TUSCALOOSA | Birds have it made.
If nothing else, that’s what hoisting yourself into the upper reaches of a 100-foot oak tree will show you.
The University of Alabama Arboretum, as part of its 50th anniversary celebration, gave that opportunity to kids of all ages on Saturday.
With the help of Abe Winters, the self-described “edge-ucator” and instructor for Tree Climbing USA, dozens of Tuscaloosa area residents hauled themselves up to where the birds call home.
Each of them, as they reached the peak of their climb, looked around at the view rarely afforded the ground-dwellers.
And they smiled.
“It’s absolute joy,” said Winters, a former U.S. Special Forces staff sergeant who founded the Fayetteville, Ga., company in 1996, of seeing the looks on faces of first-time climbers. “It is great pleasure for me to watch people climb.”
Most of us have grabbed a branch and scurried into a tree at some point in our youth. Some have even fallen out.
But Winters, together with his business partner, John Routon, took the dangers associated with free climbing out of the arboretum’s experience.
Using a network of ropes and a sturdy harness, Winters and Routon instructed the novice tree climbers how to pull themselves straight off the ground and into the branches of the tree.
“It’s really important for people to have direct, unmediated contact with nature,” said Fred Whiting, 47, of Tuscaloosa. “It’s addictive.”
Whiting followed his daughter, 7-year-old Louise, into the tree as his wife, Deborah Weiss, watched from the ground.
“It sort of was like sitting on a really high swing and climbing a rope all at the same time,” said the rising third-grader at Arcadia Elementary.
It didn’t take long, though, for Weiss to don a harness of her own and begin inching her way into the branches.
Jack Hubner, 11, was the first one into the tree on Saturday, and he took to it with the zeal and energy young boys have the luxury of possessing.
“It was cool,” said Jack, who’s starting sixth grade at Tuscaloosa County Middle School this fall. “I could see all the tops of the leaves on the lower trees and everyone looked like midgets.
“Once you get to the top and you’re really high off the ground, it makes you feel really good.”
Jack’s dad, Paul Hubner, also didn’t sit back and watch his son have all the fun.
Hubner, 40, said he’d climbed many trees during his youth but preferred the rope-and-harness method as an adult.
“I’m not going to climb that tree barehanded,” Hubner said, “but I would have at [age] 11.
“And it’s a little scary when you get up there, but there’s a nice breeze … and you don’t realize the life that’s sitting in that tree.”
Winters said that’s part of the reason he enjoys helping people gain a new perspective on tree climbing. And while he hopes the adults enjoy themselves, it’s the youth that he hopes can use their newly found vantage point as an inspiration for the future pursuit of protecting forests, the environment or tree climbing itself.
Indeed, Saturday’s tree climbing excursion may have introduced one of the many children who took part to a lifelong passion for communing with nature.
But it’s Louise who summed up the experience for most.
“It,” she said, “was really, really fun.”
Reach Jason Morton at email@example.com or 205-722-0200.