In this installment of a somewhat regular feature, NYSUFC Board Member, author, blogger and Taking Root editor Jean Zimmerman takes a look at how female arborists are changing the tree business, from the ground up.

Photos courtesy of Women’s Tree Climbing Workshop; American Forests; ISA Western Chapter Women in Arboriculture Climbing Workshop; Speak for the Trees, Boston

I’ve been doing some thinking about women in the tree industry, looked at 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. Fifty thousand people attended the first-ever National Arbor Day tree planting. Not one woman graced the dais, though schoolgirls did train their watering cans on the memorial saplings going into the ground. The business of caring for trees is still overwhelmingly male. Statistics vary, but the best guess I’ve heard is that just between seven and twelve percent of arborists are female.

Eight 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 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 ask you, is this article 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.

I spoke with Bear LeVangie, founder of the Women’s Tree Climbing Workshop, whose participants get to climb on beautiful old live oaks in Texas. LeVangie told me the percentage of women who climb in the course of their work is probably just three percent of the arborist field. She 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. Once above ten or fifteen feet, your whole perspective on day-to-day life changes. It’s a biosphere you can’t get from the ground.”

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 twenty-five pound chain saw. They’d be old men by the age of forty five.

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 four out of seven 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.”

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. Talking to climbers, I asked myself, What about women’s role in the tree industry in a larger sense? Should we be nurturers, protectors? What are the challenges? And why is it important to teach women climbing skills?

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 Hite, president 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.”

At American Forests, Senior Director of Urban Forestry Maisie Hughes told me about getting underrepresented people into tree work.  She told me how lucky she feels to be 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. It’s clearly a case of more talent, better results.

What is most important, for climbers and for everyone else, is what happens next. When you look at the faces of Tana Byrd, Kate Odell and Melissa LeVangie Ingersoll up in the canopy hammock, their smiles 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 an 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.