Surely, I can’t be the only one in the country gobs-macked at the discovery that one third of Irish children have never climbed a tree.
This is seen as a shocking indictment of our over-protective parenting and our inability to detach our offspring from the latest digital gadget. But that’s not why I’m shocked. I’m shocked because the survey, commissioned for ESB Tree week, suggests that two-thirds of our youngsters have actually climbed a tree.
I’m sorry, but when have you last seen a kid in a tree? Come to think of it, when have you last seen a tree that hasn’t undergone such extensive tree surgery that climbing it wouldn’t be remotely pleasurable – or even possible for that matter?
I suspect that the survey respondents are either spoofing or else they think that scrambling up a miniature rope ladder to their fancy tree houses in their designer gardens, every now and then, qualifies them as tree climbers.
Now, I know we have more to worry us in these days of political instability and uncertainty - and the way we suddenly can’t even see the wood for the trees anymore - but this is ESB National Tree week and I suppose any decline in our genetic dexterity has to be noted. If we had to run for our lives from a mad bull, most of us wouldn’t even be able to climb a tree.
In the survey, 74 per cent of parents said that they climbed trees “often” or “all the time” when they were children. Now they believe that only five per cent of Irish children enjoy tree climbing all the time. One of the reasons for that, I believe, is that childhood is now too brief and too programmed to allow any child either the time or the space to make his or her ‘own fun’ or invent their own challenges. The fun has to be laid on for them now, while the parents have a chat over a glass of wine. Tree climbing is definitely off the agenda.
The sad thing is that childhood now ends abruptly at ten or eleven, but long before it ends at all, school holidays are filled with summer camps, Irish courses and trips abroad, while the evenings are devoted to ‘extra curricular activities’. Most kids are too exhausted by September to even notice the trees, not to talk of thinking of climbing them.
Back in the day when kids always climbed trees, we did it for different reasons – to prove our prowess, to view the world from a new vantage point, to escape the tedium of a long hot summer day, to rob an orchard or, as in my case, to escape from parental wrath after some misdemeanour or other. I never knew when it would be safe to come down, but I developed a ploy whereby I pretended to be stuck high up in the tree, and usually my parents were so relieved when they got me down safely that they forgot why I went up there in the first place.
Those were the kind of life skills that you’d never get from thumbing an iPod.
The main reason why most of us climbed trees, however, was to challenge ourselves, and if we learned anything from that it was how to trust ourselves in the face of danger. It was never aspirational. None of us climbed very high afterwards in life and the one who climbed highest hadn’t ever climbed a tree at all. But that’s neither here nor there. Tree climbing was always more about the imagination.
Nevertheless, I’m delighted that National Tree Week has drawn attention to the fact that children are now more interested in sitting in front of a telly rather than playing outdoors and climbing trees. Apart from planting a few trees for honey bees in Clarina, and other spots around the country, I don’t know what else it achieved. We’ve always had a very ambivalent attitude to trees, moaning about the destruction of the woods of Kilcash on the one hand and felling every tree that blocks our view or offends our sensibilities on the other hand. Now, because of the changing climate and the increased threat of gales and hurricanes, we’ve developed a phobia of trees, especially of those that reach for the skies. We can really only tolerate a stunted exotic species, that wouldn’t even know how to ‘lift its leafy arms to pray’, but how can you expect any child to want to climb a shrub?
Of course there are health and safety issues to be considered. TCI, the international tree-climbing group advise the use of harnesses and ropes, but the jury is still out on the use of helmets, the straps of which could get caught in branches.
Even in my day, it wasn’t considered ladylike for a girl to be climbing trees, and now in my old age I’d probably be sectioned if I tried to climb one. But if it weren’t for the vertigo and the arthritis, I’d certainly give it a try for Tree Week.
It wasn’t always so discriminatory, however. I’m reminded particularly of the Countess of Desmond, the wife of the 12th Earl, who by all accounts, was an inveterate tree-climber. The redoubtable lady set off for London when she was 100 years old to petition Elizabeth I on some matter or other. She lived for another 40 years and was noted for having all her own teeth and being able to walk five miles every day without being out of breath.
The tree climbing, however, was her downfall. She died in 1604, at the age of 140, after falling from a cherry tree in the garden at Glin.