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“Up a Tree”

January 2, 2007

At Disney World, the Swiss Family Robinson tree house is correctly located in Adventureland. Climbing a tree is a fascinating adventure.

Our son climbed into the sprawling braches of a magnolia. He failed to notice the hornets’ nest attached to the same limb from which he was swinging. He left the tree in a hurry with eleven stings.

One summer, my three brothers and I built a tree house in the woods behind our home. We used scraps of lumber left over from building the pony barn. The tree house was a triangular platform anchored between three poplar trees twenty feet above the ground.

The structure could accommodate three of us if each of us sat with our back against one of the poplars. Four was a crowd, and the one without the backrest was in peril. Brother Bill demonstrated the danger when he tumbled from the platform, landing flat on his back. He survived the fall unscathed because he landed in a hefty pile of pony manure.

We were reminiscing about the tree house when our dad reminded us of a craze that made the rounds when he was a boy. At the end of the Roaring Twenties and the beginning of the Great Depression, there was an outbreak of fatigue contests. Tree sitting competitions were a fad.

Across the country, people attempted to break the record of 156 hours up a tree set by Jack Richards of Kansas City. A chap in Fort Worth fell asleep after several days in a Texas oak. He broke two ribs when he came out of his tree.

Frank Kellner of Waco, Texas, stayed in a cottonwood for more than nine days. After 231 hours, at 4:00 A.M. Frank went to sleep. When he fell from the tree, he had broken the record. He also broke his arm.

Closer to home, our dad recounted the tale of his oldest brother, Tom, persuading a younger brother, Asbury, to stay on a tree platform for several days. Tom slept in a comfortable bed at night leaving Asbury high in the branches of a sweet gum.

As the story goes, my grandmother designed a way to bring an end to the tree sitting. My grandfather sat in a rocker on the front porch and passed out Snickers bars to the children who came to get them. Asbury was not to be denied. He came down from the tree to get his candy bar against the vigorous protest of his big brother.

Tree sitting caught on as a fad, especially around the mill villages near our town. The most dramatic episode occurred at the center of town. A big oak tree towered above The Deluxe Diner. The owner of the diner built an eight-foot square enclosed room in the tree. Electricity and telephone lines were installed. Many of the comforts of home were provided.

The enterprising man took his wife up a ladder and settled her in the tree house. He removed the ladder so she could not come down. The lady seemed contented until a thunderstorm rumbled through in the middle of the night knocking out the electricity and the telephone. The woman screamed for help. The fire department came to the rescue. The woman was removed from her lofty abode by a hook and ladder truck much to the dismay of her husband.

In recent years, tree sitting has become a form of civil disobedience. A protester sits in a tree to protect it from being cut down. Supporters provide the tree sitters with food and necessary supplies.

On May 20, 1985, Mikal Jakubal ascended a Douglas fir in the Willamette National Forest. His protest against clear-cutting the giant trees lasted about a month.

Julia Butterfly Hill, an activist in Humboldt County, California, spent 738 days in a 180-foot, 600-year-old Coast Redwood tree. Hill climbed the tree on December 10, 1997, to protest logging. She thought that she might stay a month, but she didn’t come down until two years later, lowering herself from her perch 18 stories high in the branches of the redwood she called Luna.

In the 6-foot by 8-foot tree house, Hill spent her days reading, writing poetry, and cooking vegetarian food. She kept fit by climbing the tree’s massive, spreading branches.

Treetops Hotel in Aberdare National Park in Kenya, offers guests a close view of African wildlife. Major Eric Walker built the original two-room tree house in a massive 300-year old fig tree.

In 1952, Princess Elizabeth, and her husband, Prince Philip, visited Kenya. They stayed in the Treetops Hotel as personal guests of the Major Walker. While lodging in the tree house, Princess Elizabeth first learned of the death of her father, King George VI.

The legendary hunter Jim Corbett, a resident of Treetops at the time, wrote in the visitors’ logbook: “For the first time in the history of the world, a young girl climbed into a tree one day a Princess. She climbed down from the tree next day a Queen.”

Climbing a tree is a fascinating adventure. How we make our descent can determine how we remember the experience. Hornet stings, fractured bones, landing in a pile of pony manure, or being rescued by a fire truck are just not the same as coming down from a tree as the Queen of England.

-Kirk H. Neely

© H-J Weekly, January 2007


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