Ten Years Strong: Women’s Tree Climbing Workshop

women tree care workers
Rebecca Seibel-Hunt, CTSP, in black, climbing arborist with Johnson Ops Tree Care, a 13-year TCIA member company based in Holmen, Wisconsin, leads a session during the 2018 Women’s Tree Climbing Workshop in Petersham, Massachusetts. Photo courtesy of Tracy Buchholz.

When someone tells you, “You changed my life,” the goosebumps that swirl up from your toes to the top of your head cement how fragile we all really are.

Ask someone, “Can you tell me something memorable you did 10 years ago?” and most people can’t even remember one thing they did last month. Ten years ago, we started something special, the Women’s Tree Climbing Workshop (WTCW), with a mission to create a safe, encouraging and empowering learning environment for women, taught by women, with an emphasis on arboriculture. At the time, the idea seemed so simple. Most green industry business owners were ignoring women as a powerful demographic when searching out new employees.

Arborists all over the world understand the importance of trees and all their amazing parts. Leaves for oxygen, shade, temperature control, fertilizer and curb appeal – and that’s just one tree part for which the passion for plant parts shines; I could go on, but botany is not the focus of this article. Many arborists share a passion for trees and devote their lives to these life-giving creatures. Yet our industry workforce is continually shrinking. Is it the fear of working hard? The fear of getting dirty? Maybe ticks? Or maybe it’s the perceived idea that anyone with a chain saw and a pickup truck is an “arborist.”

Recently on HGTV, they showed a climber ascending a tree with spikes and a chain saw without any PPE or other climbing equipment. There are people in our profession who don’t even subscribe to our own licenses and credentials. Respect starts within. To quote a professional colleague and friend, “If we don’t hold ourselves to a higher standard, then there is no standard.”

People outside of our industry won’t respect the art and science of tree care if we don’t respect it ourselves. At each WTCW, we share the importance of personal and professional development and the idea of embracing yourself for exactly who you are.

Many people ask, “Why a workshop for women?”

While better than in year’s past, our industry still boasts a very low percentage of women. When women enter a profession, it’s often because as children, girls have seen themselves in that role, maybe as a school teacher, dental assistant, hair stylist/ cosmetologist, psychologist, administrative assistant, human-resource professional, musician, yoga instructor, nurse, accountant or scientist. When you were a kid, did you say, “When I grow up, I want to be an arborist!” Our dream includes STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) programs including arboriculture. With an acronym like STEM, there’s no better stem than a tree!

“Isn’t a women-only workshop sexist?” No. Business owners all over the country are recognizing that a diverse workforce strengthens business dynamics, according to an Eversource Diversity & Inclusion focus group. Workplace diversity increases employee morale and causes employees to work more effectively and efficiently, according to the focus group. From what I have observed, women in commercial tree care work differently than men. Providing alternate solutions for difficult tasks, women often will share creative ideas for complicated situations. If a log is too heavy to pick up, we will cut it into smaller pieces or ask someone to help us pick it up. In the end, workplace safety increases, which increases productivity. If women work differently than men, doesn’t it make sense that women may learn differently and may benefit from training that caters to their skill sets?

A participant climbing during the Women’s Tree Climbing Workshop in Texas in 2019. Photo courtesy of the author.

Over the years, the WTCW as an organization has ebbed and flowed. Like a river, we constantly evolve. We are mostly a volunteer organization, run by women with full-time jobs. We started with a one-day event in the Arnold Arboretum in Boston, Massachusetts, not knowing if our vision would take flight. Ten years later, we have conducted workshops across the globe. This year, 2020, promises more financial opportunities for women, many of whom may not have the resources for registration fees. We offer at least one full scholarship and a half scholarship for every class. This year you can find us in Texas, Colorado, Utah, and Massachusetts.

Having coached more than 700 women on how to climb trees and having led an advanced co-ed workshop, we have shared our passion with the hope that these participants will pay it forward. We have had instructors pay it forward by branching out on their own to start similar events. We have had participants pay it forward by creating scholarships for other women in future workshops. We have had climbers pay it forward by sharing their experiences through writing newspaper and magazine articles and even books. More than 10% of our participants have pursued careers in arboriculture in companies that have expressed interest in diversifying their workforce.

Bear LeVangie demonstrates the use of a termination knot during the Women’s Tree Climbing Workshop in Petersham, Mass., in 2016. Photo courtesy of the author.

Women participate in the Women’s Tree Climbing Workshop for myriad reasons. Maybe they want to conquer a fear of heights, study lichen aloft or network with other women in the industry. Some participate to enhance their tree-climbing skills for researching eagles and songbirds in their nesting territories, exploring reptile habitat in tree canopies or inspecting tree bark down to 2-inch-diameter wood for signs of Asian longhorned beetle. A few have come to develop their abilities to tell impactful stories aloft, to capture insane wedding photos or even to focus their minds – to allow for better concentration during surgery.

Every woman who attends leaves with the mycelium-like network of the WTCW. At any time, they can tap into it for the safe place to “Know what you know, and know what you don’t know,” and to have the safe space to say it out loud.

The testimonials speak for themselves.

“I want to thank you for backing such amazing women. It’s because of WTCW I’m alive! No joke! So thanks for being a part of that!” – anonymous

“I was one of the scholarship recipients. With your generous support, I learned not only beginner climbing techniques but also some advanced skills. I was amazed by the instructor’s prowess in teaching the Zen of tree climbing. With what I learned, I will set up trail cameras in the forest canopy for my primate conservation work in West Africa. Your continued sponsorship of the WTCW is greatly appreciated.” ~anonymous

“Thank you from the bottom of my heart. This workshop was so empowering. For more than 13 years, I’ve worked in this type of field and I never had other women role models. Now I do. Thank you for this profound experience. – anonymous

Betsy Parks descends from a tree during the Women’s Tree Climbing Workshop in Petersham, Mass., in 2019. Photo courtesy of Tracy Buchholz.

As the WTCW network grows, everyone shares something about trees and their magical powers with others who may be otherwise unaware. The WTCW continues to spread the word of arboriculture into every generation around the globe. If you are breathing, then thank a tree. Quite simply, without trees, humans cannot live on this planet.

To paraphrase Tarun Sarathe on social media, “Imagine if trees gave us WiFi, we’d be planting them everywhere … Too bad they only produce the oxygen we breathe.”

With deep gratitude, we thank everyone who has ever been involved in organizing, teaching, volunteering, sponsoring, cooking, setting up, schlepping gear, breaking down, providing moral support, or even licking stamps. We also thank all of those companies and organizations that have provided support for the WTCW.

Bear LeVangie is a utility arborist with Eversource Energy in Connecticut. She is also a WTCW co-founder and lead instructor, a past president of the New England ISA, a past New England Tree Climbing Champion (six-time), ISA TRAQ credentialed, a Connecticut Licensed Arborist and a former aerial Asian longhorned beetle (ALB) inspector with the USDA and Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation.

The next WTCW is the 2020 Texas Women’s Tree Climbing Workshop April 17-19 at the Texas State University Camp in Wimberley, Texas. For more info, visit https://isatexas.com/event/2020-texaswomens-tree-climbing-workshop/.

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