James Aldred is the man every kid dreams of becoming. He climbs trees for a living, rigging rope so photographers and filmmakers can reach the canopies of the tallest living things in the world. You might have seen the end result in National Geographic or in a BBC Earth documentary.
“The Man Who Climbs Trees,” Aldred’s new memoir, is a vertiginous, white-knuckled adventure through some of the most spectacular forests in the world. Each chapter recounts Aldred’s climbing of a single and singular tree, such as Roaring Meg in Australia or Tumparak in Borneo .
Aldred’s story is as much an education on the environment as it is on climbing. He scales a tree in England with “two skeins of ancient hawser climbing rope, two ragged harnesses, and a motley bundle of jangling carabiners — some of them clearly homemade,” he writes.
He builds a treehouse in Gabon and films a baby harpy eagle in Venezuela. When he’s commissioned to get Sir David Attenborough high into a tree in Costa Rica, his sister warns him: “For God’s sake, don’t drop him.” No worries, Aldred knows exactly what he’s doing.
And his story is even more thrilling when things go wrong. Aldred reaches into his bag and feels the scaly flanks of a hognosed pit viper. He rides out a Bornean thunderstorm 250 feet above ground. “Wind howled like a banshee through its branches,” he writes, “and ominous bangs and thuds echoed up from deep inside the timber.” He contracts cerebral malaria, gets jabbed by a hypodermic swarm of honeybees and — most stomach-churning of all — gets infested with botflies. (Far from a doctor, he digs more than 40 of those writhing spine-covered maggots from his own flesh.)
Each chapter is about 20 pages long, which makes “The Man Who Climbs Trees” perfect for a camping trip, to read aloud by the fire. If anything, Aldred’s the sort of dude you’d want to meet over a pint, but he’s probably faraway, climbing some mellifluously named tree, so his book will have to do.
Timothy R. Smith is a former Book World staff member.
By James Aldred
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 272 pp. $26