Bear LeVangie speaks the truth

when she talks about climbing trees. “Once above 10 or 15 feet,” she told me, “your whole perspective on day-to-day life changes. It’s a biosphere you can’t get from the ground.” As founder of the Women’s Tree Climbing Workshop, Bear knows what she is talking about.

I gave a presentation today at the Partners in Community Forestry conference, sponsored by the Arbor Day Foundation, as part of a lightning round focusing on “inclusion”. By which is meant relative newcomers to the tree industry.

The crackling electricity in the jam-packed room was indicative of two facts – that women are indisputably a part of this field now, and that they bring an outsize passion to their work. As a fellow presenter pointed out, a simple signifier of progress vis a vis trees and gender was the of the line of women waiting in line for the conference restroom.

I dealt with the immense subject of women in the tree industry by looking at it through the microcosm of female climbers. Climbing is at the core of what we do. Not everyone starts up in the trees, but many entry-level jobs still take you there. The path forward—through the green ceiling—features what once was seen as an insurmountable barrier. Actually getting up there in the crown of a tree. Climbing is the purest form of tree work. But let’s look back.

In 1882, the American Forestry Congress held its inaugural convention in Cincinnati. Twenty-five thousand people attended the first-ever National Arbor Day tree planting. Not one woman graced the dais, though a bevy of schoolgirls did train their watering cans on the memorial saplings going into the ground. Okay, fine. The business of caring for trees is still overwhelmingly male. Statistics vary, but the best guess I’ve heard is that only 12 percent of arborists are female.

Seven years ago, I took a detour from my career as an author and established myself as an arborist. I started at a consulting company in New York City, making sure construction companies didn’t kill trees.

The imaginary people who had kept me company at my computer were replaced by real people in real time. My fellow consultant Roland, seen here, had seven kids and a killer smile, and schooled me on how to make a flavorful porgie soup. Tree work, I found, is really about the people who do it.

Earlier in my career I wrote a book about girls, sports, and self-esteem, about what a game changer physical activity was. It came out of my experience.

I had an athletic daughter of my own, and climbing was her daily vitamin. Maud  scaled trees, fences, mountains. I asked my audience, is this bit too personal? I think what we do is personal. Caring for trees is personal. Saving the earth is personal! Now I began to meet and talk with the women who climbed both because they loved it and because it was part of their job.

When I spoke with Bear, (and pictured here are participants in the Women’s Tree Climbing Workshop on a beautiful live oak in Texas), she told me the percentage of women who climb in the course of their work is probably just three percent of the arborist field. Bear said, “climbing makes me feel my inner child spirit. It brings absolute joy that you’re in a living and moving creature that’s speaking to you.

Before the bucket truck, jobs required not only pole saws and extension ladders but a strenuous amount of climbing.

The tree world was rough and tumble. Back in the day, I heard, a crew might settle on their perches far overhead during breaks, downing beers and smoking weed. Consultant Franc Reidy shared her experience. “I loved working with the boys,” she told me. “Those brutal, horrible days, and those really good days.” Climbers scaled the branches with a taut line hitch and a 25-pound chain saw. They’d be old men by the age of 45.

Climbing since that time has professionalized. High-tech equipment  means that people of different frames, weights and statures can participate. I spoke with Rhonda Wood, who won the ISA’s Western Chapter climbing competition 4 out of 7 years, beginning in 2007. What she told me really resonated. In her words, “I love the challenge of it, the thrill of it. But also I just love connecting with trees and the art of pruning. It’s an art and a science.” Yes.

The origin of the term “tree hugger” goes back fifty years, when women in the Himalayan hills of northern India fought to have sacred trees in the vicinity preserved, throwing their arms around the trunks to do so. The Chipko movement had success, with a tree-felling moratorium. True heroism.

Talking to climbers, I asked myself, what protectors? What are the challenges? And why is it important to teach women climbing skills?

How cool is this gang of three?

I spoke with Dana Karcher, president of ISA. “We are just now coming to the table in a big way,” she told me. “When we enter into this new workplace, sometimes we make people uncomfortable. And so everybody kind of has to get over it.” Jenny Gulick, a forestry consultant, told me, “It’s not a ya-hoo cowboy thing anymore. Women bring civility to the profession. Female arborists know the science, and pay attention to safety. Mixed-gender crews all work together as a team.”

Most people I spoke with dismissed the idea of any difference between “tree guys” and the women who work alongside them. Fran Reidy told me, “Just because you’re a woman doesn’t make you immune to bad behavior. We’re not all angels flying on our little wings blessing this industry with our goodness and kindness. There is no sisterhood of the traveling chainsaw.” I was told that men are also nurturers, and that many men have saved their share of the squirrels’ and birds’ nests they come across up above our heads.

In the end, LeVangie told me, “it’s a triumph personally when I go to a job site and they don’t think twice that it’s a lady in the tree. We’re all trained in the same way. The tree doesn’t care if you have ovaries or testes.” Rita Hill, head of the American Forest Foundation, has said very aptly that only an inclusive approach will correct what she called “an imbalance of representation” which would cause us to, quote, “miss an opportunity to broaden forest impact and climate benefits.” Hear, hear.

You can see how these kids feel about climbing.

At American Forests, Director of Urban Forestry Maisie Hughes told me about getting underrepresented people into tree work.  She told me how lucky she feels to be, quote, in “the field where we’re growing the solutions to some of the most pressing issues of our time, with a product that is probably the most beautiful thing on the planet.” Teaching women to climb not only elevates the field, but guarantees more success with these larger issues. Clearly a case of more talent, better results.

What is most important, for climbers and for everyone else, is what happens next. Here are Tana Byrd, Kate Odell and Melissa LeVangie Ingersoll up in the canopy hammock. Their smiles, I think, reflect the fact that the future looks bright. Sharon Blackstock, a sales arborist, told me, “We need to focus on doing the right thing for future generations and for the earth.” Watch women as they learn to climb and you will see empowerment in action. I was struck by a great expression I heard: “climbers with wombs.”  Along with girls holding watering cans, let’s have more girls in trees.  We need them. We owe it to ourselves. Women teaching women how to climb is fundamental. It’s passing along the skills, but also confidence. Bravery. Strength. Fire.

My forthcoming book Heartwood: The Epic Tale of America’s Forests and the Battle Over Their Fate will focus in part on current issues in arboriculture, including the incredible women entering the profession as climbers. One person in the audience came up to me afterward and suggested that Sisterhood of the Traveling Chainsaw would make a pretty nice tee shirt slogan.

I would agree.

[With thanks for photos to Women’s Tree Climbing Workshop; American Forests; ISA Western Chapter Women’s Arboriculture Climbing Workshop; Speak for the Trees, Boston.]


Filed under Jean Zimmerman

6 responses to “Bear LeVangie speaks the truth

  1. Donna Jackson

    I am excited to learn (and my athletic daughter will be also…) that there is a Women’s Tree Climbing Workshop! Thank you for this article. I learned about it from an email in connection with an upcoming tree event in Westchester. I look forward to meeting you!

  2. Lisa R Wheeler

    Beautifully written. Makes me want to climb some trees!

  3. Thank you for Rita Hite correction!

  4. Anonymous

    Great article. It’s Rita Hite, not Rita Hill of the American Forest Foundation

  5. rickewheeler

    A great piece of writing. Can’t wait to read your book.

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