Professional tree climber Tim Kovar finds joy in teaching people to conquer their fears and take in the view
The Nepalese poet Santosh Kalwar once wrote that “all our wisdom is stored in the trees.” If it takes climbing to the top of a sequoia to be wise, many of us would swiftly accept a life of oblivion instead. Isn’t it peculiar how humans tend not to think of gravity until we’re farther off the ground than we feel we should be? It’s always there, anchoring us to the earth, but just as we breathe without a second thought until we’re forced to hold our breaths, our safety on the ground is forgotten until it is called into question. That is because gravity, while our strongest anchor, could also be our greatest downfall—pun intended?—when challenged. Some people choose to do exactly that, including professional tree climber Tim Kovar.
Feet on the Ground, Head in the Sky
Kovar spent his childhood in a state about as flat as it gets. With no mountains, bluffs, or even substantial hills in Fremont, Nebraska, a child who wanted a view of the world only had one option: trees. At 5 years old, Kovar clambered his way up into his neighbor’s apple tree, where he inevitably got stuck and needed rescuing. Climbing came easy to the adventurous boy, whether it was a giant cottonwood or the neighbor’s roof—“not that I ever did that,” Kovar quickly noted. Even as a teenager, while others were in the stands of a football game, he could usually be found sitting in the crown of the nearest oak. Kovar joked that his affinity for being in the trees was regarded by others as uncool or strange at 15 (it’s cute for a 5-year-old to climb trees, but decidedly less so for a nearly-grown man). But the reward meant the ribbing didn’t much matter. He wasn’t just up there to commune with the birds and other wildlife, although he did make a few attempts at some semblance of communication; that slight elevation change always brought Kovar his greatest solace and strongest clarity.
And yet people don’t just say they want to climb trees for a living. Kovar was no exception. The coarse touch of bark, the sound of wind through the branches, the thrill of hoisting himself up inch by inch, had become a distant memory for Kovar after entering the adult world. He was in the daily grind, working as a restaurant cook in Atlanta during the early ’90s—when he met Peter “Treeman” Jenkins at his martial arts dojo. Jenkins is also the founder of Tree Climbers International. Kovar quickly discovered that he didn’t want to spend his life toiling away at a boring job; it wasn’t long before Kovar left his knives and spatula behind to work for Jenkins as a tree caretaker. But even though he had escaped the confinement of working within four walls, something still felt missing as he lugged forest brush to and fro.
“I would look up in the tree and I would see Peter moving around, jumping around like a squirrel up there, and I would think, ‘I want to be up there. I don’t wanna be down here, dragging brush like a bottom feeder.’”
Changes in Altitudes, Changes in Attitudes
Was Kovar looking for his calling or just chasing a childhood dream? Perhaps both. In 1992, he attended the world’s first-ever technical tree climbing school in Atlanta, opened by Jenkins. Alongside 6-year-olds and 75-year-olds, he learned the ins and outs of how to climb a tree the official way—with saddles, ropes, and helmets. He was finding out far more about the bonds that tie people together than he was about how to knot a rope or rig a saddle.
“I wanted to get people turned on to nature by getting them into the treetops. I saw this bonding going on between people that came from so many different demographics—that would never interact with each other outside of this. But here they are in the tree, and now these people are talking to each other. You may have this very conservative couple here with this hippie chick; … all the political, philosophical, and religious debates and discussions just kind of fade away. People are just people in the treetops. That became the guiding force for me,” Kovar said.
Just what is the magic happening between the branches that reduces us from voices full of opinions and arguments to two creatures sitting side by side, no different from a pair of robins or squirrels enjoying each other’s company? Kovar doesn’t know for sure, but he does know that it is something deeply woven into our DNA—an organic, unrefined phenomenon linking us to the forests, which give us lumber for shelter, food to eat, and trees to hoist us higher when we need solace. “Trees are interwoven into all mythology, all religions and spirituality,” Kovar explained. “I think we are just drawn to them naturally. For most of us, when we get back up into a treetop, we connect with our inner child. We reconnect back to what we did as children, and as children, we’re not prejudiced, we don’t take on the meaning of life yet. The guards are down, things are more open, and there’s more connections happening. It seeps into other climbers and there’s this type of consciousness happening up in the trees. That’s what I believe. I’m not a scientist and I’m not up there taking brain-graphs, but I’ve seen it for the past 30 years. Trees change people.”
The Best View Around
How does an almost-forgotten childhood pastime become a money-making career? Most professional tree climbers are actually arborists or work in tree maintenance, pruning, studying, and caretaking. In 2010, Kovar opened his own tree-climbing school, Tree Climbing Planet, to teach people all over the world how to get grounded by getting off the ground. While the same intentions are there, it’s a bit different from a child scaling a tree in his backyard; Kovar and his students climb the earth’s Goliaths of trees—from the redwoods in California to the kapoks in the Amazon—and end up hundreds of feet in the air. It seems most logical that no one with a fear of heights should take up tree climbing, but he jovially lamented that he, too, is terrified of being up in the air. In his three decades of professional tree climbing, he’s come to find that it’s the equipment that brings him security, admitting that he is “more comfortable 300 feet up on a rope in a tree than 10 feet up on a ladder.” While the special saddle seat and rope rigging meant for tree climbing are secure, Kovar explains that the biggest risk is when students get halfway off the ground and realize just what and where they’ve gotten themselves into. When that happens, Kovar has to either coax the student up farther into the tree and out of his or her daze, or coach him or her back down to the ground, where the threat of gravity is slightly less imminent.
People love being high up—until they see how hard they would fall. Interestingly enough, one of Kovar’s best teachers in tree climbing was a 10-year-old blind girl, a climber who, deprived of one of the senses we deem most essential, learned to navigate a tree just by the sounds of branches moving and the texture of bark.
“It was magic, it was beautiful, to hear her explain her experience. I was looking at her and thinking, ‘She sees but she doesn’t look. We look but we don’t see. Who’s really blind here?’ So I started doing blindfolded climbs after that to open up the other senses and get a deeper connection with these trees that I claim to love.”
What happens when the climbers reach the top? There’s always a view worth admiring. They can even spend the night up in the canopy, in a specially-built vessel meant for safely sleeping in trees. The experience, Kovar said, can’t be compared to any other, describing “the birdsong, everywhere. Above you, below you, surrounding you. It is a vortex of morning bird symphony.” In the Amazon, waking up in a tree boat means watching macaws and parrots soar through the air—below you. When you’re on the ground looking up at a bird, Kovar explained, all you can see is a dark silhouette. But from the unique juxtaposition of a flightless creature being above a winged one, you can see how the sun rays hit the birds’ feathers. The tropical birds “shoot by like flying rainbows,” all while dawn is bringing the canopy around you to life.
Changing Lives, One Climb at a Time
Kovar has reached for the treetops all over the world: Malaysia, India, Central America. He’s climbed with ropes, saddles, and protective hardware alongside Brazilian natives who scale huge trees with nothing but a scrap of cloth wrapped around their ankles to prevent chafing. He has come into contact with massive beehives, howler monkeys, and hazardous dead branches. He is often asked what his favorite type of tree to climb is, and while it would be easy to give a towering, exotic species as an answer, what he usually says is unexpected: the little, 75-foot white oak tree in his own backyard in Seattle. The familiarity of oak is like running into open, loving arms, welcoming him back home. “My philosophy is, I think of climbing trees as more of a place to be versus a thing to do. I’ll go up just 30 feet, put in a hammock, and just chill the rest of the day. It’s not about getting to the top of the tree for me anymore.”
After scaling a redwood—beautiful, ancient beings, he said—his students return to the ground with a sense of fullness, the tendency to walk a bit softer, to be a bit more mindful of the world spinning around them. Being in the trees helps us “keep our awareness a little more open and expansive,” Kovar said, “especially for people that have an office job and are kind of stuck inside all the time.”
And perhaps a question that will never be answered: which experience is most worth it, the view or the climb? Kovar will never forget the views, whether it’s the view of his backyard that he’s seen thousands of times or watching the sunset melt over the Amazon canopy: “Getting the last little rays of sunlight—the ground is already pitch-black, but here you are, bathing in that last little bit of day.”
This article was originally published in American Essence magazine.