Don’t Look Down

by | Aug 24, 2022 | Center News, People

PHOTOS Leslie Uppinghouse

While walking a trail on any given Wednesday at the Wildflower Center, you may happen upon a set of ropes, carabiners, saws and a host of other tree-trimming gear underneath an age-old post oak (Quercus stellata). If you look up about 40 feet in the air, you may see one of the Center’s skilled women arborists swaying from branch to branch, pruning trees or cutting down dying limbs.

“As soon as I learned you could climb trees for a living, I was trying to figure out how to do that,” says Rachel Brewster, Wildflower Center arborist.

Currently, she’s among a small but growing number of women tree climbers across the United States. According to the Women’s Tree Climbing Workshop (WTCW), a national organization seeking to increase gender equity in the arboreal world, only 6% to 10% of arborists in the U.S. are women, but Brewster is working to encourage more women to get excited about the industry.

“People think you need a lot of upper body strength, but it’s more about technique and having the right gear,” she says. Brewster volunteered at the WTCW’s three-day training event this past April in Wimberley, Texas. Twenty-two other women attended, including Amy Galloway and Leslie Uppinghouse, two of the Center’s horticulturists, both of whom recently completed their International Society of Arboriculture certifications. Participants scaled escarpment live oaks (Quercus fusiformis), talked ergonomics and tested out new gear. They also traded stories and shared tips about how to thrive in a male-dominated profession.

“It was an amazing bonding experience,” Uppinghouse says. “Women were not only realizing and learning there are better ways to stay safe but we also created a stronger community of women who can reach out to one another at any time for advice — and because of that, I feel more confident in the field.” Amid bald cypress trees (Taxodium distichum) bordering the Blanco River, strangers became friends.

“The workshop exceeded my expectations tenfold,” Galloway says. “I learned so much more than I could have imagined, and I built meaningful relationships with the instructors and other women in the tree-climbing industry.”

Prior to attending the WTCW campout, Uppinghouse was using ladders to reach high branches, which can be cumbersome and dangerous. Having skilled and experienced climbers on staff at the Center means dead limbs can be removed right away, creating a safer environment for visitors (by decreasing the risk of falling branches) and trees (by increasing their life expectancy through care and early intervention). Learning new tree-climbing skills has given Uppinghouse both confidence and a renewed sense of childhood wonder.

“I hadn’t climbed a tree in my adult life,” Uppinghouse explains. “I was afraid I wouldn’t be good at it and feel demoralized, but there was someone with me minute-by-minute, making sure I was comfortable and having a good time. I got back into that same headspace I was in as a kid climbing cherry trees in Lake Oswego, Oregon. It was the greatest thing ever!” – E.S. & C.M.