In the upstairs meeting room of a camping lodge in Komagane, Nagano Prefecture, two women and about 20 men walked slowly and intently in circles one rainy day last November. At the front of the room, a weathered and wiry Englishman intoned the sort of instructions a yoga aficionado would find familiar.
“Focus your attention on the soles of your feet. Is there tension there? Now focus on the tops of your feet, your ankles, your knees. … Are you balanced, or are you managing a state of imbalance?”
The students, however, had not traveled to Nagano to practice yoga. Instead, the group of gardeners and forestry workers was spending the weekend learning rope-climbing techniques that have made treecare in Europe and the United States much safer than it once was, for both trees and workers.
Combining traditional sailing knots with rescue and recreational climbing techniques, these methods give those who work with trees free access to even the loftiest specimens. However, they have only recently started to spread throughout Japan, where more than 2,000 forestry workers were killed or seriously injured on the job in 2011.
The group’s instructor this chilly afternoon was Robert Knott, a 46-year-old arborist who runs a small tree-care company in the leafy southern English village of Twyford, and who was an enthusiastic early adopter of rope-climbing techniques that transformed English arboriculture in the 1990s.
In that Nagano class, Knott was focused on developing what he calls “body-work exercises” to heighten the self-awareness of the climber, making tree work even safer and more effective.
“Understanding yourself is necessary for this work. I want to explore the possibility that within tree work we can become more present in the moment,” he told the group through a translator at the November workshop.
Among the men nodding their heads in agreement was Jiro Yoshimi, 47, one of Japan’s top rope-climbers, who earlier that day had himself led a workshop on risk assessment and reduction. Calm but determined, Yoshimi is part of a new generation of Japanese tree workers intent on transforming an industry that has long been conservative, hierarchical and dangerous. He believes England has more to teach Japan than simply a range of techniques learned by rote.
“In England the focus is on care. In Japan we have lots of rain so trees grow quickly and the focus is on cutting; on trees as a resource. But there are many important old trees we need to care for here, too,” he said.
Conversely, Knott has found inspiration in Japanese pruning techniques and artisanal attention to garden trees. Hence each man has sought out the best in the other’s culture and brought it back to change his own. What they share, and what doesn’t change, is a deep respect for trees.
About a month after the climbing workshop, Yoshimi drove from Komagane, where he heads a local forestry cooperative office, to a hamlet called Jizokubo in the mountains just north of the city of Nagano. His purpose: To work on a 15½-meter-high cherry blossom tree that fell into decline after a new road was built into town, likely diverting the water supply feeding its roots.
The tree has watched over the tiny community for more than a century, ever since villagers planted it on a knoll to commemorate the end of the First Sino-Japanese War in 1895. But recently, some branches began to die and mushrooms started sprouting from others as white rot fungus streaked the wood.
In the past, the tree might have been left alone. The profession of tree doctor was only accredited 22 years ago in Japan; before that, gardeners, foresters and farmers pruned and planted, but community trees like this one were not intensely cared for.
No longer. First, officials tried digging up the soil around the roots, which had been compacted by an overabundance of spring revelers admiring the magnificent display of magenta flowers. The tree did not revive. Next, they called local tree doctor Fumiaki Arisawa to excise the diseased wood. Arisawa can’t climb, so he called Yoshimi.
By 10 a.m., Yoshimi had strung a web of neon-colored ropes through the tree’s snow-lined branches and was hanging, puppet-like, several stories above the ground with the end of the rope attached to his harness. Midair, he yanked the cord on his chainsaw and began to cut an infected branch. A coworker did the same in another part of the tree. Wearing bright synthetic fabrics and ergonomic sunglasses, the men moved like sparks of 21st-century color through the timeless black-and-white landscape.
“Climbers can do more precise work than someone in a crane could do, and they can access every part of the tree. Very few people in Japan can do this kind of work,” said Arisawa as he gazed up at Yoshimi from below.
Yoshimi’s skills weren’t always so highly valued. He began work as a lumberjack 18 years ago, after a newspaper article on the need for more workers in the industry prompted him to quit his job in medical publishing. His new coworkers asked him what crime he had committed: back then, forestry work was considered so undesirable that college-educated entrants into that field were generally assumed to be running from a shady past.
Yoshimi soon found the industry was conservative and hierarchical as well.
“Blue- and white-collar workers were strictly divided. I was a blue-collar worker. A number of times I tried to offer ideas to my higher-ups, and I was told that unqualified people should keep their mouths shut,” he recalled, warming his hands over a wood fire during a break from attending to the cherry blossom tree.
To prove his superiors wrong, Yoshimi took the test to become a tree doctor, and passed in 2004. That same year, he encountered a job that required him to work on a tree too big to access by ladder. Searching online for ideas, he found an American website that described rope-climbing techniques for tree workers. He ordered an English-language book on the subject and taught himself the techniques by studying it. Though at the time he didn’t know of anyone else in this country using such methods, he now estimates about 200 other tree workers have adopted them, too.
Rope-climbing soon transformed how he worked. He formerly had three options for accessing a large tree — working from the ground or from a crane, which limited his reach; “free climbing” the tree, and so risking a fall; or tying himself to the trunk using a short rope and climbing with spiked shoes which wounded the very tree he was trying to heal.
Now, he is able to reach all parts of the tree without hurting it in the process. And although he can still fall if a branch his rope is tied to snaps, the risk is greatly reduced. The new methods let him move with unprecedented freedom in the treetop world of songbirds, flying squirrels and other animals he said he likes to watch as he works.
Last year, Yoshimi published the first Japanese-language text on rope-climbing for tree workers, and also led about 15 climbing workshops. He said some of the gardeners and foresters who attended had lost co-workers in on-the-job falls. So, to prevent that happening to more climbers, Yoshimi teaches both new techniques and a new attitude.
“In general Japanese are good at doing what they’re told, but bad at making plans on their own. We practice that,” he said. “Nature is complex. You have to be able to make your own judgments.”
Knott, the English arborist, couldn’t agree more. He sees his job as “managing a whole ecosystem from the ground up,” including soil, fungi, insects, birds — and even humans, he explained. To do so safely, he relies on a stock of knowledge accumulated over 26 years of caring for trees. But he still vividly remembers the day many years ago when he made a judgment call that, in hindsight, he realizes was both “massively unacceptable” and “life-defining.”
Knott had been climbing trees for less than a year when his work crew was assigned to cut down 23 poplars, he said. Each was as tall as a 10-story building. Knott approached the first tree, set a ladder against the trunk and ascended to the top of it. From there, he planned to tie a rope around the tree to keep himself safe as he went up higher. But the trunk was too big for him to get the rope around, no matter how many times he tried — so he decided to climb the tree unaided. Digging his spikes into the trunk, he slowly moved up to a height of 20 meters before finally reaching a branch he could loop a rope around.
“I just stood there, emotion and adrenaline surging through my body,” he recalled while in Japan.
Eventually, one of his coworkers shouted from below, asking if he was okay. Knott shouted back that he was fine. He thought 10 minutes had passed. When he got to the ground, his coworker told him he had been glued stock-still to the tree for two hours.
Every day for the rest of the week, Knott said he climbed the trees the same way. And every day, he rode home with his co-workers in silence.
“I accepted the fact that I might die at work. That defined my path — that sense of living in the moment. There was nothing else in the world except being attached to the side of this vast bulk of the tree,” he said.
When the safety-driven culture of rope-aided climbing started to take off about five years later, he “jumped on it,” as he put it. The techniques underlie the pruning and other work he does through Horizon Treecare, the company he founded in Twyford in 1995. Still, he has never forgotten the heightened sense of awareness he first experienced that day high in a poplar tree.
As he told the students at the Nagano climbing workshop, tree work offers a chance to be “present in the moment” — while at the same time being emotionally and mentally present make for better tree work.
That workshop was part of Knott’s first trip to Japan. Years earlier, however, he had honed his pruning skills by studying books about Japanese bonsai trees. At first, he said he tried to apply those techniques directly to English garden trees — only to soon discover that his clients would not finance the frequent pruning such techniques demanded.
On his visit to this country, Knott said he was amazed to find meticulously pruned trees around almost every corner. “There appears to be a reverence (for trees) here that is part of the building blocks of the culture,” he reflected.
Yoshimi sees a more nuanced picture. In the past, people regarded trees as both vital resources and — in the case of especially big or old specimens — awe-inspiring presences inhabited by gods. Formal gardens, with their impeccably shaped trees, represented a desire to bring the beauty and power of nature into human living spaces — although only the wealthy few could afford to maintain such a garden.
After World War II, more and more middle-class families started installing elaborate topiary. The trees, however, often served merely as symbols to demonstrate new wealth. Yoshimi said that today, “a very complex relationship” exists between people and trees in Japan.
That relationship shapes his work as much as the soil, birds and bees do. Because of it, he can no more paste English arboriculture techniques directly onto Japanese forests than Knott can prune English oaks into giant bonsai creations. Both men, however, do a very good job of cultural grafting.