangled gardens of life, high above the forest floor, are places that very few humans have ever seen. A lot of people have no idea just how much life there is up there.

It’s easy to think of a forest as a collection of trees, but the reality is, the trees work as a kind of structural base for the forest to grow on. Trees, especially old trees, are an incredible carbon sink; but it’s the aerial soil deposits, plant life and decomposition that make them so significant. Remarkably, most biomass in tropical forest is not the trees themselves but the plants and animals that live on them.

I once found a 30m tall hardwood species of tree growing from a branch of another hardwood 30m up in the canopy. The branch it had rooted into must have held in excess of two tons of soil. We even found earthworms in that soil, a species you’d expect only to find on the forest floor. 

As a kid I was obsessed with tree climbing. In a neighbour’s garden I built tree nets, zip lines, rope walks and swings spanning gaps over 15 metres high between the tops of sycamores, birches and eucalyptus trees. From the age of 5 to about 16, I would spend as much time as school would permit climbing and monkeying about in these trees. 

I always imagined myself as an explorer, furthering scientific endeavour in remote corners of the earth; but I never imagined the variety of expeditions, wonder and intrigue that tree climbing would inspire during my lifetime. There are many lifetimes of research to be done in the field of canopy science, ecology and tree biology and the more we find out about the life of trees and the ecosystems they support, the more their spiritual significance within cultures around the world becomes clear.

There are few biological hotspots left on this planet and we are rapidly destroying them. Ancient forest holds such significance to science and to our survival, that we should be protecting them ALL unconditionally with full international support. 

The conclusion I have come to is that all ancient forests left on Earth should be designated as World Heritage sites. In fact, it boggles my mind to think that they are not already protected. 

Canopy science is an incredibly important aspect of conservation, predominantly because it can illustrate just how much life we have in forests. It’s our best chance of showing the governments and policy makers, that forests are so much more than the sum of their trees. We need to leave these wild and beautiful places to do what they do naturally, to give our forests the space and respect they deserve to continue to be wild.

Humans need wilderness in more ways than might be obvious, especially to the vast majority of the richest and most privileged portion of the world’s population, who’s survival it seems is so far removed from our intrinsic connection to nature.

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