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Penn State’s Tree-Climbing Course Helps Students Branch Out

If your mom ever yelled at you for climbing trees when you were little, this may be your chance to get back at her — by climbing trees for college credit.

Yes, thanks to HORT 201: Applied Arboriculture — one of about 25 courses of its kind in the country — all of your tree-climbing dreams can and will come true while you earn two credits toward graduation regardless of your major.

Jim Savage, an assistant teaching professor in horticulture, has helped Penn Staters scale local trees every fall since his boss, Dr. J.M. Skelly, a former professor of plant pathology, had him over for a drink one fateful night in 1997.

“He called me to his house one night for a beer on the porch, which usually meant I had done something really bad or he had a crazy idea,” Savage said.

Fortunately for Savage, it turned out to be the latter. Skelly asked if he could teach tree climbing — something Savage had been doing for more than a decade but had never taught before. Understandably, he had some reservations, which he expressed to his former boss.

“I had no idea,” Savage said. “I could climb a tree, but I had never taught anybody, and it has just kind of snowballed from there. Now, I do the class here on campus. I teach at Rockview State Penitentiary. I teach tree schools all over Pennsylvania. I’ve been all over the world doing this.”

In 1997, Penn State hadn’t offered a tree-climbing class since Dr. Chiko Harameki stopped teaching it in 1985. Savage had taken a similar course at Penn State Mont Alto in 1982 before finishing up his four-year degree at University Park and eventually accepting a summer job climbing and maintaining trees on campus. That led him to become a technician for the professor and then a project coordinator until he officially joined the faculty.

Now, he’s in his 23rd year of teaching what he calls “by far the most unique class you will ever take in college.”

And unless there’s another course that makes you take your first quiz blindfolded and your final up in a tree, it’s difficult to argue with him.

No, you don’t need to climb a tree blindfolded, but students need to be able to tie their anchor and friction hitches (tree-climbing lingo for super-important knots) without looking. It seems like something that shouldn’t need to be said, but being able to trust your knots is crucial once you get up into a tree.

Having a certain level of trust in your abilities on the ground also helps combat the interesting phenomena that Savage observes in first-time climbers.

“When the students first start out [climbing] there’s something that happens that I call elevational IQ loss,” he said. “The higher you go, the stupider you get.”

To be fair, it’s hard to focus on anything other than the possibility of falling when you’re at the top of a 40-foot tree. Fortunately, students have the opportunity to learn from an experienced climber that sincerely cares about their safety.

The class meets three days a week for an hour and 50 minutes over 11 weeks, so it ends just before the State College weather becomes unbearable. For obvious reasons, it’s only offered in the fall.

“In the first two weeks, I’m making sure they don’t fall,” Savage said. “I don’t know how many people I’ve ever put in trees, but I’ve never had anybody fall.”

In no time, students are off scaling to the top of trees and exploring the ends of branches. Arguably the best part of the class is that there isn’t much lecturing. After about 20 minutes of instruction at the beginning of each class, it’s time to climb.

First, students learn the essential knots they’ll need in the class and how to ascend to the top of the tree. From there, it’s about learning how to branch out.

“Once you can trust your knots are correct, your rope will hold, and your saddle is good – now you can learn to go out,” Savage said. “A big part of it is learning to sit back on the rope and jump – basically go fly.”

Some students prefer to take things slowly rather than jump around the tree like a monkey, and that’s okay. As long as students show up and climb a tree, all is well.

By the 11th week of the class, students are ready for their final exam, which consists of three clipboards spread out in a tree with questions that they must first reach and then answer while suspended in the tree.

“It’s very easy – they think,” Savage joked.

However, final scores are based on climbers’ skill levels. The better you are at climbing, the larger the tree and the further your clipboards will be spread out than they are for those less comfortable on the branches.

Oh, and Savage used to have his children take the final, so it should be a piece of cake for college students.

“I used to give the final to my kids when they were younger, and if they did good on it then it was okay. Not that they knew more than the students, but they’re on the ground taking it,” Savage said. “Go up in a tree, and all of a sudden, you’re leaning out almost flat grabbing a clipboard to answer questions.”

Savage said the main challenge of the course is getting over that elevational IQ loss and the fear of being up in the tree.

“I don’t know that it’s an easy A, but you can get an A. Showing up is important,” Savage said. Don’t show up the first day and come the last day because that would be horrible. The more you come the better it is for you.”

While the course is open to all majors, there are a few informal prerequisites, namely the physical ability to climb. However, Savage is sure to make the course inclusive and has worked to cater the course towards students with various disabilities.

The most important prerequisite, he said, is having the right attitude.

“You have to be adventurous and willing to take a risk. A big part of the class is I show you, and you go do it,” Savage said.

It also helps if you aren’t against meeting squirrels.

“The other thing we run into, we call them close encounters – with squirrels. Squirrels live in trees, and I’ve had squirrels pretty much run over every part of my body,” Savage said. “We’ve had a lot of students that have had squirrels run over their backs. Sometimes, the squirrel wants out of the tree, and you’re a part of the tree.”

Aside from getting the chance to have fun exploring new heights and branching out in the treetops, students may also find a new career path.

“There’s a career in climbing trees…there’s a massive need for people who want to do this,” Savage said. “If you can climb and care for trees, you possess a skill that probably 99.8% of the world does not have and wants nothing to do with.”

Entry-level tree caretakers can earn up to $45,000-$55,000 maintaining trees, depending on the area. There is also a lot of room to progress into the business side of tree maintenance, as long as you know what you are doing, and there is a lot of money to be made in the industry. It also doesn’t hurt to learn from Savage, who has a plethora of industry connections and can help place students who wish to take up arboriculture find full-time jobs.

In his time teaching at Penn State, Savage has had former height-loving students go on to do everything from window-washing in New York City to competing in international tree climbing competition. Yes, there are international tree climbing competitions, and they’re electric.

Most importantly, though, he has helped every student find a new perspective — from the top of a tree.

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About the Author

Anthony Fiset

Anthony is a senior *gasp* majoring in Economics and a lifetime Costco Executive Member. If you are an employer, please hire him. Otherwise, direct all complaints to [email protected]


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